Friday, November 06, 2009

 

Blowing It


Eugenie Scott's reply to Ray Comfort's moronic objections to evolutionary theory has been posted at U.S.News & World Report's blog, God & Country. Scott's reply is more temperate than my own but, nonetheless, devastating. Scott features one of Comfort's more lunatic claims:

Consider Comfort's view on the evolution of sex: "No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery." Of course not. That's because no biologist thinks males and females evolved separately!

Birds do it; bees do it; even educated fleas do it: but so do the majority of plants and even certain single-celled organisms. But they do it in radically different ways. A male bee has no father and cannot have sons, for example, while there are animals, even vertebrates—bonnethead sharks and Komodo dragons—in which virgin birth occurs. So it's not just for the obvious reason that sex is a fun topic for biologists.

The myriad ways in which organisms reproduce, sexually and asexually, have fascinated biologists for decades and have been examined, in a thoroughly evolutionary context, since Charles Darwin and August Weismann. But none of them have thought that lonely males waited patiently for millions of years for the first females. And anyone who, like Comfort, tells you otherwise is ignorant—or worse.
It is an interesting question, that "or worse." Wes Elsberry (who also does a neat dissection of Comfort well worth the read) points to an "apology" by Comfort:

I’m going to try and put this so that it can’t be taken out of context. I sincerely apologize for misrepresenting what Darwinian evolution says about the origin of males and females. I have checked out the references you have given me as to what the theory has to say about their genesis, read them again and again, and I still don’t understand what you believe. It doesn’t make sense to me because I can’t reconcile what I see in creation with what you would have me believe about evolution. Still, that doesn’t give me the right to misrepresent your beliefs, even if it was done in ignorance.
But wait a minute! It wasn't that long ago (March 07, 2009) that, in response to an upbraiding by PZ Myers, Comfort told us that:

"Okay, I've got it," Comfort continued. "Your belief is that species do not arise from single new mutant males that then have to find a corresponding mutant female.
So why was he still peddling the same hooey in this series as late as November 02, 2009? Could he have forgotten in eight short months? Even if he was still confused about evolutionary theory (as other parts of his WingNutDaily article clearly indicated) wasn't he put on notice of his ignorance of the science of evolution? Should anyone now accept his "excuse" that he was misrepresenting evolutionary science only out of ignorance?

So, he is either suffering from a neurological disease or deficit severe enough to cause amnesia or is pretending in his U.S.News & World Report's article (not to mention the preface to his copy of the Origin) to have knowledge about evolutionary theory that he does not, in fact, have. Even if he does not claim to be an expert, he is leaving out the fact that he has good reason to know he is ignorant of the science of evolution. Doesn't theology have a phrase for that? ... Oh, yes, a "lie by omission."

But he is doubtless telling the truth that he can read explanations of evolution "again and again" and still not understand them. And I don't doubt that he is right about the cause -- that it "doesn’t make sense to me because I can’t reconcile what I see in creation" with science. When you start with your conclusion -– creation –- and, consciously or unconsciously, reject anything that might contradict that presupposition, you have little chance ... and less desire ... of understanding that which shows you are wrong.
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Comments:
And I don't doubt that he is right about the cause -- that it "doesn’t make sense to me because I can’t reconcile what I see in creation" with science.

This is an example of something I wrote on Jeff Shallit's blog the other day: that some people simply can't see past their own intuitions about how they think the world works, so as to entertain some alternative seriously enough to understand it.

This raises the question as to whether this mental inability to entertain hypotheticals is innate and pervasive, or is selective against certain domains in which the subject has an emotional investment. I wonder if there is a psychological test that can measure that?
 
Sex - meiosis, recombination, gametes, haploid and diploid generations etc. - is one of the most interesting areas (to me) of biology/evolution. Sex - M/F nudge-nudge-wink-wink - clearly is a topic fraught with ambiguity and tension for the typical creationist. Too bad they can't tell the difference.
 
This raises the question as to whether this mental inability to entertain hypotheticals is innate and pervasive, or is selective against certain domains in which the subject has an emotional investment.

I don't know but I'm guessing it is selective. After all, think of all the crazy hypotheticals the creation "scientists" come up with to explain how the world is only 6,000 years old: hydroplates, hyper-evolution of the few species on the Ark, etc.
 
One of the most difficult notions to get across to lay audiences, especially those of the Xian persuasion, is that evolution is a phenomenon of changing distributions of traits over time in populations, not a single organism somehow morphing from one form to another. The essentialist thinking that pervades that subculture makes it nearly impossible to think in terms of variation and shifting populations rather than individuals changing form.
 
I have to admit, when I read what Ray Comfort has written about biology, I have no idea what he's talking about, either. I'm glad others can interpret it. That thing about the species needing to wait millions of years for a female to develop, or the idea that 14 million species develop in our lifetimes are notions I can't even comprehend, they're so far from anything I've ever learned about biology.
 
Perhaps part of Comfort's problem is that he is simply so accustomed to thinking in terms of "kinds" (rather than in terms of populations), and so accustomed to thinking of each kind as starting off with a specific male-female pair specially created, that simply cannot understand the world in any other way. He is not only uneducated but uneducable. In short: "never try to teach a pig to sing. It's a waste of time and it annoys the pig."
 
Ray Comfort: the very home of "cockamamie".
 
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