On Friday February 10, Vern Bissell and the Basic English Bible Club at PSU presented a rebuttal to our presentation of Dr Boghossian’s lecture, ‘Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!‘ It was… an interesting event if nothing else. Bissell’s 2+ hour presentation (with no Q & A session) included a variety of insults peppered about that were directed at ourselves as well as Dr Boghossian.
Toward the end of the talk, Bissell directly challenged the Freethinkers of PSU to answer 15 questions about evolution contained in a brochure that was passed out at the event. The questions, seen below (click the images to view full size), are about as simplistic as one might expect.
The following are answers to these questions as presented with minimal effort by Freethinkers of PSU co-president Ben Crockett.
1. How did life originate?
If we’re talking about the exact specific details of life’s origin, the most honest answer that anyone can give to this question is, ‘Nobody knows for sure.’ And that’s OK. Before proceeding any further, we would do well to define exactly what we mean by ‘life’. Many people have tried to assign criteria as to what constitutes life, and there is still some disagreement among biologists on this matter, particularly in the realm of viruses. Still, many scientists will agree that at the very least, possessing genetic material and an ability to reproduce and pass on that genetic information are essential components of this definition. Given this, we do have some good ideas. One of the more promising ideas, the exact procedures of which are currently being studied, involves the ‘RNA world hypothesis’. This hypothesis states that before the first cells formed, Earth’s waters contained RNA molecules that formed naturally from the chemical bonding of various nucleotides. RNA is a wonderful polynucleotide molecule because not only can it act as storage of hereditary information, but given the right conformations (and it is a very flexible molecule) it can also act as an enzyme to facilitate chemical reactions, including self-replication. In fact, it still does this for some reactions today. How amazing is that?! With RNA forming the foundation for more advanced and effective enzymes and other proteins to henceforth be developed, this hypothesis could very well illustrate—within the appropriate and realistic environment with amphiphilic phospholipid-producing molecules—how cells came to be. This is just one idea, and there are others, but our understanding of the potential answers to this inherently challenging question is constantly expanding.
While we’re here, there’s an important point that should be clarified. The word ‘evolution’ by its most basic definition simply means ‘change over time’. The origin of life involves evolution only in the sense that we can mark the origin of life at the point where chemical evolution gave way to biological evolution. That process itself was likely a very slow series of events, possibly taking thousands or even millions of years. I mention this because it’s important to highlight that the theory of evolution is not as much an origin story as it is an insight into the mechanisms of change that living organisms exhibit over great periods of time. While it does provide some perspective on the origins of replicating genetic material and the world’s first cells, biological evolution is ultimately more about the journey than it is about the embarking of it. Something to keep in mind.
2. How did the DNA code originate?
Most likely as a result of chemical evolution from the aforementioned RNA world, assuming that this hypothesis is true. DNA is, after all, a more chemically and structurally stable molecule than RNA.
3. How could mutations—accidental copying mistakes (DNA ‘letters’ exchanged, deleted or added, genes duplicated, chromosome inversions, etc.) —create the huge volumes of information in the DNA of living things?
It wasn’t just mutations that built up the seemingly massive (but are actually hugely varying in size) genetic codes present in modern organisms. Several factors come into play, not the least of which is something called horizontal gene transfer. Did you know that approximately 10-40% of the human genome is viral in origin? Yeah, they actually inserted their own genetic material into that of our distant ancestors (some viruses are good at splicing their own genetics into others’), and we still carry some of it today. That’s not the only factor of course, but the point is that while mutations do influence the sizes of genomes, they are not the primary determining factor.
4. Why is natural selection, a principle recognized by creationists, taught as ‘evolution’, as if it explains the origin of the diversity of life?
Evolution by natural selection does explain the origin of the diversity of life. Indeed, it is the very essence of this diversity.
5. How did new biochemical pathways, which involve multiple enzymes working together in sequence, originate?
The mistake that is often made here is assuming that enzymes or biochemical components only ever serve one purpose or function. If a new protein or enzyme or biochemical variable evolves or is otherwise introduced, the previously existing enzyme or biochemical component in question will adapt to work in concert with the new variables.
6. Living things look like they were designed, so how do evolutionists know that they were not designed?
In a way, living things were designed, just not by any gods or other supernatural entities. To say that organisms were designed by nature and its processes (such as the laws of chemistry and physics) would not be an inaccurate statement, but many scientists—biologists in particular—tend to shy away from using the word ‘design’ simply due to the misleading implication of a ‘designer’ that the word carries with it. Evolution by natural selection is what shaped—and is continuing to shape—all the organisms of the world.
7. How did multi-cellular life originate?
A lot of it had to do with cell-cell interactions. Unicellular organisms can form symbiotic relations with other unicellular organisms. In fact, according to a 2002 paper by Furusawa and Keneko entitled ‘Origin of multicellular organisms as an inevitable consequence of dynamical systems’ (which can easily be found via Google Scholar along with myriad other primary literature pieces), the origin of multicellularity is in fact ‘a natural consequence of a cell colony that can grow continuously’ and is not a difficult matter in evolutionary biology.
8. How did sex originate?
Here’s another one where the most honest response would be, ‘We don’t exactly know, but we have some good ideas.’ It had to involve the first utilizations of genetic recombination, but beyond this we are not yet certain. In approaching how to best hypothesize this, it’s important to acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages that both sexual and asexual reproduction have over one another. Asexual reproduction offers reproductive assurance and is less energetically costly than sexual reproduction. On the other hand, sexual reproduction allows for much greater biodiversity, much stronger capacities for adaptation in the constantly changing environments of the world, greater defense against infectious microorganisms and parasites, and through genetic recombination counters the detrimental effects of Muller’s Ratchet. It really is no wonder that the number of identified sexually reproducing species is far greater than that of asexually reproducing species, and that some species even have the ability to do both.
9. Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?
Wait, is there some kind of ‘transitional fossil quota’ that is yet to be met? Did we not get that memo? Anyway, it should first be noted that fossils are only one tool for understanding the long-term history of life on Earth. With the advent of genetics, to offer one example, we can now illustrate phylogenetic trees with much higher accuracy than before. That said, fossils do of course play an important role in this as well. Fossils illustrate the morphological changes that occurred throughout the history of life on Earth, and nearly all of them fit into the timeline as ‘transitional’ fossils (nearly all, as some organisms do not really change all that much; See the next question). The assertion that we should expect to see much more fossils than we do is not realistic. The fossilization of dead biomass is an exceptionally rare event in the first place, and really only occurs when just the right circumstances allow for it. Furthermore, most of the fossils that are formed have been destroyed by geologic events and other natural occurrences through the course of history. The fact that we have all the fossils that we do (and that we are continually finding more) is pretty damn spectacular if you think about it.
10. How do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged over supposed hundreds of millions of years, if evolution has changed worms into humans in the same time frame?
Evolution influences different organisms differently and varies greatly with the circumstances that those organisms face. Why do we still have living stromatolite colonies on the western coast of Australia? Why are so many marine cephalopods so similar to their far distant ancestors? Quite simply, their allele frequencies have not needed to change very much in order for them to survive and reproduce. That’s all there is to it.
11. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality?
Slowly, over the course of millions of generations and many millions of years, and constructed by both biological and sociological means.
12. Why is evolutionary ‘just-so’ storytelling tolerated?
What ‘just-so storytelling’ might this be? The quote from Dr Philip Skell in the brochure for these questions offers little insight, which is not surprising given his involvements with the notorious Discovery Institute, an organization that is infamous for its promotions and advocacy of faux science. A word of advice to the creators of this questionnaire brochure: If you’re going to explain your question by offering a quote from someone with scientific credentials, please make sure it’s not also someone who actively advocates for pseudoscience. ‘Just-so’ storytelling of any kind has no real place in any educational setting where critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are encouraged. Good thing the theory of evolution by natural selection is thoroughly supported by evidence and does not require such whimsical justifications.
13. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution?
Ever get an influenza vaccine? Familiar with population genetics at all? Ever had to take antibiotics? How about the correlation between ecology and natural selection? Seriously though, the theory of evolution by natural selection is itself the single largest breakthrough in the recorded history of biology. It is what’s known as the ‘unifying theory’ of biology, and provides the context and the framework by which all biological processes occur. It is on par with Newton’s laws of mechanical physics, and arguably even more grand in that while Newtonian physics has been supplemented by quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity (to name a couple), the biological theory of evolution by natural selection holds true for all areas of biology, from genetics to cell biology to ecology and zoology, and everything in-between.
As with the other questions, the brochure offers an explanatory paragraph, this time quoting two people. We have once again Philip Skell, the pseudoscientist associated with the Discovery Institute, and then we have a quote from an actual credible biologist, Dr Marc Kirschner. As is happens, Dr Kirschner is sternly opposed to creationist ideas such as ‘intelligent design’ due to their lack of support in scientific research. He even wrote a book called The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma (ISBN: 978-0300119770) in which he directly calls out creationism advocates for their misrepresentations of science. So why would he say something like, ‘Over the last one hundred years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself. Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.’? Because this is a fine example of something called ‘quote mining’. It’s a dirty tactic that we in the secular community have seen creationists try to pull quite often, whereby a statement that appears to mean something other than what was intended when taken out of context is extracted and exploited as such. This particular quote from Kirschner appeared in the October 23, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe. Want to know how the article read immediately following this paragraph? ‘If anything, Kirschner and Gerhart hope their book will have an impact at least as substantial on their colleagues in biology. For too long, they say, researchers in its different domains-from evolutionists in the field to cell biologists in the lab-have remained isolated. ”I wouldn’t call it an antagonism as much as one not knowing anything about the other,” Gerhart offers.’ John Gebhert is Kirschner’s co-author of the aforementioned book. See, within the context, Kirschner is simply expressing the need for the various fields of biology to reach out to each other and collaborate more so than they have been. That’s all. He’s not saying anything about discrediting the process of evolution itself, but rather he is calling out for evolutionary biologists (and others) to strengthen their collaborative efforts. It is also important to note that he made this plea during the time of the now famous trials in Dover, PA, which involved creationists trying to push ‘intelligent design’ as high school curriculum.
Please stop trying to quote mine. It’s a dishonest tactic, and we’ll catch it and call you out on it anyway.
The Freethinkers of PSU
14. Science involves experimenting to figure out how things work; how they operate. Why is evolution, a theory about history, taught as if it is the same as this operational science?
Biological evolution is not limited to history. It continues to happen and will persist as long as life exists. Evolution is operational.
15. Why is a fundamentally religious idea, a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain the evidence, taught in science classes?
I’m going to assume that you’re referring to creationism here, to which I will say that for the thankfully rare cases where this does happen, it most certainly should not be. Creationism—or ‘intelligent design’ or ‘creation science’ or whatever other misleading moniker you wish to assign to it—is not science and has no place in science classrooms.
Dr Vern Bissell, we expect that these responses will not satisfy you, and we’re OK with that. Given your demeanor at the rebuttal lecture, you have made it clear that you are very much set in your ways, despite the real life evidence that contradicts the ideas to which you cling so tightly. We agreed to answer these questions, in all honesty, simply because they’re easy. You may of course continue to insult us and our companions to your heart’s delight, but as far as we’re concerned we do not intend to spend our time and effort countering juvenile slanders. We have much better and more productive things to do.
Here is your bone. We’ll not toss you any others.