Rob Crowther’s latest post over at the DI’s propaganda page is quite short.
Haeckel’s embryo drawings are still fake (and still in textbooks).
Yet, evolution is a fact?
Yes, Rob, the fact that evolution has occurred is still quite secure.
The link Crowther gives to show “Darwin was wrong” leads to the table of contents for an issue of “New Scientist”, and the editorial in there discusses the probable misuse ignorant charlatans would make of their content:
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution that will see biology changed and strengthened. None of this should give succour to creationists, whose blinkered universe is doubtless already buzzing with the news that “New Scientist has announced Darwin was wrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped out of context and presented as evidence that biologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.
Nor will the new work do anything to diminish the standing of Darwin himself. When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the whole picture either, but he remains one of science’s giants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas will prove influential for decades to come.
So here’s to the impending revolution in biology. Come Darwin’s 300th anniversary there will be even more to celebrate.
So Darwin was wrong kind of like Newton was wrong. Way to shoot yourself in the foot, Rob!
But, really, we in science don’t count Darwin as a prophet, someone who must have provided the whole truth that would stand unaltered until the end of time. Charles Darwin was a scientist, someone who contributed quite a lot to the process of coming to understand things the way they can be tested to be. The article referenced by the editorial and presumably by Crowther as well does not deliver anything like a result that evolution is not a fact. It simply argues that more evolution occurred by horizontal gene transfer than has been generally recognized, and this puts one organizing metaphor Darwin introduced, that of a “tree of life”, at risk. More ways to pass genetic material than from parent to offspring of the same population doesn’t make evolution any less a fact; it just makes it tougher to analyze.
There’s this bit from the New Scientist article that should have given Crowther pause:
Nobody is arguing – yet – that the tree concept has outlived its usefulness in animals and plants. While vertical descent is no longer the only game in town, it is still the best way of explaining how multicellular organisms are related to one another – a tree of 51 per cent, maybe. In that respect, Darwin’s vision has triumphed: he knew nothing of micro-organisms and built his theory on the plants and animals he could see around him.
While I think the last sentence is hyperbolic, it certainly is the case that Darwin’s thinking and lines of evidence were about multicellular plants and animals. Was Darwin wrong in a way that would say anything about human descent from primates? Not according to the New Scientist article linked to by Crowther.
Next… Crowther doesn’t like found links, and points to people urging greater circumspection in describing one particular fossil, “Ida”, as showing that “missing links are still missing”. I agree with the authors of the linked articles that hype is bad and that inaccuracy is bad. But Crowther is somehow thinking that these criticisms support his contention that evolution is not a fact, and it does nothing of the sort. One doesn’t determine the factuality of evolutionary change by negatives; conceptually, if evolutionary change happens even once, evolution is a fact. So Crowther can’t point to something as not qualifying as a particular transitional fossil to get to his desired conclusion; he would have to demonstrate that every single instance of a transitional fossil is somehow wrong. I have no doubt that this is well outside of Crowther’s capabilities. If Crowther insists that there aren’t any transitional fossils at all, I’d be happy to have him take the Transitional Fossil Existence Challenge.
Next… Crowther does claim that there is no “junk” DNA. This is a standard antievolutionary claim, one that is recorded in Mark Isaak’s compendium of creationist claims as CB130.
It has long been known that some noncoding DNA has important functions. (This was known even before the phrase “junk DNA” was coined.) However, there is good evidence that much DNA has no function:
* Sections of DNA can be cut out or replaced with randomized sequences with no apparent effect on the organism (Nóbrega et al. 2004).
* Some sections of DNA are corrupted copies of functional coding DNA, but mutations in them, such as stop codons early in the sequence, show that they cannot have retained the same function as the coding copy.
* The fugu fish has a genome that is about one third as large as its close relatives.
* Mutations in functional regions of DNA show evidence of selection — nonsilent changes occur less often that one would expect by chance. In other sections of DNA, there is no evidence that any changes are selected against.
The article that Crowther links his claim to doesn’t make the case that there isn’t any “junk” DNA, just that researchers have found evidence that particular parts of non-coding DNA do actually have a function in one species. They speculate that much of what is considered non-functional may have function after all, but nowhere does the exclusive claim Crowther makes get support in the linked article. Coupled with the various facts assembled by Isaak above, it looks like Crowther has once again grasped the wrong end of the stick.
Next… Crowther apparently doesn’t like the notion that birds descended from dinosaurs. The linked article does dispute the birds had dinosaurs for ancestors, but says not one word that would dispute the fact that birds descended from reptiles (pardon the non-cladistic usage). How does one get to evolution not being a fact from disputes over a relatively difficult area of phylogenetic inference?
Next… irreducible complexity and Crowther doing some cheerleading for Michael Behe. Crowther’s source for Michael Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity being still a good thing is … Michael Behe. How does citing a tendentious antievolutionist go anywhere near showing that evolution is not true?
Next… Crowther doesn’t like the Tiktaalik fossils. So how does finding tetrapod trace fossils demonstrate that evolution is not a fact, or even that a fossil can be “invalidated”? Crowther failed to learn from the lesson delivered by PZ Myers to Rob’s fellow DI denizen, Casey Luskin. Instead, Rob chose to take on some of that embarrassment himself.
Next… Haeckel’s embryo drawings are a perennial DI talking point, and, predictably, Crowther talks about them. His link goes to a DI-produced YouTube video featuring Jonathan Wells. Wells apparently can’t take on the assessment of even Haeckel’s modern scholarly critic, M.K. Richardson:
On a fundamental level, Haeckel was correct: All vertebrates develop a similar body plan (consisting of notochord, body segments, pharyngeal pouches, and so forth). This shared developmental program reflects shared evolutionary history… Haeckel’s inaccuracies damage his credibility, but they do not invalidate the mass of published evidence for Darwinian evolution. (Richardson et al. 1998, p. 983-984)
What about the claim about textbooks? The National Center for Science Education sheds some light on that:
Explore Evolution repeats another false claim from Wells.
This error even crept into the Encyclopedia Britannica, and remains in many modern high school and college biology textbooks.
Explore Evolution, p. 69
This is incorrect. A recent survey of 36 biology textbooks, dating from 1980 to the present and covering high school biology, college introductory biology, advanced college biology, and developmental biology books, found that only 8 of these textbooks mentioned Haeckel or the biogenetic law. Two of these 8 were creationist/ID books (Of Pandas and People, and Biology for Christian Schools from Bob Jones University Press). Of the 6 mainstream textbooks that mentioned Haeckel or the biogenetic law, two are advanced college-level books. In all cases where Haeckel is mentioned (except for the creationist/ID books), the text discussion does not reproduce Haeckel’s mistakes.
Crowther was wrong yet again… what a surprise.
I don’t know, I didn’t see anything in what Crowther provided that would address whether evolution is a fact, much less that would put the fact of evolution in doubt. Crowther’s post does lend support to the notion that what he writes is not a fact, though.