Monday, September 21, 2009

Refuting Comfort's Eye evolution claims

As I mentioned in my last post, Comfort and Cameron will be distributing co-opted copies of Darwin's ...Origin... I've looked at the introduction Comfort wrote. Of course it contains the same old tired anti-evolutionist arguments that have not changed in hundreds of years, despite the fact the field of evolutionary biology has matured into a rich, detailed, predictive science that forms the core of modern understanding of all biology.

[If you don't read the entire rather long post, please read the last 2 paragraphs]

A prime reason evolutionists don't often debate these simplistic claims is that it's been done before, for hundreds of years, and anti-evolutionists keep re-using the same tired arguments, ignoring advances in science. Scientists really like to argue, but not about things that have been resolved for hundreds of years, over and over again, in increasing detail.

Comfort's simplistic, tired arguments are no exception. I'll focus on his section on eye evolution. The arguments boil down to:

  1. It looks soooo complex. It had to be designed.
  2. Comfort can't imagine how "random" processes could drive evolution.
  3. There are a bunch of parts working together, and each couldn't originate without the other.
Of course there is nothing new here. For #1, Hume famously critiqued the design argument in the 1700's. It part, this is a false analogy: Watch is to human designer as Complex biological feature is to God.

#2 Natural selection is not a random process, e.g. Blind Watchmaker.
#3 There is no evidence that "separate" parts of the visual system cannot work separately, and in fact it is known that parts DO function separately. As one of many possible examples, the cnidarian polyp Hydra magnipappillata uses photosensitivity without eyes or brain (ref).

Below, I will paste Comfort's text, and a few comments on his text.
Or, consider the human eye. Man has never developed a
camera lens anywhere near the inconceivable intricacy of the
human eye. The human eye is an amazing interrelated system of
about forty individual subsystems, including the retina, pupil,
iris, cornea, lens, and optic nerve. It has more to it than just
the 137 million light-sensitive special cells that send messages
to the unbelievably complex brain. About 130 million of these
cells look like tiny rods, and they handle the black and white
vision. The other seven million are cone shaped and allow us
to see in color. The retina cells receive light impressions, which
are then translated into electric pulses and sent directly to the
brain through the optic nerve.

A special section of the brain called the visual cortex
interprets the pulses as color, contrast, depth, etc., which then
allows us to see “pictures” of our world. Incredibly, the eye,
optic nerve, and visual cortex are totally separate and distinct
subsystems. Yet together they capture, deliver, and interpret
up to 1.5 million pulse messages per millisecond! Think
about that for a moment. It would take dozens of computers
programmed perfectly and operating together flawlessly to
even get close to performing this task.
Yes, eyes are pretty complicated - that is one reason they are fun to study and understand from a scientific perspective.

The eye is an example of what is referred to as “irreducible

There is no evidence that eyes or any other biological structure are 'irreducibly complex'. Here is a paper describing processes that have led to the evolutionary origins of "phototransduction", the cascade of protein signaling events that results in animals' ability to detect light.

It would be absolutely impossible for random

It would indeed be difficult for purely random processes to evolve complex systems, but natural selection is not a random process.

...operating through gradual mechanisms of genetic
mutation and natural selection, to be able to create forty
separate subsystems when they provide no advantage to the
whole until the very last state of development.
This is factually wrong. For example, one of these eye "subsystems" provides an advantage to Hydra even though the animal does not possess other of the "subsystems". As mentioned above, Hydra utilizes phototransduction without lens, retina, brain, or even pigment cells. One response to light is for the animal to scrunch into a ball, hypothesized to purge its one-way gut at first morning light. [If there is a designer, at least She had a sense of humor when She made one-way guts - what a great design that is!]. So as evidenced by mouse trap tie clips in the Dover trial; claims of irreducible complexity usually represent a lack of imagination about what sub-systems can do.

Ask yourself
how the lens, the retina, the optic nerve, and all the other parts
in vertebrates that play a role in seeing not only appeared
from nothing, but evolved into interrelated and working parts.

This sounds like an argument against divine design, which claims that eye parts came from dust. In fact evolutionary biology teaches us that proteins of the lens came from other proteins.

Evolutionist Robert Jastrow acknowledges that highly trained
scientists could not have improved upon “blind chance”:

To paraphrase Orgel - evolution is cleverer than you are; that doesn't mean that goddidit.
Again, natural selection is not "blind chance".

The eye appears to have been designed; no designer
of telescopes could have done better. How could
this marvelous instrument have evolved by chance,
through a succession of random events? Many people
in Darwin’s day agreed with theologian William
Pauley, who commented, “There cannot be a design
without a designer.”

William Paley, not Pauley. Yes it is truely amazing that evolution produced eyes, and other complex things like livers or brains. Nevertheless, it is a well established scientific fact that evolution did produce these traits.

And this marvelous design occurs not just in humans, but
in all the different creatures: horses, ants, dogs, whales, lions,
flies, ducks, fish, etc. Think about what the theory of evolution
claims: the eyes, in working pairs, of all these creatures slowly
developed over millions of years. Each of them was blind until
all the parts miraculously came together and interrelated with
the others, because all parts are needed for the eye to function.
Then each creature had its two eyes work in harmony with
the brain to interpret those images. Fortunately, each of these
creatures simultaneously evolved whatever matching parts
each would need: sockets, skin, eyelids, eyelashes, tear ducts,
muscles to blink, etc.

Again, Comfort is arguing more against his own claims that against evolution. Eyes appearing separately in every tetrapod is VERY unlikely, but this is what the creationist fable of eye origins would entail. In fact, evolutionary biology teaches us that all living things share a common ancestry, and that shared features usually evolved once, prior to the common ancestor of creatures sharing a trait. This is backed up by mounds of genetic evidence showing shared use of many genes in most animal eyes, including opsin, Pax-6, and many more.

You’ve probably been led to believe that the first simple
creatures had rudimentary eyes, and that as creatures slowly
evolved their eyes evolved along with them. However, that’s
not what scientists have found. Not only is there no evidence

Robert Jastrow, “Evolution: Selection for perfection,” Science
Digest, December 1981, p. 86.
It is simply false that scientists have found the first simple creatures to have had complex eyes. "The first simple creatures" Comfort seems to be referring to are trilobites. There are highly complex arthropods, far far far removed from the first simple creatures. Trilobites are not even the first animals, not even the first arthropods.

of this occurring, but some of the most complex eyes have
been discovered in the “simplest” creatures.
Riccardo Levi-Setti, professor emeritus of Physics at the
University of Chicago, writes of the trilobite’s eye:

"This optical doublet is a device so typically
associated with human invention that its discovery in
trilobites comes as something of a shock. The realization
that trilobites developed and used such devices half a
billion years ago makes the shock even greater. And a
final discovery—that the refracting interface between
the two lens elements in a trilobite’s eye was designed
in accordance with optical constructions worked out
by Descartes and Huygens in the mid-seventeenth
century—borders on sheer science fiction...The design
of the trilobite’s eye lens could well qualify for a patent
disclosure. "

--Riccardo Levi-Setti, Trilobites (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1993), pp. 57–58.

How could the amazing, seeing eye have come about
purely by blind chance? Based on the evidence, wouldn’t a
reasonable person conclude that the eye is astonishingly
complex and could not have evolved gradually, and that each
creature’s eyes are uniquely designed?

Even Charles Darwin admitted the incredible complexity
of the eye in The Origin of Species:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different
distances, for admitting different amounts of light,
and for the correction of spherical and chromatic

aberration, could have formed by natural selection,
seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."

Even more incredible, though, is that Darwin went on
to say that he believed the eye could nonetheless have been
formed by natural selection. He was right on one point. If a
Designer is left out of the equation, such a thought is absurd
in the highest degree.

Yes, it is still amazing - and still true - that eyes evolved. No natural selection still cannot be equated with blind chance.

At least he included the end of this famous quote, where Darwin writes that anyone with any bit of logical reasoning ability can see that evolution can produce even complicated things.

I didn't spend a lot of time on this because these arguments of Comfort are not worth a lot of my time. They are tired, recycled, un-creative jabs at evolution that have been known to be false for hundreds of years.

In the end, I'll use Comfort's own words to describe what he is doing to evolution. He was writing about Buddhism, but his words apply nicely to his ignorance of evolutionary biology:

Amazingly, the religion of Buddhism [substitute 'Ray Comfort' for 'Buddhism'] denies that God [substitute 'Evolution' for 'God'] even exists. It teaches that life and death are sort of an illusion. That’s like standing at the door of the plane and saying, “I’m not really here, and there’s no such thing as the law of gravity, and no ground that I’m going to hit.” That may temporarily help you deal with your fears, but it doesn’t square with reality.
A few word changes lead to:

Amazingly, the religion of Cameron and Comfort denies that evolution even exists. It teaches that two hundred years of hard work by countless scientists across the globe to elucidate the details of evolution are sort of an illusion. That’s like standing at the door of the plane and saying, “I’m not really here, and there’s no such thing as the law of gravity, and no ground that I’m going to hit.” That may temporarily help Comfort and Cameron deal with their fears, but it doesn’t square with reality.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cameron Comfort Co-Opt Darwin's Origin

I've had my head in the sand writing revisions of papers before the quarter starts, so I'm sure there is information all over the net about this that I am not integrating here, sorry. But apparently, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort have co-opted Darwin's ..Origin of Species... and inserted creationist propaganda into in introduction that is mixed with some facts (i.e. biographical facts on Darwin). It also includes propaganda linking Nazi-ism and evolution, etc.

They plan to had out published copies at the 'Top 50' research institutions in the US. Cameron in a video mentions he will come to a local university personally (here at UCSB? UCLA? I'm not sure what "local" is to Mr. Cameron).

Apparently, Richard Dawkins has been involved in getting the word out to evolutionists to expect this, kudos to him and his crew for doing that.

I personally disagree with the plan of action I'm told Dawkins' camp is promoting (I haven't confirmed that he is actually promoting this). That plan entails obtaining as many copies of the book as possible and removing the Comfort introductory propaganda.

In my opinion, this is not a good strategy. It seems that this could look desperate, as if scientists actually have something to worry about (when it comes to the facts of evolution, we do not have to worry), and it looks like book burning or censoring.

Instead, I think a concise pamphlet refuting the bogus claims of the introdution would be outstanding. It could have references and web links, and could also expose what I see as the breathtaking inanity of Comfort and Cameron's crusade against critical, rational thinking.

It would be great if someone like the NCSE were involved. Time is short and an organized response would nice.

Below, I attach an email that was sent around here at UCSB, which includes web links to some of this stuff:


We all loved Kirk Cameron on Growing Pains:

Years later we were amused and perhaps a bit alarmed at his
'Origin of the Banana' video:
(That's Ray Comfort there with him)

But in November of 2009 he and Ray Comfort are taking it to the
next level:

The Important thing for us: *THIS GIVE AWAY WILL HAPPEN AT
UCSB! On November 19th!
Richard Dawkins has proposed a strategy: Collect as many of these
books as possible, remove the 50 page intro and donate the copies
to schools, libraries, or the whoever

We can stick with this strategy or come up with something else but
we should do *SOMETHING*

Basically we need to get organized if they are coming here. Ready
with information &/or to get these books. Ready with pamphlets
answering his questions or just trying to keep them off campus?

*Who would be into meeting within the next couple of weeks to
start to get ourselves organized?*

If you are not ready for action now here are some highlights from
Comfort's 50 page Intro:

1) So, even though we share 96 percent of our genetic make-up with
chimps, that does not mean we are 96 percent chimp. Be careful you
don’t fall for the illogic of this “evolutionary proof,”
2) here are some interesting questions for the thinking
evolutionist: Can you explain which came first—the blood or the heart—and why?
3) You’ve probably been led to believe that the first simple
creatures had rudimentary eyes, and that as creatures slowly
evolved their eyes evolved along with them. however, that’s not
what scientists have found.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Phylogenetics Conference - Seattle

Actually, the meeting is more general than "phylogenetics", but I'd like more phylogeneticsts to attend (and this was my "campaign" platform when running for secretary of the division of systematic biology. "Campaign" is quoted since I'm less than 100% positive I wanted to win). The title of this blog post is an attempt to get people from dechronization interested in the conference- this blog is on their roll, so the title appears.

The meeting is the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (formerly American Zoologist), which will run from Jan 3-7, 2010 in Seattle.

Note the abstract deadline of Sept 11 2009. This is often a hard deadline without extensions!! So we'd better get crackin'!

Strengths of the meeting are student funding and in general its being student friendly. Topical strengths include physiology (comparative), evo-devo, and invertebrate biology. Given my interest in eye evolution in inverts, it's become my main meeting. There is often a strong showing of phylogeneticists, usually those using phylogenetic tools to address comparative biological questions, with fewer people presenting on phylogenetic methods for methods' sake, the strength of the summer evolution meetings.