“Micro-fish” (Macroevolution denial)

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The position of anti-Darwinians is, ironically, an evolving one. Tennessee infamously banned the teaching of human evolution in public schools, resulting in the John Scopes conviction that was overturned. That law and those like it remained on the books until the Supreme Court struck them down in 1968.

With this defeat, politically-active creationists tried a new tactic of calling for equal time. This is a sound notion when there are genuinely competing ideas, such as what exist in string theory, the makeup of dark matter, and the rate of the universe’s expansion. And creationism fits nicely into comparative religion and philosophy classes. But it lacks the hallmarks of science, as it is unfalsifiable and untestable. Evolution, by contrast, can potentially be falsified every time there is a geologic dig. The field would be turned upside down if a mallard fossil were found alongside fossils of 3-billion-year-old amoebas in the Geologic Column. It can also be tested, which is what’s happening in Richard Lenski’s ongoing e. coli experiment at Michigan State. There are mountains of scientific data relating to evolution and none that pertain to creation. That, along with public school creationism being considered an endorsement of religion, led the Supreme Court to strike down equal time attempts in 1987.

Because that ruling noted Louisiana was attempting to promote a specific religion, creationists rebranded themselves as Intelligent Design advocates. Their new argument was that organisms’ complexity and axiomatic signs of design meant this all had to have been guided by a higher power, but that this could be any god, goddess, or unknown force. This was a disingenuous absurdity that no one believed. The façade was so transparent that the Discovery Institute’s publication outlining this nouveau strategy had Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” on its cover. This attempt to squeeze Genesis through the back door of public schools was shot down by another Supreme Court ruling in 2005.

The next tactic was the fraudulently-named Louisiana Science Education Act, which called for “supplemental” material to be used. This was intended to give ostensible legal cover for teachers who violated the Supreme Court rulings. The act mentioned evolution and climate change as allegedly “controversial ideas.” Climate change was added so that something besides evolution would be mentioned and the law wouldn’t solely reference religion. It also helped that climate change is the other prominent area in which cultural conservatives most soundly reject the science. There is no reason for such laws, as all sides are presented when there is genuine controversy, such as with aforementioned string theory and dark matter.  

This latest gimmick is on shaky legal ground at best, but has yet to be challenged in court. A substantial problem is that organizations like the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation are usually deemed to have insufficient standing to sue in such cases. A parent or student usually must be the one to do so, and most Louisiana teens and adults are just fine with the Abrahamic god being promoted with tax dollars. To be challenged, there would have to be a parent or student willing to risk the ostracism, abuse, threats, and physical attacks that would likely be foisted upon them.

Creationists also show nimbleness outside the political arena. When On the Origin of Species was first printed, there was apoplectic shock from some members of the religious community. Preachers unleashed a torrent of outrage on this unspeakable blasphemy. How dare there be any challenge to the first chapter of Genesis! God created all animals in their present form and that’s that.

But then biologists began seeing confirmation of Darwin’s ideas. Biological populations were changing over time, they were adapting to their environment, and they were keeping genetic mutations that proved advantageous. This included camouflage, slighter build in birds that allowed for faster migration, and even aesthetic changes that made them more appealing to potential mates. Allele frequencies consistent with genetic mutations and natural selection were documented. Single-cell microorganisms were seen mutating in a manner that increased chances of long-term survival. Biologists became increasingly aware of endemic species and began mapping branches of common descent based on fossil records and comparative biology. Evolution was and continues to be observed. If wanting to see it in action in a Petri dish, click here: http://tiny.cc/40zojy

Faced with literally seeing evolution occurring, creationists had four choices. They could mimic R.E.M. and lose their religion. They could dismiss the observed evolution as satanic trickery, a tact favored by Theodore Shoebat and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun. They could embrace the science but insist that God is its source, which is done by biologist blogger Kelsey Luoma. Or they could concoct a haphazard ad hoc hypothesis that tries to drive a wedge between microevolution and macroevolution. This final option will be our focus for the rest of this post.

The idea is that small changes are acceptable but not big ones. For example, the extinct lizard hylonomus may have adapted to its environment by evolving a more efficient toe pad, but a very long series of such changes could not have led to humans. In fact, creationists draw the line at the lizard’s ancestors ever becoming any other species, though they don’t quite define what that means. Answers in Genesis writes that the ability to breed is probably a defining characteristic, but clarifies that there may be exceptions, so they give themselves cover either way.

In truth, there is no microevolution or macroevolution. There is only evolution, the change in inherited characteristics of biological populations over time. Luoma wrote, “The only difference between micro and macroevolution is scope. When enough micro changes accumulate, a population will eventually lose its ability to interbreed with other members of its species. At this point, we say that macroevolution has occurred. Random mutation and natural selection cause both micro and macro evolution. There are no invisible boundaries that prevent organisms from evolving into new species. It just takes time.”

The counter idea started with Frank Marsh in 1941, following his creative interpretation of Hebrew texts. He deduced that God had created “kinds,” a term that neither he nor his likeminded creationists have ever bothered to define. This leaves ample room for interpretation, but as much as I can tell, they base it on appearance and the ability to breed. They also seem to allude to “kind” being very roughly comparable to the biological category of Family. The only steadfast rule is that humans are the only animals allowed to occupy their “kind.” Despite sharing 22 of 23 chromosome pairs with chimpanzees and having an almost identical bone structure to other apes, people get their own category, owing to creationists’ special pleading, desperation, and arrogance.

Marsh called this new pseudoscience field baraminology. Baraminologists have never drawn up a tree or diagram to explain how it works, so it’s a guess which “kind” each animal should be placed in. But it seems to rely mostly on similar features. For example, they would consider all horses to be of one kind, and this would likely include donkeys and zebras.  But while these equines might be somewhat similar in appearance to a giraffe and have an even vaguer resemblance to a hippopotamus, it is unlikely that the baraminologist would put these other animals in the same “kind” as horses. That would be getting terrifyingly close to Darwinism.

For 25 years, Marsh had the baraminology field to himself, but it picked up adherents when the idea of fitting 10 million creatures and their 15-month food and water supply on an oversized ship seemed untenable. By saying that each fortunate duo that boarded Noah’s ark is the ancestor of 10,000 different types of animals, the amount of space needed is greatly reduced.

One example of how this works is to put all cats in one kind. This leads to an incredible irony. Folks who mostly reject evolution will enthusiastically embrace a hyper version of it in which two felines who stepped off Noah’s ark 5,000 years ago are the ancestors of all tigers, jaguars, pumas, lions, bobcats, lynxes, ocelots cheetahs, panthers, cougars, saber-toothed cats, and your pet calico Fluffy. While evolution this fast could occur with artificial selection – it did with dogs – applying it to natural selection would require assuming it takes place exponentially faster than it does. It also means ignoring the fossil record and the worldwide distribution of big cats. For instance, it does not explain how panthers would have gotten from Turkey to Brazil.

Some theories have small gaps in them. By contrast, baraminology is a gaping, sucking hole with a tiny amount of theory thrown in. Those who created, expanded, and defended the field have never defined it, quantified it, explained it, nor offered any illustrations, graphs, trees, or publications that would demonstrate how it works or help anyone make sense of it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerry Coyne, biology professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. He says macroevolution is supported by embryonic forms, the fossil record, and “dead genes.”

Mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish are all in their own biologic class, but look so similar before birth that it sometimes takes experts to tell them apart. Also, traits of one animal may be present in the embryonic state of a separate animal, even across classes. For example, human embryos have gill slits that disappear before birth. This implies common ancestry with fish and as the branch split, different traits were either further evolved or became vestigial. In another example, whales have a pelvis remnant that is pointless for aquatic travel but which would have served their land-roving ancestors well.

Besides these clues, there is also the fossil record. Coyne wrote, “We have transitional forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals, and between early apelike ancestors and modern humans.”

It’s not just a matter of what, the when is also important. Again, per Dr. Coyne: “Those transitional forms just happen to occur at the proper time in the fossil record. Mammal-like reptiles – the transitional forms between reptiles and early mammals – occur in the sediments after reptiles were already around for a while, but before easily-recognizable mammals come on the scene. It’s not just that they look intermediate, but that they lived at the right time for demonstrating a true evolutionary transition.”

Then we have “dead genes,” Coyne’s term for stretches of DNA that don’t produce a product, but are largely identical to working genes in other species. “These are likewise evidence for distant ancestry between ‘kinds,’” Coyne wrote.

Examples he cited included humans having three dead genes for egg-yolk proteins, which are still active in our distant cousins of the reptilian and avian persuasions. In another instance, whales and other cetaceans have hundreds of dead olfactory-receptor genes, which implies a terrestrial origin for these ocean-dwelling mammals.  These genes are active in deer and even the most desperate baraminologist would not put Bambi and Willy in the same kind.

Creationists demand being able to see molecules-to-man evolution in real time and when this is not possible, they will declare this a “gotcha” moment. But just as DNA is better evidence than an eyewitness during a trial, we can see macroevolution in the form of transitions between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, reptiles and birds, and ground-bound mammals and whales.

The attempt to bridge the vastly disparate ideas in Genesis and On the Origin of Species is called theistic evolution. It has few fans among either biologists or creationists, particularly the Young Earth subset. But I would like to acknowledge Luoma, the theistic evolutionist I quoted earlier in the post.

First, she wrote that macroevolution has been observed in three instances involving finches, mice, and flies. In these cases, separate breeds branched off and within a few years, the resultant organisms were incapable of breeding with the original population. Her full article is here: http://tiny.cc/hv3ojy

Second, Luoma has a biology degree from a legitimate institution and accepts scientific evidence without first checking to see if it squares with Genesis. She is content to credit God with “perhaps creating and sustaining the process by which new species are created.” This is a superfluous addition that lacks any evidence, but it sure beats science denial. She accepts the science, promotes the science, and calls for only science to be taught in biology class.  

Luoma describes herself as “an evangelical Christian and student of biology who is very interested in resolving the conflict between faith and science.” There is no conflict, as that requires two hostile parties. The assault is unilateral. No scientists or skeptics are trying to force churches to teach Darwin. The only aggression comes from creationists and politicians who try to get their religion and science denial taught in taxpayer-funded schools.

While a literal reading of Genesis cannot comport with biology and astronomy, Luoma would gladly teach biology on Friday, then worship God on Sunday. If creationists would follow her lead, the issue would be resolved.

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