Saturday, December 03, 2011

This Video Should Be Shown to all Biology Students

I think this 1993 interview with creationist law professor Phillip Johnson should be shown to every biology student at every American university.

After the biology students stopped laughing and shaking their heads at the sheer pig-ignorance and numerous blatant lies smugly spouted by Johnson, they'll have a much better understanding of the Religious Right's assault on science, and be better prepared to rebut their local creationists.

The most significant misunderstanding Johnson repeatedly exhibits is that he thinks modern evolutionary biology is synonymous with his understanding of the meaning of the term "Darwinism": all biological change is due to mutation and natural selection. The fact that other mechanisms, such as genetic drift and endosymbiosis, are now an essential part of the picture, seems to have escaped him completely. Ignorance or dishonesty? I'm not sure; maybe it's a mixture of both.

So how many other misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and lies can you identify? Here are just a few I saw:

"Well, if I'm out of my element, then Charles Darwin must have also been out of his element, because his training was in medicine and theology, although he was in fact a very good scientist, self-taught, a gentleman amateur like others of his time. Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, was a lawyer."

Very deceptive. Science as an institution at the time of Darwin and Lyell was quite different from modern science. It is extremely hard (although not impossible) for an amateur, untrained in science, to make a significant contribution to science today.

As for Lyell, it is quite misleading to just say that he was a lawyer and not also mention that at Oxford, Lyell attended lectures by Buckland; at Edinburgh, by Jameson; and he was a colleague of Mantell. Lyell gave up law, travelled extensively and did geological research on the ground in many locations, publishing his papers in scientific journals. If Phillip Johnson ever did any geological research on the ground, and published papers on his research in geology journals, he might be accorded some respect. As it is, he's just a laughingstock.

"There aren't really any specialists in evolution; it's a generalists' country."

This is simply false. Any evolutionary biologist is a specialist in evolution. There are, ferchrissakes, many annual conferences on evolution.

If Johnson's point is that evolution, as a scientific theory, depends on different fields such as paleontology and genetics, then this is no different from any other scientific theory that has multiple underpinnings, such as climatology.

"[I'm] explaining to them [evolutionary biologists] what they overlooked. That in fact, their books are not convincing because they're assuming at the beginning of the inquiry the point that they claimed to have demonstrated at the end, and so there's a thinking flaw. So instead of responding to that, naturally they say, "Oh, why don't you shut up? And leave us alone, so we can continue to get away with this."

This is just the usual Christian martydrom lie. No scientists has said anything remotely like the quote Johnson gives. Biologists have laughed at Johnson's ignorance, that is true. But scientists have also written detailed rebuttals of Johnson's bogus claims. Also, the implication that biologists know they are being deceptive is an outrageous slander. But that's not the only slander Johnson casually tosses off.

"The sophisticated people in the universities know that this is founded on philosophy. But because it's their philosophy, you see, they think that's fine. And because they have contempt for the public, they think that it's alright to mislead the public through you know, propaganda, because the public doesn't really deserve to know the truth, because they're not intellectuals like we are, so we can say anything we want to them. That is a widespread attitude..."

Considering that Johnson was a co-founder of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, a group dedicated to nothing other than misleading the public about evolution, this is pretty rich.

[on the term "creationist"] "So that what the scientific establishment tends to do is to say, that well first place we'll put everybody in that group into a very narrow box and then we'll dispose of them by ridicule. And then having got rid of all our enemies by that set of language tricks and propaganda mechanisms, we'll say the only thing left is us, so everybody is supposed to believe the way we do. That's what they call the scientific method these days, and it's just a very reprehensible kind of propaganda."

For me, "creationist" doesn't just mean "believer in Noah's ark". It means any person, like Johnson, who repeats long-discredited arguments (paucity of the fossil record; "finches are just finches", etc.) about evolution as if they were never rebutted. As for ridicule, if you make ridiculous arguments, expect to get ridiculed. That's the way science works.

"We do know of one natural process - natural selection - which is excellent at preventing fundamental change, because it eliminates the mutants - the overwhelming majority of mutants, practically all ones which are either of no benefit at all to the organism or actually harmful - will be eliminated in the end by natural selection."

Johnson seems completely confused here. One kind of natural selection, stabilizing selection, does indeed act against extreme changes. But to imply that this is all that natural selection can do is either extremely ignorant or extremely deceptive; there is, for example, directional selection that is very good at producing change. And, of course, I hardly need point out that natural selection does not act to remove neutral mutations, as Johnson claims.

"Some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow -- no one knows how."

Another lie. Maybe Johnson doesn't know how speciation occurs, but biologists do. All Johnson has to do is pick up a biology textbook or, for example, Coyne and Orr's book, Speciation (admittedly not yet published when the video was made). Mechanisms of speciation include geographic isolation, founder effects, sexual selection, polyploidy, hybridization, and others. We may not know all the causes of speciation yet, and scientists argue about the relative importance of the mechanisms I've mentioned. But to say "no one knows how" is a gross misstatement.

"The fossil record hasn't gotten any better, in the intervening century and a third... [since 1859]"

Another blatant lie. Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861. Since then, we have thousands and thousands more discoveries that add significantly to our understanding of evolutionary history: Diplodocus, Maiasaura, Paranthropus, Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, Pakicetus, just to name a few.

These examples, chosen just from the first 22 minutes of the video, give the flavor of the ignorance and misrepresentation offered up by Johnson. This video would make a great educational experience and expose the dishonest anti-intellectualism at the heart of creationism.


Glen Davidson said...

I watched a bit of it from the UD link, but it was such a bunch of typical ID tripe and smears, without any sort of substantiation, that I couldn't see going past a few minutes. I could jeer at his ignorance and arrogance, but I thought instead that I might mention what seems likely to be behind their thudding stupidity with respect to understanding the massive amount of evidence for evolution.

Michael Denton's mendacious book seems to be what many of them, including Johnson, credit for their "insight" (cretinous drivel). Here's a quote from Denton, and some remarks I made on After the Bar Closes:

All the major Germanic languages of Europe, for example, including English, Dutch, German, and Icelandic, were already well differentiated and distinct and unlinked by transitional dialects when they first appeared in written form. Yet, despite the absence of intermediates, no linguist today doubts that all the Germanic languages descended gradually over a period of three thousand years from an ancestral proto-Germanic tongue. This is because they have been able to work out in very exact detail all the semantic, syntactic and phonetic changes which occurred along all the hypothetical pathways through which the languages evolved. The reconstruction has been taken to such an extent that the entire lexicon, grammar, and even the sound of these extinct and long dead languages can be specified at every point along all the various lineages leading back in time to the proto-Germanic source.

Michael Denton Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. p. 199.

One can quibble in various ways about that paragraph, as he's almost certainly exaggerating how much we know about every single aspect of extinct Germanic languages, and most definitely is wrong that we know the "sound" of the extinct languages (we no doubt know something about the sounds, but to baldly state "and even the sound of these extinct and long dead languages can be specified at every point along all the various lineages leading back in time to the proto-Germanic source," can hardly be true).

And Germanic languages are hardly the only ones we know evolved from a common source, and certainly less is known about the original Indo-European language (many roots are fairly certain, it is believed), so clearly Denton cherry-picked his "example."

But those errors pale against the fact that virtually all linguists were -- and had to be in order to work out the specifics -- certain that the Germanic languages, and indeed all of the Indo-European languages, were related well before the specifics were worked out. They weren't convinced that the languages had evolved from common ancestors because all of the details were known, the details were able to be worked out because linguists were certain that the languages had evolved, and they operated very successfully within that framework to ferret out the details.

They had to pretend that the evidence for evolution just doesn't count, and Denton's fictional account of language evolution appears to be the anti-knowledge that they needed to deny evolution.

With that and their use of derived similarities to recognize "microevolution" while denying that the exact same type of evidence indicates "macroevolution," their little kit of lies needed to deny evolution is virtually complete. If you can deny that the evidence predicted by evolution, and that is found everywhere in biology, really doesn't count, you're just plain outside of the field of empiricism, and anything, including evidence-free magic, is as good as anything else.

Glen Davidson

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Charles Lyell, the father of modern theology

Uh, what? Was that supposed to be "modern geology"?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, BB, I fixed the mistake.

Les Lane said...

It's not so bad listening if you listen as an anthropologist rather than a biologist. At about 32 min he talks about the implausibility of whale evolution. This was of course before the discovery of convincing fossil intermediates.

He also suggests that scientists should study life forms rather than hypothesize evolution. He implies that this would shed light on design. Since then vast amounts of information on life forms (DNA sequences) has accumulated. This evidence confirms evolution rather than suggesting design.

He readily admits "microevolution" yet implies that natural selection is a force only for stasis.

He claims that scientists cling to evolution because of dogma ignoring that it's a highly productive source of testable hypotheses.

In no case have his antievolution perspectives given rise of useful experimental approaches.

Unknown said...

Jonathan M. has posted a fairly predictable response to your OP over at ENV.

Maligning Phil Johnson, with Lots of Rhetoric but Little Substance