Thursday, 12 February 2009

It's Darwin's Birthday: Edmontonians Show their Ignorance (Part I)

In the wind up to Darwin Day, the Edmonton Journal ran a few articles that had to do with Ol' Chuck D and his groundbreaking work ("Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin; Evolution's bold insights, so well explained 150 years ago, resonate daily in a land dependent on fossil fuels" by Paula Simons, Feb. 7 and "Evolution, creationism debate still simmers; Iconic naturalist would be amazed at the controversy over his ideas", also on Feb 7th). As, sadly, expected for this province, those of us less evidence-oriented and more factcinated felt compelled to respond. Beware: the amount of ignorance packed into the small space of the proceeding paragraphs is likely to result in a singularity.

First to share their nonsense was D.M. Hendrickson, of Bittern Lake:

"Re: “Happy birthday, Mr. Darwin; Evolution's bold insights, so well explained 150 years ago, resonate daily in a land dependent on fossil fuels,” by Paula Simons, Feb. 7.

Surveys show that about 40 per cent of Canadians reject Darwinism today, whereas Paula Simons claims Alberta “owes its prosperity, its very identity, to the reality of evolution.” Nonsense. Prehistoric plants that turned into fossil fuels do not require any theory of evolution to superimpose upon their existence some more certain reality or better understanding; it is the industrial capabilities of being able to extract the oil that give us the oil, not some spurious suppositions about how all life was not a direct creation of God."

Hendrickson's letter fails right off the bat, starting with a complete non sequiter. Whether or not Alberta "owes its prosperity, its very identity, to the reality of evolution" has absolutely nothing to do with how many Canadians reject "Darwinism". The want of the majority does not do well when determining fact. He (she? I'll assume it's a man writing this) then continues to claim that what Alberta owes its existence to is the fact that we have the industrial capabilities to extract oil ("the oil that gives us the oil", whatever that means), and not some theory about how God didn't make the oil. This claim is absurd, of course, since, if the oil was not present, Alberta would not exist as we know it today. In other words, Alberta owes its identity to whatever process got that oil there in the first place. Now, to say that the oil was the direct result of evolution would be a stretch, but let us consider the alternative: if God had created all life on Earth within the last 6000 years, the oil simply would not be there. If not for the thousands upon thousands of generations of flora and fauna - our ancestors from eons passed, from which we evolved - dying, then there would be no oil. An ancient world, supported in part by evolution, gives Alberta the oil that is its claim to fame.

He continues:

"Simons claims “the evidence of our province’s evolutionary prehistory is all around us, for anyone willing to look.” What, pray tell, do dinosaur finds have to do with evolution? They went nowhere, precisely what evolution is not about. Does she really suppose adding “evolutionary” to the term “prehistory” adds anything to it except occasions for speculation?"

Dinosaur finds have lots to do with evolution! The entire field of paleontology has given us vast insights to our evolutionary past. The discovery of Archaeopteryx, for example, has made the idea of birds evolving from reptiles concrete. Every single fossil that is unearthed is another check in the tally of evolution's evidence. To think that dinosaur finds have nothing to do with evolution is complete ignorance.

"She would be censor, mocking those who dare be critical of the science accepted unthinkingly by the most secular elements of our society. No one would deny that organisms suffer genetic modifications and those thereby best adapted to the conditions they find themselves in are by definition most likely to survive."

I don't really understand what Hendrickson is getting at here. He gives is the tired "evolutionists are trying to silence any dissent from their dogma!" crap, and then, in the very next sentence, says that descent with modification is undeniable. More and more I'm getting the feeling that Hendrickson has no idea what he's talking about (as if his atrocious grammar and sentence structure didn't give that away already).

A little further on:

"She calls it “the harsh realities of evolution” when there are antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and wonders how we could possibly fight them without Darwin. All we need notice are demonstrable facts: that such bugs exist and that they develop in certain ways, have certain characteristics, and we must look for how we can influence those characteristics. To think we wouldn’t be doing that without Darwin or someone with similar theories is ridiculous."

Here, Hendrickson claims that we can deal with antibiotic resistant superbugs without ever taking into account any aspects of evolution. How can we do this? By noticing (1) that such bugs exist and have particular characteristics, (2) they develop in certain ways, and (3) how we can influence those characteristics. I would like to know how, exactly, Hendrickson expects us to do this in the absence of evolution. The characteristics of these "superbugs" being influenced by their environment IS evolution. We have to apply our knowledge of evolution to figure out HOW their characteristics are being influenced, and how we can counteract this. The very reason superbugs exist is because of evolution. If it weren't for Darwin, we would still be wondering why such superbugs even exist, let alone finding ways to combat them.

"So too with managing grizzly bear populations; it is not evolutionary pressure we need to note, it is environmental pressures, how the habitat and its endangerment bears upon their future prospects."

Environmental pressures ARE evolutionary pressures. Changes in the environment put pressure on organisms; those best adapted to meet those pressures survive, reproduce, pass on their genes; the population evolves. A loss in habitat for grizzly bears is an evolutionary pressure. Unfortunately for the bears, this pressure is caused by humans, and is worsening at a faster rate than the bears can adapt.

He closes his letter with this:

"Those who do not quickly sign on to Darwinism are not “fighting a rear guard action to turn back the clock 150 years and more, to return us to a medieval world view.” That is her aspersion; it is rather that arguments like those of Simons don’t make much sense unless one buys into a world view that “evolution” is the explanation for everything. It is irrational to pander to atheism at every possible turn, to think that adding the term “evolutionary” to every explication of nature somehow increases its validity. Many of the references in biology textbooks, for instance, are precisely that and no more.

She can’t abide politicians who “pander or defer to a small religious element;” she is so close-minded she cannot see that those rejecting Darwinism are the ones fighting for science and rationalism which requires in the search for truth criticisms by those who do not buy into pretentious theories of elites. Those who are not such elitists are the majority and may well have understandings closer to her castigated “religious element,” and thus it is indeed in order for decisions makers to acknowledge them."

The claim that those rejecting "Darwinism" are the ones fighting for rationalism and science is outright laughable. To reject Darwinism is to ignore the evidence; ignoring the evidence is the antithesis of science and rationality. Furthermore, if believing in evolution makes me "pretentious" and an "elitist", then so be it. But to claim that proponents of evolution think that they are somehow better than you shows a disturbing inferiority complex.

I'm a bit astounded that the Journal would let this appear as a letter to the editor, if not for its inane content, then for its grammatical massacre. Hendrickson shows not only a complete ignorance of evolutionary theory and its consequences, but also a deep-seeded contempt for both science and scientists. It is a sickening, sobering thought that people like this exist in an age where information is literally available at your fingertips.


Ian said...

If you're surprised that this appears in the Journal (maybe online only or was it in print?), then don't look into the Herald. There they wouldn't even publish Simmons original article, and would likely use the place to publish a letter like this or an attack on atheism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wonderful point-by-point refutation of the letter -- and defence of the original column. Paula Simons is one of my favourite writers -- but I guess she can't spend all her columns playing whack-a-mole with her critics.

C.W.G.K said...

No problem. I can't stand seeing anti-science rhetoric in the news, and I enjoy taking the time to refute such nonsense.