Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Fossils and Faith

Do you see a neck on this Tiktaalik fossil? Image from

Do you see arms and paws or hands?

Fish hands diagram from here.

Tiktaalik wrist and hand

Do these artist's renderings really show the details of the fossil? Or are they merely what the paleontologist and artist want to be there?

Fossil debunking video.
Under the title “Dinosaur Hoax,” this unnamed young debunker of evolution triumphantly proves in a three-minute video that so-called dinosaur fossils are no more significant than random pieces of smashed-up plaster. You can spackle the bits back together any way you choose, she says; therefore, dinosaurs are a fabrication.
This woman almost has a point. The following images are from Georgia Life Traces. and have been shrunk (but will be somewhat larger if you click on them). Follow the link to see them full size. The first image is captioned, "A rare piece of dinosaur bone that actually looks like a bone..." while the next one is, "You probably spotted the big chunk right away, but how about the smaller ones that tend to blend in with the non-dinosaur-bone rocks around them?" and the third one is of  a negative cast of a dinosaur track. For this latter, I can kind of see it, if I squint right.

How much of paleontology is based on faith? How much, as the speaker on the video asks, is based on the millions of dollars the paleontologists receive*?

I visited Drumheller, Alberta (link to their museum) almost twenty years ago. A paleontology/tourism group was offering to take people into the hills to look for dinosaur fossils. I joined them, had a great time but found  nothing in the ground. We did pass a huge claw that the guide told us was aT-rex foot-claw fossil. The mineral that had replaced the bone was iron and the guide told us such fossils were so delicate that there was no point in carrying it away - it would crumble at the touch. This is nearly the sum total of my personal experience with fossils. Wait. I also have spent time at Craig Leith Provincial Park. There are many fossils from 400+ million years ago there.

So I am certain that fossils are real, which puts me ahead of the woman in the video.

But are those tiny details correct?

After several fruitless minutes, I have given up on trying to find a long video of a glass-walled beehive. I wanted to demonstrate the 'expert's eye'. At university I was required to spend something like ten hours studying such a bee hive. For the first half hour I only saw a squirming mess. In the second half hour I saw one waggle dance (the dance bees use to communicate where a pollen source is). In the second hour, I saw ten waggle dances and in the following hours I saw them every time I looked. We upper year students would sometimes call a freshman student over and ask them to point out a waggle dance. They saw none. Then we would point out the dances one after another that they had missed entirely.

In my home district of Muskoka, there are many beautiful lakes and it is the perfect distance from Toronto so many wealthy families from Toronto and points south have cottages there. I grew up on those lakes and for many summers as a high school and university student, I worked as a carpenter's assistant on the lakes. I remember being out one summer day with another university student, this one from a drier part of Ontario. He asked me about a recurring whine or high pitched hum we heard through the day. Without needing to think about it, I told him that was the hydraulics of a boat's Inboard/Outboard motor adjusting the trim. This was natural and obvious to me and completely new to him.

I do take the pronouncements of paleontologists on faith to an extent. I have difficulty seeing the various bones described in Tiktaalik's neck and fin. And yet, the people who criticize their claims usually haven't spent time with that specific fossil nor can claim to have spent enough time studying fossils in general to have an 'expert's eye'.
A good example of this is mathematician Fred Hoyle's description of archaeopteryx as a fake. He had no background in paleontology and appears to have misidentified modelling rubber as a suspicious chemical that pointed to fraud. The best counter argument for his claim is that at this time, a total of nine archaeopteryx fossils have been found, some with even better feather impressions than the one he examined. There is more at the link.

* The question of whether the speaker on the video is sincere or satirical is still open. If anyone cares, paleontologists do not make millions of dollars, ever.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How much of our genome is functional?

This video explains why most of our genome must be non-functional.
Let's see if I can summarise it.
If most of our genome is functional  and even a tiny number of mutations occur and some of those are deleterious, then we must have many offspring to maintain a population.

If 100% of our genome is functional and necessary (the two words seem to be equivalent in this situation) and there is a mutation, it is around even odds (I am paraphrasing and simplifying) that it will be neutral or bad. If it is bad, the offspring is likely to die. So much so that a couple would need to have many children - hundreds- so that two would make it to reproduce to create the next generation and maintain a stable population.

If the genome is less than 10% functional, most or all mutations will be neutral - changing a non-functional section means there is likely no change to the organism. Parents in this scenario need to have around 2.1 offspring who reach adulthood to maintain a stable population.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A whole mess of Flood-splaining

I have to start by pointing out the tortured grammar of this question on Quora.
"Surely the story of Noah's Ark is possibly the most ludicrous story in history?
If thought about logically the idea that a man built a ship to house hundreds of thousands of species is clearly impossible?"
Why do I have to point this out? Because the response from Mark Hunter doesn't really fit as an answer. The question has question marks but isn't obviously a question - perhaps it is form of trolling - and the response immediately jumps into Bible quotes and scientific claims with no scaffolding of explanation. The question is not good but the answer feels as if someone were to ask me, "Where is Bracebridge, Canada?" and I simply gave that person a map. Bracebridge might be on it, depending on the sale and whim of the cartographer but it's a small town in a big country.
For this reason, it is difficult to attack a theme in Hunter's argument. There aren't many obvious themes.
I'll try to share my problems with it.
" ago there were heavens and an earth standing firmly out of water and in the midst of water" - I think this is Day one of creation and the claim seems to be that the universe is water and Earth sticks out of it the the heavens are above it. Again Hunter does not explain the relevance of this quote so in my first reading I thought it was an attack on the Noah's Flood story. After all, we know the universe is not entirely water, if the Earth sticks out of the water as described then the Earth is flat and Heaven being above Earth doesn't work for a round Earth nor in a time of space exploration.
hunter next offers a quote on the materials and construction of the Ark. It starts, "Make for yourself an ark from resinous wood." He follows this quote up with a discussion of naval architecture which includes:
"same timber particularly favored for shipbuilding by the Phoenicians and by Alexander the Great"
The problem is, although Hunter's quote uses the word 'resinous', other translations of the Bible use 'cypress'* and 'gopherwood'. At Bible Gateway passage: Genesis 6:14-16 - New International Version the asterisk on cypress states, "The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain." And Gopherwood is the Bible's version of Star Trek's Dilithium Crystals - it sounds specific but means nothing. This clearly means that we can’t make such a statement about other maritime builders or materials.
The following is not a comment on the Ark but on watertight construction. Hunter quotes "You should put the entrance of the ark in its side... ". This is a terrible idea if you want watertight seals. You don't make a door that will be even partially underwater.
Included in his naval architecture points is this:
"only about 290 species of land mammals larger than sheep and about 1,360 smaller than rats" - this suggests to me that I am putting more effort critiquing the argument than he was in making it. It doesn't belong in a architecture list and also there are 1,200 species of bats alone so his numbers don't make sense. Further, it is irrelevant because he needs to look at all species of animal alive and extinct.
In his list of, I don't know, animal facts? He writes:
“10,000 are birds, 9,000 are reptiles and amphibians, many of which could have survived outside the ark”
There are a few birds who could fly for a year but there are a lot that cannot and also cannot land on water and take off again. I don't know of any bird that could live unsheltered through 40 days of rain falling around a meter per hour. They couldn't fly through it and a meter per hour of rainfall would break their wings and necks. There is no reason to imagine that chameleons could live a year in the water. Amphibians? Forget it. The water would be too salty.
"Where Did the Floodwaters Go?
Evidently they are right here on earth. Today there is about 1.4 billion cu km (326 million cu mi) of water on the earth. It covers more than 70 percent of the globe’s surface. The average depth of the oceans is 4 km (2.5 mi); average elevation of the land is only 0.8 km (0.5 mi) above sea level. If the earth’s surface was smoothed out, it would all be covered with water to a depth of 2,400 m (8,000 ft)"
All this seems to require massive earthquakes. Hunter's needs such Earthquakes to flatten and flood the world. This also suggests that more Earthquakes will be needed after a year to make the planet lumpy again and drain some of the lands. Such earthquakes would mostly flatten but not dig trenches or quickly raise tall mountains. This reads like a non-geologist hoping that the magic of the word ‘earthquake’ will fix all credibility problems.
This next point might be the craziest:
"a frozen mammoth was uncovered in Siberia in 1901. After thousands of years, vegetation was still in its mouth. Some see in this, as well as in such other things as marine fossils found on high mountains, deserts, convincing evidence of a sudden, catastrophic global flood"
He thinks something frozen would be evidence of the globes covered in liquid water. If the water is liquid, things won't freeze.
To finish things off:
"floodgates of the heavens were opened." - again, he seems to think the universe is full of water. That might be reasonable for person a few thousand years ago ignorant of the water cycle, but it has to be seen as crazy now, right? right?
Hunter goes on with a list of flood myths around the world. The thing is, I've read the Korean one mentioned in such lists and it describes a flood on a mountain rather than a large one. We might as well look at myths around the world that claim their tribe's founder was born of an animal. In Korea, Dang-gun was born of a god and a Bear who lived in a cave for a year to become human ( Dangun - Wikipedia ). Around the world, similar myths are offered. All are ridiculous.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The evolution of language

Via The Sensuous Curmudgeon, I read a letter to the editor that was typically terrible but also a good analogy for other arguments against the theory of evolution.
I began the study of linguistics in the autumn of 1968.
After nearly 50 years I can tell you, I still love linguistics. One day as an adult I read an article by a linguist who proposed a theory I had never considered. He suggested if Darwin were true, then language must have evolved from a grunt and a groan into the extraordinarily complex system of syntax, grammar and vocabulary which we speak today.
And if that were true, he continued, logically there must be evidence that somewhere, at sometime, in some place there once was a primitive language. After 50 years in linguistics I can tell you, for certain, there is no such evidence.
First, the claim it is a metaphor for. One thing this article at CreationToday gets right is that there are no simple life forms today.
Any living organism, even a single-celled amoeba, is more complex than the space shuttle!...Most biology textbooks these days teach that all life-forms evolved from “simple, single-celled life-forms.”
There are several things to consider here:
There are no “simple life-forms.” If it is alive—it is extremely complex.
Many single-celled creatures have been observed for thousands of generations with no significant change.
Single-celled creatures still exist and reproduce. Why aren’t any of them evolving?
There are no examples living or fossilized of two-, three-, or four-celled creatures.
After one-celled creatures, the “simplest” animals have about one hundred cells. How did the single-celled creatures become multi-celled? Be sure to ask for specific evidence, not just theories.

Alright, time to look at the letter to the editor and the claim that "[T]here must be evidence that somewhere, at sometime, in some place there once was a primitive language."

Why does the letter writer think that? Do the words from his mouth solidify and exist without human intervention for more than a few seconds? If you are curious about the 'few seconds' bit, I will do him the favour of imagining he speaks in an echo chamber and the words do carry and bounce for some time. But not a minute. Not an hour.

If there was a primitive language, if evolutionists and linguists were right, what does he think we would find? Here are some 'Unattested languages' from North American native peoples -"Several languages are only known by mention in historical documents or from only a few names or words. It cannot be determined that these languages actually existed or that the few recorded words are actually of known or unknown languages."

The key phrase for me is "cannot be determined that these languages actually existed". These names for possible languages can only be a few hundred years old as the words were recorded - possibly in error - by Europeans.

There is no reason to expect any evidence for ancient languages.
Alright. On to the Creation Today article and these statements and questions:
1 There are no “simple life-forms.” If it is alive—it is extremely complex.
2 Many single-celled creatures have been observed for thousands of generations with no significant change.
3 Single-celled creatures still exist and reproduce. Why aren’t any of them evolving?
4 There are no examples living or fossilized of two-, three-, or four-celled creatures.
After one-celled creatures, the “simplest” animals have about one hundred cells.
4 There are no examples living of fossilized of two-, three-, or four-celled creatures.  I don't know if this is true. Let's accept that it is. For now. There are also no examples of fossilized passenger pigeons. Fossils are formed when an object is surrounded by a material, typically silt or mud. With time, the object degrades and disappears and other material fills in the gap. This is obvious when looking at fossils of large dinosaur bones. But a dinosaur bone is much larger than a speck of silt. A creature of less than ten cells size is not much bigger than the silt surrounding it. Normally, the resolution is too poor to see an object that size. For another analogy, look at the beach in this satellite photo. Point out anything that you 100% certain is a human being. I can see the beach umbrellas and spots that might be anything. The satellite cannot zoom in sufficiently to see humans. And the silt is usually too coarse to show details of microscopic life.
Regarding the next point, the number of cells in the "simplest" animals. When we look at sponges, which can be quite large, were are looking at millions of cells but they are nearly identical in shape. If you were to break up a sponge and separate it into individual cells, it will reform into a new sponge. It does not have blood or organs; it is simply a large group of single cells working together. See here for some details. It has many cells but they are not differentiated cells.

3 Single-celled creatures still exist and reproduce. Why aren't any of them evolving?  The article writer imagines that diseases are not evolving. S/he needs penicillin the next time s/he is sick. Elsewhere I compared canoes to aircraft carriers. Canoes are like single-celled creatures and carriers are more complex. Both exist. An aircraft carrier, whatever other cool things it can do, cannot travel through Algonquin Park. Canoes are still canoes but are also very different from their origins.

2 Many single-celled creatures have been observed for thousands of generations with no significant change. Many, but I note not all. What is a 'significant change'? Bacteria are now capable of digesting nylon. The Long-Term Experiment has run for around twenty or thirty years and the E coli bacteria there can now digest citrate, something that no other E coli bacteria can do.

And now the reason I  have done this in reverse order: 1 There are no “simple life-forms.” If it is alive—it is extremely complex.
I think analogies fail at this level. We don't know how life began. There is no reason to expect evidence of the first life forms - see the first several paragraphs of this post. Anything alive today that we see and study or experience must be able to live in modern conditions.

One possibility for the first cell was that it formed in a microscopic gap in porous rock near a volcanic vent. It would not have needed much as it was both constrained by the space it lived in and was supplied with diffusing nutrients by the rock around it. There is no evidence to support or disprove this idea so it cannot be a theory, only a hypothesis. The point is, we don't expect evidence and there are workarounds for most objections.

Why do evolution proponents continue to claim there was a Universal Common Ancestor? Because of shared similarities across all domains of life that are best explained by one.

Don't say Darwin when you mean Evolution

Don't say Darwin unless you mean it. Don't say theory when you mean historical fact. And don't say you believe in evolution, when you mean you accept it on the basis of the evidence.