The Second Law of Thermodynamics

To the right is one picture out of a series that was taken after the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate the other night. Creationist question Creationists were asked to write questions that they would like to ask of Nye. (I’d link the whole series, but it came from BuzzFeed. I already feel dirty enough having clicked the link myself.)

To answer the man’s question, the second law of thermodynamics does not disprove evolution. The second law states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. That is, things because less orderly and more chaotic over time without an input of energy from an outside source. Since the Universe is an isolated system as near as we can tell, all the organization we see will eventually dissipate – no more stars or planets or black holes or anything else that uses energy. Eventually even all atoms will cease to move.

Creationists believe this fact of the Universe applies to evolution because they view evolution as greater and greater organization over time, and that requires an input of energy. They’re right so far. Where they fail is in their belief that greater and greater organization is not possible over time. As best as any rational person can tell, creationists appear to believe Earth is a closed system and that with enough time it should all fall away. Except it isn’t closed. That big yellow ball in the sky has a tendency to provide us with more energy than we know what to do with. (Not that we’ve been the best at harnessing it.)

Of course, we don’t need to even go as far as the Sun – at least so long as we aren’t talking about plants or photosynthesizing bacteria. We take in energy all the time. It ultimately comes from the Sun and, to an extent, Earth’s core and magnetic field, but on a day-to-day level, we don’t exist in a closed system at all. A dinosaur that killed another dinosaur had a source of energy to take in: the dead dino. An early hunter-gatherer would find energy by hunting and gathering. And right now I’m about to go find some energy in a hot chai tea.

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Cornelius “Common Creationist” Hunter



Cornelius Hunter has a history of struggling to understand simply concepts. Today is no different:

As with the so-called vestigial structures—another evolutionary construct—function is, ultimately, irrelevant. A structure is “vestigial,” or DNA is “junk,” not by virtue of any objective criterion dealing with function, but because evolutionists say so.

His post was primarily about so-called ‘junk DNA’, but I’ve addressed that topic in the past, so I will only mention it to note that it only ever betrays a deep ignorance when creationists talk about it. What I really want to discuss is Hunter’s mention of vestigial structures. First, let’s define our term:

[Vestigial] refers to an organ or part (for example, the human appendix) which is greatly reduced from the original ancestral form and is no longer functional or is of reduced or altered function.

Vestigial structures provide a clue to the evolutionary history of a species because they are remnants of structures found in the ancestral species.

It’s easy to see Hunter’s error. A vestigial structure need not be related to function whatsoever – and that doesn’t therefore mean that it is merely the say-so of biologists that makes it vestigial. The human ear, for instance, has vestigial muscles that don’t do anything; in our ancestors (and cousins), their function is to swivel the ear for better directional hearing. That’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. DNA comparison can, does, and will show that when looked at. Furthermore, a vestigial structure can have a function while still being vestigial. For instance, whales have remnants of hind legs that clearly are not used for walking. However, they do play a role in where muscles are attached. Again, that’s vestigial, it’s evolutionary, and it’s science. Hunter just isn’t familiar with these things.

Convergent evolution

I was hunting around for some blogging ideas recently when I came across this post by Wintery Knight. It’s basically a copy and paste job because Mr. Knight is not qualified to speak of anything in biology (and he has amply demonstrated as much). However, the person he extensively quotes, Cornelius Hunter, is also 100% unqualified to analyze the world of biology. I’ve written about Hunter in the past.

As in his last post that just barely merited a response, Hunter makes a series of confused remarks about convergent evolution. (For those who don’t know – such as Hunter – convergent evolution is the process by which species of usually distant relatedness will acquire the same trait independent of their last common ancestor.) Let’s take a look at how Hunter mangles this:

The theory of evolution states that the species arose spontaneously, one from another via a pattern of common descent. This means the species should form an evolutionary tree, where species that share a recent common ancestor, such as two frog species, are highly similar, and species that share a distant common ancestor, such as humans and squids, are very different. But the species do not form such an evolutionary tree pattern. In fact this expectation has been violated so many times it is difficult to keep track. These violations are not rare or occasional anomalies, they are the rule.

Hunter is only leading into his mention of convergence here, but he’s already off to an embarrassing start. He’s attempting to claim that we don’t see an expected pattern of descent because that pattern is premised on the idea that similar traits must come from closely related organisms. He is factually incorrect. All he has described here is one method for determining relatedness between species: morphology. And even then, he has grossly over-simplified the process. For instance, take the skull of a dingo versus the skull of a Tasmanian tiger. They resemble each other quite closely, but they aren’t exactly the same. The latter has two holes in the roof of its mouth, a characteristic of marsupials. Go further and one will see that they also have different genetic codings.

Many examples are the repeated designs found in what, according to evolution, must be very distant species. Such evolutionary convergence is biology’s version of lightning striking twice. To explain this evolutionists must say that random mutations just happened to hit upon the same detailed, intricate design at different times, in different parts of the world, in different ecological niches, and so forth.

Were Hunter to take a peak at the genes in a Euphorbia, he might notice that they are markedly different from the genes in a cactus. That’s because, while both plants are prickly desert survivors, one is from the Malpighiales order whereas the other is from the Caryophyllales order. They have significantly different genotypes, but similar phenotypes. In other words, Hunter’s argument that random mutations are always hitting “upon the same detailed, intricate designs at different times, in different parts of the world, in different ecological niches” is not only verbose, but entirely wrong. It would be as though he said home builders have hit upon the same intricate design because some use cellulose insulation while others use spray foam. It’s the same result by a different means.

Everyone has heard of the kangaroo and its pouch. It is a marsupial—mammals that give birth at a relatively early stage in development, and then carry their young in a pouch. There are a great variety of marsupials that are curiously similar to a cousin placental species. The flying squirrel (a placental) and the flying phalanger (a marsupial) are one such example. Because of their reproductive differences evolutionists must say they are distantly related on the evolutionary tree. Yet they have strikingly similar designs which must have been created independently by random mutations. Every mutation leading to the two different species must, according to evolution, have been random (that is, independent of any need). No, natural selection doesn’t help.

First, his mutation argument is still wrong. Second, it isn’t merely reproductive differences that tell us the flying squirrels (which are two independent groups of rodents) are different from the flying phalanger. There is also evidence from their genetic relatedness, not to mention the obvious fact that one is placental and the other a marsupial. Third, of course natural selection is relevant here. That’s the whole reason two species are able to converge on the same solution to similar problems; natural selection has found an efficient solution to one problem faced by two species.

Though evolutionists sometimes deny biological convergence, it is a scientific fact.

I don’t know what Hunter is talking about, but that’s okay because I don’t think he does either.

He goes on to quote from a recent paper:

In mammals, hearing is dependent on three canonical processing stages: (i) an eardrum collecting sound, (ii) a middle ear impedance converter, and (iii) a cochlear frequency analyzer. Here, we show that some insects, such as rainforest katydids, possess equivalent biophysical mechanisms for auditory processing…

Thus, two phylogenetically remote organisms, katydids and mammals, have evolved a series of convergent solutions to common biophysical problems, despite their reliance on very different morphological substrates.

Now, remember the crux of Hunter’s opening: Similar morphology is the same thing as intricate design, thus Jesus. Yet here we see a “reliance on very different morphological substrates”. That is, natural selection in some insects has hit upon the same broad method for attaining hearing as it has in mammals, but it goes about the process in a largely different way, relying upon the insect phenotype it has already given itself. So not only is Hunter’s argument wrong from the get-go, but even if we’re generous and grant him his incorrect basis, he still gets blown out of the water. He has managed to somehow be wrong in his wrongness.

It’s one thing when someone branches into biology from time to time, relying upon the insight of others. We see that with Wintery Knight (the reason being that he hasn’t a clue about the field). We can’t expect everyone to be an expert, even if they should know better. However, Cornelius Hunter is another story. This is a guy who fancies himself qualified and reasoned, able to break down complex scientific ideas. Yet what we see is a man unable to even come remotely close to getting much of anything right about a relatively simple idea. And he keeps trying, getting things wrong every. single. time.

Creationists in Indiana

A bunch of creationists in the Indiana state senate have decided to go ahead and try to bring an expensive lawsuit to their doorstep:

On January 31, 2012, the Indiana Senate voted 28-22 in favor of Senate Bill 89. As originally submitted, SB 89 provided, “The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.” On January 30, 2012, however, it was amended in the Senate to provide instead, “The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.”

In other words, these people recognize the fact of evolution – that fact that is supported so thoroughly, overwhelmingly, and wonderfully – is in direct conflict with their religious dogma, so instead of adjusting to the evidence, they want to ignore it, even promoting ideas that are blatantly false. It’s a good thing it is so well established that they cannot use government to do this. Not that bill sponsor Dennis Kruse knows this:

Kruse acknowledged that the bill would be constitutionally problematic but, he told the education blogger at the Indianapolis Star (January 31, 2012), “This is a different Supreme Court,” adding, “This Supreme Court could rule differently.”

It’s true that there is a reckless disregard for the constitution amongst some of the justices and political figures on the Supreme Court, but with the possible exception of worst-court-members-in-history Scalia and Thomas, no one is going to uphold the teaching of creationism in public schools. Kruse doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

If these religious zealots are so anxious to promote their doctrines and dogmas, then they can do so through dispassionate courses such as comparative religion and philosophy. That would enable them to spread their views without actively promoting them; it is active promotion that is the problem here. Of course, students will also have to deal with competing ideas, something which is antithetical to creationist ideology, but it’s the best that these creationists are constitutionally allowed to do with public funds – thank goodness.

Because it’s worth repeating

A creationist in one of the comment sections recently repeated this old canard.

the dictionary says (among other things) that a theory is:
1. contemplation or speculation.
2. guess or conjecture.

there i go? again?
you just seem pretty intent on disparaging arguments but not refuting them.

This is yet another point where atheists and other non-deluded people are willing to be honest, all the while watching creationists do just the opposite. It’s like it’s just so damn inconvenient to come to a straight-forward, truthful understanding of basic concepts for the religious that lying has become okay for them; the ends justify the means.

So it is worthwhile to repeat, for the nth time, just what a theory is and is not.

Insofar as my theory that ice cream is great can be considered a theory, yes, creationism is a theory. But it is not in any way a scientific theory. The requirements to reach this high level are rigorous. For starters, what predictions does creationism make? What experiments can be carried out to falsify the hypothesis? Can others repeat these experiments? Are there other plausible explanations? Are there better explanations?

The word “theory”, as any educated, honest person knows, carries far more weight in science than it does for the lay public. In truth, the word gets mixed up in casual talk within science, even sometimes becoming conflated with “hypothesis”, but no one really blinks because the context allows for the use of shorthand. Think to Richard Dawkins’ style of writing. He uses personification all the time, especially when discussing natural selection. He will start out with qualifiers and scare quotes – “Natural selection ‘wants’ to weed out the bad genes” – but as he goes on, the reader comes to an understanding of the fact that the good doctor is bringing evolutionary biology to life via a particular way of writing. It becomes obvious that it is inappropriate to apply anthropomorphic qualities to what Dawkins is describing – and it is context that allows for this.

But in public forums or political circles, there can be no assumed knowledge of science and what its terms mean; it is a danger to allow for the use of loose language without qualification. That is why it is so important to distinguish between the lay definition of “theory” versus its scientific definition. In science it references something which has evidence, has been tested, has journal papers all about it, and usually there is a high degree of consensus. The Big Bang, evolution, global warming, plate tectonics – these are all theories. Creationists have no theories. They have no evidence, no reason, no logic, no testing, no raw data, no way to interpret any sort of observation in a way that holds any scientific significance.

What science is all about

All which is between “~~~” is from Jerry Coyne.

~~~

I have sometimes written that evolutionary biology doesn’t have much practical value in medicine or other areas impinging on humanity’s material well being. Here is one example of what I’ve said. However, my friend and colleague David Hillis at The University of Texas in Austin — who played a big role in trying to make the Texas State Board of Education teach real science – has taken exception to my view. I asked him to let me know how he thought that evolutionary biology had been of use in medicine, and he wrote me an email with his answer, which he’s given me permission to post. He’d wants to emphasize that it’s an off-the-cuff response rather than a comprehensive reply, which of course I appreciate; but I think it’s worth posting:

OK, here are just a few examples from the thousands that are in the literature, off the top of my head:

Using positive selection to identify the pathogenic mechanisms of HIV in humans: PNAS 102:2832-2837 (one of many such studies that are now appearing and are using positive selection in pathogens to identify pathogenic mechanisms).

Using phylogenies and positive selection to predict which currently circulating strains of influenza are most likely to be closely related to future flu epidemics: Science 286: 1921-1925.

Using evolutionary analyses to track epidemics in human populations: many examples that have wider health implications, but our study of transmission in a forensic case was an interesting example with a specific legal application; PNAS 99:14292-14297.

Using evolutionary analyses to identify new disease outbreaks: new examples in every single issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Using phylogenetic analyses to identify whether polio outbreaks are from native circulating viruses or from reverted, escaped vaccines (which tells health workers which vaccines to use in these areas to eradicate disease): see review in Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Vol. 82, No. 1.

Identifying changes in sodium channel genes that are under positive selection for TTX resistance, which has led to understanding the function of human diseases that are caused by the corresponding substitutions in human sodium channel genes: Mol. Biol. Evol. 25(6):1016–1024. (I included this one to show that all of the examples are not from virus work; this is the original evolutionary work from Manda Jost and Harold Zakon, with our collaboration, but there has been follow-up on the understanding of human diseases that are produced from these same mutations, now that they have been replicated by in vitro mutagenesis)

This just scratches the surface. I think there are now more papers that use evolutionary methods and analyses in the human health literature than all other areas of biology combined. I think it is crazy to not acknowledge the numerous and important human health applications of evolutionary theory and methods.

David

Well, this is good enough for me–I gladly retract my earlier opinion that evolutionary biology hasn’t been of much use in medicine. Thanks, David.

~~~

Imagine a creationist making the claim that evolution doesn’t have much practical value in medicine (something with which I am hugely surprised Jerry Coyne ever said) and then retracting it when presented with counter-evidence. It would never happen. Creationism rejects all principles of science.

The worst thing about creationism

Of all the things about creationism, perhaps the worst is simply its lack of beauty. It teaches – nay, encourages – people to be content with a small Universe. It teaches that it is okay, even good, to look up at that deep band of stars that comprise the Milky Way and to say, “Meh. What else is there?” This is what believers in special creation are taught. They believe, most arrogantly, that there is nothing greater out there than their concept of an ever-shrinking, ever-so-tiny god.

Reason, rationality, and science encourage one to sit outside on one of those warm summer nights, pure awe undaunted by the anonymous fears lurking in the dark. They say, Look! there’s so much to be known. Don’t ever be satisfied with the Universe you know. They teach, “Wow! What else is there?” They teach that it is not good but stupendously great to wonder – and it is even greater to tear that wonder asunder and leave it in shattered little pieces so to discover that, yes, there are still deeper wonders. That is the prize of knowledge. Creationism rejects this beauty.

Of course, none of this says whether one or the other is true. Reality dictates that (and reality has a strong bias toward the truths of science). What this does suggest, however, is that something so vile, empty, and ugly as creationism or petty, little humanoid gods has no place among the robust beauty of science and reason and rationality.

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