A Reply to Ray Comforts Special Introduction to the Origin of Species (Part1)

Ray Comfort's introduction to Darwin's On the Origin of Species is standard creationist arguments that have been used over and over again against his caricature of evolution.  First and foremost nonscientific layman of this sort seem completely unwilling or perhaps incapable of understanding the difference between something that has been proven as fact (evolution) and something that is continuously tested as a theory of how that fact occurs (natural selection).  Whether evolution has occured is supported by an overwhelming body of evidence and has been established with utmost certainty.  Evidence for this has accumulated from all biological disciplines including paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, embryology, biochemistry, molecular genetics, and others.  The evolution of organisms is universally accepted by biological scientists.  "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (Dobzansky 1973).

Scientific theories, on the other hand deal with how.  The contested aspects of evolution deal with the details of when lineages split from one another, the changes that occurred in each lineage, and the mechanisms or processes by which evolutionary change occurs.  To form a testable conceptual framework for these ideas scientists first begin with specifying an observed fact about the world (organisms change through successive generations, objects fall toward the earth), then framing a way of explaining how this fact occurs (hypothesis), the gathering of evidence to support or refute the hypothesis, and finally formulating theories (theory of evolution, theory of gravity).  For many observable facts there are competing or sometimes even contradictory theories to explain the phenomena.   Whether or not any of these theories are rejected, modified, or refined, the observed fact that they seek to explain remains a fact.

The currently favored theory of evolution is an extensively modified version of Darwin's original theory termed "Natural Selection".  One major modification of Darwin's theory is the addition of Mendelian genetics which has provided a missing link in Darwin's original argument.  This addition to the theory of evolution accounts for biological inheritance through genes contributed by each parent, which do not mix or blend but segregate in the formation of the sex cells, or gametes.  Since the early half of the twentieth century geneticists have proven that continuous variation could be explained by Mendel's laws and that natural selection acting on a small variation could yield major evolutionary changes in form and function.

The most important criterion required by any theory is that it must be testable.  Independent studies must be carefully carried out, recorded, and published for peer review.  The results of these experiments are how we learn about the world, the universe, and even ourselves.

Comfort is one of those people who cannot or will not accept the facts that modern science uncovers because he finds it too unsettling to his faith based belief system.  People of this temperament are among those that I find at times infuriating, detestable, and sometimes downright exhausting.  In order to try and maintain their contradictory belief about reality they somehow think that simply attacking the opposing viewpoint is sufficient to somehow validate their belief.  However, there are seldom more than only two possible explanations for anything.  Even if evolution was not true in some imaginary reality, it would in no way prove that an "Intelligent Designer" (the Christian god in his opinion) even existed much less was responsible for life on Earth.  And indeed ID fails from the outset to provide a viable alternative to evolution by its reliance on negative argumentation.  It offers no testable hypothesis of its own to replace evolutionary theory.

By drawing a line in the sand between modern science and bible literalism Ray is forcing many people who are intellectually honest with themselves to choose science instead of a more moderate Christianity, a belief system that can incorporate both science and the religion of the individual's choice.  Even the Catholic Church has not been so foolhardy to take such a stand as creationism or its current incarnation referred to as ID.

I can be tolerant of a person believing in a religion.  What I will not be tolerant of is those who will spread misinformation and outright lies in order to discredit science in defense of their religion.  It has to be stressed again that controversies within evolutionary thinking, in regard to the mechanisms of evolutionary change, in no way reflect upon the fact of evolution.

Ray Comfort's introduction begins with a brief overview of Darwin.  After this overview he begins to examine "weaknesses" of Darwin's theory.  This is fine.  Darwin's theory of explaining how the fact of evolution works can be examined, tested, and rejected if it is proven untrue.  Evolution will still remain fact.  He does, however, seem to wander around the issue even on this point.  He attacks this with his trademark misguided analogies.

Ray compares DNA, specifically human DNA, to a book with a code and words contained within it.  He then describes the human genome assembling itself purely by accident or chance.  All of it floating down and into place piece by piece, atom by atom, molecule by molecule.

This description bears no resemblance in the slightest to any scientific theory about evolution.  Which leads me to make a very important point about the way that Ray constructs his entire introduction.  The arguments that creationists or intelligent design advocates construct against evolution depend heavily on distortions, falsehoods, and basic misunderstandings or outright misrepresentations of science.  His points, completely lacking any scientific merit and unable to withstand even the scrutiny of the average person, is intentionally designed to sound superficially convincing to those who do not have a basic understanding of evolution and science in general.

The theory of evolution acts upon the selection of chance mutations through natural selection.  Natural selection is the opposite of chance.  Chance, in the form of random mutations, provides variation within a species.  This variation is then selected upon by natural selection to determine which variations will continue.  Variations that confer a higher level of reproduction are selected for.  Variations that confer a lower level of reproduction are selected against.  In this manner you have descent with modification leading eventually to new species.

Comfort then proceeds, in characteristically careless overstatement, to make the following proclamation:

DNA is an incredibly detailed language, revealing vast amounts of information encoded in each and every living cell-design which could not have arisen by purely naturalistic means.

This is an unsubstantiated statement.  He has somehow just proven that we were artificially created with no supporting evidence.  Why doesn't he just say, "It's really, really complicated, so complicated I can't even begin to understand it.  So just believe what this book written over a thousand years ago says.  We were made from dirt."  In science, ignorance is not evidence.

The facts of evolution do not require the understanding of Ray Comfort.  This tactic is called the "argument from incredulity".  If he cannot understand it, then it must be impossible according to his viewpoint.  I personally do not understand how a jet engine works.  However, I will not go around saying that jet planes are unable to fly based on my ignorance of how they work.

He also engages in what I will henceforth refer to as "weasel" words.  By comparing organisms or structures of organisms with well known human creations such as books, language, codes, designs, cars, paintings, airplanes, buildings, and so on he is trying to misrepresent reality.  He is trying to force people to compare natural organisms honed over millions of years of evolution through countless generations to a Toyota.

 In every other area of our world, we recognize that information requires intelligence and design requires a designer.  - Ray Comfort

I agree that information requires intelligence.  Information is a collection of various facts that are analyzed in order to make a decision.  This word, a purely human invention, is dependent on the interaction by humans in order for it to even fit the meaning of the word.  Before humans existed the word ‘information' did not exist.  But life and evolution did.  I also agree that in order to have a design, then something must have designed it.  However no blueprints were created for a turtle and raw materials collected for production before a turtle factory started pumping out the shelled reptiles around our planet.  The appearance of design does not prove that it was designed.  This is a repeated logical fallacy promulgated continuously by Ray Comfort.

Some critics also question the scientific basis for assuming that similar DNA indicates a common ancestor. Just as a biplane and a jet share common features of wings, body, tires, engine, controls, etc., they argue, does not require that one must have evolved from the other naturally, without a maker. They argue it's more reasonable to conclude that similar design indicates a common, intelligent designer. - Comfort

Please note Ray often referring to "critics" or "opponents" against evolutionary theories.  Also please note that he does not use the word "scientists" when he makes these statements.  Once again Ray compares organic structures to objects well known to be made by humans.  He also suggests a lack of imagination and limitation of the "intelligent designer" by insinuating that another method of constructing the same design is beyond its capability, a very human quality.  Anthropomorphizing a deity is common throughout humanities existence.  Innumerable gods in various cultures have bickered, argued, lied, cheated, fought, had sex, became drunk, died, expressed the complete range of human emotions and mistakes.  The god of the bible is recorded in scripture as making bets, changing his mind, indulging in unneeded cruelty, holding grudges, being revengeful and  jealous, wrestling with a human, cheating to win a wrestling match with a human, etc.  It is quite telling that all gods seem to be shoddy guises thrown on the familiar framework of humanity.

To the question of whether sharing 96 percent of our genetic make-up with chimps makes us 96 percent chimp, evolutionist Steven Jones, a renowned British geneticist, humorously commented, "We also share about 50% of our DNA with bananas and that doesn't make us half bananas ..."  - Comfort

A common tactic among many creationists or intelligent design advocates is "quote mining".  The quotes are taken most often from leading evolutionary experts out of context in order to make them appear as if they are supporting anti-evolution sentiments.  In reality, if the quotes are found and taken in context the opposite viewpoint was being given.  This tactic relies on "appeal to authority" and on the reader either not having access to the original source or not bothering to check the source of the quote.  For all quotes on either side I strongly encourage you to read the quote in context of its original delivery.  Steven Jones, for example, strongly supports evolution and has specifically denounced both creationism and intelligent design.  But, please, do not take my word for it.  Find the material and judge for yourself. 

As evidence that Darwin's theory is correct-that humans and chimps evolved from a common ancestor-we would expect to find something that is half monkey, half man. - Comfort

This is becoming a pet peeve of mine.  If someone cannot tell the difference between an ape and a monkey, you really shouldn't listen to their opinions on evolution.  There is no area of the theory of evolution stating that a parent species should contain aspects of half one of its daughter species and half of another of its daughter species.  It does predict that often but not always shared features between sibling species will be found in the parent species. 

Ray then confronts the idea of transitional fossils.  He claims that no transitional fossils have been found and that any that were reported as such were later found to be frauds.  He cites the following fossils:

Scientists believed they found one in 1999 with Archaeoraptor. The scientific community (including National Geographic) proclaimed that they had found the "missing link" between carnivorous dinosaurs and modern birds, though it was quickly exposed as a fraud.  - Comfort 

Archaeoraptor was a fraud but not a scientific one.  It was glued together by a Chinese fossil hunter to make it more marketable.  The finding was published in the popular press, not in scientific peer-reviewed journals.  The author of the article in National Geographic was an art editor, not a scientist.  Nature and Science both rejected the papers describing it.

However, Archeopteryx is a wonderful example of a valid transitional fossil showing characteristics of both theropod dinosaurs and modern birds.  In addition to the original found in 1861 several more example fossils of Archaeopteryx have been discovered in the years since.  To list other fossils containing "missing links" between dinosaurs and birds we have Avimimus, Sinosauropteryx, Protarchaeopteryx, Caudipteryx, Rahonavis, Shuvuuia, Sinomithosaurus, Beipiaosaurus, Microraptor, Nomingia, Cryptovolans, Scansoriopteryx, Confuciusornis, etc.

I feel no need to counter point by point with all the valid transitional fossils compared to the much smaller list of frauds that Ray lists.  Anyone with an internet connect can look up each of these as well as the term "transitional fossils" for themselves.  Hundred of thousands of fossils found in well dated rock sequences have been found since Darwin's time representing a succession of forms manifesting many evolutionary transitions.  There have been so many discoveries of intermediate forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, and even along the primate line of descent from nonhuman ape-like ancestors to humans, that it is often difficult for scientists to determine when the trasition has occurred between species or even from one genus to another.

Java Man, found in the early 20th century, was nothing more than a piece of skull, a fragment of a thigh bone, and three molar teeth. The rest came from the deeply fertile imaginations of plaster of Paris workers. Java Man is now regarded as fully human. Heidelberg Man came from a jawbone, a large chin section, and a few teeth. Most scientists reject the jawbone because it's similar to that of modern man. And Neanderthal Man was exposed as being fully human, not ape. - Comfort

This is either a display of incredible ignorance or a deliberate fabrication and lie.

"Java Man" was the first specimen found of the scientifically validated species known as Homo erectus.  A second, more complete specimen was later discovered only a few miles distant from this first find.  Numerous examples of this species have been found far and wide from the jungles of Asia to the deserts of Africa.

"Heidelberg Man" is known to science as Homo heidelbergensis and also consists of many fossils.  Including a nearly complete skull referred to as the "Broken Hill" skull.  It is also, interestingly enough, considered by many scientists to be a transitional creature between Homo erectus and either Homo neandertalensis or our own species Homo sapiens.

"Neanderthal Man" or Homo neandertalensis is also known from many examples and has rightfully been accorded its own species.  Complete sequencing of the entire Neanderthal genome is currently underway at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.  The progress of the sequencing is reported periodically in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

As for the terms ‘human' and ‘ape' we need agree on the definition of these terms.  Some scientists refer to all the members of the Genus Homo as humans.  Many scientists also consider all of those species, including ourselves, as a species of ape.  But at least Ray isn't still referring to them as monkeys.

To conclude the argument of transitional fossils: Synapsida - A succession of transitional fossils that link reptiles (Class Reptilia) and mammals (Class Mammalia).  This is the best example of the transformation of one major higher taxon into another.  The morphological changes that took place are well documented by fossils, beginning with animals 100% reptilian and resulting in animals 100% mammalian.  This large-scale, continuous, gradual, and geochronologically successive morphologic change is descent with modification, and provides clear evidence for evolution on a grand scale.  The resultant evidence of this massive volume of undisputable data by the fossil record cannot be explained away.  Creationists therefore have decided to simply ignore it.

Comfort likes quotes, here's a few he missed:  

"Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory--natural selection--to explain the mechanism of evolution."  - Stephen J. Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory"; Discover, May 1981

 "Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms."  - Theodosius Dobzhansky "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution", American Biology Teacher vol. 35 (March 1973) reprinted in Evolution versus Creationism, J. Peter Zetterberg ed., ORYX Press, Phoenix AZ 1983 

"Every day, hundreds of observations and experiments pour into the hopper of the scientific literature... and every fact that has something to do with evolution confirms its truth. Every fossil that we find, every DNA molecule that we sequence, every organ system that we dissect supports the idea that species evolved from common ancestors. Despite innumerable possible explanations that could prove evolution untrue, we don't have a single one. We don't find mammals in Precambrian rocks, humans in the same layers as dinosaurs, or any other fossils out of evolutionary order. DNA sequencing supports the evolutionary relationships of species originally deduced from the fossil record. And, as natural selection predicts, we find no species with adaptations that benefit only a different species. We do find dead genes and vestigial organs, incomprehensible under the idea of special creation. Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That is as close as we can get to a scientific fact." - Jerry Coyne, "Why Evolution Is True"

"A belief held in carefully nurtured ignorance of the alternative is hardly worthy of respect."  - Richard Dawkins