The evolving bird flu - the creationists bite

orginally posted in Creationism by themaiden |

How interesting. I just posted my my little satire and now I find this.

Thus it’s not surprising that bird flu has featured in some ‘digs’ against creationists and intelligent design supporters.

The evolving bird flu

Are they watching? They didn’t name me but I’ll let my ego have this little thrill based upon the coincidence alone. Now what did they have to say?

If you read through a long introduction, including a pointer to an article they published in 2004 on the subject, you will eventually get to this.

So is bird flu evolving? In a sense, this is a semantic trap. If ‘evolution’ is defined to mean ‘change’ or ‘genetic change within a population’, the answer is a clearcut ‘yes’.

There is no semantic trap. This is exactly what scientists mean by ‘evolution’, except that some things have been left out.

Before continuing, it simply doesn’t matter what ‘most people’ think when hearing the word ‘evolution’ any more than it matters what ‘most people’ think when hearing the word ‘calculus’ or the word ‘xenophilia’. Most people would get it wrong in some or in all details. What matters is what the professionals think. But on to the argument.

And it simply does not follow logically that demonstrating that organisms can change shows that they are capable of the sort of change required to turn microbes to microbiologists.

The “sort of change required to turn microbes to microbiologists” is something of a straw man. There are not multiple forms of change under discussion here, but only one kind. That one kind is genetic change. There are, of course, some as yet unmentioned consequences of that genetic change. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The straw man becomes apparent in the next paragraph where Carl Wieland, posting at AiG, makes the following analogy.

At the risk of sounding trite, all ‘change’ is not equal. For example, I can change clothes. I can also change nationalities. But it does not therefore follow that I can change into a dragonfly, or a hobgoblin—such a proposition would require separate demonstration.

Well, it does come out trite. A change of clothes, or of nationality, is not a genetic change. The problem is so obvious it is striking. Why not think a little more carefully for something more subtle?

Nor does evolutionary theory suggest that Carl will turn into a dragonfly or into anything else for that matter. Carl will be Carl from the cradle to the grave, at least genetically. What evolutionary theory does suggest is that Carl’s descendants will each be some slight bit different from Carl, and each generation some slight difference from the last, until eventually, after many generations, those descendants will look markedly unlike Carl. They will look so different, in fact, that humans would no longer chose to call them the same species. Not only that, but they would be so different genetically that they could no longer mate and produce viable offspring. They would, thus, be different species. This is much different from changing ones pants for a pair of shorts.

The issue is not only with the amount of change…

The issue is not at all with the amount of change. Multiple small changes will add up to very large changes, just like adding a single drop of red paint to a five gallon bucket will turn the paint blood red but if the process is repeated a sufficient number of times. Assuming that there is no barrier to the change it does follow with brutal logic that hundreds of small steps will add up to a large change. In my example of the paint, one barrier might be a concentration of red die that makes the whole system become unstable and burst into flame, for example. Evolutionary biologists recognize no such limits to genetic change. There seems to be no reason why mutation can’t continue to alter DNA more or less forever, and experiment support this conclusion.

The creationists make several arguments for such limits. In this case, Wieland chooses to make an argument based upon information. He, in my opinion, should have began his argument at this point. Instead he chose to begin with an extremely unsophisticated, clumsy and easily assaulted false analogy. This choice only weakens his credibility in my eyes.

Wieland points to another couple of AiG articles to make his case. In one of those article, also written by Wieland, he uses the following rather astute analogy. It took my by surprise, since creationists so often mutilate evolutionary theory when they try to present it (much, by the way, as Wieland does earlier in this current article with the change-of-clothes analogy).

The analogy I have for many years used in explaining this in public lectures is that of a railway train. Imagine you see a train pulling out of a station in, say, Miami, Florida, headed north to Chicago. The distance you see it travel is only a few hundred meters. But you can reasonably presume that, given enough time, it will end up in Chicago. You have seen sound evidence to indicate that it is in principle capable of making the whole journey, you don’t need to see it make the whole trip. This is just how evolutionists see the little changes (often called ‘microevolution’, but see aside below) happening all around us. If a mosquito has changed a little in 40 years, you don’t need to see it turning into an elephant—it has shown that it is in principle capable of making a similarly radical journey.

It turns out that he is setting things up to make the following point.

So while you may be seeing the train pulling out of the station at Miami, if the reality is that it is not heading north, up to Chicago, but is headed in the opposite direction, downwards to where the line (if there was one) would end in the deep blue ocean, then it will never get to Chicago. Time will not solve the problem, since it is in principle an impossibility to reach Chicago by train in that downward direction. Just so, once we can point out to people that the ‘evolution train’ (really the train of biological change) is headed downwards, not upwards, then the more time there is, the less likely the whole evolution scenario becomes.

This is what is typically called the ‘information argument’ and it is exactly the one I used to demonstrate that we’ve nothing to fear from the bird flu. This is why creationism is such poison. Creationists develop theories to support the beliefs they desire or contradict the ones they dislike but the usual rules of sound reasoning are neglected. One can neglect such things, I suppose, if one already has the answers, as creationists find them in the Bible, and needs only to construct propaganda– that is, justifications and rationalizations to snare others. But the bad science that justifies creationism also is bad science in other realms as well and has consequences. If creationism were taken seriously, no one would have cause to concern themselves with it. It can’t cause any harm. It can’t mutate to infect humans. It can’t ‘go North to Chicago’. It has to ‘go South to the ocean’.

The information argument is summarized here, by Wieland.

Evolutionists hail natural selection as if it were a creative goddess, but the reality (which they invariably concede when pressed) is that selection on its own always gets rid of information, never the opposite. To have a way to add information, the ‘only game in town’ for evolution’s true believers is genetic copying mistakes or accidents, i.e. random mutations (which can then be ‘filtered’ by selection). However, the problem is that if mutations were capable of adding the information required, we should see hundreds of examples all around us, considering that there are many thousands of mutations happening continually. But whenever we study mutations, they invariably turn out to have lost or degraded the information.

This is the crux of the argument, and one should be able to see the similarity to the one I posted.

Now, I know that creationists allow for mutations but only for those that represent a decrease in information. Right now H5N1 cannot go from human to human. That is an ability it lacks, so gaining that ability would certainly represent an increase in information, which is impossible. We can rest easy.

There is one major problem with this argument. The statement that mutations “invariably turn out to have lost or degraded the information” is utter crap. As is Wieland’s statement that evolutionists will concede the point when pressed. Evolutionary biologists will not concede the point in large part because the point does not make sense to start with. The phrase ‘lost or degraded’ is very poorly defined and really doesn’t make sense within evolutionary theory.

Genes code for proteins. If you change a gene, one of two things happens. One, the gene codes for a protein that does not function or it doesn’t code for anything recognizable at all. Or, two, you have a different protein. In the first case the unlucky organism most likely dies and the mutation vanishes with it. I don’t think either side will argue this point. It is what happens in the second case that is debated. In this second case, the organism in question ends up walking around with a protein, or a variation of a protein, that did not exist in its ancestors just one generation before. The protein likely functions slightly differently than the proteins in its ancestors.

Creationists like to play this change of function as a loss of function, but really, without making further assumptions, it can only be considered a change of function, like swapping ones dress shoes for tennis shoes. There is difference but there is no net loss. The only way to make the loss argument work is to assume that what exists right now is the best possible and thus, by definition any change is a loss. But it only works with that assumption in place. There is no reason, other than creationist apologetic, to make that assumption.

Another way to approach the issue is to make an argument on a molecular scale. That is, to make the argument on genetic terms. Wieland hints at this with his statement that “if mutations were capable of adding the information required, we should see hundreds of examples all around us “. Of course, he hastens to add, we never see this. But what do we see? DNA, of which genes are composed, are strings of four different amino acids. Mutations are additions, subtractions, copies, or changes of one or more of these amino acids. It is typical to represent DNA with letters indicating the four amino acids. For example, ATCG or CGAT. Mutations to the first sequence could be ATCGT, ATC, ATCGG, or ATCC. These are all types of mutations commonly observed by scientists. There are obviously many more possibilities, but these few will suffice for examples.

A creationist will look at all of these combinations and claim that no information has been added but on what grounds can that claim be made? Certainly the addition of a fifth letter is the addition of something? What about the other two examples, are they examples of loss? Suppose that instead of letters we had numbers. For example, 1234. Suppose then, we randomly mutate this number much as we did the amino acid sequences. We could end up with 12341, 123, 12344, or 1233. By the logic used in the information argument, these all represent a loss of information. Does 1233 really represent a loss of information relative to 1234? No. It is just a different number. Is 12341 a ‘degraded’ 1234? Or is 12344 somehow ‘degenerate’? No. It is silly to even ask the question. How about 123? Well, a digit is lost, but information? And a few more random mutations and you could easily have a four digit number again. Are three digit numbers less-than four digit one? No. It really depends on the application and the problem. And this is something creationists don’t seem to understand. The application, where the genetics of living organisms are concerned, is the protein that results and whether or not it functions in a way that does not kill the organism which carries it. Whether or not the sequence is a good sequence or a bad sequence is not intrinsic to the sequence, but is determined by other factors. It makes no sense to talk about ‘loss’ and ‘degradation’ under these circumstances.

As before, the only way to talk about ‘loss’ in any sensible way is to assume that the existing sequences are the ‘right’ ones and thus define any change at all as a ‘degradation’. Arguments by definition stand strong up until someone makes up another definition. They have not much more strength than that.

Wieland continues the essay by taking the information argument from yet another tack. This time, he begins with the odd and paradoxical statement that “as creatures diversify, gene pools become increasingly thinned out.” As populations become more varied, they loose the genetic coding needed create that variety?

The more organisms adapt to their surroundings by selection, i.e. the more specialized they become, the smaller the fraction they carry of the original storehouse of created information for their kind.

What Wieland is trying to say, I believe, is something like this. If you start off with an organism that has a set of genes — say 123456– and subject it to some stress that forces it to adapt you will eventually end up with an organism with only half of the sequence– 123 or 456. Diversity has decreased. Of course, it doesn’t work that way and it can be easily proved that it does not work that way. Take an organism, such as a bacteria, with some known number of genes, subject it to some stress like extreme heat and wait. Most of the organisms will die; a few will survive and thrive. You now have an organism specialized to the hot environment. Count the genes. You’ll have an organism, after having specialized, with the same number of genes, most likely, as the one that is not specialized. The reason scientists do not see a these purported smaller fractions is because mutation keeps up the numbers. It is an observable fact, not matter how many times creationists claim the contrary. Wieland is obviously aware of this flaw in his logic. There is no other reason for insisting that “real-world observation has overwhelmingly shown mutation to be totally unable to feed the required new information into the system.” Real world observations hows just what Wieland denies. The train is not moving downhill.

A glimpse at his mistake can be had from another article, Has Aids Evolved?, he cites for support. This article, also, is a Wieland creation.

Are the observed changes, on analysis, heading in the ‘right direction’? That is, are they the type of changes which, given enough time, would be capable of producing a massively complex organism like a horse from a one-celled creature? If they are not, it is misleading to call such changes ‘evolution’.

A student of evolution learns within the first few minutes of class that there is no ‘right direction’ in evolution. The only thing even similar to a ‘right direction’ is what works. That is, going from walking to flying is not the right direction, nor is going from flying to walking, unless one of these things works better for the animal than what it had before. The difference between the two perspectives is the difference between the questions “Can a blind man walk from Texas to New York and find a medium rare porterhouse steak to eat?” and “Can a blind man walk somewhere and find something to eat?” The former is very unlikely. The latter isn’t. That is evolution. That is all that is evolution. Wieland has here tried to define his way out of the problem, but the problem remains, definitions, of course, being conveniences not facts.

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