Thursday, August 5, 2010

An open Letter to Ray Comfort

Dear Ray,

I think you probably already have guessed that I accept evolution. It has nothing to do with my belief or non-belief in God (as you have repeatedly implied). I have no opinion on whether God exists one way or the other. Evolution is, put simply, the best explanation we have for the pattern of the diversity of life on this planet. I have spent years studying molecular biology and bioinformatics and not one piece of evidence has arisen to make me reconsider the possibility that evolution works.

In all that time, another consistency has been observed: I have yet to find one single person (yourself included) who claims that evolution is impossible, and that actually has a correct argument. And just to be absolutely, 100% clear, let me explain what I mean when I use the words "correct argument." Every single pseudoscientific argument I have ever heard you make would be wrong even if evolution turns out to be wrong. A lie is a lie.

In fact, I'll go a step further: my experience suggests that most people who actively deny the theory of evolution don't actually understand it. And without exception, all those who actually do won't be able to give any solid scientific reasons for their rejection; they just choose not to believe in it, and trust that someday some fatal flaw will be found.

Imagine how frustrating that must be. Imagine that every day, you were meeting people who were constantly telling you that they don't believe the bible because it talks about Jesus walking around New York City, a city that didn't exist when Jesus supposedly walked. It's pretty much the same thing. Someone gives you an argument against something you understand in great detail that even the most cursory examination of the documents in question could prove to be false, and presents that as if it were a valid indictment of what you accept and believe. Tell me honestly that you wouldn't find that to be frustrating after a while.

You want me to see the impossibility of evolution? Show me that the successful attempts by scientists to evolve forms of HIV without the V1 and V3 variable loops didn't work. Show me that cancer cells don't evolve new pumps to pump chemotherapeutic drugs out, thereby developing resistance to the drugs. Show me that evolution-based bioinformatic programs like rVista don't work, which they would not, if the principles they were based upon were unsound. Show me that we have more ERVs in common with an elephant than a monkey, or more in common with a monkey than a chimpanzee. Or show me that all animals have different genetic codes (ie: the same genetic code in one metazoan produces a completely different amino acid sequence in another). Show me that DNA can't mutate, or that any mammal, anywhere on the planet doesn't have its embryonic development ass-first. Show that genes are not passed from parent to offspring, or that, as creationists have often contended but never supported in any way whatsoever, there is no mutation that confers a benefit upon the organism which possesses it. And this is only the barest scratch of the surface. I could write an absurdly long post consisting only of observations which could potentially disprove the theory of evolution.

So Ray, show me the cheddar. If you have something that will outweigh all of that, and prove the impossibility of evolution I see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands every day, please, present it. I guarantee you that you will be showered with praise and prizes, as you will have made the greatest single breakthrough in science in the last half century (at least).

There's one catch though: the argument actually has to be true and correct. Sure, it means a lot of work. Years, certainly, possibly decades worth of work, but if disproving evolution were that easy, someone would have done it by now.

Until you do...well, imagine a man. This man is standing in the middle of an airport, with hundreds of planes flying overhead. He is currently talking to a group of aerospace engineers, some of whom have worked on designing actual spacecraft. And he is proudly announcing to them that his simple "common sense" argument neatly proves that heavier-than air aircraft are impossible.

Unless you can provide the evidence, are that man.

So why are we so frustrated?

Well, to start with, it is pretty obvious, so obvious that you acknowledge it yourself, that you don't understand biochemistry and genetics too well.

Now, I cannot emphasize this enough: this is not intended to be an insult. Both of those are rather complicated subjects and require a lot of study to even develop a rudimentary understanding. I mean, to understand basic biochemistry, you need to spend at least a year of concentrated study on it and it alone. Before you even get to that point, you need at least a year of organic chemistry, and a year of basic chemistry before that. You should also understand mathematics to the point where you're comfortable with basic calculus as well. Finally, the picture won't be complete unless you take at least some physical chemistry.

That's just biochemistry. To get a good enough understanding of genetics, in addition to the aforementioned courses necessary to understand biochemistry, you need a solid grounding in molecular genetics and inheritance (a solid year each), and at least another year of population genetics to get an understanding of how all of the above applies to evolution. You should also get a decent understanding of chemical thermodynamics and nonlinear dynamics. A grasp of physical chemistry would also be a plus. This is not a matter of intelligence, there simply are that many facts to keep in mind.

I'm not, for the record, saying that you can't do it, just that you haven't. There's absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that, until you come up to someone who actually has put in the time and effort to learn all the things you haven't, and present them with a bogus argument that seems to oh-so-neatly debunk evolution, then slyly imply that they've wasted the last decade of their lives pursuing a theory that a four-year-old could see is worthless. When that argument happens to be completely without merit, as it pretty much always is, I imagine you can see why that would be frustrating.

But here you are, a person who has only some cursory knowledge of these areas. You see an argument, based on them, which claims to completely invalidate evolution. You can understand the argument, and as far as you can see, it seems to be correct.

Now, here's the $64,000 question: did it occur to you to ask yourself: "If I can understand this argument, with my very limited knowledge and understanding of biochemistry and genetics, how comes that all those people who spent a decade in school to learn those subjects, and understand these very complex subjects can't comprehend it? If it's so simple and so true, why can't they accept it?"

In short, did you ever even consider the possibility that it's actually you (and whoever fed you this oh-so-tidy disproof of evolution), and not the scientists who are wrong?

Scientists rarely accept things without checking unless they don't really care about the answer one way or the other. It's actually one of the first lessons you learn as a scientist: distrust other people's data at least twice as much as you distrust your own. Occasionally, someone will manage to pull a hoax off, some distinguished professor will manage to coast for a while on his reputation (setting aside, for the moment, that he or she generally has to make a reputation first, which always involves putting out some real work first)...but sooner or later, someone catches up with them. And the bigger the scam, the more difficult it is to hide. Every single hoax that you are oh-so-fond of trotting out and presenting as if they were somehow an indictment of the entire scientific process was found by the very scientific process, and the very scientists that they are trying oh-so-hard to indict.

In short, if evolution were wrong, it would not be accepted by scientists. Even censorship and peer pressure wouldn't be able to keep a lid on it very long. There would be uproar; there would be groups of scientists organizing themselves (and getting tons of money from religious organizations) against the "evolutionist establishment". There would be dozens of new antievolution biology journals popping up, publishing papers that show evidence of creation.

In communist countries, if you questioned the official party line, you risked jailtime, being beaten up, or just vanishing into thin air. Still (and I speak from personal experience here), at least 10% of the people in power structures opposed the establishment as best as they could. Even if you accept the most horrible horror stories about evilutionist conspiracies, you don't have anything even remotely close to this in science...and yet 99.9% of the people in the field --people who have the strongest understanding of the complexities and intricacies of the theory-- accept evolution. How is that possible? Wouldn't at least 10% resist? 5%? If evolution is so obviously wrong, why are they all supporting it?

So when you encounter the next piece of evidence that seems to oh so neatly debunk evolution - ask yourself, is it actually correct? And instead of approaching a scientist and saying "hey, this proves evolution is impossible", approach one and say "hey, I found this, is this actually true"?

You will save yourself a lot of embarrassment that way. Whether you believe it or not, most of us scientists actually know what we are doing. After all, the average life expectancy has been extended a bare minimum of 30-40 years since the early 20th century. This is largely a consequence of research performed by the very "Darwinist" scientists you claim lack even the most basic of investigative skills.

In general, the answer to just about any question you have will almost certainly be "no, that is not a problem for evolution, and your understanding of how the process works isn't correct," and in many cases, the person in question will probably be willing to explain your error to you, as many scientists are first and foremost educators, and maybe they'll succeed. But that won't teach you genetics; it will teach you that this particular argument isn't right, which won't prevent you from making some very similar errors in the future.

So, you have two broad options. First, you can trust that we know what we're talking about. The other is to check for yourself. If you choose the second one, however, you must be prepared to put in the work. I'd strongly recommend Lewin's Gene (currently in its ninth edition) along with Daniel Hartl's Essential Genetics. Both are very readable textbooks which cover their respective subjects well but at the end of the day, the chances are, you'll have to go and take classes for a few years. At the end of those years, you might have enough of an understanding of evolution to grasp why the argument you presented which oh-so-neatly debunks evolution is bogus without having someone else explain it to you.

Well, there is a third option: to believe that you understand it better then we do without having to study it, and therefore reject everything we say out of hand. But I'm kinda hoping you are too honest to do something like that.