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Awake for the First Time

Post of the Month: March 2004


Subject:    you've changed my life.  thanks, I think.
Date:       31 March 2004

I have had a most extraordinary last two weeks and I owe much of it to this group, or more accurately, the website and I'm writing to say thanks.

I have been raised my whole life as a Jehovah's Witness and (therefore) an old-Earth creationist. I'll be the first to admit that I've not always been the world's best JW, but I had always felt that when I was being good I was at least standing on relatively firm ground. My upbringing and books like "Life - How Did it Get Here, By Evolution or Creation?" taught me the complete absurdity and hopelessness of the evolutionist, secular humanist view of how we got here. The arguments presented seemed to make sense and I was satisfied that my questions were being answered honestly and meaningfully. It's so strange then what has happened over the last few weeks.

It started simply enough. My wife and I were discussing the Flood and the promised Paradise Earth and we wound up postulating some rather difficult questions for ourselves. Questions like, "If all the animals were originally herbivores (as the Bible says they were before the flood and would again be in the future), wouldn't that have disastrous environmental consequences?" "Wouldn't one-celled life and insects continue to have a role to play in the food chain? If so, wouldn't at least some of it be carnivorous or parasitic?" Once I started thinking of questions I couldn't stop (and more importantly, I couldn't think of any rational answers). A few days later some friends came over and we all got to talking about the Ark and the Flood and pondering some of the same questions. Now, these friends are JW's and I have no reason to believe they have abandoned "The Truth" (as it's referred to in the organization) but one of them sent me a link to a document on TalkOrigins about the flood a few days later saying that he thought it was interesting. Interesting didn't even begin to describe it. I was blown away.

Now, I don't think I'm a stupid person. I am a 30-year-old professional software developer with a 142 IQ. I read a lot. I consider myself educated, open-minded and capable of recognizing fact versus fiction and yet there I found myself realizing for the very first time that I had been blindly accepting as a fact something that was completely impossible. Perhaps some sort of flood happened in pre-history, but a global flood, the Biblical flood of Noah as described by Jehovah's Witnesses, could not have happened the way they say. It was so obvious when all the issues were laid out in one document and yet I had never noticed it before. For once, I felt stupid. I felt like I had been believing in Santa Claus (JW's don't do the Christmas thing, BTW, so it's the closest I've ever come TO believing in Santa Claus). I could have left it at that, but I didn't. If the "logic" given to me to explain the flood was wrong, I had to know what else was wrong too. Oh boy.

I went back to the beginning. In Genesis 3:15 is the first Messianic prophecy. Everything Jehovah's Witness teach about why we are here, the purpose of life, the reason Jesus came to Earth, the hope for the future... all of it, is rooted in the Garden of Eden, the Genesis account. I decided to re-examine, with an actual open mind, the question of Creation vs. Evolution (as I pictured it, rather naively). Could the chronology of the Bible, the location of Eden, the Genesis creation account, any of it, be reconciled with science? Did any of it, in fact, happen?

Now, chronology is vitally important to Jehovah's Witnesses. It's how they calculate the "end times" and why they are sure we are living in them. If the entire basis for all Bible chronology was based on a fictional story, everything started to go out the window. It all broke down. I dug out my "Creation" book and dug in and what I discovered made me sick to my stomach. The last time I read it I was 15 and it was incredibly convincing. This time I did the actual research. I looked up the references. I checked the quotations and examined the lines of reasoning and found... pseudo-science. Fallacies. Misquotes. Deliberately misleading re-writes of quotes. Argument through incredulity. Appeals to authority. Ignorance of evidence. Selective presentation of facts. Outdated information. This was worse than determining that the flood story was impossible. This was evidence that the religion I have been raised in was actually resorting to outright deception and taking quotes out of context and presenting as science something that is really just propaganda... and that I'd fallen for it.

See, JW's pay a lot of lip-service to examining the scriptures, researching your faith, PROVING that it's THE TRUTH, keeping an open-mind. At the same time (and I'm not making this up) they have a song that has the following words:

"We must act together as one
independance wisely we shun
harmony and one-ness of mind
bring peace of rarest kind"

I never felt right singing those words. Regardless, I always believed that my religious beliefs would stand up to scrutiny. I took comfort in that. I thought I HAD scrutinized them. That is what we are supposed to do. This is supposed to be a religion based on reasons for faith. To see that book for what it really was... that hurt.

Anyhow, after being basically crushed over the empty shell that is the Creation book I decided to take a serious look at evolution for the first time in my life outside of the writings of Jehovah's Witnesses. Oh. My. God. I never knew. I just never knew. I have spent the last week absorbing everything I can. I have downloaded the entire website onto my laptop to read offline. I stayed up all night watching the Discovery Science channel the night before last because of a program on hominid evolution and I just kept watching every show afterwards. I bought The Blind Watchmaker and I'm almost done reading it. I have researched radioactive dating methods, transitional fossils, creationist arguments, abiogenesis theories and lots more and over and over and over again I have found a mountain of evidence, a mountain of evidence I had been informed didn't exist. I have found intelligent people who think for themselves, who (yes) argue and change positions and interpret things differently but who are firmly grounded in reality. The actual study of the actual world as it is, not the study of how a book says it should be and an obsession with trying to make the world appear to fit that model.

I don't know what this means for me. I know this... I am now, and on some level have always been, a secular humanist. I am suddenly comfortable in my own skin, like my mind is clear for the first time. I no longer know what role, if any, the concept of God plays in my life. It's certainly not the role that was there two weeks ago. Now that I actually understand the theory of evolution to some extent I realize it's not just a bunch of wishful-thinking atheists working on some quack theory and calling it a fact. I have developed a whole new awe and appreciation for the world I see around me, like I'm really seeing it for the first time. The geese outside my office looked like little dinosaurs to me and I got the chills. I'm 30 years old, my entire family, my wife and all my friends are Jehovah's Witnesses. If they knew for even a minute that I've conclusively disproved (for myself) all the fundamental teachings that underlay their (and my former) theology, that I had come to realize the fact of evolution (still hard for me to type that sentence...) and rejected the chronology of the Bible as impossible... they would probably never speak to me again. I don't like the position I'm in now. I'm scared. I have no idea what to do. I have no idea how to proceed. I feel like I just opened my eyes for the first time and I don't know what the next step is.

I do, however, want to thank all you long-suffering rational folks out in Talk.Origins land. You've put together a resource that has radically changed my life in the blink of an eye and I am grateful.


[Return to the 2004 Posts of the Month]

Homosexuality and Evolution

Post of the Month Runner-Up: March 2004


Subject:    Re: Homosexuality and the T0E
Date:       24 March 2004
Message-ID: c3saqd$m0b$

david ford wrote:

>>>While reading portions of Benjamin Wiker's Moral Darwinism: How We
>>>Became Hedonists
(2002), some questions came to mind.
>>>What, if anything, is wrong with the following claims?:
>>>1a. Evolutionary theory could easily account for a widespread
>>>presence of homosexuality among humans.
>>>1b. Evolutionary theory could easily account for a small amount of
>>>homosexuality among humans.
>>>1c. Evolutionary theory could easily account for an absence of
>>>homosexuality among humans.
>>You first need to clarify what you are asking. First, do
>>you mean to ask whether evolutionary theory provides a
>>framework that includes a scientific explanation of the
>>existence and prevalence of homosexuality in humans?
> Instead of "includes," I would say "could include," but
> then again I don't know what exactly is meant by
> "scientific."
>> Or are you asking if it is the human acceptance of the theory
>> of evolution causes homosexuality?
> No.
>> Second, is it your
>>intent to impugn the theory of evolution based on either of
>>these effects?
> I mock evolutionary theory on the grounds that it can do
> what's described in 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, and 3a, 3b, 3c.
> It may as well be called Explain Everything Evolutionary
> Theory (EEET).

The theory of evolution, as understood by biologists, cannot and does not explain "everything". The only obvious prediction about homosexuality that one could make based on an understanding of evolution is that a species which requires two sexes of that species to mate for reproduction will not be exclusively homosexual. That follows simply from the fact that in order to evolve, a population must reproduce. Reproduction is one of the requirements of evolution. I notice that this was not one of your options and that, unlike evolution, one could say that religion can explain exclusive homosexuality (or chastity, as the Shakers practiced it) in such a species with a straight face because a supernatural agent could always create the next generation out of clay. Reproduction is not necessary when you have supernatural creation.

Other than that obvious prediction, various degrees and amounts of homosexuality can have little to no impact on reproductive success of a population within particular reproductive strategies. For example, a harem species where most females are controlled by a single male and there are many males left 'single' can clearly tolerate substantial homosexual behavior and even homosexual orientation without significantly affecting reproductive success.

That might lead to a prediction that human societies where harem behavior exists or where there are substantial numbers of all male groups isolated from female contact (certain Islamic and fundamentalist societies that rigidly separate the sexes, all-boy or all-girl schools, prisons, certain armies) might exhibit higher frequency of homosexual behavior, but not necessarily homosexual orientation. Societies where there is tolerance of homosexuals might exhibit higher self-reported homosexual orientation. These are hypotheses that can be tested.

One can obviously propose an evolutionary (usually meaning, among the simpler minds that ignore neutral events, that one can propose a natural selection "purpose" or "just-so story" for why a certain feature exists in a certain organism) explanation for many things that exist in biology. That does not mean that that hypothesis is correct in any particular case. To provide evidence, to test that a particular hypothesis is what science requires.

First, you would have to show that the specific behavior had a genetic basis (at least in part) and that the differences in behavior within the species was linked to alternative genotypes (or showed heritability). Second, you would have to demonstrate that there was differential reproductive success of those different genotypes, keeping in mind the possibility of frequency-dependent selection, heterozygote advantage, and, for quantitative traits, the fact that, in most cases, each generation produces a broader variance at birth with a culling from the two tail ends to narrow the variance at reproduction, but usually without changing the position of the mode/median/mean.

Let's take homosexuality as an open question and ask how or if evolution impacts upon it. The first thing I would want to know is whether homosexual orientation is 1) common, 2) infrequent, or 3) extremely rare or absent in human cultures and whether the frequency varies in different types of cultures. That is, I would want to start with empirical knowledge of the frequency of homosexual orientation rather than idly and armchair "predict" it from theory. After all, I have already pointed out why, other than the simple extreme I mentioned, it is quite possible for there to be a significant range in the frequency of homosexual behavior and orientation without affecting reproductive success of the population.

One might then ask if there are any special attributes of societies with higher than average rates of homosexual orientation. [At this point, one would have to be very careful in one's methodology because people's actual sexual behavior and desires and their reported behavior and desires are not usually the same thing, even among members of fundamentalist churches -- as evidenced by things like divorce and teen pregnancy rates.]

Then one would ask if the frequencies match, roughly, the frequencies seen in animals with similar mating systems (carefully distinguishing behavior and orientation).

But remember that evolution only deals with that fraction of phenotypic variance that is genetic (transmissible to future generations). If, say, it were found that pedophilia were due to brain damage or childhood trauma, then pedophilia would be of no evolutionary consequence (other than that it obviously means that the wiring of the human brain or mind can become damaged so as to produce a pedophile).

That is, one must not geneticize all of biology (I speak as a geneticist). And one must understand that genes set up a norm of reaction. That is, the same genes can produce different phenotypes depending upon their interaction with the environment. Behavior in humans, in particular, is highly flexible and has a broad range of phenotypes for the same genotypes. A person one generation removed from a tribal, hunter-gathering existence may be a medical doctor or auto mechanic.

It may well be that there is no specific gene for homosexuality. Homosexual orientation may simply be one tail of a bell-shaped curve (which is ascribed as a qualitative difference), where most people are capable of loving and bonding to both sexes to some extent but are generally sexually attracted to the opposite sex. Homosexuality, then, may be the evolutionarily harmless 'cost' required for our species to have males capable of bonding with other males in co-operative behavior (like hunting). [There are, of course, species where male-male co-operation is rarely seen. And they would have, I would hazard to guess, a significantly lower frequency of homosexual behavior than herd or tribe species.]

The other extreme tail end of such curve, which is not discussed and is perhaps best described as a narcissistic 'loner' sociopath, is a decidedly less pleasant addition to most human societies (and also less likely to be reproductively successful -- extreme heterosexuals may not be individuals that get along well in society). Evolution by natural selection, of course, is very good at finding the 'sufficing' mini-max solution to such problems (to the extent that the differences are genetic) as can be seen in the simplified case of sickle-cell anemia, where the optimal frequency of sickle cell allele can be quickly reached.

So if you want, I would predict that evolution, IF it is involved in producing homosexuals at all (that is, if homosexuality has a significant genetic basis), probably produces the optimal level of homosexuals given our local mating systems and societal requirements. IF homosexual orientation is a quantitative trait there is also likely a less reproductively fit individual at the other extreme of the curve ranging from extreme heterosexual orientation to extreme homosexual orientation. That is because natural selection usually works as a conservative agent reducing the extremes in the variance produced each generation.

That optimal level will differ from species to species (and perhaps from culture to culture) based on local features such as mating system, group dynamics (tribe or herd as opposed to solitary hunter), environment, age, social status, degree of pair bonding, etc. I would expect some of these to consistently favor or disfavor homosexual behavior/orientation.

Evolution by natural selection says that (to the extent that the feature in question is genetically based), that feature will succeed relative to a genetic variant to the extent that it furthers the mean or average reproductive success of organisms in the population with that variation in a local environment.

[Return to the 2004 Posts of the Month]

An Introduction to the Evolution/Creationism Debate

Post of the Month Honorable Mention: March 2004


Subject:    For Grade 7 students
Date:       19 March 2004

My son asked me to do a thing on evolution and creationism (interestingly, he didn't even know I was pro-evolution in this debate; I'm being too even handed at home, obviously) for his classmates. This is what I came up with - it was something of a success, including for the Christian kids (it's a public school).

Evolution and creationism

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and this book convinced pretty well every scientist that evolution happened. There were three main theories in Darwin's book:

1. That species changed into different species occasionally (transmutation);

2. That related species had a shared ancestral species (common descent);

3. That natural selection was the process that caused adaptation of organisms to their environment.

He also thought that natural selection caused new species, but this did not win much acceptance from scientists until quite recently, and then only in some cases.

Why is it, then, if evolution is accepted as a fact by biologists and paleontologists around the world, that some people reject it, and call themselves "scientific creationists"? Who are these "creationists" and what is it they believe?

Creationism began in the 1920s when a small group of American churches adopted what they called the "fundamentals" of Christianity - one of these being a belief in the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible. These people went by the name "fundamentalists".

Now, if you read the Bible as straight history, you pretty well have to believe that the world is around 6000-10,000 years old, that every species alive then is unchanged since, and that all species are about the same age. Also, you have to believe that there was a global flood that covered the entire land of the earth, including the mountains.

Most religious groups, including most Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, reject this view. It is clear to them that the evidence points to an old earth, and that there were different species in earlier ages, and that there never has been a flood that covered the earth, although there have been, and continue to be, many floods in different areas, as inhabitants of Queensland can tell you.

It is worth pointing out, though, that all Christian teaching says that God created the world. All Christians, most Jews and all Muslims believe this. What they do not necessarily believe is that He did this 6000 years ago and all at once. Since Darwin's day, most thinkers who are believers in creation but accept science have said something like this: God created at the beginning and continues to create, using natural methods, and evolution is one of those methods.

Creationism, though, is the view that species do not change, and that creation was completed in a single period after which things remain as God made them. There are two kinds of creationism - young earth, and old earth. Young earth creationists (YECs) take the strictly literal approach to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, and go for the 6000 year version. Old earth creationists (OECs) accept that the earth is as old as science shows, and think only that God created species as they are now, but that older species were created back then. In both cases, species do not change once created.

None of this would matter if it were just a religious dispute. People are free to believe what they like, and to teach their children those beliefs. We live in a tolerant country that allows freedom of religion to all, no matter what we think of those ideas. But creationism has another side to it.

In the 1960s, a movement arose that called itself "scientific creationism". Their view was that not only was Genesis correct as history, but also that science proved it. They try to argue this, because in America, the government is not allowed to make laws that promote one religious view over another. If it is science, though, then they can get creationism taught in schools. Indeed, if it were science, then it should be taught in science classes.

These YECs have a lot of rather muddled arguments, often taking small sentences from scientists out of context to "prove" that YECism is true, which sound to someone who doesn't know a lot of science as if there is a real case in its favour. Although the American courts have each time struck down laws forcing teachers to teach creationism, the end result has been almost as harmful, and here is why:

America is a massive market, especially for books. And one of the most profitable markets in publishing is school books (think about it, tens of millions of people have to buy their books each year). But because publishers are nervous about mentioning evolution in their textbooks, because that means that YEC fundamentalists in some states will not buy their books, they have downplayed it or, in some cases, removed it altogether.

Many school textbooks in Australia are just revised versions of the American editions (not, I am pleased to say, the biology books used in Victorian schools). This means that, if a school board (which in the US is an elected committee of the public, not of teachers or scientists) rejects books that teach evolution as science in Texas or Alabama, publishers will tend to cover less evolution, and this will affect what is published in many other English-speaking countries. The end result is that we are "dumbing down" the science we teach around the world.

And what is next? The Bible also teaches that the earth is stationary and the sun moves around the earth. Shall we censor astronomy? What about geology? It is based on theories that are in contradiction to the Bible, too. In the end, you may miss out on good scientific education because of the religious views of a small minority. Similar movements are happening in Turkey, which is Islamic, and in other Muslim nations. There are even a small number of Jewish creationists in Israel, and in India, Hindu creationists (who have a different set of teachings and holy books to Christians - they are very OECs and believe that the universe is hundreds of billions of years old, not the 14 billion years that science says it is).

This is why I work to counter creationism. If you are interested in following this up, the Talk.Origins Archive is a website that provides counter-creationism arguments and evidence (including the best human evolution site on the web, by an Australian who lives in Canberra), and links to creationist websites.

The best book to read is Tower of Babel by Rob Pennock (MIT Press, 1999). You can get a free copy of the Jehovah's Witnesses antievolution book Life - how did it get here? by asking them.

John Wilkins
"Men mark it when they hit, but do not mark it when they miss"
                         - Francis Bacon

[Return to the 2004 Posts of the Month]

Out of Place Fossils

Post of the Month Honorable Mention: March 2004


Subject:    Re: What's the Story on Out of Place Fossils
Date:       21 March 2004

"Robin Goodfellow" wrote in message
> The stratigraphic distribution of fossils is among the strongest
> evidence for common descent. Not surprisingly, Jeffrey Jay Lowder
> cites it in his debate on naturalism with Phil Fernandes:
> Fernandes counters with something like, "Yes, that distribution is
> supposedly the 'rule.' But there are so many exceptions that it's
> really a rule honored almost as much in the breach as in the
> observance." Lowder never actually answers this.
> I was surprised at Fernandes' argument, because creationists don't
> usually challenge fossil distribution itself. Instead, they make
> vague references to "hydrologic sorting," "differential escape,"
> "ecological zonation," and so on, suggesting that the distribution
> accepted by mainstream scientists can be explained by the Flood.
> But a little poking around the Internet revealed that, for over twenty
> years, "John Woodmorappe" has maintained a list of "over 200 published
> instances of anomalously occurring fossils":
> I don't see that this has ever been addressed by evolutionists. It
> would be nice if folks knowledgeable about fossils would put it in
> perspective. To start with, does anyone have even a rough estimate of
> how many fossils have been found or documented in the literature? How
> big or little a chunk of the total is 200?
> I think the whole issue of out-of-place fossils has been neglected by
> defenders of evolution. I'd love someone to explain and give
> perspective to the presence of "downwash," "infiltration,"
> "contamination," and "reworking" in the fossil record.
> It's clear that fossils are sometimes found "out of order," in the
> wrong stratum. What needs to be explained to the lay public is how
> often this happens, and why it shouldn't raise any doubts about the
> generally accepted stratigraphic distribution.

Before I get to Woody's terrible list, I would suggest that you look at

The pattern of fossils in the fossil record simply doesn't support the young-earth position.

Now to Woody's list. It is the silliest thing one could have done and shows that he has no understanding of how fossilization takes place. When a species evolves, it has very few individual members. They may occupy a single small island in the middle of a river, or they may occupy some micro-ecological niche somewhere. Because they are so small in numbers, the odds that any of the individuals of that species would be fossilized is quite small. And then even if they were fossilized, the odds of us looking at just the right spot on earth while their bones are being eroded out of the earth, is equally miniscule. Most fossils are destroyed by meteoric water as it seeps into the soil and degrades the rock below the soil profile, so often we don't even get a chance to see the fossils that are destroyed.

Now you have two very unlikely events for a tiny population of a newly evolved species--unlikely fossilization and unlikely discovery. As the newly evolved species/genus/family becomes more numerous, and occupies a larger and larger area of the earth, it becomes more and more likely that multiple members of a species will be fossilized. And as the numbers of fossils increases, so does the chance that one will be discovered.

The above issues also work in sediments being deposited today. Signor and Lipps took a core of sediment in a modern bay and looked for the buried bodies of animals living in the bay today. What they found was that even species with numerous members, who are living on the bay's bottom today, have a chance of not leaving a potential fossil in the rock record for quite a distance down.

Here is the picture of what they found:

Depth increases downward. The animals who left no body fossils as deep as half a meter appear to have gone extinct, as far as the sedimentary record is concerned, but they are still alive. These are the types of statistical effects which limit the 'proper age' of Woody's list.

So when we go looking for fossils, this statistical nature of the record means something very, very important when one is dealing with the earliest discovered specimen of a species/genus/family etc. It means that the earliest specimen is highly unlikely to be the earliest living member of that species/genus/family. So, there are statistical techniques used to predict how much earlier than the first specimen the group actually evolved. On average, it is believed that a fossil group is about 1/3 older than its earliest specimen. One can quibble about the exact percentage, but you get the idea. The first fossil specimen is not very likely to have come from the very first evolved member of the group.

The same thing can be said when a population is going extinct. The temporal sightings of the black-footed ferret got fewer and more separated in time as they got rarer and rarer. The same thing happens in fossilization. As a species/genus/family is going extinct and the members are few, it gets more and more unlikely that they will be fossilized and then the chances of finding a member of that group also drops.

So, when Woodmorappe lists the 'proper age' on his table, he is actually using the known extent or duration of the creature. But as we saw above, that is not likely to be the true temporal extent of the species/genus/family. When we find a rare example of a fossil outside of its known temporal range, it doesn't mean that evolution is false, it just means that our knowledge of the known duration of a species/genus/family have been enlarged. Our knowledge has been made better.

While I wrote this page for another purpose, it applies here. Take a look at the gaps in time between the first and second occurrence of various fossil/archaeological items on my page

If you look at the 3rd entry in that list. The mammal bones. That is the discovery of an earlier beaver. It doesn't destroy evolution. It just means that beavers' fossil record is quite sparse. A lot of his entries fit the above pattern.

When it comes to some of the forams, spores, pollen etc, you will see that they are mostly cases of ancient pollen found in younger strata. That is because of the reworking of such tiny fossils into modern sediments. What happens is that pollen is quite tough to destroy. Today along the rivers of S. Texas, you will find ancient pollens, spores and forams which are contained in the rocks along the river banks, are being eroded, and then re-deposited in modern deltas. Nowhere do we find those spores/pollen or forams living today or coming from living trees. One can tell the reworked pollen/spores/forams from modern ones because they are usually a different color (modern pollen is clear, the older pollen gets the darker it gets) and because of wear on the outer textures of the foram. Reworked forams have more damage than those that are fresh from living creatures.

If you look at reference 93 on Woody's page you will see: Windle T.M.F. 1979. Reworked Carboniferous Spores: An Example from the Lower Jurassic of Northeast Scotland. RP 27:174-5.

That "reworked" is something Woody isn't telling his readers the meaning of. It is very important to assessing the validity of what Woody is doing. Because of things like this, Woody's list makes no impact on what scientists believe. Woody hasn't properly assessed the situation.

[Return to the 2004 Posts of the Month]

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