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Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution

On the Origin of Species - The Ray Comfort EditionWow. Just, wow. I know I've talked about Ray Comfort more times on this blog than is healthy (for example - here, here, here, here, here, and here), but now, not just is he publishing his drivel on his own, making scam websites, or getting followers to put the equivalent of junk mail into books at the book store. Now, he's been published in a blog on the U.S. News and World Report website, and boy is it ignorant.

The background of this article is this. Ray Comfort is publishing two versions of a reprint of Darwin's Origin of Species, along with an introduction in each version. The first version was abridged, and the introduction was made publicly available on the web. After the negative publicity it received, Comfort made his second version unabridged, and supposedly with a modified introduction. To give an idea of the introduction, here's how Comfort himself described it (be forewarned - there are many falsehoods and examples of bad logic in just these two paragraphs*).

This introduction gives the history of evolution, a timeline of Darwin's life, Hitler's undeniable connections to the theory, Darwin's racism, his disdain for women, and his thoughts on the existence of God. It lists the theory's many hoaxes, exposes the unscientific belief that nothing created everything, points to the incredible structure of DNA, and the absence of any species-to-species transitional forms.

It presents a balanced view of Creationism with information on scientists who believed that God created the universe—scientists such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur and Johannes Kepler. It uses many original graphics and "is for use in schools, colleges, and prestigious learning institutions." The introduction also contains the entire contents of the popular booklet, "Why Christianity?"

Towards the end of September, Dan Gilgoff posted an entry in his God & Country blog on U.S. News & World Report describing Comfort's book (the first version). After all the feedback Gilgoff got for that entry, he decided to revisit the issue. He set up an online debate between Ray Comfort and Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. The debate consisted of four posts in total - Comfort's original argument, Scott's original argument, Comfort's response to Scott, and finally, Scott's response to Comfort.

I guess there are several ways I could have addressed this in a blog post, but I've decided to focus on Comfort's second post. That one struck me as so out and out ignorant, that it seemed a ripe target. I encourage you to read Scott's response first, but I thought I could supplement what she already wrote.

Before I get started, I apologize to anyone who truly doesn't understand evolution because they weren't properly educated on it (though I doubt you're publishing books on the subject). Any ire in this commentary is directed purely at Comfort. How someone can have the audacity to publish a reprint of the Origin of Species and write their own introduction, while having such a piss poor understanding of what we actually know about evolution, I just can't comprehend. If you plan to write an introduction to a book, I feel you're under an obligation to at least understand the contents.

So, let's get to it. First, let's get the title and introduction out of the way.

God and Country by Dan Gilgoff

Ray Comfort Responds to Genie Scott on Creationist 'Origin of Species'
November 02, 2009 12:57 PM ET
In the third installment of a debate between creationist Ray Comfort and scientist Eugenie Scott, Comfort defends his new version of Darwin's On the Origin of Species against a critique from Scott. Scott will rebut tomorrow. And just a reminder: Neither God & Country nor U.S. News necessarily endorses their views. -Dan Gilgoff

By Ray Comfort

Okay, moving on...

A major concern of Genie Scott was that the copy of On the Origin of Species sent to her by my publisher was missing "four crucial chapters," as well as Darwin's introduction. She will be pleased to know that the second printing of 170,000 copies (the one that we will give to students) is the entire book. Not one word will be omitted.

On Comfort's blog, he explained the reasoning for the unabridged first version, but it still doesn't make sense. His explanation was basically, 'an unabridged version would have been too expensive to give away, so we printed an abridged version. Now, we've printed an unabridged version to give away.'

I won't hammer away on this point to try to demonstrate Comfort's dishonesty (if I was, I'd also make a big deal about the plagiarism). That would be an ad hominem. And while it's certainly useful for future reference, demonstrating that Comfort's an unreliable source and that everything he says needs to be questioned, it does nothing to show how he's wrong in the rest of what he's written here.

Scott quoted a famous geneticist, who said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." I would like to drop one word, so that the quote is true. It should read, "Nothing in biology makes sense in the light of evolution." For example, evolution has no explanation as to why and how around 1.4 million species of animals evolved as male and female. No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery.

This is idiotic. Again, I apologize to anyone who didn't receive a proper education in evolution, but Comfort has no such excuse. How can he write something so astonishingly stupid, and still claim to understand evolution well enough to write his introduction to Origin of Species.

P.Z. Myers wrote an entry on his blog, Pharyngula, addressing this very argument from Comfort. It shouldn't be hard at all to understand. Evolution is a gradual accumulation of genetic mutations in a population - gradual enough that males and females within the population can still interbreed. Consider this - you are a genetic mutant. I am a genetic mutant. Anyone reading this is a genetic mutant. We all have a handful of mutations that make our DNA slightly different from our parents. Yet none of us worry about not being able to have children because of it. We know that we're similar enough to every other human. It's no different in any other species, or at any other time in history. And as long as we keep on interbreeding, we keep on mixing up those mutations, keeping everyone in the population genetically similar enough to continue interbreeding. (To give a sense of the scale of mutations that can be tolerated and still produce children that can interbreed, mutations that involve the fusion of two chromosomes are so common that they have their own name, Robertsonian Translocations.)

Now, the original evolution of sex is indeed an interesting question, but sex itself doesn't pose any problems to evolution.

Nor does any evolutionary believer adequately address the fact that all those 1.4 million species managed to evolve into maturity together in our lifetime. Nothing we have in creation is half evolved. The cow has a working udder to make drinkable milk. The bee has working apparatus to make edible honey. We don't find a half-evolved cow or bee. None of the 1.4 million species on the Earth has half an eye. All have the necessary functioning equipment, from the brain, to the teeth, to the eye, to limbs, to reproductive necessities. Everything that we see in creation is in full working order—from the sun, to the mixture of the air, to the seasons, to fruit trees and vegetables, to the animal kingdom—from the tiny ant right up to the massive elephant.


Well, I'll take two of the examples Comfort used - the eye and the cow's udder.

I'm reminded here of a good point Dawkins made in his recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth. It's something I've taken for granted for so long that I almost forget that it is a point that needs to be made to those who don't understand it - evolution is not a transformation of adult animals into adult animals. It is an adjustment of the developmental process - of growing up. Nobody expects to find an animal with an eyeball cut in half (or at least that got that way naturally). It's not how our bodies grow. So, if Comfort's naive expectation is that evolution predicts an animal with a right half of an eyeball but not a left, or a front half but not a back, then of course - no, nobody else expects that either. (I would like to think that his expectations aren't that naive, but given his understanding of the evolution of males and females, I wouldn't put anything past him.)

Having said that, here's a diagram of a human eye.

Vertebrae Eye

I would imagine that 'half' of that would be something lacking an iris, cornea, and lens, and maybe even just a pit with photo receptors - something like this.

Patella Eyecup

And guess what. That's an actual eye from a patella snail. Granted, that means it's a mollusc eye, not a vertebrate eye, so it's not exactly representative of what our ancestral eye was like. But it certainly answers the question of the use of half an eye. Regarding Comfort's claim that "None of the 1.4 million species on the Earth has half an eye," if that's not half an eye compared to a full camera type eye, then I don't know what is (more info).

For an even more 'partial' eye, consider echinoderms. They merely have light sensitive spots on their top sides. And from experience snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico, I can tell you that sand dollars put those spots to good use, burrowing into the sand the instant a shadow falls on top of them.

Comfort also mentioned the cow's udder. This is, of course, a mammary gland, and is homologous to breasts in humans. What udders and breasts share, among other things, are all the indivudal glands (lobules) where the milk is made, ducts to transport that milk, and nipples where the infants can suckle the milk.

When Comfort talks of a 'half-evolved cow' in relation to udders, I would hope that he means a mammary gland lacking in some of those components from a cow's udder or a human's breast. And guess what. Again, we have a living animal showing this very thing - the platypus. Platypuses have the lobules to produce milk, and ducts to transport that to the surface, but the ducts don't all come together at a nipple. To quote the source just linked, "Milk from the mammary glands oozes through the skin along both sides of the mother's belly where it is then sucked up by the young platypuses."

But not only do we see this mature completion in creation; we see it displayed in the fossil record. It reveals that each animal was complete. Historical and present creation stands as a stark testimony to the folly of Darwinian evolution.

There's not much to add to this that I didn't already write above. Comfort's objection only makes sense if he has the naive expectation that evolution means that animals morph directly from one adult form to another, and of course, this isn't what happens.

Darwin was certainly on to something when he said, "Often a cold shudder has run through me, and I have asked myself whether I may have not devoted myself to a fantasy."

Quote mining is a common tactic of creationists, and Comfort is no different. Scott covered this in her response, so there's not much for me to add. When this quote is read in context, it doesn't say nearly the same thing Comfort seems to be implying. Anyway, this is just one more example of Comfort's dishonesty.

My second point is that Scott is happy for students to read the first eight and the last 10 pages of the Introduction, but she doesn't want them to waste their time on the meat in the sandwich. She says that this portion is my weakest, most tasteless of arguments. If that is true, shouldn't she then encourage students to read that portion to prove the weakness of my case? Instead, she says not to read it. I wonder why?

As I'm fond of pointing out in discussions of this sort, the scientific literacy of the average American is horrendous. One in four people thinks the Sun goes around the Earth, and around half of people don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms. And those are simple, uncontroversial topics. Given that, and knowing that around half of Americans also doubt evolution, why would anybody encourage people to read misinformation on the subject?

And it's not just science that people don't understand. Has Comfort ever been to Snopes? Does he realize how gullible people are, and how much more work it takes to debunk myths than it does to create them?

Scott continues, "There are more specimens of 'Ardi' (the newly described Ardipithecus ramidus) than there are of Tyrannosaurus . . . We and modern chimpanzees shared a common ancestor millions of years ago . . . ." But that's another evolutionary "Oops!" if you believe the learned scientists on the Discovery Channel. In a recent two-hour documentary about Ardi, the scientists said, "Ever since Darwin, we have bought into the idea that humans evolved from ancient chimplike creatures. That's because modern chimps seemed to share a lot of anatomy and modern behavior with humans. So the idea that we evolved from something like chimps seemed to make sense. But now, the discovery of Ardipithecus shows that this idea is totally and completely wrong." Did you hear what they said? This idea that we evolved from ancient chimplike creatures is totally and completely wrong.

First of all, Comfort's using the Discovery Channel as a primary source of scientific information. Now don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and all those other documentary type channels. But I recognize that they're primarily in business for ratings, and sometimes they lose a bit of accuracy in the process, or over-emphasize certain tentative findings (in fact, my wife and daughter have repeatedly told me to stop yelling at the TV - they can't hear me). The importance of 'Ardi' seems to be a case of the latter.

'Ardi' did not change the fact that we share a common ancestor with chimps & bonobos, nor that this population of animals lived on the order of 6 million years ago. What ardipithecus calls into question is whether that ancestor was more human like or more chimp like. And this argument is mainly about locomotion - whether our common ancestor was bipedal (walked on two legs like us), or was a knuckle walker (like chimps & bonobos). Previously, it was assumed that the common ancestor was a knuckle walker, because all of the great apes besides us are knuckle walkers. It just seems more parsimonious that knuckle walking would have only evolved once. The reason 'Ardi' calls this into question is that ardipithecus was alive not long after the chimp/bonobo lineage diverged from ours, and ardipithecus was bipedal. The discoverers of ardipithecus argue that it's unlikely that our lineage could have evolved such a specialized form of locomotion in such a short amount of time. They point out that orangutans, gorillas, and chimps/bonobos all have slightly different adaptations to knuckle walking, so it is possible that bipedality is the more primitive condition, and all the other great apes evolved knuckle walking independently. (For a non-specialist's opinion, I wouldn't be surprised to see the molecular clocks re-calibrated to push our common ancestor back another million years or two, giving time for our lineage to evolve bipedality, and keeping a parsimonious explanation of knuckle walking. For a more informed opinion, check out Carl Zimmer's blog, The Loom. There are a lot of good comments on that page, too - at least the first half of comments).

So, ardipithecus does not call into question our common ancestry with chimps. It helps us better understand what those ancestors would have been like.

I am aware that it is the learning process of evolutionary "science" to continually discover itself to be wrong. So there can never be a time when believers can claim they have the truth. This is just as well, because each new and believed hypothesis, like the crazy fashions of a superficial teenager, is in time discarded in favor of the new.

This is a tiresome argument - 'science makes us adjust our understanding of the world as new evidence comes to light, therefore nothing we know through science can be known for certain.'

An example I like to use is electrons. Since the time of Benjamin Franklin, we've had to adjust our theories of electrons and atoms. But those changes have been refinements, not complete overhauls that called into question the existence of subatomic particles. It's the same thing with evolution. We know enough now that there aren't going to be any major overhauls, but there will certainly be refinements to our understanding.

Besides, what's the alternative? To pretend that we know everything with certainty in the present, and to never adjust our views with new information?

After addressing my arguments from the portion of the Introduction she doesn't want students to read, Scott says, "More fossils will provide more details, but this outline of human evolution is not in serious doubt among scientists." Hear her own words: "More fossils will provide more details." In other words, they still don't have the undisputed fossils. That's what Darwin lamented 150 years ago! He said that when a skeptic "may ask in vain, 'Where are the numberless transitional links?' " Darwin's answer was that the missing links "may lie buried under the ocean." They are still buried somewhere, 150 years later. Scott said that "human evolution isn't in serious doubt among scientists." But I say, it should be.

There's a little joke about missing links. A creationist points out two fossils, and claims that there's a gap in the fossil record between them, a missing link. When a scientist discovers an intermediate fossil, the creationist responds, 'Well now you've just made the problem worse. Instead of only one gap, now you have two.'

We are lucky to have a fossil record at all. Just consider what it takes for us to find a fossil (this paragraph is summarized from here). When most organisms die, they get eaten and decomposed, and there aren't any recognizable remains. It takes a special set of circumstances for remains to get covered up quickly enough that they don't decompose, but gently enough that they don't get dashed to pieces, and it's even rarer still for this to happen to a nearly complete skeleton/tree/whatever type of organism, and not just bits and pieces. And it's even rarer still for this to happen to soft tissue, and not just hard parts. Then, even if just the right circumstances existed for a fossil to form, we need to be lucky enough to find it once it's been exposed by erosion, but before erosion carries on further and destroys the fossil altogether.

We can be pretty damn sure that we haven't discovered all the fossilized species there are to discover. New species are discovered every year, and that trend doesn't seem to be slowing down. And it's not just that we haven't discovered fossils of every animal that ever lived - we haven't even discovered fossils from all the animals alive today. Another point I'm reminded of from Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth is the phylum of flatworms known as Platyhelminthes, which includes Turbellaria, tapeworms, and flukes. There are thousands of species of this phylum, and the animals are quite numerous. Yet no fossils of these creatures have ever been found. Obviously, they didn't simply spring into existence recently. The problem is that fossilization is so rare. And if we can't find fossils of all extant species, why should we expect to find fossils of all extinct species?

The final point on this is that the fossil record isn't the only evidence for evolution. In fact, Darwin himself only devoted two chapters in Origin of Species to the fossil record. To quote from my own review of the book, "The rest of Origin of Species is about what he observed in the world around him - how there seem to be clusters of similar species, the difficulties of distinguishing between true species and merely varieties of the same species, the geographical distribution of species, etc." While we know much more from the fossil record in our time than Darwin did in his, we still have strong evidence from other sources such as biogeography, comparative anatomy, and most especially from genetics. If we lived in a world where scavengers were so efficient that nothing ever fossilized, we would still have enough evidence to consider evolution a fact, and to have a pretty good idea of the tree of life.

She also says, "There are splendid fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs—and even feet." But she doesn't give me any details of such splendor. Where are they? Instead, she quotes the Bible: "Oh foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not." However, Jeremiah is speaking of Israel's rejection of the message of the Gospel (not Darwinian evolution), something Scott dismisses as "rather heavy-handed evangelism."

If Comfort thinks he's qualified enough to write an introduction to Origin of Species, how can he have the gall to ask Scott to do his research for him. It's not as if either whale or bird evolution are obscure topics.

Scott provided a good link providing information on whale evolution, including intermediate forms between mesonychids and whales. Here's another good source. And if you're willing to go to a library or a bookstore, Carl Zimmer's book, At the Water's Edge devotes the second half to this transition.

For bird evolution, just going to Wikipedia is a good starting point. Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters covers a bit of this evolution, including an excellent illustration, which I've copied below, comparing a pigeon to archaeopteryx (a primitive bird with teeth and claws) and to theropod dinosaurs. In fact, one of the first specimens of archaeopteryx ever found was mistaken for the theropod, Compsognathus. Another good starting point for feathered dinosaurs is the Wikipedia entry on... Feathered Dinosaurs.

Non-avian Dinosaur & Bird Homology
Figure from Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

These fossils do exist in abundance, and it only takes a cursory Internet search to find information on them. There is no excuse for Comfort to not know of them.

She then encourages doubters to consider museums where "you will find transitional fossils galore." I went to the Smithsonian to see the fossils galore, and they were there—millions of fossils that were evidence of special creation. The Smithsonian didn't have any transitional fossils that proved evolution (staunch believers claim that they have them, but not on display). I also visited the evolution museum in Paris (Grande Galerie de L'Evolution). I took a camera crew, and we spent an hour looking for the evolution exhibit. It didn't have one. All it had were millions of fossils of fully formed animals that God created.

I haven't been to the Grande Galerie de L'Evolution, so I can't speak to it. I have, however, been to the Smithsonian. I didn't see a single exhibit focused solely on evolution, because evolution is woven into every exhibit in the Natural History Museum (well, at least those sections having to do with biology). It would be like going to the Air & Space Museum, and claiming flight was impossible if you didn't happen to see the exhibits dealing with the theory.

I was lucky enough to get to go behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum, and yes, there are many, many more specimens in storage that aren't on public display. But, there are still plenty of transitional forms to be seen in the public areas.

There are so many gaps and holes in the theory of evolution that you could drive a fleet of a thousand fully laden 18-wheelers through them. The irony is that I can see them, and I'm not an expert on the subject of evolution. So, what does that say about the theory's experts, whoever they are? It says (as a wise man once said) that man will believe anything . . . as long as it's not in the Bible.

I think Comfort inadvertently sums it up quite nicely in this paragraph when he wrote, "...and I'm not an expert on the subject of evolution." That's clear from everything he wrote in the previous paragraphs. Following a similar theme to what I've written several times throughout this blog entry, if Comfort knows he's not an expert on evolution, why did he feel qualified to write an introduction to Origin of Species, and why did he feel qualified to write on evolution for U.S. News and World Report?


*The only part of Comfort's description of his introduction that I'll comment on here is the Hitler connection. I've already covered a similar argument in my review of Expelled. Aside from the fact that it's not really true (Hitler tried to justify his hate from whatever sources he could use, but seems to have been most influenced by Martin Luther in this regard) and the odiousness of abusing the memories of Holocaust victims for political purposes, I've always thought it was just a plain stupid argument. It would be like trying to argue that atomic theory isn't true because it lead to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It just doesn't make sense.

Comments

i like to discuss with you the evolution of birds and where did you get the page about bird evolution on your web here. i'm waiting your reply at

ridwan - if you're interested in entries I've written that contain information on bird evolution, here's a list of the most relevant.

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