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Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I

Ray Comfort's new movie, Evolution vs. God, is finally out on YouTube. I mentioned this movie a few weeks ago in the entry, Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God. At that time, the movie was only available by paying for a download, which I obviously wasn't going to do. Now that the movie's out for free, I actually took the time to watch it and write this review. By this point, I'm a little late to the party in my critique, and there are already pretty good reviews out there. But I figured I'd add my voice, especially given Comfort's special significance to this blog*. And since this review grew so long as I was typing it, I've decided to divide it into two parts. This first part covers the 'sciencey' portions of the movie.

But first, for anyone who's interested, I've embedded the video below.

My original expectations for the movie weren't far off the mark. Comfort still doesn't understand evolution, at all, despite all the years he's spent trying to debunk it. The movie also made extensive use of selective editing of interviews, arguments from semantics, misconstrued definitions, and Comfort's trademark series of leading questions on whether or not you're a good person. To be charitable, the movie did highlight a few real problems, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes on purpose. But overall, this movie is just one more example of Comfort's colossal lack of understanding of evolution, combined with his questionable ethics in trying to get his point across. And to be honest, I didn't particularly like the documentary style. The constant jumping from interviewee to interviewee, never showing any of them for long enough to give a detailed response, wasn't very engaging, and several times I found myself bored.

I'm going to try to review the movie pretty much chronologically, breaking up my review into the same topics that Comfort used. Since he didn't exactly use headings, and some transitions were a bit fluid, this will be a bit inexact, but still pretty close. I'll begin each section with a few examples before adding my commentary.

One note I'll add up here concerns Comfort's method of jumping so fluidly from one scene to the next. It was done in such a manner as to give the appearance of continuity, but without the viewer actually knowing what conversations were taking place. For example, he might ask one person a question, and then jump to several people giving answers. The impression is that he asked the same question of all the interviewees, but there's no way to be sure. Similarly, sometimes after a person gave a response, he would jump to another clip, where his statement or question seemed like a response to the previous person. And maybe he would have responded that way to the previous person, but you don't get to see their reaction, nor whether they would have had a reply of their own.

Meeting the Interviewees

The movie began by briefly displaying a Richard Dawkins quote ("Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence") with eerie background music, and then a short title sequence, before beginning in earnest by introducing the interviewees who would be shown responding to Comfort's questions throughout the movie. These began with the interviewees stating their religious positions - atheist, agnostic, or leaning that way, and confirming their belief in evolution. Next was a quote describing evolution, " 'Live Science' says of Darwinian Evolution: 'It can turn dinosaurs into birds, apes into humans and amphibious mammals into whales.' " with an authoritative voice over reading the quote verbatim. Following that was a professor giving a brief statement about evolution removing the need for the supernatural in explaining the origin of life, and then back to brief responses from interviewees, this time concerning whether evolution is a 'belief', when people started believing, their reasons for believing, the majors of the students he was talking to, etc. Just to give an idea of how fast all the cuts are in this movie and how superficial all the discussion is, everything mentioned in this paragraph was covered in just a little under 3 minutes.

Observable Evidence

Now it was time for another quote read by the authoritative voice, "A scientific method is based on 'the collection of data through observation and experimentation...' -Science Daily" Actually, that's not such a bad statement, but notice that he's quoting a popular news magazine. If you're going to play the definition game, here's another definition of science, this one from Wikipedia, "Science ... is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, 'science' also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied."

Here's where Comfort's mangling of science first comes into the documentary. He asked a man, "Could you give me some observable evidence that evolution is true, something I don't have to receive by faith. Some observable evidence." The man responded by saying to take a look at what happened 65 million years ago, and Comfort jumped in to say that something that happened 65 million years ago isn't observable. Fair enough from a strict point of view. That's not exactly evidence. But then the movie starts cutting to other interviewees, without showing exactly what questions they were asked, showing them discussing deep time, with Comfort periodically interjecting that that means it can't be observed. This was all followed by a quote from Richard Dawkins that our lives are too short to "see evolution going on", and a similar quote from Charles Darwin.

While talking to PZ Myers, Comfort described that there are different kinds - feline kind, canine kind, human kind. He then asked Myers, "Darwin said there'd be a change of kinds over many years, so could you give me one example of observable evidence of a change in kinds." Myers began discussing fossil evidence, and Comfort asked how long ago all these evolutionary changes took place. When Myers responded that it was around 60 million years ago, Comfort seamlessly jumped to another clip, stating "I don't want something I have to accept by faith. I want it to be observable." It wasn't a direct response to Myers, but it seemed to imply that Myers hadn't given observable evidence. He then moved on to showing students who couldn't provide any good observable evidence, and getting them to admit they had 'faith' in evolution.

Next it was back to PZ Myers again, who began discussing evidence from the genetics of stickleback fish. But when Comfort learned that they were still sticklebacks, his somewhat incredulous reply was, "They stayed as fish". He went on from there asking more people about 'observable' evidence of change in kinds, always objecting that since these changes take longer than a human lifespan, that they're not observable.

This whole section of the documentary is either dishonest, or Comfort really isn't thinking things through. Observable evidence of an event does not necessarily mean directly witnessing the event. And in no other aspects of studying history do we call it faith to accept something as true that we haven't directly observed. I'll use an example. Mesoamerican history really interests me. Civilizations like the Maya or the earlier Olmec are fascinating. But nobody has directly observed those civilizations. The 'observable evidence' that we do have is what archaeologists find when they go investigating sites. We didn't see the artist who made The Wrestler, nor did we see it in that distant time period, but it is an artifact that can be observed. Likewise, we never directly observed any inhabitants of Tikal, but the ruins themselves are observable evidence. It would be ludicrous to say that we accept the existence of those civilizations on faith. We accumulate the evidence we have to form the most likely picture of the past.

Evidence for evolution is similar. A fossil is observable evidence, even if we didn't see the organism while it was alive. Studying genetics is observable. Anyone can go out and replicate the procedures used by geneticists to verify that they get the same results. It may take a little reasoning to put all the evidence together into a coherent picture, but that's how science works. For example, have you ever directly witnessed the Earth orbiting the Sun? Nobody has. We're inside the system, and nobody has ever traveled 'above' the solar system to directly observe it. Heliocentric theory is based on studying the evidence that we can see, and then reasoning out the motions of the planets from that.

Besides, the type of direct observation Comfort is asking for is ludicrous. Evolutionary theory doesn't predict that one 'kind' will evolve into another 'kind' in any type of timescale that humans can directly observe. It's true that we have witnessed a few speciation events (see Talk Origins - Observed Instances of Speciation, but when Comfort talks of changing kinds, he's talking of much bigger changes. It's almost as if he wants to see a cat give birth to a dog. If I give Comfort the benefit benefit of the doubt here, maybe he's trying to argue that since a change of kinds can't be witnessed because it's such a slow process, it must therefore be taken on faith. He'd still be incorrect, but not so bad as expecting a cat-dog. Though, even giving him the benefit of the doubt here might be too generous, considering how ludicrous his arguments can be (for an example, scroll about halfway down this page for his strange interpretation of dog evolution.)

Darwinian Evolution

This is closely related to the above discussion, but I want to make a different point. A bit later, Comfort asked Myers, "Can you give me an example of Darwinian evolution? Not adaptation or speciation, but a change of kinds." When Myers replied that he had been giving examples of a type of fish evolving into multiple distinct kinds of fish, Comfort again went back to his retort that "They're still fish." Myers also brought up Lenski's famous e. coli experiment (see The Loom - The Birth of the New, The Rewiring of the Old), and Comfort had the nerve to say, "That's not Darwinian evolution," and then a seamless transition into the next scene where he says "That's not a change in kind." He went on to say, "To summarize, the observable evidence you've given me for Darwinian evolution is bacteria becoming bacteria." He kept on harping on this topic, asking for an observed instance of one kind becoming another kind. There was a discussion on the Galapagos finches, and of course, Comfort's reply was "They're still birds", and that it therefore wasn't Darwinian evolution. He spent a fair amount of time showing students getting stumped again, not being able to instantaneously offer observed evidence of one kind changing into another. After insisting on this unrealistic expectation of evidence, he said that evolution therefore wasn't scientific, and showed the students he was able to get to go along with that statement, and then just a bit later students that he was able to convince that they were going on 'blind faith', with a repeat of the Dawkins quote from the start of the documentary.

First, it's a bit strange to keep harping on 'Darwinian' evolution 150 years after Darwin. Modern evolutionary theory is the modern synthesis. It owes much to Darwin's theory of natural selection, but it's more than that. It takes into account genetics, which Darwin didn't have a good handle on. It incorporates genetic drift, kin selection, Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and much that Darwin never even dreamed of.

Even if we were to pay homage to Darwin and refer to modern evolutionary theory as Darwinian evolution, Comfort doesn't seem to understand the real definition. Here's a biology professor's definition, "Biological evolution is the change that species (kinds of living things) undergo over time. More precisely, it is the change in the gene pools of living populations of species which occurs over time. A gene is a hereditary unit that can be passed on. A gene pool is the set of all genes in a species or population." That's pretty consistent with definitions I've seen elsewhere. All the examples described above, from the Galapagos finches, to stickleback fish, to Lenski's e. coli experiments, show changes in the gene pools of populations. Lenski's experiment is particularly exciting, because it shows an entirely new biochemical ability that developed in a population.

However, this is one of the areas where Comfort did highlight a legitimate problem - not enough people understand the evidence supporting evolution. However, contrary to Comfort's interpretation, this is not because the evidence doesn't exist, but rather because of the nature of our education system. So much of science education, especially in grade school and undergrad, is teaching concepts, with only a bit of the evidence of how we know those things. For example, I don't think that even Comfort doubts atomic theory, but how many people can explain the evidence for why atomic theory is true? How do you know we're composed of these weird particles called atoms, with a nucleus full of protons and neutrons, and electrons flitting about outside the nucleus?

Lungs AND Gills?

This next bit was actually part of the above discussion, but I wanted to pull it out on its own. Here's something Comfort actually said in the movie.

So did we have lungs or gills when we came out of the sea? ... If we came out of the sea, we had gills in the sea.

The reason this stands out to me is that he said nearly the same thing in a CD that I listened to years ago, the very CD that inspired me to start this blog. It's such an ignorant argument, implying that it would be silly for an animal to have both lungs and gills. But guess what, numerous such animals exist today, not just as inferences from the fossil record.

Here are a few animals with both gills and lungs:

And of course, many amphibians go through a metamorphosis, and so have gills and lungs at different stages of their lives.

Here are a few fish with vascularized swim bladders that can be used to breathe air:

And here are a few fish that have evolved independent means of breathing air:

Really, it seems quite useful for organisms to be able to breathe above and under water. And it's not as if it's a terribly rare trait. The list above contains quite a few vertebrates with that capability. And that's not even considering invertebrates (such as crabs). And further, some of the fish above, including lungfish and bettas, are actually required to breathe air - their gills can't get them enough oxygen to survive.

Intelligent Design

Just for reference, it's now just about 14 minutes into the documentary.

So, with his ludicrous demands for observable evidence of one kind changing into another out of the way, he moved on to discussing Intelligent Design (ID). He started off by asking people to make a rose. And when people responded that they couldn't, his inane response was "Hang on. Now it's not intelligently designed, so you should be able to whip me up a rose real quick." What type of sense does that even make? Simple vs. complex doesn't denote intelligently designed vs. natural. A hammer is intelligently designed. It's also very simple, and I'd have no problem making one. A geode is naturally occurring, but I couldn't make one of them.

He transitioned from that into saying that nobody can make something from nothing, not even a grain of sand. That's not what evolutionary theory even says. Creation ex nihlo is a religious concept. Evolutionary theory starts up with the universe already existing.

Next was another example of how badly he represented the scientific understanding of the history of the universe, "There was nothing in the beginning, a big explosion of nothing, it become something. It became into a rose, and giraffes and horses and cows." It's as if he's trying to represent the history of the universe as the big bang leading directly to fully formed organisms, completely ignoring the expansion of the universe, stellar evolution, the formation of our solar system, abiogenesis, and finally biological evolution.

Vestigial Traits

Next came a discussion of "vestigials". The student he was interviewing said it was a left over organ with no use, and Comfort jumped on that 'no use' part. In particular, he pointed out that tail bones anchor tendons, ligaments and muscles, and that the appendix is actually a part of the immune system. Since I've already played the definitions game once in this entry, let's do it again and take a look at how Meriam Webster defines 'vestige'. This is the second definition given, the one with the biological connotation:

a bodily part or organ that is small and degenerate or imperfectly developed in comparison to one more fully developed in an earlier stage of the individual, in a past generation, or in closely related forms

Where does that definition say no function at all? It doesn't, because that's not what vestigial means. Many body parts have multiple functions. For example, our larynxes allow us to breathe, but they've also been co-opted for communication (speech). Same with tongues, though for them it's eating and speaking. Our hands have many, many functions.

If you go back far enough, our ancestors had tails. Those tails did all the normal functions tails do - especially balance in our simian ancestors, and also providing an anchor point for tendons, ligaments and muscles. At some point, our ancestral line lost their tails - probably due to a change in locomotion through the trees where they weren't as important. But all those tendons, ligaments and muscles for our leg muscles still needed anchoring points. Evolution doesn't do a whole lot of creating new parts from scratch, but rather modifying existing features. So, as our ancestors lost their tails, they couldn't lost the parts that anchored tissues for the legs, so they couldn't lose those bones entirely. And we still have that vestige of the past - a short 'tail' that's not even long enough to poke out through our skin. It still has a function, but it is "small and degenerate" compared to our simian ancestors.

As far as the appendix, I'll direct readers to the TalkOrigins article, The vestigiality of the human vermiform appendix: A modern reappraisal. Comparing the human appendix to the caecum of other animals, it's pretty clear that the human index is greatly reduced. It also seems rather unnecessarily complicated for the limited functionality it might have (though even any functionality is disputed).

And of course, appendices and coccyges aren't the only examples of vestigial organs. While the following article may not be the scientifically rigorous, it does provide some good examples, Top 10 Useless Limbs (and Other Vestigial Organs).

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At this point, just over 17 minutes into the movie, or about halfway through, Comfort's pretty much done with any discussion of science. So, that makes for a good breaking point for this review. Look forward to Part II, which will focus more on religion, in about a week.

Continue Reading: Part II

Comments

Thanks for taking the effort to write your blog, Jeff. It would seem from the lack of comments so far that no many are reading your intelligent analysis of "stuff", which is a shame. If only you had the staff to help you put it all up into youtube clips as some specialists are doing, like Numberphile, for example.

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