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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Classification Schemes

Post of the Month: June 2003


Subject:    Re: To John Harshman:  Kinds Continued
Date:       8 June 2003

zoe_althrop wrote:
> John Wilkins had also asked:
> >Are these kinds commensurate? I mean by this, are they the same "level"
> >of kind?
> I don't understand your question, John W. What do you have in mind
> when you say "same level" of kind? Could you rephrase?

If I sort my books into books by Terry Pratchett, and books on evolutionary biology, I will get a roughly similar number of books (Pratchett being a prolific author*), but the two kinds are not of the same "level", which is to say, "sorted by author". To compare species with, say, autotrophic organisms is to make a category error. There are at least two kinds of category error. You can miscompare lower levels with higher levels (like comparing species to families), or you can miscompare kinds of one classification scheme with kinds of another classification scheme (like comparing oranges with building screws). If you treat "humans" as one kind, then to make your classification scheme commensurate (measurable on a single consistent scale), all the other kinds should be both in the same scheme, and of the same scale. In short, the ranks should be at the same level and in the same taxonomy. For example, humans are a species. We can therefore make meaningful comparisons between humans and dogs, or humans and chimps. These are all species. It is less evident if we can make meaningful comparisons (say, in deciding what to conserve ecologically) between chimps and species of fruit trees. While there is a single scheme in biology, it is known to be artificial and the comparisons are less useful once you get too far afield.

Genes, on the other hand, are much more comparable across all life. A chimp gene, a human gene, and a viral gene in a tobacco plant all use much the same machinery, and are directly comparable (in fact, they can often be transplanted across taxonomic groups with no ill effects). Now you claimed that humans and winged animals are a kind each. This implies that you think the kind "human" and the kind "winged animal" are at the same rank in the same classification scheme. But of course, they need not be, any more than the taxon "Pratchett books" and "evolution books" need be.

Of course, if they are not, then all you have is an artificial scheme for classifying things, and it has no biological ramifications whatsoever. You are, in effect, saying that "I and my friends like to group things this way". Fine. Biologists don't, though, because all the evidence goes to show that biologically, humans are at the same rank as chimps, dogs, and fruitfly species.

And if you want to argue from "this is how I like to break them up" to "this means they cannot change one into another" then you are effectively saying that your ideas make the world the way it is. Science cannot adopt that stance. Instead, it has to learn from the world, not from the words.

> >Or is "kind" just a generic category?
> to me, "kind" means type. All life forms that reproduce their own
> characteristics, or variations of their own characteristics, would be
> considered the same type or kind of life form. If use of the word
> "type" or "kind" means generic to you, then yes, I am using "kinds"
> generically. From this basic foundation can be built a scientific
> description of the various kinds of life forms described above.

I meant, are you just saying that a "kind" is any category into which things get classified? If so, then kind has no more meaning than "things used in the kitchen", "belonging to the emperor", "things that look like ants when viewed from a distance" and so forth, in that famous Borges essay.

* This is a joke; Terry has around 26 books. I have about 150 or so books on aspects of evolution. But even so, these are within a single order of magnitude.

John Wilkins
"And this is a damnable doctrine" - Charles Darwin, Autobiography

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Why Be A Scientist?

Post of the Month Runner-Up: June 2003


Subject:    Why would any kid want to be a scientist?
Date:       18 June 2003

Along with the final progress reports, I received the following comments written about my son by the others in his class.

1. Connor is good at science.
2. He likes to talk.
3. He is a good scientist.
4. I like Connor because he is a smart student.
5. He is the best scientist in the class.
6. He sure likes reptiles and X-men.
7. He is a good scientist.
8. Connor is nice, smart and friendly.
9. Connor is a mad scientist.
10. I like him because he is funny.
11. Connor's dream is to be a scientist.
12. I like Connor because he is smart.
13. He is good at science.
14. Connor is good at science and he is funny.
15. He gives me free paper when I need some.
16. Connor has good ideas.
17. Connor wants to invent things.
18. I have enjoyed having Connor in my class because he is so very smart and is very inquisitive. He always wants people to hear his ideas. Connor will always have a special place in my heart.

(sniff) I'm so proud. 8^)

OK, some creationists like to stereotype scientists as "poindexters" or opinionated out-of-shape lying trolls like the miserable dweeb in Hovind's despicable "Big Daddy" tract. I really like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but he only aids them in them in this image, ridiculing science as a profession by presenting professional scientists as 98 lb. weaklings, four-eyed, egg-headed, vengeful nerds and demeaning parodies of Einstein. This misrepresentation is one reason why so few students would even consider a career in science. But lest we forget, Indiana Jones was based on a real guy! (pistol-packing Paleontologist, Roy Chapman Andrews)

My young son isn't some Casper Milquetoast dork from Dexter's Lab who talks funny, reads comic books and can't get a girlfriend. But he wants to be a scientist. Why? Because (a) he's analytical and intellectual, (b) he argues with everyone about everything, (c) he's fascinated by the natural world around him, and genuinely wants to understand how it works and how he can make it work for him, (d) he already has a fedora like Alan Grant's from Jurassic Park, and (e) he's a thrill-seeker who knows what some lucky scientists really get to do.

On several different documentaries, my son has seen anthropologists having to fly all the way to Kuala Lumpur just to get a soil sample for radioisotopic dating. He's seen paleontologists jetting off to Argentina, Australia and China to examine strange monsters never seen before. He's seen a number of naturalists wrestling reticulated pythons in Bangkok, herpetologists treed by Komodo dragons, bikini-clad taxonomists sailing private schooners through Indonesian Islands, marine biologists flying their own seaplanes to secluded dives in Palau, geologists camping in the Grand Canyon, volcanologists creeping dangerously close to dramatic Hawaiian lava flows, botanists repelling from the Amazonian canopy, physicists firing rockets and lasers, meteorologists driving like Hell to outrun tornadoes and geographers rafting the deadly Tsang Po river through the Himalayas. Sure you may have to spend a few months hiking the Alaskan mountains tracking giant grizzlies or wearing a pressure suit while sky-diving from a weather balloon on the edge of space. But is that so bad? What other job can you have where you can fly in an open-cockpit ultralight, and then jump out of that 300 lb. plane from 30 feet over the ocean while wearing a wet suit so you can then swim with a quarter million pound whale?

Some people work in a warehouse or a factory for decades at a stretch and think it outrageous to live with a family of gorillas for a couple of years, or spend six months in a co-ed outpost in the Antarctic, or to even wonder about the world beyond the company store. But while most people work hard all day and still can't afford remote-control toys, scientists get to play with the million-dollar versions as they chase 50 meter-long aliens from the abyss with their RC submarines, or use them to take movie stars along as they explore the ghostly interior of the Titanic. I wish someone would pay me to ride manta rays in the Baja gulf, or teach orangutans how to read, or design hypervelocity aircraft in virtual reality. That has to be better than working a help-desk and trying to teach humans how to access their email!

My son's dream is to build those RC probes. He was largely inspired by the Discovery Channel, and shows like Monster Garage and Robot Wars, but also by the Viking probes, Voyager and various other less famous breakthroughs in robotics, like those simulated arthropods that walk underwater, or the lawnmower that eats grass, or the ones that actually digest real food.

Now I realize that most science work is brain-bending mathematics and scrupulous analysis of chemical data, and maybe sometimes it's boring just like any other job. But being smart doesn't mean you're a wimp or an "absent-minded professor". Even boring "dorky" lab-coat science is as demanding as practicing law, climbing corporate ladders or any other profession where you're recognized only for your expertise or where accuracy is paramount. Exploration of any unknown is an adventure, and you're not likely to unlock the secrets of the universe doing any other job.

I need such a job, one that might let me make us of my convertible 4x4 and my leather fedora. (Ever notice how many paleontologists wear fedoras?)

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A Former Creationist's Testimony

Post of the Month Honorable Mention: June 2003


Subject:    Hallelujah, a testimony!
Date:       11 June 2003

Hello to the wonderful people (and risible trolls) of TO. This is my first time posting here, but I've been a lurker for quite some time and digested the FAQs and material available at Although it's a bit personally embarassing, I'd like to share with you how I made my way out of the benighted, medieval swamps of creationism and into the Elysian Fields of evolutionary theory and rational thought. The quasi-religious tone is wholly intentional, so <location.Tongue="in_cheek">.

As a child, I was raised in a Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches church -- think "Mennonites with a sense of humor." From the start, I was told that the Earth was only a few thousand years old at most, that God created everything in seven literal days, the whole schtick. Being the trusting sort, I gobbled it all up and believed it. Shame on me.

The church I attended had a fairly extensive library of '60's and '70's vintage creationist books -- Paluxy River stuff and ICR out the wazoo. I've always been a voracious reader, and I tore through all of their books with a vengeance, lock, stock, and "Second Law of Thermodynamics." I bought tapes from Ken Ham and Carl Baugh, and listened to them every night before I did my daily devotional. It sickens me now to think of all the legitimate work I missed out on, and I've been spending the last few years making up for it.

When I graduated high school, I enrolled at Grace University, a bible college in Omaha, Nebraska. Of course, I was required to sign a "doctrinal statement" upon application that spelled out my beliefs in a literal creation, and I did so without hesitation, although by this point I'd had enough public-school science to start planting the faintest little doubts in the back of my mind. Why would God have created a world just a few thousand years ago, but made it look so gosh-darned old, for instance.

Well, long story short, I didn't really fit in at Grace (due quite a bit to their requirement to "confess your sins" (where "sin" == "breaking a school rule") in public in front of the whole school during chapel, so I quit after a single year, then found myself in the Air Force. Once out on my own, the strictures and shackles of my religious upbringing were loosened considerably, so I started to experiment with various belief systems. While browsing the science section of a bookstore outside my airbase, I stumbled across Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and I bought it, then devoured it. Here were explanations that made sense -- no ad hockery, no handwaving to get around sticky issues, just plain, honest, scientific thought. The scales were lifted from my eyes, so to speak, and I found something I could believe in not because I was raised that way, not because I had to accept unseen and untestable claims for it, but precisely because I could test the conclusions presented in evolutionary theory for myself.

I was a changed man: where once my frame of reference was voluntarily circumscribed by the millennia-old writings of religious teachers, now I was finally free to explore the limitless boundaries of learning, thanks to science. I bought more books, this time by Shermer, Sagan, and Randi, to learn how to filter out the junk that I'd put into my own thought processes. It wasn't something that happened overnight, but gradually I began to realize that I was remaking my whole philosophy into one based on the tenets of logic, reason, and empirical observation.

The biggest opponents I had to this change in my beliefs were, predictably enough, my family and my pastor from back home. When I got out of the Air Force and moved back to Omaha, they all tried to convince me that my place was at church with them, doing the same old things and parroting the same old phrases that got me into a pseudoscientific lifestyle in the first place. I told them I was different, and that I wouldn't be drawn back to my old patterns. I gave my parents a copy of Why People Believe Weird Things, and told them to read it. So far, they're still YECs, but I haven't given up hope.

Sometimes I feel very advanced on my path as a rational thinker: I've been working my way through Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and pieces are starting to fall into place for the nuts-and-bolts aspects of evolution. Other times, though, I have to go back and re-read Dawkins' The Selfish Gene to refresh my memories of the most basic concepts.

With the support of some good rationalist friends, I've been quite successful at combating the twin demons of ignorance and deception that creationist authors use to prey upon their uninformed readers. Just yesterday I was able to prepare a rebuttal to Woodmorappe's Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study thanks to the FAQs at the TO Archive (all dutifully attributed, of course).

It's not an easy struggle, but it's one into which I'm glad to cast my lot. I just wanted to inform the many of you out there who are spreading the good news of evolutionary theory and rational thought that there are people like me, who value the work you do combatting superstition and foolishness. Thank you so much for being voices of reason in a chaotic world!

And this brother went away edified.

Michael Bragg -- For great justice, take off every 'zig!'

P.S. -- Where do I sign up for the EAC?

[Note: The EAC does not exist --Ed.]

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The Greatest Possible Liturgy

Post of the Month Editor's Pick: June 2003


Subject:    Re: Is theistic evolution compatible with unguided evolution?
Date:       30 June 2003

In article <>, SortingItOut wrote:


> Something has been nagging at me about the concept of theistic
> evolution, and that is how the process was guided. I had thought that
> the ToE would have prevented this idea by theorizing that the
> direction of evolution was truly unguided.

Um, no. There is no such agenda to the theory, even if some researchers hold that (or its opposite) as personal agendas. There is some degree of confusion in the question, I think. The notion of a "direction" of evolution is in fact very much contrary to the theory -- it's more a popular myth or hold-over from an earlier (non-Darwinian) sense of "evolution" being some inexorable "progress."

The theory may well (I think it does) establish that there is no need for guidance to explain what is in fact found in nature. (The advocates of "Intelligent Design" are trying -- by self-obfuscation and attempts to cloud the issues IMO -- to find some minuscule hook on which to hang some slight residue of "guidance" -- but they most certainly have not found such a thing yet. They do have some misapplied mathematical notions that do not in fact have much to do with real biology, but that's it.)

The analogy is to the system of planetary orbits, the keystone of the original application of Newton's new physics. One great product of this original effort to explain the world was the publication of Laplace's "Celestial Mechanics". Apocryphally, Napoleon is supposed to have asked Laplace where in his tome there was mention of God, to which Laplace is said to have replied, "Sire, I have no need of such a hypothesis." For a full appreciation of this, you need to know that Laplace was a devout (and reactionary) Catholic.

Evolutionary biology has no need of any hypothesis of "guidance". Period. All attempts to "import" such an hypothesis (common in the 19th century, now only tried by confused folk who want to evade serious confrontation with scientific biology) have failed, time and again, with zero results to their credit, always instead looking like rather pathetic "God of the gaps" attempts to sneak God into scientific theorization.

"God" as a theoretical term has no place in science -- whether done by axe-grinding atheists or by devout Christians, Muslims, Mormons, or neo-pagan wiccan types. Any such "use" of "God" is a way to excuse an inability to do honest science.

I say this as a Christian who honestly thinks that one of the greatest possible liturgies (i.e., works one can do, and should do, for God) is honest scientific investigation of Nature, which is, in my faith the Creation of God.

What does this mean for "theistic evolution", and the doctrine that God is Creator of all things, visible and invisible? and that all things are under the activity of Divine Providence? Well, that's a rather hard question. Here too, I think the analogy to classical (or post-classical) gravitational theory is helpful -- God does not employ angels to nudge the planets into appropriate courses. There is nothing going on there except that which is explicable, in increasingly accurate ways, through Newtonian and then Einsteinian gravitational theory, plus whatever may (indeed, must) succeed General Relativity.

Nonetheless, the Solar System, while "known" through numerical integrations to have long term chaos in its orbits, does seem to be "stable enough" in the shorter term to foster a livable platform for the human experience, from its origins to its likely demise. Does God have to "tinker" with this all the time to make it "work"? That would seem to be a particularly inept kind of engineer, and not the God proclaimed in Gospel and Creed! Some folks seem to "find a place for God" in the secretive realm of quantum indeterminacy -- a narrow hiding place for YHWH Sabaoth! I don't know any theological reason to deny that God might be throwing the quantum dice -- but it sure doesn't sound like the God of the Prophets!

Similarly, the notion that God "guides" evolution by micro-managing things seems to me peculiarly limiting of Divine Majesty!

It seems to me that orthodox Christian theology sees God as acting everywhere and in everything -- and sees all things as proclaiming the glory of God, without attempting to reserve some few special (because insufficiently known) and obscure things as the realm of God's activity, thereby having to take things out of the "God" column as soon as they have some adequate natural explanation. Trying to make God into a "term" in a "scientific" explanation is futile - it makes anything that has an explanation without the term "out of bounds for God" (hardly a Christian position!), and it makes any explanation with the term useless -- because God is totally unconstrained, and so the explanation cannot explain anything at all (as anything else has the identical explanation.)

Let the heathen Creationists rage for a while against Newton and his devilish atheistic Gravitation, before they attempt to blather on in ignorance of biology!

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