Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Michael Ruse debates Stephen C. Meyer on intelligent design and evolution on NPR

Here’s a debate between:

  • Stephen C. Meyer, author of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
  • Michael Ruse, Director of the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Florida State University

The MP3 file is here. (28 minutes)

The following summary is rated S for Slightly Snarky. Reader discretion is advised.


  • Moderator: (to Meyer) define creationism, evolution, and intelligent design
  • Meyer: creationism is based on an interpretation of the Bible
  • Meyer: evolution is an unguided process of mutation and selection that produces organisms
  • Meyer: intelligent design is the idea that the best explanation for certain features of life
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) Where do you disagree?
  • Ruse: Intelligent design is similar to creationism, but I won’t say how exactly
  • Meyer: ID is a good explanation for the sudden origin of animal body plans in the Cambrian era
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) Is the designer God? Is the designer the Christian God?
  • Meyer: No, ID theory is an inference that is rooted in scientific evidence, not in a religious text
  • Meyer: ID can be inferred from the origin of biological information and from molecular machines
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) Where do you disagree?
  • Ruse: Meyer is disingenuous because ID requires the designer to be God
  • Meyer: The biological evidence for intelligent design by itself does not implicate God
  • Meyer: The fine-tuning of the cosmos is intelligent design in physics, and that *would* require God
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) Explain what the Cambrian explosion is
  • Meyer: sudden origin of 36 body plans in 10 million years 530 million years ago
  • Moderator: So you think that 36 body plans in 10 million years is too sudden for Darwinian mechanisms to produce?
  • Meyer: Yes, for two reasons. One, there are no precursors prior to the start of the explosion in complexity
  • Meyer: And two, the complexity of animal life includes code, circuitry, hierarchies – best explained by a designer
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) Is it a problem for you?
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that denies that the Ediacaran fauna are precursors to the Cambrian animals
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that denies that microfossils are precursors to the Cambrian animals
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that denies that animal complexity goes from simple to complex in the fossil record
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that shows that the Cambrian explosion took place over a few million years
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that shows that there were complex organ types at the start of the Cambrian explosion
  • Ruse: There is no peer-reviewed paper that denies that we already have a materialist explanation for the Cambrian explosion
  • Ruse: everything is solved! nothing to see here! (folds arms and beams) I trust that my unsupported assertions have relieved your doubts, yes?
  • Moderator: Is intelligent design undermined by more recent science?
  • Meyer: no, there is an absence of precursor fossils in the period before the Cambrian explosion
  • Meyer: there are other things that make the problem even worse for naturalism, like information from epigenetics
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) Answer that
  • Ruse: He is just pulling out passages out of context because he is a creationist!
  • Moderator: The leftist New Yorker reviewer Gareth Cook says that the Cambrian explosion took tens of millions of years
  • Meyer: Actually, the peer-reviewed science is clear that the standard date is at most 10 million nears
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) Deny the mainstream date
  • Ruse: Well, Prothero says no! Ho ho ho! (folds arms) He just says it. No it’s not published in peer-reviewed research
  • Ruse: We know so much more than Darwin did, how could the progress of science disprove my materialist pre-supposition? It’s unpossible!
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) Isn’t ID pseudo-science?
  • Meyer: If we limit ourselves to materialist explanations only, then we cannot infer intelligence when we see artifacts like the Rosetta Stone
  • Meyer: wind and erosion is not an adequate explanation for certain systems – systems that are rich in information
  • Meyer: the best explanation is the explanation that relies on known causes – we know that intelligence produces information
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) so the intelligence is the best explanation of systems that have information?
  • Meyer: yes, think about software code – the best explanation of new computer instructions is an intelligence
  • Meyer: we have uniform and repeated experience of intelligence bringing new information into being, and new animals need new information
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) must science only work with natural explanations?
  • Ruse: intelligent design is religion! Ho ho ho ho! (folds arms)
  • Ruse: there is no a priori way of ruling out supernatural causes in order to explain nature
  • Ruse: We don’t need to introduce supernatural causes to explain information in living systems or in software code
  • Ruse: Steve is asking me to explain the Cambrian explosion, but why does he want me to explain that?
  • Ruse: How did anything start to fly? How did whales come? There, those questions explain the Cambrian explosion naturalistically
  • Ruse: Steve’s answer to explain new information is to bring in miracles, like when he said that new computer code requires God
  • Ruse: inferring intelligence as an explanation for information like the computer code is religion! God! Creationism! Prayer in schools!
  • Ruse: we have to keep looking for naturalistic explanations for the Big Bang, the DNA, the fine-tuning, the Cambrian fossils, etc.
  • Ruse: we are never justified in inferring an intelligence to explain information, because that would deny my religion of materialism
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) what are the requirements for a theory to be scientific?
  • Ruse: any explanation has to be naturalistic, because I am an atheist and that’s my religion, and we can’t go against my religion
  • Ruse: it’s “really stupid” to infer God as the explanation of the creation of the entire physical universe or the cosmic fine-tuning
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) why is intelligent design so popular when we have court cases saying it is not science?
  • Meyer: the Discovery Institute does not have an agenda to teach intelligent design in public schools
  • Meyer: intelligent design is about inferring intelligence as a causal explanation for information in living systems, and elsewhere
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) are evolutionists unwilling to entertain the possibility of intelligence being the best explanation?
  • Ruse: scientists have to make sure that that all their explanations don’t go outside of the materialist reservation
  • Ruse: intelligent design is evangelical Christianity dressed up to look like science, the Dover judge said so
  • Ruse: Meyer is disingenuous! Ho ho ho ho ho! (folds arms contentedly)
  • Meyer: first, judges don’t decide science, evidence decides science
  • Meyer: the Dover people made a mistake by trying to go to the courts to get things into the schools
  • Meyer: intelligent design is about research, writing books and papers based on what we learn from science
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) is intelligent design dangerous?
  • Ruse: yes, intelligent design is about politics, it’s not about cosmic fine-tuning, origin of life, molecular machines or Cambrian explosion
  • Ruse: intelligent design is about abstinence, prayer in schools, burdening women with unwanted babies and male-female marriage
  • Ruse: my reason for opposing ID is the socially conservative agenda which emerges from protein folding probability calculations
  • Ruse: I don’t want to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, I don’t want them to take away my drugs, etc. so that’s why I believe Darwinism
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) why do you want to take abortion away, you meany?
  • Meyer: actually, intelligent design is about science, and in any case National Review gave my book a bad review
  • Moderator: (to Ruse) are science and religion in conflict?
  • Ruse: well religion can just abstain from making any claims about the physical world, and just stick to subjective nonsense – that’s fair
  • Moderator: (to Meyer) isn’t all opposition to evolution rooted in fundamentalist religion?
  • Meyer: you can believe in Darwinism and be a theist, but the real reason for doubting Darwinism is the scientific evidence, not religion

Tell me how you think Dr. Meyer did in the comments.

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New study: tiny songbirds fly over the Atlantic ocean and back each year

Blackpoll Warbler- so tiny and so cute!

Blackpoll Warbler- so cute!

I love birds! I really, really do! A lot!

So here is the latest study, reported in Science Daily about our amazing feathered friends.

They write:

For more than 50 years, scientists had tantalizing clues suggesting that a tiny, boreal forest songbird known as the blackpoll warbler departs each fall from New England and eastern Canada to migrate nonstop in a direct line over the Atlantic Ocean toward South America, but proof was hard to come by.

Now, for the first time an international team of biologists report “irrefutable evidence” that the birds complete a nonstop flight ranging from about 1,410 to 1,721 miles (2,270 to 2,770 km) in just two to three days, making landfall somewhere in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the islands known as the Greater Antilles, from there going on to northern Venezuela and Columbia. Details of their study, which used light-level, or solar, geolocators, appear in the current issue of Biology Letters.

First author Bill DeLuca, an environmental conservation research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with colleagues at the University of Guelph, Ontario, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and other institutions, says, “For small songbirds, we are only just now beginning to understand the migratory routes that connect temperate breeding grounds to tropical wintering areas. We’re really excited to report that this is one of the longest nonstop overwater flights ever recorded for a songbird, and finally confirms what has long been believed to be one of the most extraordinary migratory feats on the planet.”

While other birds, such as albatrosses, sandpipers and gulls are known for trans-oceanic flights, the blackpoll warbler is a forest dweller that migrates boldly where few of its relatives dare to travel. Most migratory songbirds that winter in South America take a less risky, continental route south through Mexico and Central America, the authors note. A water landing would be fatal to a warbler.

[…]For this work the scientists fitted geolocator packs on 20 birds in Vermont and 20 more in Nova Scotia. They were able to recapture three birds from the Vermont group and two from the Nova Scotia group for analyses.

So-called light-level geolocators use solar geolocation, a method used for centuries by mariners and explorers. It is based on the fact that day length varies with latitude while time of solar noon varies with longitude. So all the instrument needs to do is record the date and length of daylight, from which daily locations can then be inferred once the geolocator is recaptured. “When we accessed the locators, we saw the blackpolls’ journey was indeed directly over the Atlantic. The distances travelled ranged from 2,270 to 2,770 kilometers,” DeLuca says.

Evolution News has more on the discovery.

They write:

More record-breaking discoveries may be in store. Oskin says that some of the blackpoll warblers spend their summers in Alaska and Canada instead of New England. If they fly east before joining the southern route to Colombia and Venezuela, it would add three thousand more miles to their annual migration.

[…]But that’s not all. Lest we forget, there are the Monarch butterflies, much smaller and lighter than birds, that travel three thousand miles from Canada to Mexico each year, as detailed in Illustra’s film Metamorphosis. Even though butterflies don’t fly non-stop, that’s — well, we need an adjective beyond “extraordinary.” And more recently, British scientists found that another butterfly, the painted lady, flies triple that distance — nine thousand miles — in its annual migration from the UK to Africa.

Think of all the integrated systems that have to be in place to make these migrations possible. The birds or butterflies need elegant flight systems, with all the attendant muscles, nerves, and structural supports required. They require digestive systems to sustain them, circulatory systems, thermal systems, sensory systems, and protection from the elements. Most astonishing are the navigational systems, including sensing the stars or the earth’s magnetic field, to take them unerringly to their destination and back over routes of thousands of miles. To pack all that in a tiny animal is a masterpiece of miniaturization. Oh — and then there’s a reproductive system, and a battery of instincts to operate all the systems.

It seems fair to say these engineering marvels are beyond the reach of unguided Darwinian evolution. The birds don’t have to fly that far. Warblers could stay inland along the coast, and feed on the way, or learn to get by through the winter like other birds do. Butterflies, too, could stay with other species that don’t migrate. Natural selection would take the easy road, get rid of the wings, and let them grovel in the dirt to eke out a living. These migratory abilities are gratuitous and superfluous to the requirements of mere survival. Such over-design, right on the “brink of impossibility,” speaks of design so beyond our comprehension, we can only stand in awe.

Butterflies are OK, but birds are much better – you can actually make friends with birds. Anyway, if you like birds as much as I do… well, no one likes them as much as I do… but if you like birds a lot, then you should get Illustra’s documentary Flight: The Genius of Birds and watch it. And share it with your friends.

Filed under: News, , , , , , ,

New study: Crows capable of analytical reasoning

Male normal gray cockatiel preens his wife's crest

Aww! Male cockatiel preens his wife’s crest

Melissa Cain Travis who blogs at Hard Core Christianity sent me news of this wonderful, wonderful study of crow intelligence. I love birds SO MUCH, so I have to blog any story that helps my readers to see why they should love birds, too.

First, read the story from Scientific American.

A recent research collaboration has discovered that crows exhibit strong behavioral signs of analogical reasoning — the ability to solve puzzles like “bird is to air as fish is towhat?” Analogical reasoning is considered to be the pinnacle of cognition and it only develops in humans between the ages of three and four.

[The research team] first trained hooded crows on several tasks in which they had to match items that were the same as one another. The crows were presented with a tray containing three cups. The middle cup was covered by a card picturing a color, a shape, or a number of items. The other two side cups were also covered by cards — one the same as and one different from the middle card. The cup under the matching card contained food, but the cup under the nonmatching card was empty. Crows quickly learned to choose the matching card and to do so more quickly from one task to the next.

Then, the critical test was given. Each card now pictured a pair of items. The middle card would display pairs AA or CD, and the two side cards would display pair BB and pair EF. The relation between one pair of items must be appreciated and then applied to a new pair of items to generate the correct answer: the BB card in the case of AA or the EF card in the case of CD. For instance, if the middle card displayed a circle and a cross, then the correct choice would be the side card containing a square and a triangle rather than the side card containing two squares.

Not only could the crows correctly perform this task, but they did so spontaneously, from the very first presentations, without ever being trained to do so.

Now watch this 2-minute video and see if you can find the answers faster than the crow. I was slower than the crow at the beginning, then faster at the end.

Well, are you impressed? I was impressed!!!!!

Now I have an absolutely silly thought to share with you.

I was thinking about these birds and science posts that I put up and the thought occurred to me about what Christians did to demonstrate the existence of God in debates before we knew about the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, galactic habitability, stellar habitability, origin of life, biological information, Cambrian explosion, molecular machines, and blah blah blah de blah.

So what would the William Lane Craig of those days do for his five arguments? Well, the fourth argument would still be the resurrection, and the fifth point would still be religious experience. But the first three would be… BIRDS! Argument one would be some parrot who had learned to talk and do tricks. Argument two would be some parrot who was particularly good at flying and hunting. And argument three would be some particularly beautiful bird. And that’s how you would prove the existence of a Creator and Designer before we had telescopes and microscopes to do it with. Pretty sure.

Anyway, that’s my (silly) idea. Birds are so wonderful, I just say silly things about them!

Filed under: News, , , , , , , ,

The many meanings of the word “evolution”

This is from an essay by Stephen C. Meyer and Mike Keas. (H/T Justin Taylor)

Meyer and Keas caution people about answering questions about evolution until the term is clearly defined.

Here are their 6 meanings of the word:

  1. Evolution as Change Over Time
  2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change
  3. Evolution as Limited Common Descent
  4. Evolution as a Mechanism that Produces Limited Change or Descent with Modification
  5. Evolution as Universal Common Descent
  6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

Here is one that everyone accepts:

2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change

Population geneticists study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. This very specific sense of evolution, though not without theoretical significance, is closely tied to a large collection of precise observations. The melanism studies of peppered moths, though currently contested, are among the most celebrated examples of such studies in microevolution. For the geneticist, gene frequency change is “evolution in action.”

And one that is controversial:

6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation. Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

For discussion purposes, I accept 1-4, which I think are consistent with the evidence. I deny 5 and 6 because they are inconsistent with the evidence.

It’s a good article to read to prepare yourself to discuss this with someone who is antagonistic to design. They may offer evidence for one definition of evolution that everyone accepts, then take it to be proof of a much more controversial definition of evolution. You have to get the definition clear first.

One last piece of advice. If you ever get asked this “do you believe in evolution” question – say, by a secular leftist anxious to label you as a moron – then you might consider going on the offensive, using this list of alternate science-related questions that actually affect public policy from David Harsanyi. Put your questioner on the defensive.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

New study: bird origins poses a convergence challenge to common ancestry

Male normal gray cockatiel preens his wife's crest

Male cockatiel preens his wife’s crest

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

And now, this new article on convergence in birds and humans, from Evolution News.

They write:

Everyone is familiar with the striking ability of certain birds (such as parrots) to vocalize speech, much as humans do. Well, according to the new papers published in Science that I wrote about earlier, confirming that birds arose explosively, those vocalization abilities are the result of “convergent evolution” at both the morphological and genetic levels.

Nature News reports, “The authors also conclude that vocal learning may have evolved independently in the ancestors of parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds.” But this is about more than just birds. According to a Science Daily article about the technical papers, the genetic “convergent evolution” extends to birds and humans:

“We’ve known for many years that the singing behavior of birds is similar to speech in humans — not identical, but similar — and that the brain circuitry is similar, too,” said Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical School and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But we didn’t know whether or not those features were the same because the genes were also the same.”Now scientists do know, and the answer is yes — birds and humans use essentially the same genes to speak.

After a massive international effort to sequence and compare the entire genomes of 48 species of birds representing every major order of the bird family tree, Jarvis and his colleagues found that vocal learning evolved twice or maybe three times among songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.

Even more striking is that the set of genes involved in each of those song innovations is remarkably similar to the genes involved in human speaking ability.

If you’re already thinking “This isn’t ‘convergent evolution,’ it’s common design,” you haven’t seen the best part yet. Science Daily goes on:

One of the Dec. 12 papers in Science found there is a consistent set of just over 50 genes that show higher or lower activity in the brains of vocal learning birds and humans. These changes were not found in the brains of birds that do not have vocal learning and of non-human primates that do not speak, according to this Duke team, which was led by Jarvis; Andreas Pfenning, a graduate of the PhD program in computational biology and bioinformatics (CBB); and Alexander Hartemink, professor of computer science, statistical science and biology.”This means that vocal learning birds and humans are more similar to each other for these genes in song and speech brain areas than other birds and primates are to them,” Jarvis said.

These genes are involved in forming new connections between neurons of the motor cortex and neurons that control the muscles that produce sound.

The Science paper puts it this way:

More than 50 genes contributed to their convergent specialization and were enriched in motor control and neural connectivity functions. These patterns were not found in vocal nonlearners, but songbird RA was similar to layer 5 of primate motor cortex for another set of genes, supporting previous hypotheses about the similarity of these cell types between bird and mammal brains.(Pfenning et al., “Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds,” Science, Vol. 346: 1256846-1 – 1256846-13 (December 12, 2014). )

So certain birds and humans use the same genes for vocalization — but those genetic abilities are absent in non-human primates and birds without vocal learning? If not derived from a common ancestor, as they clearly were not, how did the genes get there? This kind of extreme convergent genetic evolution points strongly to intelligent design.

The rest of the article talks about the conclusions of the study authors – they think it’s a huge problem – and it is.

I hope you’re all beginning to see why I love birds so much. I just adore them. In fact, I am excited about them right now, and will probably appear silly by gushing about how great they are. Fortunately, my editorette is not hear to stop me!

Birds are not just a living disproof of naturalistic evolution. They are also loveable and adorable. (Especially parrots, of course) If you guys are considering a pet, go out and get yourself a cockatiel, if it’s your first bird, or a green-cheek conure, if you’ve had birds before. Just remember that they live 20-25 years, so you have to be ready to face responsibilities, expectations and obligations if you make a commitment like that. And you know what? That is totally awesome, to have someone to care about. It’s good stewardship to care for animals. And if you can’t commit to a parrot of your own over the long haul, then put out an additional bird feeder this winter, and vote against wind power. Wind power kills birds, and I hate it.

Also, that bird in the Evolution News post is an Indian ringneck parrot. And they are awesome!!!!

More posts on convergence

Filed under: News, , , , , , , ,

Click to see recent visitors

  Visitors Online Now

Page views since 1/30/09

  • 5,034,318 hits

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,688 other followers



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,688 other followers

%d bloggers like this: