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A Concerned Scientist

Concerned About the Assaults on Science

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cornelius Hunter's talk at Cornell

As I noted a week ago, Disco Institute fellow and adjunct professor at evangelical Biola University, Cornelius Hunter, gave a talk and participated in a panel discussion last night. Both the panel and the discussion were well attended, and I thought fair and respectful as well.

Honestly, I found the lecture talk to be rather uninteresting though. Hunter spent much of the time discussing the history of theological views in natural philosophy since the late 17th century, and explicity spoke of God as the Designer (points for honesty). In his presentation, Hunter presented two slides representing some of his primary evidences of "flaws" in evolutionary theory, including the inadequacy of arguments from homology, specifically descrepancies between pentadactyl limb structure in vertebrates and the dissimilarity of the genes responsible for these morphological changes; and the complexity of transducin signaling in photon receptors of the eye. The rest of his talk was largely quote after quote from prominent natural philosophers through history, highlighting the metaphysical underpinnings leading up to Darwin's theory.

The panel discussion was much more fun. Hunter opened things up, finally revealing his "problems" with the evidence for evolution, and using an argument that amounts to the "God of the Gaps." As the "evolutionists" commented later on, Hunter was often true "to a point," misrepresenting or mistaking the actual science.

Following Hunter's opening, two Cornell faculty members presented their prepared statements as well. First, Richard Harrison (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department chair, long-time instructor of Cornell's Intro To Biology For Majors course, and editor of the journal Evolution) gave a summary of the broad body of evidence for evolution, which sounded like the highlight reel from your average Biology or Evolution textbook. Interestingly, when it came time for Hunter's rebuttal, he didn't even tough Harrison's comments - they were simply so well-said and robust, it would seem.

Then finally, Kern Reeve (Associate Professor of Neurobiology & Behavior, and expert in evolution of cooperation and conflict in animal societies), in his prepared statement, gave the philosopher's criticism of Intelligent Design. Reeve elaborated extensively on the ability of evolutionary theory to make testable predictions in the natural world, explained that the possibility of verification or refutation is what makes a theory scientific, and pointed out that Intelligent Design does not meet this criteria of science. This is where things got fun. Reeve continued to press Hunter in rebuttal time to provide a testable prediction and define a criteria for Design, which Hunter dodged with a lame appeal to the weakness of demarcation arguments. The crowd laughed, Hunter lost his rhythm, and the vacuousness of Intelligent Design was exposed.

Towards the end, when the discussion's moderator opened things up for questions from the audience, several "evolutionists" had fun with other criticisms, whether with molecular phylogenetics, definitions of facts vs. theories, and a playful reference to ID's "Big Tent" covering OEC and YEC (for the record, Hunter was an OEC-er). Meanwhile, one ID supporter - I didn't hear it clearly, but I think he said that ID can make predictions, and gave one such prediction: that the "evolutionists" would exaggerate the significance of vestigial organs. Some prediction. Also, the same IDer prefaced his comment by conceding that Harrison and Reeve seemed to have gotten the better of Cornelius Hunter, so it's not much me saying it apparently.

All in all, I think it was a very fair discussion - with respect and (almost) equal time for both sides, and factual inaccuracies and intellectual dishonesty being exposed in Design's talking points. Fun!


At 2:50 PM, ivy privy said...

Hunter presented a lengthy list of "evidence against evolution". He should concentrate on quality instead of quantity. I'll deal with just one of his pieces of evidence here.

Hunter said that evolution of the human brain was a "privileged process".

Here is the article to which he was referring:

Accelerated Evolution of Nervous System Genes in the Origin of Homo sapiens
Steve Dorus, Eric J. Vallender, Patrick D. Evans, Jeffrey R. Anderson, Sandra L. Gilbert, Michael Mahowald, Gerald J. Wyckoff, Christine M. Malcom and Bruce T. Lahn
Cell 119(7) 1027-1040, 29 December 2004

I believe this is the article he was talking about because I remember the phrase "privileged process" (and being annoyed by it).

For this paper, the researchers explored the sequence difference of nervous system-related proteins. They compared the sequence differences between rat and mouse proteins vs. the sequence differences between human and macaque monkey proteins, because those two pairs have comparable time from common ancestors. For comparison, they also tabulated differences between genes for 'housekeeping' proteins.

They found that the human and monkey had substantially more sequence differences in the nervous system proteins than the rodents. Does this surprise anyone? Does this in any way challenge standard evolutionary theory? Are there large differences in rat and mouse brain structures or behaviour that need explaining? Read the paper, you'll see that the findings are placed in and support an evolutionary framework. The authors have provided molecular data that aligns thoroughly with known anatomical and fossil data.

The phrase "privileged process" does not appear anywhere in the paper. Rather, this phrase comes from "mainstream media" articles about the research, such as this one in the Guardian Hunter zeroed in on the sound bite and ignored the science.

At 3:17 PM, ivy privy said...

Hunter criticised the "evolution as fact" statements of various biologists, but upon questioning could not be bothered to relay the definitions used by those who had made these statements. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay, Evolution as Fact and Theory, which appeared in his book Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes in which he explained his word usage:

Moreover, "fact" does not mean "absolute certainty." The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

At 4:02 PM, Daniel said...

Thanks Ivy Privy for the links - very useful.

At 1:07 PM, ivy privy said...

Addressing another of Hunter's alleged evidences against evolution: directed mutation to overcome stress.

The Directed Mutation Controversy in an Evolutionary Context
Dustin Brisson
Critical Reviews in Microbiology, 29(1):25-35 (2003)

From the abstract:
"...Directed mutation, as proposed by Cairns, has been all but eradicated from evolutionary thinking..."

At 1:36 PM, Daniel said...

Oh that's a very useful link.

That hints at another interesting point that came out of the panel discussion - why is it that the IDists place so much emphasis on point mutations as the mechanism of molecular evolution?

Are they not aware of (or don't understand) the other available mechanisms, or do they choose to ignore such things?

...sounds like the makings of a good essay: "Proposed Mechanisms of Molecular Evolution."

At 2:56 PM, ivy privy said...

Here's my list of Hunter's "Gish gallop". I might have missed a few. Since Harrison and Reeve chose to make a case for evolution rather than chase down every lie, I'm not sure what they're all about.


The machinery of adaptation does not itself adapt

Evolutionary changes are pre-programmed

Complexity was present form the start

DNA replication enzymes could not have had a common ancestor

Something about macro-evolution

Genetic homeostatis

A study in which arabidopsis recovered functionality even when the gene
was broken in both parents

Convergent evolution

Examples of bacteria that increase mutation of critical genes to
overcome environmental challenges

Similar species have significant genome differences

Identical chunks of DNA in distantly-related species

Differences in phylogenetic trees

Evolution of the human brain is a "privileged process"

Complexity; as an example he recited by rote steps in the visual pathway
(he referred to cGMP as "circular GMP" rather than "cyclical")


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