Friday, April 24, 2009

And then there are the Idiots

YouTube has some interesting stuff. I dabble from time to time when I’m looking for a source of amusement. Last night I was watching a clip of Pat Robertson interviewing Ray Comfort.

If you’re not familiar with Comfort, he’s one of the more outspoken Creationist types. He made himself sort of famous a short while back with a video explaining how the banana was what he called “The Atheist’s Nightmare” because it was so perfectly designed, in shape, texture and taste, for man’s consumption.

The problem of course is Comfort never bothered to find out that the domesticated banana we all know and love is man made. It’s a cultivated plant and utterly incapable of reproducing by itself because it has no seeds. Farmers have to make cuttings from a banana plant’s stem and replant them in order for new plants to grow.

Wild bananas, the ones Comfort’s god actually created, are essentially inedible due to the large number of hard black seeds. Oh well, so much for “intelligent” design.

The YouTube video begins with Comfort interviewing two young people who profess to accept evolution but who can’t answers the questions Comfort is hitting them with. There were two problems with the questions.

The first was these weren’t experts and while they might be expected to have a working knowledge of the principles of the Theory of Evolution, they’re certainly not qualified to address specific detailed questions.

The second, and far more important problem, is that Comfort wasn’t asking about the Theory of Evolution. He was asking about a straw man he’d concocted either out of ignorance or malice. The young man and young woman certainly weren’t qualified to detect what Comfort was doing.

Allow me to suggest that he might want to try his questions on Jerry Coyne or Ken Miller rather than two people that probably only took biology because it was forced on them. Come on Ray, have the courage to deal with educated adults rather than children or the ignorant.

Comfort’s straw man was based upon a total misrepresentation of speciation. The way he explained it to Robertson was that somewhere along the line the “first dog” appears. If that dog is male, then he has to go looking for a suitable female. But since the dog has just evolved, there is no female of his species so the dog is doomed to not reproduce. Comfort calls this the problem of the “missing female.”

This goes way beyond rapid speciation, this is instant speciation. Somehow it miraculously occurs not only within the same gene pool but within a single generation! I can’t think of a mutation more obviously destined to be weeded out by Natural Selection.

Of course that’s not how it works. Evolution occurs in very small genetic increments over millions of years and not in one fell swoop over a single generation. The next generation’s genetic mutations are not going to make them sexually non-viable with the previous generation.

I hate to break it to you but we are all mutants. Each of our DNA contains mutations that we may or may not pass on to our offspring. The more offspring we have, the higher the probability that a particular mutation will be passed on.

As a simplified example consider a population of animals, let’s call them Purple Unicorns, from which two groups split off for whatever reason. One groups heads south and the other north. Initially, since the two groups come from a common gene pool, they will be genetically similar to each other and to the Purple Unicorns that stayed behind. Not identical of course because no two biological entities, except for monozygotic siblings (i.e. identical twins), are genetically identical.

Since they have now separated and are no longer interbreeding, each group will have different genetic mutations occurring which cannot be exchanged with the other group, experience different genetic drift even on the genes they originally shared and experience different environmental pressures which may very well change which characteristics increase the probability of reproduction.

Keep the groups separate for several million years or so and our Purple Unicorns may now be Grey Nullicorns and Black Multicorns whose pheromones no longer attract members of the opposite sex in the other group. Purple Unicorns may or may not still exist, but if they do, they too, since they experienced their own genetic and environmental pressures, would most likely be somewhat different from the original Purple Unicorns and sexually incompatible with both of the new groups.

Comfort’s scenario would require a Purple Unicorn to suddenly give birth to a genetic Black Muliticorn with a vastly different genetic inventory, a genetic inventory so different as to make it sexually incompatible with the rest of its own herd. The Theory of Evolution says that this is essentially impossible. Such an extensive genetic change would take millions of years to occur. It doesn’t happen in a single generation.

If by some bizarre chance a mutation occurred which rendered the offspring non-sexually viable with its own species, then Comfort would be correct, it would be doomed to being unable to reproduce and its mutation would be removed from the gene pool. It could not survive as a new species. This is called Natural Selection. This would be an instance of a genetic mutation which provides a reproductive disadvantage. Hell, it renders the probability of reproducing equal to zero. That’s the ultimate disadvantage.

If this kind of mutation could really happen it would effectively falsify the Theory of Evolution. So essentially Comfort is proposing an event that would falsify evolution and then using it as an argument to falsify evolution. Can you say circular argument fast four times?

I thought I was going to split a gut when Robertson, with a straight face, asked Comfort why there wasn’t an intellectual rebellion against this obvious absurdity of evolution. Maybe it’s because the absurdity isn’t within evolution but within Comfort’s straw man.

Next, Comfort got into the old Paley’s Watchmaker argument that’s been shot down 50 or 60 thousand times since Paley made it. To paraphrase old Ray, he wants someone to show him a watch, or a car, or a building that didn’t have a builder.

Here’s the big problem with this argument Ray old boy. Evolution doesn’t apply to inanimate objects that don’t reproduce. That fact that there is no example of an inanimate object without a builder means absolutely nothing when it comes to biological objects that are quite capable of reproducing.

Let me ask you this old boy, once the egg has been fertilized, how do you think an offspring develops? The last time I looked is was through all natural processes without the intervention of any builder. Or do you believe that God or one of his angels gets involved in the development of every embryo like some sort of construction foreman? If they do, they suck at their job given the number of spontaneous abortions and birth defects that occur.

In other words what leads you to believe the universe is like a watch developed by a watchmaker rather than like a baby Purple Unicorn produced by two adult Purple Unicorns humping? One requires an intelligent designer but the other just requires natural processes.

Then we got into the nonsense that the Theory of Evolution is a moral philosophy intended to destroy society’s Christian values. If you listen to Comfort then Darwin was a bitter old man beaten down by the misfortunes of life that purposely constructed a philosophy to destroy belief in God and Christianity.

It’s all an atheist conspiracy and 40% of college professors are atheist members of that conspiracy. What’s the purpose you ask? The purpose is to allow atheists to live an immoral life style and not have to worry about God’s laws or something like that.

No Ray, I hate to break this to you but evolution is no more a moral philosophy than gravity or relativity.

To be honest with you by that time I was laughing so hard I wasn’t paying all that much attention and I couldn’t handle watching the thing again and taking notes. Robertson of course displays the appropriate indignation that no one was actively opposing this atheist travesty.

“Fear not” replied Sir Ray-Ray the Ignorant, “I and my organization hath prepared diverse videos and papers with diverse arguments which shall, forsooth, quash this foul conspiracy.”

Or at least he said something along those lines. Like I said, it’s hard to pay attention when you’re laughing yourself silly.

Unfortunately it’s not really that funny. This guy gives morons a bad name. It’s not all that hard to go on the Internet and learn about the basics of evolution. It’s not clear whether Comfort is just too goddamned stupid to do so or he knows perfectly well that his arguments are bogus but is relying on his audience not to know.

Christianity has a long history of preying upon the young, the ignorant and the frightened. This could just be another example of that but I suspect it’s not. Going with the principle of never attributing something to malice when simple stupidity will suffice as an explanation, I suspect that he just really is that dumb.

Interestingly enough I don’t think Robertson is however. I think, from the smirk on his face, Robertson was laughing at Comfort on the inside while he was agreeing with him on the outside.

Robertson may be a right wing fascist asshole but he’s smart enough to understand his enemy rather than attack straw men which ultimately are going to make him look silly. In my personal opinion, Comfort, based upon his banana fiasco and the YouTube video, isn’t.

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