Evolution and Ben Stein

2008-03-15

in Films and movies, Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, Science

Rusty bike parts

It is always surprising when a seemingly intelligent person adopts a hopelessly indefensible position. This seems to be the case with Ben Stein’s new anti-evolution movie. It is still possible to argue that some kind of deity must have created the universe. What is not possible is to argue convincingly against the central elements of the theory of evolution: namely how mutation and selection drive change and how all life on earth is descended from a common ancestor. There is simply too much evidence for both claims, and it is too good:

  1. The fossil record shows overwhelming evidence for a branched tree of life, connecting existing organisms to ancient ones that preceded them.
  2. Comparative embryology provides good anatomical evidence of both evolution and common descent.
  3. Concrete examples of evolution on human timescales can be easily found. These include plant domestication, moths that darkened in response to coal soot, and antibiotic resistant bacteria.
  4. The geographic distribution of species provides evidence for speciation and adaptation to new biological niches.
  5. Both nucleic and mitochondrial DNA provide excellent evidence for both common descent and evolution through selection.
  6. Common aspects of biochemistry are demonstrative of both claims: especially those features which are arbitrary yet consistent among living things

I haven’t seen the film, and it probably argues something more sophisticated than “the world is 6,000 years old and every creature that has ever lived is alive now, in the exact form in which it was created.” Even so, it is depressing to see someone commonly associated with intelligence fuelling a false debate centred around ignorance.

There are certainly many incredible mysteries that remain in biology – including many of the details on how evolution functions and has proceeded. Similarly, a questioning attitude is essential to scientific advancement. Those things freely admitted, purporting to challenge things with so many strong and independent collections of evidence supporting them is much more likely to retard the advancement of human knowledge than it is to advance it. This is especially true when a contrived debate runs the risk of forcing sub-standard education on children.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronald Cote March 15, 2008 at 6:42 pm

You haven’t seen the movie but you are depressed at an intelligent person “fueling a false debate centered around ignorance”. And he adopts “a hopelessly indefensible position”.
Boy, is your prejudice transparent! You apparently don’t want to be confused by facts with a mind already made up!

Milan March 15, 2008 at 8:49 pm

When the opportunity arises to see the film on video, I shall do so. I will then correct the above as appropriate.

That said, it is impossible that a movie could successfully undermine all of the arguments for evolution above.

R.K. March 15, 2008 at 10:01 pm

Biology only makes sense with evolution.

Ronald Cote March 16, 2008 at 2:37 pm

Milan, dollars to donuts says no matter how convincing the film or anything else, you won’t correct anything!
R.K. As a retired biologist, most of it in the applied sense (not academia), I can assure you that biology only makes sense with Creation!! Yours is such a blatant unsupportable statement that I challenge you to prove me wrong!

. March 20, 2008 at 4:11 pm

I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period

This so-called Triassic period saw the formation of scleractinian corals and a slight changeover from warm-blooded therapsids to cold-blooded archosauromorphs. Clearly, such breathtakingly subtle modifications could only have been achieved by an active intelligence.

The secular Triassicists would have you believe that these changes were just the result of millions of years of nature favoring certain genes over others in order to adapt, the same way evolution worked prior to the Triassic. Obviously, that doesn’t make any sense. Think about it: I’m supposed to believe that the same process that we know slowly changed us from simple bacteria into highly advanced reptiles over the course of the Paleozoic era is also responsible for turning us into highly advanced reptiles with different body lengths? Do these people ever pause to think how ridiculous they sound as they advance these theories?

. March 20, 2008 at 4:12 pm

So, if you follow my reasoning to its logical end, the only sound conclusion is that, at some point, God paused evolution and stepped in, made a few modifications, and boom! Pterosaurs. There is simply no way evolution alone could be responsible for the giant leap between archosaurs and other, different archosaurs with better developed hip joints and slightly differently shaped teeth.

Everything about the Triassic period points to divine involvement. Let me ask you this: Could some kind of random genetic chance make the population of shelled cephalopods grow significantly? No, of course not. So the only logical explanation is that there was an infinite and all-knowing cephalopod creator who modified their mollusk foot into a muscular hydrostat that eventually, on the sixth day, became a tentacle.

. March 20, 2008 at 4:12 pm

We need to get the Triassic period expunged from our public schools’ evolutionary textbooks. I don’t want my children to be exposed to this blasphemous Triassic garbage, and I assume you don’t want your children to be, either. They need to know that God is watching over them always, and that he has a plan for each and every one of them—a nonlinear, probabilistic plan he set in motion more than three billion years ago with single-celled organisms, ended with a group of small, lizard-like herbivores, infused with a bunch of miracles, and then restarted.

We can no longer ignore the empirical evidence.

Ronald Cote March 21, 2008 at 3:51 pm

As a biologist, biology only makes sense with creation. The fundamental admission and agreement by evolutionists remains to this day that abiogenesis, life from non life, is impossible. If evolution is impossible from the very beginning, how is it possible for evolution to even get a start, let alone to continue? But this simple, impossibility is totally ignored, and the whole theory of evolution is a total fabrication built around an impossible premise. Ironically, evolutionists from all scientific disciplines are in total agreement with abiogenesis and teach it as part of their curriculum on evolution! What kind of lunacy is this? The message to students is that “This can not happen but I am going to tell you how it did, anyway”. A great science lesson in the learning experience and the scientific method, eh?
If all parties agree, pro and con, that something is proven to not being able to happen, how can there be empirical evidence in its support? This should boggle many minds.

Milan March 21, 2008 at 9:38 pm

No Admission for Evolutionary Biologist at Creationist Film

By CORNELIA DEAN
Published: March 21, 2008

Two evolutionary biologists — P. Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Richard Dawkins of Oxford — tried to go to the movies at the Mall of America in Minneapolis Thursday evening. Dr. Dawkins got in. Dr. Myers did not.

On those facts, everybody agrees. After that, things break down.

The movie the two scientists wanted to see was “Expelled,” whose online trailer asserts that people in academia who see evidence of supernatural intelligence in biological processes — an idea called “intelligent design” — have unfairly lost their jobs, been denied tenure or suffered other penalties as part of a scientific conspiracy to keep God out of the nation’s laboratories and classrooms.

Milan March 23, 2008 at 7:27 pm

The fundamental admission and agreement by evolutionists remains to this day that abiogenesis, life from non life, is impossible.

There are several scientific hypotheses about how life could have arisen from non-life. The opening section of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Describes exactly that.

It has been experimentally demonstrated that lightning, combined with the kind of organic chemicals that preceded life on earth, can generate some of the building blocks of life. It is also possible that life emerged from crystals that subsequently became similar to prions (the agents that cause mad cow disease).

If evolution is impossible from the very beginning, how is it possible for evolution to even get a start, let alone to continue?

As above, the origin of life remains a mystery, but we have no reason to believe it cannot be explained on the basis of chemistry and random chance.

If all parties agree, pro and con, that something is proven to not being able to happen, how can there be empirical evidence in its support? This should boggle many minds.

You are wrong to say that scientists do not believe that life can arise from non-life. Clearly, it has done so on at least one planet. You have provided no argument for why creation is even a more plausible explanation. After all, positing the existence of a life-creating deity raises the question of where it came from.

In any event, if your sole criticism of evolution is that it hasn’t yet satisfactorily explained the origin of life, you are on pretty shaky ground. How do you respond to the six types of evidence listed above?

Milan March 23, 2008 at 7:34 pm

Abiogenesis

“Scientific consensus is that abiogenesis occurred sometime between 4.4 billion years ago, when water vapor first liquefied, and 2.7 billion years ago, when the ratio of stable isotopes of carbon (12C and 13C ), iron and sulfur points to a biogenic origin of minerals and sediment and molecular biomarkers indicate photosynthesis”

Current models

Origin of organic molecules
* Miller’s experiments
* Fox’s experiments
* Eigen’s hypothesis
* Wächtershäuser’s hypothesis
* Radioactive beach theory
* Homochirality
* Self-organization and replication

From organic molecules to protocells
* “Genes first” models: the RNA world
* “Metabolism first” models: iron-sulfur world and others
* Bubble Theory

Other models

Ronald Cote March 27, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Milan, what kind of lunacy says that an impossibility is being further hypothesized. What don’t you understand about impossible? Your feeble attempt to convince that 4.4 billion years ago, water vapor and carbon was what converted non-life to life is nuts. What don’t you understand about impossible. Impossible means not possible. Impossible means it can’t happen. If it can’t happen, it’s impossible. Did you get the message?

Milan March 27, 2008 at 9:20 pm

It did happen.

And the links above provide plenty of scientific hypotheses about how it might have.

Ronald Cote April 3, 2008 at 4:03 pm

Milan, “It did happen”. Is this a valid, scientific evolutionary explanation for how the impossible “might have”? What kind of sense or logic is this? It typifies the lunacy of thought processes that constitutes the evolutionary myth. If you open your mind a smidgen, you “might have” a revelation of the truth. Get real!!
Abiogenesis is a fact acknowledged by evolutionists and even clearly stated in their textbooks. Do you realize how insane it is to state that there are scientific hypotheses to explain how what is known to be impossible can be explained as possible?

Milan April 3, 2008 at 4:24 pm

Scientists do not think abiogenesis is impossible. Above I linked a number of theories about how it may have occurred.

Saying “we don’t know precisely how life evolved” is quite distinct from saying “evolution is incorrect.” It is also very different from saying “creation is a superior theory.” Creation lacks any explanatory power.

Milan April 3, 2008 at 4:25 pm

We have every reason to believe that we will eventually be able to create artificial life in a laboratory. It’s just a question of working out what chemicals we need and what conditions to put them in.

Experiments along that line have made good progress already, producing many of the complex organic chemicals that are the building blocks of living beings.

Ronald Cote April 4, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Milan, “we” have every reason to believe in artificial life in the lab?? Who is we? How long is eventually? What experiments have made good progress? What complex organic chemicals have been produced? What a crock of wishful nonsense! You need to get out of the blogging business as your ignorance becomes more evident and transparent with each one!

Milan April 4, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Ronald,

Here is one more Wikipedia link:

Miller-Urey experiment

Who is we?

People interested in science.

How long is eventually?

That is difficult to say. That said, if we ever create artificial life in the lab, it will prove once and for all that life can arise from non-life, simply on the basis of chemical reactions.

What experiments have made good progress?

The one linked above, for a start. There have been others working towards building artificial bacteria and viruses. Try scanning through the last few years of Science or Nature.

What complex organic chemicals have been produced?

“At the end of one week of continuous operation Miller and Urey observed that as much as 10-15% of the carbon within the system was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed amino acids, including 13 of the 22 that are used to make proteins in living cells, with glycine as the most abundant. Sugars, lipids, and some of the building blocks for nucleic acids were also formed. Nucleic acids (DNA, RNA) themselves were not formed. As observed in all consequent experiments, both left-handed (L) and right-handed (D) optical isomers were created in a racemic mixture.”

Nobody else is reading this, so there is little point in arguing with you. This is especially true since you have presented few positive statements about what you believe to be true. Rather, you have weakly tried to rebut a fundamental and extremely well defended area of biology and genetics.

. April 6, 2008 at 11:56 pm

Meteorites May Have Delivered Seeds of Life on Earth

“At the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, scientists presented evidence today that desert heat, a little water, and meteorite impacts may have been enough to cook up one of the first prerequisites for life The result of that brew could be the dominance of “left-handed” amino acids, the building blocks of life on this planet. Chains of amino acids make up the protein found in people, plants, and all other forms of life on Earth. There are two orientations of amino acids, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way your hands do. These amino acids “seeds” formed in interstellar space, possibly on asteroids as they careened through space. At the outset, they have equal amounts of left and right-handed amino acids. But as these rocks soar past neutron stars, their light rays trigger the selective destruction of one form of amino acid.”

Ronald Cote April 8, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Milan, please stop trying to come across as a scientist when it is so obvious that your scientific knowledge is infinitesimally limited. To use the Miller-Urey experiment, as an example demonstrates how weak is your overall understanding and currency.
The following is quoted from the textbook ‘Biology” byMiller/Levine: “Miller And Urey’s experiments suggested how mixtures of the organic compounds necessary for life could have arisen from simpler compounds present on a primitive Earth. Scientists now know that Miller and Urey’s originalsimulations of Earth’s early atmosphere were not accurate”. This is the evol polite equivalent of saying that their experiment “bombed”.
So before spouting off, get some smarts. Better still, don’t comment on something you know little about!!

Ronald Cote April 8, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Milan, please stop trying to come across as a scientist when it is so obvious that your scientific knowledge is infinitesimally limited. To use the Miller-Urey experiment, as an example demonstrates how weak is your overall understanding and currency.
The following is quoted from the textbook ‘Biology” byMiller/Levine: “Miller And Urey’s experiments suggested how mixtures of the organic compounds necessary for life could have arisen from simpler compounds present on a primitive Earth. Scientists now know that Miller and Urey’s originalsimulations of Earth’s early atmosphere were not accurate”. This is the evol polite equivalent of saying that their experiment “bombed”.
So before spouting off, get some smarts. Better still, don’t comment on something you know little about!!

Milan April 8, 2008 at 6:03 pm

Milan, please stop trying to come across as a scientist when it is so obvious that your scientific knowledge is infinitesimally limited.

ad hominem arguments are a pretty weak approach. They suggest that you have no rational rebuttal.

You have yet to even mention why the fossil record, embryology, antibiotic resistance, the distribution of species, DNA, and biochemistry are not strong evidence of evolution.

Scientists now know that Miller and Urey’s originalsimulations of Earth’s early atmosphere were not accurate

First off, this quote doesn’t describe the way in which they were not accurate. Secondly, it isn’t necessary for them to be perfectly accurate in order to demonstrate the principle.

Any demonstration of organic molecules through chemical reactions alone helps to demonstrate that it is plausible for life to arise from non-life. Subsequent experiments have been more refiled than that of Miller and Urey, but they follow the same basic idea. Your abiogenesis argument is weak, and you haven’t presented any others.

Ronald Cote April 8, 2008 at 9:15 pm

Milan, give it up, you are out of your element and are now getting into the world of fantasia. I will no longer respond to your nonsense.

R.K. April 8, 2008 at 10:14 pm

“My one argument has been shown to be weak, and I have no others.”

A clear win for Milan.

Matt April 18, 2008 at 12:19 pm

“The fundamental admission and agreement by evolutionists remains to this day that abiogenesis, life from non life, is impossible. If evolution is impossible from the very beginning, how is it possible for evolution to even get a start, let alone to continue? But this simple, impossibility is totally ignored, and the whole theory of evolution is a total fabrication built around an impossible premise.”

Like all intelligent design believers, Ronald Cote mistakes his inability to understand evolution (and terms such as “abiogenesis”) for evidence against evolution. Ignorance isn’t evidence, Ronny-boy.

. April 22, 2008 at 10:54 am

Welcome to Expelled Exposed, a detailed look at the Ben Stein movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. We’ll show you why this movie is not a documentary at all, but anti-science propaganda aimed at creating the appearance of controversy where there is none.

. April 23, 2008 at 5:20 pm

The origin of life
Not that sinister

Apr 10th 2008 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
Why amino acids in living things are left-handed

HOW living creatures evolve has been pretty well understood for the past 150 years. How they came to exist in the first place, though, remains a mystery. Part of the reason for this mystery is that subsequent evolution has done a good job of erasing the evidence. But not a complete one. Some features are shared by all organisms, and may thus go back to the beginning of life. And one of the most bizarre of these features is that a lot of the molecules of which life is made are left-handed.

. May 15, 2008 at 11:30 am

Skepticality Gives Randy Olson the Final Word on “Expelled”

In Communicating

After doing podcasts with Genie Scott, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins regarding the movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Skepticality decided to bring back Randy Olson (they did a first podcast with him last October) to let him have the last word on the debut of “Expelled.” In his discussion he goes through six ways in which he feels the evolution crowd played into the hands of the producers of “Expelled,” and unintentionally helped them promote the movie.

. June 26, 2008 at 1:44 pm

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
By Ken Eisner

A documentary by Nathan Frankowski. Rated PG. Opens Friday, June 27, at the Cinemark Tinseltown

Truth begins and ends with the title of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a semislick advertorial for “intelligent design”, the sanitized public mask of creationism, itself invented by Christians who think their God is too stupid to have come up with evolution on his own.

Assembled by Nathan Frankowski, who did some Bush-lionizing on The Path to 9/11, this journey into ignorance is hosted by Ben Stein, a former Nixon speechwriter whose deadpan face was introduced in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He and the director borrow heavily from the Michael Moore playbook, as Stein plays dumb while asking leading questions to which he already knows the answers.

. December 3, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Win Ben Stein’s mind
By Roger Ebert on December 3, 2008 12:25 AM

“In the film, Ben Stein asks predictable questions, and exploits an unending capacity for counterfeit astonishment. Example:

Scientist: “But Darwin did not title his book On the Origin of Life. He titled it, On the Origin of Species.”

Ben Stein (nods, grateful to learn this): “I see!”

The more you know about evolution, or simple logic, the more you are likely to be appalled by the film. No one with an ability for critical thinking could watch more than three minutes without becoming aware of its tactics. It isn’t even subtle. Take its treatment of Dawkins, who throughout his interviews with Stein is honest, plain-spoken, and courteous. As Stein goes to interview him for the last time, we see a makeup artist carefully patting on rouge and dusting Dawkins’ face. After he is prepared and composed, after the shine has been taken off his nose, here comes plain, down-to-earth, workaday Ben Stein. So we get the vain Dawkins with his effete makeup, talking to the ordinary Joe…

That is simply one revealing fragment. This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion.”

. September 18, 2009 at 2:27 pm

“But in the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth Mr Dawkins fills a gap in his oeuvre by setting out the evidence that the “theory” of evolution is a fact—“as incontrovertible a fact as any in science”.

And what a lot of evidence there is. The fossil record, far from the tenuous succession of gaps described by creationists, provides an admittedly incomplete but beautiful and coherent set of clues to life in the distant past. That any traces at all remain from so long ago is astounding, and anyway it is not the completeness of the fossil record but its consistency that matters. When asked what observation would disprove the theory of evolution, J.B.S. Haldane, a pioneering British geneticist, replied: “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era.” But such anachronisms have never been found.

Then there is the evidence written on the bodies of all living things. The mammalian skeleton is consistently recognisable in creatures as various as bats, monkeys, horses and humans. Vestiges such as the stumpy wings of flightless birds, and the hairs that prickle on human skin just like the rising hackles on furry mammals, are further testimony to our shared origins. Glitches, like the laryngeal nerves that are so neatly laid out in fish but that must detour in animals with necks—by a crazy 15 feet (4.6m) in the case of giraffes—demonstrate the incremental, undirected business of evolution in touching detail. At the microscopic scale, molecular genetics connects the various parts of the grand family tree with fantastic detail and accuracy.

The evidence that Mr Dawkins sets out so persuasively here is already widely known. Yet two-fifths of Americans still refuse to accept that human beings share a common ancestry with animals, preferring to believe that they were created in their present form in the past 10,000 years. “

Milan September 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

On the topic of the evidence for evolution (as discussed above):

Richard Dawkins has a new book out, cataloging the reasons we have for considering evolution the best explanation for the development of life: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.. The Economist has a review.

I will post one of my own once I finish it.

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