From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Smack Down: The Crocoduck vs. The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve

CREDIT: World Wresting Entertainment

I wrote earlier about Kirk Cameron of "Growing Pains" fame and Ray Comfort explaining how intelligently the banana was designed.  Today I discuss their complete lack of understanding of evolutionary theory, and I will show how lacking intelligent design is in explaining anything.

First watch Kirk try to completely demolish the science of biology.

A quick synopsis: Biology is wrong, because the crocoduck never existed.  You see, Kirk thinks that evolution demands that there be transitional species that are half of one species and half the other.  How else did reptiles evolve into birds?
The crocoduck
A couple of other of Kirk's examples, the sheepdog and the bullfrog.
Left: The Sheepdog. Right: The Bullfrog
A transitional fossil is any fossil that shows common traits to both a more ancient group and a later group.  My favorite example of one is Tiktaalik.  I highly recommend Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into The 3.5 Billion Year history of the Human Body.  Shubin brilliantly writes on how human features such as the general body organization, our nose, our eyes, and our ears evolved. 

CREDIT: Nobu Tamura http://spinops.blogspot.com
However what many people fail to grasp about the fossil evidence is that scientists do not need fossils to support evolutionary theory. The evidence just from molecular biology is that strong. Rather than go into the evidence, I will just link to the Encyclopedia Britannica article.
Archeaopteryx - another transitional fossil

Some people* will even attempt to bring up the platypus to deride evolution.  The platypus is wonderfully weird.   It has a bill that contains a sophisticated sensory system that detects food electrically, it lays eggs, and the males have spurs on its hind legs that can deliver venom to other males during mating season.  In 2008, scientists decoded the platypus's genome and further confirmed that this species diverged from other mammals about 166 million years ago.

A Facebook post

But I digress.

Let's examine intelligent design.  I will start with two examples: the vas deferens and the recurrent laryngeal nerve.  The vas deferens carries sperm from the epididymis at the rear of the testes to the ejaculatory ducts.  

Let's think like a plumber.  How would a plumber connect a pipe?  I think any good plumber would use the most direct route possible.  Imagine one taking your water from the main outside to your kitchen faucet by doing this.  
3D houseplan courtesy of http://www.housepaintingideas.net/house-floor.html
Without a good reason for doing so, wouldn't you fire his ass?

Now examine the vas deferens.  A good plumber would take the most direct route as seen on the left in the figure below, but the actual route of the duct takes it over the ureter.  What an unintelligent design!  However, evolution has an explanation for this imperfection.  In the evolution of mammals, as the testes descended it accidentally looped over the ureter.  As Dawkins writes, "It is an beautiful example of an initial mistake compensated for in a post hoc fashion, rather than being properly corrected back on the drawing board."
CREDIT: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth, Free Press, 2009, p.365.
Now let's see if the "intelligent designer" is an intelligent electrician.  Suppose you have to run a wire from your stereo system to your in-wall speakers.  Again, I think the most direct route is usually the best.  

Now suppose an electrician were to design a route for a nerve from the brain to your larynx.  The distance from the brain to the larynx is about 10 cm (4 inches). Does it make sense to run the nerve all the way down to the heart, loop it around the aorta, and then back up to the neck? That's nearly 60 cm (2 feet). An engineer might call that a suboptimal design. What is worse is that in a giraffe the recurrent laryngeal nerve is 15 feet long. I won't go into all the details, but evolution explains that this detour is the result of our aquatic ancestors, fish. For an excellent exposition, again I recommend Shubin's book.
Recurrent laryngeal nerve

Recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe
Another favorite example of creationists is the flagellum of some bacteria.  In a FaceBook discussion, Tyler* insists that the flagellum is evidence of irreducible complexity.  Irreducible complexity is a claim that creationists make that some  biological systems are too complex to have evolved from simpler, "less complete" systems.  The premise is what use is a flagellum that can't drive the bacterium's motion.  This claim has been so thoroughly debunked that I will simply provide two links: one to the article The Flagellum Unspun:
 The Collapse of 'Irreducible Complexity" by Dr. Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University's Alpert Medical School; the second to a YouTube video called The Evolution of the Flagellum.  One chief proponent of irreducible complexity, Michael Behe, even admitted in the Dover, PA intelligent design trial that supposedly irreducibly complex systems may evolve. Perhaps a bigger blow to his credibility is that he testified that his definition of theory does not fit the National Academy of Science's definition and that using his definition, astrology is a scientific theory.

I can't be sure Tyler watched the video after I gave him the link.  Here is his response.
The video explains quite well what a flagellum that can't propel its bacteria is good for.  Fifty-seven seconds into the video, it explains that a system need not have the same function as the ancestral system.  The ancestral system might have been used for active transport of proteins.  A later predecessor might have been a pilus, a small hair-like projection.  As to how does a bacterium survive without a flagellum, there are countless examples of bacteria that seem to thrive without one.

I had some questions for Tyler and other creationists. 
Here is Tyler's answer.
There is so much wrong here, I'm not sure where to begin.  Let's begin with the concepts theory and fact.  According to the National Academy of Sciences,

The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.

Many scientific theories are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially. For example, no new evidence will demonstrate that the Earth does not orbit around the Sun (heliocentric theory), or that living things are not made of cells (cell theory), that matter is not composed of atoms, or that the surface of the Earth is not divided into solid plates that have moved over geological timescales (the theory of plate tectonics). Like these other foundational scientific theories, the theory of evolution is supported by so many observations and confirming experiments that scientists are confident that the basic components of the theory will not be overturned by new evidence.
In science, a “fact” typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term “fact” to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.
A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not "guesses" but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than "just a theory." It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.
Questions 8 through 13 deal with facts from physics, not assumptions.  I simply ask for the reason behind these facts.  After all, designs have reasons, right?  He defers answering any of them except for #13.  Here he denies - sorry for shouting here, but he DENIES that photons (light) and matter are different aspects of the same thing.  Any of my PHY 212 students could school him on this.  Photons, electrons, quarks, protons, atoms, and molecules behave according to the Schrödinger equation in the nonrelativistic limit.† Plus we know that electrons and anti-electrons, for example, can annihilate each other and become photons.  And the reverse happens; photons can annihilate and become electrons and anti-electrons. E=mc2 THIS IS A FACT. [Oops. I'm shouting again.]  He cannot disagree; he cannot deny reality.

Two of the central characteristics of science are that all knowledge is provisional and that all claims must be testable.  It was these that prompted me to ask questions 1 through 6.  If one proposes the existence of an intelligent designer or designers, then that idea must be able to be put to an experiment.  

It is here that Tyler finally admits that intelligent design is religion and not science.  He writes "…some I can't answer, because they are matters of faith." If only all creationists were that honest.
Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam

*You may remember Aaron Troy Queen and Tyler Price Landis from my post You Keep Using That Word.  I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. 
†A more correct statement is that all leptons, quarks, and gauge bosons are all described by the Standard Model.

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