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Responding to Fallacious Criticisms of the Dissent from Darwinism List

Die-hard defenders of Darwin claim that there are no valid criticisms of their viewpoint and cannot publicly admit that there is any credible dissent from neo-Darwinism. At times, the NCSE has even been forced to argue that it is "possible to discredit" the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism list by referring people to a YouTube video titled, "Evaluating an antievolution petition," created by some would-be internet critic. That's right -- in their desperation to attack the Dissent from Darwinism list, the NCSE cites to some random YouTube video.

That video has some major misunderstandings about the Dissent from Darwinism list. Its creator seems to be following what Michael Behe has called the "principle of malicious reading," which "ignores (or doesn't comprehend) context, ignores (or doesn't comprehend) the distinctions an author makes, and construes the argument in the worst way possible."

The video's false claims and outright misrepresentations about the list that are too numerous to catalogue, not the least of which is the fact that the version of the list attacked in the video is a long-outdated version that was first created back in 2001, when the list first started and had only about 100 signatories. Today the list has over 800 signatories. For the latest public version of the list, please see A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Just some of the outlandish and false claims about the list in the video include:

  • The critic pulls a bait-and-switch by redefining evolution in a way that is clearly not intended by the list, and then claims that some list-members don't belong under the definition that the list never intended to use. To be more specific, the critic defines evolution as "common descent," and then claims that some list-members don't "doubt evolution," so defined and thus "shouldn't be on the list." But the list has always been called "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism"--using a neo-Darwinian definition of evolution as the claim that "random mutation and natural selection [can] account for the complexity of life" (from the list's statement). The list is plainly not about skepticism of common descent; it's about skepticism of the sufficiency of the neo-Darwinian mechanism. The fact that the critic finds list-members who accept common descent but doubt neo-Darwinism should not be surprising. The critic has given no good reason to explain why those list-members should be off the list. As evidence of the baselessness of the critic's claims, he argues that Michael Behe, leading scientific critic of neo-Darwinism, shouldn't be on the list simply because Behe accepts common descent. The critic must be trying hard to not understand the list.
  • Keep in mind that the video attacks a version of the list from back in 2001 when the list only had about 100 people. The critic then touts a bogus survey by claiming the list is discredited because he contacted people on the list who didn't want to be on it. But this critic only contacted biologists, and of those biologists, only 16 replied. Of those 16, he only gives 1 examples of a person who claimed that they didn't want to be on the list--and that person has been removed from the list for years! Given the list's current total of 800+ signers, this means that the critic had contact with less than 2% of the total signers on the list. That makes for a pretty meaningless analysis of the list, as far as survey statistics go.
  • In what can only be understood as a purposeful attempt to misunderstand the list, this critic makes a false criticism by claiming the list "dishonestly" misrepresents the credentials of list-members by listing either their current institution or the institution where they earned their Ph.D. There is no dishonesty here: the list clearly states at the top of the first page that list-members can be listed by EITHER current institution OR location of Ph.D., as it reads: "Scientists listed by doctoral degree or current position." (emphasis in original) It's obvious which scientists are listed by current institution and which are listed by Ph.D. institution: those listed by "Ph.D." say, simply, "Ph.D." The critic really goes overboard with these false attacks, stating "it didn't matter if you had gone to University of Florida for your freshman year in undergrad and then the rest of your time spent at an unaccredited university, Florida State is where you were shown to be a scientist at." He then lists as "a perfect example of this" one list-member who is listed as "Ph.D. Neuroscience-Case Western Reserve" and the critic incorrectly charges that the list says that he "worked" at Case Western. In fact, the list clearly says this biologist is listed by his "Ph.D." The claim that this scientist went to Case Western for his "freshman year in undergrad" and then transferred to an "unaccredited university" is preposterous and false. Perhaps it is ironic that the video itself flashed the word "Lie" at this point--because in fact the scientist in question did get his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve (his undergrad was completed at Michigan State University). Contrary to the critic's false claims, there are no misrepresentations about the credentials of list-members in this regard.
  • The critic claims that some people asked to be removed from the list but never were. Again, his criticisms are misplaced because he uses a long out-dated version of the list. For example, he claims Fred Sigworth was not removed from the list, but in fact Sigworth has not been on the list for years. The critic again asserts that there were people who wanted to be removed from the list "7 years ago," but he never gives any examples to back up his charges and accusations. Had the critic used the current version of the list, he would have found that scientists like Sigworth were removed long ago. Scientists are only added to the list at their express request. Over the years, only a few scientists have asked to be removed from the list, most because of persecution and intimidation they suffered for making their views public. There are many more scientists who have declined to sign the list because of the threat of persecution.
  • The critic claims that biologists such as Ralph Seelke and Michael Behe are not true skeptics of "evolution" and don't belong on the list. This is incredible. The critic appears so desperate to discredit the list that he cites Behe, one of the leading critics of neo-Darwinism, in an attempt to boast about scientific support for evolution. Similarly, in 2007 Seelke co-authored a textbook, Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, that provides many potent criticisms of neo-Darwinism. Such scientists who the critic claims are "pro-evolution" actually have huge doubts about the core claims of neo-Darwinian theory. Due to the fact that the critic claims that leading Darwin-skeptics like Ralph Seelke and Michael Behe don't qualify as dissenters from Darwinism, it's clear to me that this critic has very little understanding of the list, and his objections are neither credible nor compelling.
  • This video also makes a variety of false scientific claims. For example, the critic claims that molecular-based phylogenetic trees agree with phylogenetic trees based upon the fossil record "seamlessly." Trisha Gura wrote an entire review article in Nature entitled "Bones, Molecules or Both?" devoted to examining the difficulties encountered by evolutionary scientists when trying to reconcile molecule-based phylogenetic trees with phylogenetic trees based upon bones. According to the article, "Evolutionary trees constructed by studying biological molecules often don't resemble those drawn up from morphology," leading to "evolution wars" among evolutionary scientists over whether they should use "bones," "molecules," or "both" when constructing phylogenies. As Gura observes, there are "disparities between molecular and morphological trees." 1 Similarly, a review article by Colin Patterson dimly concluded, "As morphologists with high hopes of molecular systematics, we end this survey with our hopes dampened. Congruence between molecular phylogenies is as elusive as it is in morphology and as it is between molecules and morphology." 2 Another science article likewise wrote, "That molecular evidence typically squares with morphological patterns is a view held by many biologists, but interestingly, by relatively few systematists. Most of the latter know that the two lines of evidence may often be incongruent." 3 Finally, Matthew Wills studied whether fossil data has helped improve the congruence of phylogenetic trees and concluded, "Despite increasing methodological sophistication, phylogenies derived from morphology, and those inferred from different molecules, are not always converging on a consensus." 4 Regarding the congruence of different molecular-based trees, a 2009 article from New Scientist stated, "More fundamentally, recent research suggests that the evolution of animals and plants isn't exactly tree-like either," and then discussed tree conflicts among higher branches of the tree of life (where horizontal gene transfer isn't thought to be an issue). It's in this context of the higher branches that a scientist states: "The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories. ... 'We've just annihilated the tree of life. It's not a tree any more, it's a different topology entirely.'"5 In contrast to the claims of the video critic, morphological, fossil, and molecular data do not fit together "seamlessly" when used to construct phylogenetic trees.
  • The critic also claims that endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) provide unequivocal evidence for common descent, even though biologists are beginning to suspect ERVs have function and are not merely functionless genetic "junk." 6
  • Towards the end of the video, the critic performs a meaningless calculation which allegedly gives the list "every mathematical concession possible" and claims that only 0.00275% of scientists reject "evolution" (which he defines as "common descent"). But the calculation makes no reasonable "mathematical concessions" to the list since his statistic makes the pretty outlandishly false assumptions that (1) all 3,661,320 scientists that he claims exist have been contacted to sign the list and therefore that number can be placed in the denominator to determine the total percentage of scientists who doubt Darwinism, and (2) that even among those scientists who were contacted, that all who doubted neo-Darwinism chose to sign the list. Assumption (1) is false because of course only a fraction of all scientists are probably even aware of this list. Assumption (2) is false because I personally know a significant number of Ph.D. scientists--particularly professional biologists--who doubt neo-Darwinism and would like to sign the list, but are afraid to do so because they fear what might happen to their careers if the sign it. So the statistic at the end of the video is meaningless. The critic attacks one list-member for making an "enormous statistical fallacy," but the critic doesn't seem to know how to recognize an "enormous statistical fallacy"--his own--when he sees one.
  • As a final point, it should be observed that the video constantly flashes irrelevant graphics referring to young earth creationist groups and personalities that have nothing to do with the narration. An earlier version of the video calls the U.S. the "United States of Jesus." Some people may find this kind of thing really funny, but the video is clearly not a serious or credible attempt to rebut the list. Given that NCSE's executive director Eugenie Scott has admitted that "most ID proponents do not embrace a Young Earth, Flood Geology, and sudden creation tenets associated with YEC," 7 the video's free association arguments appear to be false. Apparently the NCSE and others are so desperate to deny the existence of scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism that they are resorting to relying upon this non-credible, inaccurate, and factually bankrupt YouTube video.

    References Cited:

    [1.] Trisha Gura, "Bones, Molecules or Both?," Nature, Vol. 406:230-233 (July 20, 2000).

    [2.] Colin Patterson et al., "Congruence between Molecular and Morphological Phylogenies", Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol 24:179 (1993).

    [3.] Masami Hasegawa, Jun Adachi, Michel C. Milinkovitch, "Novel Phylogeny of Whales Supported by Total Molecular Evidence," Journal of Molecular Evolution, Vol. 44, pgs. S117-S120 (Supplement 1, 1997).

    [4.] Matthew A. Wills, "The tree of life and the rock of ages: are we getting better at estimating phylogeny," BioEssays, Vol. 24:203-207 (2002).

    [5.] Graham Lawton, "Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life," New Scientist (January 21, 2009).

    [6.] See Andrew B. Conley, Jittima Piriyapongsa and I. King Jordan, "Retroviral promoters in the human genome," Bioinformatics, Vol. 24(14):1563--1567 (2008); Daisuke Kigami, Naojiro Minami, Hanae Takayama, and Hiroshi Imai, "MuERV-L Is One of the Earliest Transcribed Genes in Mouse One-Cell Embryos," Biology of Reproduction, Vol. 68:651-654 (2003).

    [7.] Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, pg. 128 (Greenwood Press, 2004).