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#9 of Our Top Ten Evolution Stories of 2014: The Ham-Nye Creation Debate: A Huge Missed Opportunity

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Published originally on February 4, 2014.

After watching Tuesday night's Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate, I was reminded of what attracted me in the first place to the approach to investigating origins represented by the theory of intelligent design.

Sure, Ham talked about some science here and there, but almost all of what he said focused on trying to support a young earth viewpoint. Since he's not a scientist, the great majority of his arguments amounted -- over and over again -- to "Because the Bible says so." Nye's main argument was, "Because the scientific evidence says so," and he cited a lot of reasonable evidence for an old earth. While Ham did make a few effective points that you don't have to accept evolution to do good science, the compelling scientific evidence for design in nature got skipped over.

Because the focus was so overwhelmingly on the age of the earth, the point was never made that a mainstream scientific view about the age of the earth is totally compatible with an intelligent design view that totally refutes Nye's intolerant, materialist beliefs about the history of life. For goodness sake, Bill Nye was the one defending Big Bang cosmology. Viewers would never know that the Big Bang is one of the best arguments for the design of the universe ever offered by science.

People will walk away from this debate thinking, "Ken Ham has the Bible, Bill Nye has scientific evidence." Some Christians will be satisfied by that. Other Christians (like me) who don't feel that accepting the Bible requires you to believe in a young earth will feel that their views weren't represented. And because Ham failed (whether due to time constraints, an inflexible debate strategy, lack of knowledge, inadequate debate skills, or a fundamentally weak position) to offer evidence rebutting many of Nye's arguments for an old earth, young earth creationist Christians with doubts will probably feel even more doubtful. Most notably, however, skeptics won't budge an inch. Why? Because Ham's main argument was "Because the Bible says so," and skeptics don't take the Bible as an authority. They want to see scientific evidence.

That's why I strongly prefer evidence-based approaches to origins like ID. Skeptics who say "Show me the evidence" are challenged with evidence, because that's what ID argues from -- the evidence for design in nature, not in the Bible. In a debate where people want to know what the evidence says, that moves everyone in the right direction.

This is really unfortunate. I know that Ken Ham means well, but it's extremely regrettable that the powerful evidence for design in nature was hardly discussed in the Ham-Nye debate. A huge opportunity was lost.

What Could Have Been

Bill Nye is a great science communicator, but I can just about guarantee that his knowledge about evolution goes no deeper than popular arguments you find in books by Dawkins and Coyne. He knows next to nothing about the many emerging scientific challenges to the neo-Darwinian paradigm. He didn't hardly try to defend Darwinism in the debate, and a debater who was familiar with these issues could have shown the audience that an ID-based view of life is far superior to a Darwinian one.

For example, in one of the rare instances where biological evolution came up, Nye cited Tiktaalik as a "fish-lizard" that is a fulfilled "prediction" of evolution. "Fish-lizard"? That's almost as bad as citing the infamous "croco-duck," and Nye is apparently unaware that Tiktaalik isn't lizard-like at all and has fins that are entirely fish-like. Nye is probably also unaware that the so-called evolutionary "prediction" that Tiktaalik fulfilled went belly-up after scientists found tracks of true tetrapods with digits some 20 million years before Tiktaalik in the fossil record.

At one point, Nye also threw a slide up on the screen that was crammed with lots of tiny photos of hominin skulls, as if somehow this was supposed to demonstrate something about evolution. The reality is there is a distinct break in the fossil record between human-like and ape-like fossils, and as we've discussed previously, skull sizes through time do not make a good argument for the gradual evolution of humans. For a good discussion of how the fossil record does not support the evolution of humans from apelike creatures, check out the book Science and Human Origins.

In another instance, Nye gave the bland argument that "Evolution is a process that adds complexity through natural selection," but he probably has no idea about the growing body of evidence that is leading scientists to reject natural selection as an explanation for much of biological complexity.

In one of the few times intelligent design was mentioned, Nye also said nature is "inconsistent with a top-down view" of ID. I suppose Nye is unaware that scientists increasingly say that understanding biology requires a top-down approach:

  • "The unique informational narrative of living systems suggests that life may be characterized by context-dependent causal influences, and in particular, that top-down (or downward) causation -- where higher-levels influence and constrain the dynamics of lower-levels in organizational hierarchies -- may be a major contributor to the hierarchal structure of living systems." (Sara Imari Walker and Paul C. W. Davies, "The algorithmic origins of life," Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 10: 20120869 (2012).)
  • "The record of the first appearance of living phyla, classes, and orders can best be described in Wright's (1) term as 'from the top down'." (James W. Valentine, "Late Precambrian bilaterians: Grades and clades," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 91: 6751-6757 (July 1994).)
  • The growing field of "systems biology" takes this "top-down" approach:
    System-level understanding, the approach advocated in systems biology, requires a shift in our notion of "what to look for" in biology. While an understanding of genes and proteins continues to be important, the focus is on understanding a system's structure and dynamics. Because a system is not just an assembly of genes and proteins, its properties cannot be fully understood merely by drawing diagrams of their interconnections. Although such a diagram represents an important first step, it is analogous to a static roadmap, whereas what we really seek to know are the traffic patterns, why such traffic patterns emerge, and how we can control them.

    Identifying all the genes and proteins in an organism is like listing all the parts of an airplane. While such a list provides a catalog of the individual components, by itself it is not sufficient to understand the complexity underlying the engineered object. We need to know how these parts are assembled to form the structure of the airplane. This is analogous to drawing an exhaustive diagram of gene-regulatory networks and their biochemical interactions. Such diagrams provide limited knowledge of how changes to one part of a system may affect other parts, but to understand how a particular system functions, we must first examine how the individual components dynamically interact during operation. We must seek answers to questions such as: What is the voltage on each signal line? How are the signals encoded? How can we stabilize the voltage against noise and external fluctuations? And how do the circuits react when a malfunction occurs in the system? What are the design principles and possible circuit patterns, and how can we modify them to improve system performance?

    (Hiroaki Kitano, "Systems Biology: A Brief Overview," Science, 295 (5560): 1662-1664 (March 1, 2002).)

    And this holistic, top-down approach can be applied to help us understand the "irreducible organisational complexity" of the cell:
    Self-referential organisation, as we put it here, implies inter-conversion of information between logically distinct coding systems specifying each other reciprocally. Thus, the holistic approach assumes self-referentiality (completeness of the contained information and full consistency of the different codes) as an irreducible organisational complexity of the genetic regulation system of any cell. Put another way, this implies that the structural dynamics of the chromosome must be fully convertible into its genetic expression and vice versa. Since the DNA is an essential carrier of genetic information, the fundamental question is how this self-referential organisation is encoded in the sequence of the DNA polymer.

    (Georgi Muskhelishvili and Andrew Travers, "Integration of syntactic and semantic properties of the DNA code reveals chromosomes as thermodynamic machines converting energy into information," Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 70 (23): 4555-4567 (December, 2013).)

    ID principles are bearing real fruit in science. What we find in life is fundamentally incompatible with the "bottom-up" approach of neo-Darwinian theory. Biology in the 21st century requires a goal-directed cause that can explain the integrated, "top-down," "holistic," and "irreducible organisational complexity" of the cell. That cause is intelligent design, but the audience watching the Ham-Nye debate, live or online, learned hardly anything about this viewpoint.

    For a debate that did highlight this information and that's constructively framed around the central issues, listen to the Stephen Meyer - Charles Marshall debate.

    UPDATE: Chris Mooney, an atheist Darwin-defender, certainly wishes the debate had been about biological evolution. In his post-mortem on Ham-Nye, he claims that human chromosomal fusion provides "the most powerful evidence for evolution that you can imagine." But at most, such evidence says nothing about human common ancestry with apes, and at best suggests only that a fusion event occurred along the human line. Even then, the evidence for fusion isn't clear-cut.