On Paul Nelson on macro-evolution

Paul Nelson has argued against macro-evolution, and I sense that some folk here want to discuss it.  So here’s a thread where we can do that without taking other threads off-topic.

First, some references.  There are three UD threads on this:

There has also been some commentary on the video by evolutionists:

A couple of comments have appeared at TSZ, here and here (and I probably missed others).

Open for discussion.

 

67 thoughts on “On Paul Nelson on macro-evolution

  1. The whole quote mine industry is based on two ludicrous propositions:

    That the individual being mined secretly knows or knew that evolution is wrong.

    Or, that the individual being mined doesn’t or didn’t know the implications of their own work. 

    As PZ points out, it is much safer to quote mine dead people who can’t jump out and defend themselves. 

    I noticed on Coyne’s blog that a couple of posters say that this kind of dishonesty turned them away from religion. 

    I once did a massive internet search of all the web sites  mining the quotes featured at talkorigins. 

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/06/and_the_winner.html 

    The link to the original research is broken.

    Here’s the correct link

    http://blog.darwincentral.org/2006/6/2/pied-pipers-at-the-gates-of-dawn/

  2. As indicated in the post, I listened to the full Paul Nelson video.  It’s a weird argument.

    He quotes statements by a few biologists who happen to disagree with the neo-Darwinian account.  I’m not a biologist, but I also happen to not be fond of neo-Darwinism.

    Nelson takes some evolutionary changes that Darwinists explain by natural selection.  And, relying on his dissenting opinions, he wants to argue that those changes don’t happen.  But that’s putting words into the mouths of those dissenting biologists.  The chances are the the biologists say that those changes do happen, but they would explain them in a way that is little different from the standard account.

    Based on what he says can’t happen, Nelson goes on to argue that macro-evolution cannot happen.  I actually agree that macro-evolution is unlikely to have happened in the way that Nelson says it can’t happen.  But why would he think that macro-evolution has to happen that way?  Why couldn’t it happen in a more likely way?

    To illustrate, Nelson’s argument might be used to make the case that modern cats could not evolve into modern dogs.  But almost nobody suggests otherwise.  What most biologists believe is that dogs and cats had a common ancestor that was less specialized than either cats or dogs.  And some descendents of that common ancestor evolved in a way that produced the specializations we see in cats, while other descendents evolved toward dogs.  There’s nowhere that a sudden disruption of development processes is required.

    In short, Nelson’s argument is bizarre.

  3. Do I have to watch the video? 😀

    I got Nelson third-hand (via Coyne’s piece), and didn’t know he was on about macroevolution; I thought it was the role of NS generally.

    I anticipate a curious reluctance to accept that many small changes equates to one big one. And a dodgy species concept. And a belief that the ‘neo-Darwinist’ paradigm is that every incremental change must be beneficial. But I mustn’t pre-judge the man!

  4. Do I have to watch the video?

    Only if you want to.  There’s not much to watch.  You could listen while doing other work, and not miss much.

    I got Nelson third-hand (via Coyne’s piece), and didn’t know he was on about macroevolution; I thought it was the role of NS generally.

    He accepts that NS explains micro-evolution, but argues that it doesn’t explain macro-evolution.

    He knows more biology than a typical creationist, which I guess is part of what makes his argument seem bizarre.

  5. So all Paul Nelson is saying is that creationists can’t be convinced no matter how much evidence there is.

    The way to do this is to systematically avoid learning anything about basic science –even at the high school level – and then to scour the literature and quote mine statements made by scientists trying to clarify the next steps in research. Then bend these statements to mean that scientists admit they have no evidence.

     

    This is a tiresome form of argument that goes all the way back to Henry Morris and Duane Gish.  Nothing has changed.  Creationists are simply saying they are not open to evidence of any kind.  If they don’t look, then there is no evidence. So repetitive and so boring.

    Then nail it by stating that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.  It is nothing but refusal to look followed by proof by assertion.

    What good does it do to argue that scientists would ignore bar codes when there are no bar codes?  Projection pure and simple.

    Creationists have their own fixed ideas about why evolution is impossible; and they foist these misconceptions onto the scientific community.  The scientific community doesn’t take its marching orders from creationists.

  6. Paul Nelson has said a lot of foolish things, but to my knowledge he has never used the second law of thermodynamics to argue against evolution (unless he does so in the video, which I haven’t watched yet).

  7. No, Nelson didn’t use that thermodynamics argument in his talk.  I am simply thinking of Sewell hauling out that hackneyed old chestnut recently.  It is “in the air” again among the creationists.

    This junk comes up and is recycled at regular intervals among ID/creationists; just as Nelson recycles the same arguments and quote mines going all the way back to Morris and Gish.  Nothing ever changes; they simply bull ahead expecting that they will wear out their opposition by infinite repetition.

    Creationists evidently think they “know” that evolution can’t happen.  Their history tells us why, even though they publicly disavow and slip-slide around their historical arguments when those arguments become an embarrassment to them.

    Knowing that history, I remain a mean old bastard with a long memory of their atrocities who will not give them any slack; they answer collectively for all of it.  They are never consistent among themselves about what they claim to believe or not believe; yet they never hesitate to demonize and smear the science community using the same tactics decade after decade.

    But the fact that no amount of evidence will ever convince them is a pretty strong indication that they “know” it is “forbidden” somehow by some law of nature.

    What law can that possibly be that would make creationists ignore so many patterns and so much evidence while simply refusing to learn the basics; “PhD” or not?

    Nelson’s talk is simply a boring repetition of old ID/creationist arguments that have been thoroughly debunked both for their inaccuracy and their dishonesty.  He gets no respect from me.

  8. Mike Elzinga,

    So all Paul Nelson is saying is that creationists can’t be convinced no matter how much evidence there is.

    Creationists can’t be convinced about what no matter how much evidence there is for what?

    These content-less assertions seem to be the stock-in-trade here at TSZ.

    They belong in Guano.

    The way to do this is to systematically avoid learning anything about basic science –even at the high school level –

    Paul Nelson has less than a high school science education?

    This is a tiresome form of argument that goes all the way back to Henry Morris and Duane Gish.

    Neither of which had anything beyond a high-school science education?

    You know, Mike, what we need are TESTS!

    Tests to weed out these non-believers before they can get their advanced degrees.

    Creationists have their own fixed ideas about why evolution is impossible; and they foist these misconceptions onto the scientific community.

    This has to be number one all time on the ignorance scale.

    Creationists are a big fan of evolution.

    The ark carried a limited number of creatures.

    All subsequent radiation, all current species, came about after the flood based on those initial populations.

    Big time evolution.

    Unless you can find Creationists who think that God continued to create new species de novo after the Flood.

    Do you know any Creationists like that Mike?

  9. petrushka,

    Or, that the individual being mined doesn’t or didn’t know the implications of their own work.

    No, that doesn’t follow.

    I noticed on Coyne’s blog that a couple of posters say that this kind of dishonesty turned them away from religion.

    The dishonesty here at TSZ has turned people against skepticism.

    You reap what you sow.

  10. There’s also coverage over at ENV.

    I forgot to include those.  Thanks for adding them.

    Was Coyne attacking Nelson as a response to the review of his book taking place at ENV?

    That’s a question of motives.  I don’t pretend to read minds.  I’ll take Jerry Coyne to be presenting, and arguing for his position on evolution, to be setting the record straight.  All sides of the disagreement are available for people to read and make up their own minds.

  11. I am looking forward to reading your argument. You have been granted a privelege here that I was denied at UD. It’s true that you will face opposition, some of which may be impolite, but you will not be censored. I was never impolite at UD and was nevertheless moderated and banned based entirely on the content of my arguments. That won’t happen here.

  12. Mike:

    Knowing that history, I remain a mean old bastard with a long memory of their atrocities who will not give them any slack; they answer collectively for all of it.

    Mike, you sound like Yahweh. Are you going to punish their children and their children’s children too? 🙂

    Come on — we’re not collectively responsible if someone on our side says something silly (for example, Dawkins’ comment about Nadia Eweida’s “stupid face”). Neither are IDers and creationists.

    Paul Nelson has plenty to answer for without being unfairly saddled with the sins of Gish or Sewell.

  13. You know, Mike, what we need are TESTS!

    You wouldn’t know a test if your life depended on it; as your following assertion clearly demonstrates.

    The ark carried a limited number of creatures.

    Seriously; if you hadn’t stopped learning in the 6th grade, you might have been able understand a simple high school level physics calculation that easily debunks such crap. As it stands, you have no hope whatsoever of understanding the difference between myth and reality.

    The average level of science education for a YEC is well below the 8th grade. Even children know better.

  14. if you hadn’t stopped learning in the 6th grade,…

    Mike (and others) – can I ask you to keep to the topic, and avoid getting too personal?

    Thanks.

  15. Neil Rickert on December 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm said:

    Neil, I had a nice response to your post, it seems to have been lost in the poor design of either the internet or this site. 😉

    I’ll try to re-create it as I get time and will try to avoid responding to other posts in the meantime. But the re-creation may come in bits and pieces, so I’ll apologize for that in advance.

     

     

     

  16. Mike, you sound like Yahweh. Are you going to punish their children and their children’s children too?

    No Yahweh here; just speaking from long, pragmatic experience. Their kids had nothing to do with the things their parents foisted off onto other people’s children.

    And why teach kids to hate everybody else and despise learning while cutting off any possible future they might have doing science if they wanted to?

    Just look at the attitudes of the people over at UD or at AiG. With all the demonizing you see on those sites, do you really believe they have any respect for the educations that others are trying to get? Do you really believe they know anything or have anything important to say about science?

    The biology teachers in Kalamazoo didn’t deserve the harrassment they got from Duane Gish either. Nobody there has forgotten.

    I’m more than happy to hold a mirror up to their faces and remind them of their past; especially when they choose to keep repeating that past. They should not be allowed to delete their own history; they need to own it instead of always being handled with kid gloves.

    You don’t need to feel sorry for them. They don’t really like you or respect you; but they will certainly use and abuse you if you let them. They keep repeating the same tricks over and over; and they seem to rely either on people not knowing their history or on the good will of people who will allow them to keep playing the same games.

    It is far better to hold them to account from the very beginning rather than allowing them to drag you through endless quagmires of word games and pretense. Look how fast they eat up threads, dodging and weaving while saying absolutely nothing.

    I am just a guest here. I have no say or influence in how the site is run; nor do I want any such say or influence. I have enjoyed the discussions I have had with the folks here; but it seems to me that this site has degenerated into simply trying to lure UD people over here to mud wrestle endlessly over stuff they just make up as they go.

    If that is what people want to do, that is their business; but I can already see that it won’t go anywhere. Your marks over at UD don’t have the science background or the sensible good will to engage in anything approaching adult conversations. And they certainly don’t like honest assessments of their lack of knowledge.

    If my bluntness offends you, I apologize to you; but not to the ID/creationists. I know them only too well; but it appears that some of the folks here do not.

  17. Neil Rickert:

    He [Paul Nelson] quotes statements by a few biologists who happen to disagree with the neo-Darwinian account.

    What are the statements he [Paul Nelson] quotes?

    The biologists who’s statements he quotes, disagree with the neo-Darwinian account of what?

    One would think that both of these are relevant to your point, but the answers are mysteriously absent.

  18. petrushka,

    I’ve already been censored. Check Guano.

    But feel free to take this complaint over to the open free-for-all non-censored thread that I’m advocating, right here at TSZ!

    🙂

  19. Neil Rickert:

    Nelson takes some evolutionary changes that Darwinists explain by natural selection.  And, relying on his dissenting opinions, he wants to argue that those changes don’t happen.

    I feel compelled to disagree. Nelson does not say those changes do not happen. You have misrepresented his argument.

    Rather, relying on his sources, he argues those changes do not happen by natural selection.

    Surely you can see the difference.

     

  20. Neil, sorry for the lack of proper indentation to identify your statements.

    I hope that won’t be a problem.

  21. Neil Rickert:

    But that’s putting words into the mouths of those dissenting biologists.

    It’s only putting words in their mouths if he doesn’t quote them. But he does quote them. The quotes are their own words.

    The chances are the the biologists say that those changes do happen, but they would explain them in a way that is little different from the standard account.

    That’s right. The “standard account” attributes the changes to natural selection. The biologists Nelson quotes disagree with the “standard account.”

    Nelson is not putting words in their mouths.

  22. Mike Elzinga,

    You wouldn’t know a test if your life depended on it; as your following assertion clearly demonstrates.

    Well, I guess I’ll just skip that next prostrate check! Thanks Mike!

     

  23. Neil Rickert:

    Based on what he says can’t happen, Nelson goes on to argue that macro-evolution cannot happen.  I actually agree that macro-evolution is unlikely to have happened in the way that Nelson says it can’t happen.  But why would he think that macro-evolution has to happen that way?  Why couldn’t it happen in a more likely way?

    Cannot happen wasn’t in his vocabulary. Unlikely to have happened in that way [via natural selection] sounds too much like you agree with Nelson and his sources.

    But why would he think that macro-evolution has to happen that way? Why couldn’t it happen in a more likely way?

    Nelson argues it could have happened in a more likely way. Intelligent Design.

     

  24. Sorry about that. You do have the option of using the post writing facility on the dashboard. If you save it, you won’t then risk losing it in the copy/paste process.

  25. I find it depressing (but not surprising) that the accusations of dishonesty so frequently levelled at those arguing against ID are never, ever, backed up with specific examples.
    The accusations are themselves dishonest 

  26. Neil, I had a nice response to your post, it seems to have been lost in the poor design of either the internet or this site.

    That happens. It’s a risk of using modern high-tech (computers, networks, etc). Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often.

  27. Mung:

    The “standard account” attributes the changes to natural selection. The biologists Nelson quotes disagree with the “standard account.”

    What changes? There is no ‘standard account’ that attributes all change to NS. Many of these biologists emphasise non-NS mechanisms in general. And every professional biologist is well aware of these mechanisms, and their importance.

    But present ’em with a specific case and they may or may not consider NS the likeliest explanation. If the quotation ‘in their own words’ was not a statement about the system Nelson is questioning, it’s hardly the biologists’ own words that give Nelson license to say that they agree with him on specifics. Lynch’s views on genome architecture, say, do not mean he does not think that NS had a hand in the evolution of the eye!

  28. Could have, sure. Anything *could have* happened. 

    But it’s about what you have evidence for, and you’ve already said that your evidence for ID is the lack of evidence for alternatives. 

    Nelson can “argue” all he wants. When he has some *evidence* then perhaps his “argument” will be a little *more* compelling.  

  29. If your offending posts are available for viewing you have not been censored. At UD hundreds of posts have been edited or deleted by karisfocus (among others) and most of the members here were banned for the crime of stating a rather well established of physics.

    UD is the only discussion forum I know of where the proprietor actively baits people with question regarding their opinions and bans people for having the courage to be honest.

    By a strict interpretation of the policies here, this post will be moved. If it happens it will still be viewable and will not be censored.

  30. Yes, Nelson’s argument is that natural selection can’t explain major changes in body plan (macroevolution).  At about 20 minutes into his talk, he discusses development, claiming that a “macromutation” large enough to affect development is so likely to be lethal that it cannot survive to contribute to fitness.  He cites the Nobel-winning work of Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus on Drosophila development, which exploited gene knockouts, as supporting evidence.

    Of course, the sensitivity of developmental genes to lethal mutation is not necessarily an absolute.  MOST does not equal ALL.  Most organisms that have ever lived on this planet are extinct, yet here we are.

  31. This is what I couldn’t post:

     he discusses development, claiming that a “macromutation” large enough to affect development is so likely to be lethal that it cannot survive to contribute to fitness.

    Anyone who has read Ernst Mayr would know that this was the consensus view by about 1930. Large mutations used to be called saltations. It also seems consistent with Darwin’s insistence on gradualism.

    But what constitutes a large change seems to be relative. Teacup dogs certainly have rather large developmental differences from wolves, and some rather large changes in Silver foxes were produced in a mere 50 years. Changes resulting entirely from variation and selection.

  32. I love this comment at the linked UD post from the frequently gnomic Robert Byers:

    If evolutions confidence is based on the prediction of mutations being zillions of times johnny-on-the-spot then its over folks. Put a fork in it.

     

  33. I watched, but did not feel the spirit move within me.

    His opening remarks on evidence were slightly off-the-mark. The evidence that convinces someone that a particular event occurred – during a criminal trial, for example – is of a very different character from one that would convince one that a particular process commonly underpins a whole class of phenomena. For my part, I would indeed be convinced to believe in a Designer by just one unequivocal example of such a Designer operating to intentionally effect a change prior to the existence of human intelligence on earth. But it wouldn’t be proof that he did everything, any more than one unequivocal demonstration of NS generating an assumedly ‘impossible’ feature would prove that it was responsible for them all.

    But of course in the Designer case, we would no longer give a damn about biology – we’ve found the Designer! Praise be! In the NS case, the response would be: “Meh. We already knew NS existed. The Designer must have done one of these other things”.

     “Neo-Darwinism holds that animals descended from a common ancestor via natural selection”

    ‘Neo-Darwinism’ was coined in 1895, predating even rediscovery of Mendel’s genetics. It came to mean the merger of NS and genetics, and more recently modern evolutionary theory. If (as he surely must) he means the latter, it is definitely wrong to say that NS is “the” mechanism of evolution – particularly in the case of divergence. In a single population, animals descend from a common ancestor by a process that renders extinct the descendants of the other potential ancestors around at the same time. Selection is a bias within this process. The ‘other descendants’ are rendered extinct more rapidly, or with more likelihood, due to a differential effect on reproductive rate. But selection or no, one ancestor remains standing when all the rest are gone. Between separated populations … if they are not even living in the same place, who cares about competition and its mechanisms? Should they meet, they are just part of each other’s biosphere, no longer of their common gene pool.  

     “For macroevolution to occur that [change in early development] is exactly where the mutations have to take place”

    He spends some time explaining that for the ‘Darwinist’ macroevolution is (in one sense) simply a lot of micro. But then he flips with that statement. It’s one or a few changes of massive developmental impact. Which it isn’t. Micro-evolution is essentially that which can go on within an interbreeding population, by concentrating variants and recombining them into the mosaic genomes of the population. Macroevolution is what goes on when a barrier prevents two parts of a population from recombining – especially when that barrier is cemented by infertility itself. And really, once that barrier is in place, NS fades into good old ecology, should the two populations be in any kind of contact at all. The rest is anagenesis, largely random wrt the differences accumulating between the two lines, even though NS continues to act within each.

    One could use ‘macro’ in the sense of a barrier passed after a certain amount of ‘micro’. But one shouldn’t make the association that ‘macro’evolution must proceed by ‘macro’mutation.

    He also makes the mistake of looking at developmental constraint in a modern species and assuming that the modern invariance of core developmental genes means that they can never have been plastic.

    A final point on probabilities – in n trials of a 1 in n event, you have a c67% chance of at least one success. (1-1/e). While ‘new body plans’ may be highly unlikely, they are also very rare. So even ‘hopeful monster’-style leaps can occur if their probability of success is of the order of a-few-times-in-a-billion-years. We don’t know what the probability is. Therefore we don’t know it is zero.  

  34. Allan

    I changed your status to author. Treat it as a neutral mutation which may prove advantageous as the environment evolves.

     

  35. A final point on probabilities – in n trials of a 1 in n event, you have a c67% chance of at least one success. (1-1/e). While ‘new body plans’ may be highly unlikely, they are also very rare. So even ‘hopeful monster’-style leaps can occur if their probability of success is of the order of a-few-times-in-a-billion-years. We don’t know what the probability is. Therefore we don’t know it is zero.

    Considering the ancient start of the metazoan lineages, there are really only two major “body plans” in the bilatera anyway — protostome and deuterostome. Everything else is just embellishment, and when the common ancestors of the arthropods and molluscs, for example, or chordates and echinoderms were originally diverging, the differences between the two would have most certainly been microevolutionary. Further along the line, the fish to tetrapod divergence is no greater a leap. So we don’t really need to respond to any “hopeful monster” protestations. It’s just not an issue.

  36. Me: in n trials of a 1 in n event, you have a c67% chance of at least one success. (1-1/e).

    D’oh! I proof-read my English, but not my arithmetic! 63-and-a-bit. Meh. It still doesn’t matter how small 1/n is, if there are ~n trials available! Failing to get a hit becomes the unlikely result.

  37. […]there are really only two major “body plans” in the bilatera anyway — protostome and deuterostome. Everything else is just embellishment

    Yes, one would certainly conceive of observing without undue surprise organisms comprising a small collection of a few dozen or hundred cells generating an opening developmentally which serves as both input and output. Return a few tens of thousands of years later and two descendant species have emerged, one of which has a second opening serving as mouth, the other a second opening serving as anus.  It’s pretty safe to say such a major retooling cannot evolve among their modern descendants. But when all you have is an arse/gob, separating the two may well be selectively advantageous.

  38. Neil Rickert:

    He accepts that NS explains micro-evolution, but argues that it doesn’t explain macro-evolution.

    This is a misrepresentation of his argument. His argument is not about macro-evolution per se. It’s about new body plans.

  39. Allan Miller:

    What changes?

    Hey, that’s my line!

    By all means, let’s discuss specifics. But first it might be useful to understand his actual argument. Only then can it really be judged whether he is abusing his sources. Right?

    Do I have to watch the video?

    It would help.

     

  40. Neil,

    I watched the entire video a second time just to make sure I wasn’t falsely accusing you of misrepresenting the argument. I stand by my statements.

    Response?

     

     

  41. Pedant,

    Nelson’s argument is that natural selection can’t explain major changes in body plan (macroevolution).  At about 20 minutes into his talk, he discusses development, claiming that a “macromutation” large enough to affect development is so likely to be lethal that it cannot survive to contribute to fitness.

    Try starting at the 22:45 mark. Nelson doesn’t argue that only changes in body plan qualify as macro-evolution. And I think you’re making too much of his use of “macro-mutation,” which iirc he only uses the term once or twice in an example and by which he clearly means a mutation early in development with downstream effects.

  42. OMTWO:

    When he has some *evidence* then perhaps his “argument” will be a little *more* compelling.

    He claims in the video to have reams of it and invites people to contact him.

     

     

  43. His argument is not about macro-evolution per se. It’s about new body plans.

    The term “body plan” should refer to something that a designer uses. Otherwise it is only a metaphor.

    What is sometimes referred to metaphorically as a body plan developed very early in primitive life forms, and at that time different body plans would not have been very different. They have become more clearly distinct as a result of a long sequence of small changes. The kind of hypothetical large mutations in development that Nelson criticizes, would not have been needed.

  44. Mung

    By all means, let’s discuss specifics. But first it might be useful to understand his actual argument. Only then can it really be judged whether he is abusing his sources. Right?

    I am less interested in his attempts to recruit mainstream biologists to his cause than in the nature of his arguments, to be honest. 

    Me:

    Do I have to watch the video?

     

    Mung:

    It would help.

    Yes, of course. My tongue was in my cheek when I wrote that. I spent 40 minutes of my life watching, and another hour or so composing the post which you might encounter if you scroll back to 10.25pm last night. I thought he spoke well, though I kept hoping he’d pick up one of those guitars.

    It would help also if you spent 40 minutes or so boning up on natural selection and drift, and grasped the biological species concept and the nature of taxonomic categories, speciation and divergence, ideally from a textbook rather than a website or Wikipedia, as a bit of a quid pro quo. Only then can you really judge if evolutionary theory itself is being fairly represented. Right?

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