Re: "Rennie's rant"

From: Peter Ruest (
Date: Fri Aug 16 2002 - 00:54:33 EDT

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    Hi all,

    having been away for a few weeks, I may have missed some of the
    discussion under this heading, so please bear with me if I happen to
    repeat some points others may have made already!

    Having read the article "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" by John
    Rennie in Scientific American 287/1 (July 2002), 62-69 (Rennie is Sci
    Amer's editor in chief), I first hesitated to retain the term "rant" in
    the subject heading, as I have to agree with much of what he has to say.
    Yet, on more detailed examination, I saw that his treatment of the topic
    is nevertheless quite superficial and not at all up to the objectivity
    one should be allowed to expect of a scientist and, particularly, of the
    chief editor of a leading scientific journal.

    Although the wide spectrum of theists' opinions about creation and
    evolution has been known for decades, Rennie, in the usual atheist
    manner, keeps throwing all of them together into the same bin. He
    rightly insists that science is restricted to methodological naturalism,
    but he surreptitiously extends this to ontological naturalism, ruling
    out of court any suggestion that science may perhaps never be able to
    explain "all there ever was or is or will be". His contempt for YEC
    views is understandable, but his haughty manner ("nonsense") of
    conflating all criticisms of evolution with YEC is downright repulsive,
    particularly if his knowledge of the subject is as superficial as his
    article makes it appear.

    Rennie also seems to be caught in the god-of-the-gaps myth: "if
    something is scientifically explainable, it cannot be done by God". He
    falsely claims that belief in a Creator shuts down scientific inquiry.

    More specifically, I'd like to refer to his 15 points (I have
    abbreviated some of the lead phrases Rennie cites and rejects).

    1) "Evolution is only a theory, not a fact or law." Rennie is right in
    rejecting this distinction, as it reveals a lack of comprehension. But,
    simply referring to the fossil record, he claims evolution to be a
    "fact" and "true". At least since the proposal of the punctuated
    equilibria, the difficulties of interpreting the fossil record - let
    alone proving "the fact of evolution" - should be obvious. On the basis
    of his atheist presuppositions, of course, evolution is the only game in
    town. On the other hand, I, as a theist, agree that evolution has indeed
    happened, although I question its autonomy.

    2) "Natural selection is based on circular reasoning: the fittest are
    those who survive, and those who survive are deemed the fittest."
    Rennie's response involves the beaks of Darwin's finches, i.e.
    microevolution which is disputed by no one, and, moreover, which has
    been shown to be completely reversible (in the case of the finches'
    beaks), not generating any novelty at all. He claims that the fact that
    large beaks are better adapted for crushing seeds, no matter what the
    outcome of selection, proves that adaptive fitness can be defined
    without reference to selection. A rather meager argument. Virtually
    always, there are no predictions, but only post-hoc "explanations",
    "just-so stories".

    3) "Evolution is unscientific because not testable, not observable, not
    repeatable." Rennie is right to dismiss this argument because of the
    long ages involved and the uncertainty in the epistemological status of
    Popper's falsifyability. He mentions a few fulfilled predictions, but
    again, he fails to distinguish between microevolution, which is
    completely irrelevant here, and the origin of genuine genetic novelty.
    He claims that evolution could be falsified by the spontaneous
    generation of a complex life form from inanimate matter, or by
    superintelligent aliens claiming to have created life. This is
    ridiculous. And he mixes up the very distinct problems of the origin of
    life and of the emergence of genetic novelty through darwinian

    4) "Increasingly, scientists doubt the truth of evolution." Rennie's
    rejection of this claim as untrue is correct. But his claim that the few
    "antievolution" papers submitted to leading science journals only deal
    with unsolved (technical) problems disputed by no one is not justified.
    Manuscripts pointing to philosophical presuppositions of evolutionary
    conclusions are generally rejected - theistic presuppositions are
    detected in the refereeing process, but not atheistic ones.

    5) "Disagreements among evolutionists show how little solid science
    supports evolution." Again, Rennie is right in rejecting this.

    6) "If humans descend from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" Rennie
    is right in rejecting this silly argument.

    7) "Evolution cannot explain the origin of life." This time, Rennie is
    awfully weak, talking about aliens and organics found in space, and
    makes the blatantly erroneous claim that "biochemists have learned about
    how primitive nucleic acids ... could have formed and organized
    themselves into self-replicating, self-sustaining units, laying the
    foundation for cellular biochemistry." He is contradicted by the
    specialists in the field.

    8) "Mathematically, it is inconceivable that anything as complex as a
    protein could spring up by chance." Rennie's answer is useless. He first
    claims that "chance plays a part in evolution ... in the random
    mutations [correct] that can give rise to new traits [empty claim]".
    Then he claims that "natural selection can push evolution in one
    direction [correct] and produce sophisticated structures [empty claim]
    in surprisingly short times". To top it off, he recommends the
    (surprisingly common) computer simulations which fix any letter in a
    random letter string which happens to agree with a given target phrase,
    a ridiculously unrealistic algorithm which ignores practically all
    biological reality.

    9) "The Second Law of thermodynamics says that systems must become more
    disordered over time. Living cells therefore could not have evolved from
    inanimate chemicals, and multicellular life could not have evolved from
    protozoa." Rennie correctly points out that the Second Law applies to
    closed systems only, and that energy input can allow a decrease in
    entropy. But he ignores the fundamental difference between order (which
    can form spontaneously in physical and computational systems) and
    biological complexity (which has never been shown to be able to form
    spontaneously - either in simulations or in reality).

    10) "Mutations cannot produce new features." Rennie's unsuccessful
    attempt to reject this claim mentions bacterial resistance to
    antibiotics (which is due either to ribosomal damage or import - and
    sometimes slight modification - of preexisting enzymes), homeobox
    mutations (which produce defective developmental patterns), and splicing
    together of (already) functional modules. Obviously, he doesn't know of
    any real novelty demonstrably produced by mutations.

    11) "Natural selection may explain microevolution, but not the origin of
    new species or higher orders of life." The case of new species is quite
    uninteresting, as microevolution easily produces new species (e.g. any
    defect preventing interbreeding). Rennie insists on speciation and
    mentions the hypothesis of endosymbiotic organelle origin. The latter is
    probably correct, but this represents somewhat meager evidence for

    12) "Nobody has ever seen a new species evolve." That's easy for Rennie
    to refute, but that doesn't help with macroevolution.

    13) "No transitional fossils." In this absolute formulation, this is
    false. Yet, as a whole, the fossil record looks like a bamboo thicket,
    not like a tree. The theory of punctuated equilibria explains why it
    should be so - and at the same time makes it very improbable for most
    transition fossils needed to ever be found. Rennie doesn't mention this
    fundamental problem, but instead rehashes a few transitionals
    (Archaeopteryx, Eohippus, Ambulocetus and Rodhocetus). He then jumps to
    the genetic evidence for relationship and the molecular clock. His graph
    with the perfectly straight lines for some molecular clocks (without any
    data) really doesn't do justice to what we know today about the ubiquity
    of variable evolutionary rates.

    14) "Living things have fantastically intricate features at all levels,
    that could not function if they were less complex." Rennie claims that
    Darwin refuted this argument of Paley's, but that today's
    intelligent-design advocates still use it, although researchers "have
    even tracked the evolutionary history of eyes through comparative
    genetics." Rennie's argument is very broad-brush, and its use for the
    problem of specified or irreducible complexity seems questionable.
    Whether such complexity can be proved is not at issue here, because its
    occurrence has not been refuted, either.

    15) "Even at the microscopic level, there is a quality of complexity
    that could not have come about through evolution." Curiously, Rennie
    distinguishes between Behe's irreducible complexity and Dembski's
    specified complexity. He tries (unconvincingly) to invalidate Behe's
    concept by referring to Yersinia pestis toxin injection pili as
    precursors of bacterial flagella and digestive enzymes as precursors of
    blood clotting enzymes. And against Dembski's explanatory filter, he
    invokes the complex patterns produced by cellular automata! It looks
    like he hasn't even understood their concepts.

    To sum it up: Rennie disappoints! His article is hardly of any help in
    the creation/evolution controversy. On the contrary, he keeps thickening
    the mist.


    Dr. Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland
    <> - Biochemistry - Creation and evolution
    "..the work which God created to evolve it" (Genesis 2:3)

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