Disingenuous? Stupid? Both?

Let’s talk about Uncommon Descent for a moment. One of the recurring complaints we’ve been hearing from the evolution denialists there is this refrain that whenever a evolutionary explanation for a result gets reevaluated, it’s a sign that we “Darwinists” are somehow being dishonest and fitting any data to the theory of evolution. Evolution, therefore, isn’t falsifiable. For example, two posts, one from BarryA, the other from O’Leary (commenting on this ARN nonsense, wrongly suggesting that results that falsify evolutionary theory have been discovered – like the recent hypothesis the appendix has a function – and that we just ignore the problem.


In Edge, Behe talks about Ernst Mayr’s 1960’s prediction that on Darwinian grounds the search for homologous genes would be quite futile. Now Darwinists use homologous genes as evidence for the theory; after all the existence of such genes was predicted by the theory (after the fact).

What can you say about a theory that can just as easily predict “X” and the opposite of “X”?

I commend to our readers sections 19 and 20 of Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery, in which he discusses “conventionalist stratagems” to rescue a theory from falsification. Popper writes, “Whenever the ‘classical’ system of the day is threatened by the results of new experiments which might be interpreted as falsifications . . . the system will appear unshaken to the conventionalist.” Popper goes on to explain the stratagems the conventionalist will use to deal with the inconsistencies that have arisen between the predictions of the theory and the results of experiments:

And O’Leary:

Despite its name – which means “hanger on” – the human appendix works for a living, according to recent research (helping kill germs). [ed – note she didn’t even read it!]

As British physicist David Tyler notes, despite the claim of evolutionary biologists from Darwin to the present day that the appendix is junk left over from evolution, the appendix actually has a function – and the current crop of evolutionary biologists try hard to avoid acknowledging that they were wrong about that.

I think this warrants further discussion for two reasons. One is that it exposes, again, how the UD cranks just don’t get science. As someone who favors Popper’s view, I’m particularly pissed that the purveyors of the unfalsifiable would use him to promote their crankery. Second, there is often a problem in scientific communication that some people propose sloppy evolutionary speculations for findings that feeds these cranks ammo. First, let’s go over why the statements by our UD cranks are incorrect:

Let’s first address O’Leary’s claim that evolution predicts the appendix is worthless. Is this true? Of course not. First of all, the claim that she cites is a hypothesis, albeit a plausible one. Second, even if it is a correct hypothesis, the human appendix, compared to homologous ones found in other animals is still vestigial, as it has clearly lost functions found in other animals – such as cellulose digestion – and even if the bacterial replacement hypothesis were correct its function would still be redundant. This should be obvious because people with removed appendixes don’t fail to repopulate their intestinal flora after antibiotic treatment or GI illness. What O’Leary has done is make a fundamental error in the understanding of the word “vestigial” and conflated it with “non-functional”. Vestigial does not mean non-functional. Rather, a vestigial organ is one that is a footprint of an organ in another species, that has lost its original or primary function. In the linked PT essay, the comparison is made between the appendix and an ostrich’s wings. The ostrich doesn’t fly, its wings are vestigial, but that doesn’t mean they are without function.

Further, this is an historically incorrect view of the appendix, which people have been proposing functions for ever since Leonardo di Vinci, and many have been suggested long after Darwin. Evolutionary biologists didn’t say “evolution predicts no function for the appendix” all they’ve said is that it has lost its primary function and is therefore vestigial. Take for instance, this quote on Talk Origins from 1912’s The Story of Evolution.

“The vermiform appendage–in which some recent medical writers have vainly endeavoured to find a utility–is the shrunken remainder of a large and normal intestine of a remote ancestor. This interpretation of it would stand even if it were found to have a certain use in the human body. Vestigial organs are sometimes pressed into a secondary use when their original function has been lost.”

Joseph McCabe
The Story of Evolution (1912), p. 264

This essay at Talk Origins really is wonderful, but I’ll just list the 4 fundamental points which shows just why O’Leary and David Tyler at ARN are complete fools:

  1. The human appendix may have bona fide functions, but this is currently controversial, undemonstrated in humans, and irrelevant as to whether the appendix is a true vestige or not.
  2. The appendix is a prime example of dysteleology (i.e. suboptimal structural design), a prediction of genetically gradual evolution. [Take that DI!]
  3. The appendix is a rudimentary tip of the caecum and is useless as a normal, cellulose-digesting caecum.
  4. Thus, the appendix is vestigial by both the evolutionary and non-evolutionary, typological definitions of vestigiality.

To sum up, O’Leary/ARN wrongly suggest that a hypothesis has been confirmed to be the function of the appendix, this is clearly a misunderstanding of the word “vestigial” to mean “without function”, and attacks an “Darwinist” argument that has never been made. I expect a retraction promptly. Ha!

Onto BarryA, who I believe is following up on O’Leary’s nonsensical post with a Popperian attack on “Darwinists”. First of all, what did Mayr say? (Never trust a cdesign proponentsist on a quote):

“Much that has been learned about gene physiology makes it evident that the search for homologous genes is quite futile except in very close relatives…”

It’s true he said this, and its true that he was completely and absolutely incorrect. This was a speculation made in 1960, long before the human genome project, and in the absence of the reams of data on homology and gene sequencing that suggests a great deal of homology between genes in even distant ancestors.

So, does one man’s opinion about what molecular evidence we might find then disprove the entire framework of biology when he’s proven incorrect? Of course not!

The mistake that is being made here is suggesting that just because we fit results into the overarching framework, the fact that more than one result can fit suggests the framework isn’t valuable. Nothing could be more absurd. If someone discovers something that conflicts with the current framework of molecular biology – for instance the original transfer of information in molecular biology that DNA is transcribed to RNA and then translated to protein – that doesn’t invalidate all of molecular biology. The discovery of reverse-transcriptases was a big surprise. Suddenly we found RNA could be used by viruses as a genome that would then be transcribed to DNA and inserted into a host genome, and then back into RNA again to assemble the viral genome. Should we toss out the previous framework? Don’t be absurd! You modify it to be consistent with the current data, because it still works, and is still correct, it just needs to be expanded to be more complete.

Another example from physics would of course be the move from Newtonian mechanics to relativistic mechanics. Are Netwonian mechanics invalidated by relativity? Of course not. They work great at non-relativistic speeds. It’s just the the Newtonian system is incomplete not wrong. A theory doesn’t have to predict everything to be useful, and finding new evidence that wasn’t predicted – like the apparent increasing mass of particles as they approach light speed – doesn’t invalidate the previous theory or all the data that went into it. For the DI cranks to suggest this is unscientific behavior shows what poor scientists they are. This is the kind of stuff we live for!

The theory of evolution is very robust. It tolerates many different kinds of findings without falsification, and none of the examples, or more correctly misunderstandings, provided by the cdesign proponentsists falsify the theory. These fundamental errors made by the cdesign proponentsists also clearly demonstrates that they just don’t get science. New data that changes our understanding of biology doesn’t invalidate all of biology. And extraordinary claims like “a magic man done it” require extraordinary proof. The fact that one evolutionary biologist, even a great one like Mayr, made an incorrect prediction isn’t evidence of anything but the intellectual dishonesty of these cranks. The proposal of a new hypothesis about a vestigial organ (which would still be vestigial if it were true or not) does not invalidate evolution. The fact that they think it does, is again, only proof of the scientific illiteracy of evolution’s critics.

Evolution is falsifiable. For instance, if we found out that every species on the planet has a completely unrelated genome, with no homology between close or distant relatives, and no sign of branching ancestry, the theory would be in trouble. The fact is that we find the opposite. We find high levels of homology that break down consistent with molecular clocks as you travel back in time to branching points with our distant ancestors, and this is incredibly consistent with fossil timescales. All the evidence points to common ancestors. Alternatively, if we found no relationship between the physiology and function of organs in closely-related living animals, the theory would be in trouble again. Consistent with evolutionary theory we find the opposite, with many mechanisms conserved even in evolutionarily distant species. A neuron in a squid, for instance, functions much the same as a neuron in a human. It’s why comparative medicine works. A human is not a mouse, but we have enough in common that we can learn a great deal about a drug, or a tissue, or a molecular signaling pathway by studying the mouse. Take the recent finding of reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent cells. Where was the work done to find the 4 genes? In mice! The same 4 genes could transform cells from both animals (or two really, as Thomson showed).

Finally, I said I would talk about some of the stupid evolutionary speculations made by people that give cranks like cdesign proponentsists ammo. I can think of no better example than the pathetic neo-Lamarckian nonsense of an evolutionary explanation for why boys like blue and girls like pink that we saw earlier this year. It was a failure of scientific speculation on multiple levels. Their view was fundamentally-flawed as a misunderstanding between biological and cultural phenomena. Further, their evolutionary explanation was absurd, and would not fit into any reasonable framework of selection. It’s just that kind of stupid crap that makes the cdesign proponentsists happy, because it’s scientists acting like idiots. Being cranks, they think stupidity on the part of scientists validates their stupidity. Let’s stop making it so easy for them, OK?


  1. Nothing could be more absurd. If someone discovers something that conflicts with the current framework of molecular biology – for instance the original “dogma” of molecular biology that DNA is transcribed to RNA and the translated to protein – that doesn’t invalidate all of molecular biology.

    DNA is transcribed to RNA and that being translated into protein is the sequence hypothesis. The central dogma is about what sequence information flows are possible.

    sequence hypothesis:”In its simplest form it assumes that the specificity of a piece of nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a (simple) code for the amino acid sequence of a particular protein.”

    Central Dogma: “This states that once “information” has passed into protein it cannot get out again. In more detail, the transfer of information from nucleic acid to nucleic acid, or from nucleic acid to protein may be possible, but transfer from protein to protein, or from protein to nucleic acid is impossible. Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or of amino acid residues in the protein.”

    Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII:138-163 quoted in Judson, H.F. The Eight Day of Creation, Expanded Edition (1979, 1996) p. 332.

    From Larry Moran.

  2. David Tyler a physicist? Well, kinda. Dave is a textiles expert (with a PhD in physical sciences) who moonlights as a YEC geologist (and now ARN evolutionary biology expert). His big thing is the recolonisation model for the geologic record, in which the flood occurred in the Hadean and Archaean, with the rest of the record being the record of recolonisation post-flood. He is fond of mealy mouthed platitudes about honestly seaking new paradigms, following the evidence where it leads, employing multiple working hypotheses etc. This is rather irritating, but he’s pleasant enough. Here he is:


    You will note his expertise in both evolutionary biology and geology from such publications as:

    Tyler, D.J. 2004. Colour management in global apparel supply chains. Stitch World, 2(8), 20-21

  3. Wonderful post gentlemen. In honor of this, and previous UD Pwnings, I have nominated you for the prestigious Granting of Honorary Pre-Banned status at UD.

    This means of course that even if you wanted to post at UD, you would never, ever, in a thousand million years, ever be allowed past the UD censors.

    And not being allowed past the UD censors means that you are doing excellent work. Please continue!


  4. Yes. Thanks for your work, and very good post. I’m also bothered by the misuse of Popper.

  5. Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet)

    First off, I am not a scientist. I am an historian who dabbles in paleontology (with offshoots into evolutionary biology). During my study of history, I have noticed a broad trend (for at least the last 60 or so years (basically since the founding of conservatism as a political ideology)) regarding an inability of many (not all (and yes, I know I am coming dangerously close to making a blanket statement)) conservatives (whether political or religious) to make an honest argument.

    Part of this may be a misunderstanding of what an argument is (insert Monty Python’s wonderful argument about what an argument is here). Every time I read a ID screed, I am struck by the lack of argument. The essays consist, usually, of a statement followed by a game of ‘gotcha’ — Darwin did not account for mitochondria, so evolution is ‘proved’ false (If I had tried to argue that way in college, I would never have graduated).

    Unfortunately, because rationalists argue in the classic manner (statement, evidence, account for possible disagreement), rationalists are at a disadvantage (at least among those either with an axe to grind for polical and/or religious reasons, or those who lack a basic understanding in scientific method) when ID comes up against evolutionary theory.

    In other words, the problem is that you are trying to have a rational argument with an irrational person. Good luck.

  6. In other words, the problem is that you are trying to have a rational argument with an irrational person. Good luck.

    Yes, indeed.


  7. To answer the question of your title: Clearly, both. And a whole bunch of other pejorative adjectives as well.

    All of the people in the cdesign propenentsists movement are petty, parochial, pigheaded, puerile, preposterous, pathetic, perfidious, prevaricating, pusillanimous pissants.

  8. It’s especially stupid that I hear, from creationists, all of this noise about the theory’s predictions being falsifiable almost exactly as often as they purport to have falsified them.

    It’s like they don’t know what words are for.

  9. Pardon me.

    It’s especially stupid that I hear, from creationists, all of this noise about the theory’s predictions not being falsifiable almost exactly as often as they purport to have falsified them.


  10. Ponderingfool, fixed for greater accuracy.

  11. Billy,
    We’ve noted this on many an occasion and it’s the reasoning behind our general proscription against arguing with cranks. You’re absolutely right however.

    Hence our focus is more on tactics than on actually debating individual points. I liked this specific instance from O’Leary and BarryA because it not only showed how they are being intellectually dishonest, but also their fundamentally unscientific predisposition. They don’t get that scientists love to discover things that aren’t predicted by current theory, but that still doesn’t mean the data that went into the original theory and other observations were incorrect. if evolutionary biology finds something it doesn’t predict, we revise the theory, because the things we don’t predict aren’t things that falsify all the other data we have.

    It’s also amusing to see the purveyors of unfalsifiable nonsense – a magic man done it – try to use Popper. Although I’d also say that many routinely proposed ID hypotheses are falsified as well. That doesn’t stop them from using them.

  12. Morons. Feckless morons. I’m amazed that O’Leary is trying to pass off a paper from The Journal of Theoretical Biology as ‘accepted fact’. Puh-lease. But of course they’ll go to whatever dishonest lengths they have to try to polish the proverbial pile of shit that is ID.

    Here’s a little comparison:
    Mast cells, a specific type of cell in the immune system, are the bane of the allergy sufferer, responsible for the release of histamines that lead to itch. During allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), the cells de-granulate and cause vasodilation which can lead to shock and even death. Additionally, these buggers play a role in autoimmune disease and athsma. Seems like a fairly worthless cell for us to have, right?

    Recently a protective role was ascribed for mast cells: They are vital in protection against snake and bee venoms. Discovering a major function for a cell, let alone an organ, doesn’t end up in The Journal of Theoretical Biology, it ends up in Science

    These UD idiots fail me with every noxious idea they have and every moronic word they write.

  13. Billy (A Liberal Disabled Vet)

    Thanks. Looking at it from a tactical standpoint, it still strikes me that you are engaging in asymetrical warfare. You are being ethical, they are not. I don’t mean stop trying. I certainly don’t.

    I tend to look at things less from a perspective of scientific method and more from an historical perspective, so sometimes I miss the point. My bad. Liberal arts major (but I did take 12 credits of math and 12 of science (geology and archaeology)).

    Good site.

  14. I linked this posting on the UD page. Orac is right: The Stupid, It Burns!

    We’ll see if they let my comment go public. I doubt those cowards will.

  15. Having no predictions of their own, ID/creationists fail to understand what a scientific prediction really is. In particular, they don’t understand that a good theory will both make strong predictions, which if untrue would require the theory to be abandoned or modified in a major way (i.e. replaced by a substantially different theory), as well as weaker predictions that are not definite enough to serve as tests of the theory, but that can lead to further insights.

    So the prediction that dogs and man will share the same genetic code, or that there will be homologous genes in dogs and man is a strong prediction, in that evolutionary theory in anything approaching its present form would have had to be abandoned if these had turned out to be false.

    On the other hand, evolutionary theory predicts that it is possible for a feature to persist for some time after losing its function, but provides no basis for predicting which features this applies to, while predicting how long such a feature is likely to persist before being lost by genetic drift is extremely difficult. So this is too vague to be a strong prediction that can be used to test the theory, but it does offer hypotheses that can be useful in guiding research.

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