Friday, July 31, 2009

The Voyage That Shook the World

I finally had a chance today to watch the Creation Ministries International-funded film, "The Voyage That Shook the World." It's a 52-minute, professionally produced docu-drama. The cinematography is excellent, and there are high-quality graphics and effects. There's not a whole lot of acting to judge--most of it appears for visual effect during narration or interview voice-overs--but I saw nothing to criticize in that regard.

The documentary content itself starts off reasonably, with the only initial hint that this might not be a mainstream production being the emphasis put on Darwin "making up stories" as a child. The first experts to appear are professional historians. Apart from H.M.S. Beagle having the wrong number of masts (two instead of three), I didn't notice any obvious mistakes in the history, though I'm no expert.

Where it first veers into creationist territory is when the narration starts talking about Charles Lyell's influence on Darwin, with regard to uniformitarianism and "deep time," and it makes an odd assertion that the great age of the earth was a settled question in Darwin's time, unlike today. That's an odd assertion since the age of the earth is overwhelmingly confirmed by science today, and there is no scientific debate about the earth being about 4.5 billion years old. (Particularly odd was that this remark came from historian Peter Bowler, I believe, which makes me wonder about the original context of his remark.)

Several creationists and intelligent design advocates appear, though they are not identified as such. A CMI web page about the film does show who's who, but this is perhaps the most deceptive aspect of the film--using on-screen credential identification that puts recognized experts with well-established reputations on a par with relative unknowns without established reputations. For example, creationist Rob Carter is identified on-screen by where he earned his Ph.D. and as "marine biologist and geneticist," but he has no academic appointment, a scant publication record, and works for CMI. Stuart Burgess is identified as "Design & Nature, Bristol University" but he's a mechanical engineering professor at Bristol University. (UPDATE: Note that Burgess' title is, in fact, Professor of Design and Nature.) Emil Silvestru is identified by his Ph.D. and as a "geologist and speleologist," but he works full-time for CMI. Cornelius Hunter of the Discovery Institute is identified by his Ph.D. and as "molecular biophysicist and author" when he is an adjunct professor of biophysics at Biola University. That institution was originally known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, founded in 1908 by Lyman Stewart of Standard Oil, the guy who funded the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, from which fundamentalism gets its name. I consider this to be a deceptive equation of expertise, for which the film deserves criticism. (I gave the same criticism to "The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark," which used the same technique to equate creationists with little or no reputation with recognized experts.)

Creationist Emil Silvestru argues for a young earth and for the creation of geological features by catastrophic flood, though I noticed he mentioned "a flood" and not "the flood" at first, and while he mentioned the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington as having been cut rapidly by catastrophic forces (true), he did not make the common grossly mistaken creationist assertion that this is how the Grand Canyon was formed. Silvestru also makes a polystrate tree fossil argument for rapid deposition (which may well be the case in the particular instance, but is not generally the explanation for polystrate tree fossils).

The creationism starts out fairly subtly in the film, with the remarks about the age of the earth, and at one points sets up a novel opposition between two views:
ScienceReligion
  1. Gradual change
  2. Fixity of species
  3. Old earth
  1. Rapid catastrophic change
  2. Mutability of species
  3. Young earth
The film argues that Darwin was misled by his reliance on Lyell's worldview to initially miss the evidence for natural selection in the Galapagos islands, when he didn't bother labeling the finches he collected, and the film clearly asserts that species change can occur, even across genera (between which hybridization may also be possible), though it avoids addressing the potential implications for humans and other primates. The film suggests that the religious view is that the wide diversity and geographic dispersal of living things emerged in the last few thousand years since the flood of Noah, which entails a rapidity of evolution that evolutionary scientists would reject as implausible. I believe the film's offered cases of rapid morphological changes in finch beak sizes are correct, along with its cases of hybridization that include hybrids between land and marine iguanas in the Galapagos. CMI creationist Robert Carter asserts that this is evidence of a young age of the Galapagos islands, because otherwise all the species would have mixed rather than being distinct, rather than concluding, for example, that some of these species are reproductively isolated and others aren't. I almost had the impression that I was witnessing the evolution of a new form of creationism-as-hyperevolution, that required special creation only because a young earth didn't allow enough time to generate the diversity of current life on earth.

But then more standard creationism begins to emerge, with arguments that there are limits (or "apparent limits") to biological change, "as any pigeon breeder knows," and that it is impossible for evolution to generate new information. Finnish creationist biochemist Matti Leisola asserts that random mutation cannot generate new information or novel structures, and that introducing randomness "causes information to disappear" and we only see new information arise from intelligent sources. He doesn't explain what notion of information he's using, but randomness does generate new information, and new information has been observed to appear in the lab, as well as in computer simulations using genetic algorithms. Leisola goes on to say that genetic engineering originally promised the ability to make arbitrary changes to organisms, but now promises much less--we can create bacteria that produce insulin, but we can't change bacteria into anything but bacteria. I wonder what Leisola would think of this?

The film is right that a role for catastrophes has been found in geology (but not to the exclusion of mostly uniformitarian processes over very long periods of time, such as evidenced in the Grand Canyon), and for bursts of rapid biological change, as well as that biology has been found to be more complex than originally suspected. However, these discoveries, made by evolutionary scientists, have not generated support for the creationist worldview, which has been remarkable for its lack of scientific fruitfulness. This points out another failing of the film, which is its complete omission of the overwhelming evidence in support of the common ancestry of all life on earth, the evidence of the great age of the earth, and the evidence of human evolution.

At one point, the film touches on Darwin's racism, and suggests that this is because of his evolutionary views, as opposed to religion which teaches the common origins of all human beings from Adam and Eve. But both views teach common ancestry of all human beings, and there was no scarcity of racist religious believers in the mid-19th century. The Bible offers no word of condemnation of slavery and both explicitly and implicitly elevates some people over others, with the Hebrews as the "chosen people" and descriptions of God ordering genocide and the taking of slaves. The Southern Baptist Convention in the U.S. owes its existence to a split with the Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery--the Southern Baptists were for it. The dichotomy of evolution-supporting racists vs. religious creationist non-racists is a false one.

Near the end of the film, the film points out that in Darwin's time, science was just beginning to emerge from philosophy, and argues that Darwin's project was philosophical and anti-religious as much as it was scientific. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues onscreen that Bertrand Russell's idea that we should only believe what is established by scientific evidence is a self-undermining thesis, since it is not a scientific statement, but a piece of philosophy or even theology. I think Plantinga is probably right that we can ultimately never avoid the need for philosophical argument, but he probably underestimates the degree to which philosophy can be "naturalized" and scientific evidence brought to bear on historically philosophical problems.

The conclusion of the film states that there are opposing views of evolution and creation, and that "some suggest that they can coexist, but Darwin himself resisted this position." (I guess this is one case where the filmmakers want you to believe Darwin, in his opposition to accomodationism between evolution and religion.) The final statement of the film is that questions about how we came to be here and why we are here refuse to go away.

In all, the film is somewhat better than I expected it would be, and the film itself could be described as trying to hide its own creationism, probably in hopes of working like a Trojan horse. I hope that its effect will be to encourage the children of creationists to become interested in scientific questions, as it does depict scientific research and discovery in a largely positive light. If it does, then some of them will come to discover for themselves the facts about evolution and creationism, perhaps with the assistance of online sites like the TalkOrigins archive.

UPDATE (August 2, 2009): I've received emails from Carl Wieland of CMI and from Steve Murray, the director of the film, offering a bit of additional explanation and rebuttal. First, the remark from Peter Bowler about dispute over the age of the earth was apparently regarding the fact that there was no young-earth creationist movement at the time of Darwin like there is today, and no indication that Bowler intended to suggest that there is a scientific dispute over the age of the earth today--as commenter Physicalist suspected. Second, Steve Murray pointed out that he was aware that the ship used didn't have the same number of masts as the Beagle, but they went with what they could find close to the size of the Beagle in Tasmania, and generally tried to hide the differences in how they shot the film. Third, both disclaimed any attempt to be deceptive in choice of on-screen credentials. Finally, Steve Murray chose the on-screen credit for Cornelius Hunter based on the fact that he learned of his work and selected him to be in the film based on his books.

UPDATE (November 30, 2010): A different version of the above review, co-authored with John Lynch, will appear in vol. 30 of Reports of the National Center for Science Education and is on their website.

UPDATE (June 2, 2011): The film's claim about Darwin taking the idea of natural selection from Edward Blyth is rather decisively and completely refuted by Joel S. Schwartz, "Charles Darwin's Debt to Malthus and Edward Blyth," Journal of the History of Biology vol. 7, no. 2, Autumn 1974, pp. 301-318, online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/4330617.

28 comments:

Duke of Earl said...

Thank you for your fair minded commentary on the Creation Ministries movie. I saw it myself at church last week. For myself I would rather they had focused more on the scientific arguments around Darwinian evolution during his lifetime but I guess that's the problem when you're restricted to 52 minutes playing time.

However talk origins haven't really managed to offer much in the way of actual defence of evolution. I had to correct one contributor who used the Miller experiments as a demonstration of the naturalistic origin of life.

It is true that the film makers should have spent more time defining information in the genetic sense. It is akin to the information sequence in a computer program that provides a series of instructions for the assembly of living organism. I'd liken it to a CAD/CAM program. Data corruption, mutations, do not increase the information quality of the program, they might, through random chopping and changing, increase the quantity. Much as if I copy/pasted this comment you would have "more" information but it wouldn't give you anything you didn't have already.

Regards
Jason

Zarquon said...

Much as if I copy/pasted this comment you would have "more" information but it wouldn't give you anything you didn't have already.

There is more information in a duplicated sentence, just as there is in a duplicated gene. There is no more meaning to a person in a duplicated sentence but this conflates "information" with "meaning", a mistake which creationists continually make.

John Pieret said...

I don't think creationism-as-hyperevolution is all that new. It goes back to at least to Woodmorappe's book and AiG's list of arguments creationists shouldn't use. The idea falls out of their need to maintain that the number of animals on the ark was as low as possible (so as to keep the story only laughably improbable), but still explain the vast diversity of life on Earth.

As to synthetic genomics, I'm going to put on my Kreskin hat and prognosticate that Leisola would say: "Yeah, but only through Intelligent Design!"

Joshua said...

Good write up, Jim. The Creationist movement is becoming more subtle in how it delivers its message. The production standards are much better with every passing year as well.

At this point, it seems to me that the goal is to hook people who are maybe skeptical of evolution and exploit that skepticism.

It seems like creationists are determined to be a permanent part of the debate though.

Jim Lippard said...

John: You're correct that creationists have argued that microevolution within "kinds" since the ark allowed for fewer, broader "kinds" to have to use the available space, but I don't recall seeing a version of creationism that relied only upon a young earth as the argument that there must have also been special creation. And, of course, I still haven't seen that, since the "limits to change" and "no new information" arguments both came up in this film.

The implausibility of post-Noah creationist hyperevolution is a point I've seen made before, as well, e.g., by Glenn Morton in response to Woodmorappe, and by Robert A. Moore in his "Impossible Voyage of Noah's Ark" article from Creation/Evolution, which was the driver for Woodmorappe's article.

I should also link to Morton's reply to Woodmorappe's response.

Copernic said...

Jim,
Nice write-up. I suppose some creationists may find this a "fair minded" review only because you omitted the name calling they may have expected. The review, however, does expose their dishonesty and self-imposed ideological brain clamps nonetheless.

Duke of Earl asserts that the Miller–Urey Experiments attempted to demonstrate the "naturalistic origin of life", and that he "corrected" a contributor. I find this laughable. Miller and Urey did not attempt to demonstrate a naturalistic origin of life. They instead provided evidence that a naturalistic origin of life was possible by demonstrating that complex organic compounds (amino acids) can be formed naturaly from inorganic compounds and simpler organic precursers (CH3 for instance). This is a completely different claim.

As for DofE's statement that mutations do not increase the quality of information (he's wrong, of course), perhaps he feels comfortable discounting the entire field of study of gene duplication/amplification. Why bring this up other than show his ignorance of genetics? Darwin certainly didn't know about it, thus his evidence and propositions did not address the field of genetics.

DoE expresses certainty on two subjects he clearly doesn't know anything about. He should perhaps put some qualifiers in front of his statements next time, such as "I don't believe.." and "as far as I know..." and "my religion keeps me from accepting...". We could then have a more honest discussion.

J

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It is true that the film makers should have spent more time defining information in the genetic sense. It is akin to the information sequence in a computer program that provides a series of instructions for the assembly of living organism. I'd liken it to a CAD/CAM program. Data corruption, mutations, do not increase the information quality of the program, they might, through random chopping and changing, increase the quantity. Much as if I copy/pasted this comment you would have "more" information but it wouldn't give you anything you didn't have already.


Look, mathematicians and computer scientists have been working with formal definitions of information for 50 years now. Measuring information is well understood, and we do not talk about "quality of information". Furthermore, it is well known that processes like mutation, recombination, and gene duplication can generate information in the mathematical sense.

The onus is on the creationist to give a formal definition of information and demonstrate that it cannot be increased through well-known biological processes. This creationists have consistently failed to do.

Jim Lippard said...

Jeff: Thanks for your comment--I was going to ask you to throw in your two cents regarding the information remarks in the film.

Cubist said...

sez 'Duke of Earl': "Data corruption, mutations, do not increase the information quality of the program..."
Got a question for you, Duke: How do you determine the "quality" of information in a genetic sequence? Just to make it a bit easier for you to answer that question, I'm going to provide a pair of genetic sequences so's you can determine the "quality" of the information in each sequence, and thereby determine which sequence has information of higher "quality". Here are the two sequences...

Sequence 1: cag tgt ctt ggg ttc tcg cct gac tac gag acg cgt ttg tct tta cag gtc ctc ggc cag cac ctt aga caa gca ccc ggg acg cac ctt tca gtg ggc act cat aat ggc gga gta cca agg agg cac ggt cca ttg ttt tcg ggc cgg cat tgc tca tct ctt gag att tcc ata ctt

Sequence 2: tgg agt tct aag aca gta caa ctc tgc gac cgt gct ggg gta gcc act tct ggc cta atc tac gtt aca gaa aat ttg agg ttg cgc ggt gtc ctc gtt agg cac aca cgg gtg gaa tgg ggg tct ctt acc aaa ggg ctg ccg tat cag gta cga cgt agg tat tgc cgt gat aga ctg

I await your answer, 'Duke'. Thanks in advance!

John Pieret said...

The onus is on the creationist to give a formal definition of information and demonstrate that it cannot be increased through well-known biological processes.

As Wilkins reported they seem to think information is some sort of semantic phlogiston or computational caloric.

Physicalist said...

{I}t makes an odd assertion that the great age of the earth was a settled question in Darwin's time, unlike today. . . . Particularly odd was that this remark came from historian Peter Bowler.

He may have been referring to the fact that there really wasn't a young-Earth creationist movement in the mid-19th century, even among the hard-core religious.
Biblical literalism (and with it, young-Earth creationism) only took off in the early 20th century.

(You're of course correct that scientists then and now recognized that the Earth is quite old.)

Jim Lippard said...

Physicalist: That makes sense. It would be interesting to hear if Bowler considered *that* statement of his to have been taken out of context or misrepresented.

Hurricane said...

Genetic algorithms are pretty cool, and can be extremely useful in certain situations. They're not magic.

Jim Lippard said...

Hurricane: Of course they're not magic. But they can produce new information.

valdemar said...

English bore here with a minor correction. Darwin sailed aboard HMS Beagle. She was not 'the HMS Beagle', because the letters stand for 'His/Her Majesty's Ship'.

Yeah, I know. But would you write 'the HIV virus'?

Jim Lippard said...

valdemar: Corrected! Thanks.

PlagioClase said...

Jim, you said "The film suggests that ... the wide diversity and geographic dispersal of living things emerged in the last few thousand years since the flood of Noah, which entails a rapidity of evolution that evolutionary scientists would reject as implausible."

It does happen quickly as has been documented. This article gives a host of examples. http://creation.com/speedy-species-surprise

When you consider the mechanisms involved in these examples it is clear why rapid speciation occurs.

Jim Lippard said...

PlagioCase: Glad to see there's some progress being made and that creationists now all agree that new species can arise by natural selection, and therefore there's no reason not to think that human beings are descended from other species of Homo, for which we have ample fossil and genetic evidence. Right?

But seriously, your comment doesn't really take note of the severity of the problem for a post-Noah's flood view--see the Robert A. Moore article, which I also cited earlier in this comment thread along with the exchange between John Woodmorappe and Glenn Morton.

PlagioClase said...

Jim: Progress being made? Let's dispense with this "creationists believed in the fixity of species" strawman. You saw the comment by Carter on The Voyage about Edwin Blythe and natural selection and the other discussion on the Galapagos about this?

Jim Lippard said...

Blyth's theory was a theory of elimination rather than selection, though he subsequently became a supporter of Darwin.

Perhaps John Wilkins or John Lynch can comment further on Blyth's views and how they changed after Darwin.

In any case, Blyth's original view was incorrect.

As for fixity of species, there were certainly creationist advocates of the view in the 19th century (e.g., Agassiz and Cuvier). Modern young-earth creationists like Henry Morris argued that natural selection is a passive conservative process that eliminates variation and can never produce new variants, which appears to rule out speciation. If you took a poll of creationists in the audience at any "Back to Genesis" seminar and asked, "is it possible for one species to evolve into another," I suspect you'd get a nearly unanimous "no" answer, with perhaps a rare few saying "maybe, if the species are within the same kind or baramin."

Creationists have long argued that there are no transitional forms at any level of taxonomy, not even between species. (Is the ICR a "straw man"?) The pseudoscience of "baraminology" didn't appear until what, the 1990s?

And there's still no good creationist argument or evidence for limits on evolutionary change.

Ktisophilos said...

Physicalist doesn't know what he's talking about. All the church fathers and reformers believed in a young earth, and most believed in creation in 6 normal-length days, as per a grammatical historical (originalists/textualist) hermeneutic (I don't know who these "literalists" are). But much of the Church of England had capitulated to Hutton and Lyell by Darwin's day, which is how I took Bowler's comment as "largely settled".

BTW, a professor in a British Commonwealth country is the highest rank of lecturer, unlike in America where it's used of any lecturer. This means Burgess is very high up in his field.

Also, Silvestru was head scientist at the world’s first Speleological Institute in Cluj. So don't denigrate him because he chose a career change in working for CMI; he is a genuine scientist with many published papers in his field (caves and karst.).

As for the rapid speciation, more likely: anticreationists try to overload the Ark by imputing the "fixity of species" nonsense to the biblical account. Woodmorappe was hardly the first to show up this fallacy (much better to read the book rather than rely just on hostile reviewers).

PlagioClase said...

It seems my post yesterday may have fallen through the cracks.

Jim: We can go down all sorts of rabbit trails but I wanted to reply to your statement: "... rapidity of evolution that evolutionary scientists would reject as implausible."

I gave you a link to real-life scientific examples that show rapid post-Flood speciation IS plausible. And when we are talking about the past, plausibility is as far as we can go.

This is a worldview issue. That is, it is not primarily about the evidence, although the evidence is important. It is about how the evidence is interpreted. Those who are committed to atheism will invent arguments that discredit the biblical record. And if one argument does not work they will look for another. That is what they are looking for. That is what motivates them. Those who are committed to a biblical worldview do the same thing.

So I would like to offer you a personal invitation. For a little while, step inside the biblical worldview. Assume it is true, just for a little while. Have a look at how it explains the evidence. See what the problems are. See how many answers there are to many of those problems.

So, instead of saying "I reject that as implausible" I would invite you to ask instead, "What sort of processes could be invoked to explain this evidence from within the biblical worldview." Instead of looking for problems, try for a little while to find some answers.

I don't need to mention that this is a huge issue culturally and personally, which, no doubt, is why you are so involved in debating it.

If there is NO God then none of us will have to give any account for anything we do when we leave this planet. We're just worm fodder and that is it.

But if God is real, if he in fact created, then the consequences are very different. That is why questions about where we came from and why we are here refuse to go away.

Jim Lippard said...

PlagioCase: I read and replied to your previous comment.

You are mistaken to equate atheism and evolution--although scientists, and biologists in particular, are less likely to believe in God than the general population, even a majority of theist biologists accept evolution.

As for trying out the biblical worldview, I already did that for about a decade. I think there is ample evidence that Christianity is a diverse set of mutually inconsistent false religious sects.

I don't doubt that there can be cases of rapid change, though I'd want to see support from a peer-reviewed journal before accepting a creationist web page description at face value. But speciation has been observed in both laboratory and the wild.

This doesn't really help young-earth creationism, since there is overwhelming evidence of the great age of the earth, the falsity of flood geology, and common ancestry of all life on the planet.

Ktisophilos said...

Copernic spruiketh:

“Miller and Urey did not attempt to demonstrate a naturalistic origin of life. They instead provided evidence that a naturalistic origin of life was possible by demonstrating that complex organic compounds (amino acids) can be formed naturaly [sic] from inorganic compounds and simpler organic precursers [sic] (CH3 [sic] for instance).”

Funny, this sort of experiment is often touted as proof for chemical evolution (aka abiogenesis). But a major problem is that the amino acids are too dilute, contaminated and racemic to progress further. No wonder evolutionist Robert Matthews said:

“The scientists themselves seem convinced that they have made a big breakthrough in solving the mystery of life’s origins. But coming to that conclusion from the discovery of a single amino acid is like believing that if you find a metal bolt, you’ve made a big breakthrough towards building yourself a Porsche.” [Beware of over-hyped breakthroughs: The media can hardly be blamed if scientists give their findings more spin than Rafael Nadal, BBC Focus 200:98, March 2009.]

As for genetic algorithms, David Abel states:

“All too many evolutionary computationists fail to realize the purely formal nature of GA procedures. GAs are not dealing with physicodynamic cause-and-effect chains. First, what is being optimized is a formal representation of meaning and function. A representation of any kind cannot be reduced to inanimate physicality. Second, “potential solutions” are formal, not merely physical entities. Third, at each iteration (generation) a certain portion of the population of potential solutions is deliberately selected by the agent experimenter (artificial selection) to “breed” a new generation. The optimized solution was purposefully pursued at each iteration. The overall process was entirely goaldirected (formal). Real evolution has no goal [refs.]. Fourth, a formal fitness function is used to define and measure the fittest solutions thus far to a certain formal problem. The act of defining and measuring, along with just about everything else in the GA procedure, is altogether formal, not physical [refs.].

“Despite the appealing similarities of terms like “chromosomes”, GAs have no relevance whatsoever to molecular evolution or gene emergence. Inanimate nature cannot define a fitness function over measures of the quality of representations of solutions. GAs are no model at all of natural process. GAs are nothing more than multiple layers of abstract conceptual engineering. Like language, we may start with a random phase space of alphabetical symbols. But no meaning or function results without deliberate and purposeful selection of letters out of that random phase space.” [The Capabilities of Chaos and Complexity, International Journal of Molecular Sciences 10:247–291, 9 January 2009 | doi:10.3390/ijms10010247 ]

Jim Lippard said...

Abel's comments seem to be assuming some kind(s) of dualism or irreducible intentionality (like John Searle), and I don't think it's a response to my point that GA can demonstrate an increase in information without intelligent design. To argue that a computer simulation is smuggling in "know-how" is a flawed argument addressed back in Philip Kitcher's _Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism_ regarding creationist arguments about thermodynamics. Whether GA is an accurate *model* of the details of biological evolution is a separate issue.

The "Origin-of-Life Foundation" he is associated with seems to be promoting a hodge-podge of recommended readings, that don't appear to have been selected on the basis of quality--it's a mix of self-published nonsense, popular works, serious works, and creationist works.

They're purportedly offering an "Origin-of-Life" prize of $1M (payable as a $50,000/year annuity over 20 years), but the Foundation's Form 990s show FY 2007 revenue of $12,923 ($12K from David L. Abel and $923 in interest), expenses of $10,453 (mostly office- and website-related), and net assets of $25,031. So obviously they can't pay that prize out of their assets.

It doesn't appear to be actually funding any real research.

Lifting said...

"I almost had the impression that I was witnessing the evolution of a new form of creationism-as-hyperevolution"

If I correctly recall, Hugh Ross has named young earth creationists as "short term macroevolutionists".

nice review.

Daxter said...

Could you post the email responses instead of giving us your summary of them. Thanks :)

Jim Lippard said...

I don't generally post emails without permission of the sender.