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The NCSE 'Acts & Facts' Checker
[Long-time NCSE member and activist Bill Thwaites carefully monitors regular publications from the Institute for Creation Research. Bill has offered to provide us with a synopsis and critique of the salient features from the ICR's monthly Acts & Facts, which we gladly accepted. Ed.]
I hope that my writing a review of the February 1999 issue of Acts and Facts from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) will help illuminate some of the issues in the evolution/creation discussion. I have long enjoyed interpreting each month's mailing and sharing my findings and speculations with my good friend, the late Frank Awbrey. Recently NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott suggested that I share my thoughts with RNCSE readers.
Not Pleasing Anyone — Poor ICR! For purposes of convincing the scientific community that it is wrong about the age of the earth and the existence of biological evolution, the ICR must appear as secular and scientific as possible. The same appearance is handy in selling "scientific creationism" to the public schools and in maintaining ICR's accreditation as a graduate institute of science. On the other hand, for purposes of garnering financial support, ICR must appear to be as religious and evangelical as the "700 Club."
In the February 1999 issue of Acts and Facts, as well as in the accompanying fund-raising letter from the director John Morris, the emphasis is on evangelism. There is also a not-so-subtle appeal for "liberal" creationists to get back on board with regard to the young age of the earth. It would seem that just about everyone is carping at ICR for one thing or another.
Philosophical Naturalism — Both the elder and the junior Morrises of ICR seem to be impressed by Phillip Johnson's tirades against "philosophical naturalism". Morris the elder (Henry) writes that the evil atheistic cosmologists seem to be bent upon explaining the universe without God. Morris the younger (John) complains that naturalistic evolution falsely leads scientists to suppose that they will be able understand how cells and the genetic code originated.
As a biologist, I hasten to add that I'm gratified to see physical scientists criticized for "naturalism" the way biologists so frequently are. The complaints about cosmology show that creationists are fair-minded when it comes to complaints about "naturalism." They are not out just to get biologists. When the creationists are finished with their crusade, we will have theistic geometry, theistic addition, and so on. And I could happily go along with that if a reliable "theometer" is ever invented.
Taking on the Difficult Questions — We have read previously that ICR and its friends are going to put radioactive dating to rest once and for all. In this issue we learn that ICR is going to take on yet another daunting task — to discover the origin of pathogens (micro-organisms that cause disease). Somehow ICR must show that the diabolical mechanisms used to establish and maintain infections were not preprogrammed by a creator who knew in advance that mankind would fail. At the same time, ICR must also show that the more elaborate mechanisms (for example, the ability of many internal parasites to change "protein coats" to avoid recognition by the immune system) did not evolve.
If they admit to either preprogramming or to subsequent evolution, it would seem to weaken their case. On the one hand, an admission of preprogramming would cast doubt on their particular scriptural interpretation. An evolutionary explanation would also be painful. It would undermine the creationist insistence that nothing elaborate could have evolved. I look forward to seeing how they get out of this one almost as much as I anticipate their disproof of radioactive dating.
Impact #308 — In the February "Impact" article, we read a slightly reworked version of an old creationist claim. It goes something like this: "If evolutionary improvements stem from the selection of good mutations, then we should find many examples of good mutations in a typical species." Then the creationist goes to a list of genetic diseases and shows, wonder of wonders, that all the mutations in the list cause disease.
Of course the "good" mutations that evolution depends on are to be found in the variability that we see in any out-breeding population that has not recently come through a population bottleneck. In our own species, we see this as variations in resistance to infectious diseases, longevity, height, ability to succeed at school, resistance to ultraviolet light, resistance to various forms of cancer, and so on. In only a few cases have we been able to identify specific genes responsible for this variability, but the case for the genetic origin of these variations is well established.
And there is another way of looking at the claim that good mutations never happen — with a simple computer program. At San Diego State University we made a program that produced random letter changes that we scored against a target sentence. Those that were the closest to the target sentence were saved as "parents" for the next round of mutation and selection.
Very high mutation rates did not allow the reaching of the target sentence. Very low mutation rates made the achievement of "perfection" extremely slow. But when "perfection" had been achieved, all subsequent mutations were harmful. To a limited extent, that is what happens with real species. While "perfection" might be a bit of an exaggeration, any species that thrives is close to its "target" (that is, reasonably well adapted to its environment). Once that state is achieved, therefore, all subsequent single gene mutations are much more likely to be "bad" than good — that is, more likely to move the "sentence" farther from instead of closer to its target. A computer program elaborate enough to save alternative sentences that had the same meaning as the target sentence could be used to demonstrate this process of the accumulation of good mutations. As usual, there is an experiment which could resolve this apparent problem for the incorporation of useful mutations which could be done, but won't be — at least not by the ICR.