Refutation of New Scientist’s Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions
Published: 18 December 2008 (GMT+10)
Ed. Note: this is the fourth instalment of a detailed critique of a major New Scientist anti-creationist diatribe (see introduction and index page). This one deals with the widespread confusion between evolution and natural selection, which is actually a process discovered by creationists and an important part of the creation model.
Darwin is the ultimate authority on evolution
Modern evolutionary theory is built on some—but not all—of Darwin’s ideas, but has gone far beyond them
It is often assumed that biologists eagerly embraced Darwin’s theory about the origin of species when he unveiled it, and that scientists continue to accept all his ideas to this day.
Many biologists were staunch critics, e.g. Richard Owen (right) and Johann Blasius.
In fact, various ideas about the evolution of life had been around long before Darwin came up with his theory.
We have made this point as well, e.g. Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus Darwin proposed a theory of evolution, and it was proposed millennia before that by some ancient Greek philosophers.1 E.g. Anaximander (611–547 BC) argued that humans evolved from fish or fishlike forms, and Empedocles (493–435 BC) claimed that we arose by chance combinations of atoms. He even proposed a form of natural selection, whereby those combinations best suited to survive would pass on their offspring.2 Aristotle (384–322 BC) replied with the same argument of modern creationists today: that this fails to account for the origin of the first self-reproducing entity. The idea of long ages also has a long pagan history.
It was the compelling evidence that Darwin assembled in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, however, that really convinced most biologists of the evolution of life by descent with modification from a common ancestor.
Yet many evolutionists admit that Darwin never produced actual evidence for the origin of species, as opposed to varieties, let alone different basic kinds.
Modern biologists see Darwin’s greatest contribution as the main mechanism he proposed: natural selection. During Darwin’s lifetime, however, many biologists were not convinced that it could account for evolution, and the idea fell out of favour.
This is true, since the creationist Gregor Mendel showed that genes were basically discrete and stable. As admitted below, Darwin believed in the false view of pangenesis (from Greek παν (pan) = all and γεννάω (gennaō) = to be born), where ‘gemmules containing hereditary information from every part of the body coalesce in the gonads and are incorporated into the reproductive cells.’
In the 1930s, it was revived by population biologists, who proved that natural selection is a very powerful force driving evolutionary change (but not the only one). And with the development of genetics, biologists began to discover exactly how evolution takes place. This led to a new understanding of evolution, based on discoveries in many different fields, called the modern synthesis.
‘Historically, the entire field of population genetics was developed by a small, tightly knit group of people radically committed to the Primary Axiom [that all life had a single common ancestor]. They were free to explore many scenarios and adjust multiple parameters unconstrained by objective calibrations, and to optimize frameworks to appear internally consistent. Their mathematical approach was to define the unit of selection as discrete genetic units, such a gene or nucleotide, instead of whole organisms with all the contradictory influencing factors (p. 52).
‘For the most part, other biologists do not even understand their work—but accept their conclusions “by faith”’ (p. 46). The theorists’ models can be shown to never have matched biological reality to the minimal degree expected of useful models, but these men were undeniably intelligent and had an incredible aura of intellectual authority (p. 53). In many ways they deserve our admiration, since transforming any scenario, correct or not, into an appropriate mathematical formulation requires a great deal of skill. One can also admire honestly the brilliant lawyer who argues ever so cleverly against the truth in his client’s interest. How we wish they would contribute their gifts within a correct paradigm!’
In many ways the modern synthesis is an extension and refinement of Darwin’s ideas, but there are also some important differences. In particular, some evolution is now attributed to genetic drift.
Genetic drift is a good way to drive devolution by eliminating genes by chance—even beneficial mutations. Most mutations have small effects and the rare beneficial ones will mostly give a small selective advantage. This is expressed by the selection coefficient s. If a mutation has s = 0.001 or 0.1%, a supposedly typical value, then the number of surviving offspring is 0.1% greater for organisms with the mutation than without it. But the smaller the selective advantage, the more likely that random effects (e.g. genetic drift) will eliminate it—its probability of survival is about 2s.3 So the above mutation has only one chance in 500 of surviving, even though it is beneficial.
Even if a beneficial mutation survives, for it to become fixed in a population (that is, all individuals have it, so it cannot be lost), the organisms not carrying it must be eliminated. This is the cost of substitution. This limits the amount of substitution which can occur in a given time. This is known as Haldane’s Dilemma,4 after J.B.S. Haldane, one of the world’s leading evolutionists (and a Stalin-supporting communist for a while). He wanted evolution to work, but couldn’t get around his dilemma.
Take a population of 100,000. If only a male and female pair have the new trait, natural selection must eliminate the other 99,998 and all their heirs. If there is perfect selection (s = 1), this can happen in one generation. But this means that for every new trait, 49,999 individuals must be eliminated without offspring. Then the population must be regenerated with these survivors.
Anyway, even if evolution happened at the maximum speed (s = 1) for 10 million years, how many traits could be substituted in a creature with human-like generation times of say 20 years? Only 500,000. This small number of nucleotides is only a small fraction of the forty or more 500-page books worth of information (120 million base pairs) which are needed to transform an ape into a man. And in real life, selection is far less intense, meaning that only about 1700 substitutions could occur.5
While Darwin was right about most things, he also made a fair few mistakes. The biggest was his hypothesis of ‘pangenesis’, described in detail in his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. According to this theory, beneficial characteristics acquired during the life of an organism could be passed onto offspring over the course of several generations, thanks to particles called ‘gemmules’ shed by body cells that became concentrated in the reproductive organs.
Genetics was discovered by the creationist Gregor Mendel, and largely ignored because it conflicted with the original Darwinism.
Darwin thought this could explain, for instance, why children are born with thicker skin on the soles of their feet than elsewhere, but this idea was dismissed in the 20th century. There’s a twist in this tale, though: a few biologists now think there might be ways for traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime to be passed on. However, it has yet to be proved that this can happen and, even if it can, it is very much the exception rather than the norm.
Actually, such promoters of neo-Lamarckian face censorship from guardians of the neo-Darwinian paradigm, as Professor Evelleen Richards, Science Historian, University of NSW, pointed out.
Darwin’s other mistakes are more trivial. For instance, in one edition of Origin of Species, Darwin enthused about ‘Eozoon canadense’, which had been identified as a primordial microorganism by others but whose ‘fossils’ turned out to be nothing more than mineral formations.
…The bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex
Actually, flagella vary widely from one species to another, and some of the components can perform useful functions by themselves. They are anything but irreducibly complex
It is a highly complex molecular machine. Protruding from many bacteria are long spiral propellers attached to motors that drive their rotation. The only way the flagellum could have arisen, some claim, is by design.
Each flagellum is made of around 40 different protein components. The proponents of an offshoot of creationism known as intelligent design argue that a flagellum is useless without every single one of these components, so such a structure could not have emerged gradually via mutation and selection. It must have been created instead.
In reality, the term ‘the bacterial flagellum’ is misleading. While much remains to be discovered, we now know there are thousands of different flagella in bacteria, which vary considerably in form and even function.
This is supposed to be an argument for evolution? If there was only one type of flagellum, then ‘common ancestry’ would be invoked, and used as proof of evolution. Now different varieties of flagellum are also proof of evolution? Once again, heads I win; tails you lose.
The best studied flagellum, of the E. coli bacterium, contains around 40 different kinds of proteins. Only 23 of these proteins, however, are common to all the other bacterial flagella studied so far. Either a ‘designer’ created thousands of variants on the flagellum or, contrary to creationist claims, it is possible to make considerable changes to the machinery without mucking it up.
What’s more, of these 23 proteins, it turns out that just two are unique to flagella. The others all closely resemble proteins that carry out other functions in the cell. This means that the vast majority of the components needed to make a flagellum might already have been present in bacteria before this structure appeared.
Dr Scott Minnich of the University of Idaho, a world expert on the flagellar motor, disagrees with the evolutionary story tellers, who have far less expertise in the area than he does. He says that his belief that this motor has been intelligently designed has given him many research insights. Minnich points out that the very process of assembly in the right sequence requires other regulatory machines.8 He also points out that only about 10 of the 40 components can possibly be explained by co-option, but the other 30 are brand new.
It has also been shown that some of the components that make up a typical flagellum —the motor, the machinery for extruding the ‘propeller’ and a primitive directional control system—can perform other useful functions in the cell, such as exporting proteins.
New Scientist is referring to the type III secretory system (TTSS) in some disease germs. But this is more likely to be a degeneration from the flagellum. It’s not surprising that complex machinery could be adopted to simpler uses; e.g. a TV with a blown CRT tube could still be used as an audio system like a radio, but it wouldn’t mean that a TV evolved from a radio.
Minnich says that although the flagellum is more complex, it came first, so it couldn’t have been derived from the secretory apparatus.9 This makes sense: The flagellum assembly mechanism is designed to punch out the proteins required for the flagellum in a very orderly way. If this is disabled, it can punch out proteins (including toxins) in a haphazard way, as the TTSS does.
For example, the flagellum is formed base-first. Then an export apparatus forms to make a hole in the cell wall, then expel the right proteins in the right place through a hollow tube, and these proteins must be labelled to distinguish them from non-flagellar proteins. Some of these proteins must be shepherded by other proteins called chaperones.
Then the ‘hook’ or universal joint must form. This requires a ‘hook cap’ protein to keep the components in place as the hook is built. Then the cap detaches and floats away.
Finally, the actual whip must form. This is a hollow tube comprising tens of thousands of copies of the protein, flagellin. This must be sent by the export apparatus and squeezed through the growing tube. But before this, a filament cap must be sent through. This is composed of five protein parts, so the whole is shaped something like a starfish on stilts.10
The flagellum itself comprises 11 strands, while the legs of the cap can fit in a crease between every other strand. But with only five legs, there is one crease unfilled. But this is all part of the coordination. As a new flagellin protein arrives, the cap stops it from floating away and allows it to fold into its functional shape, and it is then directed to the unfilled space. This filling rotates the cap so that the next available slot is now unfilled by one of the legs. So the next flagellin also arrives at the right spot. This process repeats tens of thousands of times, so each flagellin is automatically directed to the right spot. It is an amazing example of precision, nano-scale engineering.11
It has been proposed that the flagellum originated from a protein export system. Over time, this system might have been adapted to attach a bacterium to a surface by extruding an adhesive filament. An ion-powered pump for expelling substances from the cell might then have mutated to form the basis of a rotary motor. Rotating any asymmetrical filament would propel a cell and give it a huge advantage over non-motile bacteria even before more spiral filaments evolved.
Lots of just-so story-telling here. As Minnich says, this is better explained by degeneration of the flagellum, which would still leave some useful functions. Worst of all, New Scientist contradicts their own evolutionary experts. Evolution teaches that bacteria evolved before the plants and animals that they could parasitize. But they always had to swim, so it makes sense that the swimming machinery preceded the secretion machinery that would be needed only once multicellular life evolved so the germs could parasitize them. Indeed, evolutionary specialists agree that the flagellum preceded the TTSS:
‘It seems plausible that the original type III secretion system for virulence factors evolved from those for flagellar assembly.’12
‘We suggest that the flagellar apparatus was the evolutionary precursor of Type III protein secretion systems.’13
So the TTSS origin theory is totally without merit, not only objectively but also within their own evolutionary framework. It is highly disingenuous for evolutionary propagandists to propose an explanation that defies even the best evolutionary theories, without telling the readers.14
Finally, in some bacteria flagella became linked to an existing system for directing movement in response to the environment. In E. coli, it works by changing flagella rotation from anticlockwise to clockwise and back again, causing a cell to tumble and then head off in a new direction.
Yes, somehow all this coordinated machinery became linked together. Nothing to it! Similarly, all you need to explain a car is wheels with motive power; coordinating them is just a trivial matter. [sarcasm]
Without a time machine it may never be possible to prove that this is how the flagellum evolved. However, what has been discovered so far—that flagella vary greatly and that at least some of the components and proteins of which they are made can carry out other useful functions in the cells—show that they are not ‘irreducibly complex’.
Yet the best evidence shows that the other functions are the result of degenerating the flagellar assembly machine.
More generally, the fact that today’s biologists cannot provide a definitive account of how every single structure or organism evolved proves nothing about design versus evolution.
This is a damaging admission that evolutionists do not have the mechanism they need to justify their materialistic dogma. And the situation is even worse than that. The evolutionary biochemist Franklin Harold, while wishing to maintain his a priori rejection of design, still admits:
‘We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity; we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.’15
Biology is still in its infancy, and even when our understanding of life and its history is far more complete, our ability to reconstruct what happened billions of years ago will still be limited.
I.e. we really still don’t have a clue, but that’s OK, we should still teach evolution as fact.
Think of a stone archway: hundreds of years after the event, how do you prove how it was built? It might not be possible to prove that the builders used wooden scaffolding to support the arch when it was built, but this does not mean they levitated the stone blocks into place.
Or one could consult written records of how it was done. But this very analogy gives the lie to the New Scientist nonsense: the archway is clearly designed by an intelligent human creator, even if there were no witnesses to this. The flagellum was clearly designed also. Even if the flagellum could have evolved from the secretory apparatus, the secretory apparatus itself defies evolutionary storytelling, let alone its transformation into a flagellum. Not even one of the ~30 new protein components for the flagellum could possibly have formed by chance (which they must have, because there is no step-wise process of increasing functionality that could possibly explain the origin of the flagellum by mutations and natural selection).
In such cases Orgel’s Second Rule should be kept in mind: ‘Evolution is cleverer than you are.’
A better rule that avoids personifying an impersonal process is: God is cleverer than you are, hence the growing field of biomimetics.
Yet more creationist misconceptions
A lot of them have already been noted by us on our ‘Arguments we think creationists should NOT use’ page, the 8th most read article on our site! If Le Page is unhappy that some creationists are still using them, he should direct them to our site!
Evolution is just a theory
Yes it is, like Einstein’s theory of special relativity. By theory, scientists mean an explanation backed by evidence. What creationists mean is that evolution is just a hypothesis, unsupported by evidence-which it is not. Evolution is a fact as well a theory.
Yes, yes, tell us something we don’t know.
Darwin recanted on his deathbed
If Einstein had recanted his theories on his deathbed, would the universe be any different? Scientific hypotheses stand or fall on the evidence, not on the whims of their proposers. But for the record, this myth, popular among creationists, is not true.
And it even links to a Creation magazine article, Did Darwin recant? but on another site. It’s a shame that Le Page doesn’t read more of our site, but then he would have little to write.
There are no transitional fossils
There isn’t a nice way of saying this: anyone making this claim is either appallingly ignorant or an outright liar. In fact, there are far too many fossils with intermediate features to count—trillions if you include microfossils.
If ‘transitional fossil’ is defined so loosely, then of course there are some. But what informed creationists point out is that evolution requires innumerable transitional forms linking one type of creature to another; all evolutionists can produce are a handful of disputed ones. The microfossil ‘transitions’ are unnamed, but one popular one involves single-shelled marine creatures called foraminifera, which usually have an easily preserved hard ‘test’ or shell. However, the ‘transitions’ are often not evolutionary at all, but reflect ecophenotypic change, i.e. variations in one species caused by different environments. One paper points out that different test thicknesses in different individuals are caused by different environmental conditions, then cautions:
‘Failure to take into consideration the particular characteristics of a group and the nature and degree of its variation may result in the artificial separation of many ‘morphological’ species on the basis of minor phenotypic variations, even when the population at a given locality or stratigraphic level contains the complete series of gradations between two or more of these. As these individuals represent minor portions of a continuous population, regardless of the method of reproduction, they represent a single biological species, for which subdivision is unwarranted.’
I.e. although these forms can be arranged in what looks like a transitional series between different forms, they are really just variants of one species.
These fossils show the transitions between major groups, from fish to amphibians, for instance, as well as from one species to another. New discoveries are continually made, from the half-fish, half-amphibian Tiktaalik to an early giraffe with a shorter neck than modern animals.
We have dealt with Tiktaalik and other alleged fish/tetrapod transitions like Gogonasus, Livioniana, Ventastega and Panderichthys. The transitional sequences are not all in order morphologically or stratigraphically, and many similarities cannot be explained by common ancestry but are dismissed as ‘homoplasies’ or ‘convergence’. Early giraffe is not named so it could be a throwaway bluff.
There are serious problems with the theory of evolution
Would you jump off a skyscraper on the basis that the clash between general relativity and quantum theory means there are serious problems with our theory of gravity? It makes no more sense to question the reality of evolution because scientists are still debating about some of its finer aspects than it does to question the existence of gravity for the same reason. There are still plenty of details to fill in but, as surely as dropped objects fall, life has and continues to evolve.
Here’s the difference: we can observe objects falling and measure their acceleration. Gravity is measurable, testable science in the present. But as Dawkins said,
‘Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.’16
That is, evolution is an unobservable theory about history, about origins which happened in the past, which cannot be tested by experiment, unlike gravity. There is a world of difference between historical science and operational science.
If we all evolved from apes, why are there still apes around in this world?
Chihuahuas, great Danes and every other type of dog were bred from wolves, but there are still wolves in the world. And what breeders do deliberately can happen naturally: when a species splits into separate populations that cannot interbreed, these populations can evolve in very different ways. The emergence of a new species does not necessarily mean the disappearance of the old one, although in fact the apes we evolved from are long extinct—chimpanzees and gorillas are our cousins, not our ancestors.
Again, tell us something we don’t know. One gets the impression that Le Page is knowingly using straw man arguments as a polemical trick to make creationists look stupid. Evolutionists would cry ‘foul’ if we listed layman’s arguments for evolution, knocked them down and then made it appear that we had refuted evolutionary theory.
Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics
The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy, a measure of randomness, cannot decrease in an isolated system. Our planet is not a isolated system.
Er, that’s it. There are longer ways of saying the same thing if you prefer.
The open system argument does not help evolution. Raw energy from outside Earth cannot generate the specified complex information in living things. Undirected energy just speeds up destruction. See open system canard.
- See for example Paul James-Griffiths, Evolution: an ancient pagan idea, Creation 30(4): 34–36, 2008. Return to text.
- Jerry Bergman, Evolutionary naturalism: an ancient idea, J. Creation 15(2): 77–80, 2001. Return to text.
- Actually 2s/(1–e-2sN), where’s = selection coefficient and N is the population size. This asymptotically converges down to 2s where sN is large. So it’s much harder for large populations to substitute beneficial mutations. But smaller populations have their own disadvantages, e.g. they are less likely to produce any good mutations and are vulnerable to the deleterious effects of inbreeding. Return to text.
- Haldane, J.B.S., The Cost of Natural Selection. J. Genetics, 55:511–24, 1957. Return to text.
- ReMine, W.J., The Biotic Message, St. Paul Science, St. Paul, Minn, 1993. Return to text.
- Batten, D., Haldane’s dilemma has not been solved, J. Creation 19(1):20–21, 2005. Return to text.
- ReMine, Cost theory and the cost of substitution a clarification, J. Creation 19(1):113–125, 2005. Return to text.
- Unlocking the Mystery of Life, DVD, Illustra Media, 2002. Return to text.
- Minnich, S
, 25 August 2003. Return to text.
- Using Michael Behe’s description of the shape and process in The Edge of Evolution, Appendix C: Assembling the bacterial flagellum, Free Press, NY, 2007. Return to text.
- See animation at Protonic Nanomachine Project, Japan,
Return to text.
- Mecsas, J., and Strauss, E.J., Molecular Mechanisms of Bacterial Virulence: Type III Secretion and Pathogenicity Islands, Emerging Infectious Diseases 2(4), October–December 1996;
. Return to text.
- Nguyen L. et al., Phylogenetic analyses of the constituents of Type III protein secretion systems, J. Mol. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 2(2):125–44, April 2000. Return to text.
- See also Dembski, W.A., Still spinning just fine: a response to Ken Miller,
2003.02.Miller_Response.htm>, 17 February 2003. Return to text.
- Franklin M. Harold, The way of the cell: molecules, organisms and the order of life, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 205, 2001. Return to text.
- Battle over evolution Bill Moyers interviews Richard Dawkins, ‘Now’, 3 December 2004, PBS network. Return to text.