Saturday, 23 May 2015

A criticism of Stephen Palmer's talks at the Coventry Creation Day - 1

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the excommunication of bro Ralph Lovelock over his views on how to reconcile the evidence for pre-Adamic humanity with Christadelphian theology, the then arranging brothers of Watford, his home ecclesia in their letter to The Christadelphian reminded our community that:
… problems that undoubtedly exist should be frankly admitted by us as a community, for we do naught but dishonour to the word of God by pretending that these problems are not there. Our Brotherhood bears a responsibility to those in search of Scripture truth, and especially to those of tender years, to turn its attention to the solving of these difficulties in an atmosphere of calm, sincere, conscientious study, unhindered by the rumours, mistrust, suspicion and hasty judgments that have been all too prevalent among us in recent times.[1]
This problem was certainly acknowledged by the then editor of The Christadelphian, bro. L.G. Sargent who acknowledged that:
…there is abundant evidence of early “man” at a time which certainly appears to be far beyond the limits allowed by Bible chronology. This must be admitted even after discounting the slender and uncertain remains claimed for a still more remote antiquity, about which there have been such notorious blunders and even downright fraud.[2]
In the intervening 50 years, the evidence for human evolution from areas such as palaeontology has exploded. What was already a strong case in the 1960s has become certain beyond reasonable doubt. As the palaeoanthropologists Matt Cartmill and Fred Smith noted in 2009:
Opponents of scientific biology are fond of dismissing that record as a pathetic handful of controversial fragments. If that were so, this book would be a lot shorter. An often-repeated creationist canard insists that all known human fossils would fit on a billiard table. This was probably true in the 19th century, but it has not been true for a hundred years. Known human fossils number in the thousands and represent the remains of hundreds of individuals...Having seen most of the major collections of human fossils in the world's museums, we can assure our readers that those collections can no longer be laid out on a billiard table. It would be hard to cram them into a boxcar[3].
In addition to the robust fossil evidence, the genomics revolution has allowed us to compare genomes of many species, including our own, and the evidence of multiple shared identical genetic ‘errors’ at the same places in human and ape genomes has made an already powerful case certain beyond doubt. Cell biologist, cancer researcher and evangelical Christian Graeme Finlay points out what is common knowledge among credible medical scientists – the genome confirms the reality of common descent:
I became involved in cancer research, and in the early 1980s, read avidly to inform myself of dramatic developments in the genetics of cancers. It was then that I came across oncogenic retroviruses. These are a subtype of virus that had a cunning mode of propagating themselves, and they were revolutionizing our understanding of how cancers developed. They brought to light a class of genes known as oncogenes. I struggled to assimilate the deluge of data, totally focused on cancer biology, my professional interest. But to my enormous surprise, I was following a continuous track which led to the point where I found myself reading in the area of evolutionary biology.  
Retroviruses provided a way of demonstrating that many cancers are produced from a single abnormal cell. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the billions of cells that may populate a tumour are the descendants of a single ancestral cell, so cancers are said to be monoclonal. And, almost unbelievably, retroviruses provided a way of showing that multiple species may be derived from a single progenitor species (indeed, ultimately from a single cell). Such related taxa of organisms are said to be monophyletic.  
As I read, I found that a large variety of genetic markers established both the monoclonal nature of tumours on the one hand, and the monophyletic nature of groups of species on the other. Humans, chimps, gorillas and orang-utans, for example, share millions of genetic markers that show – unambiguously – that the four species share a common history. The genetic principles applicable to cancer (or immunology or microbiology or whatever) and evolutionary phylogenetics were the same, thoroughly established and non-controversial.[4]
In fact, so well-known and uncontroversial is this line of evidence that even some of the more intellectually honest members of the special creationist community concede the force of this argument. Biochemist Michael Behe, best known for his belief in irreducible complexity accepts human-ape common ancestry, and regards the genomic evidence as definitive:
When two lineages share what appears to be an arbitrary genetic accident, the case for common descent becomes compelling, just as the case for plagiarism becomes overpowering when one writer makes the same unusual misspellings of another, within a copy of the same words. That sort of evidence is seen in the genomes of humans and chimpanzees. For examples, both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C As a result, neither humans nor chimps can make their own vitamin C. Of an ancestor of the two species originally sustained the mutation and then passed to both descendant species, that would neatly explain the situation.  
More compelling evidence of the shared ancestry of humans and other primates comes from their hemoglobin - not just their working haemoglobin, but a broken haemoglobin gene, too. In one region of our genomes humans have five genes for proteins that act at various stages of development (from embryo through adults) as the second (betalike) chain of haemoglobin. This includes the gene for the beta chain itself, two almost identical copies of a gamma chain (which occurs in fetal haemoglobin), and several others. Chimpanzees have the very same genes in the very same order. In the region between the two gamma genes and a gene that works after birth, human DNA contains a broken gene (called a "pseudogene") that closely resembles a working genre for a beta chain, but has features in its sequence that preclude it from coding successfully for a protein. 

Chimp DNA has a very similar pseudogene at the same position. The beginning of the human pseudogene has two particular changes in two nucleotide letters that seem to deactivate the gene. The chimp pseudogene has the exact shame changes A bit further down in the human pseudogene is a deletion mutation, where one particular letter is missing. For technical reasons, the deletion irrevocably messes up the gene's coding. The very same letter is missing in the chimp gene. Towards the end of the human pseudogene another letter is missing. The chimp pseudogene is missing it too. 

The same mistakes in the same gene in the same positions of both human and chimp DNA. If a common ancestor first sustained the mutational mistakes band subsequently gave rise to these two modern species, that would very readily account for both why both species have them how. It's hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans.[5]  (Emphasis mine)
Unsurprisingly, those in our community who have studied medicine and the life sciences in the light of these facts are well aware not only that the evidence for evolution is rock-solid, but are painfully cognisant of how poor our traditional anti-evolution arguments are. Furthermore, given that such information has long since trickled down to the popular level, informed laypeople in our community are also aware both of the strength of the case for evolution, and the weakness of the anti-evolutionary arguments. A sadly-neglected letter from bro W.F. Barling from nearly fifty years ago neatly summarises the concerns of those of us in our community who are aware that evolution denialism is no longer tenable:
The real issue before us is whether (to use two much abused terms) “creation” and “evolution” are contradictory, or complementary, explanations of God’s activity as the Maker of all things. 
Traditionally, we have vigorously declared them to be contradictory. Now, a growing number among us are not so certain that this is so. What is not generally realized is that this section of our community is not an organized, self-confident group bent on converting the remainder to a new opinion, but a number of perplexed individuals, deeply loyal to the community, desperately anxious not to offend those who do not share their anguish—let alone transfer it to their minds—but who feel that they must be intellectually honest. What they ask of their brethren and sisters is not a change of viewpoint but a change of attitude. None would rejoice more than they if incontestable evidence were finally produced to warrant the most literal acceptance of the opening chapters of Genesis. Meantime, what they seek is not approval but tolerance. If a repudiation of the notion of slow change as God’s method of creation is demanded of them, then their loss to the community is inevitable. So too, alas, is the loss of many potential candidates for baptism who share their perplexity and, feeling that the Brotherhood will not tolerate them with their mental reservations, are being driven, in their desire to give themselves to Christ, more and more towards evangelical groups with less exacting theological demands to make on their converts than we have.[6] (Emphasis mine)
Opponents of evolution in our community who appeal to the 1966 Watford decision as if it was an ex cathedra statement on evolution that settled the question for all time ignore the fact that the then-arranging brothers specifically reminded our community that genuine problems exist, ignoring them dishonoured God’s word, and that we are obligated to help “those of tender years” in solving these difficulties. Not only has our community ignored these problems, it has in many areas shut down discussion of this subject, and excommunicated people who have the honesty to acknowledge that the regard the evidence for evolution as convincing. Sadly, this anonymous (for obvious reasons) comment is representative of many others who have been forced to make a tragic, pointless, and unnecessary choice between faith in Christ and accepting the reality of evolution:
My own eldest son has decided he cannot be baptized because he has seen the evidence for evolution with his own eyes, and our ecclesia will not tolerate discussion on the subject. Unlike some young people, he is too honest to say he doesn’t believe it, just so that he can ‘pass the test’ and be baptized.
Unfortunately, as the evidence for evolution becomes more and more openly discussed, opponents of evolution, far from listening to the wisdom of those such as brother Barling and the Watford arranging brethren are increasing the anti-evolution rhetoric, such as can be seen by the recent Coventry Creation Day, in which Stephen Palmer delivered a series of talks that were characterised by misrepresentation of the theological view of evolutionary creationists, attacking a straw man version of evolution, and faulty exegesis. Uninformed, superficial attacks on evolution such as those made by bro Palmer not only show that we are still failing to meet the challenge of the past to honestly examine these problems, but are running the risk of accelerating the loss of our best and brightest, and condemning our community to fundamentalist irrelevancy.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that we are a lay community without a formal clerical class, one in which the members have been responsible for the intellectual heavy lifting required to promote and defend the faith. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a drift towards fundamentalism and overt anti-intellectualism which means that many prominent speakers are making arguments which are poorly informed, and made in ignorance of the best of contemporary scholarship in areas ranging from ancient Near Eastern studies, linguistics, archaeology, biology, and geology.

In order to set the scene for the critique of his talks, the following posts will provide references to the best of contemporary scholarship which show that the creation narratives are not literal creation accounts, but are best seen as polemics against ancient Near Eastern creation myths, followed by overviews of the evidence for evolution - again from world-class scholars and experts in their fields.


[1] "Statement From The Watford Ecclesia", The Christadelphian (1966) 103:543
[2] Sargent LG "The Origin of Man", The Christadelphian (1965) 102:344
[3] Cartmill M, Smith FH, Brown KB “The Human Lineage” xi (Wiley, 2009)
[4] Finlay G "Human Evolution: Genes, Genealogies, and Phylogenies" BioLogos Blog May 27 2014
[5] Behe M The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007: Free Press) p 71-72
[6] Barling W.F. "Letter: The Origin of Man" The Christadelphian (1965) 102:463–464