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Uncommon Descent Contest Question 3: Winner announced


Contest question 3:

Question: In 400 words, to be judged in two weeks, and printed as a post: What do we really know about human evolution that could not simply be overturned by a new find? The winner will receive a free copy of Expelled. (Sorry for delay judging this one. I was at a science writers’ convention up north.)

Winning entry:

We can know that random changes in human DNA produce undesirable results such as cystic fibrosis. This observation holds true even if the traditional “change agents” such as copying errors are replaced by others, as the link between the altered DNA and corresponding defects is well established. These observed changes have also produced a generation in which it is undesirable for closely related men and women to reproduce. These observable traits of mutations can certainly be extrapolated back to any previous generation possessed DNA subject to change.

This is a proposed a quality, or fact, about observable evolution. It is not the same as a rote fact about humanity (brain capacity etc.). It is not shown that damaged DNA has produced any quantifiable or observable trait except those involving defects, however there is a direct and provable correspondence between altered DNA and the consequences listed above.

Notice any claims of beneficial mutations (I know, but pretend with me) do not undo this claim since undesirable effects are certainly observed. The reverse is not true, as the idea of beneficial mutations stands to be disproved as a statistical impossibility as the complexity of the information found in DNA becomes more evident. The other way to reverse this observation would be to claim that human DNA in the past was not changeable, but that ends the debate anyway.

JoeNC, the author of the post, needs to be in touch with me at oleary@sympatico.ca, with a valid postal address, so I can mail him his prize. His name will not be added to a mailing list.

Why I liked this one:

We can be quite sure of the existence of undesirable mutations like cystic fibrosis, and of their effect. Our certainty will, alas, not be overturned by new findings about human evolution. Conceivably, if we were to acquire immense new knowledge of human history, we might discover a period during which the genome could not mutate in that particular way. But similar mutations must have occurred through human (and prehuman) history, as there is no shortage of low-frequency genetic troubles among other mammals as well.

Here’s Contest Question 4, by the way, for a free copy of The Privileged Planet DVD.

I liked vjtorley‘s summary, and would have awarded him the prize if he had explained why he was so sure that none of that information would be overturned by robust new evidence. He may be right, but … Paul Giem, I think, has this by the right handle when he says,

If we were to discover sources of error that could explain all the dates to which you had reference in your list, we could no longer accept your assertions as valid. And if we had another secure dating method that argued that the timescale was inflated by orders of magnitude, all of your assertions would be wrong.

I am not arguing here that this is the case at present (although there is interesting evidence that it may be the case), but only arguing that we need to be careful about pronouncements in science.

Yes, because there is the risk of beginning to sound like a church. I get nervous when I am asked, “Do you believe in evolution?” which sounds a little too much like “Do you believe in One God, the Father Almighty?” I can’t afford to support more than one church.

I also liked Barb at 3, but am not clear why the coffin into which all the current bones would fit should be nailed shut. Personally, I’d be happier if we had a warehouse full. We might get somewhere then, understanding our origins – though all current theories could well be disconfirmed as a result.

Some people did not seem to clearly understand that a single finding rarely overturns an entire body of evidence. There is always the possibility of mistake, anomaly, overinterpretation of findings, or tampering. In fact, aberrant data are routinely trimmed from studies because they can distort averages.

Case in point: A molecule from your body might well be in the Starbucks across the street, but that doesn’t mean that you are there, or ever have been. My question, “What do we really know about human evolution that could not simply be overturned by a new find?” assumed a robust new find that opens up new areas of enquiry.

One interesting post, though not strictly on target:

When I met David Berlinski in DC and asked him about how we must certainly accept some human evolution just looking at language from ancient Egypt to modern times. Berlinski said to me “we don’t have one scintilla of evidence that language has evolved.” I pressed him on it by saying surely there are new concepts of things that didn’t exist such as cars etc.. Berlinski stayed solid in his position. His point I think was that if cars existed in ancient times they would have had a word for it and that new concepts our their linguistic representations not to a more evolved man but because they are new phenomena. That is the evidence does not show that man’s ability and modes of language are inherently different in any way- going as far back as records allow.

I think Berlinski is right about that. If there were ever any genuinely “primitive” languages, they do not appear to exist now. That is, just about any human language is capable of adaptation to an advanced society, because there are certain things that any language must do – otherwise, it would just be replaced by another one, or hybridized with it.

It is true that many languages are threatened today, but that is principally because they have too few speakers to provide a range of services. For example, if only 6000 people speak your language, and you want to be a dentist, you must learn English, Spanish, Chinese, or some other language that repays the trouble of a dental school and a dental text publisher. But that does not mean that your endangered language wasn’t adaptable. The Jews, for example, brought ancient Hebrew back to Israel after 2500 years – though they admittedly needed to add new words, like “helicopter.”

Additional Notes:

Re insults to nations: Apparently, a minor uproar broke out on this thread over adoption in Turkey, with someone questioning Adnan Oktar’s belief that Turks (of which he is one) are foresighted and intelligent.

Please, folks: Every sensible person is proud of his own origins, because if he isn’t, who will be? If you think, for example, that Canadians are not foresighted and intelligent, don’t write to tell me about it. Especially if you do not want to hear my opinion of a particular (rare) sort of American tourist …

Re insults to persons/hostility, etc.: Sometimes posts are removed if they defame individuals or sound unnecessarily hostile or sarcastic. If this were a newspaper, those would just be letters we didn’t print. Keep in mind that we must consider defamation in a global community where there is no current common standard. Because the management team at Uncommon Descent is Christian, you will not go far wrong if you keep Christian charity in mind. Don’t write about others what you would not wish to read about yourself.

And if you didn’t win, try again. Once more, here’s Contest Question 4. And I will be posting Question 5 shortly.

Re contest in general: Contests are supposed to be fun. You might earn free stuff for an interesting comment. There is no need to get terribly upset about this stuff; save it for a tenure battle or something else that could be really important.


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