If The Design Is So Intelligent, Why Aren’t Its Followers?

Both are stiff

Moosalo? (Image from Snopes.)

The Design of Life is an ID creationist lie-fest passing itself off as a textbook. It’s written by two of the biggest proponents of this religious non-science, William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells, who both work at the Discovery Institute clown college. This book is actually just a retitled third edition of the book Of Pandas and People that got laughed out of the Kitzmiller v. Dover creationism trial.

One of their tactics for promoting the book is by having a blog, where they post sciency articles that creationist stooges like Denyse O’Leary and Access Research Network (see earlier BoF articles here, here, and here) can then trumpet over and over in their own blogs.

So over on the Design of Life blog is a post titled “The Tree of Life and Speciation – the odd case of the beefalo”, written by Jane Harris-Zsovan. All I could find out about Jane Harris-Zsovan is that she’s an anti-science writer living in Canada. Let’s see what she has to say about the Beefalo and how it proves ID creationism or disproves evolution or demonstrates perpetual motion, or whatever crazy claim she has (I still haven’t figured out what her goal is here).

Does the classification system used by biologists accurately reflect the path of natural selection through the generations? And does it trace the differentiation of species? Not necessarily.

Stop the presses! Oh wait. That’s something we already knew. I guess it’s news to the ID creationists, though. Those people don’t know a whole lot of science.

Taxonomy is an attempt to describe and classify all living organisms. Closely related to that is Systematics, which studies how these organisms are related to each other through evolution. It’s a little more complicated and nuanced than that, but hopefully those definitions will work well enough for this article.

OK, so scientists want to know what all the plants, animals, fungi, etc. are, and how they all evolved. They’ve come up with the classification scheme that we know today. Ideally, the taxonomic charts that we’ve put together would accurately reflect exactly how everything is related and how they evolved. There’s going to be a little bit of error here. In the old days, they had to rely on morphology and other techniques to puzzle out relationships. Things have gotten a lot better now that we have genetics, but there are still places that need tweaking.

Anyway, so we have animals classified into different orders, genera, species, etc. It’s not a perfect classification, partly due to historical inertia. It takes time to get everybody to agree that there’s enough evidence to justify calling something a new sub-species or merging two genera or such. Until that consensus emerges, we continue to use the old classification. Remember, there are millions of species, and there aren’t that many people working just on taxonomy and systematics. This stuff takes time to resolve.

So in Harris-Zsovan’s article published on the Design of Life blog, she’s claiming that the current taxonomic charts aren’t perfect. We already knew that. What’s your point, Jane? And how does that help your claim? And just what is your claim? Well, let’s delve deeper into the article.

Consider the Bovoids, genus bison (for example, the North American buffalo) and genus bos (for example, domesticated cattle).

Now might be a good time to look at their relative taxonomies.

Bison Cattle
Superregnum Eukaryota Eukaryota
Regnum Animalia Animalia
Subregnum Eumetazoa Eumetazoa
Superphylum Deuterostomia Deuterostomia
Phylum Chordata Chordata
Subphylum Vertebrata Vertebrata
Infraphylum Gnathostomata Gnathostomata
Superclassis Tetrapoda Tetrapoda
Classis Mammalia Mammalia
Subclassis Theria Theria
Infraclassis Placentalia Placentalia
Superordo Cetartiodactyla Cetartiodactyla
Ordo Artiodactyla Artiodactyla
Subordo Ruminantia Ruminantia
Familia Bovidae Bovidae
Subfamilia Bovinae Bovinae
Genus Bison Bos
Subgenus (N/A) Bos (Bos)
Species Bison bison Bos taurus

Notice how closely related the two are. They’re even in the same sub-family, only splitting at the genus level. Theoretically, two organisms of the same genus but different species cannot mate and produce fertile offspring. In the case of the bison and cattle, we’re even going one level higher than that: same sub-family but different genera. If the guys who put this table together are correct, the two can’t interbreed. (Remember, though, that nature is a broad continuum. It is only humans who want to put things into artificial boxes. The boundaries between boxes are often blurry in real life.)

According to most theories of speciation, a cross between two genera (such as genus bison and genus bos) after a geographical separation of many thousands of years is unlikely.

Actually, time has nothing to do with it. If the animals have been correctly cataloged and truly are of different genera, they wouldn’t be able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring, even if they’re sharing the same pasture.

But tell that to a rancher in Western Canada or the United States where buffalo bison, raised on ranches, are interbred with cattle. (These animals have been known to interbreed since the 18th century.) The resulting offspring are called beefalo or cattalo.

As she points out, this is not news, so I’m still having trouble figuring out what this has to do with ID creationism or evolution or the Roswell crash (or whatever she’s trying to convince us of).

Both domestic cattle and American bison can interbreed with their cousin, the European bison (the wisent), as well as with yaks and other members of the bos genus. A cattle/wisent cross is called a zubron. A yak/cattle hybrid is known as a dzo.

Hybridization of European and American bison does not appear to cause fertility problems even in first generation males. Some taxonomists argue that the wisent and the American bison are not separate species at all.

Those taxonomists are probably correct. It looks like the charts need to be updated. This is science in action. When new data come in, you revise your hypothesis accordingly.

Ancestors of American bison and European bison are thought have descended from an ancient relative in Southern Asia over 400,000 years ago in the Pliocene epoch.

But, after millennia of separation, European and North American bison are still recognizable as bison.

BFD. Crocodiles are still recognizable as crocodiles after millions of years. All that means is that their environment has been relatively stable and hasn’t produced much evolutionary pressure.

Darwin’s theory of speciation through natural selection would predict that the hybridization of cows and yaks with bison is quite unlikely.

What? Who says? Show me where in evolutionary biology it says that populations separated geographically for thousands of years are required to be separate species. If the environments are similar and there are no other evolutionary pressures, you would expect them to remain the same species! (Genetic drift is one factor that could cause speciation, but that’s random and could just as easily not happen.)

She then points out (as I did in the table above) that bison and cattle are in two different genera.

The existence of the beefalo and its cousins, the dzo and zubron, show us that – after millennia of separation – the gene pool of individuals in the genus bison and genus bos has not changed enough to make interbreeding impossible.

Yes, Jane. So what’s your point?

And, in the case of European bison and American bison, there is debate as to whether speciation has fully occurred.

Yes, Jane. So what’s your point?

Clearly, the Darwinian theory of speciation by natural selection is not the whole story. Maybe it’s not the true story at all.

What?! That’s your whole thesis? I read this whole article just to find out you’re retarded?! Just to find out that you have no concept of how evolution works?

I’ll repeat my question from above: Where in “Darwinian” theory, or anywhere else in biology for that matter, does it say that speciation has to occur? And since you brought it up, where in this narrative is the natural selection? There’s no selection pressure! Without selection, speciation by natural selection can’t happen!

“[S]peciation by natural selection is not the whole story”, because it’s not any part of this story, you freaking moron!

And even if this were somehow a flaw in evolutionary theory (it’s not), how does that prove Intelligent Design creationism? It doesn’t! Once again, the ID-iot creatards think that proving the moon isn’t green somehow proves that it’s purple!

Once — just once — I’d like to read an article by these people that showed an understanding of any of the following:

  • Evolution
  • Science
  • Logic
  • Reality

Take your pick, Jane. Just one is all I ask.

11 Responses to “If The Design Is So Intelligent, Why Aren’t Its Followers?”

  1. Jo Jo Says:

    A lot of IDers and creationists have the idea that, if they can show how evolution as presently understood can’t answer a specific question, then that’s proof that ID/creationism MUST be correct. One could make the argument that some third theory is actually the true one (I’m not saying this is correct, but it’s as possible as ID/creationism). What’s most likely, however, is, as you point out, taxonomy hasn’t caught up with the data.

    My major objection to ID/creationism is that it’s not falsifiable, but that’s a whole other topic.

  2. Ron Britton Says:

    Jo Jo:

    They seem to spend about 95% of their time trying to disprove evolution. They’re wasting their time. If tens of thousands of real scientists have been unable to do so over many decades, what chance do they (most of them scientific illiterates) think they have?

    They should put all of that effort into coming up with real statements on just what their theory predicts, and on coming up with the data to suppport that. But I guess finding any real data to support their crazy idea is even more unlikely than disproving evolution.

  3. Neil Says:

    Just posted a comment, based on your excellent article. We’ll see if it gets “approved by an administrator”.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Ron Britton Says:

    Neil:

    I just checked their site. They still haven’t approved your comment. Don’t sit around waiting. They know their article can’t stand up to scrutiny, so they aren’t going to allow any dissent. Funny. That’s what they always accuse “Darwinists” of!

  5. ParrotLover77 Says:

    Well what do you expect from people who take the word “kind” and pretend it means something scientific, then sign their blog posts with “Yours in christ?”

  6. Neil Says:

    So it’s been almost a week, and no comments have yet appeared, not that I expected them to. I’ve also sent a query as to why they haven’t. Another curious thing, is that I now get the message “You are not authorize to post more comments” if I try to post…

    If you haven’t heard it already, P.Z. Myers ran creationist Geoffrey Simmons up and down the street on the radio the other day. MP3 here. (link from Bad Astronomy.)

  7. Chuck Says:

    EPIC win. You’ve gained a new reader ;)

    While I do so LOVE your style, I fear that you’re only going to entertain our (the non-retarded) community and your arguments will be lost on any dissenters. Of course…most arguments are lost on them, even if they’re politer and have pretty pictures, so…keep up the good work!

  8. Ron Britton Says:

    Chuck:

    I actually have no delusions about convincing the retarded. This blog has two goals:
    1. Entertain the non-retarded.
    2. (This one is important) Provide information to people who aren’t necessarily fundies, but who are confused by all of the smoke and noise coming out of the fundie camp. Some of the creationist arguments sound plausible on the surface (“teach the controversy”, etc.). I want to show those people that those arguments are false and empty. We need to help those on the fence to come down into the pasture of facts and reality, and not fall over backward into the pasture of lies and delusions.

  9. Ichneumon Says:

    Sorry for being late to the discussion here, but I just now saw this entry.

    You’re right about how her “conclusion” doesn’t follow from her observation, but you’ve made some incorrect oversimplifications in your rebuttal.

    The main one is the notion that different species “can’t” interbreed. Actually, they often can. A better simple description (although again, too simple to fully capture the real complexity of the term in biology) of what makes two groups different species is that they *don’t* interbreed, not that they “can’t”. It’s a statement of genetic isolation of two groups, not necessarily genetic incompatibility.

    It’s true that in *some* cases the “don’t” is because they “can’t”, due to some genetic incompatibility. But there are many other reasons for genetic isolation, such as individuals of each group having mate-choice preferences toward their own group and against members of the other group, or separating into different ecological niches where they no longer encounter each other, or geographic isolation (i.e. some physical barrier between them), etc.

    And over time, such genetic isolation has a strong likelihood of producing some degree of genetic incompatibility and/or noticeable difference in phenotype/morphology/appearance, the traits the layman most often thinks of as being what makes one species distinct from another. This is why it’s usually safe to deduce genetic isolation when one finds distinct groupings of different kinds of dinosaur fossils, for example, even though one obviously can’t try to crossbreed extinct groups or do genetic testing on them or watch and see if they mate with each other. Groups that retain traits distinct from each other clearly weren’t interbreeding, at least to any significant degree, for if they were there’d be many individuals who had mix-and-match combinations of the traits, we wouldn’t find say T-Rex style fossils and Daspletosaurus style fossils with distinct traits from each other.

    Getting back to bison and non-bison, they’ve clearly been shaped independently of each other by the requirements of their ecological niches, and haven’t interbred with each other for quite a while, or else they’d have “blended” their traits and remained more similar to each other and not become so distinctive that they’re instantly recognizable as different. Even kids can tell a “buffalo” from a regular “cow”. All this remains true even under the YEC scenario (since they think that all these came from one set of ancestral “cow kind”), so even the creationists are going to have to agree that the different cattle varieties have been genetically isolated for a significant amount of time. So once one corrects their misunderstanding of the biological definition of “species”, they’ve got nothing to whine about, because even in their notion of the origin of bison vs non-bison cattle, they qualify as different species. QED.

    Another thing that didn’t get jumped on as much as it should is the creationists’ mention of these groups being separated “for millennia”. You know, a few thousand years is a *really* short time in an evolutionary history. Do they *really* expect to see genetic incompatibility (not just isolation) occur after only a few thousand years? Really? Biologists don’t make any such claim (except in special cases — sometimes genetic incompatibility can arise suddenly, but that’s not the norm), so why are the creationists stupidly going “neener neener” at the biologists over a case of separation for only a few “millennia”? (A “millennium”, remember, is only 1000 years). Hey, many human subgroups have been isolated for more than 10,000 years (e.g. Europeans vs Native Americans), yet we all interbreed just fine. It usually takes a lot longer than that to diverge far enough to have problems interbreeding, for both us, and the bison.

    As usual, the things the creationists fling around as “problems” for evolution are instead just examples of things that the creationists don’t properly understand about what evolutionary biology (or biology or science in general) does and does not say.

  10. Ron Britton Says:

    Ichneumon:

    Thanks for your well-informed comment. The definition of species that I was taught, and that I still see in books, is that two organisms are considered to be of different species if they cannot interbreed and produce fertile offspring. What is the source for your definition? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are several definitions, each with its own cadre of backers. The diversity of life is a continuum. We like to put sharp borders around things, but nature is seldom that distinct. That’s just begging to have competing definitions.

    The bit about the groups being separated for only a few millennia is hard to figure out. We’re dealing with a strange hybrid here. I am referring, of course, to the Intelligent Design creationism people. They’re a strange mix of young-Earth and old-Earth ideas. On the one hand, they’re looking for every opportunity to bash the process of evolution. Then in the same breath, they claim that evolution works, it was just occasionally goosed by God to make it work.

    I wonder if ID creationists can interbreed with young-Earth creationists. Wait! What am I saying? Of course they can! They’re almost identical!

  11. K dog Says:

    Another flaw is that bison do not freely mate with cattle. The evidence from Goodnight’s experiments were forced matings. Also, pretty much one-way crosses. Female cattle usually die from complications attempting to deliver partial-bison offspring.