I had a short speaking tour of Florida, giving a Darwin Day presentation in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Myers, and we recorded three episodes of The Place while passing through Pensacola. So we took a road trip out of Texas, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Along the way, I kept seeing these billboards pleading with me to call and argue with them.
The first call was amusing enough. I talked with Johnny about how Jesus was reportedly a 1st century faith-healer who believed in demons, and who’s understanding of theology was limited to whatever mere human scribes had written before him. Johhny brought up the prophesy of Isaiah which was supposedly fulfilled in the book of Matthew. So I explained what that prophesy actually said, who it really referred to, and that this pertained to people and events that were seven centuries too early. After I explained all this, I asked him if he would admit that the prophesy in Isaiah 7:14 could not possibly be talking about Jesus. Johnny reacted by raving about how Jesus died on the cross and we need to confess our sins and all other irrelevant nonsense. And when he stopped for a breath, I pressed him again, saying “Whatever, regardless, do you admit that Isaiah 7:14 cannot possibly refer to Jesus?” He didn’t answer. He just hung up on me.
That was a funny call though, and I checked to see if I had gotten a recording of it. But sadly, my automatic software didn’t file it properly, and it was irretrievable. So I corrected the settings.
Later on down the road, I saw another similar billboard, and was moved to call again. This time I talked with Ron. I challenged Ron to show me anything in the Bible that he could show to be true and thus qualify as truth. He said he could do that, but that I wouldn’t accept it. Turns out he thought he had evidence that evolution was a fraud, and he thought that meant that the Bible is true as the only option by default. Even worse than that, his evidence against evolution was “when you look at creation, the sunset, or DNA, you realize there has to be a god”. Seriously, that was his “evidence”–both against evolution and for creation. That’s it. The logical fallacy of question begging was all he had. When I started to point that out, he hung up on me too.
Another few hundred miles down the road, there’s another of those fucking billboards. So I called again. This time I spoke with Roger. We went through the same basic intro as the other two calls and finally got into the meat of whether he could show me the truth of anything he believed, meaning was there anything he could show that was actually true. I tried to remain polite, but Roger’s only talent was talking over other people no matter how they may try to interject. That was when my wife, Lilandra took this photo.
The caption she added was what I had just said at that moment. “You’re very good at talking over me but I am going to finish this.”
Amusingly, Roger figured out who I was once he realized that I knew what I was talking about. He asked whether I had spoken at atheist conferences. He said he had seen some of my videos and recognized my voice. Yeah, but he didn’t learn anything, did he?
Roger’s favorite fallacies were false equivalence and projection, reversing the definition of faith into a belief that is based on evidence. He also argued that science requires faith whenever we don’t know something for 100% certain. Although he refused to accept any correction to his errors, I eventually worked passed that. I told him how once we figured out the real explanation for anything that was once attributed to the supernatural, it always turned out to be a revelation of whole new fields of study that were previously unimagined. Then I challenged him to produce even one occasion in history when the supernatural explanation ever turned out to be right. He said he knew of two such occasions. One of them was that no one can explain the origin of life or how Jesus rose from the dead. Yes, his fallacy was the god-of-the-gaps argument, that if you can’t explain it, then it must be magic. It didn’t matter how eloquently I explained the big bang because I still used too many big words and sciency concepts. It also didn’t matter that his only evidence of Jesus rising from the tomb was the total lack of evidence that he was ever there in the first place. He got really animated at that, and so did I when he kept yelling over anything I tried to say. But to his credit, he didn’t hang up on me. I had an important call, and told him that I had to take it, much as I would have loved to continue that argument. That call lasted more than an hour, but my phone only recorded the first 16 minutes of it.
When we were half-way back to Texas, we saw yet another of those billboards, and again I could not resist the bait. This time I spoke with Phillip, and my phone managed to save the entire conversation.
Somehow Phillip knew who I was immediately, even though I never gave him my name. Seems Roger must have flagged my number in their network. Either that, or they’re on a chat network and Philip typed in that he has a caller who thinks and knows things and doesn’t just believe. So pretty soon I got the impression that he was being coached remotely.
Philip also saved my number and texted me some time after our call. I told him that his questions required more than I wanted to tap out on a text message with my thumb. I told him I would compose a blog post to explain all this and to address his questions. So from here on, this post will be an open letter to Philip @ gospelbillboards.org
I reflected more on this, and decided it is really not in my place to call someone a liar. So I will retract my accusation of evolutionists being liars. I am sure many of them believe the things they say that I still believe to be inaccurate. But I do have some questions for you on this subject.
Thanks for connecting with me, Philip. Of course absolutely ALL of the “evolutionists” without exception believe what we can prove to true. How could we not? You would know more about that than me. There is not one “evolutionist” who does not believe in evolution. But there are many creationists who do not actually believe in creation. Because this isn’t a comparison of faith-based belief systems. If you believe that what we say is inaccurate, tell me what those things are, and I’ll fix that: so that you’ll know better from now on. Because this issue is between demonstrable fact and delusional fallacy. Those who engage in science denial are called creationists. That is a faith based position against all reason. Those who accept science do so according to reason as well as evidence. It is not a “belief” in the sense that creationism is. So the term, “evolutionist” is an inappropriate pejorative, and you should stop using that term immediately. If you keep using it, that will demonstrate your compliance with the illusion you’re misrepresenting, and that will indicate dishonesty.
Do you defend Ernst Haeckel and his apparently fraudulent drawings of embryos?
As I did on our call, I’m going to answer with an excerpt from my book–since I’ve already written all this out there.
I’ve been posting this challenge for decades now, and no one has ever been able to answer either part of it yet; though right away, they all think they have the perfect answer to the first part. Most can only think of one person, and their first indictment is always the same name. Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), was a pioneer biologist, physician, and philosopher. At home in Germany, he was a professor of comparative anatomy for half a century, but he was also a field naturalist. In the course of his travels to different continents, he had personally discovered, described, and named thousands of new species. He was a pioneer taxonomist, the first to produce a visual map of the genealogical tree of life. He published dozens of scientific works, many of which were wonderfully illustrated because he was also an artist. The man was an award-winning science communicator, the Cosmos host of his time. He even has mountains named in his honor, both in the United States and in New Zealand. But his numerous contributions to biology go largely unnoticed compared to a couple rather embarrassing errors.
As I mentioned before, and as Karl Ernst von Baer originally noted in 1828, the more closely related any two species are, the more similar their development. He also observed that vertebrate animals in their embryonic stages seem to have a common design, whereas adult forms show difference. Arm buds are virtually indistinguishable at first formation but might become a wing, an arm, a leg, or a flipper. At another level of this same pattern, the young of two closely related species will look more alike than the adults do. An excellent example of this is found in crustaceans. Although adult crabs look quite a bit different from lobsters or shrimp in that they don’t have tails, we see that crab nymphs (or zoea) actually do have tails, and that these fold into the carapace of mature crabs, leaving only a vestigial crease indicating where the tail was. Of course, this trend continues into embryology too, and the implications of that confused naturalists and anatomists of the nineteenth century.
For example, Haeckel studied dozens of embryos under a microscope and interpreted them to promote his idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” suggesting that embryonic development reflects the organism’s evolutionary ancestry. Haeckel’s “biogenetic law” of embryological parallelism was one of many notions of biological transcendentalism first proposed by Lamarckian naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire in about 1760. Haeckel believed that the developing fetus mirrored its evolution such that it might pass through phases of becoming a fish, then an amphibian, then a reptile each in succession before becoming a mammal. To illustrate this, he produced about a hundred drawings of embryos at various stages. But he later admitted that about a half-dozen of them were either false or speculative due to a lack of visual references. In the first edition of his bestselling book Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte (Natural History of Creation), Haeckel used the same image to represent the embryos of dogs, chickens, and turtles. When a reviewer alerted him to this, he said that no one could tell the difference at that stage, which was probably true given the instrumentation of the time. While this is not necessarily a lie, the fact that any of his drawings were admittedly without reference has disgraced Haeckel’s name in the annals of science despite the fact that these were corrected in each of the later editions.
Creationists now insist that Haeckel was reportedly convicted of fraud by a German court, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. His creationist contemporaries, including Rudolf Virchow and Louis Agassiz, did accuse Haeckel of deception, but the charge of fraud didn’t emerge until 1997 with the research of embryologist Michael Robertson, as detailed in an article in Science by Elizabeth Pennisi titled “Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Rediscovered”. No one argues that a scientist shouldn’t promote speculation as fact; leave that to religion. But the drawings Haeckel didn’t have references for in his first edition aren’t the reason for the recent charge of fraud. It was a computerized analysis of his artwork as compared to microphotographs of the same species at the same stages of development. The charge was that he embellished these drawings to imply more resemblance than there was based on a critique of his artistic skill. However, it has been shown that this same analysis would also indict Haeckel’s enemy contemporaries on the same charge, as well as modern embryologists too.
A later paper titled “Haeckel’s Embryos: Fraud Not Proven,” written by Robert Richards and published in the journal Biology & Philosophy in 2009, offers a compelling rebuttal to the charges detailed in the 1997 Science article, “The historical and biological evidence, however, shows the charge against Haeckel to be logically mischievous, historically naive, and founded on highly misleading photography.”
The images under scrutiny were taken from Haeckel’s hastily assembled first edition of Anthropogenie. However, each of the subsequent editions had the advantage of better instrumentation, and the accuracy of the drawings improved. But there was nothing wrong with those images to begin with. The damning microphotographs published by Michael Robertson in 1997 showed these embryos with yolk and other maternal material that made them look very different. That, and the chicken was photographed at a different angle with a different lens effect than the others, while the salamander was a different size. Haeckel clearly indicated that his drawings were only of the embryos, omitting things like yolk, and that he made them all the same size and oriented the same way for ease of comparison, so there’s no foul to fault.
Robertson, the very researcher who indicted Haeckel in 1997, seems to have softened his view since then, perhaps after his own errors in the indictment itself were brought to light. In a November 2002 paper published in the Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society titled “Haeckel’s ABC of Evolution and Development,” Robertson (with G. Keuck) writes,
Haeckel’s much criticized embryo drawings are important as phylogenetic hypotheses, teaching aids, and evidence for evolution. While some criticisms of the drawings are legitimate, others are more tendentious.
What is especially odd about the criticism against Haeckel’s “embellishments” (if such were ever intended) is that they’re unnecessary. Creationists adamantly complain that textbooks referred to his admittedly inaccurate drawings for so long, but for some reason, they continue to accuse those authors of fraud even when the textbooks replace the drawings with microphotographs! Do they think the photographs are fraudulent too? Or do they object only because those images still indicate the same evolutionary parallels that Haeckel saw?
Darwin wrote that embryology contained compelling evidence of evolution, and correctly so. In his letter to J. D. Hooker, for example, he stated, “Hardly any point gave me so much satisfaction when I was at work on the Origin as the explanation of the wide difference in many classes between the embryo and the adult animal, and the close resemblance of embryos within the same class.” Creationists dismiss this on the assumption that Darwin’s theory was inspired by Haeckel’s allegedly fraudulent drawings, and that consequently, evolution is a fraud. But of course the truth is the other way around. Darwin referred to real embryos; Haeckel’s drawings didn’t even exist until years after Darwin’s final publication. Haeckel eventually befriended Darwin and even convinced him of his biogenetic law at one point, but Darwin had already published his definitive work, and Haeckel had no influence over that.
In his landmark publication, Darwin had accurately depicted the resemblance of closely related embryos and never suggested that they progress through the adult stages of their evolutionary lineage. Modern biology does recognize numerous connections between ontogeny and phylogeny, and explains them using evolutionary theory without recourse to Haeckel’s specific view. Haeckel’s original assumption that embryonic development would indicate adult species in an organism’s ancestral history was proven false by 1910. Recapitulation has since been replaced by a more accurate study of the parallels between embryological and evolutionary development, colloquially known as “evo devo.” Among other discoveries, this field revealed the evolutionary origin of the feather as implied by transitional stages in the fossil record being recapitulated in the stages of embryological development of chickens. But the fact Darwin recognized, that embryology does provide testable confirmations and predictions of phylogeny, were already evident before Haeckel ever picked up his pencil.
It is no hoax that mammalian embryos temporarily have pharyngeal pouches, which are morphologically indistinguishable from the gill slits in modern fish embryos, and that the divergence of development from there matches what is indicated in the fossil record. This is fact, not fraud, and none of these facts should be true unless evolution were true also. Why else do whale embryos have four limbs? Why do glass snake embryos have feet complete with toes? Why do chicken embryos have three-fingered hands? Why do human and bird embryos have tails?
So Haeckel didn’t lie, so far as we know. At least we know he didn’t lie when he could have, and that’s a good indication. Even if he had lied, it wasn’t while promoting evolution over creationism. Haeckel wasn’t trying to convince evolutionists of evolution; he was promoting recapitulation, an alternate notion of fetal development. His posit failed against Karl Ernst von Baer, the leading authority who conceived the laws of embryology.
There you go, Philip. The creationists’ all-time favorite claim of fraud isn’t what they said it was; it was actually at least partially their own misrepresentation.
On creation.com there is an article “Evolutionist: it’s OK to deceive students to believe evolution.” Would you argue that Bora Zivkovic did not advocate teaching things known to be not true to promote evolution as that article depicts?
This was a good one, as I had never heard of this person, and the article you referenced doesn’t cite the original material. I suspect this is because the creationist’s favorite tactic is quote-mining, another logical fallacy. It always comes apart when you see the whole piece in context. Take for example what Darwin said about the evolution of the eye. Creationists quote part of the paragraph saying that “To suppose that the eye …could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree”, but they never include what he said immediately after that, the implied “but….” where he explains what reason tells him, and then goes on to explain how the evolution of the eye is evident in comparative morphology. Is it because creationists don’t know what he said after that? No, they know; they just don’t want YOU to know. So they lie by omission and don’t show the context.
This is what I suspect happened with Bora Zivkovic. I couldn’t find out much about him–other than he is a blogger, not an evolutionary scientist like I asked for. I did see that he has been chastised by scientists for a number of ethical reasons. That doesn’t help you since they’re not relevant to my challenge. So I reached out to the League of Reason forum to see if any of the scientists there knew what the original claim was or whether any of this met the criteria I gave you. The consensus answer is no. This guy is not a scientist and he didn’t lie either. All he did was suggest a common teaching method of simplified lessons, like why we teach Bohr’s model of the atom or Lewis’ diagram of electrons. We know it’s inaccurate, but it still works in entry level applications that students need to learn. So we teach it anyway.
Note that Zivkovic clarified that this is only temporary. So it is not the attempted deception your source claims. Your article says that Zivkovic says it’s OK to deceive students to believe evolution. But he didn’t say that at all, neither to deceive nor believe. This is a teaching tool to help students understand evolution. Deceivers seek believers, but science doesn’t want believers; we want thinkers who understand. So you give them the Sesame Street version first, and toss out the muppets when they get passed that stage.
Once students understand the basics, then things get more complicated and you find out that a lot of what you learned before isn’t true at all. This goes for chemistry and history and even theology. For example, you were told that the Bible was written by God as the absolute and inerrant truth. But then if you ever get to seminary, then you learn the real origins and inspirations and realize that none of what you believe now is really the case.
As far as creations who you say are liars, give me examples of what you see as lies from Henry Morris Jr., Jake Hebert III, and Jason Lisle.
I could have started with your own company, or the article you referenced regarding Zivkovik, since there were a handful of immediately obvious lies in that one. Most of those were explained in the 13th chapter of my book on Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism. Since this blog post is already quite long, and I have other engagements pending tonight, but I promised I would reply to you today, then I’ll post as it is now. But I won’t be able to get to your most recently posted question about Henry Morris Jr., Jake Hebert III, and Jason Lisle until my next post tomorrow. It’s easy to cite lots of things each of them said that are obviously and demonstrably wrong, but it takes a bit longer to show how we know that they knew that what they said was wrong when they said it, and I want to make sure there is no doubt about that when I get back to you. Until then remember that there is no truth in creationism, but there are a helluva lotta lies.