Monday, September 22, 2008

Ideas from a creationist

Last night I went to a talk by a creationist, 'Professor' Walter J. Veith, chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. It was part of a two-night series called "The Genesis Conflict", with two talks each night (creationists must have a lot of stamina). I couldn't find out who sponsored it, though collection baskets were passed and a lot of people put money in them. There was a big poster at a bus shelter in Tsawwassen - I took a photo of it which I'd like to put here, but I'm afraid I haven't figured out how to access photos that I took with my iPhone (I can copy them to my laptop but then I can't find them).

Veith's mini-biography on the flyer says, inaccurately, that he served for many years as chair of the Zoology Dept. at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Apparently he only served for a few months, after which the department pushed him over into the Physiology Dept, where his anti-evolution ideas would be less problematic (see this archive). He's been retired since 2003, and has lots of tapes and DVDs for sale. His current affiliation is Seventh-Day Adventist. Over the next two weeks he's giving another series of 10 talks on the topic of "Reformation Rekindled", which appear to be about how the true spirit of the Protestant Reformation has been squelched by the wicked Roman Catholics.

This talk was titled "The Genes of Genesis". His premise was the old canard that the requirements for life are far too improbable to have arisen by chance, so we must instead infer the hand of a designer. He began by calculating the odds of 300 nucleotides assembling in the right order to encode a specific 100-amino acid protein (2^300 = 1-^127). He then pointed out that this was far larger than the number of particles in the universe, and asked "You decide, chance or a designer?"

He put this question to the audience each time he added another requirement for life onto his list (ribosomes, chaperonins, regulatory proteins,multicellularity, differentiated cell types, biochemical pathways, chromosomal rearrangements, sexual reproduction...). He was quite glib, throwing in enough technical terms and genial explanations to impress the non-scientific audience. He didn't make any other points, just kept pushing the numerical improbability of the origin of life/animals/people.

I especially enjoyed this because I explain the resolution of this 'paradox' in the very first class of BIOL 121. If it were true that 'life' couldn't get started evolving until a fully functional microbial cell had arisen by chance alone, then the origin of life would indeed be a big paradox. But it's not true. We can set aside the issue of that we mean by 'life', and just consider how much chance is required to produce something that natural selection can act on. Before the catalytic properties of RNA were discovered, only entities with RNA-directed protein synthesis machinery were thought to have the heredity and variation needed for natural selection, and these really are much too complicated to arise by chance. But now we know that RNA-like molecules can, in principle, catalyze their own replication. This means that evolution could have gotten started by the chance production of a single relatively simple molecule. Improbable maybe, but not nearly as improbable as a designer.

I think I can improve this BIOL 121 class by introducing it with a description of Veith's talk. This will bring home to the students that

I tried to stick around for the second talk ("Creation to Restoration"). Judging by the first few minutes, it was going to be about how the animals in Eden (vegans all) became nasty carnivores and parasites and pathogens. He had lots of just-so stories ready to go, beginning with how Eden's snakes transformed their salivary glands into venomous fangs, and how roaches in Hawaiian caves evolved eyelessness in 8 months. (The latter appears to confound colonization of Hawaiian lava tubes with Australian cave cockroach evolution.)

When I came out I was pleased to find a flyer from the local Humanists Society tucked under each windshield.

1 comment:

Val Hamilton said...

I was so pleased to find your comments. The ads on radio for the last couple of weeks have sounded like "hate literature". I am not a Christian, but if the rant was about Jews or Muslims, there would have been a backlash.