Friday, May 20, 2011

Metamorphosis, a new Illustra film

Illustra is a film production group that makes high quality films for Christian apologetics such as intelligent design. They've produced several films that adapt the look and feel of science documentaries for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.

Just announced, Illustra's newest effort will focus on Monarch butterflies as iconic species for The Argument Regarding Design (TARD). The Discovery Institute has already begun flogging the video.

Monarch butterflies have long been a creationist favorite, for three reasons. They are beautiful delicate creatures. They migrate absurdly long distances. They have a complete metamorphosis that transforms them from larval caterpillar to adult butterfly.

I'm not going to say anything against the creationists and their sense of wonder at Monarch butterflies. It is a good thing, a trait they share with the rest of humanity. Sadly, I'm sure there is a sect out there that thinks butterflies are the work of Satan, and looking at butterflies might lead to evils like dancing. (An application of the internet meme Rule 34 to the religious tendency to hate.)

How about migration? Currently Monarch butterflies migrate north and south across North America every year, a process that lasts generations! Their winter resting site is a small patch of pine forest in Mexico.

It is a dramatic story, but is it a challenge to evolution? The butterflies are doing something completely natural, following their food sources. Their navigation is based on the chemistry of their brains and antennae, which is determined by their gentics.

At the end of the last Ice Age, Monarch butterflies, or a species that preceded them, must have lived far to the south of Mexico. That inference is simply based on temperature. This species might not have been migratory at all. As the Americas warmed, their range expanded northward through Central America. After a point, though, they can't follow the climate change northward, into the huge new areas of open ecological niches, without migrating back south for the winter.

This could have begun with seasonal migration north and south within a single lifetime. The navigation based on the sun and the circadian clock could develop gradually. (I also don't know the extent of the wintering forest back then, but it could easily have been much larger than it is today.)

The real innovative part of Monarch butterfly migration is its multi-generational aspect. The genes that help navigate the butterfly back south have to be carried by several generations of butterfly for which that specific package of genes does no good whatsoever.

This a great example of what Richard Dawkins called the Extended Phenotype. The bodies of the butterflies (their phenotypes) are just carriers for the selfish genes. What matters is not that the phenotypes make the round trip, but that the genes make the round trip. If a reproducing buttefly suffers a mutation or other variational event on the way north in the springtime, its children might not have the genes to fly back. That variation might expand slightly for the two or three generations of butterflies that live over the summer, but in the fall they die faster than other butterflies (selection on variation) because they are not migrating, not migrating as fast, or in the wrong direction.

So our amazement at Monarch butterfly migration shouldn't lead directly to "Goddidit, therefore Jebus." There are amazing, but completely natural and material, explanations for the behavior. Explanations being elaborated by scientists who don't stop at "Wow", but go on to "How?"

And metamorphosis? Again, for the creationist there is no need to ask how, because Jebus is the Answer.

But for everyone else, metamorphosis is one of the coolest things around!

Lets remember that metamorphosis has been around for a long time. Crustaceans in the ocean do it. It has clear evolutionary value by letting a species exploit two (or more) different niches at different times during the life of an individual.

A very common process during development is the creation of a sheet of cells, and then the destruction of a large group of those cells via a planned cell death (apoptosis). For example, humans have webs between their fingers and toes at a certain point in our embryonic development, and then these webs die back. Cool, but natural - guided by chemical signals guided by genes collected by evolution.

What is happeneing inside the butterfly's coccoon is much the same, though the ratio of surviving and dying cells is very different. Inside the coccoon, most of the cells are dying, giving up their resources and energy to allow other surviving cells reshape the larva into an adult form.

Compared to insects that don't undergo a complete metamorphosis, those that do (like Monarch butterflies) seem to have shifted the timing and extent of hormone releases, a very typical path to speciation known as heterochrony. Heterochrony happens because of variation in gene regulatory networks. Variation with material causes and material effects.

So there is nothing in the history of insects over the last few hundred million years that would suggest that an Intelligent Designer had intervened in the natural processes. It has been said of God that He must love beetles, having made so many of them. But for all that love, he seems to have let all the species of beetle develop the process of metamorphosis just once, in a distant ancestor, and then diversify naturally, almost as if he wasn't involved at all.

It would be great if Illustra's new video intrgated all of this knowledge, and showed how changes from millions of years ago (the origin of insect metamorphosis), climate change (the origin of migration), and ecology united to give us this beautiful, brightly colored animal to share our world with us - and why it was important to preserve the Mexican wintering grounds threatened with deforestation, and provide resting stops along the migration routes stocked with plants that are nutritious to Monarch butterflies. But somehow, I'm afraid the wonder, the sheer wonder is going to dominate.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find it amazing that you accuse Christians of "hating", yet your blog entry is filled with with sarcastic, disrespectful and disparaging remarks against people of belief.

It seriously undermines your whole argument. I guess if all you are wanting is your fellow atheists to cheer you on thats ok but no one else is going to take your arguments seriously.

David vun Kannon said...

Thanks, Anonymous.
I don't accuse Christians, in specific, of hating. I aonly say that there is a religious tendency to hate. If you think that across the world, across history, religion has been on balance inclusionary rather than exclusionary, please provide examples. Most of us are far too familiar with the opposite. I welcome your evidence that ecumenicism is fundamental to the religious impulse, and was important reason the Hundred Years War, the Holocaust, and Islamic Jihad never happened.

Not, of course, that this has anything to do with the science. My opinion on human religion has nothing to do with what we have discovered about Monarch butterflies, migration ecology, metamorphosis or our sense of wonder.

Anonymous said...

David,

Thanks for your prompt response, and for clearing up your position.

I am a Christian apologist, and don't defend religion in general as such, as I think all of the non-Christian religions are false (and for that matter some of the Christian ones as well).

I note that your previous post seems to be specifically directed at Christianity, with the constant "Jebus" comments scattered throughout. Nothing about Moses or Muhammed of course. Many internet atheists tend to cloak their hostility towards Christianity as part of a broad anti-religious attitude, yet they never seem to go out of their way to specifically pick on any other belief system.

Regarding the three examples you mentioned: a) it seems to me that the Hundred Years war was more of a political war between the English and French that had little or nothing to do with religious belief, b)The Holocaust was prompted by Hitler's insane hatred of the Jews, which I think he received from demonic influence. (And btw, Hitler detested Christianity as well, as he freely made anti-Christian comments that would fit in quite well on most of today's atheistic blogs and even insisted on celebrating Christmas as a celebration of the Winter Solstice rather than the birth of Christ). It's also quite interesting that throughout history many different people have tried to exterminate the Jewish race. Even today the Iranian leader talks about wiping Israel off the map....c) I completely agree that Islamic terrorist attacks are hateful acts.

I can't wait to see the film. Despite your minimizing the various incredible things that the butterfly does, it seems to me that it would be very problematic to make a species like this via simple, Darwinian mechanisms.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,
I'm not sure if you mean that you are a Christian apologist by profession or merely personal interest, but your certainty that all religions except your own is false is exactly an expression of that tendency to hate that I referred to.

Yes, I gave Jebus a couple mentions and none to Mobus or Mubammad. Trace that back to the Discovery Institute being a Christian organisation, not a Jewish or Islamic one.

I'm sorry you feel that I was minimizing the attributes of the Monarch butterfly. I don't think that explaining how someting came to be the way it is diminishes our sense of wonder and delight. On the contrary, for me, knowing more enhances that delight.

Perhaps you can explain what you think is a difficulty for a simple Darwinian mechanism to produce in the Monarch butterfly. With regard to the migration abilities, is it the circadian rhythm, the navigation by the sun, the use of magnetism in navigation, or something else? With regard to metamorphosis, is it hormonal control, morphgenic fields, heterochrony, or something else?

Anonymous said...

David,

Thanks for replying to my last email. My response follows:

//but your certainty that all religions except your own is false is exactly an expression of that tendency to hate that I referred to.//

You have a strange definition of hate. Hate has nothing to do with it.

These various religious belief systems make mutually exclusive truth claims and they can't all be correct. For example, Islam states that Jesus is not divine and did not die on the cross. Christianity states that Jesus is divine and did die on the cross. Both of these views cannot be simultaneously correct. The fact that I choose to believe one and not the other is not "hate" but logic. Do you accuse atheists of "hate" because they accept no religious system?

//Yes, I gave Jebus a couple mentions and none to Mobus or Mubammad. Trace that back to the Discovery Institute being a Christian organisation//

Interesting. Are you saying that "Jebus" is a code word that internet atheists use to ridicule the Discovery Institute?

//I don't think that explaining how someting came to be the way it is diminishes our sense of wonder and delight. On the contrary, for me, knowing more enhances that delight.//

I agree!

//Perhaps you can explain what you think is a difficulty for a simple Darwinian mechanism to produce in the Monarch butterfly. With regard to the migration abilities, is it the circadian rhythm, the navigation by the sun, the use of magnetism in navigation, or something else? With regard to metamorphosis, is it hormonal control, morphgenic fields, heterochrony, or something else?//

All of the above. Perhaps you can explain why you think it is so simple for blind, unguided processes to create such complex systems. And if it is indeed so simple, can we reverse engineer this Darwinian process in the laboratory to mutate a centipede and give it the ability to change into a moth like creature with the ability to navigate thousands of miles?

I'm not saying your wrong, I'm just saying that I'm highly skeptical.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,
I hope you are not taking my comments personally. I'm sure you are not a hating person at all, and that your belief has helped you love all of humanity, even as you hold most of them doomed to the lake of fire. I've had the pleasure of working with and living in communities of intensely religious people who would never hurt a fly. I've just started working with such a person in fact.

And yet, hate happens. And it happens in correlation with religious belief. Would anyone be surprised at a statistic that someone is more likely to be hated if they are a different religion?

I think most religious people in the world would agree with you - they can't all be right. And most of the world's religious people are relieved that they have chosen the right religion, and everyone else is wrong.

I do think that this certainty of self-correctness and 'other'-wrongness has been contributory to hatred across many times and places. If you'd like to think that No True Christian would ever lock men, women, and children in a building and burn them alive for disagreeing about the doctrine of the Virgin Mary, the Resurrection, the Revelation to Joseph Smith, the Hidden Imam, or many other religious beliefs, well please continue.

On the other hand, I wouldn't suggest that you deny that men, women, and children have been locked in buildings (their churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques) and burned alive for exactly these reasons. You can't be an apologist for the whole history of religion. You'd really be much better off if you agreed that religion was associated with much evil and hatred, but this only reflected the general Fallen State of mankind without salvation through the Cross.

With respect to the word Jebus, it has little to do directly with the Discovery Institute. I use it because I'd rather not use the name Jesus directly. Yes, I'm poking fun at someone's beliefs, but I would rather not be too offensive. This might seem a perverse way of trying not to give offense, but there it is.

The Discovery Institute gets more association on the internet with the phrase 'goddidit' and 'The Argument Regarding Design', though neither would be their choice. "Cdesign proponentist" also ranks pretty high as a DI code word.

Since all of the biological processes I mentioned seemed difficult (to you) as efects of Darwinian evolution, I thought we might begin with circadian rhythms.
Evolution of temporal order in living organisms
As you can see in Figure 2 of the above review article, the regulatory network for circadian time keeping (this from a cyanobacteria) is relatively simple. Is it your position that this network could not have evolved?

Anonymous said...

David,

Thanks again for your recent reply.

//I hope you are not taking my comments personally. I'm sure you are not a hating person at all, and that your belief has helped you love all of humanity, even as you hold most of them doomed to the lake of fire.//

Not at all David. If I took things personally I wouldn't seek out atheists online to debate with. I know this will sound weird, but I find these types of discussions extremely entertaining, especially with people who have very different viewpoints.

Regarding the lake of fire, I don't think its fair to say that I think that the vast majority of people will go there. I try not to judge anyone and think you can make a case that God will have mercy on at least some non-believers in the great judgement.

//And yet, hate happens. And it happens in correlation with religious belief. Would anyone be surprised at a statistic that someone is more likely to be hated if they are a different religion?//

It also happens in opposition to religious belief, as many believers in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and North Korea could tell you. Generally speaking it says alot of a person when they hold to a belief system in a dangerous and hostile environment. Many Christians risk life and limb in Muslim and communist countries when it would be extremely easy to give up their beliefs and adopt the culturally accepted viewpoints of their society.

//If you'd like to think that No True Christian would ever lock men, women, and children in a building and burn them alive for disagreeing about the doctrine of the Virgin Mary//

I'm sure that many people have been unjustly killed for defying some church authority or disagreeing about some doctrine. In fact, many people of my own faith have been put to death by church authorities for daring to take a stand for what they believed in. William Tyndale, for example, was martyred by the Catholic Church for publishing the Bible in the English language!

But as sad as these examples are, they do not reflect the changes in people that we generally see in people who embrace Christianity and seek God's forgiveness. I've met many Christians in my lifetime, and I have yet to meet a single individual who wants to burn people alive or otherwise persecute others for disagreeing with their religious beliefs. Generally speaking, I'd feel alot safer living in a society where Christianity was widely embraced than I would living in a society where militant atheism was enforced or Sharia was the law of the land.

On the other hand, I've met quite a few people who give generously of their time and money to the less fortunate, even to the point of becoming medical missionaries and living in third world countries to give free medical care to people who have no access to it. These types of stories are far more common than people being locked in buildings and burned alive, yet you choose to ignore them and comb history for examples of people abusing Christianity. Why do you suppose that is?

//the regulatory network for circadian time keeping (this from a cyanobacteria) is relatively simple. Is it your position that this network could not have evolved?//

It is my position that this system is highly unlikely to have evolved by natural, unguided processes. You can insist that it did, and there's no way I can prove you wrong since I don't have a time machine. But I am highly skeptical of such grandiose claims.

However, if you can take a life form that doesn't have a circadian rhythm and then demonstrate to me how in a few simple steps it can develop such a system by natural processes you will have made a case for the evolution of circadian rhythms. Even if you could accomplish such a thing, all you will have proven is that circadean rhythms can evolve by natural processes. Bravo. That wouldn't, by itself, do anything to damage Christian theism however.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,

OK, I was hoping you would engage with the science. If you don't have sufficient background to do so, that is fine, but it does say to me that your opinions on these matters are not well founded.

I'm not trying to overthrow Christian theism. I don't think acceptance of evolution occuring forces that, as evidenced by many fine scientists who are committed Christians. I do think it is important to maintain the separation of church and state in the United States, and keep religious views out of the science classroom.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

//OK, I was hoping you would engage with the science. If you don't have sufficient background to do so, that is fine, but it does say to me that your opinions on these matters are not well founded.//


My background is in computer science (as apparently is yours) so it is true that I am not an expert in the physical sciences. Nevertheless, I do a fair amount of reading and try to keep up with the latest research, and I'd say that my knowledge of science is higher than your average layman.

There really wasn't much for me to say about circadean rhythms, and as I said before, I can't prove that natural processes didn't cause certain features to evolve.

In fact, I know for certain that natural selection has caused certain characteristics to evolve in species (as we see in anti-biotic resistances). I just don't think the theory has explanatory power to describe all the variety of life we see on Earth.

Recently a study was conducted by Douglas Axe where, as a proof of concept, a Kbl enzyme was converted to a very similar BioF enzyme. Structurally, these two enzymes are virtually identical, so it was thought that evolutionary processes would have a relatively easy time converting one to the other.

What the researchers found out was very surprising. It did not turn out to be an easy feat to convert one enzyme to another type, even another type that was extremely similar to the first type:

http://biologicinstitute.org/2011/04/16/when-theory-and-experiment-collide/

//I'm not trying to overthrow Christian theism. I don't think acceptance of evolution occuring forces that, as evidenced by many fine scientists who are committed Christians. I do think it is important to maintain the separation of church and state in the United States, and keep religious views out of the science classroom.//

I agree, and think its safe to say that macro-evolution is largely a peripheral issue when it comes to theism. For some reason, however, atheists love to fixate on this issue. That's probably because, while theism can tolerate macro-evolution being true (although some doctrines or interpretations might have to be modified), atheism cannot tolerate macro-evolution being FALSE. So that's why you see many atheists defending it so tenaciously.

In my mind, the origin of the Universe, the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics, and the origin of the first life are far more relevant to the theistic/atheistic debate than macro-evolution. And as a former atheist, I found the evidence in cosmology and physics extremely compelling and that is what led me to embrace the idea of God and eventually Christianity.

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,

If I might be so bold, you might want to consider why you started by saying you were highly skeptical about all the changes necessary for Monarch butterflies to migrate, but now are saying that you can't prove evolution can't acheive these results.

I've looked at Doug Axe's papers, though not as closely as I'd like. Following the trail, his conclusions in the paper you cite are based on a populationi model he constructs in
http://bio-complexity.org/ojs/index.php/main/article/view/BIO-C.2010.4/BIO-C.2010.4
However, these conclusions are based on a model with a population size of one billion cells, while the actual population of E. coli in one human body might be one trillion cells. Therefore all of the claims he makes based on the model, relative to the arrival time of innovations in a global, evolutionary, time scale are off by many orders of magnitude.

I'm glad you don't see evolution as a big challenge to theism. Sadly there are many, especially here in the US, who would disagree.

Abiogenesis and cosmic fine tuning are both facsinating topics, and I hope you will enjoy reading my blog posts where I touch on them. FOr example, I wrote recently about the modeling of the Carbon resonance that so impressed Sir Fred Hoyle.

Anonymous said...

David! I'm glad you decided to write me back.

//...but now are saying that you can't prove evolution can't acheive these results.//

I can't prove that anything happened or didn't happen in the distant past because I don't have access to a time machine. Anything CAN happen, the real question is, what is the most likely explanation?

From what I've read about experiments on bacteria (like Lenski) and fruit flies testing the capabilities of mutations it doesn't seem plausible that evolution is capable of producing these kinds of results.

This is consistent with what we see in other species. No matter how many different ways we breed a canine we still end up with a canine. No matter how many ways we mutate fruit flies they are still fruit flies, or bacteria, etc. If you want me to believe that you can turn a bacteria into an algae it would be nice to demonstrate this kind of transformation in an experiment. So far the evidence from experimental research is unpersuasive.

I've looked through your blog and I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised. You seem to really think things through and are willing to evaluate the arguments of design proponents. Have you by any chance read Behe's book "The Edge of Evolution"? I think it presents a compelling argument of what kinds of changes that Darwinian processes can produce.


//Therefore all of the claims he makes based on the model, relative to the arrival time of innovations in a global, evolutionary, time scale are off by many orders of magnitude.//

I'm not very familiar with this particular study. The paper I was talking about was just recently published and covered a proof of concept where he experimented on enzymes. You can read about it here (the article also has a link to the actual paper):

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/04/when_enzymes_dont_lie046141.html

Also, I heard a recent podcast from ID the future where Axe was defending the paper that he published in the Journal of Molecular Biology where Axe evaluated the sequence space of functional proteins. The person he was responding to raised 3 or 4 objections, but none were about the population size (of course population sizes wouldn't really apply in protein sequence space anyway).

//I'm glad you don't see evolution as a big challenge to theism.....//

Exactly! And it's so interesting that atheists love to fixate on this issue as well, as though proving macro-evolution true would simultaneously prove atheism. Even if science could completely refute all the claims of Christianity, it wouldn't disprove deism.

I admit that the Darwinian model might be somewhat corrosive to some interpretations of scripture, but it wouldn't be fatal. And if the object is to debunk a young earth interpretation of Genesis 1, you don't need Darwinism to do that. All you have to do is present the ample evidence of the age of the Universe.

//...I wrote recently about the modeling of the Carbon resonance that so impressed Sir Fred Hoyle//

I did enjoy reading your blog post and am impressed with the level of thought you put into these issues. Your blog article on carbon resonance was highly technical. Is it your position that there is nothing particularly fine-tuned about the triple alpha process? And how do you explain other fine tuning parameters like the gravitational constant and the cosmological constant?

While we're on the subject, might I ask what your model of reality is? What do you think caused the Universe to exist? Do you think that we're just the result of a series of some extremely lucky coincidences?

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous,

I'm glad you are enjoying the conversation. I am also. However, I'm off for my wedding anniversary (first!!!) so I won't be able to write back for a few days. Happy learning until then!
Cheers,
David

Anonymous said...

Happy anniversary!

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Anonymous!

Back from wedding anniversary vacation, had an awesome time.

Thanks for the compliments on the blog. I do try to take time to explain things, and I appreciate your reading. Please send any friends over that you think might find these topics interesting.

To the points of your recent reply, the paper I referred to was the recent paper that is the foundation for Axe's blog comment. I'll write a new blog post about it and we'll continue that part of the conversation there, OK?

On the carbon resonance and the other questions, can I ask that you post a question there? It will help keep things organized (a little).

PS - I know we've also been discussing things over at another blog, but I'll refer to you here as Anonymous unless you say it is ok to change that.

Pépé said...

I have a question. Here are some of the words you used to explain the Darwinian evolution of the monarchs:

…must have lived…
…That inference…
…This species might not…
…This could have begun…
…could develop…
…it could easily…
…variation might expand…

My question is why all Darwinian-evolutionists use this kind of fluffy language?

David vun Kannon said...

Hi Pepe,

That is the language of science. Get used to it. We don't know exactly what happened, so we have to talk about our best ideas.