James Tour: Friendship Across Disagreements

James Tour and I do not agree on everything, but we found virtue in the wasteland, friendship across our disagreements.

This is scheduled a couple days from now. Don’t want to miss this one!


Thanks for the explanation. I have wondered how the two of you became friends. Honestly, I watched that origins of life debate a month or two ago and I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever laughed so hard. It was great. :smiley: So I’ll try to set my expectations low so this conversation doesn’t disappoint.

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Tour doesn’t appear to have understood the mutation spectrum argument. He still thinks you’re just talking about “similarity”. The chemistry of tautomeric shifts are known. There are papers on them.


Yeah, I think a lot of IDers miss this too. But it is such a strong case that it is worth repeating it over and over. It is also easy to understand, if they just slow down and take a beat.

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I should also say I think you gave good pushback in this one.

I was disappointed by many of Tour’s statements, but you put some good perspective on them (that your affirmation of evolution has also been met with some opposition from some religious cohorts).

And also that you stated things that seems worth thinking about from Tour’s perspective (such as the effects of mutations on the brains of marmosets). Regardless of our ignorance of how, chemically, these mutations cause these effects, the fact that they have them is an interesting point in itself.


I can see why you were disappointed by Tour.

Though, it is a very meaningful thing that he will publicly associate with me and say to his audience that I am trustworthy. Maybe we disagree, but he does not tolerate the idea that I am the enemy to be vilified. That does real good.


I looked up what you’re talking about but I don’t understand how it is important or related to the conversation.

What I related to especially: probably 55:00 -1:01:00 or so.

What did you find?

Yes life is very complex. So is tomato soup. I can make tomato soup without having a clue what is going on, chemically, in my bowl of soup.

I can know how to make tomato soup without knowing what is transpiring chemically in my soup. I can know that tomato soup has been made, without knowing what chemistry took place in the pot.

In a similar way we can know that evolution has occurred and that species share common descent, without having very detailed knowledge of all the chemistry that occurred during that evolution. And we can know it so well that we can call it a fact, despite being largely ignorant of many specific physical and chemical details.

I can tell someone to use warm water and soap to wash their hands, and I can tell them that this will kill and wash off the majority of bacteria on their hands, and they can know that it really does work without knowing how, chemically, warm water and soap achieves this effect.
Washing our hands with soap and warm water is effective, and we can know it is effective so much that we can call it a fact, without having the slightest clue what the soap is doing chemically.

It is no different for historical inferences. Again we can derive knowledge about historical events to show us that they occurred, without having very detailed knowledge at the level of the physics and chemical reactions between individual atoms and molecules. It is a fact that plate tectonics has resulted in mountains. And I can know this is a fact without knowing the vast, vast majority of what there is to know about about the chemical constituents of the mountains. I can know that a meteor hit the ground without knowing anything about what chemistry happened in the meteor, or the point of impact.

Tour’s demand for chemical detail in these very large-scale evolutionary transitions he speaks about (such as the evolution from single cells to organisms with brains) to be able to say that something is a fact is misplaced and does not stand up to scrutiny. While that knowledge is obviously both desirable and fascinating (and a topic of active scientific investigation), it is strictly not required to know that evolution occurred and that it is a fact.


It’s a change in the molecules of DNA. I just don’t understand what it has to do with the conversation and don’t remember when it was referenced.

Yes, but none of this rules out special creation.

Absolutely it is required to know the chemical details of large-scale evolutionary transitions - scientists are saying that time is the solution to all the unknowns. “Just trust in time and in the story we provide using the fossil record” as if that is a scientific response. No. Science cannot rule out a supernatural origin. There is evolution today. That doesn’t mean that evolution on a microscale can be extrapolated backwards to whatever degree will provide a solution to any problems - especially when there’s such disagreement about whether neutral theory or selection is more responsible and there is no consensus on that, and especially when there isn’t complete public trust on this issue regarding large-scale evolutionary transitions. And especially when there are Christian (and even other) scientists willing to challenge the mainstream at risk to their reputations or careers. It’s been 150+ years. What fact has been challenged or been unsettled this long and remained a scientific fact? None that I can think of.

Then what would? What kind of genetic differences or similarities between species would rule out special creation? Why kind of fossil would rule out special creation? Or will you stick with special creation no matter what the evidence is?

We are saying that the genetic differences between the species are responsible for the physical differences between the species. We are also saying that all of the evidence we have is consistent with evolutionary mechanisms being responsible for those genetic differences. Why isn’t this a valid conclusion?

Should we not trust NASA because some people think the Earth is flat?


We’ve already ruled out creating the heterozygosity needed to fit the Biblical bottlenecks, because recombination would have to have been insanely high FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS AFTER CREATION to produce the current level of shufflling (polymorphism) we directly observe today.

It isn’t. You made it up. You omitted all of the other evidence, like the sequence data.

That’s bearing false witness.

Challenging the mainstream involves producing new data. None are willing to do that. They misrepresent a tiny amount of existing data and ignore most of the data to sell books to credulous laypeople; at some level, you realize that, so you avoid the evidence.


To me, the more I see, the more evidence points to it. What would rule special creation out? I’m not sure you can rule it out. I’ll try to think of something that makes it less likely.

Well, because the evidence isn’t actually consistent with that. Plus you need evolutionary mechanisms happening between thousands of species thousands and millions of times to create diversity we see today. Not only does evolution need to be explain all the differences in life everywhere, chemical evolution also needs to explain how each part of the cell evolved even with time working against it before it could have the most primitive structure. Right now all I see is scientists focusing on a few parts of the cell and focusing on a few different species to show evolution works. Again, it just seems to be missing for the forest for a tree.

Well, if the NASA scientists can’t agree on whether the earth revolves around the sun, or the sun revolves around the earth, yeah.

I was referring to the actual process that leads to large-scale change. You could actually try to understand and empathize with what I’m saying. The sequence data can be evidence of common design.

AFAIK you haven’t looked at a speck of evidence. Hearsay is not evidence.

You would have to examine evidence to make any honest statements about what it is consistent with.

You are bearing false witness.

You’re not looking at all at what is actually being done.

I was too. You can’t make broad claims about actual processes while completely ignoring actual evidence.

I understand what you’re saying; I also understand that the sequence data are evidence of the actual process that leads to large-scale change.

You are deliberately conflating evidence with what some people say about a carefully selected sliver of the available evidence.

No, they cannot. You haven’t bothered to look at any data anyway, right?


That’s because special creation isn’t a scientific hypothesis, but an ad-hoc rationalization. You can’t tell me what we should expect to find in comparative genetics, you can only make up reasons after the fact why a God would choose to create things in ways that look exactly like evolution happened.

Like the biochemical causes of mutation, or the consilience of independent phylogenies.

None of these make any sense on independent creation, but then you can of course just make some stuff up, like “God’s sort of an artist so he can choose to make it look like evolution happened because he just wanted to do it that way”. Or some similar nonsense that would, essentially, make God out to be deliberately mislead scientists. You can of course believe that if you want, but you can’t pretend the data isn’t real. There really is evidence for evolution and the common descent of life, including humans and other primates.

No, it isn’t required to know the chemical details to know that large-scale evolutionary transitions have occurred. The only thing you need to know that is that there is a theory based on data that makes predictions that can be observationally tested against new data. That’s how, for example, scientists are able to predict geochronological time-periods in which to look for specific fossils, such as transitional tetrapods or transitional whales. There’s zero explanation for why such species should even exist on special creation (and no explanation for how it is possible to predict what layers they should exist in using radiometric dating), again other than some vacuous ad-hoc rationalization like “God wanted to make an organism like that and put it in that layer of rock to test our faith, or he’s an artist”.

That’s a bug of “supernatural origin”, not a feature. Since it consists only and entire of ad-hoc rationalizations after the fact, nothing can rule it out in principle. It’s like JustNowIsm.

Actually you really can posit that processes observed in the present also happened in the pre-historical past to explain patterns in data observed in the present. I can explain a meteor crater with a meteor impact without having seen the actual impact occur, simply by observing that other meteors also make craters today.

When it comes to historical evolution, there is an expected pattern. The expectation is based on observations of currently observed processes. Such as the biochemical causes of mutation producing transition bias leading to an expectation that DNA sequence differences between species should show an abundance of transition mutations over transversion mutations. Or the demonstrable reality that the evolutionary process produces consilience in the phylogenies that can be inferred from the sequences of independent genes.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that none of the evidences above I detailed depends on any particular values of the relative magnitude of selection vs neutral evolutionary processes. Whether some attribute evolved due to selection or neutral processes makes no difference, you still expected consilience of independent phylogenies, chronologically specific transitional forms, and transition over transversion bias.

So no, I don’t have to know what goes on in my tomato soup to know it’s tomato soup or to know how to make it. And it’s not relevant to my knowledge of plate tectonics whether the mountains contain more of some mineral than another, or what chemical reactions lead to the formation of such minerals in the first place. That’s irrelevant and not required for a well-supported inference of plate tectonics. It’s preferable, and interesting, but not strictly required for a fact.

Oh wait, people of a recalcitrant fundamentalist mindset can’t accept concrete empirical realities? Well I guess there truly is no consensus on anything then. Yawn.


Scientists could make predictions when they thought the sun revolved around the earth too.

I have never said this.

But we have never observed the transitions you’re describing.

This process is very new, isn’t it?

God doesn’t deliberately mislead scientists, but the Bible is clear: if people don’t want to acknowledge Him, they will be given over to their desires not to know Him. If scientists rule God in their model and narrative, they’re going to also rule Him out in their interpretation of the data.

As far as I can tell, we’ll never see eye to eye because I have a different model and narrative. The data will have to be overwhelmingly one-sided and unable to ignore before either of us will budge.

Yes, they could, but then when more data was discovered that theory made less and less sense. Today, geocentrism can’t be rationally entertained.

From the perspective of the Sun and Earth alone, geocentrism and heliocentrism appear observationally indistinguishable. Either Earth revolves around the Sun, or the Sun revolves around the Earth. Both explain the changes in their mutual positions. But as you add more and more planets and their moons, and as you grow the sphere of observation to include other stars and galaxies, it becomes increasingly nuts. The picture that emerges makes a lot more sense with the Sun as just another star with a gravitational pull that makes nearby planets orbit it instead.
It’s technically still possible to explain the other stars and planets using geocentrism, but the model becomes baroquely complex and nonsensical, and it stops being able to make predictions. There stops being any explanation why objects in the universe behave like they do, they’re all just given their own epicycle in ad-hoc fashion.

Why should that galaxy orbit the Earth in that insane way? No explanation, it just does!

The analogy to evolution and special creation is very apposite. Why should the creator make the species genetically different in a way that makes it look like they gradually evolved to be different by the same biochemical causes of mutation as we are observing? Well there’s really no explanation, He just did!

And I didn’t observe the meteor impact that created the crater I am explaining with another meteor impact that happened before I even existed.
That’s why I am using the explanation in principle (the principle that when meteors impact the planet, craters result), instead of literally saying the very same meteor I just saw, also somehow caused an entirely different crater in the past.

In a similar way, I explain past evolutionary transitions using the principles from observed evolution. Mutations, HGT, genetic drift, natural selection, and so on.

No. It’s been going on for probably over 4000 million years.

I agree with you here. We come to this from two diametrically opposed perspectives. I do not join you in making the assumption that a particular Bible-interpretation correctly describes the history of the universe.


Fun talk! I’ve always taken Tour’s criticisms of abio seriously, and his criticisms of evolution less so. It’s amazing what a positive feedback system can do in billions of years, but I’d definitely agree that getting that system started is the hard part


Yeah, at least some of it. The parts I agree with are already being said by others in the origin of life research community. Tour hasn’t said anything that hasn’t been said just as competently by someone like the late Robert Shapiro: