Should I Debate Kevin Anderson on Common Ancestry?

No, unless either (i) you like wading through garbage and ignorance, or (ii) you’re planning to spend the time ignoring everything he says and educating any audience.


I think part of the answer should be how willing and how able (in terms of such things as time you’re able to commit) you are to commit to preparation for the event.

I think Ken Miller’s description (in your recent interview with him) of his preparation for his debate with Henry Morris provides a good example:

when i realized what was going on i practically panicked uh and decided i have to drop everything in terms of lab setup and i spent five weeks before the debate reading all of morris's books listening to audio tapes of his previous debates and quite frankly looking up every one of his individual very peculiar arguments arguing that the earth was young and that geology was mistaken and evolution was impossible and so forth and by the time the debate came i actually had and this is in the old this is before powerpoint this is the old days of regular old 35 millimeter slides i went to that debate with two carousels of over 150 slides ready to rebut every single one of his arguments which i did

Five weeks and 150 slides may be overdoing it for preparation for Anderson (who probably is not as proficient, or as heavily documented, as Morris), but the overarching sentiment stands – if it is worth doing, I think it is worth doing well. I think you owe it to both yourself, and to the scientific community.


I endorse this. If you go back and watch Anderson’s debates and videos, the stuff he says is the most banal creationist talking points. For example, he claims that the most common mutation that confers lactase persistence does so because it break a repressor gene. That’s absolutely false; the gene in which the mutation occurs codes for a helicase subunit, and the lactase persistence mutation is in an enhancer within an intron of that gene. So he’s wrong on two fronts: The mutation doesn’t inactivate the gene in which it occurs, and that gene is not for a lactase repressor. And he could learn all of this with thirty seconds of google but would rather just repeat the nonsense talking point anyway. In my opinion, someone like that is not worth the time unless you plan to basically ignore him except to call out the obvious lies, and focus on saying what you want to the audience.


I agree with the many concerns people have raised above about debating him and about the debate format. A “conversation” format would in principle allow you to force him to respond to you on some points (“you mean, you really don’t think that salmon and tuna fish have a common ancestor?”). But it has to have a forceful and fair moderator to keep him from talking over you. He will want to debate “universal” common ancestry with an emphasis on the “universal”. Perhaps he will refute the “tree” by pointing out the existence of hybridization or horizontal gene transfer, and then declaring victory. And any evidence you point to, he will explain away as Common Design, when that is an explanation for all we see, but alas also predicts all we don’t see as well (it explains why elephants are small, pink, and fly around pollinating flowers).


I agree. There needs to be a focused topic in order for the discussion to be productive. Common ancestry between humans and other apes would be the perfect topic given the wealth of observations both from fossils and genetics.


I should also suggest that the venue matters. There are places I will not appear because the hosts have a history of distorting what is said after the fact, to the point of editing video in a deceptive manner. So if this question was to me, my answer would be “Yes, I would be happy to debate Dr. Anderson, provided that we can agree on a venue and a very narrow topic.” And then spend the debate ignoring most of what Dr. Anderson says while starting each thing I say by quickly pointing out the litany of factual errors in the last thing he said, and then making whatever point I want to make on the agreed upon topic.

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This is the venue: Swamidass and Guzman: The Science of Universal Ancestry

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Oh, Guzman’s cool, no worries there I think.

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If you like debates, definitely.

If not, maybe still if you think you can do something productive with the time in front of the audience you’ll have. Putting yourself, as both a supporter of current science and a man of faith, in front of an audience convinced that those two things are logically incompatible, might be helpful to some of them.

If you think your time there would do more to promote creationism than promote good science, or you don’t have time, or you just aren’t interested enough, then don’t. No one with an opinion that matters will think less of you for not ‘debating’ a creationist.

@Joe_Felsenstein makes an excellent point to the importance of framing: Establish the narrowest range of common ancestry he rejects, then make the debate about that range exclusively. So if he rejects, as I assume he does, the common ancestry of all mammals, then any discussion of the common ancestry of all life is pointless. Narrowing it even further to common ancestry of humans and chimpanzees would obviously be ideal.

This is actually one of my biggest complaints about YECs in general, they reject things that are easily demonstrated, but instead of listening to that demonstration insist on running to the hard stuff. Debating the plausibility of abiogenesis is fair enough in conversation with someone like Sy Garte, but not someone who thinks the earth is <10ka.

Finally, I may have been the one who suggested your name for this… Sorry about that.


This is what Jackson Wheat did a few months back, and it resulted in a pretty funny few minutes where Jackson was like “ok, do dogs and wolves share common ancestry? what about dogs and coyotes?” and so on, back and forth, and Anderson would not acknowledge any common ancestry beyond dogs and wolves. Just "I don’t know, I don’t have an opinion"ed the whole thing.


That’s why you need an example he rejects, and Hominini is a great choice for that. Also to the point of framing: It is important to establish, by agreement, the expectations of common ancestry first. And really, how can he say he opposes common ancestry if he doesn’t know what common ancestry predicts? Never provide evidence for something in a debate until you’ve agreed on what that evidence would mean. Evidence without agreed meaning is useless in debates, evidence with agreed meaning is fatal.

So either he agrees that XYZ would be strong evidence for common ancestry, and then you show XYZ, or he refuses to agree to XYZ, in which case you hammer his inability to actually form a position. Either way, you win. And I say ‘win’ intentionally, because debates aren’t about who is right, they are about who has the best command of rhetorical tactics.


That’s the ultimate problem. Kinds are just based on opinion. For that matter, all taxonomic levels above species is based on opinion, but scientists aren’t pretending there are objective criteria for determining if two species belong to the same genus (other than phylogenetic relationships). We could decide tomorrow that humans, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos all belong in the same genus and this wouldn’t break any rules. This is where cladistics becomes a bit more useful.

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^^^^^^^This. Demanding agreement on discussing a single relevant paper would be better still.


That’s a good suggestion as well. You could also each share bullet points so you can both be informed on one another’s arguments before the discussion begins. Gotcha moments may be entertaining, but not educational.


It’s like you’re trying to have an actual, formal debate! Online, with creationists? What a strange notion!

Would it be possible to relax time limits for the whole exchange? That might prevent the other person from engaging in a “Gish gallop”. The poor soul trying to respond to that would run out of time long before they got to most of the misrepresentations, owing to Brandolini’s Law. Gish made a whole career out of winning that way.


The Gish Gallop is a fairly easy rhetorical technique to counter in a debate:

“My opponent just made a large number of barely supported claims, mostly outside the scope of this topic, because he doesn’t have any strong evidence and knows that I can’t address them all. I’ll pick one, and trust the audience to realize the rest are just as weak.”

Then dismantle the easiest thing the opponent said. Alternatively, in a power move, replace ‘barely supported’ with ‘entirely unsupported’, and then dismiss them all as baseless conjecture without addressing any and use the time for something else entirely. Both effective strategies, the choice depends on the audience.

A better option is to make sure the topic is sufficiently narrow and the moderation sufficiently effective. Especially important now, since people don’t actually do formal debates any more. They just have opening statements, open discussion, ‘sometimes’ closing statements, and a question/answer phase with no rebuttal phase. So I’d get moderators to agree beforehand that they won’t allow Gish Gallops, and will cut debaters off after one or two topic changes.


The other way to deal with a Gish gallop is to have the moderator be very ready to stop the galloper after one assertion: The galloper says “How do you explain XYZ? And in addition, how do you explain ABC? And …” to which the moderator immediately says: “Stop there – let’s discuss XYZ right now and hold off on ABC. Josh, what’s your response to XYZ?”

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One of the concerns brought up is how to avoid certain tactics that are common in debate formats with someone who affirms Young Earth Creationism.

I wonder if there’s a project that you are currently working on where he could actually be a positive (even if limited) contributor to.

When people are in a different role or mindset and planning on or already working on another project together toward a shared goal (even if limited), there is less likelihood of certain tactics being used (though doesn’t of course eliminate all tendencies).

It could really showcase the Peaceful Science approach—Gathering around the grand questions together. I think it could be Another demonstration (as your work leading up to and incorporated in GAE has already done) that science isn’t inherently against certain views or intuitions at the start, and it also could help demonstrate the confidence of someone (you/mainstream science) inviting such collaboration.

I also realize there are risks with such an approach, but you have shown a way to navigate that well.

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