Dr. Robert Beckett is an infamous Presbyterian minister here in Northern Ireland (the creationism capital of Europe as I’ve heard it named!!!), who holds a PhD from Ohio State University in ‘Animal Genetics’. I first became aware of him in late 2010, when he delivered a talk entitled ‘The scientific evidence for creationism’ at the Medical Biology Centre (MBC), at Queen’s University Belfast.
This talk was one of a few that year hosted by 'Queen’s Creation Society', (That’s right, QUB has a creationist society), and one of a few that seemed to be strategically organised to take place specifically at the MBC (the opposition's headquarters perhaps?). This choice of location seemed suspicious to me, given that the MBC is less accessible that most other buildings in the university, especially for non bio/med students, most of whom probably don't even know it exists. Given this increase in creationism in my department, I and a colleague decided to attend “to see what it was all about”. Oh how we regretted the decision.
Before attending the talk, my colleague, who has some experience in investigative journalism (or a sadistic ability to endlessly browse the web), did a little digging into the speaker's self-declared background in ‘Animal Genetics’. It turns out that Beckett attended Ohio State until 1974 at which time he was awarded a PhD for his research thesis entitled ‘Some effects of inbreeding and reciprocal crossing on the performance of lines of Holstein cattle’. It seems that he also completed a Master’s thesis while at OSU, however this is less certain.
So why is this man so special that I feel the need to write a blog post about him? The simple answer is that he holds a seemingly legitimate PhD in ‘animal genetics’ yet he has made the single most ridiculous creationist argument I’ve ever heard. It is not on any top ten creationist arguments that you'll have ever read, it is just that stupid. Check it out;
The verbal argument that went along with this slide was something like this;
"The claim that we [Humans] have evolved from monkeys can't be true, because we pray and they don't. If we evolved from monkeys wouldn't we expect them to pray too?..."
I face palmed so hard that my eyes watered. I'm sure he thought that I had succumbed to the profound implications of his argument, which I have no doubt he truly believed, cut right through one of the most fundamental tenants of the evolutionary model. My colleague and I were totally dumbfounded.
Some other highlights from the talk arose when Dr. Beckett decided to accept questions. I personally asked him quite a few questions in an attempt to showcase his total lack of understanding of very basic concepts in genetics and evolution. Here is an approximate transcript of one of the exchanges;
Me: "Dr. Beckett, I just want to understand what you mean when you say mutations are too rare to allow evolution to occur? In one of your slides you said that mutations were too rare and then had a number beside that statement, could you go back to the slide please?"
[he proceeded to scroll through the slides until he came to this slide:]
Me: "Yes, specifically point two. Could you explain what that number in parentheses actually means please?"
Dr. Beckett: "Well it just means that mutations are very rare"
Me: "That doesn't answer my question though. What exactly does the number mean? Is it a mutation rate for Humans?"
Dr. Beckett: "Yes, it's a mutation rate, showing that mutations are so rare that evolution can not happen."
Me: "That's quite strange then because if we assume that the number you have there on the slide is the substitution rate per base pair per generation, then it's much closer to that of HIV and other viruses. In other words, that number represents the mutation rate of some of the fastest evolving organisms known. In reality the number for the base substitution rate in humans is roughly three orders of magnitude smaller than your number. Despite this seemingly small rate, enough variation is introduced by mutation to allow evolution to occur."
Dr. Beckett: "That's ridiculous, it would take an infinite amount of time for a single useful mutations to occur because 99.98% are harmful."
Me: "Firstly, most mutations are not harmful but neutral. They have no effect. Secondly, it wouldn't take an infinite amount of time at all. Even if it took a million years for a useful mutation to occur, which it doesn't, enough time has passed to allow variation to accumulate, allowing evolution to occur."
Dr. Beckett: "Well a million is pretty close to infinity."
Me: "Are you being serious? You claim to be a scientist and you actually said that a million years is pretty close to infinity? Infinity by definition is not close to any other number."
Dr. Beckett: "I think maybe you should come and talk to me about this at the end. This discussion may be going over the heads of most of the audience."
Me: [Dumbfounded silence thinking to myself that the only person's head the discussion was going over was Dr. Beckett.]
There were various other exchanges in which he looked equally stupid. I hope someday this argument will makes it into a top ten list.
Just in case someone makes this argument to you in the future, here is some evidence to support evolution (in their minds at least).