Beating fossil horses: Creationists take on an “Icon of Evolution”

17 09 2007

Horse Evolution MacFadden 2005
A representation of our modern understanding of horse evolution, having some beginning diversity, a sort of “Oligocene Bottleneck,” and then a wide profusion of diversity throughout the New and Old World. From McFadden, Bruce. 2005. “Fossil Horses – Evidence of Evolution.” Science Vol. 307. no. 5716, pp. 1728 – 1730

As discussed previously in my summary of horse evolution, the development and radiation of various equids over the past 55 million years is one of the most celebrated examples of evolution in action. While we are fortunate to have such detailed examples of past evolutionary transitions, the presentation of the evolution of horses proceeding in a straight line from small, four-toed Eohippus to the extant Equus has sometimes done more harm than good. While the branching bush of horse evolution has been recognized in scientific circles since the middle of the 20th century (at the latest), a more orthogenic model has often still been presented in popular works and taught in schools, and David Godfrey has corroborated this in the comment thread of my previous essay. It is this weakness in using a “simple” illustration that has opened the door up to creationist complaints, and in this appendix to my original work I will attempt to review some of the more recent remarks made by the likes of Jonathan Wells (affiliated with the Discovery Institute) and Ken Ham (president of Answers in Genesis) on the evolution of horses.

Simple horse diagram
Comparison of Eohippus to Equus. There’s a lot of evolution in that dashed line. From “The Dawn Horse or Eohippus” by Chester Stock (1947).

The book that introduced me (albeit painfully) to intelligent design and critics of evolution was the infamous Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and in it Wells spends an entire chapter attempting to discredit the idea that horses evolved. This is not surprising, especially given that horse evolution was so triumphantly heralded by none other than “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876. Indeed, the rich amount of fossils uncovered, plus public interest and prestige allowed horses to take on an iconic status, caused the transitions among fossil horses to become one of the most widely-cited examples of evolution, the change from small, multi-toed ancestors to large, one-toed descendants making for a very compelling scientific narrative.

Despite the vast amount of fossil evidence available that proves, beyond doubt, the evolution of horses, Wells spends little time addressing the very topic that gives the chapter “Fossil Horses and Directed Evolution” it’s name. Wells quickly covers most of the history that I have myself summarized (and, at the risk of sounding conceited, I believe more aptly summarized), but he quickly turns to an attack on G.G. Simpson, Charles Darwin, and Richard Dawkins on tenuous philosophical ground rather than bring any closure to his chosen subject. In fact, it seems like the selection of horse evolution as one of his “Icons” was merely a set-up, and while it is not explicitly stated, the purpose of the chapter is to dust off the old idea of orthogenesis. Working primarily from the work of Matthew and Stirton (see the previous essay) from the first half of the 20th century, Wells states the following about the illustrations of horse evolution that appeared in the AMNH papers;

Despite having been revised, the picture of horse evolution still includes a line connecting Hyracotherium with its supposed descendants, all the way up to the modern horse. Ironically, this very Darwinian line of ancestor-descendant relationships still presents a problem for neo-Darwinists like Simpson, because it is as consistent with directed evolution as the linear series in the old icon. The mere existence of extinct side-branches doesn’t rule out the possibility that the evolution of modern horses was directed. A cattle drive has a planned destination, even though some steers might stray from a herd along the way. Or, to use another analogy, the branching pattern of arteries and veins in the human body has some randomness to it, but our very lives depend on the fact that the overall pattern is predetermined.

This doesn’t prove that directed evolution is true, but only that a branching-tree pattern in the fossil record doesn’t refute it. A straight line and a branching tree are equally consistent (or inconsistent) with the existence (or non-existence) of either a predetermined goal or an inherent directive mechanism. In other words, even if we knew for sure what the pattern was, that alone would not be sufficient to establish whether or not horse evolution was directed.

Stirton Horse Phylogeny
From Stirton, R. A. 1940. “Phylogeny of North American Equidae”. Bull. Dept. Geol. Sci., Univ. California 25(4): 165-198.

So there you have it, folks. Horse evolution appears to have a branching pattern because some lineages didn’t follow God’s plan during his 55-million-year-old evolutionary cattle drive. Wait, what? Either intentionally or as a result of lack of thought on the subject, Wells speaks out of both sides of his mouth in this passage, attempting to be a sort of Devil’s Advocate. In classic intelligent-design style, the identity of the force that Wells contends could have given direction to horse evolution is never mentioned, and it is only stated that such considerations cannot be ruled out. This sounds tentative, but the rest of the chapter is an attack on the concept that evolution does not have any sort of direction to it, diversity being a result of entirely natural processes (and not a divergence from some ill-defined bauplan ordained by a supernatural force). This sort of doubletalk is maddening and will appeal to those already inclined to agree with Wells, the gaping holes in his argument being obvious to anyone who is more familiar with the topic that the DI writer.

Wells also attempts to confuse the reader as to how evolution proceedings by taking certain ideas to extremes. By Wells’ logic, a branching pattern means that every genus must have a diversity of descendants, and if there seems to be any sort of anagenesis then that shows that evolution had direction. This view is certainly mistaken, but Wells seems to use it primarily as a rhetorical device to spark incredulity in the reader, and it might be all-too-easy for those unfamiliar with evolution to be taken in. The truth of the matter is that we can create a lineage of representative types showing the transition of horses from Eohippus to Equus to the exclusion of other genera, but such is a narrow view. This sort of representation, which persisted much longer than it should have in general or popular accounts, has done much to confuse the issue, even though the very people who have put forth the “simplified” model have recognized there was a greater diversity. It seems to be something of a fight between showing evolution as we know it to be and between trying to convince the reader that evolution has occurred, usually showing a phylogeny that is close to that of O.C. Marsh.

OC marsh Phylogeny
O.C. Marsh’s concept of “The Geneology of the Horse,” a decidedly straight-line progression. From Marsh, O.C. 1879. “Polydactyly Horses, Recent and Extinct.”

The bait-and-switch tactic of Wells in his book, as we have seen, is not very straightforward or even conclusive, but young earth creationists (YEC’s) tackle the problem in a different way, attributing the existence of horses to a definite intelligent agent: God. While generally silent about horses in their popular tracts The Lie and Refuting Evolution, the #1 creationist group in the United States (for the moment, anyway, as creationist ministries seem to have a bang-and-bust cycle) Answers in Genesis has a few articles on the subject available on their website. In an 1999 article, Jonathan Sarfati (now with Creation Ministries International,due to a schism within AiG) wrote “The non-evolution of the horse: Special creation or evolved rock badger?” in which he pontificates on why there are so many fossil horses with extra toes, low-crowned teeth, and of smaller stature;

An important part of the biblical creation model is that different kinds of creatures were created with lots of genetic information. Natural selection can sort out this pre-existing genetic information, by eliminating creatures not suited to a particular environment. Thus many different varieties can be produced in different environments. Note that this sorting process involves a loss of information, so is irrelevant to particles-to-people evolution, which requires non-intelligent processes to add new information.

Also, much of this (created) genetic information may have been latent (hidden, i.e. the features coded for are not expressed in the offspring) in the original created kinds. They also had other controlling or regulatory genes that switch other genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ That is, they control whether or not the information in a gene will be decoded, so the trait will be expressed in the creature. This would enable very rapid and ‘jumpy’ changes, which are still changes involving already created information, not generation of new information.

Applying these principles to the horse, the genetic information coding for extra toes is present, but is switched off in most modern horses. Sometimes a horse is born today where the genes are switched on, and certainly many fossil horses also had the genes switched on. This would explain why there are no transitional forms showing gradually smaller toe size. [emphasis mine]

As can be easily seen, Sarfati attempts to escape into the realm of genetics, throwing around lots of scientific-sounding arguments in a feeble attempt to dazzle readers. One of the central philosophical doctrines of modern creationists is the necessity of the Fall (or the entrance of death and disease into the world as a result of Adam & Eve’s sin in Eden), and much of what creation ministries write circles around the degeneration or “devolution” of all life since the eviction from Eden. This is not the entire story, however, as the Noachian Deluge is of nearly equal importance, all animals alive today being (in the YEC view) descendants of survivors of the great flood. In order to make the vast diversity of fossil horse species consonant with such views, Sarfati even has to invoke a kind of punctuated equilibria (although I’m sure he’d never admit it), three-toed horses evolving at an exceptional rate within the last few thousand years, only to instantaneously go extinct. Sarfati could have said that horses like Pliohippus were alive before the Flood (their fossils being explained by the catastrophe), and while still horribly wrong it would at least make a little more sense. Sarfati decides to stick with saltational changes in horses in a post-flood world, however, pointing to the products of artificial selection in horses (especially in terms of size) as if they had occurred on their own in nature.

As is often the case with creationists, Sarfati’s thesis seems based on what was cutting-edge science during the end of the 19th century, and there is nary a mention of newer research by scientists like Bruce MacFadden (or even many of the paleontologists who worked on horses during the mid-20th century like Stirton and Matthew). Indeed, it seems as if he merely picked up some other creationist tracts, dumped them into a blender with some snippets from a basic genetics book, mixed it up, and wrote down whatever came out of the amalgamated bits and pieces. Sarfati must be given some credit in putting forth an idea as to the origins of the vast diversity of fossil horses (see the illustration at the beginning of this appendix); most other creationists have been content to signal the “death knell” of horse evolution and merely state it as an abandoned hypothesis that evolutionary scientists no longer want to discuss. In the book The Amazing Story of Creation From Science and the Bible, YEC-fave Duane Gish writes;

Even evolutionists acknowledge, however, that we cannot find transitional forms between these various kinds of horses. There are no fossil horses with part-browsing, part-grazing teeth. We cannot find fossils of a horse with three-and-a-half toes or two-and-a-half toes. The fossils show no progressive increase in size. In fact, some “later” horses were smaller than “earlier” horses. The number of ribs did not progressively increase. The number of ribs in fossil horses go up and down. Just as there are different kinds of primates today – lemurs, monkeys, apes, and humans – so there were different kinds of horses in the past, with no evidence that one kind of horse evolved from another kind of horse. Just as dinosaurs and many other kinds of creatures have died out since creation, so, also, many different kinds of horses died out. Evolutionists still search, and will continue to do so, without success, for the transitional forms which much exist, if evolution is true.

What is truly odd about Gish’s statement is that he expects modern scientists to believe in an orthogenic progression (similar to the rhetorical attempts of Wells, as mentioned above), anything that runs counter to that decimating Gish’s straw man. Just like Wells, he also attempts to spark some amount of incredulity in the reader, suggesting that toes disappear piecemeal, bone by bone, rather than overall reductions and changes that have left vestiges in Equus today. Gish’s comment about teeth is also strange, as if he expected horses to think “Hmmm, I want to be a grazer, not a browser; better start changing my teeth!” It is the changes in ecology in which a population exists in and the branching out into new niches that puts pressure on existing characters to shape the organisms, and there is no cosmic force that decides that in 10 million years time the teeth of the animal should look a certain way and push it towards that goal. In fact, Gish’s creationist views are far closer to the straw man that he mocks than the scientific truth of the matter, but it seems that such a philosophical relationship is often lost on YEC’s.

Even stranger and false than Gish & Sarfati’s works, however, is Lawrence Richards’ It Couldn’t Just Happen. Rather than suggesting that scientists are merely misguided or that they have abandoned horses as an example of evolution, Richards attributes to them some amount of dishonesty (or at least fanciful thinking);

But why did evolutionists ever think fossils from different parts of the world should be linked together in the first place? Part of the reason is that they were tricked by their own theory. The Theory of Evolution said that modern animals should develop from similar but different animals of the past. It said that hooves should be an adaptation and have developed from several toes to one. Size would help a horse survive by enabling it to run faster, so animals should gradually become larger. Simply put, evolutionists fit the fossil bones of different animals into a series and said they were horses, because the bones fit their Theory of Evolution!

It’s almost as if you were outside one day and found a tennis ball, a soccer ball, and a basketball in a weedy field. You noticed that each ball is hollow, and each has an increasingly thicker skin. You’re really excited, and figure that each evolved from some common ancestor! Then you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how that could possibly have happened. You invent story after story to explain that evolution, and even though the evidence is against each suggestion you make, many people believe you. They don’t seem to realize that finding the balls lined up in a particular order doesn’t prove descent at all.

If you’re spending all your time stealing equipment from PE class and trying to tell people that basketballs evolved from a tennis ball, I’d say you’ve got some rather important mental health problems. That aside, Richards’ example is yet another poor YEC analogy (I swear, half of creationist literature is bad analogy) that intimates that scientists are deluded fools that have essentially created a hypothesis and constructed a lineage to prove the ideas they already possessed. As can be seen from my earlier essay, that is most certainly not the case, and Richards’ passage is at best grossly misinformed and at worst malicious.

To be entirely honest, I was rather surprised by the overall paucity of creationist literature as pertaining to horse evolution. Given it’s prominence in textbooks and museums (and even though many books and institutions still present such evolution incorrectly) I would have expected at least a semi-rigorous creationist explanation for horses, but they seem content to merely criticize the work of Marsh and Huxley, praising Richard Owen for not associating the European Hyrcaotherium with living horses. Even in the one book (Icons of Evolution) that specifically targets horse evolution, the phylogeny is only a set up in order to allow Wells to attack Darwin and Dawkins, hinting that orthogenesis should still be considered as being a good hypothesis for evolution. If such attempts are the best that creationists can muster, I really must wonder how they have gained so much influence with such weak arguments. My question is a rhetorical one, being that pre-existing religious leanings often dictating what will be swallowed and what will be spat out when it comes to science, but perhaps the influence of creationist talking heads like Wells and Gish show just how intellectually lazy Americans have become, citizens being willing to agree with anything that won’t upset anyone during Sunday dinner after church.

As mentioned here and in my previous work, however, museums and those who write books (be they popular or for students) mentioning horse evolution are far from blameless. The “branching bush” of horse evolution is often ignored so that a general type of anagenesis from one type to another can be put forward, and this sort of technique does not serve anyone well. It will only cause confusion if presented alone, and over and over again it is apparent that evolutionary images are far more powerful than the text of any given book. While those who wish to bring about scientific understanding to the public should not let up in terms of accuracy within their writings, we must be mindful of what images we use to illustrate evolution, an inaccurate image being able to haunt educators for far longer than an obscure reference in a book. Often unintentionally, writers of popular science books and museum curators/designers have created “monstrous memes” that reproduce at an astonishing rate, persisting long after their original source material is forgotten, and if we are to be successful in getting the public to understand science, we must supplant and replace the illustrative errors of those who have come before.

Icon of Delusion: Jonathan Wells

31 08 2007

If ever there were an unsavory, real-life creationist character that should be cryptically referred to as “You Know Who” as in the Harry Potter series, it would have to be Jonathan Wells. While I have not actually tested this as yet, the very mention of his name seems to make my blood pressure rise, and perhaps his goal is to be so annoying and deceitful that evolutionary scientists all die of stress-induced heart attacks because they can not even stand the mention of his name. If this is indeed the plan, then Wells has certainly taken another step towards its fruition. On the dubiously titled “Evolution News & Views” blog run by the Disco. Institute, Wells has issued a rather hateful screed about the terms “Darwinist” and “Darwinian.”

Starting out with a rather hateful attack on the quality of The Seattle Weekly, stating that “as [a source] of news [it’s] probably about as reliable as Minju Choson, the official organ of the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea. But homeless people make good use of [it],” Wells quotes a recent article in the paper in which Eugenie Scott of the NCSE as saying “a real follower of modern science would never call himself a ‘Darwinist’,” because “evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts.” This is rather strange, especially the quotation marks that Wells decided to “helpfully” insert as they do not appear in the original article. The original sentence reads as follows;

Scott isn’t buying it, not least because she says evolutionary biology has advanced way beyond Darwin’s 19th-century tracts, so that a real follower of modern science would never call himself a “Darwinist.”

Sounds more like the reporter, Nina Shapiro, tried to condense Scott’s argument down into a shorter sentence and was not quoting Scott directly, so once again Wells has shown us that he is either being deceitful or ignorant of how to properly use the copy-paste function on a computer. Still, he uses his doctored quote as a set-up to try and muddy the waters with cherrypicked examples from historical science, and Wells misses the entire point of the now outdated term “Darwinist.” Wells writes;

The reason that “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” – even “Darwinist” – are used by modern evolutionary biologists is that they are more precise than “evolution” and “evolutionist.” The latter have many meanings, most of them uncontroversial. For example, “evolution” can refer simply to change over time, something no sane person would deny. Or it can refer to minor changes within existing species, which breeders have known about for centuries.

Actually, the reason why “Darwinist” was the most popular term in years past is because Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection (and later sexual selection) proved to be the correct one. Prior to Darwin and even during his time “transmutation” of species was a hot topic, and there were various schools of thought as to how creatures evolved. Thus a more exact term for the school of evolutionary thought Darwin founded, “Darwinism,” was necessary to distinguish it from the competing hypotheses of Lamarck, Agassiz, the thoughts put forth in the popular book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers, and the later criticisms of Darwin put forth by the likes of St. George Mivart. In fact, especially in America, evolution by natural selection was not immediately and fully embraced, the famed scientist Louis Agassiz being a critical of Darwin so vociferous that even Wells would have been likely to get his admiration. Even the noted paleontologist E.D. Cope ascribed to Neo-Lamarckian ideas of evolution, a evolutionary framework that has been long known to be insufficient.

But if Darwin was right, why would Eugenie Scott say his “tracts are outdated”? Well, Darwin was right in terms of his big ideas of natural & sexual selection (as well as many other points), but he did get some things wrong. Heredity was vastly unknown during his time, and even Darwin threw in a pinch of Lamarckism into his writings. In the 2nd edition of The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote the following in the preface;

I may take this opportunity of remarking that my critics frequently assume that I attribute all changes of corporeal structure and mental power exclusively to the natural selection of such variations as are often called spontaneous; whereas, even in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ I distinctly stated that great weight must be attributed to the inherited effects of use and disuse, with respect both to the body and mind. I also attributed some amount of modification to the direct and prolonged action of changed conditions of life. Some allowance, too, must be made for occasional reversions of structure; nor must we forget what I have called “correlated” growth, meaning, thereby, that various parts of the organization are in some unknown manner so connected, that when one part varies, so do others; and if variations in the one are accumulated by selection, other parts will be modified. Again, it has been said by several critics, that when I found that many details of structure in man could not be explained through natural selection, I invented sexual selection; I gave, however, a tolerably clear sketch of this principle in the first edition of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and I there stated that it was applicable to man.

And so I still cringe when I heard scientists refer to themselves as “Darwinists” (or even worse, “orthodox Darwinists,” as I once heard Ken Miller opine). The term is no longer necessary or even accurate because in scientific understanding Darwin’s big ideas won the day ages ago while some of his subjects he did not fully understand have become better known, the science we now have being based on Darwin but not adhering only to the thoughts within his published works. If we’re going to start tagging schools of thoughts with names, we could very well have “Gouldists,” “Dawkinsists,” “Simpsonists,” “Mayrists,” “Morganists,” “Copeists,” “Agassizists,” etc. etc. etc. The distinction that the term “Darwinist” used to have is now largely lost because of our greater understanding, time proving Darwin to be the victor in the battle that took place in evolutionary through between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but I know of no scientists who holds On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection who holds the great work to be a holy book that may not be added to or contradicted in any fashion whatsoever. Just like paleontology requires a historical understanding and a long-view of the subject at hand, so does the topic of the evolution of how we think about biological evolution.

After some more jabs at Scott and confusion of the origins of the words he’s talking about, Wells concludes;

So rather than learn Scott’s word games, biology students should begin by learning to distinguish “evolution” from “Darwinism” and “evolutionist” from “Darwinist.” Or “Darwinian” – it’s one and the same.

I assume that he’s not suggesting that school boards should hire Neo-Lamarckian staff to “Teach the Controversy!” about evolution. I think a biology class would largely benefit from understanding the historical aspect of the evolution idea, starting with the Ionians like Thales and Anaximander and working through Darwin and the Modern Synthesis to today. That way it can be clearly seen that there indeed was a time when evolution did not necessarily mean “natural selection, common descent, etc.” in the minds of some notable scientists, and how eventually their ideas (often influenced by their adherence to religious doctrine) came crumbling down. “Teach the Controversy!” seems like it could have just as well been the battle cry of Louis Agassiz or St. George Mivart as that of current ID thinkers, but apparently they cannot be bothered to go back and try and uncover the history of the evolution idea.

To put it concisely, Darwin was a highly intelligent man who uncovered the beginnings of one of nature’s greatest mysteries, but we would be fools to think that he was somehow all-knowing or that no data would later be found that would clarify or possibly refute his ideas. Nearly 150 years after On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection was published, however, natural selection working on variations in organisms is still a major mechanism of evolution, exemplified by Stephen J. Gould in his coral-branch analogy in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Can we expect any scientist never to make a mistake or never have their ideas overturned? For every important idea that has been put forth by great minds, how many ideas ended up being stillborn or eventually refuted? Are we to remember scientists for their failures only, disregarding their successes? To do so would mark us imbeciles, and we would pay a heavy price for judging those who strove to bring enlightenment to the work by sharing their ideas. Darwin was one of those great minds, and even though “the long argument” will likely continue, I see no reason why we should exhume the corpses of long-dead competing hypotheses of evolution when Charles so eloquently put laid to rest.

If this comes out on my birthday I’m going to be pissed…

22 08 2007

Why does Ben Stein have to go ahead and ruin the month in which I was born? According to a link supplied by PZ, the deadpan actor is going to release a film called “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” about how us crazy “Neo-Darwinists” are trying to take over the hearts and minds of America’s youth through the public education system. (Also, the conservative screed Indoctrinate U is also meant to premiere this September) This propaganda piece documentary looks like it wants to be the answer to Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos, although it appears that Stein’s venture is better financed. Still, having a look around the site already points to the overall lack of research and downright stupidity employed by our “hero” Stein in trying to scare conservatives into believing him. From the site’s blog;

Freedom of inquiry is basic to human advancement. There would be no modern medicine, no antibiotics, no brain surgery, no Internet, no air conditioning, no modern travel, no highways, no knowledge of the human body without freedom of inquiry.

This includes the ability to inquire whether a higher power, a being greater than man, is involved with how the universe operates. This has always been basic to science. ALWAYS.

Some of the greatest scientists of all time, including Galileo, Newton, Einstein, operated under the hypothesis that their work was to understand the principles and phenomena as designed by a creator.

Operating under that hypothesis, they discovered the most important laws of motion, gravity, thermodynamics, relativity, and even economics.

Now, I am sorry to say, freedom of inquiry in science is being suppressed.

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. Do you realize that some of the leading lights of “anti-intelligent design” would not allow a scientist who merely believed in the possibility of an intelligent designer/creator to work for him… EVEN IF HE NEVER MENTIONED the possibility of intelligent design in the universe?EVEN FOR HIS VERY THOUGHTS… HE WOULD BE BANNED.

In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

The first thing that Stein does, in classic neo-con fashion, is equate science with technology. The only things vaguely biological mentioned are antibiotics and human anatomy, but these are directly tied to medicine and not understanding how humans (or other organisms) work in any other sense. This is one of the most difficult battlegrounds in any debate about science/religion/politics, as many see natural science as ultimately pointless. “Why do I need to know what sort of animal Pakicetus was when technology supplies me with MTV and plenty of porn via the internet?” This “What, me worry?” sort of mindset can be traced all the way back to the first Christians, who felt it was essentially pointless to study nature (or even medicine) because Jesus’ return was imminent. “Why learn about botany when the world will be destroyed and created anew next week?” Sooner or later people got the idea that such a way of thinking was impoverished and worthless and started to investigate the natural world, although new discoveries were often met with opposition from those who attempted to uphold the religious orthodoxy of the time (certain areas of science, like medicine, becoming acceptable as they could be brought into the ideological fold of helping others in Christianity).

Stein then goes on to play the name game; everyone will recognize the names Newton, Galileo, and Einstein, but how many people actually know anything about them? Stein is merely trading in on their recognition and seems to know little else about these men of science other than that they had some sort of idea about a creator god. If Stein had done his homework he would have found that Newton and Einstein did not hold concepts of a Judeo-Christian God that exactly fits the Old Testament bully so loved by modern evangelicals (Einstein over and over again professing his belief in “Spinoza’s God”, or the nature of the universe as God). The inclusion of Galileo was curious as well, especially given what the Church of Galileo’s time perpetrated upon the man and the overall resistance to his ideas. If we’re going to include Christian scientists, why not go ahead and add a young Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, William Buckland, Gideon Mantell, or any number of other 19th century scientists involved with paleontology, geology, and evolution that showed the world was not created in the way the creation mythologies of the Bible state? Stein also seems to be ignorant of the many attempts through the early to mid-1900’s to reconcile science and evolution after the Modern Synthesis was formed, so why not mention some of the Christian and Jewish leaders from the first part of the last century who had no problem with evolution? I guess they’re on the naughty list.

Stein then moves on to an attempt to spread paranoia, picking up where Jonathan Wells left off in the latter part of Icons of Evolution. Evolutionary science (or at least evolutionary scientists) are said to be cultish, rabid bigots, stopping at nothing to stomp out any mention of a Christian god. They may as well burst into flames at the mention of the name “Jehovah.” No evidence is given for this assertion (I guess I’ll just have to watch the movie), but Stein goes back to trading in on the names of intellects far greater than his own by suggesting that such men would have been figuratively “burned at the stake” by modern academia. I guess it doesn’t matter to Stein that how religious a person may be is more a product of how they’re brought up rather in “Darwinist indoctrination” in public schools. Stein also doesn’t provide any reason why we should take creationists and ID advocates seriously, either; they’ve come up with absolutely no actual research to prove their point, despite continuous calls to do so (I guess Behe and his buddies would rather just keep pumping out the popular books). Why should we allow intelligent design into science class when it simply is not science?

Anyway, the film looks like it’s going to be absolutely horrible, and judging from the fact that Stein can’t even be bothered to open up a history book I’m sure the film is going to be a propaganda piece that will appeal primarily to those who already tend to agree anyhow.

Update: Mike P, in the Pharyngula comment, has provided us with the Press Release for this atrocious bit of drek.

Update the 2nd: The DI has now weighed in (how could I ever have guessed that they were involved?), and the film is set to come out on Darwin’s birthday, February 12th. I can’t imagine it getting a wide release, but I have to wonder if the production company is going to go around wooing churches as other companies did for The Passion of the Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia, and other films. Still, the movie will probably be greeted with cheers by those already convinced and be thoroughly trashed by those who can already smell that it’s rotten inside and out.

Homo sapiens: The Evolution of What We Think About Who We Are

11 08 2007

[Note: I definitely didn’t expect the welcome reception this post has received from so many notable bloggers! Thank you all for your support and compliments. I took a few snapshots and have uploaded them, although I admit they are not of the best quality. I will come up with some better versions of these images when I have more time this week.]

From the Wellcome Images Collection

How many ribs do humans have? Despite it being a fairly straightforward answer, you may get different replies depending on who you ask. Few people will know the exact number (12 pairs), but a surprisingly large amount of people might tell you that while women have a full set, men come up one short. Basic anatomy proves this to be wrong, but then again most people have not studied basic anatomy, so where would such an idea come from?

20: And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

21: And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

22: And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

23: And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

– Genesis 2:20-23

It almost sounds like a Neo-Lamarckian belief; that because God took a rib from Adam (whether it was just one or one pair, the book does not say) to make Eve in the second Genesis creation story, all men should inherit the trait of missing one rib. In fact, it is possible (even likely) that the “rib” taken from Adam was not one of the bones in his chest at all, but rather a mythical baculum (or “penis bone“), which is present in most mammals but missing in man and a few others. Despite the Bible being opaque on the topic of general anatomy, however, the belief that the number of ribs in men and women are different is widespread and I am often met with astonished faces when I tell people who accept the idea that there is no difference between the sexes in that respect at all. Outside of a widespread unfamiliarity with basic human anatomy, the belief shows us something else; that just as Homo sapiens has evolved, so too have our ideas about ourselves, and vestiges of past beliefs still remain in the skeletal structure of our understanding.

From William Cheselden’s The Anatomy of Bones. This image also graces the cover of my copy of William Paley’s Natural Theology.

Although the Genesis account of the creation of man is probably the most familiar, it is far from being original. The concepts found in the first chapters of the book of Genesis correlate surprisingly closely to earlier beliefs of the Chaldeans and Babylonians, from the differing orders of the two creation accounts to the dispersal at the Towel of Babel. Seeing that the myths from which the Genesis account derive no longer exist in their original form, however, we will start our intellectual foray with the set of beliefs that rails against science even to this day; that humans were specially created by God less than 10,000 years ago, from little more than some dirt and a rib. As alluded to before, the accounts of the creation of humans contradict each other and cannot be reconciled (as many apologists attempt to do) by saying that the account given in Genesis 1 is merely an overview or outline, with Genesis 2 filled in the details.

If we look at Genesis 1, God creates plant life (before the “lights in the firmament”), then life in the water and the air, then all the “beasts” and “creeping things” (of which there are many more than the beasts), and then both sexes of Homo sapiens simultaneously;

27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

The God of Genesis 2 does things a little differently (perhaps even taking a more pragmatic approach). We are told that because there was “no man to till the ground,” there was no point in creating plants on earth before people. Thus God watered the entire face of the earth and then created man, “planting” the man in Eden. It might be impious to think this way, but whenever I read that verse (Genesis 2:8) I can’t help but imagine a gigantic hand picking up Adam by the scruff of his neck and literally placing him back down in the Garden. Imagery aside, God then populates the Garden with plant life (which in Genesis 1 was long established on earth before Adam came to be), and then decides that it isn’t good to have Adam wandering around Eden by himself. We are told that God then created all the “beasts of the field” and “fowl of the air” and had Adam name them (but neglected to form a proper system of taxonomy or systematics), but no “help mate” was to be found. Then comes to famous rib-story (see above), things finally being set right in Eden, at least until that whole forbidden-fruit business. Despite the strange inconsistencies, in both accounts humans are the crowning achievements of the Creation, told to “subdue” the planet and to reproduce in order to fill it. This idea of trampling nature beneath our heel has resonated with people for thousands of years, although theology has twisted various aspects of Genesis this way and that to suit certain needs.

Indeed, while Adam and Eve were supposed to be the ancestors of all humanity, some groups of people were left out of the picture. Just like certain lower classes of people in other cultures were said to be formed from the “dirt of the body” particular gods, denoting their inferior existence, people with darker skin were deemed to be bearing the “Mark of Cain” or to be “Sons of Ham,” in either case slavery being justified for the sins of the proginator of that line. Thankfully this view has now largely been abandoned, although vestiges of such superstitions remain today (and equality wasn’t even given to these people until the middle of the last century in the United States). Racism and the Biblical justifications for it is another complex issue however, and it is only mentioned here to elucidate the point that even in theology, the origins of man have not always been used for good or just ends.

The first section of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

While basic researches into ancient Egypt and other cultures began to show that the chronology determined by Lightfoot, Ussher, and others was far too short to be accurate, our place as a special creation didn’t start to be truly challenged until the remains of ancient peoples unlike ourselves began to be discovered. Fossils found by many cultures had long been thought to be evidence of gods, titans, giants, dragons, and monsters (see Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters), but these remains seemed to be more curiosities or holy relics than the remains of people more ancient than anyone then conceived of. Andrew D. White tells us in his masterwork A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom;

In France, the learned Benedictine, Calmet, in his great works on the Bible, accepted [“the doctrine that fossils are the remains of animals drowned at the Flood”] as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, believing the mastodon’s bones exhibited by Mazurier to be those of King Teutobocus, and holding holding them valuable testimony to the existence of the giants mentioned in Scripture and of early inhabitants of the earth overwhelmed by the Flood.

Even in the 1854 edition of Gideon Mantell’s Medals of Creation, fossil remains of humans are not mentioned because they seemed to be conspicuously lacking. In the “Retrospect” of the book Mantell writes;

But of MAN and his works not a vestige appears throughout the vast periods embraced in this review. Yet were any of the existing islands or continents to be engulphed in the depths of the ocean, and loaded with marine detritus, and in future ages be elevated above the waters, covered with consolidated mud and sand, how different would be the characters of those strata from any which have preceded them! Their most striking features would be the remains of Man, and the production of human art – the domes of his temples, the columns of his palaces, the arches of his stupendous bridges of iron and stone, the ruins of his towns and cities, and the durable remains of his earthly tenement imbedded in the rocks and strata – these would be the “Medals of Creation” of the Human Epoch, and transmit to the remotest periods of time a faithful record of the present condition of the surface of the earth, and of its inhabitants.

This doesn’t mean that the remains of humans were not thought to be found, however. In an earlier chapter on reptiles (being that amphibians were included within the reptiles in Mantell’s work), the author writes;

A celebrated fossil of this class is the gigantic Salamander (Cryptobranchus), three feet in length found at Ceuingen, which a German physician of some note (Scheuchzer) supposed to be a fossil man!

Scheuchzer’s tricky salamander, from the 2nd volume of Mantell’s Medals of Creation.

The view of fossils began to change, however, as creatures were found that could not simply be considered giants, gods, or heroes. A.D. White quotes Dr. Anton Westermeyer’s The Old Testament vindicated from Modern Infidel Objections as follows;

“By the fructifying brooding of the Divine Spirit on the waters of the deep, creative forces began to stir; the devils who inhabited the primeval darkness and considered it their own abode saw that they were to be driven from their possessions, or at least that their place of habitation was to be contracted, and they therefore tried to frustrate God’s plan of creation and exert all that remained to them of might and power to hinder or at least, to mar the new creation.” So came into being “the horrible and destructive monsters, these caricatures and distortions of creation,” of which we have fossil remains. Dr. Westermeyer goes on to insist that “whole generations called into existence by God succumbed to the corruption of the devil, and for that reason had to be destroyed”; and that “in the work of the six days of God caused the devil to feel his power in all earnest, and made Satan’s enterprise appear miserable and vain.”

Indeed, although the first known remains of Megalosaurus were confused to be the enormous testicles of an “Antediluvian Giant,” the rest of the skeletal remains found by Dr. Buckland (and those of Iguanodon found by Mantell) showed that these animals could not be considered to be characters introduced to us in the Biblical narrative of creation or history. While evolution or “transmutation” of species was not yet ready to make its full appearance on the scientific stage, some did recognize the fossils as representing animals long gone, and the concept of extinction that Cuvier did so much to establish became essential to scientific thought and was a great victory over the religious dogma that God would not create a “kind” of animals and then let them be destroyed. This does not mean that other explanations of these remains were not legion, however.

Despite his contributions to marine biology, Philip Henry Gosse published one of the most infamous attempts to reconcile the geologic column with a historically-accurate Genesis account in his 1857 book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. Taking the reader on a painfully protracted tour of creation, the author introduces us to Adam, the prose suggesting that Gosse has persuaded Adam to sit down for a full anatomical evaluation. After detailing certain aspects of Adam’s anatomy (including the ever-problematic navel), Gosse tells us that every bit of Adam’s anatomy tells of a full human life, from gestation to birth to growth, but this is merely a set-up. Gosse writes;

How is it possible to avoid this conclusion? Has not the physiologist irrefragable grounds for it, founded on universal experience? Has not observation abundantly shown, that, wherever the bones, flesh, blood, teeth, nails, hair of man exist, the aggregate body has passed through stages exactly correspondant to those alluded to above, and has originated in the uterus of a mother, it foetal life being, so to speak, a budding out of hers? Has the combined experience of mankind ever seen a solitary exception to this law? How, then, can we refuse the concession that, in the individual before us, in whom we find all the phenomena that we are accustomed to associate with adult Man, repeated in the most exact verisimilitude, without a single flaw-how, I say, can we hesitate to assert that such was his origin to?

And yet, in order to assert it, we must be prepared to adopt the old Pagan doctrine of the eternity of matter; ex nihilo nihil fit. But those with whom I argue are precluded from this, by my first Postulate.

Gosse’s first Postulate being;

If any geologist take the position of the necessary eternity of matter, dispensing with a Creator, on the old ground, ex nihilo nihil fit, – I do not argue with him. I assume that at some period or other in past eternity there existed nothing but the Eternal God, and that He called the universe into being out of nothing.

All such considerations from Gosse, Mantell, and others seem to ignore that remains like, yet unlike, humans were already being discovered during the 19th century. While the most noted discovery of Neanderthals occurred 151 years ago this past week, fossils of hominids we now call Neanderthals were found in 1829 and 1848, A.D. White mentioning unspecified “human remains” being found “as early as 1835 at Cannstadt near Stuttgart” as well. Still, the remains of Neanderthals and stone tools seemed to be too close to Homo sapiens to dissuade advocates of special creation that man had evolved, although scientists were able to confirm that the origins of mankind were probably far older than anyone had previously thought.

The publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection made evolution a scientifically credible and defensible idea, however, and while he generally avoided the evolution of humans in this work (it being more important to convince readers that evolution has in fact occurred rather than offending religious sensibilities of the time head-on), he later addressed the issue directly in The Descent of Man. Darwin writes in the Summary;

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

A Mandrill as it appears in the 2nd edition of Darwin’s The Descent of Man.

Darwin wasn’t the first to consider that men today had changed from earlier forms, although Darwin was much closer to the truth than other intellectual peers. The Ionic philosopher Anaximander proposed an idea that later would come back, in new form, as the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. In his valuable book From the Greeks to Darwin, Henry Fairfield Osborn presents Anaximander’s thesis thusly;

He conceived of the earth as first existing in a fluid state. From its gradual drying up all living creatures were produced, beginning with men. These aquatic men first appeared in the form of fishes in the water, and they emerged from this element only after they had progressed so far as to be able to further develop and sustain themselves upon land. This is rather analogous development from a simpler to a more advanced structure by a change of organs, yet a germ of the Evolution idea is found here.

We find that Anaximander advanced some reasons for this view. He pointed to a man’s long helplessness after birth as one of the proofs that he cannot be in his original condition. His hypothetical ancestors of man were supposed to be first encased in horny capsules, floating and feeding in water; as soon as these ‘fish-men’ were in a condition to emerge, they came on land, the capsule burst, and they took their human form.

After evolution became established in both terms of fact and theory, the great fossil collectors of the late 19th and early 20th century began to come up with hypotheses as to from whence came Homo sapiens. In his Neo-Lamarckian 1896 treatise, Edward Drinker Cope proposed the following hypothesis;

The relation of this fact [“the high percentage of quadritubercular superior molars in the Malays, Polynesians, and Melanesians”] to phylogeny is to confirm Haeckel’s hypothesis of the lemurine ancestry of man. I have advanced the hypothesis that the Anthropomorpha (which include man and the anthropoid apes) have been derived directly from the lemurs, without passing through the monkeys proper. This close association of man with the apes, is based on various considerations.

Cope goes on to list some of the differences, focusing primarily on limbs and teeth, before coming to this passage;

Professor Virchow in a late address has thrown down the gage to the evolutionary anthropologists by asserting that “scientific anthropology begins with living races,” adding “that the first step in the construction of the doctrine of transformism will be the explanation of the way the human races have been formed,” etc. But the only way of solving the latter problem will be by the discovery of the ancestral races, which are extinct. The ad captandum remarks of the learned professor as to deriving an Aryan from a Negro, etc. remind one of the criticisms directed at the doctrine of evolution when it was first presented to the public, as to a horse never producing a cow, etc. It is well known to Professor Virchow that human races present greater or less approximations to the simian type in various respects… Professor Virchow states that the Neanderthal man is a diseased subject, but the disease has evidently not destroyed his race characters; and in his address he ignores the important and well-authenticated discovery of the man and woman of Spy. These observations are reinforced by recent discovery of a similar man by DuBois at Trinil in the island of Java [“Java Man,” otherwise known as Pithecanthropus erectus].

Progress 2
The second part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Cope goes on to describe the fossils, noting that the remains DuBois had found do not seem to be of a Neanderthal, and Neanderthals are sufficiently far from humans that Cope finds the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis somewhat objectionable, the more defining characteristics of Neanderthals being found nowhere in the aboriginal peoples then known. Nowhere does Cope suggest an anagenic relationship of Neanderthals or “Java Man” as a direct ancestor, although their utility in showing evolution has occurred is invaluable. Still, the fossil remains of hominids (and in turn, their ancestors) were certainly wanting during Cope’s time, but in the first half of the 20th century some scientists became to come across some bonanzas in Africa. Raymond Dart was one of the most noted scientists to study the great fossil-bearing caves from Taung, Sterkfontein, and Makapansgat in South Africa. In the fantastic book The Hunters of the Hunted?, C.K. Brain shares with us this passage of Dart’s from his early discoveries in the caves;

The fossil animals slain by the man-apes at Makapansgat were so big that in 1925 I was misled into believing that only human beings of advanced intelligence could have been responsible for such manlike hunting work as the bones revealed… These Makapansgat protomen, like Nimrod long after them, were might hunters.

They were also callous and brutal. The most shocking specimen was the fractured lower jaw of a 12-year-old son of a manlike ape. The lad had been killed by a violent blow delivered with calculated accuracy on the point of the chin, either by a smashing fist or a club. The bludgeon blow was so vicious that it had shattered the jaw on both sides of the face and knocked out all the front teeth. That dramatic specimen impelled me in 1948 and the seven years following to study further their murderous and cannibalistic way of life.

As Brain then notes, such was the murderous Australopithecus of R. A. Dart; brutal savages and cannibals, making their tools and weapons out of the bones and horns of the animals that they managed to kill. Examinations of the cave after Dart, however revealed something incredibly different from the terrifying reign of the “protomen.” Humans were, in fact, prey for a long time, many remains attributed to cannibalism instead being signs that the caves once belonged to fearsome predators. One of the most famous evidences is part of a skull with two puncture holes, nearly exactly matching the canine teeth of a leopard. Indeed, the real story seems to be a struggle for existence among the hominids found in these areas, not being very advanced in hunting at all. Nonetheless, they eventually overtook the predators (when they weren’t stealing from their kills), and came to reside in the caves themselves. Such revelations, however, would have to wait until the 2nd half of the 20th century, and there were plenty more ideas about human origins prior to Brain’s 1981 book.

Despite the progress of science there have always been “fringe” hypotheses about humans and their place in the universe, and perhaps nothing fueled crackpot claims so much as the popularity of UFOs and the possible existence of aliens on Mars during the first half of the 20th century. Humans became the products of alien engineering projects, bizarre sexual encounters between aliens and early hominids, or even aliens themselves, having no remembrance of coming from a civilization on another planet. Racist hypotheses also abounded, and there were many odd amalgamations of cherry-picked scientific discoveries and superstition.

While some were content to conjure up ideas of aliens laying down with “Lucy”, scientists continued to attempt to determine not only from what ancestors man arose from, but where those ancestors may be. A.S. Romer, in the 1933 book Man and the Vertebrates Vol. I, supports H.F. Osborn’s view that man’s origins were likely to be found somewhere in Asia. Indeed, the famous 1923 expedition undertaken to the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia by Roy Chapman Andrews that yielded Protoceratops and so many dinosaur eggs was intended to be a search for the ancestors of humans. Romer writes;

The fossil of Tertiary tropical life is, however, still comparatively unknown. It is not only possible but extremely probable that the Asiatic hills will, upon further exploration, give us the certain knowledge we desire of the primate ancestors of man.

Despite the lack of early ancestors, however, there was enough scientific understanding for Romer to close out the 1st volume with the following words;

Man has gone far and, we trust, may go still farther along the lines of evolution. But in his every feature – brain, sense organs, limbs – he is a product of primitive evolutionary trends and owes, in his high estate, much to his arboreal ancestry, to features developed by his Tertiary forefathers for life in the trees.

Romer’s diagram of human evolution varies from that described by Cope earlier, however. While Cope saw humans evolving directly from lemur-like ancestors, Romer created a diagram of extant primates (lemurs, tarsiers, new world monkeys, old world monkeys, great apes, and man) connected by one line, each of the groups branching off from the main line leading to man and seemingly having no relation to each other. This is part of the classic model of anagenesis that seems to suggest non-stop progress to man, almost as if a vitalistic force was setting humans on a fast-track (although I am not suggesting Romer had this view or advocated it; it merely seems to be an underlying theme in such illustrations). As G.G Simpson noted in the 1950 popular work The Meaning of Evolution, however, contentious fossil remains so close to humans can easily stir up trouble;

Primate classification has been the diversion of so many students unfamiliar with the classification of other animals that it is, frankly, a mess. It involves matter of opinion on human origins and, humans being what they are, such opinions are endlessly varied and not always distinguished by competence or logic.

G.G. Simpson’s tree diagram of primate evolution, from the 3rd edition of The Meaning of Evolution.

Simpson’s diagram of primate evolution is a bit closer to truth than Romer’s from nearly 20 years earlier, as well. It more closely resembled the “branching bush” of evolution, groups linked by common ancestors with some lineages dying out and leaving no living descendants. Still, great apes are distinguished from “early man” and the genus Homo, and given that details are not given it can’t be ascertained whether Simpson held the view that all hominids discovered by that time were linked in a straight-line of evolution. Edwin H. Colbert (also of the American Museum of Natural History), put forth a similar view in his popular work Evolution of the Vertebrates, stating;

Even though human beings may not be descended from the australopithecines as we know them, it is very possible that man arose from australopithecine-like ancestors. The origin of the human stock probably occurred in late Tertiary times, for man is essentially a Pleistocene animal. Having become differentiated from his primate relatives, man evolved during the Pleistocene period along certain lines that made him what his is today. The evolutionary development of human beings was not of great magnitude within the course of Pleistocene history; rather it was a matter of the perfection of details that set man apart from all other primates, and from all other animals for that matter.

The hominid reconstructions as they appear in Colbert’s Evolution of the Vertebrates.

This isn’t an especially profound statement, more along the lines of “Man is different from other animals, thus different things must have happened to cause his ‘perfection,'” but it does point towards the “ladder” view of human evolution. What Colbert is essentially saying is during the latest parts of human evolution, there was a refinement of types rather than major evolutionary change, and while he doesn’t line up a point-by-point lineage some of the pictures accompanying his text do suggest a sort of anagenesis from Australopithecus to Pithecanthropus to Neanderthals to Homo sapiens. Chris Beard, in his indispensable book The Hunt For the Dawn Monkey, attributes this view of human evolutionary “progress” to Sir Wilfrid E. Le Gros Clark, quoting Clark’s work The Antecedents of Man as follows;

Among the Primates of today, the series tree shrew-lemur-tarsier-monkey-ape-man suggests progressive levels of organization in an actual evolutionary sequence. And that such a sequence did occur is demonstrated by the fossil series beginning with the early plesiadapids [so-called “archaic primates” from the Paleocene] and extending through the Palaeocene and Eocene prosimians, and through the cercopithecoid [Old World monkeys] and pongid [apes] Primates of the Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, to the hominids of the Pleistocene. Thus the foundations of evolutionary development which finally culminated in our own species, Homo sapiens, were laid when the first little tree shrew-like creatures advanced beyond the level of the lowly insectivores which lived during the Cretaceous period and embarked on an arboreal career without the restrictions and limitations imposed by… a terrestrial mode of life.

Skeleton of a Potto (a prosimian like a Loris) from the American Museum of Natural History

As Beard notes in his book, however, most of the hominid fossils then known were almost like bookends to a series, with the lemur-like ancestors (i.e. Notharctus from North America and Adapis from France) of later primates and the famous African and European hominids being the most well known. As countries became more open to science, however, more and more fossils came out of the ground, and Beard does note that while Africa may very well be the “cradle of humanity” in terms of hominids, if you really want to go back to the beginnings of prosimians Asia is the place to search. This somewhat vindicates those who thought that Asia would be the place to look for human ancestors, though not quite in the way they imagined. Even so, the ladder view seemed to be the favored one, at least for all fossil hominids younger than the Australopithecus. In his Vertebrate Paleontology (3rd Edition), A.S. Romer writes;

A word may be added here with regard to the nomeclature of human finds. We have freely used several generic terms for various early human finds. Such a usage implies that the forms differed widely from one another, had independent evolutionary histories, and did not interbreed – that the differences between them were not merely of species value but of such a magnitude as, for example, those between a cow and an antelope, a dog and a fox. This is absurd. Because they are so close to us, we tend to magnify differences. Actually, the differences between modern man and “Pithecanthropus” are, viewed impersonally, rather minor ones (particularly if we keep in mind the considerable variations found even today), and quite surely all types on the human line above the Australopithecus level pertain to our own genus Homo. Further, while communications between the various Old World area in which man was early present were obviously poor, and there presumably was little interbreeding and consequently (as today) a tendency for the differentiation of regional races, it seems fair to assume that throughout our long Pleistocene history, our human ancestors formed at all stages a single, if variable, group.

Despite this rather homogenous view of human evolution (the idea that Pithecanthropus falls within human variation being an idea that has reared its ugly head in modern creationism, as we’ll see later), Romer does make a distinction when it comes to Neanderthals. He writes;

A type of man definitely assignable to our own species, Homo sapiens, appeared in Europe well toward the end of the last glaciation, not more than 50,000 years or so ago. One would at first assume that he had arisen from his Neanderthal predecessor. But the contrasts are too great; there in (in Europe, at least) no evidence of transitional types; the appearance of modern man was, the evidence suggests, relatively sudden. There is every indication that the “modernized” invaders wiped out their predecessors (Tasmania is a modern parallel).

Progress 3
The third part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Thus, during the 1960’s the evolution of man was rather ladder-like as it approached culmination, with relatively little radiation of types. The links to Australopithecus and Homo neanderthalensis as understood then were both doubted, although it was certain that humans had gone through a similar stage in the evolutionary process from the apes. Indeed, the ladder-view seemed to use representative types to show the gradation of evolution than linking all known hominids into a straight line (at least this is the impression from the popular works cited). Still, visual representations of human ancestry seemed far-more powerful than the actual text of many of these books, which brings us to the (in)famous “March of Progress.” The artwork, appearing in the 1979 Time-Life book Early Man by F. Clark Howell, certainly became iconic, and I am lucky enough to have a copy of the “Young Readers Nature Library” version of the book from my childhood. The “march,” with all members standing upright, carries this caption, and proceeds as follows;

The stages in man’s development from an apelike ancestor to the modern human being are shown in drawings on this and the following three pages. Some of the stages have been drawn on the basis of very little evidence – a few teeth, a jaw or some leg bones. However, experts can often figure out a great deal about what a whole animal looked like from studying these few remains. In general, man’s ancestors have grown taller as they became more advanced. For purposes of comparison, this chart shows all of them standing although the ones on this page [Pliopithecus through Oreopithecus] actually walked on all fours.

PliopithecusProconsulDryopithecusOreopithecusRamapithecusAustralopithecus africanusAustralopithecus robustusAustralopithecus boiseiHomo habilisHomo erectus – Early Homo sapiens – Neanderthal Man – Cro-Magnon Man – Modern Man

Progress 4
The final part of the original “March of Progress” from F. Clark Howell’s Early Man

Skull of Proconsul from the American Museum of Natural History

The inclusion of “Early Homo sapiens” before “Neanderthal Man” is a strange one, and even on the following pages australopithecines are shown living during the same time or exhibiting variation. While the author and artists of the book may not have meant to show that all the primates in their line evolved directly from their predecessors in line, the power of the image overwhelmed any explanation, and the image certainly became iconic. Evolutionary scientists did not sit idly by while a fallacious notion of human evolution was promulgated, however; Stephen Jay Gould opens his 1989 book on the Cambrian fauna Wonderful Life with his astonishment that his books, translated into other languages, bear the incorrect image. Gould writes;

The march of progress is the canonical representation of evolution – the one picture immediately grasped and viscerally understood by all. This may best be appreciated by its prominent use in humor and in advertising. These professions provide our best test of public perceptions. Jokes and ads most click in the fleeting second that our attention grants them. …

Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding. Hence we continually make errors inspired by unconscious allegiance to the ladder of progress, even when we explicitly deny such a superannuated view of life. …

First, in an error that I call “life’s little joke”, we are virtually compelled to the stunning mistake of citing unsuccessful lineages as classic “textbook cases” of “evolution.” We do this because we try to extract a single line of advance from the true topology of copious branching. In this misguided effort, we are inevitably drawn to bushes so near the brink of total annihilation that they retain only one surviving twig. We then view this twig as the acme of upward achievement, rather than the probable last gasp of richer ancestry.

Gould as absolutely right; the iconic imagery of the “March” is so wrong, yet so easily understood, that it survives even when it is inaccurate. Creationists use it as a symbol of evolution (or, more often, mistakes evolutionary scientists have made), while satirists often use it to show the “devolution” of one group or another, and I doubt that the overall imagery will lose its utility anytime soon. If nothing else, the lesson we must learn from “The March of Progress” is that we are to use the utmost care in selecting visual representations of evolution, for one image can stay in the collective understanding (or misunderstanding) of a subject even when it’s accuracy has long passed the expiration date.

Going back to the thoughts of human evolution during the 60’s and 70’s, the life of earlier hominids was deemed to be a violent one, centering around man as the hunter. Without the ability to hunt as a group on dangerous African plains, we wouldn’t have advanced to our current state, requiring plenty of red meat to provide human ancestors more protein for their growing brains (or so was the logic, anyway). Some people, however, didn’t buy into this view that humans owe everything that evolution bestowed upon them to the Great Hunter, and so a feminist reaction was proposed; the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Centuries after Anaximander proposed his own views on the aquatic nature of man, Alister Hardy presented a lecture on “Aquatic Man: Past, Present, and Future” in 1960, and soon after he presented the idea to the public in a series of articles for New Scientist magazine.

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis did not really take off, however, until a writer named Elaine Morgan published the book The Descent of Woman in 1972. Hardly a scientific work, the book focused more on a rejection of male-centered anthropology, and Donna Kossy provides an excerpt of Morgan’s prose in the book Strange Creations;

She knew at once she wasn’t going to like it there. She had four hands better adapted for gripping than walking and she wasn’t very fast on the ground. She was a fruit eater and as far as she could see there wasn’t any fruit… She never thought of digging for roots – she wasn’t very bright. She got thirsty, too, and the water holes were death traps with large cats lurking hopefully around them. She got horribly skinny and scruffy-looking.

…The only thing she had going for her was the fact that she was one of a community, so that if they all ran away together a predator would be satisfied with catching the slowest and the rest would survive a little longer.

What then, did she do? Did she take a crash course in walking erect, convince some male overnight that he must now be the breadwinner, and back him up by agreeing to go hairless and thus constituting an even more vulnerable and conspicuous target for any passing carnivore? Did she turn into the Naked Ape?

Of course, she did nothing of the kind. There simply wasn’t time. In the circumstances, there was only one thing she could possibly turn into, and she promptly did it. She turned into a leopard’s dinner.

With piercing squeals of terror she [a different ancestral ape] ran straight into the sea. The carnivore was a species of cat and didn’t like wetting his feet; and moreover, though he had twice her body weight, she was accustomed like most tree-dwellers to adopting an upright posture, even though she used four legs for locomotion. She was thus able to go farther into the water than he could without drowning. She went right in up to her neck and waited there clutching her baby until the cat got fed up with waiting and went back to the grasslands…

…One idle afternoon after a good deal of trial and error she picked up a pebble – this required no luck at all because the beach was covered with thousands of pebbles – and hit one of the shells with it, and the shell cracked. She tried it again, and it worked every time. So she became a tool user, and a male watched her and imitated her (This doesn’t mean that she was any smarter than he was – only that necessity is the mother of invention. Later his necessities, and therefore his inventiveness, outstripped hers.)

… She began to turn into a naked ape for the same reason as the porpoise turned into a naked cetacean, the hippopotamus into a naked ungulate, the walrus into a naked pinniped, and the manatee into a naked sirenian.

Morgan wrote other books on the subject and there still is a bit of a following to the idea that humans arrived in their current configuration due to an “aquatic stage” sometime in their history. Long hair on the head is for babies to cling to, large breasts float better than small ones, hairlessness makes one more streamlined, and nearly any part of the body that has been adapted this way or that, is potentially explained by life in or around the water, and even recent popular science books have taken a bit of a shine to Morgan’s hypothesis (like Survival of the Sickest). Despite the popular appeal, there is not much to the hypothesis, however, and no actual evidence to confirm it, fossil or otherwise. Indeed, it almost starts with modern female anatomy and works backwards, trying to find an explanation for this trait or that, based upon how we act in the water now, although if we were ever well-adapted to life in the sea we have lost such abilities. While Morgan was right to criticize the lack of attention given to women in terms of anthropology and evolution, her view is as extreme (if not moreso) than the one she was trying to replace.

And now we come to the present. The evolution of Homo sapiens from older species now extinct has long been established, the evolutionary history of hominids now understood to represent more of a “bush” than a ladder of progress. There are lineages that do show anagenesis or transitions from one species to another, but in the last few decades so many unexpected finds have come out of the ground that imagining human evolution to be a straight-line, deigned to produce us in our present form, is utterly ridiculous. There are still battles to be fought over which fossil fits where, what kind of dispersal early hominids had, what pressures led to our ancestors being obligate bipeds, but the competing hypotheses in such debates become more and more refined with every discovery, and the evidence supporting the fact that we have evolved cannot be overturned. This isn’t to say, however, that some trends in understanding ourselves or our ancestry haven’t changed. As I mentioned earlier, some of the diagrams of human evolution during the first half of the 20th century based themselves on living primates and prosimians, looking to them for the order in which we should place human evolution. There has been something of a return to this as of late, but in the area of evolutionary psychology rather than paleoanthropology. Chimpanzees and bonobos, after being confirmed as our closest living relatives, are often used as the two polar archetypes for our own ancestry; we were either violent like chimpanzees, horny bohemians like bonobos, or something in-between. While it is often noted that we humans have the ability to do good in spite of our evolutionary past, the authors of Demonic Males make their premise clear; all living male apes are exceedingly violent;

This helps explain why humans are cursed with demonic males. First, why demonic? In other words, why are human males given to vicious, lethal aggression? Thinking only of war, putting aside for the moment rape and battering and murder, the curse stems from our species’ own special party-gang traits: coalitionary bonds among males, male dominion over an expandable territory, and variable party size. The combination of these traits means that killing a neighboring male is usually worthwhile, and can often be done safely.

Frans de Waal, in Our Inner Ape, also recognizes our dark side, but is more of an optimist; he sees the sexual (and “peaceful”) culture of bonobos to be proof that violence is not pre-ordained for us. He writes;

That such a creature could have been produced through the elimination of unsuccessful genotypes is what lends the Darwinian view its power. If we avoid confusing this process with its products – the Beethoven error – we see one of the most internally conflicted animals ever to walk the earth. It is a capable of unbelievable destruction of both its environment and its own kind, yet at the same time it possess wells of empathy and love deeper than ever seen before. Since this animal has gained dominance over all others, it’s all the more important that it takes an honest look in the mirror, so that it knows both the archenemy it faces and the ally that stands ready to help it build a better world.

While chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest living relatives, we proceeded on our own line of evolution for at least 4,000,000 years, evolving on an apparently accelerated trajectory while our evolutionary “cousins” have not been adapted in exactly the same way. This is not an appeal to say that humans are so distinct that we should not look to living primates for answers about why we are as we are, but rather that we must also keep the long view in perspective. Exclusively using the behavior of living apes to work backwards to the behavior of our own ancestors treats the subject as if chimpanzees and bonobos our are ancestors, one of the biggest mistakes still made by people unfamiliar with how evolution works. Speaking of the “If we’re evolved, why are there still monkeys?” argument, it is now time to look at modern creationism and its view of human evolution.

As covered at the beginning of this post, the contradictory Genesis accounts tell of humans being created at some point in the past by the Judeo-Christian God, exactly when this event occurred being inferred from chronologies in the Bible. Still, how could such stories stand up to the weight of scientific evidence for our own evolution? The truth of the matter is that it cannot, but that has not stopped some from trying to bring us back to a reliance on Genesis. The first unsuccessful attempt to debunk human evolution I came across was in Jonathan Wells’ odious work Icons of Evolution, which bears a scaled-down version of the “March of Progress” on its cover. In the chapter discussing this particular “icon”, Wells notes that he is familiar with Gould’s rejection of the ladder-view of human evolution in Wonderful Life, but this does not seem to be sufficient for Wells. He engages in the following rhetoric in trying to make his case;

But how does Gould know that extinctions are accidents? On the basis of fossil evidence, how could he possibly know? Clearly, it takes more than a pattern in the fossil record to answer sweeping questions about direction and purpose – even if we knew for sure what those patterns are. And even if extinctions are accidents, does that rule out the possibility that evolution is goal-oriented? Everyone’s death is contingent; does that make everyone’s birth and life an accident? The continued existence of the human species is contingent on many things: That we don’t blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, that the earth isn’t struck by a large asteroid, and that we don’t poison our environment, among other things. But it doesn’t follow that our very existence is an accident, or that human life is purposeless.

In this metaphysical muddle Wells offers up no evidence that extinctions have a purpose, that evolution is goal-oriented, or that human life has an inherent “purpose.” Indeed, he acts with such incredulity that he seemingly expects it to be contagious, luring the reader in with a string of absurd questions. There is no sign of evolution (or extinction) occurring as a part of a plan or having an ultimate goal and mind, and even if there was some sort of “directing force” to evolution it would seem to be an awfully wasteful process, never ensuring the permanence of a species (and would evolution, therefore, have an end?). What Wells essentially does is dress up Gould’s argument from Wonderful Life as a straw man, and apparently he doesn’t realize that Gould beat him to the punch about the famous illustration (and much more accurately, too) over a decade before Wells published his own book.

Young Earth Creationist ministries, like the well-known Answers in Genesis, take a slightly different approach; goading based upon the perceived authority of the Bible. In his tract The Lie, AiG leader Ken Ham includes cartoon after cartoon of the Bible being set up as the foundation for everything Christians believe, evolution being (often comically) set up as the origins of murder, abortion, and all sin. According to this view, even Old Testament figures like King David fell under the “evil influence” of evolution when they committed various sins, even though Darwin would not even be born until centuries later. The book states;

Society depends on moral foundations. By a mutual agreement which has sometimes been called a “social contract,” man, in an ordered and civilized society, sets limits to his own conduct. However, when such obligations are repudiated and the law collapses along with the order it brings, what option has the man who seeks peace? The psalmist is looking at the fact that whenever the foundations of society are undermined, then what have good and righteous men done to prevent its impending collapse?

Indeed, AiG sets the stakes high; nothing less than the existence of “civilized” and moral society rests on the battle being fought over evolution by creationists. Even those who accept evolution and are Christians are deemed to be compromisers, and generally looked down upon despite shared central theological beliefs. While the argument that there can be no morality without religion is certainly fallacious, it is a powerful concept, deeply tied to the evangelical desire to “save” those who have not accepted Jesus as God. What is even more surprising, however, is that creationists often state this weakness in their thought process up front; in the Young Earth Creationist view, nothing can contradict the Bible, and so anything that seems contradictory to accepted doctrine (which has, of course, been interpreted from the Bible by people) has to either be shoved into the Bible or dismissed as a lie or hoax. Case in point; AiG’s new geologist Andrew Snelling once tried to address the lack of human remains intermingled with those of dinosaurs and other fossil creatures from ages past (they should have been mixed together by the Flood) by stating that God made sure that no human remains survived the Flood so they would not be worshiped if found by subsequent generations of survivors. He wrote;

It would seem to us unloving of God to execute such relentless judgment, but such is God’s abhorrence of sin that its penalty must be seen for what it is—utter destruction and removal of all trace. If God cannot tolerate sin (His holiness cannot ‘look’ on sin), then all trace of sin has to be removed in judgment, which necessitates utter destruction. Should human remains have been allowed to survive the Flood as fossils, then there could also have been the possibility of such remains being worshiped and revered.

But what about the hominid remains that we do find? These are usually said to be “degenerate” people dispersed from the Tower of Babel, as God confused the languages of the people trying to build a tower to reach to heaven and dispersed them, feeling excessively threatened by the attempt for some reason (it is likely that those who wrote the Babel story thought God lived on the firmament in the vault of heaven, a place that actually could be reached if you just built high enough). It has even been argued that if you were to see a Neanderthal today on a subway, you would probably think them a boxer or wrestler, never being the wiser to the fact that you’re looking at another species. Generally members of the genus Homo are incorporated into such arguments, with the more basal Australopithecus and Paranthropus being relegated to merely being “apes.” In The Amazing Story of Creation From Science and the Bible, creationist-celebrity Duane Gish writes;

However, evolutionists’ faith in their theory makes it necessary for them to believe that a tooth, or a piece of skull, or a jawbone, or some other fossil bone came from a creature partway between ape and man. When all of the evidence is carefully and thoroughly studied by the best scientific methods, however, it turns out that these fossils were either from monkeys, apes, or people, and not from something that was part ape and part human.

This assertion is importance not only because it shows the YEC need to shoe-horn various hominids into the three categories mentioned above, but also because it involves one of creationism’s big tricks; trying to equate science with religion. If scientists can be said to “believe” in evolution, or have “faith” that more fossils will be found, then it becomes easy to make it sound like a parallel belief system to Christianity, evolution just being a secular creation myth. This, of course, is far from the truth, but many are easily drawn into this idea as all religions that are not Christian must therefore be incorrect by definition, once again putting the cart before the horse when considering the natural world. Young Earth Creationists aren’t the only ones attempting to refute evolution, however. Hugh Ross is a famous Old Earth Creationist, and his hypotheses are neither here nor there. Rejecting both evolution and the idea that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, Ross holds that Adam and Eve really were created by God just like the Bible says, only 7,000 to 60,000 years ago. As for other hominids, Ross puts them in a separate category with other animals, the primarily dividing factor being a lack of a relationship with God. In The Genesis Question Ross writes;

Although bipedal, tool-using, large-brained primates roamed Earth for hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million) years, religious relics date back only about either thousand to twenty-four thousand years. Thus, the anthropological date for the first spirit creatures agrees with the biblical date.

Thought most anthropologists still insist that the bipedal primates were “human,” the conflict lies more in semantics than in research data. Support for their views that modern humans descended from these primate species is rapidly eroding. Evidence now indicated that all bipedal primates went extinct, with the possible exception of Neanderthal, before the advent of human beings. As for Neanderthal, the possibility of a biological link with humanity has been conclusively ruled out.

Only such Neanderthal/Homo sapiens interactions, however improbable, haven’t been conclusively ruled out. There are strong arguments from both sides, and at present it doesn’t appear that we’ll be able to come up with a definitive answer. Still, Ross’ stance is just as silly as that of the YEC’s; he concedes scientific evidence for an old earth and universe, yet evolution is still too much of a detestable idea to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising that AiG issued a book, twice the length of Ross’ original, entitled Refuting Compromise, presenting a point-by-point breakdown of Ross’ arguments. All this is a great waste of intellect and paper, but I’m sure Jonathan Sarfati and Hugh Ross would say the same about what I’m doing here.

There is still at least one more trick in the creationist toolkit, however; bringing up past hypotheses that have been refuted or fossil lineages that have been changed and claiming that scientists are either ignorant or liars. Such is the setup provided to Jonathan Wells by the apologist Lee Strobel, who prides himself on being a “Devil’s Advocate” when he actually presents those he interviews with straw man after straw man. In the numbingly boring book The Case for a Creator, Strobel concocts a story of how he was convinced that evolution was true because of a reconstruction of “Java Man” (whom we’ve already met, see above), only to have Jonathan Wells crush his childhood memories of Pithecanthropus. he writes;

As I leaf back through my time-worn copies of the World Book from my childhood, I can now see how faulty science and Darwinian presuppositions forced my former friend Java man into an evolutionary parade that’s based much more on imagination than reality. Unfortunately, he’s not the only example of that phenomenon, which is rife to the point of rending the record of supposed human evolution totally untrustworthy.

I guess Strobel couldn’t be bothered to update himself on evolutionary theory between the time he received his World Book and when he met Wells, and if his “faith” in a topic can be so easily manipulated, I wonder why anyone considers him a good apologist. Still, creationists continue to bring up historical mistakes like “Nebraska Man” as if such errors were to strike terror into the hearts of scientists everywhere. Outside of the outright lies, however, Strobel’s prose shows us another important side to creationist tactics in trying to undermine evolution; science is not to be trusted at all. This strategy, like those mentioned before, works because it appeals to sentiments probably already held by many evangelicals, primarily that the Bible is the source of all truth and holds the answer to every conceivable question, any sort of knowledge or understanding produced by man being inherently flawed and untrustworthy. The fact that the Bible requires interpretation and that theology is constantly changing, however, does not seem to register, and so the evolution of humans is denied simply because the idea is unsavory.

And that, my friends, bring this post to a close. Despite the amount of resources I’ve used from my personal library, this is hardly an exhaustive study; I have largely ignored major fossil finds in order to focus on the ideas surrounding our own evolution, and any more detail would have greatly prolonged this post. What I hope to have shown, however, is that science does not crumble when taxa are reassigned or a new fossil shows up where it was not expected; it only furthers our understanding. If a hypothesis is shown to be false, then that is one more thing that we now understand to be wrong, therefore improving our knowledge and understanding. Some will continue to consider this a source of weakness, but as we are not gods, the constant desire to improve our understanding of nature is the best that we can hope for, and the correction of old ideas is what science thrives on. What would be the alternative? To hold on to favored ideas even when they’ve been proven wrong, hoping that the mere devotion to a notion would make it true? Such an idea is far from being unproductive; it is dangerous. Fossil finds will continue to be made, the genome will continue to be searched for clues to our evolution, and scientists will continue to ask questions, being both amazed but never satisfied by the latest information as to the history of life on earth.

The author taking his place among the transitional forms in the branching bush that is hominid evolution, taken at the American Museum of Natural History.

Casey Luskin doesn’t know how to read his own website

25 07 2007

Most of the time the Disco Institute and it’s hivemind simply aggravates me, but every once in a while they make me laugh. Such was the case when I popped over to the intentionally deceptively titled “Evolution News and Views” site and saw Casey Luskin’s plug for a new Granville Sewell article about how evolution will be taught someday, i.e. they believe it’ll become some sort of quasi-religious science where faith that evolution will be understood someday precedes science (although plenty of creationist cranks are content to state that now). Anyway, the end of Luskin’s intro paragraph reads;

Sewell continues to explain that this result would not be opposed by the Discovery Institute, which is not trying to push ID into schools

I guess he didn’t look to see that the odious Explore Evolution is featured on the left hand side of the page. This thin, seemingly worthless book has had the handwriting of the Disco Institute all over it for some time, although it’s always nice to have things confirmed. The Disco crew may swear up and down that they don’t care about getting ID into schools, but the evidence clearly shows otherwise. I’ve never heard a “textbook” (as Explore Evolution purports to be) marketed to any group other than schools, and plenty of our favorite Discovery Institute fellows showed up for 2005 Dover Trial (and some of the ones that didn’t even get on the stand won’t stop crying about it), although, despite much saber-rattling from some ID folk, Of Pandas and People II The Design of Life has yet to come out and put all us snooty “darwinists” (as if such a group still existed) in our place.

Despite Luskin’s memory lapse, however, we should have a look at what Sewell says about the future of evolution in public education;

But for most ID proponents, this will be a quite satisfactory outcome, certainly a huge improvement over the current sad state of affairs, where Darwin’s natural selection is the only scientific theory around which enjoys widespread legal protection from scientific criticism in the classroom. The Discovery Institute , which actively promotes ID as a scientific theory, does not (contrary to common belief) support the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classrooms, they only hope that biology instructors will be allowed to “teach the scientific controversy” over Darwinism.

Perhaps after a few generations in which biology texts point optimistically toward future discoveries which may uncover the mechanism of evolution, eventually some will begin to recognize the obvious, that there is no possible explanation without design. Until then, I will be happy with texts which simply acknowledge that the idea that the survival of the fittest can turn bacteria into giraffes, and cause human consciousness to arise out of inanimate matter, is doubted by some scientists.

Yes, they don’t want to teach intelligent design, they just want to, erm, teach intelligent design. From passages like this it is made to sound as if the Disco Institute just wants students to be told there’s a “scientific controversy” regarding evolution. Indeed, it seems like the fellows at the DI are going to an awful lot of trouble if all they want is for someone to say “There’s a scientific controversy. I can’t tell you it’s name, what it’s about, why it’s wrong, or anything else. Just know there’s a controversy.” Maybe, however, this does play into their hands; if teachers can talk about intelligent design they can’t refute it and show how bankrupt it is, so by telling kids that there’s a controversy and referring them to crackpot creationist texts they can bypass all open criticism of their ideas (and we all know that the DI would never, ever try to do something like that. How many peer-reviewed papers on ID have their advocates published now? Oh wait…)

At least when I’m dealing with creationists they’re usually up-front about their religious convictions; the DI takes a far more sneaky approach in an attempt to dupe teachers and students who might not be familiar with them or their cheesy wares. Why they’d want to be scientifically bankrupt AND liars, I don’t really know.

The “Argument Sketch” continues, ad absurdum

13 07 2007

Awfully smug and probably feeling like he’s bested me with his cromulent blogging skills, our friend “Zapa King” has posted yet another smarmy response to my “Show Me the Monkey” post from a few days ago, recounting a hypothetical discussion between him and me. In reality it would probably be more along these lines;

If it was ZK’s intention to throw me into a petulant fit, he’s failed miserably. In fact, I couldn’t help but laugh at it, especially the brief character sketches in the beginning.

The Players:

* Zapa King, a man with an inquiring mind.
* Brian Switek, a man who has to meet certain requirements to get a degree.

Indeed. You see, I’ve been fooling you all. On a dark and stormy night, wandering my way home from a “Darwin Youth” meeting, I heard an odd shuffling sound. Being that the secret society meets at such ungodly hours (*wink**wink**nudge**nudge*), there was no one around to call for help as a group of evolutionary zombies came after me. They were all there, T.H. Huxley, G.G. Simpson, Stephen Jay Gould, Ernst Mayr, Carl Sagan, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, and (of course) Charles Darwin himself, the shambling mass slobbering and demanding my juicy undergraduate brain. I can’t remember much after the first monstrosity grabbed me by the wrist, only that I woke up in the Ecology & Evolution department with the strange desire to change my major. Now, I am cursed to finish out my bachelor’s degree, slave to professors who nearly never mention evolution, although I thoughtlessly accept anything they say anyway.

ZK, on the other hand, is a scholar of the utmost repute, unraveling the mysteries of the heavens and laying waste to the arguments of any who are unwise enough to oppose him, thus making me a fool. Yes, while his mind is free to inquire and learn all, I am mentally shackled by the curse put upon me so many nights ago, oh, woe is me…

Ok, ok, I’ll lay off the sarcasm now. In a way, I’m flattered by the attention that I’ve gotten from ZK; it shows that I’m enough of a threat that he has to waste time coming up with ad hominem attacks than actually addressing any of the questions I asked. Why should I go into detail about human evolution, essentially walking into a trap, if ZK won’t even come clean with his own ideas of how it happened. Either he’s so closed minded that he doesn’t care how we got here as we are (which I doubt, given his opposition), or he’s merely too scared to put forth any hypothesis. I’m not looking to end all debates on the issue, and I doubt we’ll change each others standpoints, but all I asked was for an alternate hypothesis for how humans came to be as they are. His silence on the matter (and his rather mean-spirited loquaciousness about my personal character) speaks for itself.

I don’t think I need to go to great lengths to defend my character; anyone who knows me personally or is familiar with my writings can tell that for themselves. If ZK decides to think me an idiot, then that’s his prerogative. I’m just not going to lose sleep over it because my stats, regular readership, and compliments from scientists I have had the pleasure of working with positively overwhelm the rantings of an anonymous pissant on the web. I’d actually absolutely love to have a debate, to hear a different interpretation of how humans came to be, but until ZK actually puts his money where his mouth is, it is all just going to be a big waste of time. Besides, I think my copy of E.D. Cope’s The primary factors of organic evolution came today, which I’m sure will be both interesting and humorous (Cope was a Neo-Lamarckian in terms of evolution), and I’d much rather go outside and read that than write up an unappreciated overview of human evolution.

Bacon on Creationism

12 07 2007

Last night I started reading From the Greeks to Darwin: An Outline of the Development of the Evolution Idea (1905) by Henry Fairfield Osborn and stumbled across this rather prescient quote from Francis Bacon;

Against [“the corruption of Philosophy by the mixing up with it of superstition and theology” – H.F. Osborn] we must use the greatest caution… Yet some of the moderns have indulged this folly with such consummate inconsiderateness that they have endeavoured to build a system of Natural Philosophy on the First Chapter of Genesis, the Book of Job, and other parts of Scripture; seeking thus the dead amongst the living” (in interests of the soul). “And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical philosophy but heretical religion spring from the absurd mixture of matters Divine and human. It is therefore most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that belong to faith.”

It is also of interest to us that Osborn uses the phrase “Intelligent Design” to discuss the views of Aristotle and others who believed in a guided or assisted development of life, even though we’re more familiar with ID as conceived by Phillip E. Johnson as a “Wedge” not so long ago. Anyone interested in the philosophy of science regarding nature (and especially evolution) is urged to pick up this book if at all possible; it definitely reveals a much richer history of evolutionary thought than many care to acknowledge.