Thursday, February 09, 2006

Of Pandas and People, Part 2

This is part 2 of my short review of the abyssmal book Of Pandas and People, the preferred textbook of the Discovery Institute. We'll dive right back into the chapter on the fossil record.

On Page 98, the authors write:

The intelligent design hypothesis is in agreement with the face value interpretation and accepts the gaps [in the fossil record] as a generally true reflection of biology and natural history. A growing number of scientists who study the fossil record are concluding that the structural differences between the major types of organisms reflect life as it was for that era.

Herein lies a major problem with the book. Who is "a growing number?" The writers do not tell us. No citation is provided at all, as if they only want us to take their word for it. Throughout the book, there is a startling lack of supporting citations and, it is my opinion that had this book been submitted to a major science publisher, it would have been returned as unpublishable until the missing citations were added. This represents sloppy work and poor attention to detail.

On page 100, we find the following:

Some scientists have arrived at this view [that ID is the correct explanation for the fossil record] since fossil forms first appear in the rock record with their distinctive features intact, and apprently fully functional, rather than gradually developing. No creatures with a partial wing or partial eye are known.

Where to start. First, the same problem mentioned above: "Some scientists." Who in God's green earth are they talking about? I don't know anyone who subscribes to this view of the fossil record. Once again, no citation.

Second, fossils do not first appear in the rock record with their distinctive features intact. As noted above, this proceeds from a standard creationist view of the fossil record that has been rebutted too many times to count.

Third, the idea that organisms would appear with partial anything demonstrates a poor understanding of how evolution works. This idea, which is the central focus of William Dembski's No Free Lunch, incorrectly assumes that organisms are "discrete combinatorial objects," in which all features of a species are regarded as having appeared at the same time. As the reviewers of that book noted, that is not how evolution works. There is not a single fossil example in which all of a particular set of features indicative of a species as a whole appeared at once.

On page 107, we get to the human fossil record. On the second side of the page, the authors write:

Before looking at the fossils recently proposed to be human ancestors, it is well to keep a few points in mind. First, comparatively few hominid fossil remains have ever been found.

What do the authors mean by "comparatively few?" How many would be "a lot?" I can think of at least 100 complete crania off the top of my head and several hundred more that are at least 50% complete. Add to this several thousands of incomplete remains and you have a fair number of fossils. Is this optimal? No, obviously we would like to have more. But it is enough to make some pretty good assessments of human evolutionary history. And more fossils are being discovered all the time. In the last five years, the origin of the human line has been pushed back two million years by the discovery of fossil remains in Chad and the Afar Triangle.

Back to the book. On page 110, they state:

Less attention has been given to the first appearance of morphologically modern humans in Africa and the Middle East, because of their recency, but these may be quite important discoveries.

Were the authors not paying attention? No fewer than five articles in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Science News and Scientific American were published on this topic during 1988 and 1989. And that was just in the mainstream magazines. At least twenty articles showed up in academic journals on these hominids during the same time period. Of course they were important!

On p. 111, the authors write:

The best information we can seek about man's ancestors is that which tells us, not what they looked like, but what they did and how they behaved. Of course, such information is often very fragmentary if found at all, but it is the most important data for which to search.

"...if found at all?" Archaeological information abounds. It is more common than human fossil remains. Every area of the Old World has numerous sites with continuous records of habitation that often extend sixty or seventy thousand years. In the Middle East, one of the persistent questions is how the early modern humans and the Neandertals there interacted. One of the clues is that the abundant archaeological remains at these sites indicates a similar lithic strategy. Not a single worker in this area throws up his or her hands and says, "Boy I sure wish I had more archaeological remains to work with!"

On pages 112 and 113, there is this bombshell:

Darwinists are convinced that Homo erectus was nearly human and directly ancestral to man. Design adherents, however, regard Homo erectus, as well as the other hominids discussed in this section, as little more than apes, and point instead to the abrupt appearance of the culture and patterns of behavior which distinguish man from the apes.

This statement reveals that Design adherents have adopted all of the old, tired creationist arguments about the human fossil record. The obvious, observable fact that the fossils are considerably more than apes seems to have escaped the authors of this book.

Here we have a lateral view of a chimpanzee skull on the left and a cast of the Homo erectus specimen KNM ER 3733. Can you tell the difference between the two? I thought so.

A continual improvement in stone tools assemblages and traditions from Australopithecus to Homo habilis to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens is well-documented in the geological record and books and scientific papers abound in the literature based on these data.

The section on the fossil record can only described as incompetently written at best and, given the wealth of data and literature to the contrary, intentionally misleading at worst. On this chapter alone, Of Pandas and People fails miserably as a reference work.

Part Three of my review to come shortly.


  1. There's just something about the phrase, "crania off the top of my head"...

  2. Anonymous5:29 PM

    As I understand it, most young earth creationists consider australopithecines as extinct apes not Homo erectus. In fact, in Bones of Contention, Marvin Lubenow very clearly writes that he believes that Homo erectus is Homo sapiens. This would, suprisingly, be in agreement with Milford Wolpoff's single species hypothesis. So the authors of "Of Pandas and People" didn't even get that right.

  3. That is correct. That is something I should have mentioned but I was so stunned by the statement in OPAP that it left me momentarily speechless. Milford wrote a paper in 1991 called "Homo erectus: 100 years is enough!" in which he promoted that very theory. Lubenow's comment, though, is based on his understanding that Homo erectus created fire and complex stone implements.

  4. Yah, I didn't think about that until after I had written and posted it. Oh well.

  5. Anonymous2:23 PM

    Just curious, regarding p98, are there people who don't think that the fossil record reflects life in that era?

    Is that something which need citation?

  6. The focus of the statement is that the gaps represent breaks in the creative urges of God, who then decides (for whatever reason) to start creating again after a time. One of the problems with this perspective is that, as I mentioned, it proceeds from a false reading of the fossil record. The authors assume there are no transitional fossils in the record, when in fact, they abound. Start from the wrong premise, you will end up with the wrong conclusion.

  7. One of the other things that is not mentioned in the book is the alarming coincidence that humans and the higher apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, orangs, gibbons and siamangs) share the inability to create their own Vitamin C because of the same mutation that has rendered the gene responsible for it ineffective. Why would God, by means of progressive creation, sabotage not just humans but the higher apes as well?