Wednesday, October 07, 2015

PZ Myers on Casey Luskin

PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, has some harsh words for Casey Luskin's examination of Homo naledi.  In the post, he points out something that I have pointed out in several posts for BioLogos and in my rebuttal to Luskin's post on Homo naledi: a complete lack of understanding of systematics:
I’m not going to dissect every point in Luskin’s tediously long article in detail — really, he’s just echoing every question anyone has asked about H. naledi in the last few weeks, in an attempt to construct a litany of doubt — but I have to point out the numerous ways he misrepresents evolutionary biology to pretend that H. naledi is somehow a refutation of Darwin. As I’ve pointed out many times before, Luskin is a scientific illiterate who doesn’t actually understand anything remotely biological, from genetics to embryology to molecular biology to, now, paleontology. Actually, this isn’t the first time Luskin has tripped over himself in a rush to deny — he also didn’t like Tiktaalik. So this is just more of the same.
Luskin has a bad case of missinglinkitis. This is the idea that there is a linear series of steps in a progression leading from ape to human, and all we have to do is find each frame in the movie and we can replay everything in science class. He wants a “link”, a word he uses multiple times, and he wants “transitional fossils”, unaware that every individual is a transition between parent and progeny.
The key is to focus on the traits, something that Luskin and other Intelligent Design supporters fail to do. Myers further points out, as I did, that just about every fossil that we find is a mosaic of traits and when we follow the trait patterns, we can develop phylogenies.  This line of thinking has led to remarkable understanding of the evolution of Devonian tetrapods and the transition from theropod maniraptoran dinosaurs into birds. 

He also makes light of a point that Luskin makes about the venue that Berger and colleagues took when they wanted to publish the paper:
I have to mention two other lesser points from the paper. Luskin really knows nothing.

The technical paper, “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” appeared in a lesser-known journal, eLife. It’s a great find due to the sheer number of bones that were found, but to my mind its publication in eLife is an immediate hint that this fossil isn’t an earthshattering “transitional form,” because if it were, we almost unquestionably would have seen the fossil published in Science or Nature.
No. Wrong. A lot of scientists resent the tyranny of the magical CV-enhancing powers of those two journals, and think they have an inflated and dangerously dominant reputation. eLife is an entirely credible new journal which, to all appearances, has a robust reputation for good, solid peer-review…and is also open source. There are a lot of scientists who are eager to see scientific information disseminated more widely without the limiting restrictions of traditional journal publishing, and Lee Berger, the lead investigator in this work, doesn’t need the résumé reinforcement that publishing in Nature or Science provides.
This is only half-correct. While it is quite true that many scientists like to publish in open-source publications like eLife and PLoS, this is not always the perspective of the managers and department heads, many of whom would much prefer that their researchers publish in high-profile journals, like Science and Nature.  I know this to be true through my work not just in publishing but in dealing with funders.  They like flashy papers.  This often (but not always) conflicts with the desires of the researchers, themselves.  Even though there are plenty of researchers who would like just to publish and get the information out there as fast as possible, I know of quite a few researchers who don't mind padding their resumes a bit with high-profile papers because they are angling for a position higher up on the academic food chain.  We would love to think otherwise, but it just isn't always true. 

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