Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Of Pandas and People

I have finished Reading Of Pandas and People. To recap: in the Dover School Board ruling, it was revealed that the disclaimer read to the high school ninth grade biology classes reads, in part:

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

How good of a reference book is Of Pandas and People? Ladies and gentlemen, it is hands down awful. I do not have the time or space to address all of the problems in the book. That has been done beautifully by Frank Sonleitner here. I will only touch on some of the major errors I found.

The first glaring error is that, while it is being used as a text that promotes an alternative to evolutionary theory, the central focus of the introduction and first section is biopoesis, the origin of life from non-life. Evolutionary theory expressly does not address this issue. Evolution is "descent with modification." It has to have something living to work with. The section on biopoesis is, therefore, irrelevant.

On page 7, the writers state:

To put it another way, breeders can produce sweeter corn or fatter cattle, but they have not turned corn into another kind of plant or cattle into another kind of animal.

Wrong. Broccoli is an intentionally bred offshoot from an ancestral cabbage possibly during the neolithic period. While they are both in the family Brassicaceae, broccoli does not interbreed with any current species of cabbage.

The writers use an analogy of a truck discovered by a native tribe that is similar in vein to that used by William Paley (although no mention of Paley's original example of the watch is given). They suggest that the natives would conclude that it is designed. This sidesteps the possibility that they might conclude no such thing. There are examples of natural features that show the appearance of design because they resemble things that we KNOW are designed. In fact, the natives might simply think that it represents a part of nature that they have never encountered before.

In the opening section in the chapter "The Fossil Record", the authors describe the nature of science. They state that, while there is science based on experiments, Darwin's theory is:

...very different from most other scientific theories. It is a theory about unique past events, events that have come and gone. However life originated in the first place, by intelligent design or spontaneous generation, however the giraffe or aardvark originated, they are not "re-originating." These are one time events.

There are several problems with this statement. Amid the persistent misunderstanding of the nature of evolutionary theory (it does not deal with the origin of life), the authors are dismissing large branches of organized, carefully practiced science, namely palaeontology, astronomy, geology, zoology and many others that don't readily come to mind. Essentially all of the "predictive" sciences. While these are mentioned in the next section, their integrity is sharply impugned. Using the analogy of a murder investigation, the authors write:

The case built on circumstantional evidence is not proof, though it may sound plausible and incriminating. Even so, the jury's belief that [the defendent] Smith is guilty may be more a product of their subjective feelings than they realize. That is why Smith is entitled to defense counsel, so that both sides of the issue can be considered.

Aside from the fact that science doesn't deal in "proof" (that is a pretty basic concept), all of the historical, or predictive sciences have always had their arguments deliberated for their veracity. That is basic to science of any kind, historical or otherwise.

Following this section, three "major" features of the fossil record are noted. They are, briefly: 1. the vast majority of known phyla appeared within a brief period of time, 2. most fossils appear to change little over the course of their history, and 3. Fossils appear fully formed and there is a "conspicuous lack of evidence of graded series of in-between fossils. Instead, numerous gaps exist throughout the fossil record."

Because so much of the rest of the book proceeds from these three observations, it is important to evaluate them.

1. This is not true. Not all phyla are present at the beginning of the Cambrian. New phyla continue to show up after the Cambrian
2. This is only partly true. There are many instances of stasis in the fossil record, but there are also many instances of persistent change over the course of a lineage and other lines that appear to change very quickly. There are other instances of anagenesis--accumulated change in one species leading to a new species.
3. This is the biggest howler in the book. Here, it is evident that the authors of this book have consulted only creationist sources for their information. The notion that there are no transitional fossils in the fossil record is the single most persistent canard in the creationist arsenal. Despite the wealth of information to the contrary, this statement and similar ones continue to appear in creationist literature and, worse, gets recycled within that literature.

Transitional forms abound.  George Gaylord Simpson records an almost continuous record of species in the horses. The syapsid group of reptiles are also called "mammal-like reptiles" for exactly that reason. Fossils of these species display characteristics of both mammals and reptiles. As one moves through the mesozoic, fossils in this class have fewer reptilian characteristics and more mammalian ones.

The human fossil record is replete with transitional forms. In fact, that is the norm. Often, different researchers will disagree on where one particular fossil ought to be put (Homo erectus vs. Homo ergaster) not because of which characteristics are present, but because of a disagreement over which characteristics are more important phylogenetically.

I will continue this in the next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment