Thursday, July 26, 2012

Science & Human Origins: A Not So Positive Review by Paul McBride

Douglas Axe, Ann Gauger and Casey Luskin have a new book out called Science & Human Origins. I have not had a chance to pick it up yet but it looks like the authors have learned nothing from the recent exchanges with folks like Dennis Venema and PZ Myers. The same faulty ideas still hold sway. Paul McBride has reviewed the book here. McBride points out an immediate problem that seems to characterize the ID camp in general. Ann Gauger writes:
I personally am convinced that unguided, unintelligent processes can’t do the job, not only because the neo-Darwinian mechanism is utterly insufficient, but also because we are beings capable of intelligence and creativity.
This is argument from personal incredulity and has no place in scientific discourse. If this is indeed how she feels, then it must color how she does her experiments and how she gathers her conclusions. If she is not open to this possibility, she has no business writing this book.

McBride remarks that chapter two, which is written by Douglas Axe, discusses his and Gauger's recent work where it was found that the time necessary to get one protein to evolve into another, contemporaneous protein is longer than the universe has existed. Other researchers have pointed out the logical error in this experiment but McBride's statement is succinct:
If Gauger and Axe couldn't get a single protein to evolve a novel function of their choosing then surely massive evolutionary changes are impossible. Actually, no. Gauger and Axe's experiment is a profound misunderstanding of evolution. The real question is not "Can X be turned into Y?" because that sense of direction requires preordination, which is not theorised to be a part of evolution. If we remove this preordination, the question becomes "Can X turn into something else?".
It is more than a little ironic that Axe and Gauger argue that, left to its own devices, evolution cannot foster new genetic material due to its randomness and then, to show that this is so, introduce an experiment in which evolution is directed and non-random. Didn't any of the editors catch this? Axe and Gauger do not seem to understand the concepts of exaptation and neutral mutations.

Casey Luskin wrote the chapter on the fossil record. McBride quotes Luskin:
There are many gaps and virtually no plausible transitional fossils that are generally accepted, even by evolutionists, to be direct human ancestors. Thus, public claims of evolutionists to the contrary, the appearance of humans in the fossil record appears to be been anything but a gradual Darwinian evolutionary process. The Darwinian belief that humans evolved from apelike species requires inferences that go beyond the evidence and is not supported by the fossil record.
Luskin isn't listening. He has shut his ears and refuses to listen to what people are saying about the evidence. As I will remark in my next BioLogos posts (and something McBride points out), the earliest Homo erectus individuals have cranial capacities of around 700 cc3, while the later ones have cranial capacities of up to 1225cc3. Does this overlap those of modern humans? Barely. And the suite of characteristics that are on display in your average Homo erectus are not modern human in any way. They are getting there, but they are not there yet. Then we have archaic Homo sapiens, such as Kabwe from what is now Zimbabwe, which is obviously evolved over Homo erectus but not quite modern human either. These people show up in Asia (Dali and Mapa in China and Ngandong in Indonesia), Europe (Petralona, Swanscombe, Steinheim, Atapuerca, to name a few) and they are obviously intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens in some way. Are they direct ancestors? Maybe, maybe not, but they are transitional. Luskin is arguing unilineal ancestry without allowing for the possibility of collateral ancestry.

The earliest modern remains that we have are from the site of Herto, on the Bouri Peninsula in the Afar triangle, in Ethiopia and they date to around 160,000. Even so, there are a few characteristics that link these remains to earlier, archaic Homo sapiens. There may be no absolute evidence that these represent our ancestors, but who is to say they aren't? We know that we have modern humans in the Near East at 100,000 that still show some signs of not being quite like us. By 40,000 they do. If these are not transitional sequences, what would qualify?

McBride's conclusion contains the following paragraph:
I have been left wondering why the Discovery Institute, or intelligent design advocates in general, or biblical literalists feel a need to try and accommodate science when they have a belief in a supernatural entity capable of breaking natural laws. In the case of this book, it has left them needing to make all kinds of awkward criticisms of fields in which the authors clearly lack expertise. A lawyer is not the right guy to challenge the world's palaeoanthropologists, nor the world's geneticists. Certainly, he shouldn't be trying to take them all on at once. It will end with him trying to smear the reputation of scientists rather than engaging with their ideas. Accusations that the entire field of palaeoanthropology is driven by personal disputes and that Francis Collins is a bad Christian are simply not compelling reading in a book that is putatively about scientific argument.
Leaving aside the issue of miracles, since I believe they can and do happen and are not restricted to the physical, observable world, McBride is partly correct in his assessment about the abilities of these authors to address the material. The problem is deeper than that, however. At least in the case of Luskin, there is an unwillingness to alter one's viewpoints in the face of additional evidence to the contrary. Here, there is a distinct similarity to the young-earth creationist camp, who have little to no scientific integrity. As McBride points out, Luskin's views have not altered since 2006. I pointed out these problems two years ago in a BioLogos post. I know that he read the post because we corresponded briefly about it. It is therefore, doubly disconcerting that he would continue to hold onto this “no transitional fossils” idea as if it were still defensible.

This is a book I clearly need to pick up and read, although I am quite certain it will just make my blood boil to do so.

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