RNCSE 17 (6)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Articles available online are listed below.

A Visit to the Institute for Creation Research

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
A Visit to the Institute for Creation Research
Author(s): 
Karen Bartelt
Eureka College
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
6–7
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On January 9, 1998, a group of about 25 skeptics visited the "Museum of Creation and Earth History" run by the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, California. This tour was a part of a workshop entitled "Creation/Evolution" which was sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The ICR staff was made aware that our group would be visiting the museum, and they suggested an introductory lecture followed by a tour of the museum.

The lecture was given by geologist Dr Steve Austin, who showed us a video which he said is also shown at the Mt St Helens visitor center. The Mt St Helens eruption was described in accurate detail, and there was a great emphasis on the velocities of the mudflows and the amounts of material that were removed and deposited elsewhere.

It was Austin's intention to use the Mt St Helens eruption to convince us that catastrophes can cause rapid, large-scale changes on the earth's surface. Austin said that he had once been an evolutionist, but that his observations of the Mt St Helens eruption had converted him to catastrophism and creationism. He set up a "straw man", implying that his "catastrophist" view of geology was something new and revolutionary in the geologic world and that "uniformitarian" (that is, mainstream) geologists ignore the role of volcanoes and other catastrophic events in the shaping the earth. One of our group leaders, PhD paleontologist Jere Lipps, took Austin to task for having such a simplistic view.

Austin continued his presentation by showing us some of his slides of the Mt St Helens area. One slide was simply described as showing "strata 25 feet high deposited by Mt St Helens". He referred to this stratified volcanic ash oniy as '"sedimentary rock" and observed that it took only a few hours to be deposited in layers. What was implied here, of course, was that large-scale sedimentary strata, such as limestones and sandstones found in many parts of the world, could be deposited in a similar, rapid manner. I asked Austin whether he had any evidence that any of the more typical sedimentary rock—limestone, sandstone, or shale—had ever been deposited rapidly, but he provided no such example. Our group's level of geologic expertise was above average, but I wonder how many less-skeptical people have left such presentations thinking that all sedimentary rocks show evidence of rapid deposition.

Young-earth creationists would be interested in a mechanism that allowed for the rapid formation of coal (since coal would have time to form in a young earth only if such a mechanism existed). Austin pointed out the post-eruption burial of trees in a nearly vertical, root-down position at the bottom of Spirit Lake (apparently there are some trees in that position) and said that he was sure that coal was forming at Spirit Lake now.

He then referred to the petrified forests found in Yellowstone Park and described them as remnants of similar ancient catastrophes (to be fair, he never came right out and said "'Flood of Noah""). The generally-accepted view of the petrified forests of Yellowstone — that the trees represent 27 forests, buried sequentially by many volcanic episodes — was not mentioned. Austin also failed to mention why, if these forests in Yellowstone were such good models for catastrophic burial and coal formation, they do not contain any coal deposits. Erling Dorf, in his comprehensive article on the petrified Yellowstone forests, reported the presence of conglomerates from stream deposits, breccias from mudflows or landslides, volcanic tuff from the numerous volcanic events, and lava beds — but no coal!

Though Austin described himself as "an age-dating agnostic", he was eager to share with us the fact that he alone had radiometrically dated the Mt St Helens lava dome. Using potassium/argon dating, he determined a lava dome age of 350 000 years. His unstated conclusion was that radiometric methods are unreliable and give all sorts of bogus dates. There are, however, several other explanations of his results.

First, Austin sent young, low-potassium rocks to Geochron Laboratories. Such samples are very low in radiogenic argon, which is the isotope responsible for the radioactive decay that is the basis of the dating techniques. Although Geochron specifically stated that it did not want to deal with young, low-potassium samples, Austin sent them anyway and specifically stated in his paper that he did not reveal the origin of the samples. This "omission" can result in potentially large ranges of error in the results and also opens his research to ethical questions.

Second,Austin may have dated some of the solid material that came up with the lava rather than the lava itself. Austin had mentioned that the lava contained xenoliths—pieces of solid rock that came up with the lava. Although Austin stated that he was careful to remove the xenoliths, we have no assurances that he succeeded; and he apparently made no effort to date the xenoliths separately. Although Austin's date was published in a "peer-reviewed" journal (Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal), this journal is "peer-reviewed" only in the sense that the journal was published by other creationists. The peer-review process of a mainstream geology journal would have demanded that he explain his unusual results more completely Therefore, contamination by rock that is 350,000 years old or older remains a possibility.

Third, some of Austin's previous forays into the radiometric dating of rocks demonstrate that he is not an expert in this field. Austin is the head of the ICR's "Grand Canyon Dating Project". As such, he is committed to casting doubt on the radiometric ages of the lavas in the Grand Canyon. In a 1992 publication, ICR Impact #224: "Excessively Old 'Ages'" for Grand Canyon Lava Flows", Austin asserted that he found Cenozoic (relatively recent) lavas that gave radiometric (Sr/Rb) ages of 1.34 billion years.

These assertions are completely debunked in Chris Stassen's "Criticism of the ICR's Grand Canyon Dating Project" at the Talk.Origins Archive (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/icrscience.html#sec2, last accessed 1-13-98). Stassen points out that Austin's Grand Canyon lavas came from different flows, and the "ages" of the flows may actually represent a minimum age for the mantle that served as source material for the flows. Despite the obvious problems with Austin's methods, Impact #224 is alive, well, and available at the ICR museum!

Austin's last point about Mt St Helens was that the rapid erosion of volcanic ash in the Mt St Helens area (which he calls the "Little Grand Canyon") was a good model for catastrophic erosion over much larger areas. He proposed the existence of large pluvial lakes above the current Grand Canyon. According to this scenario the Canyon itself was cut when the lakes drained catastrophically. Again, this presumes that recently-deposited volcanic ash has properties similar to those of lithified limestone, sandstone, and shale — something most mainstream geologists do not accept.

As a young-earth creationist, Austin presumably believes that the sedimentary strata of the Grand Canyon were laid down rapidly and catastrophically during The Great Flood. I was eager to hear Austin's response to what I would consider a general problem for catastrophists, whether we are talking about catastrophic erosion of sedimentary strata or floods depositing these strata. Many of the sedimentary strata in and around the Grand Canyon contain the tracks of animals. The red Kayenta formation, exposed nearer to Glen Canyon Dam, contains the tracks of dinosaurs. I have seen these tracks personally and told Austin so. I asked Austin to comment on the fact that these tracks exist and are difficult to square with a catastrophic formation of the layers of the Grand Canyon. It is inconsistent to have all life on earth obliterated by a flood and then have animal tracks in the layers deposited by the flood. Austin stated that these certainly were animal tracks, laid down by animals walking through mud or sand, but he never satisfactorily explained how animals could happily meander through an area during or so soon after a global catastrophe.

At the end of the presentation Austin was confronted by another member of our group, who asked, "Whatever happened to Stuart Nevins? Does he publish anymore?" Those of you familiar with ICR literature may recognize the name from tracts published in the late 70's. Austin admitted that he had published under that pen name. So much for his recent, Mt St Helens-induced conversion to creationism!

Our group of skeptics was beginning to realize what passed for reality at the ICR, and we had not even set foot in the museum... yet.

[The author thanks Chris Stassen, Andrew MacRae, and Steve Austin for their helpful critiques via email and telephone.]

References

Austin S. Excess Argon within mineral concentrates from the new dacite lava dome at Mt St Helens Volcano. Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal 1997 http://www.icr.org/research/Sa/sa-r01.htm. Accessed 3-07-98.

Dorf E. The petrified forests of Yellowstone Park. Scientific American 1964 April; 79-85.

About the Author(s): 
Dr Karen Bartelt
Eureka College
300 East College Avenue
Eureka IL 61530
Email: bartelt@eureka.edu

Creationist Geology and Intuition

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Creationist Geology and Intuition: Isn't science just common sense?
Author(s): 
by Kevin Padian
NCSE President
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
28–29
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The dismay expressed about "The Mysterious Origins of Man," a pseudoscientific jumble of Bible distortion, garbled geology, warped paleontology, and gonzo archeology that aired on NBC-TV in February 1996, burned up phone and fax lines, tied up modems, and sent postal workers scurrying around with stacks of letters to editors and broadcasting executives. Jere Lipps, then Director of Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology and President of the Paleontological Society, led the charge on behalf of science and was recently rewarded with NCSE's "Friend of Darwin" award for these and other efforts.

The uproar about the program reached the pages of scientific journals such as Science, mass-market magazines such as Time and a bunch of internet talkgroups and bulletin boards. The network responded, "Hey! It's not our fault. We do entertainment!"; the producers responded, "We don't know what you're getting all upset about. It's true, isn't it?"; and the NBC executive responded, "Oh, come on. everyone knew it was just opinion."

Perhaps Kris Krishtalka, a vertebrate paleontologist who directs the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, said it best when he was quoted in Science (March 8, 1996): "I'm sure in a few months [NBC News anchor] Tom Brokaw will have a special on the deplorable state of science knowledge among American school children." Unfortunately, we now know better; NBC rebroadcast "The Mysterious Origins of Man" several months later.

It is well known by now that the "Mysterious Origins" people are Hare Krishna people, not biblical fundamentalists, and they think that all the life forms on earth are hundreds of millions of years old, not a few thousand. However, there are instructive comparisons between the two groups, and their approaches to the distortion of science and the selective presentation of often apocryphal evidence are in many ways similar.

What Makes This Strategy Successful, and Why Should We Care?

The answer is that their line is persuasive to the poorly educated in science — which happens to include the majority of American adults and adolescents. But people like to be persuaded. They especially like to be persuaded that their views are right, and that they are intelligent people capable of figuring out things for themselves. What the so-called experts know is just their opinion, after all. It may not be right. Look how many times the "experts" have gotten the rest of us into trouble!

I was reminded of this in re-reading Tom McIver's revealing article, "A Creationist Walk through the Grand Canyon" (Creation/Evolution Issue 20, 1987). Tom signed up for a field course, as something of an undercover anthropologist, at the Institute for Creation Research. In this course, participants were led through the Grand Canyon, and its geology was explained through the window of "creation science." So, for example, participants were told that the Coconino Sandstone, a Permian deposit with a great many nice footprints of amphibians and reptiles, could not be formed from desert dunes because the angles of these beds are supposedly inconsistent with the bedded layers in the Canyon. Instead, of course, they were all formed in the Noachian Flood. Participants were taught to distinguish "creation" rock (preCambrian) from "Flood" rock (Cambrian and later).

Melver reported that none of the participants expressed any doubts whatever about the veracity of this kind of explanation; in fact, they were incredulous that anyone could accept the traditional geologic story. "How could this whole enormous canyon have been formed by such a small river, as the evolutionists claim? Where is the necessary downstream deposition of eroded canyon sediment? What about all the alleged missing layers? We shook our heads in wonder and genuine pity at the ability of evolutionists to accept such utter absurdity."

There are abundant clues as to why this teaching strategy is successful. It makes people who know very little about a complex subject feel confident about their ignorance. McIver writes: "Our opinions were solicited, although most of us had no previous geological training." This is consistent with the creation-science tradition of amateur nature-watching. "Creation science relies upon a naive empiricist philosophy of science:
  • science is built up of common-sense observations;
  • nature (like Scripture) is perspicuous;
  • ordinary folk, if not blinded by theoretical speculations and materialist, evolutionist idols, can participate in this enterprise of understanding God's creation.

In other words, traditional "creation science", like Krishna pseudoscience and "Intelligent Design" panaceas, provides people with validation of what they want to believe. There is no need for fancy theories, complex instruments, or laborious testing of hypotheses. It's American populism — your view is just as good as anyone else's. People love to be asked, "What do you think?"

There is a subtle flattery to this approach. How much harder it is for a scientist to remonstrate, "Well, we have to see where the facts lead us. We have to form hypotheses and test them. We have to examine many different lines of evidence. We may not have enough information to get to the right answer." Hmph. That doesn't make me feel as good as that fellow over there did. At least he thought my ideas were important.

It is a seductive idea that ordinary people can understand the natural world with only the most superficial training, and that it is as likely to be correct as the views of that fellow over there with the PhD. But it also has a parallel in religion. In most faiths, there is a hierarchy of clergy and a standard system of tenets. This does not simply mean a holy book, like the Bible, the Torah, or the Tao; rather, it means an orthodox interpretation of these views, developed through history by scholars and clerics (and invested with all the institutional prejudices of that history).

The tradition of American fundamentalism is outside this institutional scholasticism because it has no hierarchy, it does not particularly value academic scholarship, and it places the validity of religious interpretation squarely on the individual preacher (See Ronald Numbers's masterful book, The Creationists). If you have witnessed, if you believe, if you understand, then you can pretty much preach and interpret however you like, as long as you can get people to listen. This is not to say that fundamentalist clergy cannot be scholars or cannot interpret the Bible accurately, any more than one would assert that anyone with a PhD degree in a scientific field is widely read in science, let alone inerrant about scientific matters. But this is why the absurd literalisms of many fundamentalist preachers, pointed out by historians, theologians, biblical scholars, and scientists, make no impression on their beliefs or teaching. One man's view of the Bible is just as good as that pointy-headed theologian's over there; after all, he probably doesn't share my Faith, so why should anything he says be trusted?

If anyone can receive the Word, if they believe, and can interpret the Bible correctly, then certainly anyone can interpret the phenomena of the natural world, which is of course the handiwork of the Creator. Hence the parallel between the "common-sense" or "populist" view of religion, and that of nature.

McIver continues: "Yet, despite this tradition of obsolete common-sense empiricism, with its harsh criticism of evolution and other modern scientific theories for being nothing but biased, abstract speculations, creationists indulge in hypothesis-spinning of the most reckless sort. We were encouraged in this: what scenarios could we devise which would account for the observed data — fossil footprints, various strata, faults and unconformities, or whatever — and still preserve the absolutely required literal interpretation of Genesis? No discrepancy is perceived, because creationists know that the Bible is totally inerrant."

Here, the two components of this world view are combined. Anyone can figure out the science; and the Bible tells us all we need to know. It may seem odd that a person would reject a secular scientific view of natural phenomena on the grounds that it is authoritarian and a belief system, but would accept with ease an authoritarian view of natural phenomena based on religious knowledge that has little or nothing to do with the proximal evidence of the natural world. But it is just as odd to think that a person could reject a secular scientific view of natural phenomena with nothing whatever in its place, able to be swayed by the flimsiest prima-facie case for human and dinosaur footprints together, human artifacts 55 million years old, or continents slipping halfway around the earth suddenly every 41,000 years. The uncertainties of science, and its philosophical methods of forming hypotheses and testing them, are not congenial to you if you like things simple, and accept that the average person can come up with explanations as good as those of the most highly trained scientist, just by sitting down and thinking a little. After all, science is supposed to be an open-minded process, isn't it?

The best answer to this, perhaps, is the well-known aphorism that "science is open-minded but not empty-headed." It builds on itself, it is continually self-correcting, it has expectations, and if these are not met by the evidence then it looks for other evidence in the system that would explain why. People from all religions and cultures can participate in this community endeavor as long as they follow the precepts of scholarship and hypothesis-testing. But don't be disappointed if the "populist science" folks don't seem overly impressed by this. And you won't just find them in the pews.They'll be on the bus next to you, reading the astrology column; they'll be listening to the salesman in the jewelry store at the mall talking about the healing powers of crystals; and they'll be perusing the offerings in the New Age section of the bookstore.

Many Scientists See God's Hand in Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Many Scientists See God's Hand in Evolution
Author(s): 
Larry Witham
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
33
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
While most US scientists think humans are simply smarter apes, at least 4 in 10 believe a creator "guided" evolution so that Homo sapiens are ruled by a soul or consciousness, a new survey shows. Scientists almost unanimously accept Darwinian evolution over millions of years as the source of human origins. But 40% of biologists, mathematicians, physicians, and astronomers include God in the process.

"I believe God could work through evolution," a South Carolina mathematician wrote in a marginal note on the survey "Bell shaped curves describe how characteristics are distributed.. . so I think that God uses what we perceive to be 'random processes.'" Despite such affirmations, however, 55% of scientists hold a naturalistic and atheistic position on the origins of man, according to the random survey of 1000 persons listed in the 1995 American Men and Women of Science.

"I am surprised to find that so many are theistic evolutionists" Duncan Porter, a Virginia Tech botanist and Darwin scholar, said in an interview. "As an Episcopalian, I don't compartmentalize those things," he said of God and evolution, "I put them together in an overall view." Rick Potts, director of human origins at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, said it is not unusual to find religious beliefs in any community including scientists.

But "I'm happy to see that 55% are taking a naturalistic approach," he said. "Most anthropologists would draw the line heavily toward the naturalistic side. We want to explain our phenomenon without recourse to things we can't observe or measure." The survey, which had a 60% response rate, asked scientists the same Gallup Poll question posed to the public in 1982 and 1991. In the 1991 round, 40 percent of Americans said God "guided" evolution to create humans.

While this 40% is a middle ground of agreement between scientists and the public, there is a sharp polarization between the groups taking purely naturalistic or biblical views. While most scientists are atheistic about human origins, nearly half of Americans adhere to the biblical view that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10 000 years." Forty-six percent of Americans agreed with this view of human origins in the 1991 Gallup poll. Only 5 percent of the scientists agreed.

Because only a quarter to a third of Americans are Protestant evangelicals or fundamentalists, the 1991 Gallup Poll showed that many mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews believe in a "last 10,000 years human creation." The 1991 poll also showed that college-educated Americans were far more likely to accept evolution, underscoring their closer affinity to the views of scientists.

The standard view in science is that modern-day Homo sapiens emerged 40,000 years ago and began to organize societies 10,000 years ago. The oldest humanlike ape is called Australopithecus, or "southern ape." It was found in Africa and is believed to date back 4 million years. Homo erectus developed 1.8 million years ago. Neanderthals roamed Europe and Asia beginning 100,000 years ago.

The survey was a separate but parallel study to one reported in Nature (1997 Apr 3; 386:435-6) in which 40 percent of the same scientists reported a belief in a God who answers prayers and in immortality. Both surveys were conducted by a reporter for the Washington Times and Edward J Larson, a historian of science at the University of Georgia. The report in Nature was based on a replication of a 1916 survey that scandalized Americans by finding that 45 percent of scientists were atheists and 15 percent were agnostics. Before the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, scientists and the Western public agreed that God designed human life. Afterward, they became sharply divided.

The belief that God creates through evolution has been called "theistic evolution" though there are different views on how much God intervenes in the process. A physicist from New Mexico wrote on the survey that God created man "within the last 10,000 years, but the universe is billions of years old." Two biologists from Ohio refined the question about God and evolution. One said, "God created the universe and principles of energy and matter, which then guided subsequent evolution." The other said God did not guide the process "but did create the conditions that allowed the process to take place." "Creation science," most visible in school board debates and court rulings, is only one brand of creationism. It holds that the earth is about as young as human creation. But many Bible believers combine an ancient earth and some evolution with a recent human creation.

[This article appeared in the Washington Times on April 11, 1997, pA8. It is reprinted here with permission.]

The Tale of the Whale

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Tale of the Whale
Author(s): 
Kevin Padian
Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley and President, NCSE
Volume: 
17
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1997
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
26–27
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The Winter 1996 issue of Pacific Discovery, published by the California Academy of Sciences, was devoted to whales. Among the nice articles and beautiful pictures is a particularly interesting article about the origins and early evolution of whales by Elizabeth Culotta, a writer for Science who covers evolution and ecology. Culotta is collaborating on a book on whale origins with Hans Thewissen, one of the scientists intimately involved in studying whale evolution. Her interviews with noted specialists underscore what tremendous progress in understanding whale origins has occurred just in the last few years. At least three new forms — Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, and Rodhocetus — have been found to fill in some of the gaps between the whales we know and their terrestrial ancestors, a group of mesonychid carnivores that lived in the Eocene epoch, some 60 million years ago. Along the way, paleontologists have learned a lot more about the evolution and relative timing of the adaptation of skulls, ears, jaws, backbones, and limbs for life in the open sea.

The problem of the origin of whales, of course, has long been one in which anti-evolutionists have been particularly interested. "Creation scientist" and former biochemist Dr Duane Gish liked to mock the traditional paleontological assertion that whales evolved from an ungulate ancestor. In his lectures, Gish would explain to his audiences that an ungulate was a hoofed mammal, like a cow. Then he would show a cartoon of Jersey cows with bells around their necks and mermaid-like tails, asking his audience if they thought such an evolutionary transition were possible. No paleontologist, of course, suggested that whales evolved from cows, but this seemed to make little difference to Gish.

Culotta’s article points out that the fossil relatives of living whale groups are recognized not primarily by the great size and specialized swimming adaptations that generally describe today’s whales, but instead by features of their skulls and teeth that are shared only with living whales. However, what interests most people is how whales came to take up an aquatic existence.

The first steps in whale evolution included a reduction of the pelvis and hindlimbs even while these structures still remained fully functional for locomotion and bearing weight. By the evolutionary stage represented by Ambulocetus, we find elongated hands and feet, a longer skull, and larger teeth. But the tail is still long and lacks a fluke, and the toes still end in little hooves.Thewissen and his co-workers suggest that this animal swam by vertical undulations and was amphibious (lived both on land and in water).

Rodhocetus, which occurs a bit later in time, has a shortened neck and more reduced hindlimbs. It appears to have been a more open-water swimmer, while still retaining many terrestrial features. These animals are still in the 5- to 8-foot range and lived about 50 million years ago. However, Basilosaurus shows that by 40 million years ago, whales had become much larger and more like the living groups.

As its name suggests, Basilosaurus was thought to be a dinosaur or marine reptile when it was first discovered in the early 19th century, but its mammalian affinities were soon recognized. NCSE Reports reported that Duane Gish dismissed it as a reptile (Anonymous, 1990), however, to my knowledge he has not published a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting his evidence. Meanwhile, the rest of us may find interesting some recent scientific efforts on early whales, many of which are summarized in a couple of nice (and short) pieces by Dr Michael Novacek, a pre-eminent mammalian paleontologist and Vice President of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (Nature 1993, 361:298-299; and 1994, 368:807; Other relatively accessible pieces are listed at the end of this article.)

A more recent creationist postscript to the whale saga began not long after the recent "Firing Line" television program on evolution. Science teacher Larry Flammer wrote to law professor and self-proclaimed Darwin expert Philip Johnson, asking about his comment that a "recent article in Science" refuted what biologist Dr Ken Miller said on the show about whale evolution. Johnson referred Flammer to microbiologist Dr Michael Behe, who responded by citing a single sentence in Novacek’s 1994 article (listed above): "Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus and other more aquatically specialized archaeocetes cannot be strung in procession from ancestor to descendant in a scala naturae." Flammer checked with NCSE as to whether Johnson’s interpretation was an accurate statement of Novacek’s views.

The excerpted sentence, which begins the last paragraph of a nearly full-page commentary, is classically taken out of context. Novacek spends the entire article explaining the traditional problem of the lack of fossil intermediates between land mammals and whales, then shows how recent discoveries are morphologically, functionally, and stratigraphically intermediate. Novacek’s quoted sentence means only to say that we do not regard these things as successive direct ancestors. This is because Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, Pakicetus, and other forms each have their own "autapomorphies" or distinguishing characteristics, which they would have to lose in order to be considered direct ancestors of other known forms. (For general information, modem evolutionary biologists do not search for ancestors, but for relationships among organisms based on the new appearances of heritable features, which are represented in the form of cladograms.)

Here’s the important part. Any modern paleontologist or evolutionary biologist knows that the chances of finding an actual lineal ancestor to a later form are very small. Imagine your own chances if you returned to where you think your 6th-century ancestors are buried and started to dig looking for them. Even if you found a graveyard from that period, what are the chances that any of the bones would belong to your direct ancestors? A distant cousin, maybe. But couldn’t you tell a lot about those people and how they lived, the stage of cultural development in their society, their possessions and features? Would it be unreasonable to suppose that your direct lineal ancestors had the same features and lived in more or less the same ways?

This is exactly the approach that Novacek is taking to the whale fossils. He is clearly saying that these fossils show progressive specialization of features common to whales today, even if they are not the direct lineal ancestors of whale species that survive in modern oceans. This is what he means when he writes: "Nonetheless, these fossils are real data on the early evolutionary experiments of whales." In previous paragraphs he pointed out that archaic whales first evolved cetacean features of the middle ear, muzzle, skull roof and teeth; then an amphibious habit with front-to-back flexion of the body for providing locomotion in the water aided by paddle-like hind feet (Ambulocetus); then shorter neck vertebrae, unfused hip vertebrae, and the reduced femur (Rodhocetus); and so on. Finally, Novacek writes, "They powerfully demonstrate transitions beyond the reach of data, whether molecular or morphological, derived from living organisms alone."

Readers may judge for themselves, based on what Novacek actually said, but in my view it is not responsible scholarship, nor accurate representation, to tell someone that Novacek’s article refuted what Miller said about whale evolution. Novacek, Gingerich, Thewissen, and other scientists are understandably upset about the distortion of their work and publications, but it seems to make little difference. Sadly, as long as creationists can pretend to hold scientists to a semantically strict and epistemologically unreasonable definition of ancestry, they will continue to try to fool the public. Readers who are not professional scientists might be interested to know, however, that if someone tried this sort of misrepresentation in the scientific literature, they would be sat down hard by reviewers and by the authors themselves. Understanding what someone actually said and meant in his work is the first precept of scholarship.

References

Anonymous. Gish reclassifies Basilosaurus as a mososaur? NCSE Reports Sept-Oct 1990; 10(5): 11.

Berta A. 1994. What is a whale? Science 1994 Jan 14; 263:180-1.

Gingerich PD, Raza SM, Arif M, Anwar M, Zhou X. New whale from the Eocene of Pakistan and the origin of cetacean swimming. Nature 1994; 368:844-7.

Gingerich PD, Smith BH, Simons EL. Hind limbs of Eocene Basilosaurus: Evidence of feet in whales. Science 1990; 249:154-7.

Thewissen JGM. Madar SI, Hussain S. Ambulocetus natans, an Eocene cetacean (Mammalia) from Pakistan. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 1996 Jun 28; 191:1-86.

Thewissen JGM, Hussain ST, Arif M. Fossil evidence for the origin of aquatic locomotion in Archacocete whales. Science 1994 Jan 14; 263:210-2.

Thewissen JGM. Phylogenetic aspects of cetacean origins:A morphological perspective. Journal of Mammalian Evolution 1994; 2: 157-84.

Review: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
17
Year: 
1997
Issue: 
6
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
36–38
Reviewer: 
Robert T. Pennock
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds
Author(s): 
Phillip E Johnson
1997. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 131 p.
Those who have read Phillip Johnson's Darwin on Trial (1991) and Reason in the Balance (1995) will immediately recognize the argument as well as the rhetoric in his latest book. Johnson again brings up the Cambrian explosion and other features of the fossil record that he says biologists can't explain, but he opposes evolutionary theory primarily by way of an attack on scientific naturalism. He speaks of how the young need protection against "indoctrination" (p 10) from "the ruling naturalists" (p 22) who make students memorize "naturalistic doctrine" (p 34). He continues to insinuate a conspiracy of atheist Darwinian elites who control the airwaves — "the microphone-owners of the media [who] get to decide who plays the heroes and who plays the villains" (p 33).

Though his arguments against evolution are broadly philosophical rather than scientific, he ignores most of the history of philosophy, and still perversely insists, for instance, that taking God as a supernatural foundation is the only way to avoid relativism of both knowledge and morality. When we "declared our independence from God" (in the 1960s of course, on the heels of the 1959 Darwin Centennial), we lost the assumption that "the law was based on a set of underlying moral principles that came ultimately from the Bible," and this, Johnson opines, resulted first in the divorce revolution, then the sexual revolution, the feminist revolution, and inevitably abortion rights and homosexual liberation (p 103-4). These themes, as well as Johnson's characteristic shrill notes, are by now tiresomely familiar. There are, however, a few important developments in the book.

The most significant new point in Johnson's attack on evolution is that for the first time he comes out explicitly against the core thesis of common descent. In many previous writings Johnson blithely ignored the basic textbook meaning of evolution and used his own idiosyncratic definition that made no mention of descent with modification. One always suspected that Johnson was more of a traditional creationist than he let on, but he refused to be pinned down on any specifics and mostly confined his objections to the Darwinian mechanism (what he called "the blind watchmaker thesis") and to the purported "dogmatic philosophy" of naturalism that he claimed was part of its definition.

He proffered "intelligent design" as the correct alternative account, but refused to say anything about that "theory" beyond the vague claim that God's intentional design was the true explanation of biological complexity, leaving open the possibility that God did not create biological kinds ex nihilo, but by guiding the process of descent. However, as he previously claimed that the Darwinian mechanism was a false doctrine propped up by naturalism, he now says the same of descent with modification: "Put aside the materialism," he concludes, "and the common ancestry thesis is as dubious as the Darwinian mechanism" (p 95). Perhaps in a future book he will finally tell us what intelligent design theory has to say about stratigraphy and Noah's Flood.

A second significant addition here is an indication of how "intelligent design" theorists hope to update the old creationist argument from the information content of biological molecules. Johnson suggests (incorrectly) that information is a radically anti-materialist concept. He claims that information is primary and prior to the material, noting that the Gospel of John says that "in the beginning was the Word," not matter. This is admittedly a clever interpretive idea and, given the real importance of information theoretic issues in biology we can expect creationists to run with it. Johnson first broached his idea in a 1996 article in Biology and Philosophy, picking up on a few statements of biologist George C Williams who was discussing (far too loosely, I would say) biological information. Williams had said that information was "not physical objective reality" and was a "more or less incommensurable domain" from matter, and Johnson proposed that this was a recognition of an ontological dualism of matter and information, and that matter could therefore never explain the origin of information.

Williams and Richard Dawkins each wrote pithy, scathing replies, but in Defeating Darwinism Johnson oversimplifies their objections. He admits that it is easy to account for the origin of information if its content is low, but he clalms that there is no accounting naturally for the "highly specified information" of complex organisms. Expect this to be where the new creationists will try to make their next pitch for intelligent design. As they do, watch for those subtly question-begging words like "specified" which lead one to think of an "intelligent agent" (a specifier), where "specific" would be more precise.

The next time Johnson says that "The Word (information) is not reducible to matter, and even precedes matter" (p 71), be sure to ask for an example of information that is prior to matter (or anything physical)—he won't have one because information is a relational property that can't exist in a "disembodied" form. And don't be put off by facile claims about irreducibility, for that is a difficult and controversial philosophical concept. While it is true that, in one simple sense of reduction, information is not reducible to matter (that is, the same information can appear in any number of different material forms), this is not a sense that would lead to any spooky dualism or would necessarily require an intelligent author.

A less substantive, but perhaps more important, change in this new book is an explicit shift in Johnson's target audience. In a 1993 interview Johnson had said that he was not interested in discussing how the creationism debate should be conducted in the schools. "[T]he public school system isn't really my venue," he explained, "it isn't where I want it argued. It's in the universities and scientific community that I really start the argument" (Barbero 1993). Now Johnson is ready to switch venues and writes that the aim of this new book is to give "a good high-school education in how to think about evolution" (p 11). His audience consists of "late teens - high-school juniors and seniors and beginning college undergraduates" (p 9) and their parents and teachers. He even tells us how he would design a curriculum in evolution for these students. Apparently Johnson now does want the issue argued in the schools, for he says that the biology curriculum should be built around principles of critical thinking. He wants to turn the table on scientific skeptics and have students learn to train what Carl Sagan called their baloney detectors upon evolutionary theory.

Johnson goes through Sagan's baloney detection list of fallacious appeals to authority, selective use of evidence, begging the question, ad hominem arguments, and so on, but illustrating these with ways that he claims evolutionary biologists are dishing out the baloney. For example, he says students should be taught to watch for evolutionists' bait-and-switch strategy of starting with what they call "the fact" of evolution and then surreptitiously inflating it to include the mechanism as well. (Gould and some other evolutionary biologists speak of common descent with modification as "the fact" of evolution to distinguish that from "the theory" of the mechanism [s] by which it occurred. In Johnson's section on the curriculum he misleadingly defines and dismisses it as being just the uncontroversial point that "organisms have certain similarities like the DNA genetic code, and are grouped in patterns" [p 58], though he later uses it in Gould's sense to refer to common descent when he rejects that thesis [p 94].)

Incredibly, Johnson claims that this important distinction between product and process is "just a debating gimmick" (p 59) to hide problems with the Darwinian mechanism. He warns teachers that if they want to try to teach about the evolutionary "snow job" they may have trouble avoiding the attention of "so-called civil liberties lawyers" (p 116) and offers his services and those of his colleagues to help. He directs teachers to the Access Research Network Web site, www.arn.org, which has become the outlet store for "intelligent design" creationism, where their materials will be posted.

We should applaud Johnson's call for teaching critical thinking, but his seven-point program for applying this as the framework for a biology curriculum is ludicrous. Imagine suggesting that the proper way to teach geology is to tell students that the subject is little more than "philosophical dogma" and that geologists are "bluffers" who intentionally "dodge the hard questions" and who should be "viewed with suspicion." Teaching an academic discipline in this manner would be intellectually irresponsible and morally reprehensible. Even parents who are creationists and would like to see this critical approach to evolution in the schools may be less than pleased to hear that Johnson also recommends that students learn in biology class to turn their baloney detectors upon their own religious beliefs. He argues that to believe in God simply on faith rather than reason is either a "mistake" or a "rational defensive strategy born of desperation" (p 20), and that students must confront the theological problems that result from taking on evolution.

Believe it or not, critical thinking about such theological matters also comes under one or other of the seven points Johnson would include in his biology curriculum. Johnson wants to to blame everything on scientific naturalism, but that is no more or less an "assumption" of every other theoretical and applied science than it is of Darwimsm; if Johnson's curriculum is justified in biology classes, then why doesn't he consistently recommend that it be applied in like manner in physics class and auto shop?

Johnson tells high-schoolers that they need to "learn to use terms precisely and consistently" (p 57) but that biologists are intentionally slippery in their use of the term evolution, so that when they hear it "the indicator screens on their baloney detectors should display ‘Snow Job Alert'" (p 116). Students reading his book will profit from turning their baloney detectors upon it, for Johnson's own use of terminology is no model of the virtues he rightly praises. In addition to the terminological laxity noted above, one finds that Johnson is similarly loose with other evolutionary concepts when it is to his advantage. One instance involves what he calls "Berra's Blunder".

In Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (1990), zoologist Tim Berra illustrated a point about the nature of an evolutionary sequence using a series of photographs that show the development of the Corvette over several decades. Johnson says Berra has blundered here because "[t]he Corvette sequence.. .does not illustrate naturalistic evolution at all. It illustrates how intelligent designers will typically achieve their purposes by adding variations to a basic design plan" (p 63). But it is Johnson who is being misleadingly ambiguous here, for Berra never claims that this is an example of natural selection but says explicitly that this is an illustration of a kind of descent with modification. He uses the example to illustrate how small changes, where the relatedness of intermediate forms is easily recognizable, can add up to differences such that the endpoint is nearly unrecognizably distinct from the starting point. For this purpose the Corvette example, using artificial rather than natural selection, works perfectly well.

Furthermore, it is an important, basic point to make with a familiar example, since many creationists continue to cling to the immutability of species and insist that cumulative selection of small variations in a species (microeveolution) can't add up to form new species from old (macroevolution). Johnson misleadingly defines microevolution as "cyclical variation within the type" [p 57] so that it looks like it fits with the creationist idea of fixity of kinds. Johnson claims that these small changes can't add up to form new species from old (macroevolution). It is an important, basic point to make with a familiar example. It is thus Johnson, not Berra, who has blundered. Moreover, are we really supposed to take seriously his implicit suggestion about discovering the divine Designer's purposes on analogy with that of automotive designers? If so, what should we conclude about God's purposes for human beings, chimps, gorillas and the various extinct fossil hominids given that we are all but a minor variation on the primate "design plan?" It looks like Homo sapiens is just the latest of a line of mostly failed production models.

Johnson's imprecision and inconsistency are even more pronounced when it comes to the philosophical concepts he tries to make so much of. For instance, with no regard for the basic distinction between ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism, Johnson continues to speak generically of "naturalism" as a dogmatic metaphysics (see Pennock 1996). His evidence that biologists are committed to the ontological view that there is no God and that nature is "all there is" comes from the 1995 Position Statement of the American National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) that said that evolution was an "unsupervised" and "impersonal" process. The fact that NABT recently dropped these two terms from its statement to remain properly agnostic about God's role (as methodological naturalism requires) repudiates Johnson's charge.

Compounding the above prevarication, Johnson also confuses scientific naturalism and materialism. Mechanistic materialism became the dominant naturalist ontology in the 17th century, but scientific naturalism allows other explanatory categories of being, provided that they do not violate natural law. Indeed, it is more common in philosophy of science today to speak of physicalism rather than materialism, so as not to over-emphasize matter over space-time, forces, fields and other basic categories that have been added to physics in the intervening centuries, and so as not to beg ultimate philosophical questions about metaphysics.

Johnson does (temporarily) correct one serious philosophical error he had made in Reason in the Balance. There his main target was "modernism," but he incorrectly described modernists as being ethical and epistemic relativists, and attributed to modernism characteristics that actually belong to postmodernism. In Defeating Darwinism he does better, writing: "Modernists believe in a universal rationality founded on science; postmoderists believe in a multitude of different rationalities and consider science to be only one way of interpreting the world. In other words modernists are rationalists; postmodernists are relativists" (p 90). But after admitting this difference he goes back to lumping the two together and criticizes modernism generically as the subjectivist "established religion" of the West (p 97).

Interestingly, Johnson's own view is clearly postmoderist in many of its key elements. His writings are rife with postmodern language about the "construction" of knowledge by those in the "establishment" who are acting to protect their "power and wealth" by "indoctrinating" the masses with an oppressive "ideology". I was not surprised to learn recently that Johnson's original title for Darwin on Trial had been Darwinism Deconstructed. Like postmodernist phiosophers,Johnson seems to think that what is called knowledge is nothing more than the fashionable cultural narratives held by the ruling elite. One way this view is exemplified in Defeating Darwinism is the emphasis he places on the play Inherit the Wind — a fictionalization of the Scopes trial, which he calls a "masterpiece of propaganda" (p 25). Spinning his own masterpiece of deconstruction Johnson tries to argue that the play actually achieves its effect by borrowing from the Gospels and essentially giving Bert Cates (the character representing the evolution teacher Scopes) the moral role of Jesus.

Well, maybe so, but what does that have to do with whether the scientific evidence tells us that evolution is true? The answer, of course, is that although Johnson is like postmoderists in opposing scientific methods as having any special evidential merit for discovering truths about the empirical world, he is at heart really a premodernist in holding (though never quite forthrightly admitting) that the only warrant for truth is God's Word. Johnson wants to defeat Darwinism by having students "open their minds" to supernatural possibilities in the ways he suggests and ignore standards of evidence. As an antidote to Johnson s postmodernist call to carelessly throw out scientific methods, it behooves us to remember Bertrand Russell's wise recommendation that it is good to keep an open mind, but not so open that one's brain falls out.

References

Barbero Y. Interview With Phillip E Johnson. California Committees of Correspondence Newsletter 1993.
Berm T. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Pennock RT. Naturalism, evidence and creationism: The Case of Philip Johnson. Biology & Philosophy 1996; 11(4): 561.

About the Author(s): 
Robert T Pennock
Dept of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin.