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Summary of problems:
This claim has a long history in the creationist literature, but is uniformly rejected by biologists as rooted in basic misunderstandings. The apparent homology of a single trait would not be treated as evidence of common descent. By examining multiple traits, all showing the same nested hierarchy of modifications of a common starting point, scientists can test hypotheses about common descent. There is nothing circular about this process.
The argument that homology is defined in a circular manner was a centerpiece of Jonathan Wells's creationist book Icons of Evolution. Wells, an uncredited co-author of EE, undertook graduate studies in biology at the behest of his religious leaders. He explained to a Unification Church ("Moonie") publication "Father [Sun Myung Moon]'s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism."
EE reuses Wells's figure 4.1 as its figure 2:1, merely adding color to the figure. Similarly, the discussion of homology as a circular argument is a lightly rewritten version of what Wells wrote. Compare EE:
Some biologists suggest that the problems of understanding homology stem from Darwin himself, who re-defined homology as the result of common ancestry.
before Darwin (and for Darwin himself), the definition of homology was similarity of structure and position …. But similarity of structure and position did not explain the origin of homology, so an explanation had to be provided.
The restatement of these claims in EE does not require any different response than Wells received, since it adds nothing to the argument. Reviewer Alan Gishlick responded to Wells's treatment of homology:
Wells claims that homology is used in a circular fashion by biologists because textbooks define homology as similarity inherited from a common ancestor, and then state that homology is evidence for common ancestry. Wells is correct: this simplified reading of homology is indeed circular. But Wells oversimplifies a complex system into absurdity instead of trying to explain it properly. Wells, like a few biologists and many textbooks, makes the classic error of confusing the definition of homology with the diagnosis of a homologous structure, the biological basis of homology with a procedure for discovering homology. In his discussion, he confuses not only the nature of the concept but also its history; the result is a discussion that would confuse. What is truly important here is not whether textbooks describe homology circularly, but whether homology is used circularly in biology. When homology is properly understood and applied, it is not circular at all.
Gishlick here is using "homologous features" in the sense of a "shared derived character," as discussed above. There are several important points that bear emphasizing.
First, biologists do not look at only one line of evidence to infer common descent; it is the agreement of multiple lines of evidence about morphological, genetic, behavioral, ecological and developmental similarity which allows that inference.
Second, that inference is a testable hypothesis. The addition of new lines of evidence allows a test of evolutionary hypotheses. For instance, biologists will test evolutionary hypotheses produced based on skull morphology with information from the DNA sequence of a particular gene. A common test for the accuracy of an evolutionary inference is to run the same analysis while excluding part of the data, and using those excluded data to confirm the accuracy of the results.
Third, the hypothesis of homology (which follows from an evolutionary hypothesis) is testable. In reconstructions of the common ancestry of a group, it is not uncommon to find that certain traits evolved more than once, or appear and disappear at various points on the tree. Those characters are then subject to greater scrutiny, since their disagreement with other traits suggests that there may be more that needs to be understood about that trait. Some traits which appear similar are deemed not to be homologous as a result of this analysis, but to be the result of parallel evolutionary pressure.
Fourth, the evolutionary hypothesis can be tested by reference to previously unexamined species. If the evolutionary hypothesis is correct, new species ought to fit easily into the pattern predicted. Since the evolutionary hypothesis is based on nested groups sharing certain novel traits, that hypothesis would be challenged if newly described species had a mosaic of traits that did not fit into that nested hierarchy.
Explore Evolution, like other creationist books before it, makes the mistake of treating the structures of organisms in isolation. While it would be circular to use a single trait to infer an evolutionary history and then to use that history to infer the common ancestry of that trait, scientists do not do that. In presenting homology and common descent as a circular construct misused by scientists, EE misinforms students about basic concepts, bringing confusion rather than clarity.
Scientists build on earlier hypotheses with new data, and build new hypothesis from that new data. This advance in knowledge adds a third dimension to what EE treats as two-dimensional. Rather than a flat circle, the scientific process spirals upward.