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Review: Of Pandas and People



Of Pandas and People (hereafter Pandas) exemplifies the new creationism, which conceals its theological underpinnings better than the old Institute for Creation Research variety. Here, the Creator is cloaked in the euphemism "intelligent design." Like traditional creationist works, this book is laden with misstatements, misunderstandings, or incomplete descriptions of evolution, and the errors and omissions always favor "intelligent design." This review will describe only a few of its errors.

As an anthropologist, I turned first to the section on the hominid fossil record. The following examples are from pp. 109-112:

  • The diagram on p. 109 purportedly showing the fossil record of primates is incompetent. Old World monkeys are not older than apes (as drawn), pongids include chimpanzees (shown as separate), and the fossil forms Pliopithecus, Australopithecus, and Oreopithecus have not (as depicted) continued until present. The "chimpanzee" at the top of the chart looks like a gibbon. The chart is drawn without any transitional forms, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.
  • On p. 111, A. africanus is drawn with a chimp thorax, a human pelvis, and a cranium from a K-Mart Halloween display. It looks like a tracing from a physical anthropology text, with much lost in translation.
  • On p. 112, "primate" and "human being" are juxtaposed as if humans were not primates. The text falsely implies that H. habilis has no ancestors and that "human" fossils are found "in the same area" as H. habilis. Archaic Homo is not hypothetical (several remains are attributed to this taxon), and it did not have an ape-like skull. The authors' attribution of the sloping forehead of H. erectus to nutritional deficiency is lunatic. (The H. erectus morphology occurs in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Were there calcium, vitamin D, and other deficiencies in all these areas?) Only creationists consider possible relict H. erectus populations in Australia to be "races" of H. sapiens.
These examples from three pages show why it is impossible to cover the whole book in a review. Here are few more chips from the tip of the iceberg.

Origin of Life

Evolutionary theory is not tied to origin-of-life theory, as the book says (p. 2), nor to random or chance processes. Evolutionary theory may include origin of life hypotheses, but much of it is independent. In saying "most mutations are harmful," the authors reveal a serious misunderstanding of modern genetics. Most mutations are neutral and have no effect whatever on the organism. The authors ignore the neutral theory of evolution, which explains much that classical Darwinism doesn't.

Neo-Darwinism

Most of the evolutionary biology in Pandas is 25 years out of date. The authors expect neo-Darwinism to explain everything, but they can't even get this material entirely correct. For example, they confuse characteristics of reproductive isolation with those of speciation. They make the Design-inspired assumption that natural selection must result in perfection and even overspecialization. They misunderstand variation's role in natural selection and state that populations adjusting to an ecological niche become less variable. (That is only one possible outcome, albeit one that supports their position). And they incorrectly imply that macroevolution depends upon microevolution.

Homology

Homology theory has many interesting problems, but Pandas does not discuss them. Indeed, the homology discussion is so misinformed it would take another book to sort it out. Because they don't understand homology, the authors accuse evolutionists of "guesswork" and "extrapolation." In fact, evolutionists consider comparative anatomy, ontogeny, and the fossil record, none of which is treated competently in this book.

Fossils

The treatment of the fossil record is rife with egregious misunderstandings. No one with any competence in paleontology would claim that no transitional forms exist. Transitions exist between classes like Mammals and Reptiles, between families, and even within genera. Punctuated equilibrium is presented more or less correctly in the overview but botched in chapter 3. The authors agree that geographic speciation occurs (they discuss it at length), but they fail to relate it to punctuated equilibrium, which is essentially geographic speciation extended through time as well as space.

Biochemistry

The biochemistry chapter is similarly hopeless. The author acknowledge taking much of their material from Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, so previous criticisms of Denton's biochemistry are directly relevant. Even the diagrams are similar (compare p. 147 of Pandas with p. 282 of Denton). The molecular data do show the nested, hierarchical relationships predicted by evolution (see the diagrams – derived from Denton – in Thwaites' review, NCSE Reports 9(4): 14). Only creationists expect biochemical data to show the genealogical relationships on p. 143ff. Bacterial cytochrome c is indeed equally distant from yeast and mammal cytochrome c, which is precisely what evolution predicts. The common ancestor of yeast, carp, rattlesnakes, and humans diverged from bacteria long ago, so they all have been diverging from bacteria an equally long time. The accumulated genetic difference between them and bacteria is therefore about the same.

Molecules from organisms with more recent common ancestors (like those from humans and other creatures in table 6-1) show different relationships. Humans are more similar to monkeys than to screw worms because they shared a common ancestor with monkeys more recently than with screw worms. They are more similar to screw worms than to mung beans because they shared a common ancestor with screw worms more recently than with mung beans. Evolutionists view these relationships as one of branching clades. Molecular data clearly show that evolution has occurred.

Living forms are not representatives of ancestors, but the authors apparently don't understand this. In their "Great Chain of Being" view, "less advanced" living forms are ancestral to "more advanced" living forms (p. 144). The authors profess amazement because living amphibians are not molecularly intermediate between fish and mammals. Living ones are not. Once again, we find profound misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, molecular genetics, molecular evolution, and the molecular clock.

Pedagogy

A textbook should be a scholarly source of information, but here also Of Pandas and People fails. Where did these ideas come from? Where are the references? An occasional superscript number suggests a footnote, but (except for the last section) no references are listed for the footnotes! Most identifiable references are to creationist works or obscure works given little credence by mainstream scientists. Where there are quotations from legitimate scientific works, many seem to be copied from creationist publications rather than quoted from original sources (they show the same inaccuracies.) Denton has Darwin and Wallace jointly presenting their paper to the Linnaean Society in 1858, and Pandas says both men "jointly presented their natural selection theory of evolution in 1859," the year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Both are wrong. On p. 107 is one of Duane Gish's favorite passages, a quote from E. J. H. Corner, and it omits (with no ellipsis) exactly the same words Gish left out. Is this the sort of scholarship to which students should be exposed?

Selling the Supernatural

The book attempts to convince the student (and teacher) that a basically supernatural view can be made scientific through word manipulation and conflation with scientific concepts. Thus, the Argument from Design is dressed up in information theory and passed off as science. This selling of the supernatural is pertinent to understanding why this book is not science, but pseudoscience.

In early 1987, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), with which Thaxton is affiliated, wrote to potential textbook publishers about Pandas. In the letter, FTE wrote, "[T]he book will not be subject to the major criticism of creation, that the supernatural lies outside of science, because its central statement is that scientific evidence points to an intelligent cause, but that science is silent as to whether that intelligence is within or beyond the material universe. So the book is not appealing to the supernatural." In an appendix by Thaxton, under the heading Philosophy/Religion, "natural" is contrasted with "supernatural" as adjectives describing cause (p. 161). Under Science, he opposes "natural" with "intelligent". The latter, however, is a false dichotomy. To be dealt with scientifically, "intelligence" must also be natural, because all science is natural. Thaxton's appeal to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is fallacious. SETI is indeed a scientific project: it seeks natural intelligence. Any theory with a supernatural foundation is not scientific, and to say that "intelligent cause" is an antonym of "natural" but is not "supernatural" is pure sophistry.

Nowhere in this book is there any indication that the "Intelligent Designer" is anything other than the God of Genesis. Beneath the veneer of sophistry and euphemism, "intelligent design" is plain old scientific creationism. While Pandas consciously avoids that term, anyone familiar with creationist literature will immediately recognize the logic and arguments – mutation is bad; evolution depends on chance; creationism and evolution are parallel and equally well-supported views; numerological considerations prohibit evolution; if we don't understand, "there must be a designer;" and so forth. Despite pious protestations about the student's "right" to receive all the information, Pandas only presents criticisms of evolution, not of "intelligent design." But the Argument from Design has been around for 200 years, and scientists have rejected it for good reason. Stephen Jay Gould alone has published numerous papers on "imperfectly designed" creatures and structures of the like that even in Thomas Paley's day made thoughtful people reject the Divine Watchmaker for both theological and scientific reasons. Pandas never hints that "intelligent design" is an intellectually discredited idea that has never been science. The universe is indeed comprehensible, as the authors observe, but it is not valid to equate the intelligibility of the universe with intelligent cause. (I thank Delos McKown for pointing this out to me.)

In sum, Pandas is worse than I anticipated. I expected something more scholarly, for the principal authors have done better elsewhere. But this book is riddled with egregious errors of fact and profound misunderstandings of theory. Again and again, the authors ignore the scholarly consensus and present instead a pot pourri of half-truths, untruths, and nonsense.

Of Pandas and People is without scientific or pedagogical merit, and it has no place in the science classroom.