A response to the Discovery Institute’s criticism of Wetherington’s expert testimony

In a recent post over at the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News and Views,David Klinghoffer writes about the expert testimony of Ronald Wetherington. Ronald Wetherington is an anthropology professor at Southern Methodist University.  In his post, Klinghoeffer claims that Wetherington was “sloppy with his facts.”  Unfortunately, I can’t find a transcript of Wetherington’s testimony, but a recording can be found here.

Some of the criticisms focus on hominid evolution, the subject of Wetherington’s expertise.  This is not my expertise and I will leave it up to the readers to decide. However, I find it hard to believe someone from the Discovery Institute over an expert.

Lets look at some of Klinghoeffer’s specific claims:

Klinghoffer criticizes evolution of the mammalian eye. He describes Wetherington’s discussion of the subject as “laughably simplifies what eye-evolution would entail.” However, he never gives any real criticism of the ideas except to say that it is absurd. He never makes specific criticisms of current models of eye evolution, but he does lend support to the idea of eye evolution by quoting Sean B. Carroll.  Carroll warns us about “simple” eyespots (believed to be precursors to modern eyes): “But do not be fooled by these eyes’ simple construction and appearance. They are built with and use many of the ingredients used in fancier eyes.”  This is a good point and shows the reducible components of the eye.

Klinghoffer then goes on to attack Wetherington’s use of genetics as support for evolutionary theory. Klinghoffer’s arguments are really just an exercise in quote mining to support the logical fallacy of personal disbelief.  He quotes from a 2000 article in Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics where the authors describe the “mystery” of how mutation and natural selection resulted in the complexity of life today. He also quotes Frank Harold as saying that “there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” Neither reference is evidence against evolution, but are an acknowledgment of our incomplete understanding of evolution.

Klinghoffer says:

The more we know about genetics, the more we must, if we are honest with ourselves, doubt Darwin.

This is simply ridiculous. Genetics provides excellent support for evolution. For example, all living animals on earth have the same genetic code in their DNA. Dead viruses found in genomes can be traced back to when they were inserted along an evolutionary tree. Gene similarities between closely related species are more similar than those same genes between less related species. The list goes on, but it is clear that genetics provides excellent support for evolution, not the other way around.

Klinghoffer then goes on to regurgitate the deeply flawed observation by Michael Behe about the rate of mutations in humans by looking at a pair of mutation in the organism that causes malaria (Plasmodium falciparum).  I discuss Behe’s flawed reasoning here.

Klinghoffer has a few other nit-picky complaints towards the end:

-Wetherignton says that the term missing links isn’t used too much anymore.  Klinghoffer says that “ it is used in places like Science, Nature, Paleobiology, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and elsewhere.  My own experience tells me that Wetherington is correct, but just to be sure, I did a quick pubmed search with “missing link” and evolution. Only 96 results.  Wetherignton makes the point here that the reason we don’t use the term anymore is because it is inaccurate.  Once a fossil is found, it is no longer missing.  Besides, once one missing link fills in a gap, there are now two gaps to fill.

-Wetherington says Cambrian explosion lasted “at least 25 million years.” Klinghoffer says it was “under 10 million.”  Geez, what a terrible mistake of Wetherington, I guess evolution is completely false!  Seriously though, the length of the Cambrian explosion seems to vary dependent on who you ask and how you define it.  For example, Charles Marshall of Harvard writes:

Depending on when exactly one thinks the Cambrian “explosion” began, it is clear that there is a considerable temporal anatomy to the radiation. From the first appearance of heavily skeletonized animals to the first body fossils of trilobites, the radiation took some 20 million years. If one starts with the first abundant trace fossils through to the end of the Cambrian, then the radiation ran for some 65 million years.

-Wetherington says the explosion was “dominated by two phyla.” Klinghoffer says that Wetherington is wrong and actually  “19 of 28 phyla appeared.”   “Dominated by” is not the same as “appeared.”  Klinghoffer is trying to pull a fast one here.

-Klinghoffer complains that Wetherington confused a taxonomic class with a taxonomic order. Talk about grasping at straws

-Wetherington discusses research showing that hox genes can be interchanged between species. Klinghoffer denies this possibility  and claims this is “a piece of information that would startle Darwinian biologists.” Yet,  it has been shown that you can replace a Drosophilia Hox gene with a mouse Hox gene.  The switch leads to legs instead of wings, but illustrates overlap of function that Wetherington was talking about.  There are many other examples in the literature.

Finally, Klinghoffer has an excellent quote in this post that describes the work of ID proponents:

it seems obvious that men and women who invest themselves in their work over a lifetime may come to tell lies to themselves without ever knowing it, in order to maintain crucial fictions on which their life’s work depends. It’s human nature.

Only, he was talking about research scientists instead of ID proponents. However, evolution has facts and experimental data to support it, while intelligent design has only human intuition and logical fallacies to back it up.

What does the evidence say to the Discovery Institute?

The subject of today’s post is again about the denial of evidence for evolution by ID proponents. In the June 9th post, entitled: “Are Neo-Darwinists barking up the wrong tree?“, Casey Luskin and Logan Gage describes how some theists, including Stan Guthrie, are now embracing common ancestry. I applaud these people. However, the authors don’t buy it because of a lack of evidence for evolution. He says that we should ask “What does the evidence say?” I have been asking the same question for some time now, but IDers and I do not come up with the same answer.

One of the authors points is that the Cambrian explosion was too fast without any evolutionary precursors for the amount of new phyla seen. However, the Cambrian explosion was not the “geological instant” that it is made out to be. Does 70-80 million years seem like an instant? If you assume a generation to be 3 months, then that gives nearly 300 million generations of animals. Geological instant maybe, but a biological eternity.

Even if you were to accept that the Cambrian explosion was an act of God(Designer), you still have to accept that the creatures in existence back then are no longer around today. Where did all the new animals come from? This little detail seems to be missing from IDers analysis.

scientists have yet to uncover a scrap of evidence to suggest that they functioned as anything but commons fins

I have made this point so many times that I get blue in the face, but lack of evidence is not evidence that it is wrong. I am not too sure what kind of evidence they would want. Not too many pictures taken back then.

Anyway, as far as there not being a scrap of evidence, lets take a look at what the scientists who found the Tiktaalik fossils say about it:

Tiktaalik developed new mechanisms of head movement, respiration and body support that enabled this fish to exploit shallow water and even subaerial habitats. In support of this interpretation, ribs of the type that occur in Tiktaalik augment thoracolumbar rigidity and axial support, functions that are not necessary in an aquatic setting that is deep enough to support the body.

In regards to the fins that they simply dismisses out of hand, the authors point to:

Here we describe the pectoral appendage of a member of the sister group of tetrapods, Tiktaalik roseae, which is morphologically and functionally transitional between a fin and a limb. The expanded array of distal endochondral bones and synovial joints in the fin of Tiktaalik is similar to the distal limb pattern of basal tetrapods. The fin of Tiktaalik was capable of a range of postures, including a limb-like substrate-supported stance in which the shoulder and elbow were flexed and the distal skeleton extended.

I am not to sure how the authors can honestly say that there is not a “scrap of evidence.” Is it an honest mistake? Willful ignorance? Boldface lie?

They then goes on to poke holes in the Tree of Life (TOL) using the same arguments Luskin has used before. Rather than rehashing my criticisms of his analysis, I will just point you here. I do want to point out that Luskin and Gage refer again to a quote from WF Doolittle from June 1999, before the genomic era and the explosion of bioinformatic tools.

Both groups would do well to carefully scrutinize the scientific data and realize that there are good evidential reasons to question universal common ancestry.

Really? I haven’t seem it. All I hear from ID proponents is denial of evidence (read: Tiktaalik) or taking current unknowns as evidence against evolution (TOL).