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.

Evolution-denier Casey Luskin attacks new fossil find using evolution principles

A recent Nature paper describes the finding of the flightless, feathered dinosaur Epidexipteryx hui. The paper describes a well-preserved fossil of Epidexipteryx found in northern China that dates to about 152 to 168 million years ago.  It was a pigeon-sized creature with small feathers unsuitable for flight and four long tail feathers that are thought to be ornamental.

This finding is particularly interesting because it helps fill in the gaps of the change from feathered dinosaurs to true birds.  The creature had some interesting characteristics. For one, its feathers are not like the typical feathers of today’s birds or even other feathered dinosaurs of the time.  They don’t contain the typical central shaft of extant birds.  Also, it appears to be the first animal to have large display feathers.  For a little more information, checkout this MSNBC article.

Predictably, Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute wrote a blog post criticizing these findings and how they were perceived by the media.  His main contention is that this fossil looks like it could have been a “secondarily flightless bird.”  In other words, he believes that this evidence shows that there used to be flying birds during the middle Jurassic era and some evolved into flightless birds.  There are at least a couple things wrong with his reasoning as an anti-evolution, pro-intelligent design proponent.

Luskin seems to be proving aspects of evolution while saying that the given hypothesis is wrong. He states:

Epidexipteryx hui may not be a “feathered dinosaur” at all, but instead was a bird that lost its ability to fly while retaining feathers”

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like evolution? The change of a bird going from a flying animal to a flightless one would be considered a strong candidate of speciation. That’s funny, since one of the most often used talking point for intelligent design is that evolution could not lead to speciation.  Sounds to me like Luskin believes in evolution and speciation only when he can use it to argue against new research findings.

Luskin also assumes one important thing with his argument that this creature is just a secondarily-flightless bird. He assumes that there were already birds living at the time. There weren’t as far as we know.  Therefore, his whole argument is vacuous. The first real bird is believed to be Archaeopteryx, which lived at least 2 million years after Epidexipteryx hui.

After reading Luskin’s post, it seems to me that really only have two options. You can believe the well-thought out and evidence-supported timeline of dinosaurs evolving into birds. The other option is to believe the ID-proponent’s unsupported view that Epidexipteryx evolved from preexisting birds that we cannot find. Either way, you have to believe in evolutionary change, but only one is reasonable.

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Scientist behind fish-tetrapod find calls out Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin

Over at A Free Man, there is an interview with

Catherine Boisvert

Catherine Boisvert

. Boisvert was the first author on the recent paper that showed the underlying fingerlike structures of the prehistoric fish, Panderichthys. I wrote about the recent findings and the Discovery Institute’s response here. At that time, Casey Luskin argued that scientists were engaging in “Retroactive Confession of Ignorance.” He claimed that she was attacking the quality and relevance of another prehistoric fish, Tiktaalik (original emphasis):

Confident that her fossil showed evolution better than Tiktaalik, Boisvert and other Darwinists then proceeded to admit striking criticisms of Tiktaalik. The interview with Boisvert at The Scientist states, “Previous data from another ancient fish called Tiktaalik showed distal radials as well — although the quality of that specimen was poor.

During the interview,  they asked Catherine Boisvert about Luskin’s description of her words:

AFM: The creationist Discovery Institute has pounced on some of the statements in your paper regarding sample quality as evidence that scientists are trying to backpedal on previous hypotheses regarding digit development and evolution. Can you clarify your statements regarding sample quality of Tiktaalik and Panderichthys?

CB: As you know, the “Discovery” Institute tactic is not to go to the primary literature in order to understand it but rather to use quotations from secondary, even tertiary sources, reorganise or use them out of context opportunistically to their own convenience. In this case, they used an article where the journalists unfortunately misunderstood me. Tiktaalik’s material is in fact exquisite, it is very well preserved, basically uncrushed and can be prepared out to be examined in three dimensions. I never said the quality was poor. I have simply explained that the morphology of the fin of Panderichthys is more tetrapod-like than that of Tiktaalik, which has nothing to do with the quality of the material.

Of course we already knew that Luskin wasn’t going to be honest with his readers when he is quoting an evolution proponent, but it is nice to hear it directly from the source.  I encourage you to read the rest of the interview. She is a fascinating scientist and is surely someone that we should all keep an eye on.

hat tip: Panda’s Thumb

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Geoffrey Simmons on not knowing the direction of the sun

Geoffrey Simmons, in a never ending series of self-promotional posts, questions the evolutionary processes that led to the ability of plants to grow up:

The pat answer is that prehistoric flat plants decided to compete for more sun. But where did this need to compete arise? How could a limp ground hugger accidentally develop systems to support excessive weight – maybe tons of wood – root systems to support the weight, transport systems to move the water and nutrients up, and defense mechanisms against weather and pests?

Simmons does not buy the pat answer, but it is a perfectly reasonable causation. Imagine a limited area that is overrun with flat plants. Since there is no more area on the ground, any move in the vertical direction is going to yield exposure to more sun. The need for weight supporting structures, transport systems and defense mechanisms simply followed. This would have been obviously brought about by natural selection. The fact that Simmons can’t see this is actually astounding. I guess his billions of missing links, including upside-down wombat pouches, adhesives used by Barnacles and Mussels, and velvet worms, can all be summarized as an argument from personal disbelief.

Simmons ends with a ridiculous analogy. This of course has become a pattern with creationist/IDers. When they can’t really make a good argument that is based on reason and evidence, they appeal to an analogy that is specifically crafted to prove their point.

Did you notice the derogatory statement that plants accidently developed the ability to grow upright? Or how about how plants decided to compete? This wording would not really be used by scientists and is yet another example of an ID proponent trying to win points by making evolution sound absurd. However, Simmons inability to see natural selection in such an obvious place is what is really absurd.

Update:  The skepTick has an alternate (and more funny) view of Simmon’s post.

Casey Luskin is wristless

Tiktaalik (courtesy of NSF)

On July 14, 2008, Casey Luskin asks: Tiktaalik roseae: Where’s the Wrist? In this post, Luskin essentially is saying that the recent transitional fossil of Tiktaalik does not have anything resembling a wrist. The trained scientists who published the paper (Neil H. Shubin, Edward B. Daeschler and Farish A. Jenkins, Jr), the scientists that peer-reviewed their work, and countless others who have read the work disagree with him.  Luskin is not a paleontologist and is in no way qualified to determine the structure/function of fossils.  However, it doesn’t stop him from trying in the name of Intelligent Design.

Lets first start by defining transitional fossils. Transitional fossils are fossils that illustrate an evolutionary transition. They can be identified by their retention of certain primitive traits in comparison with their more derived relatives.  In Tiktaalik for example, its “fins” have many bones and a range of movement that are characteristic of both fins and limbs, but can not really be called either.  Luskin does not understand this and keeps going on about how Tiktaalik doesn’t have a wrist.  This false dichotomy of either having a wrist or a fin is at the heart of Luskin’s misunderstanding.

For example, he states:

So when we come to Shubin’s technical analysis, he admits that Tiktaalik does not have not real a “wrist,” but at best he says that it has some bones that foreshadow a wrist. But does Tiktaalik’s fin really foreshadow a wrist, and how closely do its bones resemble a real wrist?”

This ambiguity between a wrist and a fin that Luskin is referring to is the exact reason that Tiktaalik is called a transitional fossil (see above). It has features of both and can’t be accurately described as either. If it was just a wrist, then the ID proponents would say it wasn’t a transitional fossil.  Paleontologists would agree there.  Luskin goes on to state:

In other words, the joints can flex or straighten. Shubin may be correct, but this is nothing special: the same could be said for living fish species that are capable of using their fins to prop themselves up. And they certainly don’t have wrists.

What Luskin is not understanding here is that the bones were in a configuration for propping themselves up out of water. A very big difference.

To sum it all up, Casey Luskin is not qualified to attack the credibility of Tiktaalik as a transitional fossil.  He does not understand or see that this is a transitional fossil that should and does have elements that are related to both.

Upside down on wombat pouches

In a May 20, 2008 post entitled Billions of Missing Links: Wombat Pouches, Geoffrey Simmons writes:

A design must be considered improbable if it is highly functional and durable yet too complex to have come about spontaneously or by intermediate steps.

This is a simple rewording of irreducible complexity, an idea that is being destroyed with increasing frequency in the fields of paleontology and in molecular biology. IDers proclaim that the species we have today are too complex to have come about by intermediate steps. Who are they to decide what is too complex?  It seems like an arbitrary call to me and set up for future arguments using the moving goalposts fallacy. Besides, systems that once appeared too complex to work without individual parts are now able to be simplified. For example, blood clotting, functional eyes, and the complement system.

The “missing link” brought up in this post is the one of the upside down pouch in wombats:

The wombat has an upside-down pouch. Scientists presume, and it makes sense, that position prevents dirt from entering the pouch when the wombat is digging in the ground. Could there have been transitional species with pouches situated sideways, or did the first wombats have to scoop dirt out of their pouches every day?

The author is using a technique to make evolution sound stupid by bringing up a wombat that would have a sideways pouch or that wombats would have to scoop dirt.  Of course the change from right-side-up to upside-down could have simply been in one step.  When a wombat came along with a mutation that led to an upside-down patch, it would have a strong advantage in being able to raise healthy young.

This characterization of the wombat is laughable, yet convenient for IDers. I suspect the example was brought up because it is going to be hard to find intermediate fossils of wombat pouch evolution due to the pouch being made of soft tissue. Since soft tissues don’t fossilize, it will be hard to trace its evolution.  Unfortunately, there have not been any useful fossils found of wombat ancestors.  But then again, present day-like wombats have not been found either, as would have been predicted by ID.