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My Son the Expert! Part III: A Challenge to Texas Darwinists

Nobody but a pedant enjoys being pedantic. But putting Darwinist experts in their place, particularly those who testified before the Texas State Board of Education, requires pointing out in detail their misleading simplifications of the fields in which they are supposed to be expertly qualified. Discovery staff have carefully combed the testimony of Professors David Hillis and Ronald Wetherington, finding numerous significant instances of egregious falsehood. Making this clear puts one in danger of seeming pedantic.

But it's important, in part because we hereby challenge Hillis and Wetherington to defend their statements, in light of the detailed and devastating analyses that are now available online here and here. Of course, they won't respond, nor, I guess, will anyone in the Darwin Lobby. Which tells you about all you need to know.

As discussed in Discovery Institute's rebuttal to Wetherington's January 21 testimony before the Texas State Board, his simplifications are as gross and unprofessional as those of Hillis. He reminds me of the Monty Python sketch "How to Do It," where three smiley-faced presenters explain in under a minute and a half "how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, but first," explains John Cleese, "here's Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases."

The whole issue before the Board was whether high school students deserve to be made aware of the debates in biology that go to the heart of whether Darwinian theory is remotely plausible anymore. A lot is at stake in those debates -- nothing less than what it means to be human -- so not skimping on the details would seem to be the appropriate course. This is not about obscure academic infighting. Yet again and again, Wetherington, like Hillis, assured the Texas Board that it was it all very simple and clear, there is no debate, it's all been settled. Or as Cleese explains flute playing, "Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here."

Dr. Wetherington is an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University. His field is human evolution, so he ought to know about that subject. Yet when asked, he bluffed about how human origins are graced by "arguably the most complete sequence of fossil succession of any mammal in the world. No gaps. No lack of transitional fossils. ... So when people talk about the lack of transitional fossils or gaps in the fossil record, it absolutely is not true."

But according to authorities in his own field, it absolutely is true. Wetherington rattled off three supposed transitional fossil species, which no doubt impressed those on the Board who wanted to be impressed. However one of those, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, is dismissed by leading scientists as "the skull of a female gorilla." Another, Ardipithecus, is called a hominid based on a handful of teeth.

Regarding S. tchadensis, the journal Nature judged that if accepted as a hominid, "then it plays havoc with the tidy model of human origins." As for Ardipithecus, paleoanthropologist Tim White calls the period in which it, or rather its teeth, emerged "a black hole in the fossil record." As recently as 2004, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr candidly discussed the enormous gap in the record of human origins: "The earliest fossils of Homo, Homo rudolfensis and Homo erectus, are separated from Australopithecus by a large, unbridged gap. How can we explain this seeming saltation? Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative." In 2000, a University of Michigan study aptly described a "big bang theory" of human origins, noting that "[t]he first members of early Homo sapiens are really quite distinct from their australopithecine predecessors and contemporaries."

Wetherington was equally simplistic and Python-esque in dismissing the extraordinary difficulty of evolving an eye, even from a preexisting light-sensitive patch. The book he recommended that purportedly solves the problem of the eye is Francisco Ayala's Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion, which laughably simplifies what eye-evolution would entail: "Further steps -- the deposition of pigment around the spot, configuration of cells into a cuplike shape, thickening of the epidermis leading to the development of a lens, development of muscles to move the eyes and nerves to transmit optical signals to the brain -- gradually led to the highly developed eyes of vertebrates and celphalopod (octopuses and squids) and to the compound eyes of insects."

The absurdity of the characterization, in the context of Richard Dawkins' discussion of the same point, has been painfully noted by Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and others. Even a Darwinian evolutionary biologist such as Sean B. Carroll warns about "simple" eyespots: "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."

Wetherington chose to be fooled and to fool those of his listeners who also wished to be fooled. So too in his reassuring noises about how as we have learned more about genetics and biochemistry, "evolution by natural selection became an even better and even more complete explanation by utilizing and incorporating genetics." Of course the opposite is true. The more we know about those fields, the less convincing Darwinism becomes.

Not only notorious intelligent design theorists say so. In 2000, the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics described the "mystery [of] how the undirected process of mutation, combined with natural selection, has resulted in the creation of thousands of new proteins with extraordinarily diverse and well-optimized functions. This problem is particularly acute for tightly integrated molecular systems that consist of many interacting parts." In 2001, biochemist Franklin Harold agreed that "there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations."

This year in the journal Genetics, a pair of Cornell mathematicians took issue with Michael Behe on various points but conceded the time scale needed to produce a particular coordinated pair of mutations would vastly exceed the period during which humans are thought to have evolved -- 100 million years plus versus only a few million years.

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

I'm not calling Wetherington a deliberate liar. Rather, 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.

But calling Wetherington sloppy with his facts -- yes, that we can do. Like Hillis, he blithely declared that regarding Behe's irreducible complexity, "That debate is over," notwithstanding the variety of mainstream publications that have been debating against, and on behalf of, Behe since Darwin's Black Box came out in 1996. Discovery's analysis of Wetherington's testimony reproduces a list of these publications.

On much simpler factual points, Wetherington got things wrong too. He claimed that the term "missing link" is no longer used in scientific journals. But it is used, in places like Science, Nature, Paleobiology, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and elsewhere.

He claimed that the Cambrian explosion took place over "at least 25 million years, perhaps longer." But more distinguished scientists peg that timeframe at under 10 million years. He dismissed the significance of that great explosion of animal phyla as being dominated by two phyla. But no, 19 out of 28 phyla appeared. He regaled Board members with the information that rodents form a taxonomic class. But no, they form an order. He noted that Hox genes require no mutations "to change from one kind of animal to another" -- a piece of information that would startle Darwinian biologists.

And so on. Look, I know this may sound like pedantry but the guy was put up as an expert and he plainly misrepresented the very facts on which his claim to expertise was based. This is, alas, not an isolated incident, as the case of David Hillis demonstrates.

It's fortunate indeed, and a credit to skeptical laymen, that a majority of Board members were not fooled -- as the National Center for Science Education, bless their hearts, has been sorrowfully lamenting.

For more information, please see An Analysis of the Expert Testimony of Prof. Ronald Wetherington before the Texas State Board of Education on January 21, 2009