Darwin-Doubting Doctor Joseph Kuhn Replies to Unsophisticated Criticisms in <i>Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings</i> - Evolution News & Views

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Darwin-Doubting Doctor Joseph Kuhn Replies to Unsophisticated Criticisms in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings

Back in January we covered a paper, "Dissecting Darwinism", in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. The author, Joseph Kuhn, is a medical doctor and researcher in Baylor University Medical Center's Department of Surgery. Kuhn's paper was critical of biological and chemical evolution based upon geochemical, biochemical, genetic, and fossil evidence. The journal has now offered print-space to critics, but also kindly allowed Dr. Kuhn the opportunity to reply (at least, to some of the critics). The responses to Kuhn, however, show the unsophisticated and outdate nature of many arguments for evolution that exist in the minds of many pro-evolution scientists.

The primary response to Kuhn was a paper by Gregory G. Dimijian, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Dimijian's rebuttal takes up more print-space than the journal originally gave to Dr. Kuhn. Dimijian's rebuttal, though respectfully written, uses many common weak and unsophisticated arguments for evolution and overstatements of the evidence:

  • Dimijian opens his article with the statement that, "Evolutionary theory has never had a stronger scientific foundation than it does today." He cites "the deep commitment of today's biologists to Darwinian natural selection and to discoveries made since Darwin's time." Ironically, Darwinian natural selection is under attack in the mainstream biological literature perhaps more today than it has been in many decades. We recently covered some of these critics of natural selection here. As journalist Susan Mazur observed after interviewing many scientists about the Altenberg 16 conference, there are "hundreds of other evolutionary scientists (non-creationists) who contend that natural selection is politics, not science, and that we are in a quagmire because of staggering commercial investment in a Darwinian industry built on an inadequate theory."1 Likewise, Joseph Kuhn observes, "over 800 PhD scientists have signed a letter stating their concerns about the full scope of Darwinian evolution."
  • Dimijian cites the classic icon of evolution, the Galápagos finches, stating: "There is no contender for causation other than natural selection." But no Darwin-critic has ever stated otherwise. In fact, it seems likely that natural selection is a real force affecting the Galápagos finches, but its effects have been trivial. As Robert J. Whittaker's treatise Island Biogeography states, "it is extremely difficult to identify all the [Galápagos] finches, as the largest members of some species are almost indistinguishable from the smallest members of others."2 Dimijian suggests the finches represent "fast-track evolution," even though a paper in BioScience notes that the finches "retain the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile hybrids" -- after millions of years of evolution!3
  • He cites animal breeding experiments as supposedly demonstrating the power of natural selection, but fails to note the limits encountered by breeders. As the textbook Explore Evolution explains:
    For the critic, the question is not whether sheep can become woollier sheep; the question is whether sheep can eventually become sheepdogs... or horses... or camels. In other words, can natural selection transform one form of life into a fundamentally different form of life? ... Critics say that the experimental evidence reveals definite, discoverable limits on what artificial selection can do. They point out that animal breeders hit limits all the time. Breeders have tried for decades to produce a chicken that will lay more than one egg per day. They have failed. Horse breeders have not significantly increased the running speed of thoroughbreds, despite more than 70 years of trying. Darwin's theory requires that species have an immense capacity to change, but the evidence from breeding experiments shows that there are definite limits to how much a species can change, even when intelligent agents (the breeders) are doing the selection intentionally, trying to maximize certain traits.4
  • Dimijian offers other unimpressive evidence like the "eyes in some cave-dwelling fishes," so-called "vestigial genes," antibiotic resistance, or what he calls "hundreds of fossils of feathered dinosaurs." But he makes no mention of scientific debates over these claims, with functions being discovered for pseudogenes and ERVs, and evidence that "feathered dinosaurs" are really secondarily flightless birds. Nor does he seem to be aware that no Darwin-skeptic disputes the evidence of blind-eyed cave fish. Instead, skeptics observe that these loss-of-function examples are well-within the edge of evolution. Dimijian makes no mention that antibiotic resistance entails trivial genetic changes and often comes at a cost to fitness .
  • He gives simplistic, speculative arguments like "The transition from scales to feathers may have hinged on a relatively simple genetic switch," even though the scales-to-feathers hypothesis has been abandoned by leading evolutionary theorists. He cites Tiktaalik, claiming, "Play the fossil frames in a movie sequence and you see the emergence of fishes onto land," failing to note the large morphological gap between fishes like Tiktaalik and true tetrapods, and failing also to note that some of the "fossil frames" -- like true tetrapods that predate Tiktaalik -- are badly out-of-order.
  • He tries to solve the enigma of the Cambrian explosion by citing molecular clock data showing an ancient origin of animals -- though an accurate understanding of this data simply shows that living animals have a much larger degree of genetic differences than allowed by the fossil record. In any event, molecular clock data is highly controversial. As Joseph Kuhn wrote in response to another one of his critics:

    [M]olecular clocks have been shown to be a variable and unsteady process, requiring a host of assumptions that are not widely accepted, including the assumption that the organisms are related in the first place. As one paper in Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences recognized, "The second area where molecules and morphology are in serious disagreement concerns the origins of the metazoan phyla. . . . The discord between the two for the animal phyla may be as much as 500 million years," and concluded, "the idea that there is a universal molecular clock ticking away has long since been discredited." A 2006 article in Biological Therapy stated that a "review of the history on molecular systematics and its claims in the context of molecular biology reveals that there is no basis to the 'molecular assumption.'" Moreover, molecular clocks simply assume that any genetic similarity results from common ancestry; they do not demonstrate that is the case. My article indicated that there are paleontologists who feel strongly that the fossil data do not fully support Darwinian evolution. As Nature editor Henry Gee commented, "To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific." Thus, the fossil data remain controversial based on abrupt formation of species, less-than-convincing missing links (transitional species), and variable and assumption-laden conclusions of molecular clocks. (internal citations removed)
  • Dimijian recapitulates the standard story of human origins, failing to note the large morphological gap between human-like and ape-like species in the fossil record, and recounts the highly disputed Savannah grassland hypothesis for the origin of human bipedalism.

You could go on and on. The bottom line is that Dimijian's article is a recapitulation of many standard simplistic icons of evolution. He fails to give readers any idea of the many counterarguments and objections to the evidence he raises. I wouldn't be surprised if he isn't even aware of them--it's been my experience many evolutionary scientists have only ever heard one side of the evidence, and are not well-informed about the counter-arguments to their position.

To his credit, however, Dr. Dimijian was respectful in his arguments. Unfortunately, some of the other respondents to Dr. Kuhn were not so respectful.

C. Richard Boland of Baylor University Medical Center accuses Dr. Kuhn of offering a "rambling narrative." Boland himself takes an evolution-of-the-gaps approach and states, "It's a fool's errand to make a case that anything is permanently beyond human comprehension." His letter is full of errors. Boland claims the Miller-Urey experiments "provided hard evidence that complex compounds could evolve from simple ones in the soup," but even Stanley Miller wouldn't say that. Miller admitted that all they produced were monomers, not complex compounds. As an article in Discover Magazine stated:

Even Miller throws up his hands at certain aspects of it. The first step, making the monomers, that's easy. We understand it pretty well. But then you have to make the first self-replicating polymers. That's very easy, he says, the sarcasm fairly dripping. Just like it's easy to make money in the stock market -- all you have to do is buy low and sell high. He laughs. Nobody knows how it's done.5
Boland makes the further unsophisticated argument that "Given enough time (and most scientists estimate that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old), it is not surprising that somewhere in the primordial soup of our planet, a variety of complex compounds would spontaneously form" or "given immense amounts of time, and the huge 'test tube' involved, some of the RNA precursors would eventually polymerize into ever larger macromolecules with self-replicating ability in the RNA world. It's not that complicated." This is much like the prior respondent to Dr. Kuhn who asserted, "I suspect that there has been time enough for evolution, no matter how complex." Such arguments fail on many levels.

In particular, there isn't unlimited time available for the origin of life. Stephen Jay Gould explains that the time available for the origin of life is not vast and unending, but extremely limited: "Since the oldest dated rocks, the Isua Supracrustals of West Greenland, are 3.8 billion years old, we are left with very little time between the development of suitable conditions for life on the earth's surface and the origin of life."6 Joseph Kuhn observes in response to Boland:

[M]odern geochemists doubt that a "primordial soup" existed. He made the mistake that origin-of-life researcher David Abel warned against: "Mere possibility is not an adequate basis for asserting scientific plausibility," and "just because a hypothesis is possible should not grant that hypothesis scientific respectability." In this case, the odds of producing a self-replicating RNA molecule go beyond the available probabilistic resources. (internal citations removed)

Indeed, there are significant barriers even to the polymerization of amino acids into polymers. Because the process generates water, it won't tend to occur in an aqueous environment like a prebiotic soup or a hydrothermal vent. As the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) observes: "In water, the assembly of nucleosides from component sugars and nucleobases, the assembly of nucleotides from nucleosides and phosphate, and the assembly of oligonucleotides from nucleotides are all thermodynamically uphill in water. Two amino acids do not spontaneously join in water. Rather, the opposite reaction is thermodynamically favored at any plausible concentrations: polypeptide chains spontaneously hydrolyze in water, yielding their constituent amino acids."

Given such constraints, some scientists are not so optimistic that RNA could arise on the primordial earth. To mention one of many problems, origin-of-life theorist Robert Shapiro observes:

Nucleotides, for example, are not encountered in nature beyond organisms or laboratory synthesis. To construct RNA, high concentrations of four select nucleotides would be needed in the same location, with others being excluded. If this is the prerequisite for life, then it is an unusual phenomenon, rare in the Universe.7
Here is Shapiro interviewed on the subject by James Urquhart:

However, Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus of chemistry at New York University disagrees. "Although as an exercise in chemistry this represents some very elegant work, this has nothing to do with the origin of life on Earth whatsoever," he says. According to Shapiro, it is hard to imagine RNA forming in a prebiotic world along the lines of Sutherland's synthesis. "The chances that blind, undirected, inanimate chemistry would go out of its way in multiple steps and use of reagents in just the right sequence to form RNA is highly unlikely," argues Shapiro. Instead, he advocates the metabolism-first argument: that early self-sustaining autocatalytic chemosynthetic systems associated with amino acids predated RNA.8

Boland merely asserts that self-replicating RNA strands could arise by unguided natural processes, but Kuhn observes in response:

Although newspapers and high school biology texts often assert (without providing detail) an RNA-world hypothesis, there are strongly dissenting scientists who argue that the essential RNA polymerase enzyme does not form by itself. Stephen Meyer listed additional insurmountable obstacles to an RNA first hypothesis: 1) the inability to account for the necessary nucleotides or ribose molecules (they don't form spontaneously), 2) the nonfunctional early ribosome, 3) the nonexistent RNA translation and coding system, and 4) the origin of the inherent genetic information. He specifically stated, "RNA-first theories, like their predecessors, had failed to explain the central question of the origin of the 'information' that living cells require." (internal citations omitted)
Another critic, evolutionary biologist Dennis Hansen at the University of Zurich, states: "If the sadly misguided Dr. Kuhn had bothered to thoroughly read some of the many real scientific references he cites . . . , especially the landmark court ruling Kitzmiller v. Dover, he would have found that all his presented 'evidence' against evolution by natural selection has been thoroughly debunked by real scientists time and time again." Hansen attacks Kuhn as a "religious creationist." Of course Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling was full of scientific errors, as we've explained in the past here, here, or here. Hansen seems to take whatever Judge Jones said as gospel truth, being more interested in name-calling than critically investigating the arguments. Kuhn writes in response to Hansen:
Dr. Hansen chose to use ad hominem arguments, charging that I am a "religious creationist." His attacks are inaccurate, and any aspersions to my religion are irrelevant, as I did not make any theological arguments. I am just a surgeon with experience in molecular medicine and with respect for objective scientific inquiry.
Finally, Charles E. Jones of the University of Pittsburgh writes a letter calling Kuhn "breathtakingly ignorant of basic facts," because the Cambrian explosion supposedly took "at least 20 to 30 million years." In fact, much scientific literature backs up Dr. Kuhn's claim that it was much shorter:

  • Robert Carroll stated in the leading journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution that "within less then 10 million years, almost all of the advanced phyla appeared, including echinoderms, chordates, annelids, brachiopods, molluscs and a host of arthropods. The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time period requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for the evolution of species within the modern biota."9
  • Likewise, an article in the journal Development by three Cambrian explosion experts explains that, "The Cambrian explosion is named for the geologically sudden appearance of numerous metazoan body plans (many of living phyla) between about 530 and 520 million years ago, only 1.7% of the duration of the fossil record of animals."10

  • Another article in a major evolution journal states that "recent geological investigations suggest that the Cambrian explosion may have occurred within a period of only 5-10 million years."11

It seems Kuhn wasn't so ignorant of the facts after all. Nonetheless, in response to Jones, Kuhn remains respectful, writing:

[Jones] is incorrect in his assessment of the current state of affairs regarding prebiotic molecules research. I would acknowledge an enormous amount of modern research into molecular chemistry, hydrothermal vents, lipid formation, and many aspects of prebiotic science. But many of these ideas have problems. To take hydrothermal vents, for one, they would serve as a poor location for the origin of life to take place since their high heat would quickly degrade any organic molecules. As William Dembski noted, "Most of origin-of-life research is as relevant to the real problem of life's origin as rubber-band powered propeller model planes are to the military's most sophisticated stealth aircraft." In other words, there is not a single paper that has demonstrated the autoformation of DNA, RNA, or a functioning cell.
In conclusion, Joseph Kuhn's exchange with critics in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings is highly instructive as a window into the minds of many pro-evolution scientists. Because Kuhn expressed skepticism of neo-Darwinian evolution, he faced personal attacks and accusations of ignorance in print in a scientific journal. Moreover, the evidence cited to rebut Kuhn typically consists of long-challenged icons of evolution, and unsophisticated arguments. Kuhn's opponents simply assert that "given immense amounts of time," essentially anything can happen.

But such assertions are not enough. As we've seen, one needs to test the available probabilistic resources and not simply assume that there is always enough time for alleged evolutionary processes to do the job. Kuhn was correct to cite increasing evidence in the scientific literature challenging biological and chemical evolution. As he wrote in response to one critic:

The articles I cited are from mainstream scientific sources. Some Darwinists have a certain degree of indoctrination that makes it difficult for them to accept papers that are critical of their "paradigm." These papers have raised specific concerns about the ability of Darwinian evolution to explain (a) the origin of DNA, (b) the origin of the cell, and (c) the inability of irreducibly complex systems to form in a step-by-step fashion.
This debate is complex, and the exchange in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings covers many topics. Joseph Kuhn was able to sustain a dialogue with his critics at an impressive level, discussing a wide variety of issues. But Kuhn's critics did not do so well. When informed critics of neo-Darwinism get involved in the debate, the average Darwin-defender is likely to learn that the evidence is not what he thought it was.

Kuhn replied to his critics with respect and by citing many up-to-date discussions of the evidence. Let's hope that he was able to convince some open-minded readers that there is evidence challenging biological and chemical evolution after all.

References:

[1.] Susan Mazur, The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry, p. 55 (North Atlantic Books 2010).
[2.] Robert J. Whittaker, Island Biogeography: Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation, p. 96 (Oxford University Press, 1998) (internal citations removed).
[3.] Jeffrey Podos and Stephen Nowicki, "Beaks, Adaptation, and Vocal Evolution in Darwin's Finches," BioScience, Vol. 54(6):501-510 (June 2004).
[4.] Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker, Paul A. Nelson, and Ralph Seelke, Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, pp. 90-91 (Hill House, 2007).)
[5.] Peter Radetsky, "How Did Life Start?" Discover Magazine
[6.] Stephen Jay Gould, "An Early Start," Natural History, p. 10 (February, 1978) (emphasis added).
[7.] Robert Shapiro, " Astrobiology: Life's beginnings," Nature, Vol. 476:30-31 (August 4, 2011).
[8.] Robert Shapiro quoted in James Urquhart, "Insight into RNA origins," Royal Society of Chemistry (May 13, 2009).
[9.] Robert L. Carroll, "Towards a new evolutionary synthesis," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 15:27-32 (January, 2000).
[10.] James W. Valentine, David Jablonski and Douglas H. Erwin, "Fossils, molecules and embryos: new perspectives on the Cambrian explosion," Development, Vol. 126, 851-859 (1999).
[11.] Michael A. Bell, "Origin of the metazoan phyla: Cambrian explosion or proterozoic slow burn," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 12:1-2 (January 1, 1997).


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