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Double Standards and a Single Variable: A Response to Paul McBride's Review of Fossils in Science and Human Origins

Science and Human Origins.jpgAside from some grumbling among Amazon reviewers, evolution activists on the Internet had been relatively quiet in response to our book Science and Human Origins. Before the book came out, Richard B. Hoppe at Panda's Thumb wrote a post that amounted to little more than his usual ridicule. We use arguments here rather than ridicule, so we ignored Hoppe. After Hoppe's comments appeared, the Panda's Thumb crowd went dead silent until a graduate student named Paul McBride wrote a review of Science and Human Origins on his blog, Still Monkeys. McBride provided the pro-evolution blogosphere with something to talk about, and his review has since been hailed on a number of evolution blogs. As David Klinghoffer noted, McBride became the "Hero of the Hour" for Internet Darwin activists.

McBride deserves credit for remaining largely civil in his discussions of the book -- he even wrote a nice post on the need for maintaining civility (the only flaw in which is his mistakenly thinking that the word "Darwinist" is a slur and was invented by Darwin-critics, when in fact evolutionists themselves have used the term for years).

As to substance, McBride's response to my Chapter 3 on the hominin fossil record in Science and Human Origins, "Human Origins and the Fossil Record," has little to say in reply. He even writes, "For the most part, Luskin does a fine job of pointing to all of the scientific controversy around different fossils -- uncertainties of placement, the effect of the placement of one fossil on the placement of others, and so forth." McBride otherwise leaves the vast majority of my arguments in Chapter 3 alone, which is an initial point worth noting.

But he does attempt a few substantive critiques. These I found less than compelling -- full of double standards, and revolving around a single variable (brain size) which he claims (wrongly) shows smooth, gradual evolution. Even if this variable did evolve smoothly, I provide an extensive discussion in my chapter of why that would not demonstrate that humans share a common ancestor with apes. McBride fails to engage my discussion of the evolution of brain size, ignoring my arguments why skulls of "intermediate" size demonstrate very little. And as we'll see in a further article, the authorities he relies upon to claim that the evolution of cranial capacities displays a "lack of discontinuity" in fact argue that there is great discontinuity -- including "punctuational changes" and "saltation" -- in the hominin fossil record as it pertains to skull size.

For now, I offer two observations, that (1) many of McBride's criticisms use double-standards which, if applied fairly, really aren't relevant or apply with equal (or more) force against evolutionists, and (2) his substantive responses fail to engage my chapter and are unconvincing. He also misrepresents the conclusion of my chapter, putting words in my mouth for the apparent purpose of knocking down a straw-man argument.

One-Sided Credentialism

McBride opens his discussion of my chapter on the fossil record by insinuating a reference to my credentials, suggesting my arguments shouldn't be taken seriously on this topic. He writes:

In walks Casey Luskin, armed with a law degree and a Masters in earth science, ready to take on the idea of our shared common ancestor with chimpanzees in a chapter entitled "Human Origins and the Fossil Record."
David Klinghoffer anticipated and preemptively addressed this sort of objection here, but I can't help noticing the irony that McBride himself is a grad student who doesn't seem to have any formal degrees in paleoanthropology. Yet he attacks me for allegedly lacking such training. In fact, McBride admits he doesn't have "any degree of expertise" in this area, writing:
There are areas that I lack any degree of expertise -- physical anthropology springs to mind (although, could the chapter's author, Luskin, claim any more expertise?).
Now I am not attacking McBride's expertise, and I'm not trying to compare my own to his. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me what his level of training is in these fields. What matters is whether his arguments hold any merit. (McBride, having formal training in evolutionary biology, probably has more expertise than he's willing to credit himself with.)

In fact McBride, Hoppe, and Nick Matzke (whose arguments McBride cites in his response) have all attempted to critique my work on this topic -- but all lack credentials in paleoanthropology. You may notice how in this respect, evolutionists give themselves a free pass, holding themselves to a lesser standard than they do me.

In any case, McBride is wrong to suggest I lack adequate training to evaluate this issue, for reasons Klinghoffer already gave. For my part, I don't object to McBride, Hoppe, Matzke or most anyone else talking about my work or paleoanthropology in general. So again, this is a nice lesson in how Internet evolutionists use double standards to attack Darwin-critics.

Lewontin and the "Fragmentary" and "Disconnected" Hominin Fossil Record

McBride claims my chapter misrepresents Richard Lewontin. As I write in the Science and Human Origins:

So "fragmentary" and "disconnected" is the data that in the judgment of Harvard zoologist Richard Lewontin, "no fossil hominid species can be established as our direct ancestor.
McBride says: "It is not a sign of the poverty of a fossil record that extant species lack directly fossilized ancestors, but rather evidence that there were various, diverse lineages that mostly led to evolutionary dead ends." McBride is partly right that Lewontin is pointing out the complex and bushy nature of evolution, but he's wrong to claim that Lewontin is not also affirming the poverty of the hominid fossil record. Look at the full quote from Lewontin, and you can see that I cited him correctly:
When we consider the remote past, before the origin of the actual species Homo sapiens, we are faced with a fragmentary and disconnected fossil record. Despite the excited and optimistic claims that have been made by some paleontologists, no fossil hominid species can be established as our direct ancestor.

(Richard Lewontin, Human Diversity, p. 163 (Scientific American Library, 1995).)

Lewontin clearly accepts the "fragmentary" and "disconnected" nature of the hominin fossil record as a reason why we can't find fossil ancestors for humans. The full quote makes this clear.

Global Double-Standard on Accusations of "One-sided Treatment"

As a final point in this first part of my response, McBride accuses me of offering a "one-sided treatment" in the book, claiming I "prefe[r] to emphasize dissent" over the consensus view. While my article certainly discusses many dissenting scientific viewpoints, his critique is misplaced for a number of reasons.

First, McBride writes, "Teaching the controversy should require first teaching the orthodoxy," but my chapter fairly presents the standard consensus view. As I recently discussed here, my chapter explains the standard mainstream view of the hominin phylogeny, and each section of the chapter gives a fair representation of the "orthodox" perspective on the specific fossils under discussion. We constantly hear this orthodox view repeated -- with virtually no criticism -- in the media, in textbooks, and in public statements made by paleoanthropologists. Indeed, as I was working on this chapter, reading and reviewing numerous popular-level books by evolutionary scientists on human origins, I found that they consistently mentioned only the consensus view, ignored dissent, and provided the epitome of what McBride labels "one-sided treatment." McBride's own review could be seen as doing much the same thing. Yet he accuses me of being "one-sided"?

From what I can tell, for McBride, being "one-sided" simply means holding a dissenting opinion. So my second point in response to him is that it seems McBride is saying people shouldn't be allowed to make an argument at all, if that argument strays from the orthodoxy. I find the implications of this disturbing.

Arguments are by nature one-sided -- that's what it means to argue for your view. Evolutionists, of course, regularly make arguments in favor of human evolution. They have the right to do so. McBride apparently has no problem with this because evolution advocates affirm the majority view. He objects to my presenting another perspective as "one-sided," even though my argument cites numerous sources from the mainstream scientific and technical literature. Under his rules, it seems, what you cannot do is advocate a minority opinion, however thoroughly you back it up.

My argument in Chapter 3 is essentially threefold: (1) There's quite a bit of credible scientific dissent from the "consensus" story on human origins, (2) This dissent is often not available for public consumption, and (3) The public ought to be able to hear about it. So if I'm emphasizing dissent, that's because there's a lot of credible dissent out there in the literature.

Third, McBride mistakes Science and Human Origins for a textbook. He charges that my chapters imply that a "teach the controversy" approach really means teaching only one viewpoint. This criticism is off base, and if McBride himself is not willing to endorse a true "teach the controversy" approach, then it's also hypocritical.

Science and Human Origins has never been promoted as a textbook. Although its arguments are scientifically based, for a number of reasons, I would not recommend its use in public schools. It is not intended to represent the kind of educational resource we would recommend for a "teach the controversy" approach in such a context. At most, it's intended as a supplementary resource, which I might recommend for use alongside other books (including pro-evolution sources) on human origins in a non-public school environment.

So what do we recommend as a textbook for "teaching the controversy"? We recommend Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. As you might surmise from the title, that textbook really does present the arguments for and against neo-Darwinian evolution. Each chapter contains a "case for" and "case against" section, allowing students to learn about, and evaluate, both sides of the argument. This stands in contrast to virtually all the mainstream biology textbooks in existence, which completely fail to inform students about multiple scientific viewpoints. So when we produce a book intended to help "teach the controversy" in public schools, we absolutely present the standard "orthodox" evolutionary viewpoint in addition to scientific criticisms.

McBride and his colleagues should be allowed to have a viewpoint, and so should I. When he plays the "one-sided" card against me, and not against the countless pro-evolution books, blogs (like his own), and other publications that give a "one-sided" pro-evolution view, it looks like a double standard is at work.