McBride Misstates My Arguments in <i>Science and Human Origins</i> - Evolution News & Views

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McBride Misstates My Arguments in Science and Human Origins

I will now conclude my response to Paul McBride's rebuttal to my chapter "Human Origins and the Fossil Record," in Science and Human Origins. We'll see how McBride misrepresents my thesis. Specifically:

  • He misstates my thesis as suggesting some kind of a "conspiracy" among evolutionary scientists.
  • McBride misrepresents my arguments about Lucy saying I am arguing that paleoanthropology involves "dishonest science."
  • McBride wrongly suggests that my chapter argues "The graceful hand of the Intelligent Designer was involved in our Special Creation, and the rest is mere detail."
  • McBride offers a grossly uncharitable (and false) summary of my arguments, wrongly claiming my thesis is that the standard Darwinian story of human origins is flawed because "the entire field of palaeoanthropology is driven by personal disputes," and inventing a claim that I argued Francis Collins is a "bad Christian."
Science and Human Origins.jpg"Conspiracy"?

Paul McBride claims that I am arguing there is some kind of a "conspiracy" where paleoanthropologists willfully conspire to hide the truth from the public. It's easy to fling charges that someone is a "conspiracy" theorist, but my chapter never alleges anything like that. Nor do I think that such conspiracies exist. My Chapter 3 does point out that sometimes we see evolutionary scientists saying one thing to the public on human origins, while the technical literature says something very different. This is not a conspiracy theory; whatever the reasons for it, it's just an observable fact.

My main examples are statements by SMU anthropologist Ronald Wetherington to the Texas State Board of Education in 2009, which I believe dramatically overstated the evidence. You don't have believe in "conspiracies" to see the disconnect between Wetherington's statements and what we see in the technical literature. Consider some examples I give in Science and Human Origins:

Ronald Wetherington's Testimony Before the Texas State Board of Education in 2009The Scientific Literature
Human evolution has "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. And it is not true specifically for our own species.""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).)

"About half the time span in the last three million years remains undocumented by any human fossils." (Donald Johanson and Blake Edgar, From Lucy to Language (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 22-23.)

"No gradual series of changes in earlier australopithecine populations clearly leads to the new species, and no australopithecine species is obviously transitional." (John Hawks, Keith Hunley, Sang-Hee Lee, and Milford Wolpoff, "Population Bottlenecks and Pleistocene Human Evolution," Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution, 17 (2000): 2-22.)

"The anatomy of the earliest H. sapiens sample indicates significant modifications of the ancestral genome and is not simply an extension of evolutionary trends in an earlier australopithecine lineage throughout the Pliocene. In fact, its combination of features never appears earlier." (Ibid.)

"Of the various transitions that occurred during human evolution, the transition from Australopithecus to Homo was undoubtedly one of the most critical in its magnitude and consequences. As with many key evolutionary events, there is both good and bad news. First, the bad news is that many details of this transition are obscure because of the paucity of the fossil and archaeological records." (Daniel E. Lieberman, David R. Pilbeam, and Richard W. Wrangham, "The Transition from Australopithecus to Homo," in Transitions in Prehistory: Essays in Honor of Ofer Bar-Yosef, eds. John J. Shea and Daniel E. Lieberman (Cambridge: Oxbow Books, 2009), 1.)

Human origins provide "a nice clean example of what Darwin thought was a gradualistic evolutionary change.""Our biological history has been one of sporadic events rather than gradual accretions. Over the past five million years, new hominid species have regularly emerged, competed, coexisted, colonized new environments and succeeded--or failed. We have only the dimmest of perceptions of how this dramatic history of innovation and interaction unfolded..." (Ian Tattersall, "Once we were not alone," Scientific American (January, 2000): 55-62.)

"Our interpretation is that the changes are sudden and interrelated and reflect a bottleneck that was created because of the isolation of a small group from a parent australopithecine species. In this small population, a combination of drift and selection resulted in a radical transformation of allele frequencies, fundamentally shifting the adaptive complex; in other words, a genetic revolution." (Hawks et al. (2000) (internal citations removed).)

"We, like many others, interpret the anatomical evidence to show that early H. sapiens was significantly and dramatically different from... australopithecines in virtually every element of its skeleton and every remnant of its behavior" (Ibid.)

"It is difficult to accept an evolutionary sequence in which Homo habilis, with less human-like locomotor adaptations, is intermediate between Australopithecus afaren[s]is ... and fully bipedal Homo erectus." (Sigrid Hartwig-Scherer and Robert D. Martin, "Was 'Lucy' more human than her 'child'? Observations on early hominid postcranial skeletons," Journal of Human Evolution, 21 (1991): 439-49.)

"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." (Ernst Mayr, What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 198.)

"Every fossil we find reinforces the sequence that we had previously supposed to exist rather than suggesting something""A single fossil can fundamentally change the way we reconstruct the tree of life." (Bernard Wood, "Hominid revelations from Chad," Nature, 418 (July 11, 2002): 133-35.)

"If we accept these as sufficient evidence to classify S. tchadensis as a hominid at the base, or stem, of the modern human clade, then it plays havoc with the tidy model of human origins. Quite simply, a hominid of this age should only just be beginning to show signs of being a hominid. It certainly should not have the face of a hominid less than one-third of its geological age. Also, if it is accepted as a stem hominid, under the tidy model the principle of parsimony dictates that all creatures with more primitive faces (and that is a very long list) would, perforce, have to be excluded from the ancestry of modern humans." (Ibid.)

McBride tries to brush off Wetherington's statements by saying "Agreement comes to the fore in the public arena because to a large extent, the agreed-upon basics are discussed there. Perhaps this is a less sinister cause of such differences." I'm not suggesting anything as "sinister" as some grand conspiracy, but McBride's benign explanation of the disconnect fails to satisfy. The citations I've given from the scientific literature here show that statements that Wetherington made before the Texas State Board of Education are clearly not "agreed upon" by professional scientists. Wetherington is of course entitled to his own opinions, and I have no reason to think he didn't believe what he was saying. But the fact remains that a significant body of leading scientists would disagree with the statements he made in a very important public forum.

McBride again tries to sweep these disagreements under the rug, dismissing them as mere "technical controversies." But what we see is leading paleoanthropologists who do NOT believe human origins has "no lack of transitional fossils" and who do not believe our origins is "a nice clean example of what Darwin thought was a gradualistic evolutionary change." I think it's fair to say that many leading paleoanthropologists would strongly contest Wetherington's claim that our species has "arguably the most complete sequence of fossil succession of any mammal in the world" and "No gaps." In fact, McBride himself apparently disagrees with Wetherington on this, as he writes: "Luskin is right to point out that the hominin fossil record is imperfect, and that at times the completeness of that record have been overstated."

And that's my point. When speaking to the public, paleoanthropologists sometimes overstate their claims. Wetherington was one of six invited experts at the 2009 Texas State Board of Education hearings on how to teach evolution, and the Board's decision had national ramifications for evolution-education. He overstated the evidence for human evolution, as seen above.

Wetherington's overstatements are not the product of any "conspiracy." And I'm not saying he's dishonest--again, I have no reason to think that Ronald Wetherington didn't fully believe what he was saying. But such examples do show that if you want to understand the evidence, it's much better to go to the scientific literature than to simply rely upon bluffs made by evolutionary scientists in public forums over educational battles.

Ignoring My Arguments Regarding Lucy

In reviewing my section on Lucy, McBride claims that my chapter "fails to give much indication of why Lucy is still commonly considered to be bipedal." But he fails to note that I wrote: "The pelvis and femur are, after all, her most studied bones, and are said to indicate she walked upright." While we're at it, it's worth noting that McBride ignores huge portions of my lengthy and in-depth discussion of Lucy.

For example, he fails to give any indication of the fact that I discussed the nature of Lucy's fingers, arms, chest, hand-bones, striding gait, shoulders, abdomen, inner-ear canals, developmental patterns, toes, and teeth, citing mainstream scientific sources in each case showing why they point away from Lucy being a human ancestor and/or argue she didn't have a form of bipedal locomotion like humans. I cited over a dozen technical scientific books and papers from sources like Nature, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and the Journal of Human Evolution supporting my arguments.

McBride give no indication of any of this. Instead, he claims that my approach is to dismiss the evidence. He says I "focu[s] on the 'personal' side, painting a picture of dishonest science." Furthermore, "it is speculations about bias, and not the characters of the fossils, that Luskin purports to be the driving force in anthropological interpretations here." He cites one sentence from my discussion of Lucy to back this up -- my comment there was based upon a quote from Jeremy Cherfas in New Scientist in which he noted that Lucy would be unlikely to retain features related to locomotion which she no longer used. This fact casts doubt upon the argument from some paleoanthropologists that we can ignore Lucy's knuckle-walking hand-bones on the grounds that they were "primitive retentions" from her ancestors. McBride twists my argument, claiming that I am alleging "dishonest science," yet I said nothing of the kind.

In short, his section on Lucy is an extremely weak rebuttal and fails to engage much of my discussion.

Misrepresenting My Conclusion

McBride closes his review by stating:

Luskin's case to reject common descent is thoroughly unconvincing, and he gives little cause to make an exception for humans. In addition, if the hominin fossil record is so definitively problematic there should be a testable alternative framework by which we can interpret what we do find. And what is this alternative? Luskin does not propose one. I can only imagine we are meant to tacitly know. The graceful hand of the Intelligent Designer was involved in our Special Creation, and the rest is mere detail.
McBride is correct that I did not propose an alternative explanation, but that was not the purpose of my article. He goes on to misstate my thesis. In his telling, my argument in the book is this: "The graceful hand of the Intelligent Designer was involved in our Special Creation, and the rest is mere detail."

Of course my chapter says nothing of the kind. It's simply a scientific critique of the mainstream scientific viewpoint on human evolution. There's nothing about "special creation" or even like a scientific alternative view like intelligent design. If McBride is so quick to emphasize the possibility that "The graceful hand of the Intelligent Designer was involved in our Special Creation," then perhaps he thinks (fears?) the evidence I raised in my chapter suggests that. McBride is welcome to draw any such inferences that he likes, but that's not the argument I made in this book.

McBride's Uncharitable Mischaracterizations
In a strikingly uncharitable and inaccurate summary of my arguments, McBride writes:

In the case of this book, it has left them needing to make all kinds of awkward criticisms of fields in which the authors clearly lack expertise. A lawyer is not the right guy to challenge the world's paleoanthropologists, nor the world's geneticists. Certainly, he shouldn't be trying to take them all on at once. It will end with him trying to smear the reputation of scientists rather than engaging with their ideas. Accusations that the entire field of palaeoanthropology is driven by personal disputes and that Francis Collins is a bad Christian are simply not compelling reading in a book that is putatively about scientific argument.

We've already dealt with McBride's hypocritical (and misplaced) attacks on my credentials. But that aside, this isn't remotely like anything I've been arguing.

I'm not claiming that the standard Darwinian story of human evolution is wrong because "the entire field of paleoanthropology is driven by personal disputes." While I did cite some impressive scientific authorities observing the commonality of intense personal disputes within paleoanthropology, I don't believe that this is what "drives" the field. If anything paleoanthropologists say is wrong, it's because the evidence doesn't support their arguments that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors--not because of their mere "personal disputes." And my chapter on human origins doesn't give McBride any basis for characterizing my argument any different. Thus, I cite dozens of technical papers from the mainstream scientific peer-reviewed literature, as well as many scientific books by leading paleoanthropologists, to provide empirical backing for my arguments. It's on the basis of the evidence discussed by these authorities that I challenge the standard Darwinian story of human evolution.

(As for McBride's claim about my response to Francis Collins on junk DNA, I never said anything to suggest that Collins is a "bad Christian." This is a totally false claim. My critique of Francis Collins' arguments regarding junk DNA was civil--I dealt strictly with substantive arguments (and again, cited numerous scientific papers backing my arguments). As far as I know, Collins is a Christian, and I in no way attempted or desired to attack his Christianity--I simply critiqued his arguments regarding junk DNA. I think Collins is very wrong on junk DNA (what he called "genetic flotsam and jetsam")--and that the evidence against his claims grows only stronger and stronger as time goes on--but I did not, and would not, say anything personally to attack him or call him a "bad Christian.")

Given that my chapter on human origins offers well over 100 citations to the scientific literature to support my arguments, it doesn't help McBride to assert that all I'm doing is trying to "smear the reputation of scientists rather than engaging with their ideas." Given McBride's mischaracterization of my arguments, that's kind of what I feel he's trying to do to me.

Concluding Observations
Internet evolutionists who are excited about McBride's review of our book will, I hope, take a second and more critical look at his critique. McBride didn't deal with the vast majority of my arguments, used double-standards, and on those points where he did respond he fell short of engaging my position. In one case, he cites a paper that supports my thesis of abrupt appearance, not his thesis of long-term sustained gradual change. And he overstates or misstates my argument in multiple places. At the end of the day, I leave this exchange more confident than before that the evidence supports the abrupt appearance of our genus Homo.