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Mob with Pitchforks Forms as Science Journal PLOS ONE Acknowledges "Proper Design by the Creator"


This would seem to bear out a remark by Chinese paleontologist J.Y. Chen, recounted in Darwin's Doubt, "In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; in America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin."

Some startling language appears in a paper by Chinese researchers published in a very mainstream journal, PLOS ONE. The title: "Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living." They write in the Abstract:

The functional link between biomechanical architecture and hand coordination was drawn by establishing the clear corresponding causality between the tendinous connective characteristics of the human hand and the coordinated characteristics during daily grasping activities. The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way. [Emphasis added.]

What?! In the Introduction, they observe, "Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator's invention." That's not all. They wrap up by saying,

In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.

By the time I had picked myself up off the floor, I also saw that the journal's editorial staff was on high emergency alert. A note at the top of the Reader Comments section states:

A number of readers have concerns about sentences in the article that make references to a 'Creator'. The PLOS ONE editors apologize that this language was not addressed internally or by the Academic Editor during the evaluation of the manuscript. We are looking into the concerns raised about the article with priority and will take steps to correct the published record.

This is followed by a list of sputtering denunciations. A mob with pitchforks demanding retribution is predictable, and here they come. I too wonder what the editor was thinking. But these people are not going to be satisfied until someone has been punished. And of course they are not even going to consider the argument of the paper.

At the top, from Danilo Russo, an editor:

As a scientist, as well as a PLoS ONE academic editor and author I feel outraged by the publication of a ms making explicit reference to creationism. This is an extremely serious issue for which the academic editor who handled the paper as well as the journal, besides the authors themselves, should be blamed.

I feel my scientific reputation to be put at risk by this incredible mistake, so should this paper not be retracted as soon as possible I will be compelled to resign from my position of PLoS ONE academic editor. Moreover, I am determined to avoid taking on any further assignment until this issue is fully solved.

Another self-identified editor: "As an editor of PLOS ONE, I am ashamed this ever got to be published, and I am ready to resign if this is not retracted immediately."

Still another: "There is no room in the scientific literature for Intelligent Design. This is more than just a 'language issue'."


  • "Plos One must here intervene to avert damage from all Plos ONE publishers."

  • "I published three times in P One. Is my career ruined?"

  • "It is assumed by the scientific community that PLoS ONE is a science-driven journal. If so, this manuscript must be retracted."

  • "PLoS must remove this article in total, along with the Editor who handled the manuscript."

  • "I am appalled by this paper and its reference to a 'Creator'. This paper should be retracted immediately."

It goes on. The note of career anxiety -- no, panic -- is telling. These folks don't want to be rendered ritually impure by contact with a bit of injudicious language. Predictably, Twitter is aflutter. And the ever-useful website Retraction Watch has already reported on it. The paper's editor apologized: "I am sorry for this has happened. I am contacting PLoS one to see whether we can fix the issue." While the journal itself replied to a query from the site:

PLOS has just been made aware of this issue and we are looking into it in depth. Our internal editors are reviewing the manuscript and will decide what course of action to take. PLOS' publishing team is also assessing its processes.

The journal Nature reflects the sense of anguish, "Apparently creationist research prompts soul searching over process of editing and peer review." But that's not quite right. The authors assume "evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years." So they're not creationists. And even arch-atheist biologist PZ Myers acknowledges on his blog, "There's nothing wrong with the data that I can see, but the authors do make a surprising leap in the abstract and conclusion."

Let's be clear on a point of science: Researchers associated with the intelligent design movement agree that the scientific evidence alone tells you only of a design behind nature, teleology, not a Creator. Identifying the source of the design with God is a religious conclusion not compelled by the scientific evidence, including the architecture of the human hand.

The authors, as I said, are Chinese. So is the editor, Renzhi Han, though he now teaches at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Could there be a language issue? Author Cai-Hua Xiong commented to Nature, "Indeed, we are not native speakers of English, and entirely lost the connotations of some words such as 'Creator'. I am so sorry for that."

In an email, our friend and contributor Denyse O'Leary tells a funny story about the publication of her book with University of Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard:

When The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul was translated into Indonesian, it came out as "The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of Allah." The book in question was a defense of a non-naturalist view of the mind, not of any particular religion. But we didn't say anything at the time because translators must use their judgment. If anyone wished to create an uproar about it, all we could have said was, we hadn't intended to create an uproar and our work stands on its own.

So far the journal article stands as is. I feel for the authors and the editor, who probably also weren't looking to spark a riot. I guess it will be retracted and that one or more parties will be battered and humiliated -- the censors will accept nothing less. So it goes in the calcified world of science. We'll keep an eye on the situation and let you know what happens.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.