The Human Fossil Record (RJS)

We’ve been working through Denis O. Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution – a book that describes a way to move beyond the creation and evolutions debates. We will continue with this book next week, but classes have started, and preparation has consumed my time, so today I would like to point to a series of posts on the BioLogos blog.

One of the biggest obstacles to acceptance of evolutionary creation comes not from an old earth, evolution of animals, or death before the fall, but from the idea of human evolution – that human beings developed in common descent with other animals. The evidence for human common descent is compelling – both the genetic evidence and the fossil evidence – but it is hard to explain to the average Christian or the average pastor.  The church needs Christians with the expertise in science and the ability and willingness to present the evidence for an educated lay audience. For this reason I was happy to see the continuing series of posts at BioLogos by James Kidder who holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee. Part One of his series looks at the issue of  transitional fossils. The figure to the right gives a timeline of fossil evidence (it is readable in the original post).

Quoting just the beginning of Kidder’s post:

Some time ago, the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin commented on the human origins exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, suggesting that palaeoanthropologists use evolutionary theory to describe the progression of the human lineage even when they don’t have transitional fossils with which to work. He writes:

What’s ironic, however, is that if you ask the question How Do We Know Humans Evolved? the answer you’re given is, “Fossils like the ones shown in our Human Fossils Gallery provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.” So whether you find fossils or you don’t, that’s evidence for evolution.

Indeed, it has become an article of faith for those espousing both the young earth creation (hereafter YEC) model and many who hold to the intelligent design model that transitional fossils do not exist and therefore evolution has not taken place. Support for this position usually entails attacking the weak areas of the fossil record, where burial processes have left us little with which to work, or the creation of straw men arguments in which transitional fossils are defined in such a way that none could ever be found. Often this centers on the concept of “missing link,” a term that is habitually used in the popular press and young earth creation and intelligent design literature when referring to fossil remains but which has little to no meaning for biologists or palaeontologists.

Dr. Kidder goes on to explain why “missing link” is a misnomer, and to describe some of the evidence for human evolution as exhibited in the fossil record. Part Two, posted yesterday, continues the discussion looking at the origin of bipedality, and we can look forward to more posts to come.

Groups like Answers in Genesis and other YEC proponents have done a fairly good job of presenting a package of arguments to debunk evolution. These arguments, while persuasive to a lay audience in the church, do not hold up to scientific scrutiny by experts, including evangelical Christian experts. They cause problems for many Christian students who are confronted by the strength of the scientific evidence in college and university classes.  Today I’d like to pose a simple question.

What is needed to counter the misrepresentation of the scientific arguments for evolution? What kinds of resources do we need for pastors and for the local church?

What kind of evidence or presentation is convincing and why?

It you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Paul

    As to the question of what kinds of resources do we need? I think you answer the question earlier in your post:

    “The church needs Christians with the expertise in science and the ability and willingness to present the evidence for an educated lay audience”

    Especially if these people are apart of the church community they are sharing to (it’s easy to call a visitor a heretic and dismiss their ideas, but much harder to dismiss someone you break bread with)

  • Tim

    “What is needed to counter the misrepresentation of the scientific arguments for evolution?”

    Simply, people in the churches to call out such misrepresentations for what they are. If I’ve learned anything in my efforts to introduce evolution to my family, it’s that they don’t listen to outsiders. Since I do not share many of their theological views (they’re fundamentalist evangelicals), I am considered, religiously at least, an outsider. So they don’t really care what I have to say as I’ve apparently bought into scientism or some secular humanist anti-religious thought or some such thing (neither of which are true).

    However, should one of their own consider the case for evolution as compelling, that would likely make a greater difference. Those of you viewed as insiders have orders of magnitude greater influence among your own than outsiders such as me (who can be summarily dismissed apparently) will ever have. So make good use of that influence.

  • Tim

    “What kind of evidence or presentation is convincing and why?”

    I recommend “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne. The book is great, though a little condescending/insulting to creationists at times. But the man is a real piece of work. He’s bitter and angry at creationists (can you blame him?), but now that’s spilled over to pretty much anyone religious. He’s essentially of the same mind as Hitchens. But like I said, the book is top-notch.

    The one thing not covered in “Why Evolution is True” is genetic evidence, which I think is extremely compelling. The book “Relics of Eden” does an excellent job introducing this evidence. I highly recommend it as well.

    Concerning specific arguments, I have to get ready to head off to work so I won’t be able to introduce them. But generally, you’d be surprised by how much evidence creationists can comfortably ignore, and how they will explain it away. For instance, you could go on and on about transitional fossils and the order new species appear in the fossil record progressing from more simple and primitive to more modern and complex, and the creationist could just toss all that aside by saying they don’t have confidence in relative and absolute dating techniques in geology. So essentially they’re saying that the fossils could be in any order, and that the scientists are forcing them into their own evolutionary order. You can try to demonstrate to them why the dating is reliable and why the order of introduction real, but good luck getting anywhere.

  • John

    What is needed is to communicate the idea that God created nature as well as inspired the Bible. Whatever nature discloses, reveals volumes about its creator. Science, that is, genuine authentic non-dogmatic science, cannot clash with truths about God. Truths about nature and truths about God must be in agreement.

    For example, some people who interpret the Bible have in the past argued that the sun rises and sets and the earth stands still, according to the Bible. But experience and science have shown that the earth moves around the sun and that earth does not stand still whil the sun rises and sets. Clearly the Bible was being misinterpreted, and what is metaphor was being taken as literal truth, or what those who wrote the Bible thought has been proven by experience and science to be a mere misperception and not actually God’s truth.

    Valid science and God’s truths cannot be in actual conflict, God’s genuine truths have nothing to fear from science, in fact just the opposite: science continually discloses God’s incredible complexity as displayed in Creation. When they appear to conflict what is needed is not more dogma, but more openness and more study, of both nature and of biblical teachings.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think the enemy in most Christian communities is a façade of certainty for the people. The churches seem to be selling certainty and how the people can have confidence. The trouble is they are selling certainty in a store that is inherently uncertain. No one really knows when you come right down to it so we are asking people to have *faith* in something that is not rational in the most strict sense of the word.

    So if we are asking people to give up on rational thinking for membership in the community, then why would we possibly expect them to suddenly admit rational arguments as true when they are against the thing that they are presumably told to have blind faith in.

    We need to first get rid of this façade of certainty. God is something not able to be captured with certainty in our minds since he is most likely very much beyond our comprehension. Jesus shows us that he is at least good, and we should follow that example.

    The whole faith thing becomes a badge of courage in group think and we all know just how dangerous it can be when no one feels comfortable telling the emperor that he has no clothes. We can totalitarian communities.

    So again, we have to step back and get rid of certainty…

  • Darryl

    Here is a tough sell for you: why is it necessary to defend? I do not go out of my way to defend any number of things that may be true. People will tend to believe what they will and while there are certain things that matter beyond a doubt and should be presented convincingly, why must a theologian or a preacher take it upon himself to prove scientific theory? Part of our problem is we often attempt to address so many things that are truly out of our field of expertise–gradually we become arrogant because of this and think we know all there is to know about the subject. I’m still trying to figure myself out and figure God’s Scriptures!

    If we encourage gentleness, openness, and love I think that will go a long way…

  • http://seguewm.blogspot.com/ Bill

    Christians who jettison the theory of evolution on the grounds of ‘missing links’ ought to re-examine the basis for their creationist premises since our faith also extrapolates backward, past the ‘missing links’ of zero original manuscripts. The proverbial ‘pot often calls the kettle black’.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Kidder leads off by misleadingly quoting Luskin out of context. He seems to miss entirely the point Luskin is making:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/smithsonians_new_human_origins033371.html

    The evidence is mixed, and there are many plausible explanations for the origin of humans that respect all of the fossil evidence. Thoughtful Christians should not jump on the “evolution only/design-bashing” bandwagon uncritically.

    Biologos is quite selective in its discussions of the fossil evidence:

    http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/category/fossil-record/

  • Terry

    Bill @7, as I was reading the post and comments, I was thinking the same thing. This on-going conversation/debate seems eerily similar in structure to the conversation/debate on inerrancy (the brand name kind); in both cases it appears it’s the same Christian-bent that argues the case against evolution, as for inerrancy, and both with ultimate certainty often expressed in a Chicken Little fashion. In the past I’ve argued that myself. I think RJS’s question — looking for a way to present this well, countering the arguments — is right on, but I fear we, the church, may largely persist with what seems to often be our motto: “don’t confuse me with the facts.” As a local church pastor, and a very-willing to admit non-scientist, I certainly hope for a best answer to this question myself.

  • Percival

    1) You have to have theological credibility on other issues of common concern. They have to know, “We’re on the same side.”
    2) You have to pick your science battles. There is a foundation of knowledge that must be built. Starting with the age of the earth, one can go from there.
    3) You have to talk about what the intended message to the ANE audience might have been. (What is a firmament, for example.) Basic exegesis principles demand that we think of the original audience before trying to address contemporary issues. Show how other interpretations of the text are reasonable.
    4) You could bring up respected theologians of the past who were not young earth literalists: Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, even J.I. Packer,
    5) Be patient. It took many of us years to arrive where we are on this issue. You don’t need to win your discussions. Just lay it out calmly and let them accept or reject whatever they will.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Am I the only one who looks at that chart and thinks that there may be more than 1 red line that crosses the Today line? It would be great to find them….

  • rjs

    DRT,

    The others are Neanderthal and Homo floresiensis. These went extinct ca. 30000 years ago, and ca. 13000 years ago. Not too long ago on a 7 million year time line.

  • rjs

    Percival,

    Theological credibility and a pastoral approach – key points. This is a conversation not a debate; and the intent is to persuade from within.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    RJS #12,

    Neanderthal genes live on in us. And of course, cro-magnons were fully human.

  • rjs

    pds,

    I know – and more in Europeans than Africans. There was an interesting post building on this as well: Made in the Image of God.

    It isn’t clear that neanderthal should be a separate line on the chart.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    RJS,

    From your link- Denis Alexander:

    “When did such spiritual capabilities and responsibilities first come into being? It is really difficult to know, but the answer certainly seems more rooted in God’s intentions and purposes for humankind than in genetic change per se.”

    He almost sounds like a design proponent.

    We really don’t know exactly when or exactly how the first humans appeared. We have clues, but we are talking about a historical event that could have had multiple “causes.”

  • rjs

    Most (all?) Christians are design proponents — as long as design doesn’t mean disregard evidence for evolution.

    And I still don’t think the Cambrian Explosion requires an explanation beyond God’s natural process any more than the blizzard in NY a couple of weeks ago did.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    “And I still don’t think the Cambrian Explosion requires an explanation beyond God’s natural process any more than the blizzard in NY a couple of weeks ago did.”

    Give it time. ;)

  • http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure Denis O. Lamoureux

    RJS asks:
    “What is needed to counter the misrepresentation of the scientific arguments for evolution?”

    Answer: Evangelical colleges & seminaries need to eliminate the anti-evolutionary statements of “faith” in order that their professors can study the implications of human evolution for Christian Faith without fear of losing jobs.

    It is no co-incidence that I work at a Catholic college inside a major public university. And yes, my denomination college/seminary blocked me from teaching when I got out of school in 1997. I guess that loving Jesus & three earned doctoral degrees just ain’t enough in the Bible school system . . .

    Regards,
    Denis

  • AHH

    What is needed to counter the misrepresentation of the scientific arguments for evolution? What kinds of resources do we need for pastors and for the local church?
    By the time I got home from work to post on this, the wise comments of Percival @10 had taken most of the words out of my mouth. But I will say a few things.

    1) The personal touch. Much easier for people to reject anonymous scientists out there than to reject the scientist with whom they share fellowship.
    2) Choose your battles. It is not heresy for somebody to disbelieve common descent or believe in a young Earth. The main problem is when those beliefs get pushed on others and set young believers up for a fall and/or make an obstacle for scientifically literate unbelievers.
    3) Deal with the root causes, which typically are not the science issues. When I taught a science/faith course at my church I didn’t talk about evolution until Week 5, as I tried to lay a foundation first. People need to be led to non-fundamentalist ways of reading Scripture, weaned away from trying to read Genesis as a science textbook. People need to appreciate natural processes as tools of God rather than as a competing explanation.
    3a) One can sometimes make headway on the root issues with examples other than the touchy topic of biological evolution. Maybe talk about the formation of stars, or rain.
    4) Educating pastors (and future pastors) is important. Every Evangelical seminary is different, but I think the treatment of Pete Enns and Bruce Waltke illustrates the problem in many more conservative seminaries. And one can (again, choosing spots wisely) converse with one’s own pastor and feed him/her books.
    5) One can mention current and recent Evangelical leaders who sympathize with theistic evolution positions, to illustrate that this isn’t some liberal plot. Tim Keller, Billy Graham, John Stott, NT Wright, Os Guinness, etc.

    And I would disagree with the book recommendations of Tim @3, not because those are not good books, but because they are too easy to dismiss as coming from the atheist scientists that Evangelical culture has conditioned people to distrust. Similar work from a solidly Christian source, like Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science or Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? will be more likely to get a hearing.

  • Dave

    On the question of helpful evidence or persuasion for pastors, 3 things have be invaluable for me:

    1)opportunities for candid, personal, and wide ranging conversations with science experts where I can (without fear of accusation or recrimination) ask questions, and where the conversation over time, can progress through the range of issues involved. (that is in part why this blog is valuable, but I’m thinking more of real time face-to-face conversation).

    2)continuing clarification of answers to the question “whose voice gets a hearing on this?” It feels like there a constant jockeying for claims of “expertise” when it comes to Genesis 1….pastors, seminary profs, the informed non-pastors, scientists, philosophers etc. I grow weary of the underlying assumption “because I’m an expert on X this is the way to understand Genesis 1″.

    3)a focus on big picture issues…honestly, whenever the conversation descends too far into a detailed science level I get lost for a couple reasons….(a)I know that I’m not a science expert, so when I hear “facts” presented I know my limited ability to evaluate their validity or their persuasiveness…and (b)I’m not going to become a science expert…my calling (and training) is to be generalist in a local church.

  • http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1146 Casey Luskin

    As the person who was misquoted by Dr. Kidder, I agree with commenter pds who wrote that “Kidder leads off by misleadingly quoting Luskin out of context. He seems to miss entirely the point Luskin is making.” My point was not to claim that there are no potential examples of transitional fossils, but that proponents of neo-Darwinism often use contradictory logic when evaluating fossil evidence.

    In fact, I do not claim that “transitional fossils do not exist”. For example, I think that the horse series has shown a few likely transitional fossils. In this case, however, the degree of change from the beginning to the end of that series amounts to microevolution.

    I also agree with the commenter who said we need to be careful to guard against a “façade of certainty”.

    Dr. James Kidder seems to show uncritical certainty towards the reconstructions of Ardipithecus ramidus, but I would encourage Christians to think for themselves and not simply capitulate to any scientific claims without their own thoughtful investigation. For example, there are good reasons to wonder whether that fossil was reconstructed properly:

    http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1484

    And there are good reasons to be skeptical of many of the claims of modern paleoanthropology. (See the link from my name on this comment.)

    This post at the top of this page projects its own “façade of certainty” that pro-evolution “experts” are correct, stating that ID claims “do not hold up to scientific scrutiny by experts, including evangelical Christian experts.” It sounds like you are expecting people to have blind faith and certainty in the claims of “experts.”

    Who are the experts? Well, I’m an evangelical Christian and I hold two degrees in earth sciences from UC San Diego where I studied evolution, including the fossil record, extensively at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. If I was a neo-Darwinian evolutionist, you’d probably call me an “expert.” But I’m a scientific skeptic of neo-Darwinian evolution.

    You’re welcome to reject my views but don’t simply capitulate to anyone because they call themselves an “expert”. Test everything, hold on to the good.

    A while back I tested BioLogos’s main page about the fossil record and found that it was highly inaccurate. For example:

    - The Cambrian explosion, which Robert Carroll calls “The most conspicuous event in metazoan evolution,” is conspicuously unmentioned.

    - The page overstates the case for supposed transitional fossils between fish and amphibians by wrongly claiming a fish fossil has “digits,” and then failing to mention that true tracks of tetrapods are now found before these supposed intermediate fossils, which means for example that Tiktaalik is no longer “in line with same narrow time period.”

    - It wrongly calls a terrestrial land-mammal a “whale”.

    The spamfilter won’t let me post the links, but for the details please see the blog Evolution News & Views in October and November of last year (2010).

    Again, please don’t believe anything I say simply because I have graduate training in evolutionary biology. Nor should you believe that a fossil is “transitional” just because the media, or even some “expert” claims it is. Whatever conclusion you come to, check out the facts and think for yourself.

    Thanks.

    Casey

  • http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1504 Casey Luskin

    To AHH,

    On a personal level I like Darrel Falk and have no reason to doubt the sincerity of his faith. However many of his arguments for evolution in Coming to Peace With Science are badly flawed and are largely overturned by recent discoveries of extensive evidence of function for “junk” DNA. For details, please see:

    http://www.ideacenter.org/contentmgr/showdetails.php/id/1504

    Thanks.

    Sincerely,

    Casey

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    Some of us are constrained by church doctrine. I’m a member of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod congregation in a college town. Our church leadership wants to do more to evangelize the local academic/scientifically-oriented community. Great idea, but we are required to hold a young-earth, no-evolution point of view. Believing otherwise violates church doctrine. Although members are not required to profess these views, pastors, Lutheran school teachers, and other called staff are required to do so. So even if a church professional has become convinced that evolution is true, to express these views invites dismissal from their profession.

    See the statement below, last revised in 1932, on what LCMS called staff are required to profess in regards to origins:

    http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=565
    Of Creation
    (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.)
    [Adopted 1932]
    5. We teach that God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days. We reject every doctrine which denies or limits the work of creation as taught in Scripture. In our days it is denied or limited by those who assert, ostensibly in deference to science, that the world came into existence through a process of evolution; that is, that it has, in immense periods of time, developed more or less of itself. Since no man was present when it pleased God to create the world, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God’s own record, found in God’s own book, the Bible. We accept God’s own record with full confidence and confess with Luther’s Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures.”

    Even if my fellow Lutherans can be convinced that the evidence for evolution is true, we have to keep quiet about our views within the church community.

    And as for engaging the academic community – well, when we start with the position that their science is wrong and evil – and they know that that is not true – then how can we hope to convince them that our theology is true? We’re just deepening the divide.

  • http://thedesignspectrum.wordpress.com/ pds

    Casey #22,

    Thanks for stopping in! Come again.

    It is a good lesson that all sides of this debate need to make every effort not to misrepresent others. We should deal with all the evidence and all the arguments in their strongest forms.

  • Rex Lewis Field

    Those of us who, as a tenent of faith, believe man to be created by God actually harbor no ill will toward those who believe in the mystery of chance (30,000 base human DNA in billions of combinations, pulled off on3 bil years of life on earth? That’s faith in… something or other). Can’t you allow us our faith in God? You can worship Darwin and let’s call it a day.

  • Vunque

    This is the first time I visit this interesting website, and the first time that I hear that religious people recognize the fact of evolution.

    To answer you second question: all you need is for trust-worthy people within the community to convey this message. No fact or presentations are needed. There are plenty to go around. You need to make people feel OK with the idea of evolution – that’s all

    Vunque,
    Scientist (Jewish)

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    Very magnanimous of you, Rex, to allow other people the right to their beliefs. But if I’m not reading too much into your comment, you appear to assume that people who don’t share your particular view of origins are by necessity atheists. That’s not necessarily true; just read the previous comments. Many are from committed Christians who want to spread their faith by helping people understand that faith in God and an acceptance of scientific theories are not mutually exclusive. We want to share our faith in God rather than leave people to falsely assume that they must choose between science and faith. Please don’t assume that we want to diminish or destroy your faith.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “My point was not to claim that there are no potential examples of transitional fossils, but that proponents of neo-Darwinism often use contradictory logic when evaluating fossil evidence.”

    I take it that you agree that transitional fossils do exist, correct? Do you consider tiktaalik rosea to be a transitional fossil?

    http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu/

    Aren’t you the public affairs officer for the Discovery Institute?

    What is the Discovery Institute’s position on the scientific evidence that the age of the earth is appoximately 5 billion years?

    What is the Discovery Isntitute’s position on commmon ancestry?

    What is the Discovery Institute’s position on common descent?

    What is the Discovery Institute’s position on the accuracy of DNA testing used in the U.S. courtrooms today?

    Thanks in advance.

  • http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/09/evolutionary_biologists_are_un038261.html Casey Luskin

    Dear “Unapologetic Catholic,”

    Anyone familiar with intelligent design already knows the answers to many of your questions. Charitably assuming that you’re not familiar with ID, I will kindly answer your questions:

    You asked: “Do you consider tiktaalik rosea to be a transitional fossil?”

    I reply: No, it could not have been an direct transitional form between fish and tetrapods because according to the fossil record, tetrapods appeared about 20 million years BEFORE Tiktaalik. You won’t learn this if you visit the Tiktaalik website you listed. For a discussion, please visit:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/09/evolutionary_biologists_are_un038261.html

    You asked: “Aren’t you the public affairs officer for the Discovery Institute?”

    I reply: My position at Discovery Institute is Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs. After I earned 2 science degrees, I went to law school. It has always puzzled me why some ID-critics act as if the fact that I went to law school and passed the bar exam somehow negates my scientific training. I certainly hope you wouldn’t make such a fallacious suggestion.

    You asked: “What is the Discovery Institute’s position on the scientific evidence that the age of the earth is appoximately 5 billion years?”

    I reply: The vast majority of the folks at Discovery Institute (including myself) accept the standard age of the earth (~4.5 billion years).

    You asked: “What is the Discovery Isntitute’s position on commmon ancestry?”

    I reply: There’s diversity of views on common descent among Discovery Institute fellows. Some, such as Michael Behe, accept common descent. Others, such as Jonathan Wells, are scientific skeptics of common ancestry. I personally am a scientific skeptic of universal common ancestry.

    You asked: “What is the Discovery Institute’s position on the accuracy of DNA testing used in the U.S. courtrooms today?”

    I reply: Huh? Why would anyone have any problem with the accuracy of DNA testing used in US courtrooms today?

    Of course we accept it as accurate. And of course I know where you’re going with this. You mean to suggest that if science can accurately compare DNA sequences to establish human relationships, then why can’t science do such to establish relationships among higher taxa?

    The answer is that science can potentially discover ancestral relationships between higher taxa. The problem for your argument is that among human relationships, DNA (and other traits) always paints a consistent picture of relatedness. That’s because all humans are actually related by common ancestry.

    Among higher taxa, however, phylogenetic data often sharply conflicts, leading some to question whether all living organisms are related by common ancestry. For example, one gene often yields one version of the tree of life while a different gene yields an entirely different version of the tree of life. This leads one to wonder if there really is a true phylogenetic signal present among higher groups (like say among all living animal phyla, or the 3 domains of life).

    For example, in 2009 an article in New Scientist reported “The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories.”[1] The article observed that with the sequencing of the genes and proteins of various living organisms, the tree of life fell apart:

    “For a long time the holy grail was to build a tree of life,” says Eric Bapteste, an evolutionary biologist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France. A few years ago it looked as though the grail was within reach. But today the project lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence. Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded. “We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality,” says Bapteste. That bombshell has even persuaded some that our fundamental view of biology needs to change.

    Of course, these scientists are all committed evolutionists who accept common ancestry, which makes their admissions all the more weighty. To reiterate, the basic problem is that one gene or protein yields one version of the “tree of life,” while another gene or protein yields an entirely different tree. As the New Scientist article stated:

    The problems began in the early 1990s when it became possible to sequence actual bacterial and archaeal genes rather than just RNA. Everybody expected these DNA sequences to confirm the RNA tree, and sometimes they did but, crucially, sometimes they did not. RNA, for example, might suggest that species A was more closely related to species B than species C, but a tree made from DNA would suggest the reverse.

    Likewise, leading evolutionary bioinformatics specialist W. Ford Doolittle explains, “Molecular phylogenists will have failed to find the ‘true tree,’ not because their methods are inadequate or because they have chosen the wrong genes, but because the history of life cannot properly be represented as a tree.”[2]

    Many may claim that this problem is only encountered when one tries to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of microorganisms, such as bacteria, which can swap genes through a process called “horizontal gene transfer,” thereby muddying any phylogenetic signal. In fact Doolittle thinks this explains conflicts among the tree of the major domains of life.

    But this objection doesn’t hold water because the tree of life is challenged even among higher organisms where such gene-swapping is not thought to be prevalent, as the New Scientist article explained: “the evolution of animals and plants isn’t exactly tree-like either.” The article continued:

    Syvanen recently compared 2000 genes that are common to humans, frogs, sea squirts, sea urchins, fruit flies and nematodes. In theory, he should have been able to use the gene sequences to construct an evolutionary tree showing the relationships between the six animals. He failed. The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories. This was especially true of sea-squirt genes. Conventionally, sea squirts—also known as tunicates—are lumped together with frogs, humans and other vertebrates in the phylum Chordata, but the genes were sending mixed signals. Some genes did indeed cluster within the chordates, but others indicated that tunicates should be placed with sea urchins, which aren’t chordates. “Roughly 50 per cent of its genes have one evolutionary history and 50 per cent another,” Syvanen says.

    Thus, even among higher organisms, “[t]he problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories,” leading Syvanen to say, regarding the relationships of these higher groups, “We’ve just annihilated the tree of life.”

    Other scientists agree with the conclusions of the New Scientist article. Looking higher up the tree, a study published in Science tried to construct a phylogeny of animal relationships but concluded that “[d]espite the amount of data and breadth of taxa analyzed, relationships among most [animal] phyla remained unresolved.”[3]

    Likewise, Carl Woese, a pioneer of evolutionary molecular systematics, observed that these problems extend well beyond the base of the tree of life: “Phylogenetic incongruities [conflicts] can be seen everywhere in the universal tree, from its root to the major branchings within and among the various taxa to the makeup of the primary groupings themselves.”[4]

    Striking admissions of troubles in reconstructing the “tree of life” also came from a paper in the journal PLOS Biology entitled, “Bushes in the Tree of Life.” The authors acknowledge that “a large fraction of single genes produce phylogenies of poor quality,” observing that one study “omitted 35% of single genes from their data matrix, because those genes produced phylogenies at odds with conventional wisdom.” The paper suggests that “certain critical parts of the [tree of life] may be difficult to resolve, regardless of the quantity of conventional data available.” The paper even contends that “[t]he recurring discovery of persistently unresolved clades (bushes) should force a re-evaluation of several widely held assumptions of molecular systematics.”[5]

    Unfortunately, one assumption that these evolutionary biologists aren’t willing to consider changing is the assumption that neo-Darwinism and universal common ancestry are correct. But as you can see, reconstructing relationships among higher taxa presents enormously bigger problems than reconstructing relationships between humans.

    Perhaps it’s possible that higher taxa aren’t related by common ancestry. And as for the functional genetic similarities between higher taxa, common design is just as good an explanation as common descent.

    Thanks.

    Sincerely,

    Casey

    References cited:
    [1]. Graham Lawton, “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life,” New Scientist (January 21, 2009).

    [2]. W. Ford Doolittle, “Phylogenetic Classification and the Universal Tree,” Science, Vol. 284:2124-2128 (June 25, 1999).

    [3]. Antonis Rokas, Dirk Krueger, Sean B. Carroll, “Animal Evolution and the Molecular Signature of Radiations Compressed in Time,” Science, Vol. 310:1933-1938 (Dec. 23, 2005).

    [4]. Carl Woese “The Universal Ancestor,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 95:6854-9859 (June, 1998).

    [5]. Antonis Rokas & Sean B. Carroll, “Bushes in the Tree of Life,” PLoS Biology, Vol 4(11): 1899-1904 (Nov., 2006) (internal citations and figures omitted).

  • rjs

    Casey,

    “Two science degrees” = B.S. and M.S. in Earth Sciences from University of California, San Diego if the online information is correct. One source at UCSD says it was an M.A. degree, but I don’t know. You contributed, I believe, to one article in the primary scientific literature on paleomagnetic results from the Snake River plain.

    I don’t doubt your Christian commitment.

    But Dr. Kidder is also a solid Christian with a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology – published on metric diversity within Homo erectus, Dr. Collins is a solid Christian with outstanding scientific credentials starting with identification of the gene for cystic fibrosis. Dr. Falk is a solid Christian with some number of publications in the area of biology and genetics (10 or so?).

    Now counting credentials like this isn’t really the point. The point is evaluation of the soundness of the scientific arguments. But I figure we should put areas of expertise on the table so those reading the comments can factor that into account.

  • http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/coming_to_peace_with_science_b033171.html Casey Luskin

    Dear RJS,

    Thanks for the note. I don’t doubt Jim Kidder’s strong credentials either. Nor do I doubt Darrel Falk’s strong credentials. And in my personal interactions with both of them, they seem like nice people. I’m sure you are well-credentialed and you’re a nice person too. I’m not here to personalize any of this or attack anyone personally. Despite the way I’m often treated on the ‘net, I am an ardent opponent of personal attacks.

    But I’m not the one playing the credentials game. I’m not sure if you are or not. You now write: “counting credentials like this isn’t really the point.” But I sense there’s a disconnect here, because previously you wrote that that scientific arguments against evolution are wrong because they “do not hold up to scientific scrutiny by experts, including evangelical Christian experts.”

    Forgive me if I misunderstood you, but it seemed like you were appealing to authority by saying that the “expert” status of the Darwin-defenders means they are correct. If you think that the Darwin-critics are wrong, why not just say the data refutes them, rather than appealing to the authority of “experts”? There seems to be a contradiction in what you’ve said.

    So there are credentialed Christian scientists who support neo-Darwinian evolution. There are also quite a few credentialed Christian scientists who are scientific skeptics of neo-Darwinian evolution. What’s the point?

    The lesson to be learned here isn’t that the experts are always wrong. Or that they’re always right. It’s that we need to think for ourselves, look at the evidence, and not simply believe something because someone tells us that we’d be in agreement with “evangelical Christian experts.”

    After all, in the debate over Darwin, there are experts on both sides.

    Unfortunately, it sounds to me like you are encouraging Christians to NOT think for themselves and just accept a claim because it’s being promoted by “evangelical Christian experts.” Sadly, this is common logic in the Darwin lobby: We often hear that students should accept neo-Darwinian evolution because the “experts” tell them to.

    Shouldn’t the data be the arbiter of a scientific claim–not the fact that your preferred “evangelical Christian expert” believes that claim is true (or false)?

    As I said earlier, it’s not about me, and it’s not about my opinion and what I say. Nor is it about what any expert says. It’s about what the data says.

    The fact that an “expert” believes something doesn’t settle a scientific debate. Only science settles a scientific debate. In my experience, this point is only controversial among those who don’t feel the evidence is strong enough to persuade people to their side and thus feel compelled to argue from authority and appeal to “experts.”

    For details, please see my response to Darrel Falk:

    Coming to Peace with Science by Appealing to the Consensus
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/03/coming_to_peace_with_science_b033171.html

    Thanks.

    Sincerely,

    Casey

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Yikes! Casey used my phrase façade of certainty several times her post to imply that I was referring to the evolutionary position. I meant nothing of the kind and I resolve to be more careful in the future!

    I meant that the churches must eliminate the façade of certainty surrounding their rebuttal of evolutionary creation. The sciences simply state that the vast preponderance of all information makes evolutionary creation a virtual certainty. That is not a façade, that is fact.

    But the church position is certainly a façade and the topic I responded to is how to help and sway the congregations.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Casey, go on record here, what are your credentials, really?

    The reason they are important is because they do put up a minimum level of scrutiny that is required. An MA in earth science would not be called a high powered credential in any circle but high school students. It does not convey any sort of rationality in argument or conclusion in your work. All it really entails is your ability to memorize, at some level, the answers to questions your teachers put on the tests.

    I now must apologize to all of those who also have similar degrees, but they are not out there claiming expert status. FWIW, mine are Mechanical Engineering from a well enough respected institution and an MBA from a second tier school, though I did get straight A’s.

    This is not a personal attack, it is a personal response to your decline to put up.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Casey

    I appreciate your answers to my questions.

    The answers demostrate why the Discovery Institute cannot really be taken seriously in the scientific world.

    No credible scientific organization seriously attempting to contribute to the study of biology and evolution can get by with claiming the “vast majority” of its fellows accept a 5 billion year old earth. This proposition is so basic that a scientific organization that accepts even one fellow who believes in a young earth can’t be taken seriously on questions of biology and evolution. As long as the Discovery Institute has several prominent young earth creationists as fellows it can be disregarded as a credible scientific organization.

    The same unfortunately goes for common ancestry. There is no serious disgreement about common ancestry. Genome sequencing has removed any legitimate scientific disagreement that all life on earth arose from a pool of common ancestors a very long time ago. As Woese points out, horizontal gene transfer makes some phylogenetic relationships unclear but doesn’t affect the basic underlying priciple.

    The common ancestry of humans and other primates is also well established by genetic sequencing.

    The reason why I asked about DNA in the courtroom is that it is rourtinely used to demostrate ancestry and its accuracy for determination of ancestry far beyond the common ancestor of humans and other primates is a necesary foundation of its admissibility and scientific acceptance. In one fascinating case, analysis of the DNA of cat hairs has been used to convict a man for murder. In order to do so, feline ancestry over deep time had to also be established for the admissibility of the DNA of the cat hairs found on the victim that matched the suspect’s cat. DNA as courtroom evidence doesn’t work if common ancestry is incorrect.

    Failure to accept common ancestry and common descent requires rejection of a large swath of science, inclduing large portions of physics, chemistry and biology. No scientific orgaizaion with any credibility can reject that much science.

    “It has always puzzled me why some ID-critics act as if the fact that I went to law school and passed the bar exam somehow negates my scientific training. I certainly hope you wouldn’t make such a fallacious suggestion.”

    I certainly hope so too since I am an attorney with a scientific undergradute background. I am also aware of a “gentleman’s degree” in the sciences. That is a Masters’s degree for those who don’t have the interest, skill, desire or aptitude to continue in the science program at the Ph.D level.

    rjs, and others, who have both the advanced degree and the career accomplishments, have something worthwhile to say on the state of the science. It’s not fair to claim they soemhow overlooked the obvious, and some armchair philosopher has upended centuries of scientific progress.

    in response to rjs’s question, there is a real issue with Christians who do not handle science knowledge with integrity. I don’t have the answer to the question, but let me identify a Christian who does handle the science with integrity, even though his religion leads to a different answer:

    Todd Wood, Young Earth Creationist:

    “Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.”

    http://toddcwood.blogspot.com/2010/06/evolution-still-not-in-crisis.html

  • http://scienceandcreation.blogspot.com Jimpithecus

    And yet, the interesting thing about Todd is that he doesn’t believe that evolution is true, even though he has nothing to counter it with. It reminds me of the saying: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion, still.” Todd is clearly a man of very high standards of integrity in science and recently finished up a stinging criticism of RTB’s inability to honestly deal with the DNA evidence of human ancestry.

    By the way, just in case it wasn’t cleared up earlier and I missed it, “Casey” is a he, not a she.

  • young scholar

    Denis (#19),

    Thanks for highlighting the statement of faith issue at evangelical colleges and seminaries. As a young scholar seeking to discern God’s vocational call (I’m a PhD cand. in theology) I have found many such statements to be disappointing . . . systematically eliminating inquiry and discussion before it even gets started by excluding all who reflect more deeply on the complexity of these issues (scientific evidence, biblical interpretation & hermeneutics, theological implications, etc.).


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