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Derbyshire Attacks Gilder Part II: Overblown Claims for Evolution

By Joe Manzari and Casey Luskin

John Derbyshire claims that modern biology is built on evolution. He says that “Creationists seem not to be aware of how central evolution is to modern biology. Without it, nothing makes sense… Speciation via evolution underpins all of modern biology, both pure and applied.” However, in 2001, A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, made it clear that “evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

Apparently Derbyshire sees things differently from Wilkins, claiming that evolution is vital for “such things as new cures for diseases and genetic defects, new crops.” Yet Wilkins’ sentiment was re-affirmed in 2005 by Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who when commenting on Wilkins statement wrote “I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming’s discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.”

Keeping the Baby, Throwing Out the Bathwater

But Derbyshire misrepresents the view of ID-proponents, implying that they reject all of evolution, including the useful stuff about how insects can become resistant to pesticides or bacteria resistant to antibiotics. He insinuates that ID proponents “say to biologists: ‘Look, I want you to drop all this nonsense about evolution and listen to me,'” and compares their view to “walking into a room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers and telling them that classical aerodynamics is all hogwash.” This false comparison misrepresents the views of ID proponents, who accept much of modern evolutionary theory. ID proponents fully recognize that natural selection can produce many small-scale changes but simply question if evidence for such changes can be extrapolated to account for all of life’s complexity. Did Derbyshire misrepresent the nature of the ID-argument?

Overblown Claims of Human Origins

Derbyshire makes some grand claims about the alleged evidence for human evolution. Derbyshire writes:

We have known a good deal about human origins for a long time, from researches in archeology and zoology. Darwin himself wrote a book on the topic back in 1871. Now, with the tools of modern genomics at our disposal, we are finding out much, much more. None of this would be possible, none of it would make any sense, if speciation by evolution were not the case.

(John Derbyshire in George Gilder, Metaphysic)

Derbyshire makes great claims. But does the evidence validate his claims? Consider these quotes from scientific reviewers of the state of the fossil evidence for human origins:

“The field of paleoanthropology naturally excites interest because of our own interest in origins. And, because conclusions of emotional significance to many must be drawn from extremely paltry evidence, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the scientific disputes raging in the field.


The primary scientific evidence is a pitifully small array of bones from which to construct man’s evolutionary history. One anthropologist has compared the task to that of reconstructing the plot of War and Peace with 13 randomly selected pages. Conflicts tend to last longer because it is so difficult to find conclusive evidence to send a theory packing.”

(Constance Holden, “The Politics of Paleoanthropology,” Science, p.737 (August 14, 1981).)

So sparse and difficult to interpret is the data that in the judgment of Harvard zoologist Richard Lewontin, it is difficult to identify fossils that can be universally accepted as direct ancestors of the human 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…The earliest forms that are recognized as being hominid are the famous fossils, associated with primitive stone tools, that were found by Mary and Louis Leakey in the Olduvai gorge and elsewhere in Africa. These fossil hominids lived more than 1.5 million years ago and had brains half the size of ours. They were certainly not members of our own species, and we have no idea whether they were even in our direct ancestral line or only in a parallel line of descent resembling our direct ancestor.”

(Lewontin, Richard C., Human Diversity, Scientific American Library: New York NY, 1995, p.163)

Derbyshire lauds the genomic data, but the reality is that molecular data for primate systematics often conflicts with morphological data. In some cases, genomic data has cloudened our picture of primate “evolutionary relationships:”

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Trisha Gura, “Bones, molecules…or both?,” Nature Vol 406:230-233, copyright 2000.

The figure above shows that the morphological tree conflicts with the molecular tree for primates. This is very common in molecular biology, to the extent that one paper in Journal of Molecular Evolution wrote, “That molecular evidence typically squares with morphological patterns is a view held by many biologists, but interestingly, by relatively few systematists. Most of the latter know that the two lines of evidence may often be incongruent.” Is genomics really giving us a clearer picture of evolution?

Intelligent design and Human Origins

Finally, Derbyshire claims that an ID-based approach to human origins would be a fruitless endeavor. He makes a science-stopping argument, contending that “[a] research program in paleoanthropology premised on the idea that speciation by evolution is not the case, would have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to tell us.” Derbyshire’s statement is a wonderful example of assuming the truth of your own argument.

Derbyshire continues, saying that because his own imagination cannot figure out how science can proceed without Neo-Darwinism, it’s pointless to try to explore human origins under the ID-paradigm: “It is hard to see how any such program would be possible; though if George will tell me, I’ll be glad to broadcast his idea.”

Derbyshire’s science-stopping view reveals that he is not familiar with ID-literature. An ID-based research program in paleoanthropology is most certainly possible, and has been suggested. In fact, one can glean such research programs based upon articles one of us has published in the pro-ID journal Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design (PCID). One article explains that we can develop models for what we’ll expect to find in the fossil record if the genus Homo was designed:

“Intelligent agents can rapidly infuse large amounts of genetic information into the biosphere, reflected in the fossil record as the abrupt appearance of novel fossil forms without similar precursors. These designed “basic types” may undergo limited genetic change, diversifying into similar species belonging to the same basic type clade. Paleoanthropological studies reveal that early hominids appear suddenly, without clear direct fossil ancestors, and distinct from previous hominoids.”

(Casey Luskin, “Human Origins and Intelligent Design,” PCID, Vol 4.1 (July, 2005))

This paper thus puts forth a model with testable predictions about what we should find in the fossil record if the genus Homo was designed distinctly from other hominoids.

In another article, paleoanthropologist Sigrid Hartwig-Scherer has applied such a model to ID and paleoanthropology. She explains that her own research reveals that “[i]t is difficult to accept an evolutionary sequence in which Homo habilis, with apelike limb proporitions and possibly apelike locomotor adaptations, is intermediate between Australopithecus afarensis, with more humanlike porpoirtions and a certain kind of bipedality, and fully bipedal Homo erectus.” Rather, she favors the hypothesis that the genus Homo was designed, and that its subspecies H. ergaster/erectus, H. sapiens, and H. neanderthalensis, are best explained by “effects of size variation, climatic stress, genetic derift, and differential expression of genes hidden in the (genetically polyvalent?) ancestral form.” (See S. Hartwig-Scherer, “Apes or Ancestors? Interpretations of the Hominid Fossil Record Within Evolutionary & Basic Type Biology,” Mere Creation, edited by William A. Dembski, pgs. 212-235 (InterVarsity Press, 1998).)

Derbyshire confidentally asserts that only evolution can yield insights into human origins. Has Derbyshire ever checked out any of these references or was he making incorrect statements about ID and human origins?

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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