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6 Bones of Contention With Donald Prothero and National Geographic‘s “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design”

Casey Luskin

Last week National Geographic published an article, “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: 6 Bones of Contention,” that did a mixed job of conveying the pro-intelligent design (ID) viewpoint. When the article actually provided quotes from me (or other ID proponents) about ID–which I very much appreciated–it was accurate. When the article purported to convey the views of ID proponents, sometimes it went badly astray.

The article also provided the views of ID-critics, namely Donald Prothero. That’s fine, but unfortunately in each case, the pro-ID viewpoint was immediately rebutted by Prothero with zero sur-rebuttals defending ID. Dr. Prothero, who is a geology professor at Occidental College, is debating with Michael Shermer against Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg today in Los Angeles on the question of ID vs. neo-Darwinian evolution. What does Prothero’s showing in this National Geographic article tell us about what to expect from him at tonight’s debate?

Bone 1: Misdefining Intelligent Design
In the article’s opening section, National Geographic describes ID as follows: “many structures in plants and animals bear the unmistakable signature of design by a supernatural intelligence.” The article did not attribute that definition to me, probably because it directly contradicted the definition of ID I provided to the National Geographic reporter, Ker Than.

I explained that ID as a scientific theory merely appeals to intelligent causation because it respects the limits of scientific inquiry, and going so far as to identify the designer as supernatural would go beyond what a scientific investigation can tell us. This was discussed recently in Misrepresenting the Definition of Intelligent Design:

The reasons why ID merely appeals to intelligence and not to the “supernatural” are principled rather than rhetorical. As explained earlier, we have observation-based experience with intelligence, showing us that intelligence is the cause of high CSI. This allows us to scientifically detect intelligent causation when we find CSI in nature. But we have no observation-based experience with the supernatural, and thus a scientific investigation which detects high CSI in nature can infer intelligent causation, but such a scientific investigation could not go so far as to specify that the intelligence is supernatural.

Apparently, none of that mattered to National Geographic, which expressly claimed ID appeals to a “supernatural intelligence.” National Geographic must feel that the actual arguments of ID proponents are too strong if they resort to tearing down straw man misrepresentations.

Bone 2: Ignoring my Nuanced Argument About Eye Evolution
In part 1, “The Eyes of Vertebrate”, National Geographic quoted Donald Prothero stating: “There’ve been multiple, very well-documented papers showing how complex structures like the eye can evolve in gradual steps from a simple eye spot that is just barely a light receptor all the way to things like the human eye.”

Prothero’s argument is exactly what I told the reporter Ker Than evolutionists would argue. The only feature that the standard eye evolution scheme evolves in a stepwise fashion is, as far as I can tell, the increase in concavity of the eye shape, and nothing more. There isn’t a Darwinian evolutionary explanation of the vertebrate eye in all its complexity. At most it only explains the concave shape of the eye, and as Michael Behe points out, standard explanations have almost completely ignored the evolution of the biochemistry of vision.

Bone 3: The Cambrian Explosion
When discussing the Cambrian explosion, National Geographic quoted Prothero as follows:

The Cambrian explosion was not an explosion at all. “It’s a three-billion-year-old ‘slow fuse,’ and we have the fossil record that shows this,” Occidental College’s Prothero said.

In addition, “we now have fossils of all sorts of soft-bodied and microscopic things from before the Cambrian, and you can see very clearly how from simpler things you can get more complex things.”

Dr. Prothero must be reading different mainstream scientific authorities than the ones I have read, who paint a very different picture of the Cambrian fossil record.

By “fuse,” he means that there’s a record out there which exists documenting the evolution of the Cambrian fauna. We do have a few soft-bodied fossils from the pre-Cambrian (Prothero probably has the Ediacaran fauna in mind), but they aren’t thought to be precursors to Cambrian fauna. And contra National Geographic‘s claim that “[t]he Cambrian explosion was not an explosion at all,” many authorities have explained that the Cambrian explosion is a real phenomenon and that we are lacking a record that documents the evolution of animals. As Niles Eldredge writes:

The sudden and great proliferation of complex forms of sea-dwelling animal life came at the base of the Cambrian Period (now known to be about 575 million years ago); as we shall see later in this chapter, this event remains one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of life. … Careful paleontological detective work begun in the 1950s has revealed an extensive, if elusive, early fossil record. And this new Precambrian paleontology has made us take that early Cambrian event much more seriously, for it does not bear out the predicted long, slow history of diversification of complex life.

(Niles Eldredge, Life Pulse: Episodes from the Story of the Fossil Record, pp. 23-24.)

Likewise, Stephen Jay Gould explained:

For perhaps three billion years, the highest form of life was an algal mat–thin layers of prokaryotic algae that trap and bind sediment. Then, about 600 million years ago, virtually all the major designs of animal life appeared in the fossil record within a few million years. We do not know why the “Cambrian explosion” occurred when it did, but we have no reason to think that it had to happen then or had to happen at all.

(Stephen Jay “In the Midst of Life…” in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, p. 139.)

Though those descriptions were penned in the 1980s, a paper in BioEssays from earlier in 2009 attempted to put forth its own materialist explanation for the Cambrian explosion but nonetheless admitted the following about the fossil record:

[A]s explained on an intelligent-design t-shirt.

Fact: Forty phyla of complex animals suddenly appear in the fossil record, no forerunners, no transitional forms leading to them; ”a major mystery,” a ”challenge.” The Theory of Evolution — exploded again (idofcourse.com).

Although we would dispute the numbers, and aside from the last line, there is not much here that we would disagree with. Indeed, many of Darwin’s contemporaries shared these sentiments, and we assume — if Victorian fashion dictated — that they would have worn this same t-shirt with pride.

(Kevin J. Peterson, Michael R. Dietrich and Mark A. McPeek, “MicroRNAs and metazoan macroevolution: insights into canalization, complexity, and the Cambrian explosion,” BioEssays, Vol. 31(7):736-747 (2009).)

Dr. Prothero is entitled to his own opinions, but he’s not entitled to his own facts: The reality is that as Gould suggests, the pre-Cambrian fossil record is nearly entirely prokaryotic and a record documenting the gradual evolution of major animal groups simply isn’t known.

This is by no means the first time that Prothero has taken some poetic license in his interpretation of the fossil record. In 2008, Niles Eldredge published a scathing review of Prothero, where, though couched in highly technical and flowery language, Eldredge unmistakeably charges that Prothero doesn’t tell the whole story about the fossil record, namely the common pattern where we don’t find transitional forms and instead find abrupt appearance of new species.

Bone 4: The Origin of Information in DNA
In part 3, “DNA”, National Geographic says the following:

Once the molecular ingredients for DNA came together, natural selection took over to create increasingly complex–and yes, specific–molecules suitable for use in genetic code.
While no supernatural hand guided the evolution of DNA, “natural selection [was] a non-chance component,” Prothero said.

In this case we’re talking about the origin of information in the first life-form. Prothero and National Geographic are wrong: there’s no replication without life, and there can be no natural selection before the origin of replication. So how did the information in the first life arise without selection? Without selection, we’re forced to rely upon some chance-based mechanism, and there is no known chance-based mechanism that produces functional biological information (without the action of selection, which also isn’t very good at producing new functional biological information). Thus, last year, origin of life theorist David Deamer stated that “I think genetic information more or less came out of nowhere by chance assemblages of short polymers.” Like Deamer’s statement, National Geographic‘s assertion “[o]nce the molecular ingredients for DNA came together…” is a non-explanation.

Prothero and his friends at National Geographic haven’t yet explained the origin of genetic information. It would be better to admit that no materialist explanation yet exists for the origin of the genetic information than it is to pretend that such an explanation currently exists. For a much more thorough discussion on this point, see Signature in the Cell.

Bone 5: Flubbing the Flagellum
In Part 4, “Bacterial Legs”, National Geographic quotes Prothero as follows:

scientists have discovered several intermediate steps leading up to the bacterial flagellum, Prothero said.
“There are semi-flagella in nature that are not as complicated as the bacterial one. All of this has been documented at great length, and [intelligent design proponents] ignore it over and over again.”

Is “semi-flagella” a technical term? I searched PubMed and got zero hits. Then I searched Google for the term, but here I got two hits: (1) Prothero’s assertion in the National Geographic article, and (2) a hypothetical thought experiment by an ID-sympathizer over at Telic Thoughts. I’m not aware of any “semi-flagella.” Would Prothero care to give a citation for this term?

What Prothero might have in mind is the Type III Secretory System (T3SS), a toxin-injection machine found in some bacteria that has about 10 proteins homologous to the flagellar proteins. ID proponents most certainly don’t “ignore” this structure; even the basic intro-level ID video “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” handily deals with this old (and weak) T3SS objection to flagellar irreducible complexity.

The problem is that phylogenetic data implies the T3SS could not have been a precursor to the flagellum. As a biologist quoted in New Scientist stated:

“Most researchers think the best options are flagellum-first or parallel evolution. One fact in favour of the flagellum-first view is that bacteria would have needed propulsion before they needed T3SSs, which are used to attack cells that evolved later than bacteria. Also, flagella are found in a more diverse range of bacterial species than T3SSs. ‘The most parsimonious explanation is that the T3SS arose later,’ says biochemist Howard Ochman at the University of Arizona in Tucson.”

(Quoted in Dan Jones, “Uncovering the evolution of the bacterial flagellum,” New Scientist (Feb 16, 2008).)

More importantly, the T3SS is composed of (at most) only about 1/4 of the proteins in the flagellum, and does not help one account for how the fundamental function of the flagellum–its propulsion system–evolved. The unresolved challenge that the irreducible complexity of the flagellum continues to pose for Darwinian evolution is starkly summarized by William Dembski:

At best the T[3]SS represents one possible step in the indirect Darwinian evolution of the bacterial flagellum. But that still wouldn’t constitute a solution to the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. What’s needed is a complete evolutionary path and not merely a possible oasis along the way. To claim otherwise is like saying we can travel by foot from Los Angeles to Tokyo because we’ve discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Evolutionary biology needs to do better than that.

Dembski’s critique is apt because it recognizes that critics wrongly characterize irreducible complexity as focusing on the non-functionality of sub-parts. In contrast, Behe properly tests irreducible complexity by assessing the plausibility of the entire functional system to assemble in a step-wise fashion, even if sub-parts can have functions outside of the final system. The “leap” required by going from one functional sub-part to the entire functional system is indicative of the degree of irreducible complexity in a system. And it’s quite a leap from the T3SS toxin injection system to a flagellum. Apart from some homologous proteins in the basal body, they’re totally different systems.

Bone 6: Bad Form and Bad Arguments Defending Whale Evolution
Finally, the National Geographic reporter asked me about whale evolution. My response was that let’s say, for the sake of argument, that some of these widely touted fossils do indeed potentially fit as intermediates between land-mammals and whales. Then what? In part 5, “Whales”, Ker Than accurately quoted me as follows:

Whales “have a long generation time, and they don’t have huge populations. They’re like the worst-case scenario for trying to evolve structures rapidly,” Luskin said. “To fix all the mutations needed to convert a little land mammal into a fully functional whale [in ten million years]–mathematically that’s totally not possible.”

The next part of Ker Than’s article reads like it was written before I gave him my quote. And Prothero’s response is basically the common ID-critic approach that when confronted with a difficult argument, descend into ad hominem attack:

But paleontologists have since shown that Darwin’s guess wasn’t that far from the truth. In the late 1970s scientists began unearthing fossils of “archaic” whales that were initially mostly terrestrial but that became more aquatic over time.

“We have the fossils showing how it happened,” Prothero said. “Anyone who makes that argument is flat out lying about the fossil record.”

But I didn’t deny that there are some intermediate traits. And whale evolution expert Philip Gingerich admits that this series merely has “fossils illustrating three or four steps that bridge the precursor of whales to today’s mammals.” Moreover, how did all these thousands or even millions of genetic changes necessary to convert a land mammal into a whale arise and become fixed in just a few million years? Mathematically, there’s not enough time. It’s obvious that Prothero had no response because he just reverts to personal attacks — and I didn’t even deny that the fossils have some intermediate traits!

In sum, if Prothero’s showing in this National Geographic article is any indication, he does best when the debates are rigged so that he’s always given the last word, he is granted free reign to deflect from difficult arguments through personal attacks, and he is carefully insulated from rebuttals. How will Prothero fare in a real debate where people are forced to behave in a civil manner and no one is around to protect him from rebuttals? I suppose we’ll see tonight.

[Postscript: It looks like my prediction was right: Prothero did not fare very well in an actual debate. See Rob Crowther’s debate report for details.]


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.



Donald ProtheroNational Geographic