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Huffington Post Author Invents Claims about Explore Evolution and Pop-Paleontology

Some critics find it easier to attack a book by inventing claims about what it says than by reading it. That’s how Robert Asher, writing at the Huffington Post, attacks the textbook Explore Evolution (“EE“). Asher is a vertebrate paleontologist and author of Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist (Cambridge University Press), so he’s presumably a thoughtful guy. Yet look how uninformed he appears to be. He writes:

Consider this quote from the 2007 “Intelligent Design” textbook Explore Evolution: “In the overwhelming majority of cases, common descent does not match the evidence of the fossil record.” This book makes a case that biodiversity results from a kind of “design” incompatible with evolution by natural selection.

ExploreEvolution.jpegBut Explore Evolution doesn’t argue for intelligent design. You won’t find any mention of intelligent design in the book. (The word “design” is used a few times, but it’s in the same context many anti-ID biologists use it: to refer to the structural “design” of an organism, not to argue for intelligent design.) EE does not argue for intelligent design either in explicit or implicit terms. I challenge anyone who disagrees to provide page numbers and quotes showing otherwise.

Why doesn’t EE argue for intelligent design? Though EE has been used by many schools both public and private, it was written for use in public schools. Discovery Institute’s long-standing policy has been to oppose any attempt to introduce intelligent design in public schools. Consistent with that approach, EE is simply about, as the subtitle suggests, exploring “the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism”; it’s not about intelligent design.

In bashing EE, Asher evidently could not bring himself to link to the textbook’s website, Instead he links to a response page from the National Center for Science Education. (We’ve written lengthy rebuttals to the NCSE’s error-filled criticisms of EE, which you’ll find here, with more responses to critics found here.) This makes one wonder whether Asher has in fact read EE, or whether he just borrowed misrepresentations on the NCSE’s website. I assume the latter. This hypothesis is apparently confirmed when Asher further invents quotes from EE, stating:

Among other things, its authors allege that “missing links” are the rare exceptions to what is really a random jumble of petrified bones and teeth, manipulated by “evolutionists” to fit their (our) preconceptions.

But the authors of EE nowhere use the term “missing links.” The only place that term appears in the book is in the title of a single scientific paper from the prestigious journal Quarterly Review of Biology, found in EE‘s scientific references section.

And EE‘s argument is nothing like Asher’s representation of it. EE presents both the case for neo-Darwinian evolution from the fossil record, and the case against. Here’s what it says about the fossil record in the “case for” section:

The fossil record seemed to show a trend from simple to complex. In other words, it seemed clear to Darwin that as he looked higher and higher in the fossil record, he found more and more complicated creatures fossilized there. (EE, p. 17)

Rather than calling the fossil record a “random jumble” of bones, the authors fully recognize that there is order to the fossil record. Even in the “case against” neo-Darwinism section, the authors clearly affirm this:

Most critics of the fossil succession argument agree that the fossil record shows change over time. They also accept that more recent animal forms are generally — although not always — more complex than the forms found deeper in the fossil record. Nevertheless, they contend that the overall pattern of fossil evidence contradicts the neo-Darwinian picture of the history of life in two important respects. (EE, p. 22)

One of those important respects is that “new animal forms almost always appear abruptly — not gradually — in the fossil record, without any obvious connections to the animals that came before” (EE, p. 22) To understand why this is the case, one need not maintain, as Asher wrongly claims EE does, that evolutionists “manipulate” the data “to fit their (our) preconceptions.” In fact, numerous evolutionists have admitted the abrupt appearance of species in the fossil record. Here’s one striking example cited in EE from a paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution:

Angiosperms appear rather suddenly in the fossil record…with no obvious ancestors for a period of 80-90 million years before their appearance.

Other examples of abrupt appearance mentioned in the textbook include the Cambrian explosion, the origin of various mammal orders, and certain reptile (turtles) groups. Papers from journals including Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Evolution & Development are cited along the way. EE‘s arguments bear no resemblance to the misrepresentations made by Asher.

Asher does attempt some substantive arguments, maintaining that under Darwinian evolution and common descent, “We would also expect fossils to occur in a sequence that broadly corresponds with the Tree of Life.” He must not realize that EE agrees this is what is predicted by neo-Darwinism, and directly addresses this argument. In response, EE cites mainstream evolutionary scientists like James Valentine saying things like: “[M]any of the branches [of the Tree of Life], large as well as small, are cryptogenetic (cannot be traced into ancestors). Some of these gaps are surely caused by the incompleteness of the fossil record (Chap. 5), but that cannot be the sole explanation for the cryptogenetic nature of some families, many invertebrate orders, all invertebrate classes, and all metazoan phyla.” (On the Origin of Phyla, p. 35, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004)

Asher’s argument is reduced to something like, “more ancestral species [are] found in older rocks” — an argument that assumes its own truth, and is based upon an observation (that there is order in the fossil record) that EE doesn’t dispute.

The Name-Dropping Approach to Transitional Fossils
Asher then goes on to use the old name-dropping approach to discussing supposedly transitional fossils, apparently never realizing that many of these are also discussed in Explore Evolution.
He mentions Archaeopteryx, noting it “It is not a forgery” and has “a mix of anatomical features one would expect to find in an evolutionary lineage leading to modern birds.” EE never claims Archaeopteryx was a forgery, and in fact observes, much as Asher does, that “based on Archaeopteryx‘s combination of dinosaur and bird-like features, evolutionary biologists expect to find Archaeopteryx coming in the fossil record after dinosaurs and before birds.” What Asher fails to tell his readers is that, despite his claims that fossils are found “in a sequence that broadly corresponds with the Tree of Life,” Archaeopteryx is found some 20+ million years earlier in the fossil record than its supposed dinosaurian ancestors.

Asher also cites Ardipithecus as a fossil that is “a five-ish million-year-old member of our own lineage.” Again, he fails to disclose the poor quality of this fossil, or that some scientists with considerable reputations doubt that Ardipithecus was ancestral to humans. As Esteban Sarmiento wrote in the journal HOMO — Journal of Comparative Human Biology last year, Ardi’s features “are too derived to belong to an exclusive human ancestor.” Likewise, a criticism in the journal Science stated that proponents of Ardi “provid[e] insufficient evidence of an ancestor-descendant relationship and exclusivity to the hominid lineage.” We’ve discussed the views of other prominent Ardi-skeptics here at ENV before (see here or here). Asher uncritically asserts that other hominins like the australopithecines were ancestral to humans, mentioning none of the evidence that challenges his view.

Asher name-drops other fossils like Acanthostega and Aetiocetus — all belonging to supposed evolutionary sequences that we have critiqued heavily here before at ENV.

Asher stamps intelligent design with the old “anti-science” label. But this is completely backwards. Critics of neo-Darwinian evolution make their arguments by citing the mainstream peer-reviewed technical literature. In contrast, defenders of neo-Darwinism like Asher make unsupported assertions, fail to recognize credible dissent from their positions, and apparently invent claims in order to misrepresent the arguments of Darwin-skeptics.


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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