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Karl Giberson Apologizes for Photoshopped Image of Tailed Baby


Dr. Giberson, physicist and advocate of theistic evolution, has now said he is sorry for twice employing a Photoshopped image in public arguments. The image is of a tailed human infant, and he unwittingly used it in making his case for our common descent from a tailed ancestor. Saying you’re sorry and that you’ll strive not to do it again is normally a gracious thing to do. In Giberson’s case, the admission is accompanied by a spray of insults and untruths.

I was away from the Internet for a couple of days but returned to find a long thread of comments at the Facebook page of our Discovery Institute colleague Nancy Pearcey. Her post is identified as being available to the public. Karl visited the thread and wrote:

I certainly apologize for the bogus image and will not use it any more.

Good! He should have left it at that. Or to his credit, he might have added an apology to Stephen Meyer. In their debate in Richmond (pictured above), Giberson flashed on the screen the image of a baby with a tail — a photo that turned out to be phony — and later wrote at The Daily Beast about how Meyer had no response to his contention about tails as an evolutionary vestige.

I have no idea how Intelligent Design theorists explain humans with tails. And apparently Stephen Meyer doesn’t either, as he completely ignored this point.

In Steve Meyer’s place, I think I would have been skeptical about the photo but, without any means of checking its provenance in the middle of a discussion before a live audience, unable to protest Giberson’s use of it.

Giberson and baby.png

In the same article, Giberson linked to the image as he found it at the website Cracked.com, the online survival of an old humor magazine, originally a knock-off from Mad. The photo would have been supportive of Karl’s argument, if it were real.

In the discussion at Facebook, Karl writes:

I have noted that I was fooled by the image, which comes from a serious magazine that USED TO BE a humor magazine. Extremely misleading to say the image is associated with a satirical magazine. However, no point was implied by the image beyond what is well established by other legitimate images. I consider the claims made by Klinghoffer to be willful lies about what I was doing with the image. In the discussion I also reference an article identifying the actual human gene for tails (same as the mouse gene, except ours is shut down.) If, for example, I accidentally showed a photo of Plato when talking about Aristotle that would be an irrelevant error. At no point did I imply that the image I showed was evidence. It was [an] illustration. Big difference.

In the paragraph above, I have highlighted the absurdities. My responses:

  • A “serious magazine”? After trying to reinvent itself following decades of publication in the style of Mad Magazine, Cracked went strictly online, still defining its mission as "comedy." Whether it’s funny anymore could be debated. Current lead story: "6 Works of Propaganda That Backfired in Hilarious Ways."
  • Of course the phony photo goes beyond the evidence in what it implies. I have yet to see a genuine photo of a human "tail" that looks "well formed," as Giberson led audiences to believe. The available images are upsetting in the extreme, far from "perfectly formed, even functional" in appearance. Giberson chose a photo from a dubious source that fit his argument in a way the available legitimate images that I’m aware of do not.
  • "Willful lies"? My own main points were 1) Giberson used a fake image to help make his case, and 2) I assume Giberson is an honorable man who would cheerfully correct a mistake. Where’s the deliberate untruth in either of those statements? Well, I was certainly wrong to assume Giberson would cheerfully correct the record.
  • His use of the phony image is no different from mixing up a picture of Plato with one of Aristotle? The comparison is ridiculous. I can’t think of any argument that would be strengthened by displaying an image of Plato. The case for vestigial tails would, seemingly, be strengthened by producing an image showing such a "perfectly formed" appendage.
  • Giberson didn’t use the fake image as "evidence"? Maybe he means that in the sense of scientific evidence. But nobody in the audience in Richmond would doubt that, if genuine, the photo would enhance his case. By contrast, displaying (or linking to) a genuine photo of a human tail would weaken it, since those do not appear "well formed" or "perfectly formed."
  • In the context of a debate before an audience of laymen, an "illustration" is clearly expected to be taken as supportive of the argument you are making.

As the thread developed, Giberson added expressions of apology and admission — "Mea culpa for not being more careful," "It was an honest mistake — one I have admitted." Good, good! But these are accompanied by further misleading statements and charges.

Karl again implies that I’m the one being dishonest here:

Do you consider, for example, that every image in a textbook is "evidence"? In the Logic class I taught for many years we had a section where we learned to distinguish between arguments and explanations. They have the same form but are conceptually different. I am certain you understand this. Certain. So I can only infer that you have other reasons for pretending that you do not.

But Giberson wasn’t writing a textbook. He was arguing a case before the general public — a live audience in Richmond, VA, and a larger audience of readers at The Daily Beast — who naturally assume that if you direct their attention to a picture like this, illustrating a contested medical phenomenon, it’s intended to strengthen the case you’re making.

Giberson at this point switches accusations, citing an article I wrote in an alumni magazine in which I mention how a friend, some 30 years ago, said I was a contrarian. For Giberson, this translates into:

Here in his own words is his admission that he just likes to pick fights.

You can read the essay yourself, by the way — its title is meant to be ironic — in a new book that’s just been published celebrating my college’s 250th anniversary, The Brown Reader. It’s a nice book, collecting 50 articles by Brown University alumni. I recommend it.

I bring all this up because, I suppose, like anyone else I have a right to defend my own name. I’ve tried to extend every benefit of the doubt to Giberson, but he has made that a challenge.

It would be a pleasant surprise if he and his fellow Darwin defenders
were simply to admit that, whatever the strengths of the rest of their argument for common descent, the visual evidence of human tails is not great. In fact, Giberson makes my point for me in the Facebook discussion, linking in one comment to an article that contrasts real photos of human tails with yet another Photoshopped example.

Interestingly, Giberson’s co-agitator Nick Matzke takes a different tack. At Twitter, Dr. Matzke points out an X-ray image (Figure 2.2.3., here), taken from a 1980 journal article. In addition, the article includes one photo, as distinct from an X-ray, which looks like a birth defect, not so much like the computer-generated pig tail in Giberson’s image. For Matzke, the fact that the growth is not well or perfectly formed actually counts for its relevance:

Remember, the disagreement here is not over whether babies are (very rarely) born with a growth where a tail would be, but whether that has any evolutionary significance. I might have thought that the massive literature citations that Casey Luskin collected in his recent series on tails, echoed by pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor with his impressive clinical experience, would put an end to this whole dispute. Not so.

You see, if "tails" are "perfectly formed," that supports the case for Darwinian evolution. If they are not well formed, that’s even better support, since the "expectation" is that "atavisms" will not be "fully grown." Heads we win, say Giberson and Matzke, tails you lose.

I’m on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



Continuing SeriesThe Myth of Human Tails