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The Sad Decline of Karl Giberson


Physicist Karl Giberson used to be a serious participant in discussions of issues related to science and faith. A co-founder of the BioLogos Foundation with Francis Collins and Darrel Falk, and a frequent contributor to Books & Culture, Giberson is the author of several notable books. But of late it’s getting hard to take him seriously. It’s rather sad.

First, there was the controversy over Giberson’s use during public lectures of a fake photo purporting to show a human baby born with a tail. Giberson used the photo to illustrate his claim that human babies are occasionally “born with perfectly formed, even functional tails,” which is supposed to provide evidence of humans’ shared evolutionary ancestry with lower animals.

It turned out that not only was Giberson’s scientific claim bogus — so was his photo. The picture was a Photoshopped concoction he downloaded from a humor website, apparently thinking it was real. Giberson’s use of the photo in public lectures may say something about his lack of skepticism when it comes to claims made in the name of evolution, but I don’t think he was intentionally trying to mislead people. And after the photo was exposed, he did eventually apologize — albeit with very poor grace and a stream of self-justifications. He even accused my colleague David Klinghoffer, who helped expose the fake photo, of “willful lies,” which was itself a patent falsehood. The whole episode was a sorry example of Giberson’s scorched-earth and fact-free approach to those he disagrees with.

Now Giberson has posted an over-the-top bromide against Discovery Institute at The Huffington Post under the overwrought title (cue the sinister music!), “Discovery Institute Still Undermining Science.” The article makes Giberson’s statements about humans born with tails seem a model of probity. Inveighing against Discovery Institute’s “teach the controversy” education policy, Giberson asserts that the “controversies” the Institute wants taught in science classes include a 10,000-year-old earth, Noah’s Ark, and Adam and Eve:

For starters, the “controversies” they want to teach don’t even exist. In their minds the possibility that the earth is 10,000 years old is an open question, even though geologists settled that one in the 18th century. They still think that Adam and Eve were real people and Noah may have rescued all the animals in the ark — claims settled in the 19th century.

Notably, Giberson doesn’t provide any documentation for these claims. That’s because they are absolutely false. As in, made up. As in, completely untrue. I’ve been involved with Discovery Institute before the Institute even had its program on intelligent design, and we’ve never advocated teaching the things he says in science class.

To be perfectly clear, we don’t even favor teaching about intelligent design in K-12 classes. Still less do we support banning the teaching of evolution, despite Giberson’s additional false claim that our “real agenda” is “to get evolution out of the public schools.”

On the contrary, we think science students should learn more about evolutionary theory, not less. That includes the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but it also includes scientific disputes over key evolutionary claims already being aired in mainstream peer-reviewed science journals. These include disputes over the creative power of the mutation-selection mechanism: How much can natural selection acting on random mutations actually accomplish?

If Giberson disagrees with the criticisms of Darwinian theory raised by scientists in the intelligent design community, he should take the time to respond to those criticisms rather than spread falsehoods.

For example, Giberson could respond to the scientific claims made in Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt. Giberson may think Meyer raises no serious scientific claims, but a number of other scientists disagree, ranging from Harvard geneticist George Church to paleontologist Mark McMenamin, co-author of The Emergence of Animals (Columbia University Press). McMenamin even called Meyer’s book “a game changer for the study of evolution and points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of animals.” Neither Church nor McMenanim is affiliated with the intelligent design movement, so it took a great deal of courage for them to recommend Meyer’s book.

But rather than respond to the real issues raised by those affiliated with Discovery Institute, Giberson simply knocks down straw men. That’s the sort of intellectual evasion I’ve grown to expect from the hard-core partisans of modern evolutionary theory. I had thought that Giberson was better than that. At one point, I think he was.

As I said earlier, it’s sad. Giberson’s fact-free attacks may play well with the Darwin Amen chorus at The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, but surely he is capable of something more.

Perhaps Giberson has convinced himself he lives in an alternate universe — a universe where a Discovery Institute exists that actually promotes the things he claims. But for those of us who live in the real universe, I wish he’d rejoin us. He might be an interesting discussion partner.

Photo: Stephen Meyer (left) debates Karl Giberson (right), by Andrew McDiarmid.