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On Hominid Fossils and Universal Common Ancestry, Denis Lamoureux Distorts

Denis Lamoureux

Denis Lamoureux is the theistic evolutionist and BioLogos author who left an indelible impression a couple of years ago when he debated Stephen Meyer and atheist Lawrence Krauss. In the middle of his opening statement, our friend Dr. Meyer suffered a blinding migraine headache. But where many would have crumbled, Steve persevered and (if you ask us) won the debate. That’s Steve Meyer for you. Krauss, too, was Krauss — sneering and nasty. As a demonstration of character, Lamoureux was the real revelation.

As David Klinghoffer observed here, “Lamoureux focused his attack on Meyer, even while proclaiming him his ‘brother in Christ’ and flinging buttery approval at Krauss,” demonstrating “how little daylight there is between his ‘theistic’ position and Krauss’s atheism.” At one point, as Krauss and Lamoureux tag-teamed, Denis was moved to urge the atheist onward, crying out, “Preach it, brother!”

As Jonathan Witt noted last week, Dr. Lamoureux writing in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation has now offered a lengthy review essay of the recent volume Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, edited by Stephen Meyer et al. This is welcome since the official BioLogos site has indicated that its staff has decided not to engage further with the book’s critique. How does Lamoureux do with the assignment? On the relevant science he has not, in the past, inspired confidence. Paleontologist Günter Bechly critiqued the substance of his performance at the Toronto debate, highlighted by the assertion by Lamoureux, whose doctoral degrees include a PhD in dentistry, that “Teeth emerged. Very easy to do.” Here, it seems he could have used some additional peer-review.

The book is large and the review is long. As a sample, let’s look at his response to two chapters, Chapter 11, “Universal Common Descent: A Comprehensive Critique,” and Chapter 13, “Missing Transitions: Human Origins and the Fossil Record.” Both are by Casey Luskin. We’ll take the latter first.

Hominid Fossils

Luskin offers 36 pages on hominid fossils and cites 100+ mainstream scientific publications, including many that explicitly admit that there are no fossils documenting a transition from the apelike australopithecines to the humanlike members of Homo. Here is the totality of Lamoureux’s response:

In a similar way, ID theorist Casey Luskin claims that the fossil evidence for human evolution is “sparse,” “so weak,” and “simply isn’t that clear.”53 But this is also factually inaccurate. Paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, the director of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program, states that there are “approximately 6,000 fossil individuals of early humans, spanning the past six million years.”54 Moreover, the 1,800 pages and four volumes of the well-illustrated The Human Fossil Record present indisputable evidence of the evolutionary transition of prehuman ancestors into humans. There is no lack of human transitional fossils.

This grossly misrepresents the chapter. He makes it sounds like the main argument is that there simply aren’t enough fossils to show any evolution. True, the chapter includes a few quotes from authorities about the sparseness of the hominid fossil record. But that sparsity is hardly the focus. The focus is on the fact that the fossils that we do have don’t form an evolutionary sequence from apelike precursors to humanlike fossils.

So Rick Potts (who has his own agenda) saying we have lots of fossils is no response. Indeed, most of those “6,000 fossil individuals” are probably just a few limited bone fragments.

We have ample fossils of australopithecines, and Homo erectus, and Neanderthals, and now we have numerous bones of Homo naledi, and there are many others. Luskin acknowledge this in his chapter where he writes “there are sufficient known australopithecine specimens to generally understand their morphology.” (p. 450) Here’s the point, though (and for more detail see pages 463-467):

From its first appearance, Homo erectus was very human-like, and differed markedly from prior hominins which were not human-like. Yet Homo erectus appears abruptly, without apparent evolutionary precursors. An article in Naturexplains:

“The origins of the widespread, polymorphic, Early Pleistocene H. erectus lineage remain elusive. The marked contrasts between any potential ancestor (Homo habilis or other) and the earliest known H. erectus might signal an abrupt evolutionary emergence some time before its first known appearance in Africa at -1.78 Myr [million years ago]. Uncertainties surrounding the taxon’s appearance in Eurasia and southeast Asia make it impossible to establish accurately the time or place of origin for H. erectus . … Whatever its time and place of origin, and direction of spread, this species dispersed widely, and possibly abruptly, before 1.5 Myr. 133.”

That article was written in 2002, but the problem remains. A 2016 paper admits, “Although the transition from Australopithecus to Homo is usually thought of as a momentous transformation, the fossil record bearing on the origin and earliest evolution of Homo is virtually undocumented.”134 While that paper argues that the evolutionary distance between Australopithecus and Homo is small, it nonetheless concedes that ”By almost all accounts, the earliest populations of the Homo lineage emerged from a still unknown ancestral species in Africa at some point between approximately 3 and approximately 2 million years ago.”135

Luskin provides quite a few additional authorities saying much the same, and Lamoureux doesn’t respond to any of this. Similarly, when he quotes Luskin as saying the evidence for human evolution is “so weak,” he doesn’t quote the authority Luskin gave in the sentence before. Here’s the full context:

After all, as noted earlier, two top paleoanthropologists have admitted that “the evolutionary sequence for the majority of hominin lineages is unknown.” With the fossil evidence for human evolution so weak, why should our theistic evolutionist brothers and sisters insist that the church must adopt their viewpoint?

Is Luskin saying there are no (or meaningless low numbers of) hominin fossils? Not at all. Obviously there are hominin fossils. They are sparse in number (again, the authorities say this) but that’s not the problem. The problem is that most hominin fossils can’t be organized in a manner that leads to an evolutionary lineage, especially one that bridges the gap between the apelike australopithecines and the humanlike members of Homo. Lamoureux doesn’t engage with the actual argument.

Things go from bad to worse with the chapter on universal common ancestry.

Universal Common Ancestry

Again, Lamoureux’s response is based on a distortion. He writes:

In his chapter entitled “Universal Common Descent: A Comprehensive Critique,” former Discovery Institute research coordinator Casey Luskin makes a remarkable admission about the genetic and biochemical similarities between all living organisms. He begins by stating that “it is true that the vast majority of organisms use the same ‘standard code,’ and all life forms employ similar types of biomolecules, such as, DNA, RNA nucleotides, and proteins.”66 Luskin then concedes, “True, universal common ancestry is one possible explanation for many genetic similarities we observe between organisms.”67 In other words, the molecular evidence in living organisms certainly supports biological evolution.

Hold on. He claims that Luskin made a major concession, namely that universal common ancestry is the best or only way to explain “many genetic similarities we observe between organisms” (i.e., the simple fact that all life uses DNA and proteins). Or he claims that Luskin agrees that “the molecular evidence in living organisms certainly supports biological evolution”? What? You don’t have to agree with Casey Luskin, but anyone familiar with Casey’s position, ably articulated many times here at Evolution News, knows that isn’t it.

First, Luskin’s point about common ancestry is that it’s only the “best” explanation for what he calls “mere similarity” among organisms — i.e., the fact that all life uses DNA and proteins — when you compare it to the preposterous null hypothesis that organisms developed these similarities by “sheer chance.”

Second, if there are other viable hypotheses to explain these similarities, then universal common ancestry loses a lot of its potency as an explanation.

Thus, the mere fact that all life uses DNA and protein can be explained by universal common ancestry — but it can also be explained by common design. These are competing hypotheses. But this point only applies to “mere similarity” — the fact that all life uses DNA and proteins. Luskin writes on page 378:

But it isn’t mere similarity among biomolecules that evolutionary biologists claim demonstrates universal common ancestry. They often claim that patterns of similar nucleotide and amino acid sequences of genes and proteins allow organisms to be organized into a phylogenetic “tree of life” (Fig. 11.1) showing the evolutionary relationships between all living organisms.57 [Emphasis in the original.] 

When it comes to trying to construct a grand a tree of life — a pattern that organizes the similarities between different organisms into a nested hierarchy — Luskin argues that here universal common ancestry faces major problems. He spends a few pages discussing molecular data that runs counter to the “tree of life” hypothesis. Unfortunately, Lamoureux again doesn’t respond to any of this large amount of molecular evidence that doesn’t fit with universal common ancestry. 

Lamoureux goes on, repeating his claim that Luskin made some kind of a major concession:

But by admitting that “universal common ancestry is one possible explanation for many genetic similarities we observe between organisms,” Casey Luskin unwittingly affirms biological evolution.

It’s hard to believe Denis read the chapter carefully. In no way is this an accurate description of Casey’s argument. 

The case for (or against) universal common ancestry is said to be “cumulative,” and based on multiple different classes of evidence. Just because someone acknowledges that material causes are as good as intelligent agency at explaining one particular class of evidence doesn’t mean that that person thinks that apparently unguided material causes (what Lamoureux means by “biological evolution”) are the best explanation for the overall data as we know it.

Common design, in fact, takes up only about three paragraphs in this lengthy chapter. But the subject becomes the major focus of Lamoureux’s response. He wants to know why a designer would re-use defective “pseudogenes” in different organisms. This doesn’t sound like a good example of “common design.” Well, assuming that pseudogenes truly are non-functional, here he’s right and the authors of the book never said otherwise.

In fact, in Chapter 15, Ann Gauger, Ola Hössjer, and Colin Reeves discuss this point — they review the very argument that Lamoureux makes:

Pseudogenes. Because pseudogenes appear to make defective protein, or none at all, they have been thought to be “junk,” remnants of the evolutionary process. Because they tend to be located in the same place and have the same “errors” in humans and in chimpanzees, they are taken as evidence for common descent, for example by Francis Collins and Denis Alexander. (p. 497)

That’s pretty much exactly what Lamoureux is saying — yet he doesn’t recognize that the Theistic Evolution book appreciates his point. So what is the response from an ID perspective? It’s that pseudogenes are not necessarily established as non-functional. From the same chapter:

Pseudogenes have not received much attention in the scientific literature because they are assumed to be “junk.” But that is changing rapidly. Where pseudogenes have been carefully studied, they are often found to be functional, and in some nonstandard ways.64 Part of the problem is that a pseudogene may be active in specific tissues only during particular stages of development, making identification of their functions difficult. Nonetheless, researchers in the field are confident that continued research will yield more evidence of functionality. As one group states, “We believe that more and more functional pseudogenes will be discovered as novel biological technologies are developed in the future …. definitely, the so-called pseudogenes are really functional, not to be considered any more as just ‘junk’ or ‘fossil’ DNA.  Surely, many functional pseudogenes and novel regulatory mechanisms remain to be discovered and explored in diverse organisms. “65

There are several ways in which pseudogenes have been found to work so far. They can fuse with adjacent genes to form “chimeras” that produce either coding or noncoding RNAs, and they can form RNARNA duplexes with their “parental” gene and prevent its expression or signal its degradation.66

One sign pointing toward their likely functionality is that their sequence is very similar in many different species. There are more than eight thousand processed pseudogenes in the human genome; 60 percent are very similar in mouse and human. The fact that their sequences are so similar means that they are likely to have a sequence-dependent essential function, so that their sequence cannot be changed without harm.67 That degree of similarity is not something that would be expected if pseudogenes served no biological function. (p. 497-498)

Shared non-functional “junk” DNA (including pseudogenes) is not best explained by common design, but is best explained by common ancestry. Discussing a full-fledged model of common design, however, wasn’t the point of any chapter in the book. There’s reason to be skeptical that pseudogenes are truly non-functional, but that’s not to say common design is the best explanation for truly non-functional pseudogenes. For more detail, see here

To put it another way, evidence can count for or against (or neither for nor against) common ancestry. Lamoureux, it seems, is thinking in typical black-or-white Darwinian terms. Either the entire history of life is the result of apparently unguided material causes, or else everything was supernaturally designed. He doesn’t see the nuanced and more careful ID perspective which allows that some features may be the result of material causes, while others are the result of intelligent agency (or a mix of the two). 

Does “Common Design” Mean “Concordism”?

Lamoureux isn’t done. He writes:

The Common Designer argument strikes most people as special pleading. If ID theorists were not concordists, it is doubtful they would argue for a God-of-the-gaps who reuses “a common blueprint or components” in the creation of plants, animals, and humans.

If you’ve forgotten what concordism is, here’s a reminder:

Concordism refers to the position that the teaching of the Bible on the natural world, properly interpreted, will agree with the teaching of science (when it properly understands the data), and may in fact supplement science. The concordist not only believes that nature and Scripture will harmonize, but sees specific references in the Bible to current scientific understanding of the universe. The concordist, then, looks for those close parallels in order to show that Scripture concords or agrees with scientific conclusions. Because the concordist holds Scripture as entirely truthful, there cannot be any ultimate contradiction between Scripture rightly interpreted and nature rightly interpreted. In both Scripture and nature, of course, there is the potential for error in the interpretation. Concordism, however, assumes that correlations can be made, believing in a degree of accuracy of interpretation (though not infallibility) in current science and in showing how Scripture supports clear scientific conclusions.

That definition comes from the 2017 Zondervan Dictionary of Christianity and Science, p. 104. It makes clear that concordism entails showing “specific references in the Bible” that are concordant with our “current scientific understanding of the universe.” Yet the two chapters in question here make no references — i.e., exactly zero — to the Bible and no attempts to harmonize science with the Bible.

Lamoureux thinks that if material causes can explain some data, then the only way you are justified in rejecting material causes is if you have a prior commitment to Scripture and you’re a concordist. But as we saw, Lamoureux missed the structure of the arguments here, so he misses that Luskin (a) is not rejecting material causes in all cases, and (b) when he does reject certain materialistic explanations, it’s because of the totality of the evidence and not just one class of it. Most importantly, the argument against material causes isn’t from what the Bible says, but from what the scientific evidence says. 

There’s probably another reason Lamoureux wants to paint the authors of Theistic Evolution as concordists: He himself cut his teeth on the evolution debate back in an era when it largely was concordists (creationists) vs. evolutionists, and he is sort of stuck trying to shoehorn his intellectual opponents into the old concordist mold.

When Lamoureux concludes that common design is a concordist argument, he writes:

It is only an unquestioning precommitment to a concordist hermeneutic that leads to a belief in a Common Designer who recycles biological features through God-of-the-gaps miraculous interventions.

No, that’s not correct at all. Common design is based upon trying to follow the evidence where it leads. And the design inference is not based upon gaps in our knowledge but on our positive knowledge of the causal power of intelligent agency, and our ability to find its known products in nature. We observe that intelligent agents frequently re-use similar components in different systems; the inference to common design is based upon observation, not theology. Likewise, when Ann Gauger and her colleagues cite evidence that pseudogenes might be functional, they are employing scientific evidence and arguments — not the Bible. What they and others are trying to do is construct a scientific paradigm based upon the evidence of intelligent causes vs. natural causes. If natural causes best explain some of the data, so be it. If intelligent causes best explain some of the data, so be it. 

The theory of intelligent design is exactly as C. John Collins defines it in his chapter of Theistic Evolution. It holds that

certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. (p. 672)

ID is nothing more or less than that. Lamoureux wants to have this conversation while fighting about Bible interpretations or making accusations about inserting God into gaps. We want to have a conversation about what the science says. Lamoureux has offered a misrepresentation of a movement that, while it is a big tent, welcoming theists and non-theists, is focused squarely on science. It’s a shame Lamoureux can’t seem to bring more such focus in his response.

Photo: Denis Lamoureux debating with Stephen Meyer and Lawrence Krauss, University of Toronto, via YouTube (screen shot).