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Misconceptions about Misconceptions: Examining a Citation of My Work

human origins
Photo: Skull fragment, Homo erectus, by Commie cretan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday I discussed an academic article in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach that cites me and others in the ID movement, with the authors not seeming to realize that scientists who doubt Darwin do so because of the evidence. All of this was eyebrow-raising, but what about the article’s citation of my work? I found it in a section where they discuss “misconceptions” about evolution that are promoted by what they call “detractors of evolutionary theory”:

The misconception that human beings came from the ape and not from a common ancestor and the idea claimed by the intelligent design movement that God participated in human origin (Luskin 2005).

The citation is to one of my earliest writings on the topic of human origins, an article I published in an old ID journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design back in 2005. Because I wrote this article many years ago, it’s hardly what I would consider my best or most current writing on the subject. But it’s still available on the Internet, and I suppose I appreciate the citation, even if they’re ignoring my more recent work. What I don’t appreciate much is the authors’ misrepresenting my 2005 paper as if it promoted misconceptions about evolution.  

The authors attribute two “misconceptions” to my article. The first is “The misconception that human beings came from the ape and not from a common ancestor.” If my paper did state this then it would indeed be promoting a misconception about standard evolutionary thinking. So I reread my paper and nowhere does it claim evolutionary biology holds that human beings “came from the ape,” or anything close to that. Quite the opposite, my paper accurately represents evolutionary theory as proposing that humans share a common ancestor with living apes. Here’s the relevant quote:

The chance-law hypothesis, neo-Darwinism, states that humans, apes, and monkeys are related through common ancestry.

Now let’s be clear: I understand full well that modern evolutionary biology holds that humans share a common ancestor with apes, not that we evolved “from the ape” (although it would be fair to say that many paleoanthropologists would agree that we evolved from apelike species). This is nothing new, and my article accurately represents evolutionary thinking.

Now “God” Is a “Misconception”?

What about the second misconception? They claim that it is a “misconception” to teach that “that God participated in human origin [sic].” Dont fail to appreciate what you just read, and recall that the full quote is above. This journal Evolution: Education and Outreach — affiliated with the NCSE, which claims to be a religion-friendly activist group — just published a paper that directly claimed that if you believe “God participated in human origin” then that is wrong, a “misconception.” That’s not very religion-friendly! 

And yet in this same article, a few pages later, they launch into standard evolutionary apologetics talking points about how religion and evolution are fully compatible: 

In this way, religious precepts can be accommodated in the face of scientific knowledge, since conflict is unnecessary and counterproductive, and there is no need to abandon religious conceptions in order to understand and accept biological evolution, something already perceived by Charles Darwin himself in one of his last letters.

So which is it? In one breath we’re told that “there is no need to abandon religious conceptions” when we “accept biological evolution.” But in another breath we’re told that it’s a “misconception” to claim that “God participated in human origin.” So much for the article’s clumsy posturing that “conflict” between evolution and religion is “unnecessary.”

It seems clear enough that the article is using double-speak to pretend that evolution has no conflicts with religion. But does my article even argue that “God” is responsible for human origins? No. Search the paper: the word “God” is not there. The article does propose that intelligent design might be a better explanation than neo-Darwinian evolution for human origins:

The abrupt appearance of Homo as a novel and distinct form, significantly different from earlier fossil forms and without links to previous fossil forms, implicates intelligent design as a cause involved in the origin of Homo.

But nowhere does the article attribute human origins to “God.” Just as the Evolution: Education and Outreach article accuses me of promoting common misconceptions about evolution, one might equally (and more accurately) say that article is promoting common misconceptions about intelligent design.

But Don’t You Believe in God?

Now the immediate reaction we often hear says, “Well, you ID proponents believe that the designer is God, so we’re not misrepresenting you.” No, they are indeed misrepresenting us. I do believe that the designer is God — and I’ve always been open about that fact. But my belief that the designer is God is my personal religious belief — not something that I have claimed to infer from biology alone via the scientific methods that I use to detect design. I’ve discussed this many times before, such as here. Scientifically, all I can infer from the biological data is an intelligent cause, and because my paper takes a scientific approach, that’s all it proposes. 

For example, although I probably wouldn’t frame some of my arguments for design in this old paper in exactly the same way today, I do still very much agree with this quote I provide from Stephen Meyer:

As Meyer et al. note:

“[I]ntelligent design provides a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of large amounts of information, since we have considerable experience of intelligent agents generating informational configurations of matter.”

This infusion of information could be revealed in the fossil record as a “quantum or discontinuous increase in specified complexity or information.”

My paper thus argues that the abrupt appearance of Homo in the fossil record is the precise kind of rapid input of information that could reflect design by intelligence. But this is an argument for an intelligent cause, and although that intelligent cause could be a divine being, the scientific data alone did not allow me to take the argument that far. Indeed, there are some atheist or agnostic ID-sympathizers who agree that there is evidence for design in nature, but they don’t attribute that design specifically to “God.” When the Evolution: Education and Outreach article claims that I am arguing for “God” in the paper, it is simply misstating what I wrote. Tomorrow I will consider why the critics misrepresent intelligent design.