Examining “Professor Dave’s” Absurd Attack on Casey Luskin
In a recent video attacking intelligent design, a popular atheist YouTuber, “Professor” Dave Farina, singles out geologist Casey Luskin for special wrath. The attack on Luskin is definitely the most ludicrous part of the non-professor’s video, with Farina claiming at one point that Luskin perpetrated “a criminal offense” in an episode of Science Uprising on human evolution. Shall we call the cops on Dr. Luskin? Well, let’s see.
As I previously pointed out here and here, Farina is remarkably sloppy with the facts. His denunciations in this case are no exception.
Farina starts by ridiculing Luskin’s expertise: “Ahh, he wrote a book … Ohh, and he has a PhD in Geology … Some guy who knows nothing about fossils.”
Apart from the fact that this is totally irrelevant to the merit of Luskin’s arguments, we may certainly ask what Farina’s own expertise in fossils is, if this is the standard Farina wants to apply. If a PhD geologist must know little or nothing about fossils, how much less would someone with just a Master’s in Science Education know? Farina’s statement alone should be a major offense to all the dedicated fossil collectors and amateur paleontologists, who have no PhD in paleontology but are well versed in the technical literature as well as in the practice of collecting, preparing, and studying fossils. Many even publish peer-reviewed scientific articles together with renowned scientists. If only PhDs in the relevant field are allowed to think critically and speak about science, then why does the Professor Dave Explains YouTube channel even exist? I am a paleontologist and internationally recognized authority in my field, and from my talks with Dr. Luskin I am pretty sure that he knows an awful lot more about fossils than Mr. Farina does.
On the Merits
Although Farina may have no professional qualifications in paleontology, I am happy to judge his arguments based on their own merits. As I indicated, one can be knowledgeable about a field without having professional qualifications in it. Unfortunately for Farina, his comments show how little he really knows of what he is talking about.
For example, Farina says that the theory of evolution predicted that “the human form should emerge slowly.” Apparently, he is unaware of the distinct gap between the ape-like australopithecines and our own genus Homo (this is reviewed in Luskin, 2017). Don’t believe me? Here is world-renowned paleoanthropologist John Hawks saying the same thing (Hawks et al. 2000): “In sum, the earliest H. sapiens remains differ significantly from australopithecines in both size and anatomical details. Insofar as we can tell, the changes were sudden and not gradual.” In the press release for this study, it was even called a “Big Bang theory of human evolution” (Swanbrow 2000).
Farina also habitually misrepresents what Casey Luskin says. At one point, he maintains that Luskin suggests that modern humans evolved from Neanderthals. Does Luskin indeed claim this? I watched the Science Uprising episode several times to check, but could not find anything remotely resembling such a claim. Apparently, Farina trusts that his audience will not bother to check the facts.
Perhaps the most over-the-top misrepresentation by Farina is his allegation that Luskin committed a “criminal offense worthy of a lawsuit” for accusing Dr. Owen Lovejoy of engaging in a “big fat fraud” in his reconstruction of the famed specimen Lucy’s hip bone. Except Luskin never accused Lovejoy of this.
You can go to the video and check for yourself that Luskin said precisely the following: “Lucy’s pelvis had to be reconstructed using quite a bit of evolutionary interpretation and imagination” — which is exactly what happened. Neither Luskin nor the video narrator alleges that Lovejoy engaged in “fraud.”
Farina tries to make a big deal of it that the narrator of the Science Uprising episode (not Luskin) refers to “Lovejoy manipulating the fossils to make Lucy walk upright,” while a PBS video shows that the actual reconstruction was done on a plaster cast of the fossils. On this, Farina is nitpicking. Neither the Science Uprising episode nor Luskin claims that Lovejoy damaged a precious original fossil in his work. And whether the original fossils or plaster casts were used in his reconstruction is immaterial to the point being discussed in the episode.
An Attempted Reconstruction
Since Farina raised the issue of plaster casts, however, I’d like to point something out: An attempted reconstruction is even worse when done on a plaster cast, because the cast has a homogenous matrix and no longer shows the clear distinctions between fossil substance and surrounding sediment. Therefore, it is much easier to make errors resulting in imprecise preparation, thus influencing the reconstruction. The whole procedure of the reconstruction of Lucy was never properly documented in the technical literature (e.g., Johanson et al. 1982; Tague & Lovejoy 1986) but only briefly introduced in a conference abstract (Lovejoy 1979). This is far from being good scientific practice and rightfully raises doubts concerning the reliability of the reconstruction. So, did evolutionary interpretation and imagination play a role in the reconstruction? Of course they did, which is demonstrated by the fact that experts disagreed on the interpretation of Lucy’s hip and produced several different reconstructions.
Even though they were aware of the distortion in the fossil and of Lovejoy’s reconstruction, which they note, Stern & Susman (1983: Fig. 6) concluded in their study of Lucy’s pelvis that “the marked resemblance of AL 288-1 to the chimpanzee is equally obvious. Even allowing for postmortem distortion in the middle of the iliac crest of AL 288-1ao, it is impossible to obtain an orientation comparable to humans.” Berge et al. (1984)presented their own reconstruction of Lucy’s pelvis using the method of mirror molding. They found characteristic human features as well as “significant dissimilarities,” suggesting a “fetal skull size similar to the one of the neonate chimpanzee.” Rak (1991) concluded that “Lucy’s pelvis, therefore, does not represent simply an intermediate stage between a chimpanzee-like hominoid and Homo sapiens, nor is it essentially a modern human pelvis. Although clearly bipedal and highly terrestrial, Lucy evidently achieved this mode of locomotion through a solution all her own.” Häusler & Schmid (1995) compared three reconstructions of Lucy’s pelvis by Lovejoy (1979), Schmid (1983), and the first author, which “revealed marked differences between Sts14 and AL 288-1 which are unlikely to be explained by different methods of reconstruction.” Kimbel & Delezene (2009) acknowledged that “primitive aspects of the A.L. 288-1 pelvis have been used to argue for the lack of fully obligate bipedalism in A. afarensis … Others have argued that the pelvis of A.L. 288-1 is fully adapted to bipedalism.” Kuliukas (2018) found that “The general shape of the pelvis of Australopithecus afarensis is confirmed to be fundamentally different from both Homo and extant great apes, and not intermediate between them.”
That experts disagreed so much about the interpretation of the pelvis and its reconstruction is enough to establish the point made in the Science Uprising video, namely that the reconstruction included “quite a bit of evolutionary interpretation and imagination.” This should not even be controversial. It’s a demonstrable fact! It by no means suggests fraudulent intentions, and it also does not even mean that Lovejoy got it wrong. All that said: Would it have been better for the narrator to say that Dr. Lovejoy attempted to reconstruct the original configuration of the hip bone by manipulating a plaster cast of the fossil? Sure, but it would not have changed the core message, and one should also consider that this was only a seven-minute popular video and not meant as an exhaustive documentary.
Lucy’s Knee Joint
In another criticism, Farina says that the Science Uprising episode did not mention the locking knee joint as evidence for bipedalism in Lucy. However, this issue is by no means unanimously agreed upon among experts. Stern (2000) explicitly noted the “absence of terminal locking rotation of the knee” for the Lucy specimen AL 288-1. Lewin & Foley (2003) wrote in their core textbook Principles of Human Evolution:
Completing the case for a bent-hip, bent-knee walking posture is the suggestion by the SUNY researchers that the A. afarensis knee joint cannot lock in a fully flexed position, as it does in modern humans. The Kent State researchers dispute three points of this description of the anatomy, ultimately rejecting the functional interpretation.
Similarly, Farina’s critique of the Science Uprising episode’s presentation concerning the foot skeleton of Lucy is unfounded: Farina emphasizes the indirect evidence from the Laetoli footprints, but these were found 1,000 miles apart and dated 460 thousand years older than Lucy and most other specimens of its species, while there is scientific controversy about the conspecific status of fossil fragments from Laetoli (including the holotype LH4) (PBS 2001). Therefore, the attribution to Australopithecus afarensis is by no means undisputed (Tuttle et al. 1991; Harcourt-Smith 2005), as was clearly admitted by Raichlen et al. (2010), who said that “this hypothesis is disputed by others based on differences between print morphology and fossilized foot remains.” Furthermore, recent evidence has shown that there were two different hominin species with different bipedal gait leaving their footprints at Laetoli (McNutt et al. 2021), which makes the identification even more dubious.
Farina also mentions the Little Foot specimen, as if this specimen would document the foot morphology of Lucy. He seems to be totally unaware that this specimen is not even attributed to Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, but to its own species, Australopithecus prometheus (Clarke and Kuman, 2019).Furthermore, this specimen only has an incomplete basal part of the left foot preserved. Finally, Farina remarks that hundreds of specimens of Australopithecus afarensis have been found, without mentioning that most of these are only tiny fragments and isolated teeth. Just three somewhat more complete (but still very fragmentary) specimens have been found, of which two, Lucy (A.L. 288-1) and Kadanuumuu (KSD-VP-1/1), lack any preserved foot skeleton. The third skeleton belongs to a three-year old child that was called Selam (Dik-1-1) which includes the basal fragment of a foot. This fossil foot was first described as “clear evidence for bipedal locomotion” (Alemseged et al. 2006), but a recent re-examination revealed that the fossil documents the ape-like foot of a tree-climber (DeSilva et al. 2018). This was considered “unexpected” because the only other fossil of the foot skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis is an isolated metatarsal bone of an adult (AL 333-160), which has been interpreted as evidence of an arched foot adapted for bipedal gait (Ward et al. 2011). Instead of considering a potential misattribution or misinterpretation, the scientists speculated that the juvenile specimens were more arboreal climbers, while the adults were more terrestrial walkers. You can hardly expect a seven-minute video that is not just about Lucy to go into all these controversial details. The video’s short statement — suggesting that the reconstruction of Lucy’s foot as human-like was going beyond the evidence — is therefore pretty much accurate.
Anyway, in my view the whole issue of bipedality in Australopithecus afarensis, even if well established, is a relatively moot point because there is growing evidence that an upright posture and some form of bipedality were present in European Miocene apes like Danuvius and Rudapithecus (Böhme et al. 2019; Bower 2019, Deaton 2019, Ward et al. 2019) and thus can no longer be considered as firmly establishing a closer human relationship. This may also fit well with the discovery of the six-million-year old bipedal footprints from Trachilos on the Greek island of Crete (Gierliński et al. 2017; Kirscher 2021), which were likely produced by late relatives of the Miocene hominin-like ape Graecopithecus. Lucy may have been bipedal or at least partly bipedal while possessing some adaptations for arboreal locomotion and knuckle-walking. But even if she was fully bipedal, it was not a human-like form of bipedalism, and she doesn’t make for a clear-cut intermediate leading to our genus Homo, as some of the above-quoted experts admit.
Farina notwithstanding, Luskin and the Science Uprising video in which he appears raise many legitimate issues worth serious discussion. Farina, though, can’t rise to the occasion, preferring to hurl juvenile insults against those with whom he disagrees. In Farina’s presentation, his opponents are “charlatans.” They engage in “toxic and infantile behavior” and “deliberate and malicious dishonesty.” Casey Luskin, in particular, is “lying through his teeth, consistently and repeatedly” and is guilty of “slander.” The sad truth is that the only slander here comes from Farina himself.
Gratitude to Dave Farina?
Farina probably regards himself as a champion in teaching about evolution for the masses. But his rhetoric may not have quite the impact he hopes.
Behavior like his by anti-ID activists — engaging in the misrepresentation of arguments (strawman fallacy), ad hominem attacks, and distorting facts — was one of the things that initially made me look deeper into intelligent design. As a scientist, I had become suspicious of why the Darwinists commonly used such dodgy debate tactics if they really have the better arguments on their side. Whenever one side feels so insecure that they have to resort to such appalling behavior, you can be pretty sure that something is wrong with their position.
Maybe we should even be grateful to people like Farina for continuing to produce such effective PR for intelligent design. Certainly, his poor research combined with misrepresentations and an obvious dogmatic worldview should make one question the general reliability of any of Farina’s videos. If you want to learn about real science from a credible source, better unsubscribe from Professor Dave Explains and look elsewhere, because there is a lot of good science content freely available on YouTube (not least at Discovery Science).