Part I: Francis Collins’ Junk DNA Arguments Pushed Into Increasingly Small Gaps in Scientific Knowledge
Recently I wrote an article explaining that both atheistic and theistic evolutionists have relied heavily on “junk DNA” — specifically pseudogenes — to argue against intelligent design (ID). In his 2006 book The Language of God, leading theistic evolutionist Francis Collins made such an argument, claiming that caspase-12 is a functionless pseudogene and asks, “why would God have gone to the trouble of inserting such a nonfunctional gene in this precise location?” (p. 139) Logan Gage and I responded citing research which suggested this purported “pseudogene” is functional in many humans. But Collins went much further in The Language of God. He claimed that huge portions of our genome are repetitive junk: “Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs [ancient repetitive elements]” wrote Collins, “with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.” (p. 136) Collins frames his argument in theological terms, writing: “Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.” (pp. 136-137)
Such arguments are dangerous for those who make them, because they are based upon our lack of knowledge of these types of DNA. They amount to “evolution of the gaps” reasoning—because as we learn more and more about biology, we’re discovering more and more evidence of function for so-called “junk” DNA. The argument that much DNA is functionless junk, and thereby evidence for evolution, is relegated to gaps in our knowledge — gaps which are increasingly shrinking over time as science progresses.
But what if such DNA has function? If such DNA isn’t functionless junk, this may be another instance where, in Collins’ own words, a designer could have “used successful design principles over and over again.” (p. 111) In fact, as explained in this rebuttal to Collins, multiple functions have been discovered for repetitive DNA:
In 2002, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg surveyed the literature and found extensive evidence for function in AREs. Sternberg’s article concluded that “the selfish DNA narrative and allied frameworks must join the other ‘icons’ of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory that, despite their variance with empirical evidence, nevertheless persist in the literature.” Reprinted from Sternberg’s paper, known genomic/epigenetic roles of REs include:
- satellite repeats forming higher-order nuclear structures;
- satellite repeats forming centromeres;
- satellite repeats and other REs involved in chromatin condensation;
- telomeric tandem repeats and LINE elements;
- subtelomeric nuclear positioning/chromatin boundary elements;
- non-TE interspersed chromatin boundary elements;
- short, interspersed nuclear elements or SINEs as nucleation centers for methylation;
- SINEs as chromatin boundary/insulator elements;
- SINEs involved in cell proliferation;
- SINEs involved in cellular stress responses;
- SINEs involved in translation (may be connected to stress response);
- SINEs involved in binding cohesion to chromosomes; and
- LINEs involved in DNA repair.
Other genetic research continues to uncover functions for allegedly functionless types of repetitive DNA, including SINE, LINE, and ALU elements. Sternberg, along with leading geneticist James A. Shapiro, concludes elsewhere that “one day, we will think of what used to be called ‘junk DNA’ as a critical component of truly ‘expert’ cellular control regimes.”Casey Luskin and Logan Gage, “ A Reply to Francis Collins’s Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans,” in Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues (Kregel, 2008) (internal citations removed.)
Collins wrote The Language of God in 2006, and it makes a number of other “junk” DNA-type arguments for common ancestry between humans and other species, many of which are rebutted here, showing much evidence of function for such so-called “junk” DNA. Suffice to say, after a closer analysis many of Collins’ “junk” DNA arguments for common ancestry turned out to be highly suspect, or simply inaccurate.
Collins Retreats on Junk DNA
Since writing The Language of God, Dr. Collins seems to have realized that it’s potentially dangerous and inaccurate to argue that much non-coding DNA is junk. As Jonathan M. explains here, Collins takes much softer tone towards junk DNA in his 2010 book The Language of Life:
The discoveries of the past decade, little known to most of the public, have completely overturned much of what used to be taught in high school biology. If you thought the DNA molecule comprised thousands of genes but far more “junk DNA”, think again.
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, pp. 5-6 (Harper, 2010).)
That sure sounds a lot different from his “45 percent of the human genome [is] made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam” comment in 2006 in The Language of God. In fact, in his 2010 book, Collins seems to be strongly deemphasizing the amount of “junk” in the genome. Collins goes on to elaborate on just how much DNA isn’t junk—disavowing the notion that even “gene deserts” are junk:
The exons and introns of protein-coding genes add up together to about 30 percent of the genome. Of that 30 percent, 1.5 percent are coding exons and 28.5 percent are removable introns. What about the rest? It appears there are also long “spacer” segments of DNA that lie between genes and that don’t crowd for protein. In some instances, these regions extend across hundreds of thousands or even millions of base pairs, in which case they are referred to rather dismissively as “gene deserts.” These regions are not just filler, however. They contain many of the signals that are needed to instruct a nearby gene about whether it should be on or off at a given developmental time in a given tissue. Furthermore, we are learning that there may be thousands of genes hanging out in these so-called deserts that don’t code for protein at all. They are copied into RNA, but those RNA molecules are never translated—instead, they serve some other important functions.
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, p. 9 (Harper, 2010).)
But, it turns out Collins’ Darwinian viewpoint won’t allow him to completely divorce himself from junk-DNA thinking, as he makes an ambiguous statement that some unspecified portion of repetitive DNA remains junk:
Our genome is littered with repetitive sequences that have been inserted during a series of ancient assaults by various families of DNA parasites. Once they gain access to the genome, these “jumping genes” are capable of making copies of themselves, and then inserting those copies randomly throughout the genome. Roughly 50 percent of the human genome has had this history. However, in a nice demonstration of how natural selection can operate on all sorts of opportunities, a small fraction of these jumping genes have actually landed in a place where they have provided some advantage to the host. Thus, even some DNA we used to call “junk” is useful.
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, pp. 9-10 (Harper, 2010).)
If, according to Collins, natural selection explains function for junk-DNA, then perhaps this is a good example how Darwinian evolution both predicts we’ll find junk, and also predicts that we won’t find junk. Not exactly a very helpful theory. Moreover, as we saw above, much of the so-called repetitive “junk” is not functionless after all.
In the end, it’s clear that Collins’ 2010 book is a significant retreat on the claim that junk DNA dominates our genome. He even admits that noncoding DNA is “capable of carrying out a host of important functions”:
It turns out that only about 1.5 percent of the human genome is involved in coding for protein. But that doesn’t mean the rest is “junk DNA.” A number of exciting new discoveries about the human genome should remind us not to become complacent in our understanding of this marvelous instruction book. For instance, it has recently become clear that there is a whole family of RNA molecules that do not code for protein. These so-called non-coding RNAs are capable of carrying out a host of important functions, including modifying the efficiency by which other RNAs are translated. In addition, our understanding of how genes are regulated is undergoing dramatic revision, as the signals embedded in the DNA molecule and the proteins that bind to them are rapidly being elucidated. The complexity of this network of regulatory information is truly mind-blowing, and has given rise to a whole new branch of biomedical research, sometimes referred to as “systems biology.”
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, p. 293 (Harper, 2010).)
Collins Renews the Junk DNA Argument for Evolution
But Collins’ 2010 book The Language of Life is not his most recent book. His most recent book is The Language of Science and Faith, co-written with Biologos vice-president Karl Giberson, and it once again focuses on making junk-DNA arguments for evolution.
Collins and Giberson look at the vitamin C GULO ‘pseudogene’ found in humans and other primates (as well as some nonprimate species), and they contend that it is “not remotely plausible” that “God inserted a piece of broken DNA into our genomes.” They conclude that this “has established conclusively that the data fits a model of evolution from a common ancestor,” but has “ruled out” common design. (Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith, p. 43 (InterVarsity Press, 2011).)
Giberson also cited this same pseudogene in a recent op-ed on CNN.com where he argued:
In particular, humans share an unfortunate “broken gene” with many other primates, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and macaques. … How can different species have identical broken genes? The only reasonable explanation is that they inherited it from a common ancestor.
So it seems that Collins and Giberson still want to make junk-DNA arguments for evolution, but the discovery of function for so much so-called “junk” DNA in recent years has reduced them to citing a single example of a purported “broken” pseudogene in humans and other primates. Their gap in which to argue that noncoding DNA is “broken” has shrunk dramatically.
But as we’ve seen in recent posts, such as “Et tu, Pseudogenes? Another Type of ‘Junk’ DNA Betrays Darwinian Predictions,” “Is ‘Pseudogene’ a Misnomer?,” or “‘Junk’ RNA Found to Encode Peptides That Regulate Fruit Fly Development,” the notion that pseudogenes are merely “broken DNA” is coming under heavy fire from new scientific discoveries. Jonathan Wells has a whole chapter discussing functions for pseudogenes in his new book The Myth of Junk DNA. It seems that the gap is becoming so small that not even pseudogenes are a safe argument for “junk” DNA anymore.
Francis Collins and Karl Giberson are choosing to rely quite heavily on the argument that pseudogenes are junk, “broken DNA.” In fact, this singular pseudogene is their centerpiece evidence for common descent and macroevolution in their new book, The Language of Science and Faith. Giberson is so confident that this argument is right that in his recent CNN.com op-ed he’s betting “Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you.” But if history is to be our guide, then it would seem that this is a dangerous argument to make: The more we are learning about biology, genetics, and biochemistry, the more we are finding function for non-coding DNA, including pseudogenes.
Time will tell, but it’s revealing that Giberson and Collins are reduced to citing smaller and smaller gaps in our knowledge as regards “junk” DNA to argue for evolution. Professor Giberson may boast that “Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you” — but perhaps he should worry more about what direction the science is pointing rather than making religious arguments for evolution.
Part II: Giberson and Collins Make Outdated Argument That Feathers Evolved From Scales
In Part I, I noted that Karl Giberson and Francis Collins have relied upon some dangerous and historically weak arguments for evolution in their new book The Language of Science and Faith. They claim that a pseudogene that is “broken DNA” has “established conclusively” that macroevolution is valid and humans share common ancestry with apes. But given the many functions being discovered for pseudogenes, they may find that their argument for “broken DNA” itself becomes overturned by future discoveries. In fact, another one of their other main arguments for evolution in their book – that feathers evolved from scales – has already been overturned.
In at least two places in The Language of Science and Faith, Giberson and Collins cite scales evolving into feathers as evidence of the power of mutations:
“Many less dramatic changes are displayed as well, including animals developing feathers from ancestors with scales…” (p. 35)
“Over time, mutations in DNA can produce novel features, as we noted earlier, like feathers evolving from scales…” (p. 38)
There’s a significant problem with their argument: Even Leading evolutionary scientists today have abandoned the hypothesis that feathers evolved from scales.
The classical model of feather origins did claim that feathers evolved when scales on reptiles mutated to become frayed. Somehow these frayed scales gave the reptile an advantage of increased lift, eventually leading to the evolution of flight feathers.
The problem with this hypothesis is that feathers and scales are very different structures. Feathers essentially develop as hollow tubes that grow out of special follicles in the skin, whereas scales are flat, folded skin that develop quite differently.
Critics also argue that feathers are so well-suited for flight that there would have to be many transitional stages between scales and fully functional flight feathers. A 2003 article in Scientific American by Richard O. Prum (now at Yale) and Alan H. Brush (University of Connecticut) stated that the lack of evidence for the “scale” hypothesis meant the “long-cherished view of how and why feathers evolved has now been overturned.” The article continues:
Progress in solving the particularly puzzling origin of feathers has also been hampered by what now appear to be false leads, such as the assumption that the primitive feather evolved by elongation and division of the reptilian scale … The new evidence from developmental biology is particularly damaging to the classical theory that feathers evolved from elongate scales. According to this scenario, scales became feathers by first elongating, then growing fringed edges, and finally producing hooked and grooved barbules. As we have seen, however, feathers are tubes; the two planar sides of the vane—in other words, the front and the back—are created by the inside and outside of the tube only after the feather unfolds from its cylindrical sheath. In contrast, the two planar sides of a scale develop from the top and bottom of the initial epidermal outgrowth that forms the scale.
(Richard O. Prum and Alan H. Brush, “Which came first, the feather or the bird?,” Scientific American (March, 2003):84-93.)
Likewise, Gill’s authoritative 2007 textbook Ornithology states:
We long presumed that feathers evolved from scales of some kind, centering the debate on what advantages promoted the evolution of feathers from scales. More likely, feathers evolved not as modified scales but as a novel epidermal structure.
(Frank B. Gill, Ornithology, p. 39 (3rd. Ed., W.H. Freeman 2007).
The evo-devo explanation for feather origins offered by Prum and Bush in place of the scale hypothesis is little better. According to the latest hypothesis, feathers and other advanced features which allow birds to fly did not originally evolve from scales or for the purpose of flight. As Gill puts it, “feathers did not evolve initially in concert with the evolution of flight.” (p. 39) Instead, Prum and Bush’s Scientific American article vaguely proposes that feathers provided “some kind of survival advantage,” perhaps providing insulation for the organism. Their evo-devo model entails significant jumps in morphology, with a rachis, barbs, and barbules appearing abruptly, for no apparent reasons. Since there is no flight until all of those structures are in place, it’s difficult to understand what survival advantage these could have conferred.
Failing to explain the evolution of flight, evolutionists now expect us to believe that feathers and other complex features which are finely-tuned for flight are accidental byproducts that evolved for entirely different purposes. In other words, birds just got very, very lucky.
Additionally, proponents of the gradual evolution of feathers must explain a striking fact: the feathers of the earliest bird, Archaeopteryx, are essentially identical to those of today’s birds. Apparently little change has taken place over eons of time, even though great amounts of change were required.
While Giberson and Collins paint a rosy picture of the ability of mutations to produce novel features, Prum and Brush make a striking admission that evolutionary biology is struggling to explain how such novel features arise:
The origin of feathers is a specific instance of the much more general question of the origin of evolutionary novelties—structures that have no clear antecedents in ancestral animals and no clear related structures (homologues) in contemporary relatives. Although evolutionary theory provides a robust explanation for the appearance of minor variations in the size and shape of creatures and their component parts, it does not yet give as much guidance for understanding the emergence of entirely new structures, including digits, limbs, eyes and feathers.(Richard O. Prum and Alan H. Brush, “Which came first, the feather or the bird?,” Scientific American (March, 2003):84-93.)
Rather than address or admit these fundamental problems with modern evolutionary biology, apparently Giberson and Collins have chosen to simply claim that feathers evolved from scales, a theory now disavowed by leading experts in the field.
Those Who Live in Glass Houses…
Ironically, The Language of Science and Faith complains that “[t]he evangelical literature is so filled with misrepresentations and outdated information about evolution.” (p. 34) If their accusation is true, then it would seem their book’s outdated arguments about feather evolution are not helping to solve that problem.
Part III: Rebutting Karl Giberson and Francis Collins’ Blurry Argument for Eye Evolution
In Part II, I noted Giberson and Collins stated that “[o]ver time mutations in DNA can produce novel features, as we noted earlier, like feathers from scales…” (p. 35), but we saw that leading evolutionary biologists no longer propose that feathers evolved from scales. I left off the rest of their sentence because I wanted to address it in a separate section. Their full sentence reads:
Over time mutations in DNA can produce novel features, as we noted earlier, like feathers from scales or eyes from light-sensitive pigment. (p. 35)
There’s no citation for their sentence, and Giberson and Collins do not provide us with any documentation to back it their claim. In fact, they give no further discussion of this point, as if they want the reader to simply take their assertion on faith.
In the previous post we showed that the evidence has refuted the hypothesis that feathers evolved from scales. Let’s now test their claim that mutations over time produced eyes from light-sensitive pigments.
Light-Sensitive Pigments Aren’t the Only Starting Point
Classical explanations for the evolution of the eye assume that the eye can be built via such small, step-by-step changes. Darwin believed the eye could evolve under a scheme of “fine gradations,” but standard evolutionary accounts for the origin of the eye fall far short of that mark: they lack details, ignore biochemical complexity, and in fact invoke sudden and abrupt appearance of key components of eye morphology.
For example, all accounts of eye evolution start with a fully functional eyespot, not mere “light-sensitive pigments.” As Mark Ridley’s textbook Evolution explains, the commonly-cited model of eye evolution
began with a crude light-sensitive organ consisting of a layer of light-sensitive cells sandwiched between a darkened layer of cells and a transparent protective layer above. The simulation, therefore, does not cover the complete evolution of an eye. To begin with, it takes light sensitive cells as given … and at the other end it ignores the evolution of advanced perceptual skills (which are more a problem in the evolution of the brain than the eye).Matt Ridley, Evolution, p. 261 (3rd Ed., Blackwell, 2004).
Ridley calls it “not absurd” (p. 261) to assume simple light sensitive cells as a starting point, but evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll cautions to “not be fooled by these eyes’ simple construction and appearance. They are built with and use many of the ingredients used in fancier eyes.” (Sean B. Carroll, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, p. 197 (W. W. Norton, 2006).)
Likewise, after reviewing some of the basic biochemistry underlying the processes that allow vision, Michael Behe (responding to Richard Dawkins) observes: “Remember that the ‘light-sensitive spot’ that Dawkins takes as his starting point requires a cascade of factors including 11-cis retinal and rhodopsin, to function. Dawkins doesn’t mention them.” (Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, p. 38 (Free Press, 1996).)
In fact, no accounts for the evolution of the eye provide an account for this always-assumed starting point, which is far more complex than a few “light-sensitive pigments.”
Other Eye Parts Appear Abruptly
In addition to assuming the abrupt appearance of a fully-functional eyespot, standard accounts of eye-evolution invoke the abrupt appearance of key features of advanced eyes such as the lens, cornea, and iris. Of course the emplacement of each of these features — fully formed and intact — would undoubtedly increase visual acuity. But where did these parts suddenly come from in the first place? As Scott Gilbert put it, such evolutionary accounts are “good at modelling the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest.” (John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern evolution?,” Nature, Vol. 455:281-284 (2008).)
As an example of these hyper-simplistic accounts of eye evolution, Francisco Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift asserts that, “Further steps—the deposition of pigment around the spot, configuration of cells into a cuplike shape, thickening of the epidermis leading to the development of a lens, development of muscles to move the eyes and nerves to transmit optical signals to the brain—gradually led to the highly developed eyes of vertebrates and celphalopod (octopuses and squids) and to the compound eyes of insects.” (Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, p. 146 (Joseph Henry Press, 2007).)
Ayala’s explanation is vague and shows no appreciation for the biochemical complexity of these visual organs. Thus, regarding the configuration of cells into a cuplike shape, Michael Behe asks (while responding to Richard Dawkins on the same point):
And where did the “little cup” come from? A ball of cells—from which the cup must be made—will tend to be rounded unless held in the correct shape by molecular supports. In fact, there are dozens of complex proteins involved in maintaining cell shape, and dozens more that control extracellular structure; in their absence, cells take on the shape of so many soap bubbles. Do these structures represent single-step mutations? Dawkins did not tell us how the apparently simple “cup” shape came to be.
Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, pg. 15 (Free Press, 1996).
Likewise, mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski has assessed the alleged “intermediates” for the evolution of the eye and observes that the transmission of data signals from the eye to a central nervous system for data processing, which can then output some behavioral response, comprises an integrated system that is not amenable to stepwise evolution:
Light strikes the eye in the form of photons, but the optic nerve conveys electrical impulses to the brain. Acting as a sophisticated transducer, the eye must mediate between two different physical signals. The retinal cells that figure in Dawkins’ account are connected to horizontal cells; these shuttle information laterally between photoreceptors in order to smooth the visual signal. Amacrine cells act to filter the signal. Bipolar cells convey visual information further to ganglion cells, which in turn conduct information to the optic nerve. The system gives every indication of being tightly integrated, its parts mutually dependent.
The very problem that Darwin’s theory was designed to evade now reappears. Like vibrations passing through a spider’s web, changes to any part of the eye, if they are to improve vision, must bring about changes throughout the optical system. Without a correlative increase in the size and complexity of the optic nerve, an increase in the number of photoreceptive membranes can have no effect. A change in the optic nerve must in turn induce corresponding neurological changes in the brain. If these changes come about simultaneously, it makes no sense to talk of a gradual ascent of Mount Improbable. If they do not come about simultaneously, it is not clear why they should come about at all.
The same problem reappears at the level of biochemistry. Dawkins has framed his discussion in terms of gross anatomy. Each anatomical change that he describes requires a number of coordinate biochemical steps. “[T]he anatomical steps and structures that Darwin thought were so simple,” the biochemist Mike Behe remarks in a provocative new book (Darwin’s Black Box), “actually involve staggeringly complicated biochemical processes.” A number of separate biochemical events are required simply to begin the process of curving a layer of proteins to form a lens. What initiates the sequence? How is it coordinated? And how controlled? On these absolutely fundamental matters, Dawkins has nothing whatsoever to say.
(David Berlinski, “Keeping an Eye on Evolution: Richard Dawkins, a relentless Darwinian spear carrier, trips over Mount Improbable,” Review of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins (W. H. Norton & Company, Inc. 1996),” in The Globe & Mail (November 2, 1996).))
In sum, standard accounts of eye evolution fail to explain the evolution of key eye features like:
- The biochemical evolution of the fundamental ability to sense light
- The origin of the first “light sensitive spot”
- The origin of neurological pathways to transmit the optical signal to a brain
- The origin of a behavioral response to allow the sensing of light to give some behavioral advantage to the organism
- The origin of the lens, cornea and iris in vertebrates
- The origin of the compound eye in arthropods
At most, accounts of the evolution of the eye provide a stepwise explanation of “fine gradations” for the origin of more or less one single feature: the increased concavity of eye shape. But that does not explain the origin of the eye.
Giberson and Collins claim that “[o]ver time mutations in DNA can produce novel features … like … eyes from light-sensitive pigment.” But their vague argument provides us with no citations or discussion of the evidence to back up that claim. In fact, much evidence not cited in their book can be found which challenges their assertion. It seems that they simply want us to take their evolutionary claims about the power of mutation on faith.
Part IV: Does Giberson and Collins’ Neanderthal Argument Demonstrate “Common Ancestry”?
When most people hear “Neanderthal,” they think of a primitive caveman-like prehuman brute. What many don’t realize is that this popular view is very much a Darwinian interpretation, and it is betrayed by much evidence. In their book The Language of Science and Faith, theistic evolutionists Karl Giberson and Francis Collins attempt to capitalize on the inaccurate popular mindset by suggesting that if humans are related to Neanderthals, then somehow that bolsters “common ancestry” in a general sense. They write:
The last few years have seen many comparisons of our own genome to that of other species—all completely consistent with an evolutionary explanation. Recent work on Neanderthals’ DNA has been pieced together from several thirty-thousand-year-old bones of different Neanderthal individuals. The DNA similarity to Homo sapiens is striking. … Precise but unusual variations are found in both our DNA and in the DNA from Neanderthal bones. The data imply interesting evolutionary connections. … Neanderthals went extinct 30,000 years ago after a period of interbreeding with those humans that migrated out of Africa. The continuing presence of Neanderthal DNA in non-Africans provides evidence of common ancestry for many human groups from this era of interbreeding. Neanderthals are perhaps best understood as a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Compelling evidence of this sort for common ancestry grows almost daily.(Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith pp. 43-44 (InterVarsity Press, 2011).)
This may be “compelling evidence” for “common ancestry”—but common ancestry with what? Do Neanderthals represent a decidedly non-human primitive species? Not at all.
As noted, Giberson and Collins admit that Neanderthals are “best understood as a subspecies of Homo sapiens,” yet somehow they do not elaborate for their readers that this in no way bolsters a general argument for common ancestry. In fact, many experts think that Neanderthals essentially are us, and we are them. As far as evolution is concerned, observing that living humans share common ancestry with Neanderthals might be little more significant than saying we share common ancestry with ancient Europeans.
As a 2007 article in the Washington Post quoted paleoanthropologist Eric Trinkaus saying:
“Given the data we now have, it would be highly improbable to argue there is no Neanderthal contribution to the early European population that came out of Africa,” Trinkaus said. “I believe there was continuous breeding between the two for some period of time.
“Both groups would seem to us dirty and smelly but, cleaned up, we would understand both to be human. There’s good reason to think that they did as well.”
The article further reports that Trinkaus’ study “concluded that a significant number [of skeletons] have attributes associated with both Neanderthals and the modern humans who replaced them.” The article continues stating:
Although Neanderthals live in the public imagination as hulking and slow-witted “Alley Oops,” Trinkaus and others say there is no reason to believe they were any less intelligent than the newly arrived ‘modern humans.’ Neanderthals were stockier and had larger brows, sharper teeth and more jutting jaws, but their brain capacity appears to have been no different than that of the newcomers.
Similarly, a 1999 article in Time magazine reported that there’s increasing evidence that Neanderthals were essentially “all just people”:
The real message, [a Washington University paleoanthropologist Erik] Trinkaus believes, is that to people living in the Stone Age, Neanderthals were just another tribe. “They may have had heavier brows or broader noses or stockier builds, but behaviorally, socially and reproductively they were all just people.”(Michael D. Lemonick, “A Bit of Neanderthal in Us All?,” Time Magazine (April 25, 1999).)
A Nature News article stated explained that Neanderthals may not exactly be extinct:
[I]t may help explain the fate of the Neanderthals, who vanished from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago. “It means Neanderthals didn’t completely disappear,” says Jeffrey Long, a genetic anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, whose group conducted the analysis. There is a little bit of Neanderthal leftover in almost all humans, he says.
Given the high degree of skeletal similarity between humans and Neanderthals, the notion that we interbred is nothing new. They have been called a possible “race” of our own species, as studies have found their body shape is highly similar to that of modern humans. In addition to the genetic evidence, the discovery of “morphological mosaics” indicates that they likely interbred with modern humans. The finding of a modern-humanlike hyoid bone in a Neanderthal implies that they may have had language capabilities. In fact, there is evidence that they used tools and technology. According to Smithsonian magazine:
Neanderthals, traditionally designated Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, were not only “human” but also, it turns out, more “modern” than scientists previously allowed. “In the minds of the European anthropologists who first studied them, Neanderthals were the embodiment of primitive humans, subhumans if you will,” says Fred H. Smith, a physical anthropologist at LoyolaUniversity in Chicago who has been studying Neanderthal DNA. “They were believed to be scavengers who made primitive tools and were incapable of language or symbolic thought.”Now, he says, researchers believe that Neanderthals “were highly intelligent, able to adapt to a wide variety of ecologicalzones, and capable of developing highly functional tools to help them do so. They were quite accomplished.”
The researchers and others have also found dozens of pieces of sharpened manganese dioxide—black crayons, essentially—that Neanderthals probably used to color animal skins or even their own. In his office at the University of Bordeaux, d’Errico hands me a chunk of manganese dioxide. It feels silky, like soapstone. “Toward the end of their time on earth,” he says, “Neanderthals were using technology as advanced as that of contemporary anatomically modern humans and were using symbolism in much the same way.”(Joe Alper, “Rethinking Neanderthals,” Smithsonian magazine (June 2003).)
In fact, Neanderthals buried their dead, and they had an average brain size which was slightly larger than that of modern humans. Perhaps it’s time to stop seeing Neanderthals as a primitive species—a popular icon of evolution—but rather as a sub-race of our own species. To Giberson and Collins’s credit, they recognize this point. But they do not recognize that it therefore prevents Neanderthals from demonstrating that humans share ancestry with something that isn’t human.
If Giberson and Collins want to make the case that humans share “common ancestry” with some primitive species, they’re going to have to find another example than Neanderthals. Neanderthals do essentially nothing to bolster the case that humans evolved from more primitive hominids.
Part V: Giberson and Collins Commit Berra’s Blunder While Arguing for Macroevolution
In The Language of Science and Faith, Giberson and Collins argue that “the distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary.” (p. 45, emphases in original) As a result, they assert that “macroevolution is simply microevolution writ large: add up enough small changes and we get a large change.” (p. 45) What’s most surprising is not that they make this claim (which is common in evolutionary writings), but the examples — or lack thereof — they give to back it up.
Their main illustration for macroevolution is the evolution of the automobile. “[N]obody could have imagined how Henry Ford’s primitive T automobile could have turned into Toyota’s Prius hybrid,” they write, because “it would have been impossible for the engineers at Ford to develop all the remarkable engineering necessary to turn a Model T into a Prius in one year. The electronic enhancements alone took decades to invent and develop.” (pp. 45-46)
Giberson and Collins have of course just committed what Phillip Johnson calls “Berra’s blunder.” Here’s a snippet of Professor Berra’s original blunder:
[I]f you compare a 1953 and a 1954 Corvette, side by side, then a 1954 and a 1955 model, and so on, the descent with modification is overwhelmingly obvious. … the evidence is so solid and comprehensive that it cannot be denied by reasonable people.Tim Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, pp. 117-119 (Stanford University Press, 1990).
If anything here is “overwhelmingly obvious,” it’s that Corvettes did not evolve by Darwinian mechanisms, but were intelligently designed. Phillip Johnson elaborates on Berra’s blunder:
Of course, every one of those Corvettes was designed by engineers. The Corvette sequence – like the sequence of Beethoven’s symphonies to the opinions of the United States Supreme Court – does not illustrate naturalistic evolution at all. It illustrates how intelligent designers will typically achieve their purposes by adding variations to a basic design plan. Above all, such sequences have no tendency whatever to support the claim that there is no need for a Creator, since blind natural forces can do the creating. On the contrary, they show that what biologists present as proof of “evolution” or “common ancestry” is just as likely to be evidence of common design.Phillip Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, p. 63 (InterVarsity Press, 1997).
The same goes for Prius hybrids: all of the innovations that led engineers to develop hybrids from Ford Model T’s were intelligently designed, and did not arise by random mutations.
Direct Evidence Fails, So They Use Indirect Evidence
So the first argument used by Giberson and Collins to show that macroevolution is simply microevolution “writ large” seems to have failed. In fact, to their credit they acknowledge that “[w]e don’t observe such macroevolutionary changes because they take such a long time” and therefore must use our “imaginations” to understand macroevolution. (pp. 46-47) Thus, they seek to provide indirect evidence of macroevolution, and in the next section ask, “Is there Proof of Macroevolution?”
The answer they provide, of course, is ‘yes.’ But guess what their evidence is? They fall back to again relying on psuedogenes: “The example of the broken vitamin C gene that we looked at earlier is a case in point” (p. 49), they write. As we already saw here and here, this is an incredibly weak argument, especially given that we’re continually finding more and more functions for pseudogenes.
Big Claims, Small Evidence
Giberson and Collins claim that “[m]ountains of data arrive on a daily basis … providing compelling evidence for macroevolution,” (p. 49) but aside from a weak and assumption-based argument based upon a single pseudogene, Giberson and Collins do not specify exactly what that evidence is.
In a previous article we saw that Giberson and Collins essentially expected readers to take eye-evolution on faith. Now it seems that they also want their readers to take it on faith that “the distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary,” because they provide no empirical evidence to back up this claim other than a highly suspect and dangerous argument that a particular pseudogene is functionless “broken DNA.”
Having failed to provide empirical data backing macroevolution, Giberson and Collns end their chapter on the evidence for evolution claiming: “All that evolution requires is enough generations to accumulate the sort of tiny differences that separate offspring from their parents and almost any transformation can be achieved.” (p. 52)
Presto chango—evolution sounds so easy! But according to Darwin, evolution requires more than just “enough generations.” Darwin acknowledged that evolution also requires a continuous evolutionary pathway:
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
And it’s here that macroevolution hits a wall, for there are many complex structures which cannot be built over “numerous, successive, slight modifications.” Giberson and Collins promise to give “Straight Answers to Genuine Questions,” but that’s not the sort of analysis I am finding in their book The Language of Science and Faith.
Part VI: Contradictions, Irony, and Appeals to Authority Permeate The Language of Science and Faith
The title of Chapter 1 in Karl Giberson and Francis Collins’ book The Language of Science and Faith is “Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?” The very title of the chapter itself implies that affirmative belief in evolution is an indisputable matter for Christians. If you doubt that they are so adamant, bear in mind that it was Giberson himself who recently wrote that “Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you.” They’re welcome to believe in evolution, but should they present their case in such a non-inclusive way? But before delving further into the rhetorical strategies of The Language of Science and Faith, let’s revisit some of the main scientific evidence and arguments they cite in this chapter for why you “have to believe in evolution”:
- repeated appeals to a singular pseudogene which they call “broken DNA,” which is shared by humans and other primates (this turned out to be a weak argument since we’re continually finding new function for pseudogenes);
- feathers evolved from scales (an argument that has been abandoned by evolutionary biologists);
- eyes evolved from light-sensitive pigments (they gave no evidence to help the reader accept this claim, and that the evidence in fact strongly challenges their assertion)
- humans share common ancestry with Neanderthals (many consider humans and Neanderthals to be so similar that they are -sub-races of the same species); and finally…
- macroevolution is simply repeated rounds of microevolution (they provided no empirical evidence for this claim other than bald assertions and misguided appeals to intelligently designed technological evolution).
Giberson and Collins want the reader to feel that the answer to the question posed in the chapter title is an unequivocal ‘yes.’ But as we’ve seen, the evidence cited in this chapter was extremely unimpressive. Their arguments were outdated and in some cases consisted of little more than bald assertions that is contradicted by the evidence. But again, they are welcome to ‘believe in’ neo-Darwinian evolution if that’s what they want. We can agree to disagree and I have no problems with the making a case for their viewpoint. They have their right to believe what they wish; likewise there’s nothing wrong with logically critiquing their argument in a civil manner to show why I find it unpersuasive.
But there’s another quality to The Language of Science and Faith that is much more disconcerting. The troubling part about The Language of Science and Faith is the level of rhetoric that that Giberson and Collins use while trying to lead readers to conclude that they “have to believe in evolution.” The book is full of appeals to authority and attacks upon the character and competence of Darwin-doubting scientists. It is into this most unfortunate territory that we now cautiously step.
Appeals to Authority
Last year we saw Biologos president Darrell Falk rely heavily upon appeals to authority in his book Coming to Peace with Science. It seems that Giberson and Collins have followed Falk’s rhetorical strategy. Thus, in chapter 1 of The Language of Science and Faith alone, we find comments like:
- “almost all Christian biologists accept evolution.” (p. 30)
- “in most large gatherings of scientists you would not find even one person who rejects the theory of evolution.” (p. 30)
- “The scientists at the BioLogos Foundation are unaware of any biologists who have abandoned evolution in the past few years. Not one.” (p. 31)
- “we are equally unfamiliar with any premier scientists who reject evolution.” (p. 31)
- “Christians should take no comfort in the misplaced hope that the scientific community is gradually abandoning the theory of evolution.” (p. 34)
- “the validity of scientific ideas is best addressed by the leading experts.” (p. 33)
And just in case you didn’t get the message, they even go so far as to claim that “[v]irtually all geneticists consider that the evidence proves common ancestry with a level of certainty comparable to the evidence that the earth goes around the sun.” (p. 49) (Note: this is from the paragraph where they again cite a singular pseudogene as a “broken” gene.”) Get it? The not-so-subtle message is that if you doubt universal common ancestry, then you’re no better than a geocentrist. I get the sense that Giberson and Collins don’t want people to think for themselves on topics like evolution, but to simply capitulate to those whom they deem “the leading experts.”
I wasn’t sure if the book actually intended such a message until I read Giberson’s recent response to William Dembski where Giberson makes it very clear that he doesn’t want people thinking for themselves on topics like evolution. He writes:
To suggest that this “data” can be handed over to non-specialists so they can make up their own minds is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of science.
Stop and think for a moment about what Professor Giberson just said.
Dr. Giberson doesn’t think that the average person should be allowed to “make up their own minds” on evolution.
Unfortunately, this mindset is becoming more and more typical of the Darwin lobby: they want people to stop thinking for themselves. Berkman and Plutzer’s survey in Science from earlier this year went so far as to criticize a teacher who felt that “[s]tudents should make up their own minds” on evolution “based on their own beliefs and research.” Such a mindset seems profoundly dangerous and wrong in many ways. In fact it seems, dare I say it, anti-intellectual because it demands intellectual conformity from all.
What’s most ironic, however, is that Giberson and Collins later defeat their own appeals to authority. They write that “scientific truth is not decided by the number of names on a list, or who wins the debate or convinces the most people. It is based on the evidence.” (p. 33) Here I completely agree. But if they really believe that statement, and the evidence is all that matters, then why do they feel the need to persistently rely on appeals to authority?
I think that Giberson and Collins want to have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they want readers to imbibe a not-so-subtle message that they ought to capitulate to experts who ‘believe in” evolution because those experts are in the majority. Realizing that’s a fallacious and dangerous argument, on the other hand they want to be able to say that they still made the correct argument that that scientific truth is “based on the evidence,” not “the number of names” who support a theory. They’re completely right about this latter point, but they seem to be sending contradictory messages, not giving “straight answers” to these questions.
But there are other contradictions that are even more troubling yet to be found in The Language of Science and Faith.
Attacking Darwin-Doubting Scientists
What’s most unfortunate about the The Language of Science and Faith is not the book’s questionable and self-contradictory appeals to authority. Nor is it the book’s apparent attempt to dissuade people from thinking for themselves on evolution. Rather, it’s how Giberson and Collins try to win the hearts and minds of their readers by using the rhetorical strategy of attacking the competence and character of Darwin-doubting scientists.
Let’s start with their attacks on the competence of Ph.D. scientists who have bravely signed a list dissenting from neo-Darwinian evolution. In one instance Giberson and Collins write:
“The ‘Dissent from Darwin’ list includes philosophers, physicists, mathematicians and academics from other fields. Many of them never took even a single course in biology beyond high school.” (p. 32)
This is a bald assertion—and there’s no evidence at all that it ought to be taken seriously. And how do they know that is true? Their intended point, of course, is that these Ph.D. scientists are supposedly not qualified to express real dissent from Darwinian evolution. In fact, they make this argument explicit, stating: “Many of the scientists listed are not trained in biology and so are not in a position to evaluate the central theory of the field.” (p. 32)
What’s ironic (and contradictory) about their argument is that the book’s first author, Karl Giberson, is not trained in biology and even admits that he “took his last biology course in 1975.” (p. 32) Now I’m not raising this point to attack Giberson’s knowledge or credentials, and in fact I don’t think that Dr. Giberson is unqualified to comment on evolution simply because he is not a trained biologist. In fact Giberson—who is the first author of The Language of Science and Faith—must feel the same way since he just wrote this book which spends many pages evaluating evolution.
Giberson’s admission that he lacks the same qualifications of those whose qualifications he attacks does not exactly make for a compelling argument. Given that he’s writing extensively about evolution, his attack on the competence of Darwin-doubting scientists seems downright hypocritical.
Giberson and Collins have also misconstrued the purpose of the Dissent from Darwinism list. As noted, they write that “scientific truth is not decided by the number of names on a list, or who wins the debate or convinces the most people. It is based on the evidence.” Again, I could not agree more. But the “Dissent from Darwin” list was never intended to demonstrate that neo-Darwinian evolution is false simply because x number of scientists disagree with neo-Darwinism. What the list does demonstrate is that one cannot dismiss scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism simply by appeals to authority. The list shows that there is a critical mass of credible scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism.
By overstating the purpose of the Dissent from Darwinism list, Giberson and Collins hope they can convince the reader to dismiss it. But when used properly, the list defeats their own quite explicit argument, that one ought to ignore scientific dissent from Darwinism because of appeals to the authority of the majority viewpoint.
But their most unpleasant jab at Darwin-doubting scientists is yet to come. They write:
“The evangelical literature is so filled with misrepresentations and outdated information about evolution that even a lot of research might not lead an honest seeker to the truth.” (p. 34)
To be sure, there have been some Christians who challenged evolution with bad arguments. But by making broad-brushed attacks upon the entire body of Christians who would argue against neo-Darwinism, Giberson and Collins apparently want to paint all Christians who doubt neo-Darwinism in a negative light.
That faux pas aside, again, we see irony in their statement: If their claim is true, then Giberson and Collins’ book defeats its own argument, since The Language of Science and Faith uses outdated arguments that feathers evolved from scales.
The ‘Seeds of Doubt’ Strategy Fails
The rhetorical strategy of Giberson and Collins is now becoming clear: they want to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of readers not through discussing the evidence, but by attacking the trustworthiness and competence of skeptics of neo-Darwinian evolution. Aside from the fact that this implied argument of commits the genetic fallacy, Giberson and Collins haven’t done a very good job of making this argument, because every attempt to plant doubt in the reader’s mind is refuted by their own book:
- Giberson and Collins make repeated appeals to authority but then admit that all that matters is the scientific evidence;
- Giberson and Collins attack the qualifications of non-biologist scientists who doubt evolution, but Giberson himself is a non-biologist who lacks training in biology and evolution.
- Giberson and Collins attack the “misrepresentations and outdated information” among writings that challenges evolution, but their own book is far from mistake-free, and uses some unambiguously outdated and now-abandoned arguments about evolution.
I raise these points not because I want you to distrust Giberson and Collins. They’re both very smart, qualified, and informed scientists, and they make arguments worth considering. Read their books. Evaluate their arguments. Read the responses. Decide for yourself if they make a persuasive case.
But also realize that there are a lot of smart, qualified, and informed scientists who doubt neo-Darwinian evolution. The fact that some of those scientific critics may happen to be “evangelicals” does not mean that therefore those responses are “filled with misrepresentations and outdated information about evolution.” Giberson and Collins are making arguments designed to stifle your own self-investigation, not encourage it.
Whenever Giberson and Collins stop talking about the evidence, and start appealing to authority, attacking Darwin-skeptics personally, and asking you to stop thinking for yourself, it’s time to become skeptical: If the evidence is on their side, why do they feel the need to do this?