Phillip Johnson on the Natural Bias In Science Regarding Human Evolution
In the context of the hype and media attention being given to Ida (Darwinius Masillae), I was reminded of this passage from Darwin On Trial. This makes clear that everyone needs to look at the evidence for themselves and decide for themselves what it proves and what we really know based on the relevant fossils.
Physical anthropology- the study of human origins- is a field that throughout its history has been more heavily influenced by subjective factors than almost any other branch of respectable science. From Darwin's time to the present the "descent of man" has been a cultural certainty begging for empirical confirmation, and worldwide fame has been the reward for anyone who could present plausible fossil evidence for missing links. The pressure to find confirmation was so great that it led to one spectacular fraud, Piltdown man- which British Museum officials zealously protected from unfriendly inspection, allowing it to perform forty years of useful service in molding public opinion.
Museum reconstructions based on the scanty fossil evidence have had a powerful impact on the public imagination, and the fossils themselves have had a similar effect upon the anthropologists. The psychological atmosphere that surrounds the viewing of hominid fossils is uncannily reminiscent of the veneration of relics at amedieval shrine. That is just how Roger Lewin described the scene at the 1984 Ancestors exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, an unprecedented showing of original fossils relating to human evolution from all over the world.
The "priceless and fragile relics" were carried by anxious curators in first-class airplane seats and brought to the Museum in a VIP motorcade of limousines with police escort. Inside the Museum, the relics were placed behind bullet-proof glass to be admired by a select preview audience of anthropologists, who spoke in hushed voices because "It was like discussing theology in a cathedral." A sociologist observing this ritual of the anthropologist tribe remarked, "Sounds like ancestor worship to me."
Lewin considers it understandable that anthropologists observing the bones of their ancestors should be more emotionally involved with their subject than other kinds of scientists. "There is a difference. There is something inexpressibly moving about cradling in one's hands a cranium drawn from one's own ancestry." Lewin is absolutely correct, and I can't think of anything more likely to detract from the objectivity of one's judgement. Descriptions of fossils from people who yearn to cradle their ancestors in their hands ought to be scrutinized as carefully as a letter of recommendation from a job applicant's mother. In his book Human Evolution, Lewin reports numerous examples of the subjectivity that is characteristic of human origins research, leading him to conclude that the field is invisibly but constantly influenced by humanity's shifting self-image. In plain English, that means that we see what we expect to see unless we are extremely rigorous in checking our prejudice. (pp.82-83)
I have written elsewhere on how our worldviews affect our interpretation of the evidence. Yet the public is asked to "trust the experts" and obediently accept what it is told about evolution.
Richard Lewontin, who has penned what I consider to be the Darwinian Fundamentalist Manifesto, has expressed similar ideas, and has noted the problem with trusting scientific authorities. I discuss it in my post "Richard Lewontin: What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and Wilson tell them about evolution."