Saturday, May 23, 2009

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."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is the "Ida" Fossil (Darwinius Masillae) the New "Lucy"? The New Britney Spears?

Now that Lucy's "missing link" status has lost its lustre, the evolutionary world is looking for the next big hope. This article is breathless in its excitement over "Ida" (Darwinius masillae). This article makes it sound like Ida might be more like Britney Spears:

But the event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

We do have to start thinking the same way in science. Science can only benefit by being more like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Branding and hype is what good science is all about.

At moments like these, we can use a little perspective. Some of my previous posts are, I think, quite relevant now.

In one post I discussed the overall pattern in the fossil record of sudden appearance and stasis.

In another post, I noted that the earlier discovery of "Tiktaalik" was arguably just one more species appearing suddenly in the fossil record. As Phillip Johnson put it:

Persons who come to the fossil evidence as convinced Darwinists will see a stunning confirmation, but skeptics will see only a lonely exception to a consistent pattern of fossil disconfirmation. If we are testing Darwinism rather than merely looking for a confirming example or two, then a single good candidate for ancestor status is not enough to save a theory that posits a worldwide history of continual evolutionary transformation.

In two other posts I discussed how our claimed "knowledge" of human evolution is constantly being revised, and yet scientists remain certain that it happened. You can read about it in Human Evolution Revisions and Human Evolution Revisions, Part 2.

Don't miss the satire on this revisionism at Scrappleface:

Paleontologists today said “dishonest fossils” misled them for years into thinking that humans evolved from one ape-like species to another, in a straight line, up to the today’s Homo sapiens — modern humans.

The accusation comes following the publication, in the journal Nature, of a new study of fossils found in a lake basin in Kenya in 2000 which seem to demonstrate that Homo habilis didn’t evolve into Homo erectus as experts believed for decades, but that the two species lived in the same east African region without interbreeding for about a half-million years.

. . . .

“Sadly, we have another integrity scandal in the scientific community,” the anonymous paleontologists said. “But this time, it’s not the living scientists who lie, but rather the dead specimens. If you can’t trust the fossils, who can you trust?”

Although the scientists seek compensatory damages from the fossils for years of misguided research, they unanimously agreed that the new discovery does not cast doubt on the theory of evolution by unguided natural selection, since “the wall of separation between science and faith can never be breached, and conflicting or contradictory evidence cannot shake our deeply held convictions.”

And we can also ask: Why doesn't the fossil Opabinia Regalis get this kind of attention? Could it be perhaps because Opabinia poses too much of a riddle of existence? For more on what this amazing animal, which was part of the Cambrian Explosion, means to us, read here or here or here or here.

So what do we learn? Scientists need to stop caring about exploring the interesting problems in evolutionary theory, and become more like Britney Spears.