A Creationist Response to “Human Errors” (and my rebuttal)

Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a teaser of my new book Human Errors (available May 1st!), which you can read here.

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As soon as the article dropped, I began to receive emails about the article, mostly positive, but I also knew from years of blogging about human evolution that not everyone would be happy with what I’d written. Evolution, particularly of humans, hits a nerve with creationists and they often feel compelled to lash out.

You can find creationists comments on many of my blog posts. As long as they attempt reasonable dialog about empirical evidence, I leave them and I even respond if I have some free time when I see them. If they are crude, full of personal attacks, or obnoxiously off-topic, I delete them. It’s my blog. I am under no obligation to make space for nonsense. They can do that on their own blogs. And they do:

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Ken Ham, from Answers in Genesis, the folks that brought us the creation museum and the Ark Experience, denounced my first book without even reading it! This time around, another creationist website called “Evolution News” took aim at my WSJ article. You can read it for yourself here.

At least Ken Ham is honest and transparent in the presentation of his organization as promoting a biblical view of the origins of life and humanity. The “Evolution News” website, on the other hand, goes to great length to dress itself up as a science blog about evolutionary theory. But make no mistake, it is a masquerade. This website is dedicated to attacking evolutionary theory in favor of “intelligent design,” which is creationism disguised as science, as even US courts have found.

This website is exceptionally and intentionally deceptive, especially in its portrayal of a scientific debate about evolution versus intelligent design, when no such debate exists in the scientific community. There is basically one truly credentialed and accomplished biologist who supports the theory of intelligent design, Michael Behe. The E.N. website would have its readers believe that evolutionary theory is a fringe and flimsy belief, rather than what it actually is, the unifying basis of the entire modern discipline of biology for over a century. Even the last five Catholic popes have rejected intelligent design sometimes with harsh words. Nevertheless, here is the headline the E.N. gave to its article about my essay.

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It’s not a good article. It’s probably not worth responding to, truth be told. However, since I am sure there will be much more like this after my book comes out, when I’ll be way too busy to respond quickly, I’ve decided to go ahead and address the points raised so that it cannot be said that I was speechless in the face of criticism. So….  here we go…

First off, it’s clear that the author is not familiar with the basics of selection and evolution. I don’t say that to be unkind, and I don’t believe that attacking someone’s credentials (or lack thereof) is appropriate or helpful when attempting to dialog about science. But I do think it’s odd and worthy of note that a website called “Evolution News” would have an engineer with a background mostly in business to critique an article about evolution. I was unable to find evidence of any biology education in Steve Laudmann’s background, which helps explain the oddity of some of his claims. One can’t help but wonder if biologists that take issue with evolution are so rare that “Evolution News” couldn’t find one to write the article.

Laufmann begins by writing: ‘As we all know by now, evolution doesn’t produce good designs except when it does. Or as Matti Leisola puts it in his recent book, Heretic, ‘[Evolution] produces exquisitely fine-tuned designs except when it produces junk. Evolution is random and without direction except when it moves toward a target’.”

I suppose this is meant as mockery. The notion that evolution sometimes results in exquisitely crafted anatomy (or biochemistry or gene expression networks, etc.) and sometimes results in clunky, inefficient products is neither surprising nor confusing, but somehow, to Laufmann, this is a weakness of the theory. Evolution works through the randomness of mutations followed by the non-randomness of selection, all of this acting on a body form with an established structure that can be modified only through small tweaks and tugs. This is all pretty well-established evolutionary theory and I’m not sure how this counts as a conundrum or a critique.

Laufmann then proceeds to tout how well the body is designed, a point with which no one disagrees anyway. One can admire the beauty and robust functionality of something while also acknowledging that it’s not perfect. My new LED television is an incredible marvel of electrical engineering and I can’t even begin to describe most of its internal mechanism. But it was designed such that, when you mount it on the wall, with a mounting mechanism designed and sold by the same company, you can no longer access the manual buttons such as the on/off and volume. It’s not a huge deal. That’s what remotes are for, but clearly someone goofed. The television works perfectly and this one little flaw only presents a problem very rarely, but it’s still a flaw.

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The difference between a television and an organism is that the former is the product of intentional design and the latter isn’t. I suspect that future models of my television will address this glitch because the design team will fix it. Design glitches in organisms can be fixed, too, but it takes a lot longer because you’d have to wait thousands of years for the rare appearance of a mutation that solves the problem, followed by selection to fix the new version in the population. For this reason, every organism harbors thousands of glitches waiting to be fixed. Many never will be.

In the rest of the article, Laufmann attempts to explain the “real” explanations for why we see apparent design flaws in organisms such as human beings. He gives five ways that biologists can go wrong in how they view design in living things. Each has their own errors embedded in them, as I’ll explain, but all five of these are essentially straw man arguments in which Laufmann completely mischaracterizes what biologists actually say and believe and then attacks the ludicrous claims that he’s attributed to us. This is where just a little education in biology might have helped him, but it’s also an example of the deceptive way in which “Evolution News” misrepresents the scientific study of life.

First, Laufmann says that many times what we see as a glitch is simply us “failing to understand the design.” That’s certainly possible in some cases, but I’d love to hear what he thinks we are misunderstanding about some of the examples I describe in my book.

For example, in our genome, we have the mostly intact remnants of a gene called GULO that, were it to function, would allow us to synthesize vitamin C for ourselves like most animals do. Unfortunately, this gene was mutated and rendered inoperative and doesn’t express it’s gene product at all. This has left us vulnerable to scurvy and has plagued primates for millions of years. (I’ve written a post on this here.) What could we be missing about this design? What was the real purpose of almost giving us the ability to synthesis vitamin C? We carry thousands of what we call pseudogenes, genes that formerly functioned but were dismantled by mutations sometime in our evolutionary past. What does intelligent design have to say about that?

Speaking of our DNA, our genomes are also littered with parasitic self-replicating pieces of DNA as well as the leftover carcasses of past viral infections. When these jump around the genome, they can come crashing through important genes like a bull in a china shop. I’d love to hear what Laufmann says about these genetic elements. (But he will have to learn some molecular biology first. He can start by listening to this podcast on junk DNA.)

Next, Laufmann claims that biologists fail to account for design trade-offs in what we see as flaws. Actually, that’s one of the main points of my book. Evolution is limited by the anatomical, biochemical, and genetic constraints of the organism at hand. Mutations can only work on the bodies we have, as they are. In the ancestor of birds, as the forelimbs began to evolve into wings, they lost a great deal of functionality in those limbs, such as the ability to grasp objects with them. Because of the physical and chemical constraints of a living organism, evolution is all about trade-offs. Biologists don’t fail to account for this, we talk about it all the time!

It’s worth noting, given the religious basis of intelligent design, that an all-powerful intelligent designer would have no such constraints. Even a human being as limited as I am can articulate very simple fixes to many of the design flaws I write about in my book.

It’s a mystery why our intelligent designer would create humans such that 40% of us have eyeballs that are too long. Thankfully, science invented solutions to that problem and we can correct this poor vision with lenses or, incredibly, laser surgery. With science, we can overcome many instances of the poor design nature left us with. Rather than being so angry at science for having explained so many things that were previously seen as miraculous, perhaps folks like Laufmann should just say “thank you” every time they put on their glasses, take a pill, or survive childbirth.

Thirdly, Laufmann argues that many instances of poor design are simply the body degrading over time in the natural process of aging. We can leave aside the question of why we were designed to fall apart over time (which, btw, we understand reasonably well both from a mechanistic and evolutionary point of view). In my book, I deliberately exclude design flaws that are reasonably attributed to aging, except as tangential points here and there.

For example, while discussing the many strange design quirks in the eye, I mention presbyopia, the condition that leads basically 100% of us to need reading glasses by the time we’re in our 50s. But I am very careful in my book not to confuse limits with flaws. Everything has limits (except for the creator?), but what is more interesting are the instances of real mismatch and suboptimal design in the human body and mind. That’s what my book is about.

Next, Laufmann declares that it is logical fallacy to claim that bad design is the same as no design. Here Laufmann reveals that he doesn’t understand even the basics of what “design” means in a biological context. The human body has a design form in the sense that our genes (and epigenetics) set in motion a developmental process through which the various cellular and anatomical structures of the body take shape via a largely autonomous biochemical process. On this point, I suspect we all agree. The disagreement is about where this design came from. Creationists believe that this plan is the product of intentional design, and biologists don’t. There is an abundance of evidence pointing to the gradual evolution of our complex bodies from earlier forms and, often, the various instances of poor design are easily understood in the context of that evolutionary history.

And finally, Laufmann claims that biologists’ claims about design issues in the body come down to “aesthetic considerations.” Just because we wouldn’t do something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s bad design. While that’s certainly true, I can’t think of how it applies to the examples I write about. I don’t think it’s just a matter of aesthetics that sometimes our immune system attacks itself for no reason causing a disease called Lupus. I don’t think it’s a question of taste to find it unfortuante that our maxillary sinus cavities are designed with the drain pipe at the top of the chamber, instead of the bottom. I fail to see how aesthetic differences could explain why 5-10% of childbirths resulted in the death of the mother, the baby, or both, for most of human history until the ingenuity of modern science.

Laufmann ends his article with personal attacks saying that talking about design issues in the human body is a blend of ignorance or arrogance. This is rich coming from someone who clearly knows almost nothing about biology yet feels qualified to critique biological theories. He also claims that when he talks privately to “evolutionists,” they quietly admit to him that the “argument from poor design” is not actually very compelling. This is very convincing, isn’t it? Yes, deep down, we biologists don’t really believe the things that we say we do. If we get in a room alone with Steve Laufmann and close the door, and he agrees not to tell anyone, we’ll admit that we don’t buy any of this.
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The argument from poor design goes back to Darwin himself and we’ve discovered thousands of more examples since then. Poor design is definitely evidence for an evolutionary past, among many other lines of evidence and reasoning. If this was all we had, maybe this argument wouldn’t be that compelling on its own, but it’s still more evidence than creationists have.

Steve, I’m sorry to say this, but you have no idea what you’re talking about. You don’t seem to know much about human anatomy and physiology and you know next to nothing about evolutionary theory. I urge you to stick to what you know and leave the debate about biology to the biologists. I would never presume to critique your knowledge of “Creating Information Systems that Accelerate Business Evolution.” After all, you have published a book in that area.

(Usually saying that someone has “published a book” actually means that they wrote a book that was then purchased and published by a publishing house. In Steve’s case, he wrote and published the book, meaning that it was self-published by his own publishing company. Although his publishing company has so far only published that one book three years ago, we’re all looking forward to many more exciting titles to come!)

Anyhoo, the many flaws, quirks, and glitches that I discuss in Human Errors are not my way of saying that the human body is an embarrassing disaster filled with nothing but mistakes. Our bodies are obviously beautiful and robust and our brains are incredibly intricate and powerful. But they are not perfect. The imperfections are very interesting and reveal important things about our past. They are scars from battles won in the great evolutionary struggle and each one tells us an interesting war story about why we are the way that we are. I hope you’ll enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed all the research that went into it!

-NHL

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3 thoughts on “A Creationist Response to “Human Errors” (and my rebuttal)

  1. Human Errors sounds like a good read.
    As an aging entomologist I’ve been amusing myself over the past several years with rants based on “Archosaurs got all the cool stuff” to suggest that a theropod ground-plan would have done a better job with smart, human-sized, long-living terrestrial bipeds. At minimum, I’ve love to have their lungs, cartilage, male plumbing… Probably their eyes and quite a bit of their software, considering what a crow or parrot gets out of a tiny fraction of my brain..

    Like

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