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 entirelyly off-topic, I delete them. It’s my blog. I am under no obligation to make space for others. They can attack evolution or me personally 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, a 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 look like a science blog about evolutionary theory. But make no mistake, this website is dedicated to attacking evolutionary theory in favor of “intelligent design,” which is far outside the mainstream of science, as even US courts have found.

This website insists that there is a robust scientific debate about evolution versus intelligent design, but no such debate actually 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 few Catholic popes have expressed specific support for modern evolutionary theory.

Nevertheless, here is the headline the E.N. gave to its article about my essay.

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It is probably not a good use of my time to respond to this article, but since I am sure there will be much more like this after my book comes out, when I’ll be 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 the IT business to critique an article about evolution. 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. 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 mischaracterizes what biologists actually say and believe and then attacks the claims that he’s attributed to us.

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? Pseudogenes are interesting part of our evolutionary history, but if you don’t believe that we have an evolutionary history, what is the explanation for these pseudogenes?

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. (If you’re interested, check out my 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! He and other supporters of ID may interpret the compromises and trade-offs differently than evolutionary biologists do, but to say that we simply fail to account for them is not accurate.

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 maybe the intelligent designer?), 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 is seems that Laufmann doesn’t understand what biologists mean when we say “design.” He is an engineer and so his use of the word of “design” is different and doesn’t apply well to a living organism. The human body has a “design” 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 that 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. That’s where we disagree. But it is a disagreement, not a logical fallacy on our part.

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, and it may apply to some of the examples I write about. I definitely don’t think it applies to all of them.

For example, 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. Why can’t we just respectfully disagree without him calling me ignorant and arrogant? I also must point out that these two insults are pretty ironic coming from someone who does not have a background in 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. I don’t know who his confidantes are, but the argument from poor design goes back to Darwin himself and we’ve discovered thousands of more examples since then. Poor design is 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, in my opinion.

I would urge Steve Laufmann to leave the debate about biology to the biologists. I would never presume to critique his knowledge of “Creating Information Systems that Accelerate Business Evolution.” After all, he has published a book in that area (by his own publishing company, but still).

After I wrote this post, Steve appeared on a podcast to repeat the arguments he made in his blog post. A 2:40, he says that “I don’t really take on the individual assertions [of my WSJ article].” That’s too bad. Fortunately, another writer at Evolution News did, and I decided to respond to that one also.

Anyway, 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

Logo-HumanEvBlog

 

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4 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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