Beating fossil horses: Creationists take on an “Icon of Evolution”


It seems that the posting on horse fossils attracted some ID creationists who quickly dispersed when called to defend their ignorant claims. Not surprisingly, creationists have abused a perceived weakness to undermine evolution when in fact the full story (as well as the simplified story) both present an excellent overview of evolution in action.

In Beating fossil horses: Creationists take on an “Icon of Evolution”, Brian Switek describes his somewhat painful introduction to ID ‘science’

The book that introduced me (albeit painfully) to intelligent design and critics of evolution was the infamous Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells, and in it Wells spends an entire chapter attempting to discredit the idea that horses evolved. This is not surprising, especially given that horse evolution was so triumphantly heralded by none other than “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876. Indeed, the rich amount of fossils uncovered, plus public interest and prestige allowed horses to take on an iconic status, caused the transitions among fossil horses to become one of the most widely-cited examples of evolution, the change from small, multi-toed ancestors to large, one-toed descendants making for a very compelling scientific narrative.

Brian, continues to outline ‘the rest of the story’, so often found missing in creationist resources.


Brian makes an interesting point in his essay. Ever wonder why creationists spend so much time and effort attacking straw man versions of evolution? Well, one reason could be that they never seem to actually read the primary literature. They seem to get mosto f their information from other creationist sources, then spend their time ridiculing how ridiculous those ideas are. To put is succinctly, creationists don’t publish in peer-reviewed scientific literature and they don’t seem to read it either.

Of course, this really is no excuse, since they also seem to keep spouting the same nonsense, even after you have pointed out to them that they are wrong and sometimes even after they agree that they are wrong.

There are creationists who admit they were wrong?

Sure, they just won’t admit it again later.

In case you are wondering, no I am not talking to myself. At least I don’t think I am.

Just stopping in to say a brief “thank you” to PvM for the links (I was surprised to see some of my writing end up on here!) and to David for the kind words/analysis. As outlined in my essay (and as David summarized here), many creationists take the “I do not think about things I do not think about” approach to the current state of science. Over-simplified models of evolution that are presented to the public sometimes give creationists ammunition, but even so they are responsible for their own education and simply reading the Yahoo!News or LiveScience summary of a new paper doesn’t count on keeping up what’s really going on in any scientific field.

Sure, they just won’t admit it again later.

In case you are wondering, no I am not talking to myself. At least I don’t think I am.

Ever heard the song “Me And My Shadow”?

Awesome again! Evolutionary history and history of creationism.

Ever heard the song “Me And My Shadow”?

Sure, I heard it from my echo the other day.

I disagree with David Stanton’s comment, at least for some cases. Some creationists do read at least some literature, but they are woefully twisted their vision of it. It is almost as if they read it looking for perceived “holes”, and deliberately ignoring what is said. I remember confront Thomas Sharp here in Arkansas after one of his lectures about Mary Schweitzer and Jack Horner’s work. It was clear that he had read the papers, but it was also clear that he refused to acknowledge what they actually said – only his interpretation which was ludicrous. This phenomenon to me is fascinating, and underscores the fundamentally anti-scientific nature of thought in these folks.


Of course there are exceptions to every rule, even this one.

But seriously, sure some creationists do sometimes read some papers. However, in general, most never seem to bother. Either they are not capable of understanding the science, or somehow they feel as if it is beneath them to read anything written by the “enemy”. And, as you point out, even if they do bother, they always misrepresent what they read anyway.

My point however was that, for some reason, they do tend to trust what other creationists have to say about anything. That tends to give them a really twisted perspective of science from second hand sources. In fact, I once read an entire book that was nothing more than a collection of half-baked nonsense, discredited claims, inapporpriate analogies and quote mines. Most of it didn’t even give any attribution to the sources it plagarized.

And then of course there is the logic used by Behe. Sure I am aware of the scientific literature and sure I could probably understand most of it, but I know it won’t convince me anyway so why bother? My mind is already made up and no amount of evidence is ever going to change that. Some scientist.

Oh, I absolutely agree that the vast majority of those folks out there don’t read the scientific literature, let alone comprehend it. Behe is a particularly pathetic example. But there are cases where they do. For example, you can go to Answers in Genesis and see that sometimes they report details of a paper that indicate that their eyeballs have actually passed over significant portions of the paper (on the other hand, there are also many, many cases where it is clear that they picked up the information through a popular press release and went no further). At issue to me is how the synapses are relaying and processing the information in those cases where they do peek at the literature. After all, somebody had to read the stuff to get the quote in the first place.

Switek spends some time refuting the observations of Lawerence Richards …

(From Richards) It’s almost as if you were outside one day and found a tennis ball, a soccer ball, and a basketball in a weedy field. You noticed that each ball is hollow, and each has an increasingly thicker skin. You’re really excited, and figure that each evolved from some common ancestor!

Of course, it’s a poor analogy, but the irony is that once again, even when the creationists are wrong, they’re often inadvertently right.

Despite Richard’s blathering, the irony is that so long as you have decent dates and approximate geographies, you actually can clearly see the progression of modern sporting goods.

I used to do this all the time, back long, long ago in my college years. Our old gymnasium complex had case after case of trophy balls and equipment going back 150 years. I recall looking at them many times way back then and thinking that you can clearly see how much rugby balls and footballs (gridiron balls, for those not in North America) have changed over the years and how you can see the games diverging from a common ancestor. (In fairness, I was thinking more about the game than the balls, but the balls are all that’s left after 15 decades)

I bet basketballs are in the family too, with a little punctuated equilibrium thrown in along the way.

There’s only so many ways to arrange a pig-covered air bladder, and ya gotta start somewhere when you make up a new sport.

In fact, I’d wager a lot of money that someone doing an authoritative study on the subject would find a bunch of common descents with modifications, and very few whole-cloth redesigns.

Niles Eldredge has a collection of antique cornets. He has made some comments about the analogy between the “evolution” of cornets and biological evolution. See the story in the New York Times archive:[…]C0A9629C8B63

Stevaroni, you should apply for a grant to research that: The Evolution of Ball Form in Sports. I think you’re onto something there …

Of course, the creos would take whatever data you generate and interpret it to “disprove” evolution.

Yea, the sports equipment anology is a good one. I remember a pro shop I was in had a display of historical golf balls dating back 500+ years. Questions arise: Do they repressent a linear progression, or branching lineages that have gone extinct? We can clearly put sports like tennis and vollyball in the same clade, but does golf, originating in the fringes of Scotland, represent a seperate “Sportiogenesis” event, or do all sports share a common ancestor, perhaps a something not unlike the simple game of “Catch”, which is still found today?

Now, if only someone would put together a phylogeny of watches, we’d be set.

Now, if only someone would put together a phylogeny of watches, we’d be set.

Speaking of which…

Just Bob:

Now, if only someone would put together a phylogeny of watches, we’d be set.

Speaking of which…

Good ol’ internet. Reminds me of a piece I wrote a few years ago on some other forum where someone dragged out Paley’s watch. In traditional creationist troll fashion, it was a cut-and-paste job from somewhere else. I added a “sequel”, where, after the scientist determines that the watch was created, he was forced to reexamine that view after discovering fossilized prehistoric watches and making several discoveries in watch genetics. It is interesting and a little ironic that the tools of biological evolution can be applied to designed objects. Not perfectly, but many ideas that came about from studying biological evolution can help us think about other things in different ways. Memetics is another example.

I think that this essay helped me to see two problems with Jonathan Wells’ argument on the evo of the horse.

#1 Science is studying the evolution of the horse as whole organism/species/genus, whereas Wells’ writing on the horse resembles, and therefore treats, only a small part of it—specifically that which comes out of the horses rear end.

#2 From Wells: “Or, to use another analogy, the branching pattern of arteries and veins in the human body has some randomness to it, but our very lives depend on the fact that the overall pattern is predetermined.”

OK, some of you smarty-pants nerd types can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he is screwing up angiogenesis as badly as he is screwing up evolution. He thinks that the development of ‘the overall pattern’ of blood vessels is predetermined? From what I understand, it is an exploratory process where a large number of minor vessels develop more or less randomly with the most efficient channels “hogging” all of the growth factor, thereby becoming main channels. The development of the vascular pattern between identical twins shows as much variation as it does between strangers. Completely new vessels develop in response to exercise, healing from trauma, and tumor formation. It is hardly predetermined. Darwinian selection is actually a much better analogy. (There’s a wikipedia article on angiogenesis for what that’s worth.)

The nervous system and immune system both develop in kind of a “Darwin-ish” way as well. The nervous system of a baby has a whole bunch more synapses, more or less randomly generated, than an adult. Coordination happens as the more efficient and frequently used synapses hog nutrients and growth factors, and the less productive pathways are “pruned.” Again there is a cool wikipedia and a ton of interesting stuff on synaptic pruning on the web.

Many have wondered how Wells can be so spectacularly wrong about evolution. I hope it helps your understanding and brings you inner peace to see that he is just as spectacularly wrong in the things he compares evolution to. So don’t take it personally, you evolution nerds. Wells is not just singling out your field of study to suck at. He is a multidisciplinary crank.


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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on October 3, 2007 10:20 PM.

An “apology”, Dembski style was the previous entry in this blog.

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