A new article has been published in the illustrious journal BIO-Complexity [sic]:
Burgess, S. (2022). Why the Ankle-Foot Complex Is a Masterpiece of Engineering and a Rebuttal of “Bad Design” Arguments. BIO-Complexity, 2022.
For those not familiar with it, BIO-Complexity [sic] is a journal dedicated to publishing work from the Intelligent Design creationist community. Frustrated by their almost completely futile efforts to get their work or ideas published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, intelligent design proponents took to creating their own journal in 2010 with Douglas Axe as the founding editor-in-chief. Axe was also head of the Biologic Institute, the only research institute dedicated to intelligent design creationism, and the publisher of BIO-Complexity [sic]. The institute has now closed. No word yet on what will happen with the journal, but I imagine the green screen has been repurposed. You can read more about the history of the journal here.
BIO-Complexity [sic] and The Biologic Institute (and Axe himself to a certain extent), are all funded by the Discovery Institute, the organizing body of the intelligent design creationist movement, which probably needs no introduction to the readers of Panda’s Thumb. But in case you’ve just crawled out of the Olduvai Gorge, you can read about it here.
The new article on the human ankle by Stuart Burgess perfectly aligns with the grand traditions of BIO-Complexity [sic]:
- This is just the third and final article published in in the journal in all of 2022. Their original ambitious goal was one article per month (lol), but they have yet to exceed four articles in any calendar year. In 2017, they published just one manuscript in the "research article" category and one "critical review." This year, the three published articles are in the "critical focus" category, meaning they did not publish a single “research article” in 2022.
- The article above was written by someone who is also on the editorial board of the journal. In fact, nearly all of the contributing authors in the history of the journal are also editors and most are also Discovery Institute fellows or contributors. In 2010-2011, the journal published a total of seven articles across all article types, four of them co-authored by editor-in-chief Douglas Axe. Of course, it is not unheard of that a journal occasionally publishes original work by someone on the editorial board, but this practice is usually kept to a minimum for obvious reasons.
- 2022 was exceptional, however, because the three articles published in BIO-Complexity [sic] are all by different authors! In most years, to reach the impressive feat of 3 or 4 articles, they publish multiple articles from the same author or team of authors, essentially by cutting articles into pieces. For example, the entire published work of the journal in 2021 is three articles, all by the same author, with titles ending in "part 1," "part 2," and "part 3." In the year before that, two of the four published articles were by the same trio of authors and cover the same topic. The exact same was true for 2016.
- The reason the article above caught my attention is that it is written as a rebuttal to a few paragraphs in my 2018 popular science book Human Errors. I am mentioned by name 19 times (20 if you count the reference list), including in the abstract and in one of the section headings. I am most flattered by this continued attention, but it is not exactly in keeping with the standards and customs of academic science. Scientific data and ideas generally stand on their own and are offered on their own terms. While debates and rebuttals are also part of science, and I have been involved in some of those as well, they are never structured as a debate between persons, especially in the published literature. This article reads more like a blog post.
The article itself is simply a summary of the structure and function of the human ankle, which can be summed up by saying the ankle is incredibly complex and good at what it does (notwithstanding the strains and sprains we all get). Somehow, this is offered as evidence against evolution and for intelligent design. Please feel free to read the article itself and comment below if you find any evidence against the notion that the human ankle is the product of standard evolutionary forces. I didn't.
On the contrary, in the words of fellow Panda’s Thumb contributor Anj Petto, an expert in functional morphology, “There is not a single aspect of the ankle that I can think of that exists in anticipation of the needs for the particular combination of stability, strength, and flexibility that bipedal striding requires. All of the pieces exist in the generalized primate foot, and there is a series of changes in the foot among the hominins (certainly from Ardipithecus forward) that show transitional features that reduce the muscle activity required to walking on 2 legs so that in the modern human ankle (foot, knee, hips, and lower back, as well) the skeletal system (bones, joints, cartilage, and ligaments) are supporting the upright posture so that the muscles are mostly used for propulsion rather than for supporting the upright posture.” This latter item is among the points I was making in Human Errors.
Burgess does a fine job explaining the structure and function of the human ankle, but for some reason takes its functioning as evidence that it was intentionally designed and not evolved. The human body is truly impressive, a point I repeatedly made in Human Errors, but it also harbors abundant evidence of its long evolutionary past including, in my opinion, some examples of suboptimal functional design that are only comprehensible in the light of the limitations of evolutionary processes and our shared ancestry with other animals.
Lastly, I have no idea why they chose to hyphenate (and weirdly capitalize) BIO-Complexity [sic] when the perfectly serviceable word Biocomplexity already exists, sans hyphen.
Nathan Lents is Professor of Biology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author, most recently, of the book Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Defects, from Broken Genes to Pointless Bones, and many technical articles. He blogs at The Human Evolution Blog and Psychology Today.