Paul McBride's review of the Disco 'Tute's "Science and Human Origins"

“Science and Human Origins” (Amazon; Barnes&Noble) is a slim book recently published by the Disco ‘Tute’s house press. It’s by Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe, members of the Disco Tute’s Biologic Institute, along with Casey Luskin. The book is blurbed thusly:

In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.

In other words, down with common descent, and while we’re at it, a literal Adam and Eve could have been the ancestors of the whole human species.

And by three scientists? Ah, yes, I momentarily forgot that Casey Luskin got a Master’s in Earth Science before he went off to law school and then got a job with the Disco ‘Tute, where he is now listed as “Research Coordinator” (and is there called an attorney rather than a scientist). Once again, one detects a touch of inflationary credentialism.

Fortunately for me, I’m spared the chore of reading and critiquing the book. Paul McBride, a Ph.D. candidate in vertebrate macroecology/evolution in New Zealand who writes Still Monkeys, bit the bullet and did a chapter by chapter (all five chapters) review of the book. The book doesn’t come out looking good (is anyone surprised?). I’m going to shamelessly piggyback on McBride’s review. I’ll link to his individual chapter reviews, adding some commentary, below the fold.

Here are McBride’s individual chapter reviews:

Chapter 1, in which Ann Gauger

… questions the certainty that evolutionary biologists have in the notion of common descent, with the broad claim that it is merely similarity, rather than relatedness, that we observe. She tells us that certainly humans and chimpanzees share a number of common features, but so do (and this is her example) Ford Tauruses and Mustangs. Yet the latter are designed, indicating that similarity cannot rule out design.

McBride has some fun with that specious analogy, as well as with her ‘random changes in computer programs break the programs’ claim. Someone over at the Disco ‘Tute should tell Gauger to read up on genetic programming.

Chapter 2, in which Douglas Axe expands on Gauger’s Chapter 1, elaborating some arguments and finishing with the claim that unless we can identify each and every mutation between humans and our common ancestor with chimps, there’s room for a Designer. I dealt with that argument some time ago.

Chapter 3, in which Casey Luskin argues that the hominin fossil record is too fragmentary to infer the descent of H. saps like himself from a common ancestor of him and chimps. (Notice how I restrained myself? :)) Like all creationists, Casey has to draw the line between ancient humans (Homo) and earlier fossil (allegedly non-ancestral to humans) apes somewhere, and he draws it between H. habilis and H. erectus. (Recall that there’s considerable disagreement among creationists about just where that line ought to go. Casey is quite a bit deeper in the past than most.)

In an update to that post, McBride draws attention to a recent paper plotting brain volume against age of hominin fossils, essentially duplicating material in two posts on that topic by Nick Matzke here and here nearly six years ago.

In a recent post on Evolution News, Casey asserts

Hominin fossils generally fall into one of two groups: ape-like species and human-like species, with a large, unbridged gap between them. Despite the hype promoted by many evolutionary paleoanthropologists, the fragmented hominin fossil record does not document the evolution of humans from ape-like precursors.

Look at the graphs in McBride’s post and in Nick’s Thumb posts for data relevant to that claim. Nevertheless, Casey promises that he will be discussing the issue in coming weeks.

Chapter 4, on junk DNA by (earth scientist and lawyer) Casey again, gets a two-part review, a prelude which makes pre-reading predictions about what Chapter 4 will claim, and then the review proper. Casey comes through, fulfilling several of McBride’s predictions, including conflating “junk” DNA and non-coding DNA, a pervasive ID creationist habit. I rather like McBride’s conclusion to this chapter review:

Luskin here has continued in the tradition of the other chapters in this book by ignoring all of the best arguments that run contrary to his, while making previously refuted arguments with biased evidence, pretty much in line with what I predicted before reading the chapter. He presents no positive case for a pervasively functional genome, and has only set out to cast doubt on the concept of junk DNA. Even in this, he has comprehensively failed. The book is called Science and Human Origins, but the science is threadbare, and treated unevenly and unfairly.

Finally, Chapter 5, by Gauger again, is the culmination of the book, and can be seen as a rationale for accepting a literal Adam and Eve, a two-person effective breeding population sometime in our ancestry. McBride writes

To convince us of the possiblity of a literal Adam and Eve, Ann Gauger presents to us doubt over whether a single published paper from the 1990s truly supports a large human population since speciation.

McBride has a good critique, and one thing he mentions is kind of funny. In this chapter, Gauger accepts that two human haplotypes are ancient, in the 4-6mya range. But, of course, up there in Chapter 3 Casey argued that the boundary between us (non-descended from apes) humans and those apes’ ancestors is between H. erectus and H. habilis, a split that occurred around 1.8mya. Gauger accepts a ‘human’ trait as originating with critters that are more ancient than Casey is willing to admit as ancestral to humans (or maybe Gauger’s Adam and Eve weren’t humans (tee hee)).

In his conclusion McBride wrote:

I have been left wondering why the Discovery Institute, or intelligent design advocates in general, or biblical literalists feel a need to try and accommodate science when they have a belief in a supernatural entity capable of breaking natural laws. In the case of this book, it has left them needing to make all kinds of awkward criticisms of fields in which the authors clearly lack expertise. A lawyer is not the right guy to challenge the world’s palaeoanthropologists, nor the world’s geneticists. Certainly, he shouldn’t be trying to take them all on at once. It will end with him trying to smear the reputation of scientists rather than engaging with their ideas. Accusations that the entire field of palaeoanthropology is driven by personal disputes and that Francis Collins is a bad Christian are simply not compelling reading in a book that is putatively about scientific argument.

And the last paragraph:

Science and Human Origins has to be described first and foremost as being anti-evolution rather than pro-intelligent-design, or pro-science. If it offers solace to those seeking evidence against evolution for their faith, the solace should be as incomplete as the arguments made in the book.

Read all of McBride’s posts on this. He’s an articulate and knowledgeable guy.