Monday, September 04, 2006

The Pomposity of his Verbosity is only Exceeded by the Capacity of his Loquacity

I'm a little late on this one, but what the heck, it's labor day weekend.

David Berlinski of the Discovery Institute has written a letter to the journal Science complaining about a recent paper showing that acceptance of evolution in the United States is lower than everywhere else in the developed world besides Turkey. What do the US and Turkey have in common? A higher percentage of religious fundamentalists than any of the other countries surveyed. Berlinski, for some reason, seems determined to attack this telling correlation with his trademark obscurantism.

Unsurprisingly, Science didn't publish Berlinski's letter. It's so arrogant and nonsensical that even a vanity press would probably turn it down. PZ Myers does a good job fisking it, so I won't go into detail. However, there was one point that PZ overlooked that I think warrants more attention. Berlinski writes the following jaw-dropper:

"Human beings, as we know them," Miller, Scott and Okamoto write, "developed from earlier species of animals." Those who reject this statement are for this reason denied creedal access to the concept of evolution itself. But how could anyone regard this claim without the most serious reservations? We know hardly anything about human beings. The major aspects of the human mind and the culture to which it gives rise are an enigma, and so, too, the origins of the anatomical structures required to express them. If the phrase "developed from earlier species of animals" implies that human beings had ancestors, there is no reason to think it interesting; if it implies that human beings became human by means of random variation and natural selection, there is no reason to think it true.
The question asked said nothing about random variation and natural selection, it just asked whether or not human beings had non-human ancestors. It's a favorite tactic of the IDists to confuse these two issues, but really, it's a simple yes-or-no question. And those who say "no", as the majority of the IDists do, clearly reject evolution.

What I think is more amazing though is Berlinski's statement, "we know hardly anything about human beings". It takes some serious balls to attempt say this in a forum read by doctors, anatomists, physiologists, psychologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, etc. Those people, whose life work concerns studying human beings, would probably be taken aback to hear that they've learned "almost nothing" in all their years' effort.

But let's do something Berlinski never does and answer the question directly. How do we know that human beings developed from earlier species of animal? Simple. We have their remains.

Below I'm going to post a rather remarkable series of skulls showing a chimpanzee skull at one end, and a modern human skull at the other. The intervening skulls belong to various fossil hominids, all arrayed in chronological order:

Click on the picture if you want to know which skull is which hominid. Notice that there are no obvious gaps -- there is a fairly smooth transition between Australopithicines, who lived about 2.5 million years ago and had skulls very similar in size and morphology to modern chimps, and modern humans.

If you ask me, this really ices it. Even without all the other gobs of evidence, no rational person could deny, without "serious reservation", that human beings did indeed develop from earlier species. It is a testament to the robustness of evolutionary theory that Charles Darwin had no knowledge of such fossils, yet he predicted that such creatures must have existed, and that they existed in the chronological order that we just so happened to have found them in. And he even predicted where they would exist, namely in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ah, but creationists aren't rational. To them, there is an answer to every bit of inconvenient evidence, no matter how bad that answer may be. The quality of the answer is not important -- all that matters is that such an answer exists, and that having been found, it can be used to dismiss that ugly evidence that they'd rather not have to deal with.

In this case, their answer is as simple as it is deceptive: Those aren't transitional fossils you're looking at, they're all either 100% human, or 100% ape! That's right, just because they might look like they're transitioning from point A to point B, rest assured that there isn't anything in between those two points. Everything is either at one point or the other, and there are no intermediates.

The most obvious counter to this claim is that the creationists have simply defined transitional fossils out of existence. No matter how transitional a fossil may appear to be, it is simply treated as if it must fit into one of two binary states and thus dismissed as being non-transitional. But I find it more instructive to point out that the creationists themselves can't seem to decide which fossils are 100% human and which ones are 100% ape. You'd think it would be obvious if their argument had any merit. But check this out:

Creationist Classifications of Hominid Fossils
Specimen Cuozzo
and Van
ER 1813 ER 1813
(510 cc)
Ape Ape Ape Ape Ape Ape
Java Man Java
(940 cc)
Ape Ape Human Ape Ape Human
Peking Man Peking
1225 cc)
Ape Ape Human Ape Human Human
ER 1470 ER 1470
(750 cc)
Ape Ape Ape Human Human Human
ER 3733 ER 3733
(850 cc)
Ape Human Human Human Human Human
WT 15000 WT 15000
(880 cc)
Ape Human Human Human Human Human

One creationist says that all fossil hominids are 100% ape, and another says that all but one are 100% human. The other creationists are, um, transitional between these two extremes. Which means that the creationists are 100% nuts.

Now back to Berlinski: Of course he isn't going to discuss this kind of thing. Why would he? He is a dissembler and an obfuscator, not an honest critic. His style is to keep things as vague and abstract as possible, the better to defend himself when someone calls bullshit.

To see how this game is played, consider this particular charge he made in an editorial that some newspaper had the bad sense to publish:
At Internet web sites such as The Panda's Thumb or Talk Reason, where various eminences repair to assure one another that all is well, it is considered clever beyond measure to attack critics of Darwin's theory such as William Dembski by misspelling his name as William Dumbski.
Oh man, he really called us out, didn't he? There's just one slight problem: The term "Dumbski" had never appeared at either at Talk Reason or at the Panda's Thumb in any article. Not even once.

What's worse, in my mind, than the fact that Berlinski committed a blatant lie to print, was his lame attempt to excuse it:
I did not affirm in my editorial that at both The Panda'’s Thumb and Talk Reason William Dembski was described as dumb: I observed merely that at both sites such objurgations were considered "“clever beyond measure." This is the perfect truth, as a scan of posted comments might reveal.
Translation: He didn't say that the term "Dumbski" actually appeared anywhere, he just said that those of us at the respective websites considered the term "clever beyond measure". So if it had appeared, such would have been our reaction. This, apparently, based on Berlinski's uncanny ability to read minds.

Keep this in mind when you see Berlinski say things like, "We know hardly anything about human beings." Don't assume he means what he actually says. Like a creationist dealing with inconvenient evidence, any interpretation that explains things away is considered acceptable. Berlinski didn't tell us what he meant by "know", so all those natural scientists and social scientists who think they know something in actuality know hardly anything according to Berlinski's metric, whatever it may be. Just so long as he doesn't do anything rash like explain what he means, then he's not full of crap in the technical sense. Just in the everyday kind of sense. And that's not clever by anyone's measure.