By Casey Luskin
June 1, 2011
[Editors Note: This review originally appeared as a 6-part series on EvolutionNews.org. The original posts can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.]
Part I: Francis Collins' Junk DNA Arguments Pushed Into Increasingly Small Gaps in Scientific Knowledge
Recently I wrote an article explaining that both atheistic and theistic evolutionists have relied heavily on "junk DNA" -- specifically pseudogenes -- to argue against intelligent design (ID). In his 2006 book The Language of God, leading theistic evolutionist Francis Collins made such an argument, claiming that caspase-12 is a functionless pseudogene and asks, "why would God have gone to the trouble of inserting such a nonfunctional gene in this precise location?" (p. 139) Logan Gage and I responded citing research which suggested this purported "pseudogene" is functional in many humans. But Collins went much further in The Language of God. He claimed that huge portions of our genome are repetitive junk: "Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs [ancient repetitive elements]" wrote Collins, "with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam." (p. 136) Collins frames his argument in theological terms, writing: "Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable." (pp. 136-137)
Such arguments are dangerous for those who make them, because they are based upon our lack of knowledge of these types of DNA. They amount to "evolution of the gaps" reasoning--because as we learn more and more about biology, we're discovering more and more evidence of function for so-called "junk" DNA. The argument that much DNA is functionless junk, and thereby evidence for evolution, is relegated to gaps in our knowledge--gaps which are increasingly shrinking over time as science progresses.
But what if such DNA has function? If such DNA isn't functionless junk, this may be another instance where, in Collins' own words, a designer could have "used successful design principles over and over again." (p. 111) In fact, as explained in this rebuttal to Collins, multiple functions have been discovered for repetitive DNA:
(Casey Luskin and Logan Gage, " A Reply to Francis Collins's Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans," in Intelligent Design 101: Leading Experts Explain the Key Issues (Kregel, 2008) (internal citations removed.)
Collins Retreats on Junk DNA
Since writing The Language of God, Dr. Collins seems to have realized that it's potentially dangerous and inaccurate to argue that much non-coding DNA is junk. As Jonathan M. explains here, Collins takes much softer tone towards junk DNA in his 2010 book The Language of Life:
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, pp. 5-6 (Harper, 2010).)
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, p. 9 (Harper, 2010).)
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, pp. 9-10 (Harper, 2010).)
In the end, it's clear that Collins' 2010 book is a significant retreat on the claim that junk DNA dominates our genome. He even admits that noncoding DNA is "capable of carrying out a host of important functions":
(Francis Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, p. 293 (Harper, 2010).)
But Collins' 2010 book The Langauge of Life is not his most recent book. His most recent book is The Language of Science and Faith, co-written with Biologos vice-president Karl Giberson, and it once again focuses on making junk-DNA arguments for evolution.
Collins and Giberson look at the vitamin C GULO 'pseudogene' found in humans and other primates (as well as some nonprimate species), and they contend that it is "not remotely plausible" that "God inserted a piece of broken DNA into our genomes." They conclude that this "has established conclusively that the data fits a model of evolution from a common ancestor," but has "ruled out" common design. (Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith, p. 43 (InterVarsity Press, 2011).)
Giberson also cited this same pseudogene in a recent op-ed on CNN.com where he argued:
But as we've seen in recent posts, such as "Et tu, Pseudogenes? Another Type of 'Junk' DNA Betrays Darwinian Predictions," "Is 'Pseudogene' a Misnomer?," or "'Junk' RNA Found to Encode Peptides That Regulate Fruit Fly Development," the notion that pseudogenes are merely "broken DNA" is coming under heavy fire from new scientific discoveries. Jonathan Wells has a whole chapter discussing functions for pseudogenes in his new book The Myth of Junk DNA. It seems that the gap is becoming so small that not even pseudogenes are a safe argument for "junk" DNA anymore.
Francis Collins and Karl Giberson are choosing to rely quite heavily on the argument that pseudogenes are junk, "broken DNA." In fact, this singular pseudogene is their centerpiece evidence for common descent and macroevolution in their new book, The Language of Science and Faith. Giberson is so confident that this argument is right that in his recent CNN.com op-ed he's betting "Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you." But if history is to be our guide, then it would seem that this is a dangerous argument to make: The more we are learning about biology, genetics, and biochemistry, the more we are finding function for non-coding DNA, including pseudogenes.
Time will tell, but it's revealing that Giberson and Collins are reduced to citing smaller and smaller gaps in our knowledge as regards "junk" DNA to argue for evolution. Professor Giberson may boast that "Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you" -- but perhaps he should worry more about what direction the science is pointing rather than making religious arguments for evolution.
Part II: Giberson and Collins Make Outdated Argument That Feathers Evolved From Scales
In Part I, I noted that Karl Giberson and Francis Collins have relied upon some dangerous and historically weak arguments for evolution in their new book The Language of Science and Faith. They claim that a pseudogene that is "broken DNA" has "established conclusively" that macroevolution is valid and humans share common ancestry with apes. But given the many functions being discovered for pseudogenes, they may find that their argument for "broken DNA" itself becomes overturned by future discoveries. In fact, another one of their other main arguments for evolution in their book - that feathers evolved from scales - has already been overturned.
In at least two places in The Language of Science and Faith, Giberson and Collins cite scales evolving into feathers as evidence of the power of mutations:
"Over time, mutations in DNA can produce novel features, as we noted earlier, like feathers evolving from scales..." (p. 38)
The classical model of feather origins did claim that feathers evolved when scales on reptiles mutated to become frayed. Somehow these frayed scales gave the reptile an advantage of increased lift, eventually leading to the evolution of flight feathers.
The problem with this hypothesis is that feathers and scales are very different structures. Feathers essentially develop as hollow tubes that grow out of special follicles in the skin, whereas scales are flat, folded skin that develop quite differently.
Critics also argue that feathers are so well-suited for flight that there would have to be many transitional stages between scales and fully functional flight feathers. A 2003 article in Scientific American by Richard O. Prum (now at Yale) and Alan H. Brush (University of Connecticut) stated that the lack of evidence for the "scale" hypothesis meant the "long-cherished view of how and why feathers evolved has now been overturned." The article continues:
(Richard O. Prum and Alan H. Brush, "Which came first, the feather or the bird?," Scientific American (March, 2003):84-93.)
(Frank B. Gill, Ornithology, p. 39 (3rd. Ed., W.H. Freeman 2007).
Failing to explain the evolution of flight, evolutionists now expect us to believe that feathers and other complex features which are finely-tuned for flight are accidental byproducts that evolved for entirely different purposes. In other words, birds just got very, very lucky.
Additionally, proponents of the gradual evolution of feathers must explain a striking fact: the feathers of the earliest bird, Archaeopteryx, are essentially identical to those of today's birds. Apparently little change has taken place over eons of time, even though great amounts of change were required.
While Giberson and Collins paint a rosy picture of the ability of mutations to produce novel features, Prum and Brush make a striking admission that evolutionary biology is struggling to explain how such novel features arise:
(Richard O. Prum and Alan H. Brush, "Which came first, the feather or the bird?," Scientific American (March, 2003):84-93.)
Those Who Live in Glass Houses...
Ironically, The Language of Science and Faith complains that "[t]he evangelical literature is so filled with misrepresentations and outdated information about evolution." (p. 34) If their accusation is true, then it would seem their book's outdated arguments about feather evolution are not helping to solve that problem.
Part III: Rebutting Karl Giberson and Francis Collins' Blurry Argument for Eye Evolution
In Part II, I noted Giberson and Collins stated that "[o]ver time mutations in DNA can produce novel features, as we noted earlier, like feathers from scales..." (p. 35), but we saw that leading evolutionary biologists no longer propose that feathers evolved from scales. I left off the rest of their sentence because I wanted to address it in a separate section. Their full sentence reads:
In the previous post we showed that the evidence has refuted the hypothesis that feathers evolved from scales. Let's now test their claim that mutations over time produced eyes from light-sensitive pigments.
Light-Sensitive Pigments Aren't the Only Starting Point
Classical explanations for the evolution of the eye assume that the eye can be built via such small, step-by-step changes. Darwin believed the eye could evolve under a scheme of "fine gradations," but standard evolutionary accounts for the origin of the eye fall far short of that mark: they lack details, ignore biochemical complexity, and in fact invoke sudden and abrupt appearance of key components of eye morphology.
For example, all accounts of eye evolution start with a fully functional eyespot, not mere "light-sensitive pigments." As Mark Ridley's textbook Evolution explains, the commonly-cited model of eye evolution
(Matt Ridley, Evolution, p. 261 (3rd Ed., Blackwell, 2004).)
Likewise, after reviewing some of the basic biochemistry underlying the processes that allow vision, Michael Behe (responding to Richard Dawkins) observes: "Remember that the 'light-sensitive spot' that Dawkins takes as his starting point requires a cascade of factors including 11-cis retinal and rhodopsin, to function. Dawkins doesn't mention them." (Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, p. 38 (Free Press, 1996).)
In fact, no accounts for the evolution of the eye provide an account for this always-assumed starting point, which is far more complex than a few "light-sensitive pigments."
Other Eye Parts Appear Abruptly
In addition to assuming the abrupt appearance of a fully-functional eyespot, standard accounts of eye-evolution invoke the abrupt appearance of key features of advanced eyes such as the lens, cornea, and iris. Of course the emplacement of each of these features--fully formed and intact--would undoubtedly increase visual acuity. But where did these parts suddenly come from in the first place? As Scott Gilbert put it, such evolutionary accounts are "good at modelling the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest." (John Whitfield, "Biological Theory: Postmodern evolution?," Nature, Vol. 455:281-284 (2008).)
As an example of these hyper-simplistic accounts of eye evolution, Francisco Ayala's book Darwin's Gift asserts that, "Further steps--the deposition of pigment around the spot, configuration of cells into a cuplike shape, thickening of the epidermis leading to the development of a lens, development of muscles to move the eyes and nerves to transmit optical signals to the brain--gradually led to the highly developed eyes of vertebrates and celphalopod (octopuses and squids) and to the compound eyes of insects." (Francisco J. Ayala, Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion, p. 146 (Joseph Henry Press, 2007).)
Ayala's explanation is vague and shows no appreciation for the biochemical complexity of these visual organs. Thus, regarding the configuration of cells into a cuplike shape, Michael Behe asks (while responding to Richard Dawkins on the same point):
(Michael J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, pg. 15 (Free Press, 1996).)
The very problem that Darwin's theory was designed to evade now reappears. Like vibrations passing through a spider's web, changes to any part of the eye, if they are to improve vision, must bring about changes throughout the optical system. Without a correlative increase in the size and complexity of the optic nerve, an increase in the number of photoreceptive membranes can have no effect. A change in the optic nerve must in turn induce corresponding neurological changes in the brain. If these changes come about simultaneously, it makes no sense to talk of a gradual ascent of Mount Improbable. If they do not come about simultaneously, it is not clear why they should come about at all.
The same problem reappears at the level of biochemistry. Dawkins has framed his discussion in terms of gross anatomy. Each anatomical change that he describes requires a number of coordinate biochemical steps. "[T]he anatomical steps and structures that Darwin thought were so simple," the biochemist Mike Behe remarks in a provocative new book (Darwin's Black Box), "actually involve staggeringly complicated biochemical processes." A number of separate biochemical events are required simply to begin the process of curving a layer of proteins to form a lens. What initiates the sequence? How is it coordinated? And how controlled? On these absolutely fundamental matters, Dawkins has nothing whatsoever to say.
(David Berlinski, "Keeping an Eye on Evolution: Richard Dawkins, a relentless Darwinian spear carrier, trips over Mount Improbable," Review of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins (W. H. Norton & Company, Inc. 1996)," in The Globe & Mail (November 2, 1996).))
Giberson and Collins claim that "[o]ver time mutations in DNA can produce novel features ... like ... eyes from light-sensitive pigment." But their vague argument provides us with no citations or discussion of the evidence to back up that claim. In fact, much evidence not cited in their book can be found which challenges their assertion. It seems that they simply want us to take their evolutionary claims about the power of mutation on faith.
Part IV: Does Giberson and Collins' Neanderthal Argument Demonstrate "Common Ancestry"?
When most people hear "Neanderthal," they think of a primitive caveman-like prehuman brute. What many don't realize is that this popular view is very much a Darwinian interpretation, and it is betrayed by much evidence. In their book The Language of Science and Faith, theistic evolutionists Karl Giberson and Francis Collins attempt to capitalize on the inaccurate popular mindset by suggesting that if humans are related to Neanderthals, then somehow that bolsters "common ancestry" in a general sense. They write:
(Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith pp. 43-44 (InterVarsity Press, 2011).)
As noted, Giberson and Collins admit that Neanderthals are "best understood as a subspecies of Homo sapiens," yet somehow they do not elaborate for their readers that this in no way bolsters a general argument for common ancestry. In fact, many experts think that Neanderthals essentially are us, and we are them. As far as evolution is concerned, observing that living humans share common ancestry with Neanderthals might be little more significant than saying we share common ancestry with ancient Europeans.
As a 2007 article in the Washington Post quoted paleoanthropologist Eric Trinkaus saying:
"Both groups would seem to us dirty and smelly but, cleaned up, we would understand both to be human. There's good reason to think that they did as well."
(Michael D. Lemonick, "A Bit of Neanderthal in Us All?," Time Magazine (April 25, 1999).)
The researchers and others have also found dozens of pieces of sharpened manganese dioxide--black crayons, essentially--that Neanderthals probably used to color animal skins or even their own. In his office at the University of Bordeaux, d'Errico hands me a chunk of manganese dioxide. It feels silky, like soapstone. "Toward the end of their time on earth," he says, "Neanderthals were using technology as advanced as that of contemporary anatomically modern humans and were using symbolism in much the same way." (Joe Alper, "Rethinking Neanderthals," Smithsonian magazine (June 2003).)
If Giberson and Collins want to make the case that humans share "common ancestry" with some primitive species, they're going to have to find another example than Neanderthals. Neanderthals do essentially nothing to bolster the case that humans evolved from more primitive hominids.
Part V: Giberson and Collins Commit Berra's Blunder While Arguing for Macroevolution
In The Language of Science and Faith, Giberson and Collins argue that "the distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary." (p. 45, emphases in original) As a result, they assert that "macroevolution is simply microevolution writ large: add up enough small changes and we get a large change." (p. 45) What's most surprising is not that they make this claim (which is common in evolutionary writings), but the examples--or lack thereof--they give to back it up.
Their main illustration for macroevolution is the evolution of the automobile. "[N]obody could have imagined how Henry Ford's primitive T automobile could have turned into Toyota's Prius hybrid," they write, because "it would have been impossible for the engineers at Ford to develop all the remarkable engineering necessary to turn a Model T into a Prius in one year. The electronic enhancements alone took decades to invent and develop." (pp. 45-46)
Giberson and Collins have of course just committed what Phillip Johnson calls "Berra's blunder." Here's a snippet of Professor Berra's original blunder:
(Tim Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, pp. 117-119 (Stanford University Press, 1990).)
(Phillip Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, p. 63 (InterVarsity Press, 1997).)
Direct Evidence Fails, So They Use Indirect Evidence
So the first argument used by Giberson and Collins to show that macroevolution is simply microevolution "writ large" seems to have failed. In fact, to their credit they acknowledge that "[w]e don't observe such macroevolutionary changes because they take such a long time" and therefore must use our "imaginations" to understand macroevolution. (pp. 46-47) Thus, they seek to provide indirect evidence of macroevolution, and in the next section ask, "Is there Proof of Macroevolution?"
The answer they provide, of course, is 'yes.' But guess what their evidence is? They fall back to again relying on psuedogenes: "The example of the broken vitamin C gene that we looked at earlier is a case in point" (p. 49), they write. As we already saw here and here, this is an incredibly weak argument, especially given that we're continually finding more and more functions for pseudogenes.
Big Claims, Small Evidence
Giberson and Collins claim that "[m]ountains of data arrive on a daily basis ... providing compelling evidence for macroevolution," (p. 49) but aside from a weak and assumption-based argument based upon a single pseudogene, Giberson and Collins do not specify exactly what that evidence is.
In a previous article we saw that Giberson and Collins essentially expected readers to take eye-evolution on faith. Now it seems that they also want their readers to take it on faith that "the distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary," because they provide no empirical evidence to back up this claim other than a highly suspect and dangerous argument that a particular pseudogene is functionless "broken DNA."
Having failed to provide empirical data backing macroevolution, Giberson and Collns end their chapter on the evidence for evolution claiming: "All that evolution requires is enough generations to accumulate the sort of tiny differences that separate offspring from their parents and almost any transformation can be achieved." (p. 52)
Presto chango--evolution sounds so easy! But according to Darwin, evolution requires more than just "enough generations." Darwin acknowledged that evolution also requires a continuous evolutionary pathway:
Part VI: Contradictions, Irony, and Appeals to Authority Permeate The Language of Science and Faith
The title of Chapter 1 in Karl Giberson and Francis Collins' book The Language of Science and Faith is "Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?" The very title of the chapter itself implies that affirmative belief in evolution is an indisputable matter for Christians. If you doubt that they are so adamant, bear in mind that it was Giberson himself who recently wrote that "Jesus would believe in evolution and so should you." They're welcome to believe in evolution, but should they present their case in such a non-inclusive way? But before delving further into the rhetorical strategies of The Language of Science and Faith, let's revisit some of the main scientific evidence and arguments they cite in this chapter for why you "have to believe in evolution":
But there's another quality to The Language of Science and Faith that is much more disconcerting. The troubling part about The Language of Science and Faith is the level of rhetoric that that Giberson and Collins use while trying to lead readers to conclude that they "have to believe in evolution." The book is full of appeals to authority and attacks upon the character and competence of Darwin-doubting scientists. It is into this most unfortunate territory that we now cautiously step.
Appeals to Authority
Theistic evolutionists seem to love making appeals to authority. Last year we saw Biologos president Darrell Falk rely heavily upon appeals to authority in his book Coming to Peace with Science. It seems that Giberson and Collins have followed Falk's rhetorical strategy. Thus, in chapter 1 of The Language of Science and Faith alone, we find comments like:
I wasn't sure if the book actually intended such a message until I read Giberson's recent response to William Dembski where Giberson makes it very clear that he doesn't want people thinking for themselves on topics like evolution. He writes:
Dr. Giberson doesn't think that the average person should be allowed to "make up their own minds" on evolution.
Unfortunately, this mindset is becoming more and more typical of the Darwin lobby: they want people to stop thinking for themselves. Berkman and Plutzer's survey in Science from earlier this year went so far as to criticize a teacher who felt that "[s]tudents should make up their own minds" on evolution "based on their own beliefs and research." Such a mindset seems profoundly dangerous and wrong in many ways. In fact it seems, dare I say it, anti-intellectual because it demands intellectual conformity from all.
What's most ironic, however, is that Giberson and Collins later defeat their own appeals to authority. They write that "scientific truth is not decided by the number of names on a list, or who wins the debate or convinces the most people. It is based on the evidence." (p. 33) Here I completely agree! But if they really believe that statement, and the evidence is all that matters, then why do they feel the need to persistently rely on appeals to authority?
I think that Giberson and Collins want to have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they want readers to imbibe a not-so-subtle message that they ought to capitulate to experts who 'believe in" evolution because those experts are in the majority. Realizing that's a fallacious and dangerous argument, on the other hand they want to be able to say that they still made the correct argument that that scientific truth is "based on the evidence," not "the number of names" who support a theory. They're completely right about this latter point, but they seem to be sending contradictory messages, not giving "straight answers" to these questions.
But there are other contradictions that are even more troubling yet to be found in The Language of Science and Faith.
Attacking Darwin-Doubting Scientists
What's most unfortunate about the The Language of Science and Faith is not the book's questionable and self-contradictory appeals to authority. Nor is it the book's apparent attempt to dissuade people from thinking for themselves on evolution. Rather, it's how Giberson and Collins try to win the hearts and minds of their readers by using the rhetorical strategy of attacking the competence and character of Darwin-doubting scientists.
Let's start with their attacks on the competence of Ph.D. scientists who have bravely signed a list dissenting from neo-Darwinian evolution. In one instance Giberson and Collins write:
What's ironic (and contradictory) about their argument is that the book's first author, Karl Giberson, is not trained in biology and even admits that he "took his last biology course in 1975." (p. 32) Now I'm not raising this point to attack Giberson's knowledge or credentials, and in fact I don't think that Dr. Giberson is unqualified to comment on evolution simply because he is not a trained biologist. In fact Giberson--who is the first author of The Language of Science and Faith--must feel the same way since he just wrote this book which spends many pages evaluating evolution.
Giberson's admission that he lacks the same qualifications of those whose qualifications he attacks does not exactly make for a compelling argument. Given that he's writing extensively about evolution, his attack on the competence of Darwin-doubting scientists seems downright hypocritical.
Giberson and Collins have also misconstrued the purpose of the Dissent from Darwinism list. As noted, they write that "scientific truth is not decided by the number of names on a list, or who wins the debate or convinces the most people. It is based on the evidence." Again, I could not agree more. But the "Dissent from Darwin" list was never intended to demonstrate that neo-Darwinian evolution is false simply because x number of scientists disagree with neo-Darwinism. What the list does demonstrate is that one cannot dismiss scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism simply by appeals to authority. The list shows that there is a critical mass of credible scientific dissent from neo-Darwinism.
By overstating the purpose of the Dissent from Darwinism list, Giberson and Collins hope they can convince the reader to dismiss it. But when used properly, the list defeats their own quite explicit argument, that one ought to ignore scientific dissent from Darwinism because of appeals to the authority of the majority viewpoint.
But their most unpleasant jab at Darwin-doubting scientists is yet to come. They write:
That faux pas aside, again, we see irony in their statement: If their claim is true, then Giberson and Collins' book defeats its own argument, since The Language of Science and Faith uses outdated arguments that feathers evolved from scales.
The 'Seeds of Doubt' Strategy Fails
The rhetorical strategy of Giberson and Collins is now becoming clear: they want to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of readers not through discussing the evidence, but by attacking the trustworthiness and competence of skeptics of neo-Darwinian evolution. Aside from the fact that this implied argument of commits the genetic fallacy, Giberson and Collins haven't done a very good job of making this argument, because every attempt to plant doubt in the reader's mind is refuted by their own book:
But also realize that there are a lot of smart, qualified, and informed scientists who doubt neo-Darwinian evolution. The fact that some of those scientific critics may happen to be "evangelicals" does not mean that therefore those responses are "filled with misrepresentations and outdated information about evolution." Giberson and Collins are making arguments designed to stifle your own self-investigation, not encourage it.
Whenever Giberson and Collins stop talking about the evidence, and start appealing to authority, attacking Darwin-skeptics personally, and asking you to stop thinking for yourself, it's time to become skeptical: If the evidence is on their side, why do they feel the need to do this?