Missing The Wrist

By Carl Zimmer | July 14, 2008 5:07 pm

We’re all for open and objective discussions of scientific theories, right? Who wouldn’t be? If your kids are taking physics in high school, you want them to read critiques of gravity, right? After all, shouldn’t they know that there are some serious weaknesses in the theory of gravity? Right? For instance, the theory of gravity says that gravity makes things fall down. But planets don’t fall into the sun. They go around it. So which is it–down or around? Clearly the theory of gravity is deficient. Right?

Wrong, of course. You don’t teach critical thinking with patent nonsense.

A couple weeks ago Louisiana passed a new science education act that promotes “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Along with the regular textbook, the law states, teachers “may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The law “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”

What the law does not make clear, however, is how schools will determine whether the extra instructional material is good science or nonsense. There is nothing in the law that would keep a teacher from introducing a bogus non-argument about gravity and the revolution of the planets.

I was reminded of this sad fact when I read a post published today by Casey Luskin, a staffer at the Discovery Institute, an outfit that promotes intelligent design. Luskin has been one of the leaders of the Discovery Institute’s efforts to get so-called “academic freedom” bills passed in states around the country. He personally testified in Louisiana in favor of their new education bill. When he’s not busy with politics, Luskin writes posts at the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” site, where he “critiques” research on evolutionary biology, claiming to find major flaws. But his critique make as much sense as the falling-or-revolving challenge to gravity.

The subject of the post is a 375-million-year-old fossil that helps reveal the transition of our ancestors from the water to land, known as Tiktaalik. I’ve written about Tiktaalik here, and you can get more details from the book Your Inner Fish, written by Neil Shubin, one of Tiktaalik’s discoverers. (Here’s a review I wrote in Nature.)

Luskin claims that Neil Shubin calls Tiktaalik a fish with a wrist, but “from what I can tell, Tiktaalik doesn’t have one.” The bulk of the post is taken up by Luskin’s fruitless search for a diagram or some other helpful information, either in Shubin’s book or the original papers. He is frustrated not to find a picture showing a wrist on Tiktaalik compared to the wrist of a tetrapod (a land vertebrate). This sort of “evidence” leads Luskin to conclude that Shubin has something to hide. “In the end, it’s no wonder Shubin chose not to provide a diagram comparing Tiktaalik’s fin-bones to the bones of a real tetrapod limb,” he writes.

Instead, Luskin is forced to read a scientific paper. He writes:

So we are left to decipher his jargon-filled written comparison in the following sentence by sentence analysis:

1. Shubin et al.: “The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.” (Note: I have labeled the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)

Translation: OK, then exactly which “wrist bones of tetrapods” are Tiktaalik’s bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding “wrist bone”-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.

Um…Shubin did give them. They are called the intermedium and ulnare. (I just double-checked, for example, in Vertebrates by Ken Kardong, on p.332.) Shubin and his colleagues found two bones in the limb of Tiktaalik that bear a number of similarities to the intermedium and ulnare in the tetrapod wrist–in terms of their arrangement with other limb bones, for example. That’s why Shubin and company refer to the bones in Tiktaalik’s limb by the same two names. They are homologous–in other words, their similarities are due to a common ancestry.

So Luskin wants to know what bones in the tetrapod limb are homologous to Tiktaalik’s intermedium and ulnare. The answer is…the intermedium and ulnare. He has unwittingly answered his own question. Now, perhaps Luskin got tripped up in Shubin’s “jargon-filled” writing. But that doesn’t change the facts–merely Luskin’s understanding of them.

Luskin’s entire post is based on a mistaken notion of homology–the similarity of traits due to common ancestry. The bones of a bird’s wing do not look just like a human arm. Many of the wrist bones in our arm are not present in a bird’s wing, for example, and instead of five fingers the bird has a rod-like bone at the end. But they still bear an overall resemblance in their arrangement. And when evolutionary biologists arrange birds and mammals in an evolutionary tree, they can see some of the steps by which an ancestral tetrapod limb evolved into our arm in one lineage, and into the bird wing in another.

Shubin and his colleagues offer a detailed analysis in their paper of how the intermedium and ulnare in Tiktaalik are homologous to the bones of the same name in tetrapod wrists. Not only do the bones have similar arrangements, but they also allow the limb to bend in a similar way to how the tetrapod wrist bends the hand. They also present evidence for the homology of other bones in Tiktaalik’s limb to the tetrapod limb. Some bones in the tetrapod limb don’t exist in Tiktaalik’s, and some of the bones that are there are different in some respects–size, and shape, and so on. But the relationship of the bones to each other makes sense if they’re the result of a shared ancestry with tetrapods.

To say that Tiktaalik lacks a wrist because it doesn’t have all of the bones in a tetrapod limb is to misunderstand how evolution works.

Luskin suggests instead it would be easier to make Tiktaalik a forerunner of lungfish. (Lungfish are among the closest living relatives of tetrapods, but our last common ancestor with them lived over 400 million years ago.) “Without trying to force-fit the fin of Tiktaalik into a pre-conceived evolutionary story,” he declares, “the living species that Tiktaalik’s fin seems to bear a much closer relationship to is the lungfish.”

Note the word seems.

If Luskin were offering a real scientific hypothesis, he could do an anlysis of lungfish, Tiktaalik, tetrapods, and other vertebrates–comparing not just their limbs but their heads, spines, and so on to figure out their evolutionary relationships. That’s exactly what Shubin and his colleagues did in their original paper on Tiktaalik. They compared 114 traits on species from nine different lineages of tetrapods and their aquatic relatives, including the lineage that produced today’s lungfish. And that analysis shows that Tiktaalik is more closely related to us than to lungfish.

Luskin apparently doesn’t need to do this sort of science. He can just announce what seems right to him personally.

If this is the sort of stuff that’s used to promote “critical thinking” in Louisiana classrooms, don’t be surprised to hear about the great gravity hoax.

Update: PZ Myers has more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

Comments (57)

  1. Actually Carl, I think the real problem Luskin has is with the English language. “The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods…” says it all, but the use of the word “eponymous” must have befuddled him.

    And who can blame him? I mean, sure 15-year-old stoners have always understood that the word “eponymous” means “with the same name as” when it comes to their music collection, but Luskin “only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in” Rolling Stone.

    Besides, who’s surprised a Discovery Institute staffer is more ignorant than a 15-year-old anyway?

  2. Why do I suddenly get the feeling that Luskin is going to demand the raw data for Shubin’s publicly-funded research?

  3. Elf Eye

    So, if I understand Luskin correctly, he is put off by the fact that a scientific paper relies upon–gasp!–scientific terminology. On top of that, as R.A. Porter points out, Luskin has a bit of a problem with even non-technical vocabulary. You’d think that if he couldn’t figure out ‘eponymous’ from the context, he’d take the time to look it up in the dictionary. Apparently he didn’t (or if he did, he still didn’t understand it!). Then he has the chutzpah to imply that the authors are not being forthright because he can’t understand their argument! Yikes!

  4. Feynmaniac

    Blake Stacey,
    “Why do I suddenly get the feeling that Luskin is going to demand the raw data for Shubin’s publicly-funded research?”

    But does Luskin have a legion of homeschooled children to do his bidding like Schlafly? Actually given Luskin’s reading skills maybe homeschooled children would do a better job at finding a legal basis to obtain data than he would.

  5. beagledad

    Luskin’s basic line of argument is “I don’t understand it, so it must be wrong.” This dodge is characteristic of crackpots everywhere. The only difference between Luskin and the guy sitting in the public library working on a 600-page proof that quantum physics is wrong is that Luskin has an organization and money behind him.

  6. Sage

    I’m going to be annoying and pedantic and point out a common mistake made in the first paragraph – the LAWS of gravitation are very well-established, but the THEORIES are much less so. In fact, I use this as a point when arguing with creationists: they never even think of arguing with the theories of what gravity is and how it works (mechanistically, not what its effects are), but I like to point out to them that that stuff is much more controversial and up in the air than the theory of evolution, which is so well-studied and -proven that it is as close to fact as you can get, but that they don’t argue about the various theories relating to gravity because they don’t happen to directly contradict the Bible (well, now that we’re past Galileo).

  7. The Discovery Institute and its friends have always had this problem with a “pathetic level of detail.”

    And BeagleDad, who are you to tell the guy in the library he is wrong?

  8. ice9

    ‘Eponymous’ isn’t Luskin’s only diction sin. He later mocks Shubin’s use of the word “presage”, even including the dictionary definition and link. But–as always–take another look. We know they are lying how? They are writing. Luskin cites and publishes the M-W definition of ‘presage’ as a noun though Shubin uses it as a verb. He did that no doubt because the noun definition offers an occult connotation (and Luskin later flippantly substitutes “foreshadow”). ‘Presage’ is most commonly used as a verb, but sadly for Mr. Luskin Merriam Webster gives us “predict” as a synonym and it makes perfect sense. The verb definition requires another click to get to. Casey Luskin, take your choice: Lazy, stupid, corrupt, or some combination of all three.

    ice

  9. “We’re all for open and objective discussions of scientific theories, right? Who wouldn’t be? If your kids are taking physics in high school, you want them to read critiques of gravity, right? After all, shouldn’t they know that there are some serious weaknesses in the theory of gravity? Right? For instance, the theory of gravity says that gravity makes things fall down. But planets don’t fall into the sun. They go around it. So which is it–down or around? Clearly the theory of gravity is deficient. Right?

    Wrong, of course. You don’t teach critical thinking with patent nonsense.”

    Carl,
    Apparently you do not understand the difference between a theory and a law.

    A Theory is a mechanism that is proposed to explain a scientific law.
    It is a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

    A scientific law is a law-like statement that generalizes across a set of conditions. To be accorded law-like status a wide variety of these conditions should be known, i.e. the law has a well documented history of successful replication and extension to new conditions.

    The Law of gravity is a well documented prediction that is both testable and falsifiable, based on millions of observations. The Law of Gravity states “that gravity makes things fall down. But planets don’t fall into the sun. They go around it.”

    There are many theories of gravity and none has been clearly established as valid and verified.

    Some examples:

    Historical
    * Aristotelian theory of gravity
    * Le Sage’s theory of gravitation (1784) also called LeSage gravity, proposed by Georges-Louis Le Sage, based on a fluid-based explanation where a light gas fills the entire universe.
    * Nordström’s theory of gravitation (1912, 1913), an early competitor of general relativity.
    * Whitehead’s theory of gravitation (1922), another early competitor of general relativity.

    Modern

    * Brans-Dicke theory of gravity (1961)
    * Induced gravity (1967), a proposal by Andrei Sakharov according to which general relativity might arise from quantum field theories of matter.
    * Rosen bi-metric theory of gravity
    * In the modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND) (1981), Mordehai Milgrom proposes a modification of Newton’s Second Law of motion for small accelerations.
    * The new and highly controversial Process Physics theory attempts to address gravity
    * The self-creation cosmology theory of gravity (1982) by G.A. Barber in which the Brans-Dicke theory is modified to allow mass creation.
    * Nonsymmetric gravitational theory (NGT) (1994) by John Moffat
    * Tensor-vector-scalar gravity (TeVeS) (2004), a relativistic modification of MOND by Jacob Bekenstein

    Don’t you read what I write? I discussed this before in one of your threads.

    With respect to our main subject, evolution probably qualifies as a law, since it is well supported but darwinism is a theory (as is intelligent design) that has not been validated or verified.

  10. “A couple weeks ago Louisiana passed a new science education act that promotes “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

    Again, “evolution” is conflated with “darwinism”.

    Evolution is a fact, darwinism is a theory.

    And discussion of competing theories is well within the realm of science and should be encouraged in science education. Evolution does not equal darwinism and should be so presented. Both the strengths and weaknesses of both darwinism and intelligent design should be briskly and lively debated in all educational venues.

  11. Darwin’s ideas laid the foundation, but evolution has grown since then. You know that Charlie, but I hardly see the point in resorting to intelligent design which is based on lies, half-truths and deliberate misstatements of fact in science education. You know that it is a creationist bit of sleight-of-hand.

    I can’t believe I just fed a troll….

  12. Dan Phelps

    Luskin isn’t the only one not to understand Your Inner Fish. See:
    http://www.brazzilmag.com/content/view/9553/1/

  13. NP

    Casey’s such a tool. What’s up with creationist lawyers attempting to prosecute scientific research? Has anybody else seen Schlafly make a fool of himself by trying to point out “flaws” in the Blount et al. paper?

  14. “Both the strengths and weaknesses of both darwinism and intelligent design should be briskly and lively debated in all educational venues.”

    That’s an easy one:
    “Weaknesses of Intelligent Design”
    * Appeal to Ignorance
    * Provides no testable hypothesis
    * Provides no actual evidence
    * If it WERE factual, it would provide no means for furthering research.

    Regarding your apparent misunderstanding between “Evolution” and “Darwinism” –
    You agree that it is well supported — but stumble on the resolution of that — it’s a well supported EXPLANATION (i.e. the explanation that it offers: common descent with modification via natural selection) has been consistently supported by both observation and experimentation.

    To say that it would likely qualify as a law seems silly — scientific laws tend to focus more on the metrics and mathematical aspects — the quantifiable arena — rather than on the more abstract explanations. Aside from the Hardy-Weinberg equation, or the rates of mutation, which aspects of evolution are you considering quantifiable?

    And anyways — what exactly do you see as the difference between “Evolution” and “Darwinism”? How are you defining those terms?

  15. Being from Louisiana, I find it frightening that this bill even came close to passing. While I am all in favor of teaching critical thinking, a basic introduction to philosophy and logic would be far better at this than to feed them tired and refuted “criticisms” of evolutionary biology. Can we also teach them critical thinking in regards to the Civics/Economics class? What about in physical education? They should teach peer-reviewed and tested science as well as factual history, accurate mathematics, and proper literary skills. This is all I ask of the public education, but I fear this is far too much.

  16. The bones are homologs to their eponyms. This is a travesty! I demand that a every bone in every species be given a different arcane name. The femur of a dog should be called a Zizlzyw and the femur of a cat should be called a Uzizlzisli… and a hundred different names for all the bones of every species.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Crackpots in other areas than your own is great though; they provide motivation to learn for example biology in much more depth than a layman would ordinarily do.

    It is the trolls that are boring, see the current thread.

    The femur of a dog should be called a Zizlzyw and the femur of a cat should be called a Uzizlzisli… and a hundred different names for all the bones of every species.

    My favorite term is “syzygy in math. (“a relation between the generators of a module”.)

    A pity there is an etymological history, because ‘xyzygy’ looks so much more topical.

  18. John Kwok

    Hi Carl,

    ‘Tis yet another concise, almost lyrical, post from you. Not only you, but Nick Matzke has also exposed Luskin’s inane gaffe, but I think you’ve stated it with utmost eloquence. Apparently Luskin is in far more need of both a dictionary and a thesaurus than yourst truly.

    Cheers,

    John
    (aka “Jekyll and Hyde of Paleobiology” according to Uncommon Dissent IDiot DaveScot Springer)

  19. Stolen Dormouse

    Many years ago, I had the opportunity to read the “crank file” of Prof. George Abell, then chairman of UCLA’s Astronomy Department. Probably my favorite was the guy who wrote a pamphlet saying that there was no such thing as gravity–the planets stayed in their orbits due to air pressure!

    As for Luskin, his error reminds me of the old Abbott & Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”–except his gag is “What is the homolog of the ulna called?”

  20. trrll

    Charlie Wagner writes:

    Apparently you do not understand the difference between a theory and a law.
    A Theory is a mechanism that is proposed to explain a scientific law.
    It is a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.

    Charlie, you seem to have fallen prey to a common (among nonscientists, anyway) misconception about the scientific meaning of “law.” It is not at all true that a “law” is somehow a higher, or more established, class of explanation than “theory.” The scientific meaning of “law” is more along the lines of “rule of thumb” — i.e. a simple generalization that may not be exactly correct, but that is close enough for most purposes. For example, Newton’s “laws” of motion are now known to be incorrect, and they have been superseded by Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, but we continue to use Newton’s “laws” and refer to them as such, because they mathematically more simple, and are sufficiently accurate for calculations regarding velocities commonly encountered here on earth.

  21. Charlie Wagner:

    “Darwinism” is indeed a theory, which can be expressed as: the differential survival and reproduction of heritable variants in a population in response to environmental factors results in a net change in the phenotype of the descendant population. This is indeed validated and verified from numerous laboratory and field experiments, among other lines of evidence.

    “Intelligent design” is not a theory. It cannot be expressed in a law-like statement or set of mechanisms, except perhaps as: “Duh, *I* personally can’t figure out how this thing got here, so the Great Obscure Designer must have done it somehow.”

  22. John Kwok

    Hi all,

    Luskin studied geology – presumably paleontology too – at Michigan State University, which has excellent programs in geology, evolutionary biology, and the history of philosophy of science. He has no excuse for being an ignoramus.

    John
    (aka “Jekyll and Hyde of Paleobiology” as dubbed by leading Uncommon Dissent IDiot DaveScot Springer)

  23. amphiox

    Dear Charles,

    For you of all people to be accusing someone of ignoring posts is kind of amusing.

    So tell me again, Mr. Wagner, what hypotheses (about anything!) have the theory of intelligent design produced to date, and how have they been tested?

    Just one effective example, with appropriate references, is all I ask.

    And for the umpteenth time, I must recommend that you stop using the term “darwinism” when making references to scientific theories and laws. Darwin’s ideas were superceded when genetics was incorportated into evolutionary theory. Some people have called this second theory “Neo-Darwinism,” but even that term is inaccurate. And this in turn has been superceded by evo-devo. Today the term “darwinism” is typically used by creationists trying to mock or insult evolutionists. Every time you use that term, you make yourself sound like either 1. an ignorant fool, or two 2. a deliberately offensive prick.

    You don’t want that, now do you? Do you?

  24. Sprocket

    15-year-old stoners may have always understood that the word “eponymous” means “with the same name as”, but English dictionaries don’t, because Shubin, along with 15-year-old-stoners, was misusing the word. Eponymous means “derived from a person’s name”: Nissen hut, Bailey bridge, Schmitt trigger, Hoover (as in vacuum cleaner), and perhaps crapper are eponyms. But “radius” isn’t (unless I missed the biography of a Dr Radius who named the bone).

    Doesn’t make Lusin right, or even intelligent; doesn’t make Shubin wrong (except for a malapropism), but does mean that an educated layman might be left wondering about which bones had eponymists.

  25. Heraclides

    @Carl:

    Nice article.

    One tiny nitpick, at least from a pendant playing the role of editor. Wouldn’t it be a little clearer to have “Luskin’s entire post is based on a mistaken notion of homology” read “Luskin’s entire post is based on a misunderstanding of the notion of homology”–? (Or possibly, misapplication of homology.) A skim-read might incorrectly imply that homology is a mistaken (erroneous) notion, especially if someone glosses over the ‘a’ in the original sentence and reads a ‘the’ in its place.

    In addition to misunderstanding homology, I suspect his trouble may partially stem from a wish have things occur “in one step.” I’ve seen this problem often with creationists: nothing is “allowed” to happen over several steps. I’ve seen logic dismissed out of hand because they contained more than one step, which I found it quite extraordinary when I first encountered it.

    You are right that the single “closest” relative in a one-on-one comparison is not necessarily the closest relative if the number of steps (plural!) taken to evolve from a common ancestor is determined using all available data. Looking at direct one-on-one comparisons, denies multiple steps and is bound to get much wrong as you were writing.

  26. “For you of all people to be accusing someone of ignoring posts is kind of amusing.

    “So tell me again, Mr. Wagner, what hypotheses (about anything!) have the theory of intelligent design produced to date, and how have they been tested?”

    http:www.charliewagner.com/case for

  27. “So tell me again, Mr. Wagner, what hypotheses (about anything!) have the theory of intelligent design produced to date, and how have they been tested?”

    http://www.charliewagner.com/casefor.htm

  28. Charlie Wagner:

    I have read your… um… experimental design and conclusions that you list in the URL in your posting at 9:21 am today, and see no way that it differs from my formulation of the intelligent design “theory”, namely:

    “Duh, *I* personally can’t figure out how this thing got here, so the Great Obscure Designer must have done it somehow.”

  29. In honor of Casey Luskin’s stupidity, I think a “luskin” should hereafter refer to an utterly inane mistake. We used to call this sort of thing a “boner”, but “boner” has sexual overtones that make it an inappropriate word in polite company. However, no one would take offense at the sentence, “Oh, yes, it was a complete luskin.”

    And that’s how Luskin became an eponym.

  30. John Kwok

    Hi all,

    I goofed. Luskin studied geology, not at MSU, but rather, at the University of California, San Diego, where he also earned a M. S. degree doing research on paleomagnetism. However, he should have had ample exposure to both paleobiology and other relevant aspects of biology there, but for some inexplicable reason, did not ensure for himself a decent education in both.

    Who knows? Maybe he thinks plate tectonics is a fairy tale sent to humanity sent from Luskin’s real “master”, Lucifer?

    Regards,

    John

  31. “personally can’t figure out how this thing got here, so the Great Obscure Designer must have done it somehow.”

    That’s it in a nutshell.

    I don’t have a clue what the mechanism of evolution is or the origin of the perceived design.

    But then, neither do you.

    My proposal, as is Darwin’s, is one long argument. But I happen to think that intelligent input is a stronger argument than random mutations, natural selection or any other accidental process.

  32. Charlie Wagner:

    No, I do have a better mechanism. As did Darwin & Wallace, and the many thousands of biologists who have studied the issue since. We get it, we’ve measured it, we can see it working. Your personal failure to accept this does not change the fact that it is understood by others.

  33. ““personally can’t figure out how this thing got here, so the Great Obscure Designer must have done it somehow.”

    (more)

    Science is not in the business of proving things. It can only say what is most likely. In this regard, science uses the tool of inductive logic. We cannot prove that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, but we conclude that it is highly likely, based on past experience.

    The most common type of inductive argument is the analogy and this is an argument by analogy. It is only as strong as its ability to persuade. My claim is that since no complex, highly organized system has ever bootstrapped itself into existence from nothing, that it is highly likely that living organisms, which fall into the same category, likewise required an intelligent author.

    In addition, no other known mechanism has been shown to be capable of this feat, which only strengthens the analogy. If you could show that a complex, highly organized machine has emerged without intelligent input, or if you can demonstrate a believable alternate mechanism or first principle by which this might have occurred, then my argument would be defeated.

  34. “No, I do have a better mechanism. As did Darwin & Wallace, and the many thousands of biologists who have studied the issue since. We get it, we’ve measured it, we can see it working. Your personal failure to accept this does not change the fact that it is understood by others.”

    With all due respect, you do not have better mechanism. Nor can you measure it or see it working. This is nothing more than illusion and self-deception.

    There is no empirical evidence, either observational or experimental, that establishes a plausible and credible link between random mutation, natural selection or genetic drift with the emergence of the highly organized structures, processes or systems found in living organisms.

  35. Bob Maurus

    Hi, Charlie – long time. Glad to see you’re still around. Hope all is well with you.

    Bob

  36. “In addition, no other known mechanism has been shown to be capable of this feat, which only strengthens the analogy. If you could show that a complex, highly organized machine has emerged without intelligent input, or if you can demonstrate a believable alternate mechanism or first principle by which this might have occurred, then my argument would be defeated.”

    Wouldn’t the intelligent designer to whom you allude be exactly such a complex, highly organized machine that emerged without intelligent input?

  37. “Hi, Charlie – long time. Glad to see you’re still around. Hope all is well with you.

    Bob”

    Hi, Bob. Good to hear from you. I don’t quite know what keeps me going.
    Much of what I say seems to fall on deaf ears. ;-)

    In June 2007 they put me in a hospice.

    I asked the Great Spirit for a miracle and what do you know?

    I’m still here! At home…

    And it’s still fun….

  38. amphiox

    Hi Charlie,

    The link you provided was not what I was asking for.

    I’m sorry, but you can’t claim as evidence raw data interpreted by others as supporting the very opposite view unless you, or someone else, publish your own reinterpretation of that data and your peers come to accept your interpretation as more valid than the original. So no dice.

    Explain to me how your theory provides for the emergence of the complex and organized phenomenon known as “intelligence” without going around in circles, and I may be more interested.

    Nevertheless, thanks for the reply.

  39. Mike from Ottawa

    IIRC creationist troll Charlie Wagner got himself banned from The Panda’s Thumb so I guess he’s got to peddle his misunderstandings and untruths somewhere else.

    I notice that Casey ‘Attack Mouse of the Discovery Institute’ Luskin’s article is still up in its original form, flaunting his foolishness. It is just like creationists to build an edifice on their own misunderstanding and then not to retreat from it.

  40. amphiox

    I must say, though, that, at least as far as I have seen, Mr. Wagner has been more polite than any other creationist/IDist I’ve ever had the displeasure of debating or reading. (With the one exception of his persistent annoying misuse of the the term “darwinism.”)

  41. amphiox

    I’ve seen it mentioned here and at several other places regarding the dictionary meaning of ‘eponymous’ and the use/misuse of said term.

    I must say, though, that since language evolves, the proper meaning of ‘eponymous’ is whatever the majority of people who write and read (and say and hear) that term take it to mean.

  42. amphiox wrote:
    “I must say, though, that since language evolves, the proper meaning of ‘eponymous’ is whatever the majority of people who write and read (and say and hear) that term take it to mean.”

    That’s a little nearsighted. Language only has meaning if it’s intersubjectively used. It’s worthless if a word just means willy-nilly whatever someone, like Luskin, says it means. If you want an “authoritative” and up-to-date set of definitions for eponymous (decidedly not a piece of scientific jargon) then check the Oxford English Dictionary:

    1. That gives (his) name to anything; said esp. of the mythical personages from whose names the names of places or peoples are reputed to be derived.
    2. Giving his name to the year, as did the chief archon at Athens.

    Note that it’s a derived name and that should be obvious to anyone willing to use a dictionary. Shubin has used an “evolved” version of the word because he hasn’t cited a tribe or place but rather a class of objects – arm bones. He’s exapted the term so to speak. But Luskin is such a nincompoop that he couldn’t wrap his pinhead around it.

  43. Dubear Kroening

    Hi Charlie,

    You made the statement: “My claim is that since no complex, highly organized system has ever bootstrapped itself into existence from nothing, that it is highly likely that living organisms, which fall into the same category, likewise required an intelligent author.”

    OK, as Todd has asked and you haven’t responded, since the “intelligent designer” must therefore be a complex, highly organized system, then who designed the designer? Your statement doesn’t make any sense unless you can propose the designer of the designer, right? And I’m sure you can see where this is going, can’t you? I’m not sure why people who use this argument don’t understand the necessity of answering their own proposed mechanism as needing a designer. Or do you just have to believe (LOL!)? Please get back to us when you can answer that little annoying question, OK? Otherwise, your argument is back to “Since I don’t understand, I’ll propose some supernatural being”. Easy to say, but practically means nothing, if you think about it. Don’t you understand this, or will you just choose to ignore it?

  44. “as Todd has asked and you haven’t responded, since the “intelligent designer” must therefore be a complex, highly organized system, then who designed the designer? Your statement doesn’t make any sense unless you can propose the designer of the designer, right?”

    I don’t have a clue about who “designed the designer”.

    Nor is it necessary.

    One of the oldest problems facing humankind is the problem of “First
    Cause”. Why is there anything, instead of nothing? When and how did it
    all start? Is it “turtles all the way down”? Evolution has the same
    problem of infinite regress. All evolved forms were modified from
    pre-existing forms. But is it just an infinite regression of
    pre-existing forms? When and how did it all start?

    The question of First Cause has been addressed by Philosophers and
    Scientists since the beginning of time. No solution has been
    forthcoming, although I will offer one for your contemplation. The First
    Cause problem stems from the knowledge that everything in the world has
    a cause. Because of this, you eventually must come to a primary cause,
    which religions call God. But this begs the question: “who made god?”.
    If everything must have a cause, then God too must have a cause.
    Religion says: “not so, God has always existed.” and leave it at that.
    But I contend that if there is anything in the universe without a cause,
    it might as well be the universe itself, rather than God. Since I don’t
    believe in God, there’s only one option as far as I can see: the
    universe and the life in it have always existed. There’s simply no
    reason for thinking that the universe had a beginning. Cosmologists seem
    to have an even different view. They claim that the universe came into
    existence without a cause. It’s really only poverty of our limited human
    imagination that everything must have a beginning. For evolutionists,
    the question “where did life come from” may be no different from the
    question “where did matter come from?”

  45. EastwoodDC

    @ Amphiox:
    Charlie Wagner may be a nice troll, but a troll none the less. Specifically, he is a sympathy troll pretending to be on the side of evolution, but attacks or misinterprets everything evolution is based upon, denies any basis of reasonable discussion, and take no responsibility for his behavior. Like you though, I am torn between not feeding the troll (ignoring him) and defending rational thought (squelching the lies).

    @ Charlie Wagner: If you think my comments have wronged you, then I invite you to rebuke me personally at “EastwoodDC AT netscape.net”. Consider this my way of taking responsibility for my behavior without annoying everyone else in the process.

  46. @ Charlie Wagner

    Do you not see how empty the First Cause Argument is? “Because of this, you eventually must come to a primary cause, which religions call God.” Might as well call it “mashed potatoes”. Either way it’s vacuous. Even if there was a First Cause (and I dispute that this is necessarily so), since we have no mechanism at this point in science’s fledgling existence for how the universe came into being, we can make no inference on the cause itself. Thus, the only appropriate answer to the question of the universe’s existence is “I don’t know how it came into being.” What you and everyone else has done since this argument came about (and really, it only sounds good – it is otherwise completely vacuous) is try to stuff god in the gaps of our knowledge. This is not positive evidence for a designer, or a creator, or whatever and the argument reduces to “I can’t figure out what the First Cause is, so it must be god.” Not exactly a worthy argument.

  47. Karl

    Has anyone figured out what motivates the creationists? What could they be hoping to gain? I assume Luskin just does it for money but what about the people who pay him? If it’s worth violating one of their own Ten Commandments by lying to children they must believe it’s quite valuable.

  48. amphiox

    Randy in Calgary: I think we shouldn’t stop at “I don’t know. . .” though of course we must be truthful and say it. But wherever we don’t know, we should always try to have a hypothesis, even if we admit that we have so little evidence our hypothesis is most likely wrong. Without hypotheses to test, science can’t advance. If we have no evidence at all, then we should take the null hypothesis that “there is no cause. It just happened.” The idea that every phenomenona requires a cause is itself a hypothesis that could be wrong, or have exceptions.

    This is the last thing I will say here about Mr. Wagner. Reading his material, it seems to me his whole argument stands and falls on a single analogy, and he has rephrased this analogy in so many different ways as to expand a 3 line argument into pages and pages of text, but it is all still the same idea. But his analogy can just as easily be turned around to say the exact opposite. To whit:

    1. No intelligent designer has ever been observed to design and build a practical working machine on a molecular scale. No molecular motors. Not even a practically useful inclined plane. Nanotech is still science fiction.
    2. No machine, on any scale, has ever been observed to be capable of self-replication. Von Neumann probes are also still science fiction.
    3. No intelligent designer has ever been observed to design and build a lifeform.
    4. No intelligent designer has ever been observed to even be able to modify a pre-existing lifeform without using tools that were already pre-existing in some other lifeform.
    5. There is at least 3000 years of recorded history of known intelligent designers at work, and an archeological record dating back over 2 million years. (Far longer than the 20 year Lenski experiment, for comparison)
    6. There is a 3.8 billion year fossil record, and astronomial observations dating back to almost 13 billion years, and nowhere is there any evidence of any other intelligent designers more capable than the ones considerd in #5.

    By the above, I can easily conclude with the same logic that the mechanism of intelligence is clearly utterly insufficient, incapable, obviously too feeble, to design and build the complex, organized, self-replicating entity otherwise known as life. The only alternate, therefore, is random mutation, genetic drift, natural selection, and the other mechanisms of the theory of evolution.

  49. daniel

    This is a great article. The only thing that bothers me is this: is it even possible to dispute with idiots? I mean: Wouldn’t the people from Discovery still find some hook in your careful exposé to claim that you’re a partisan anti-creationist writer, in stead of a scientist?

    The problem with science is that it is not friendly to the general public. And it shouldn’t be: areas of expertise bring with them their own expert jargon. But that jargon makes the general public believe creationists sooner, because they speak a language they can recognize.

  50. Stephen Wells

    Charlie’s claim that no complex system has ever bootstrapped itself into existence is only true if you accept the initial claim that life as it exists here on earth is not a complex system that bootstrapped itself into existence. Charlie’s argument thus relies on assuming his conclusion. Logic fail, please try again.

    We know from both experiment and theory that reproduction with inheritance, variation, and competition does produce increasing complexity; therefore it is perfectly reasonable to propose that the complexity of life as we know it has arisen from this simple, observable process iterated over very long periods of time. We have no reason outside folklore to believe in omnipotent magical creators.

  51. amphiox

    Creationists and IDists always seem to miss the importance of self-replication/reproduction whenever they attempt their convoluted logic arguments against evolution. Some kind of mental block, it seems.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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