They Call Me Mister Zimmer

By Carl Zimmer | August 1, 2008 4:15 pm

Readers of this blog will have to indulge me from time to time so that I can respond to personal attacks from creationists. I write about science, and I strive to do so accurately. I also point out misinformation about science and explain why it’s wrong. So when someone claims I can’t admit a mistake when I make one, or that I suffer from an overactive imagination, I have to respond.

The Discovery Institute, which promotes Intelligent Design, tried to cast doubt a couple weeks ago on a transitional fish-tetrapod called Tiktaalik. The author of the post, Casey Luskin, wanted to convince us that despite the claims of scientists that it had a wrist, it didn’t seem to have one. His argument turned on a passage from the original paper:

“The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.”

Luskin then wrote:

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.

Along with other bloggers, I pointed out that Shubin had given the wrist bone names–the intermedium and ulnare. Hence the word eponymous. These sorts of basic errors wouldn’t be worth pointing out unless there were bills being introduced to promote “critical thinking” about evolution. Critical thinking is not an excuse for these kinds of mistakes.

Well, the Discovery Institute is at it again, with a new post from Luskin: “An Ulnare and an Intermedium a Wrist Do Not Make: A Response to Carl Zimmer.” Now I make the headlines over there, I guess. Wahoo!

This post is also loaded with errors and non sequiturs that the old fact-checker in me cannot resist. I would have left a response as a comment to the post but–interestingly–the Discovery Institute doesn’t let people leave comments. (Comments are welcome here–just be nice and don’t beat the same drum 100 times.) So you’ll have to indulge me.

Error #1 is this: “Dr. Zimmer.”

No Ph.D. here, folks. They call me Mister Zimmer. I was an English major who liked to take physics classes for the hell of it.

Error #2: I can’t admit mistakes.

Luskin writes, “I can admit my mistake” about the wrist bones, something “Zimmer is not known for doing.”

Those links will take you to four posts that Luskin wrote in 2006 about a National Geographic article I wrote about complex traits. As far as I can tell, the reasoning here is that Luskin pointed out my mistakes in these posts, which I then refused to admit.

Actually, I responded back then, (and again) explaining why he was wrong. If you haven’t seen those posts, they’re worth a visit. This was when Luskin crafted the Ford Pinto argument for intelligent design: “Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?”

Error#3: Structures can’t be homologous if they’re not precisely identical

Okay, this is not entirely a personal attack, but it’s a mistake that’s worth correcting, because it concerns some basic biology. Luskin admits that Shubin actually made an argument for two wrist bones in Tiktaalik, but then says they can’t be wrist bones because they don’t make contact with metacarpals (the long bones of the foot hand). The only way to accept this is to have an overactive imagination. (That’s where I come in, apparently.)

Luskin seems to be arguing that unless the complete tetrapod limb is already in place, including long bones, wrist bones, and toes, then a wrist cannot exist. But evolution works in steps, and so a limb without only some of the bones of living tetrapods is exactly what you’d expect from a transitional species. Is it a fully derived writst as seen in living tetrapods? Of course not, and no one claimed it was. That’s the whole point.

More distant relatives of tetrapods only had long bones and no wrist bones. By Luskin’s logic, those long bones couldn’t have anything to do with a tetrapod limb. And, if you stretch it futher, I guess a horse’s leg isn’t really a leg, because it has lost a lot of bones (including most metacarpals) as it evolved a hoof.

I could list more errors, but you get the idea. Thank you for your patience. Now I’ll return to our regularly scheduled blogcast of real science.


Comments (15)

  1. It is a matter of fact that the explanations of anyone who attempts to describe earthy phenomena in the light of evolution and Darwinism will always be in error. The reason is elementary: God has withheld the very wisdom that atheists and evolutionists have spent years to discover.


    The text of The Quest for Right begins simply enough, tracing the history of Darwin from an impressionable youth influenced by atheists and agnostics on every hand to a full-fledged agnostic in his own right. The investigation sums up the matter by the inclusion of Darwin’s sentiment regarding the Creator. In a bitter denial of Christianity, Darwin complained that he “could hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” Darwin charged his original belief in God to the “constant inculcation” (instruction or indoctrination) in a belief in God” during his childhood, which was as difficult to cast down as “for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake…. Darwin purposed in his heart that he would no longer retain God in his knowledge.

    Once past the history of the Darwinist movement, you will be blown away by the in-depth exploration of the architecture of the atom. This is breathtakingly new and most entertaining!

    The atom has been compared to a miniature sun-earth system with one or more electrons darting about everywhere at once weaving an electronic shell around the nucleus. In order for this to occur, “Bohr calculated that the electron must move at a speed of no less than seven million billion rotations per second.” Ummmm, “numerous electrons darting about, dodging one another at breakneck speeds would necessarily require the supernatural. The investigative effort will prove to your absolute satisfaction that the electron is directly adhered to the perimeter of the nucleus. “How could it have been otherwise?” The exciting text is remarkably easy to follow even for a lay person.

    The book is a virtual smorgasbord of good things to taste: a few of the entertaining subjects include: the earth was created from a watery nebula, the mechanism of gravity which was used to form the earth, the failed photoelectric effect, theory of antimatter, quantum creation (big bang theory), disappearing color, magical application of mathematics to explain certain rudimentary principles, Rayleigh scattering (sunsets), electricity, lightning, electrolyte, the browning of fruit, the mystery of fire, the role of oxygen in the ignition of hydrocarbons, and whatever happened to the dinosaurs. Then, there’s the desserts which are far too numerous to mention in this limited space. You will marvel at the comprehensive law of fixed choice.

    This is not your old science book filled with distortions of the truth, called “quantum mysticism.” The comprehensive investigation–like none other you will read–quickly escapes into realism by underscoring the numerous experiments and errors responsible for the debasement of scientific theories based on whim. Teachers and students will rejoice in the simplicity of earthly phenomena when entertained by the new discipline.

    Learn more:

  2. EastwoodDC

    > It is a matter of fact that the explanations of anyone who attempts to describe earthy phenomena in the light of evolution and Darwinism will always be in error. The reason is elementary: God has withheld the very wisdom that atheists and evolutionists have spent years to discover.

    Quick! Somebody call Kelloggs and tell them one of their Fruit Loops is running around outside of the box.

  3. sean

    “Luskin admits that Shubin actually made an argument for two wrist bones in Tiktaalik, but then says they can’t be wrist bones because they don’t make contact with metacarpals (the long bones of the foot).”

    shouldn’t it be long bones of the hand

    [CZ: Yes, inasmuch as the front limb of a four-legged tetrapod is an “arm.” Thanks.]

  4. Duncan Townsend

    I will be referring to this site throughout this post:

    C. David Parsons makes several key logical fallacies in his post:

    He begins with an appeal to authority
    “God has withheld the very wisdom”
    God says that this is wrong, therefore it is wrong.

    His second paragraph is simply an Ad Hominem attack.
    Darwin may have been an unsavory person in C. David Parsons or even your eyes, but that does not mean that the tenants of his theory are incorrect.

    In an unrelated note some of Darwin’s assumptions in his original treatise are incorrect, but the fundamental idea of natural selection and descendence with modification are sound. Thus you can say Darwinism is incorrect, fine, but the modern developed idea of evolution is an entirely different thing.

    C. David Parsons second paragraph is an appeal to the Achilles’ Heel.
    If one part of scientific knowledge is incorrect, then the whole must be incorrect. It is interesting to point out that not only is Mr. Parsons concept of the model of the atom outdated and incorrect, there is no relation between the quantum mechanics and evolution. This also constitutes a Red Herring fallacy.

    To put Mr. Parsons straight on the model of the atom I suggest that you look at the quantum mechanical model of the atom. Spend some time reviewing these sites:

    I’d also like to point out that one of the reasons that these electrons don’t collide is called electric charge. This is the same force that makes your hair stand up during an electric storm. At the very small distances in an atom, the repulsive forces between electrons will keep them from colliding, in addition to the above quantum mechanics.

    The fifth paragraph is more of the same: Red Herrings and Achilles’ Heels. These are completely unrelated theories and phenomenons (sp?).

    The last paragraph is simply a promotion for Mr. Parsons’ website/book compounded with emotionally-charged Weasel Word (which unfortunately isn’t a fallacy on the above site, but should be).

    Good night,
    Duncan Townsend

  5. Vince

    Parsons – God did it. A very testable hypothesis indeed.

    Well done answering the wackos, Mr. Zimmer. This retired science teacher (old bio major) wishes he paid more attention in writing class. I always enjoy reading your blog. By the way, I recommend Shubin’s book to all the young science teachers I know.

    Mr. S.

  6. Tucker

    Duncan Townsend Says:
    “The last paragraph is simply a promotion for Mr. Parsons’ website/book compounded with emotionally-charged Weasel Word (which unfortunately isn’t a fallacy on the above site, but should be).”

    Affective language is a tool of argument (Pathos), but his entire post could be summed up neatly with ‘Argumentum ad Verecundiam’ (Appeal to Unqualified Authority), which is especially funny given that he’s appealing to himself.

    If you google the user name though, you find that it’s probably a bot (or an author with far too much time on his hands) because there are posts such as this one all over the internet. Dude’s spammin’.

  7. Clarence David Parsons is his own worst enemy, with a writing style describing his vanity-press pseudoscience books that is hard to distinguish from parody or monumental incompetence (take your choice). You’ve got to feel sorry for the guy, though – self-delusions of grandeur, carefully reinforced by a vanity publisher who will probably take the poor sap for all he’s got. Sad, really.

  8. Steve Larimore

    I am somewhat amused by Paul Burnett, self-proclaimed anti-creationist, because he seems to follow David Parsons around on the internet. It is as if he has made it his agenda to cast down The Quest for Right as worthless. I’ll bet he’s never read the book. If he had, he would crawl back into the hole from whence he wonders out at night to do his evil deeds.

  9. What is it that drives the whole Intelligent Design movement, is just a straightforward fear that there won’t be anywhere for them to go when they die, or is there more to a belief in a god than that? It’s not like atheists cannot have a moral code is it? You don’t need to create (pardon the pun) a whole mythology just to make good life choices and be nice to each other.

  10. amphiox

    David Bradley: unfortunately, some people believe that you do. Very sad.

  11. Greg Peterson

    I used to be pathetically naive and had a smidgen of respect for the DI. I know, I know. But I just did not believe that people, who I assumed were in some sense well-meaning, would sink to the lowest tactics I could imagine, comparable to the worst politcal advertising. In fact, the comparison is especially apt given the recent revelation that John McCain (and by using this example, I don’t mean to imply that only Republicans do such things) had two ads ready after Obama went to the Middle East. The one that aired criticized him for not visiting injured troops. The un-aired one criticized him for using the troops as a photo op.

    Creationists like Luskin do precisely the same thing. I’ve seen it time after time. If the bones don’t connect, it’s not a “real wrist.” If the bones had connected, we’d still be missing the transitional form. There is no consistent effort to view evidence and interpret it in the most plausible light–which in the case of Tiktaalik is obvious. There is just a knee-jerk denial of anything than does not fit their set notions.

    I hate anything that makes me regret some initial sense of respect I might have had. I don’t care to see my cynicism fostered. But Luskin and the DI have the sort of toxins that make me repent of ever having ascribed anything as noble as curiousity or questioning to their motives.

  12. EastwoodDC

    @ Greg Peterson
    At least you applied some critical thinking and changed your mind. In my book this puts you way ahead of some people. Save the regret for those who haven’t done as you have.

  13. One important ingredient in the decline and fall of the USA over the next few decades, which the rest of the world will watch and enjoy with varying degrees of schadenfreude, is the no-brainer creationist loonies busily white-anting and destroying what is probably the USA’s greatest positive achievement–its magnificent scientific research record over the last 200 years. You’d probably have to go to the Islamic world (another dead-set loser zone) to find a bigger concentration of religious numbskulls. 1000 years ago the Moslems also lead the world in science, but the religious faction took over, and it all went down the plughole, just as ‘America’ will.

  14. Bob Carroll

    We may have reached a high point in the right-wing creationist influence. The Republican party has lost, big time, by relying on them. Maybe I’m being overly optomistic, but pragmatic forces in the repubs may take over, and reduce the influence of the religious extremists. Let’s hope.


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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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