Book Review: Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe & Casey Luskin, Science & Human Origins. Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012.124pp.

Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Leh...

Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Intelligent Design proponent. Lecture at DPC, University of Maine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The latest publication from the Discovery Institute (the organisation that promotes Intelligent Design theory) is somewhat of a departure from their previous coyness regarding religion. As the introduction by John West describes, “intelligent design focuses on whether the development of life was purposeful or blind” and not on common descent (p11); indeed many ID advocates accept common descent (e.g. Michael Behe). This book not only challenges the idea that humans and apes share a common ancestor but also explores whether there is evidence that all mankind is descended from an original couple (who are frequently labelled “Adam and Eve”). The motivation for this foray into common descent is the claims being made by theistic evolutionists, particularly the BioLogos Foundation, which, it is claimed, encourages Christians to revise “traditional Christian teachings” (pp9-10, 105-6).

In the debate over evolution it defenders and its critics often argue past each other. Evolutionists claim evolution did happen because of such things as the similarities in morphology and DNA, distribution of fossils, and apparent ancestral vestiges. Creationists claim evolution could not happen because of such things as irreducible complexity, symbiotic organisms, and the sheer improbability of invention by random mutation. Science & Human Origins fits within this mould, though it does cite some new evidence.

The first two chapters centre on an experiment conducted by Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe, in which they identified two proteins with similar morphology but different function and tried to estimate how one could evolve into the other by neo-darwinian processes. They concluded that it would require seven coordinated mutations to occur, something too improbable to have occurred within the history of the universe (p20). From this finding they argue that, firstly, unguided processes could not have produced the changes necessary to evolve humans from apes, and, secondly, similar morphology is not a reliable indicator common ancestry. This research is interesting and the sort of evidence that anti-evolutionists need to produce if they are to affect a shift from the current neo-Darwinian paradigm. But, at most, this kind of experiment demonstrates the ineffectiveness of random mutation; it does not, of itself, rule out common descent. And, as has often been pointed out, it is difficult to prove a negative. Maybe it didn’t happen this way; that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

The third chapter is an interesting review of the literature regarding the fossil record. It highlights the vast uncertainties about the earliest hominin fossils (4-7 million years ago). Then it presses the differences between the australopithecines (1-4 million years ago) and the homo genus (0-2 million years ago); the former are considered an extinct form of ape, the latter are considered part of the family of humans. The fourth chapter considers two genetic arguments for common descent, so-called “junk DNA” and chromosomal fusion. It was previously argued that large regions of non-coding DNA within the human genome made intelligent design unlikely. Recent research has demonstrated that much that was previously considered junk is now known to be functional. The more interesting argument is that the 23rd human chromosome-pair seems to be fusion of two ape chromosome-pairs (apes have 24 chromosome-pairs). Casey Luskin challenges this argument saying that at most it shows that a human ancestor had 24 chromosome-pairs, not that this ancestor was a common ancestor with apes; this response does not seem to be particularly strong. Luskin also suggests that the similarity between the 23rd human chromosome-pair and ape chromosome-pairs is not as compelling as it might appear; it is difficult for a non-scientist to judge.

In the final chapter Gauger challenges an argument from population genetics put forward by Francisco Ayala, which implies that there was never a bottle-neck of a single human couple in our ancestry (Ayala assumes common descent with apes). This chapter is quite technical, but in brief, Gauger reveals the hidden assumptions in Ayala’s argument, cites other studies that focused on other parts of the gene, and concludes that it is possible that there was such a bottleneck. Gauger then goes further and considers the possibility that humans and apes did not have a common ancestor, citing some examples that would not be expected on current evolutionary models (e.g. regions of the human genome that are closer to gorilla than ape sequences).

This is an interesting book and, at very least, sketches the relevant issues in the ongoing debate over common descent. Its inadequacy, and the inadequacy of much of ID research, is that it does not present a unified alternative to the current evolutionary narrative. Reading between the lines, there is equivocation over the whether to just reject unguided neo-Darwinian processes or to also propose an act of special creation as an alternative to common descent. (This equivocation is probably representative of the equivocation within the ID community). It seems incumbent on those who would reject common descent to propose an alternative narrative for the distribution of fossils and the variation with the human genome. It seems the authors are sorely tempted to say that God created Adam and Eve as a distinct genus (including Home erectus and Home neanderthalensis, as well as Homo sapiens) and that some evolutionary process is responsible for the variation found within the genus, but this is never stated explicitly (nor is it likely to be).

Those who believe in the special creation of a single human couple from whom all humanity descends are likely to take comfort from these scientific challenges to the current neo-darwinian paradigm, but this is not the book that will cause a paradigm shift.

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  • How to Test for Intelligent Design (str.typepad.com)
    Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute writes an interesting article in response to a scientist’s statement that “the Intelligent Design hypothesis is untestable by science, exactly because we can never empirically know or understand the actions of God or any other Intelligent Designer.”Luskin points out that, on the contrary, we can understand when actions are being taken by intelligent designers (such as human beings), and from that, make testable predictions.
  • Genes (slideshare.net)
    Each cell in the human body contains about 25,000 to 35,000 genes. Genes carry information that determines your traits.
  • The Discovery Institute gets terminally desperate: considers evolutionary rebuttals of creationist arguments as “condemning religion” (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
    The Discovery Institute, losing its battle for Intelligent Design (ID) on all fronts (they can’t even get it taught in a Texas community college!) has resorted to a desperation move: attacking the characters of evolutionary biologists.  How this will give evidence for ID is beyond me: perhaps they think that if they show character flaws in evolutionists they thereby discredit our discipline. But whatever happened to their promise to that “scientific” evidence for ID was “right around the corner”? They seem to have forgotten that one.And they should be mindful of the beam in their own eye: despite their claim that ID isn’t religiously motivated, virtually everyone at the Discovery Institute is religious, and some of them (like Paul Nelson and William Dembski) unwisely proclaim their religious motivations when they think they’re out of earshot.
  • Casey Luskin’s latest take on junk DNA – is he lying or is he stupid? (sandwalk.blogspot.com)
    The issue of junk DNA is a case in point. We’ve been trying to explain the facts to people like Casey Luskin. I know he’s listening because he comments on Sandwalk from time to time. Surely it can’t be that hard? All they have to do is acknowledge that “Darwinians” are opposed to junk DNA because they think that natural selection is very powerful and would have selected against junk DNA. All we’re asking is that they refer to “evolutionary biologists” when they talk about junk DNA proponents.
  • Discovery Institute’s Triumph #5 for 2013 (sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com)
    The Discoveroids were proclaiming the good news of a book — Discovering Intelligent Design — published by their in-house vanity press, the Discovery Institute Press, and written by “home school educators Gary and Hallie Kemper [of whom no one ever heard], and Discovery Institute research coordinator Casey Luskin.”
  • Discovery Institute Embraces Martyrdom (sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com)
    Some of you may not have been around back in 2010 when your compassionate Curmudgeon honored him — see Casey Luskin Is Named a Curmudgeon Fellow. Most of his long post today is just a copy of what he posted a few weeks ago, about which we wrote Discoveroids Suffer a Crushing Defeat.Yes, Casey is claiming that the Discoveroids’ defeat at Amarillo College, a state-run, two-year community college in Amarillo, Texas, is one of their big highlights of the year. They were apparently embarked on a stealth campaign to infiltrate two-year community colleges with their kind of creationist course, using their books, thinking that no one would notice. But their plans were thwarted when the non-credit course was cancelled.
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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe & Casey Luskin, Science & Human Origins. Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012.124pp.

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  3. “But, at most, this kind of experiment demonstrates the ineffectiveness of random mutation; it does not, of itself, rule out common descent.”

    It is difficult to understand how demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the random mutation/natural selection mechanism (RNM), the pillar on which almost all forms of naturalistic evolutionary theory rest, does not “rule out” the idea of common descent. Or has someone articulated a naturalistic evolutionary theory that doesn’t necessarily include common descent, and I’ve just never heard of it?

    Furthermore, the Axe/ Gauger mutagenesis experiments were included in Stephen Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt” (“The Origins of Genes and Proteins”; pp. 185-208). There the question being considered was never do Axe’s experimental results “rule out” the possibility of the RNM producing a novel functional gene/protein, but rather (and this is a critical distinction that hardly ever receives the consideration it is due from reviewers) do his experimental results render the Neo-Darwinian explanation of novel gene production by the RNM so implausible that it should be rejected, even if there is currently no other, better naturalistic explanation in view? And the answer to that question depends on just how much implausibility one is willing to tolerate in one’s “working theory”. Axe has shown us how to mathematically quantify our use of “implausible” here, by giving us the odds against the RNM ever producing a new protein of modest (150 amino acids) length: one chance in ten trillion, trillion, trillion, given the full combinatorial resources of all life that has ever existed in the last 3.8 billion years. And that’s just the odds for one new protein being produced. Clearly, something like the Cambrian explosion of new body plans would require many, many novel proteins, not just one. And with that sort of improbability I think it can safely be said that the Neo-Darwinian explanation for the Cambrian explosion is so implausible that it is effectively “ruled out”.

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