A very doctrinaire evolutionist rehashes all the canned arguments
A review of: The Story of Evolution in 25 Discoveries: The evidence and the people who found it by Donald R. Prothero
Columbia University Press, New York, 2020
Author Don Prothero is a capable spokesman for evolution. He teaches geological sciences at California State Polytechnic University and is a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. In this book, Prothero’s evolutionistic triumphalism is manifested, for example, by his reviving of Theodosius Dobzhansky’s old nonsense that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” He should tell that to Linnaeus, Mendel, and countless other pioneering pre-Darwinian and Darwin-era biologists, all of whom made perfect sense of living things without evolution.
Hoary rationalistic myths
Prothero adheres to the thoroughly discredited Draper–White dialectic model of the conflict of science and religion, in which scientists are the enlightened good guys and the religionists are the obscurantist bad guys. His evolutionistic triumphalism is juxtaposed with the straw men he makes of the creationist position, on which I elaborate shortly. The author also sneers at things not to his liking that have nothing to do with evolution, special creation, and science. For instance, he makes a partisan statement on US presidential politics (pp. 332–333).
The author assures us that the medieval conception of Earth was a flat disk surrounded by a solid dome (sky). We hear the old saw about Columbus sailing in a world that was flat and being pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not. This should be enough to discredit the book, because it has long been known that hardly any Christians have ever taught a flat earth in the entire history of the church. Then came the glorious so-called Age of Reason. We are told that James Hutton pioneered uniformitarianism during the Scottish enlightenment, and that this enlightenment happened in Scotland because the church was weak there.
Finally, there are all the straw men about creationists. We rehear the canard about millions of animals on Noah’s Ark. We are told that creationists suppose that every living thing exists on Earth exactly where it was first created (wow!)—which was actually the teaching of the uniformitarian (and anti-Bible) Charles Lyell. Better yet, the earth is perfect, unchanging, and looks exactly today as it was the day it was created. Best of all, humans, in Prothero’s imagination, are the centre of the universe.
The fossil record
Prothero correctly notes that evolutionists no longer think in terms of a ‘ladder of life’. Rather, living things presumably evolve as groups in ‘bushes’. He discusses many forms of ‘transition-filled’ evolution, such as ‘walking fish’, dinosaurs to birds, horses, walking whales, etc. In common with virtually all other evolutionists, Prothero confuses mosaics with transitional forms. He is also silent about the many specializations found among fossil organisms in the evolutionary bushes. Finally, his presentation is very superficial, and he overlooks the many discontinuities and trait reversals (from ‘primitive’ to ‘derived’ and back to ‘primitive’ again) that are found in the evolutionary ‘bushes’. Ironically, he diminishes the presumed significance of the Devonian ‘walking fish’ when he points out that there are not only fish today that walk on land, but whose ambulation on land is improved by selective breeding (p. 148).
Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny
Prothero gets this right:
“For example, many features of embryos (especially embryonic organs such as the placenta or the yolk sac) are not features of the adults, so the embryo is not the same as the functioning adult organism. In particular, the embryonic mode of life is very different than the adult mode of life, so the fish-like embryo of a mammal is not an actual fish that could survive as an adult. In addition, there is never complete correspondence between an embryo and the adult of a fish. The chick embryo at one stage may have a heart and circulation like that of a fish, but it lacks most of the other things found in adult fishes. Many of the features that are fixed in adults are only transitory in embryos. Sometimes, parts that should occur later in development appear unusually early, such as the backbone in the chick embryo [emphasis added]” (p. 65).
However, not to be denied, Prothero persists in this kind of old thinking. His chapter 5 is misleadingly titled, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”. He is dismissive of Haeckel’s fraudulent drawings, and insists that even the few piscine features in a mammalian embryo prove evolution. However, from Prothero’s quoted statements, it is evident that any ‘fish stage’ in mammalian development is, at best, based on special pleading (noticing piscine features in the embryo while overlooking the lack of many other piscine features). At worst, it is an exercise in the imaginative “reading in” of evolution into embryological development.
Embryological interpretations, and homology, were first creationist concepts
Ironically, ‘embryological recapitulation’, and similarities between organisms, were known and appreciated long before Darwin. Prothero comments: “However, it was not considered evidence of the evolutionary past of the embryonic animals, but just a God-given ‘pattern of unification’ that reflected the unity of nature” (just as homology was originally seen before 1859, chapter 4).
Parenthetically, Prothero thereby shoots down his own repeat of Dobzhansky’s silly argument that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” By his own tacit admission, it most certainly does!
Microevolution does not cause macroevolution
Prothero spends much time discussing relatively trivial changes in organisms (such as the beaks in Darwin’s finches). He gives many examples of what he calls “rapid evolution”.
The author then turns around and admits that these may have nothing to do with the presumed evolution of higher taxonomic categories. He comments:
“We have gone from the neo-Darwinian insistence on every gene gradually changing to make a new species to realizing that only a few key regulatory genes need to change to make a big difference, often in a single generation. This circumvents many of the earlier problems with ideas about macroevolution. It is possible that the processes that build new body plans and allow organisms to develop new ecologies are not the product of small-scale microevolutional changes extrapolated over time. Some evolutionists still see evo-devo as just an extension of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, but others argue that it is an entirely different type of process from that envisioned in the 1950s [emphasis added]” (p. 259).
Evolutionary preconceptions governed—and ended—the Piltdown Man hoax
It is often pointed out that the Piltdown Man forgery was long accepted without question because it fit the ruling evolutionary notions. Prothero goes a step further. He points out that the Piltdown Man hoax did not get exposed until it no longer fit the ruling evolutionary views! He writes:
“They were also misled by ‘Piltdown Man’, a hoax first announced in 1912 that was put together from the skull of a modern human and the jaw of an orangutan cleverly broken in the right places and stained to make them look ancient. The forger (amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson and possibly some accomplices) knew exactly what British anthropologists were expecting, so he used a large-brained medieval human skull and a modern orangutan jaw to make it seem plausible to the anthropologists of that time. It was the pride of the British anthropological establishment for years, often proudly described as ‘the first Briton’. The Piltdown forger was exposed in 1953 as more and more discoveries from Africa showed that humans first evolved there, so the Piltdown ‘fossil’ no longer made sense” (p. 315).
‘Piltdown Man’ is sometimes spun as an example of the fact that ‘evolutionary science is self-correcting’. Is it? The amateurish forgery fooled top evolutionists for only 41 years. Now we must additionally ask the following question: How much longer would ‘Piltdown Man’ have been accepted as genuine had it not started to conflict with new anthropological evidence?
Donald Prothero discusses the different forms of life on different continents, and gets a bit dramatic, titling a chapter “The Sinking of Noah’s Ark”. He obviously thinks that only a homogenous distribution of land animals, on all the continents, is compatible with them all deriving from Noah’s Ark. This is another straw man.
It is easy to see that Prothero does not bother to go beyond a very simplistic understanding of biogeography. To begin with, we know that sweepstakes routes are very important, that is, routes that have a major barrier and are thus used by only a few animals, so it’s a ‘lottery’ which animals use them. Such routes as these must have been quite pronounced after the Flood, for reasons such as the probable cold interiors of continents because of the post-Flood ice age.1 Moreover, those animals located on land masses the furthest from Ararat (South America and especially Australia and the Pacific islands), having gone through the most sweepstakes, should in general be the most biogeographically differentiated. And that is exactly what we find. Finally, we must factor in the introduction of animals by humans after the Flood. Introducing different forms of animal life, in different locations, must have been magnified in impact by the emptiness of large continental areas, and further exaggerated by the remoteness of those land masses located the furthest from where Noah’s Ark landed.
Flippant dysteleological remarks
In this book, Prothero puts much emphasis on dysteleology. Bringing up the auditory system in mammals, Prothero asks: “But how did this clumsy and inefficient arrangement develop?” (p. 58). He then repeats the narrative about the alleged evolution of mammalian hearing, in the synapsids, as supposedly recapitulated in embryology. To belabour the point, he asks again: “Why did mammals develop such a clumsy arrangement?” (p. 58).
Never once does Prothero bother to tell the reader why the mammalian auditory system is supposedly ‘clumsy’ and ‘inefficient’. Opinions are not the same as science. ‘Clumsy’ and ‘inefficient’ compared with what? And what exactly is Prothero’s concept of an “efficient” auditory system, and on what evidence is it based? Prothero is completely silent about this.
The panda’s ‘thumb’ yet again
Prothero compares the function of the panda’s ‘thumb’ with that of the fully opposable human thumb. He comments:
“It is a patchwork ‘thumb’ that serves just well enough to strip leaves from bamboo stalks. It is nowhere near as flexible and strong and useful as the opposable thumb of primates, but it doesn’t have to be—the panda just needs a device for stripping leaves” (p. 114).
But that is just the point! Why ‘should’ the panda have a human-like thumb when it does not have to do most of the things that humans need their thumbs for? It would be like suggesting that we use a precision industrial cutting machine in order to open a tin can. Or, better yet, it would be like insisting that the can opener cannot be the product of intelligent design because its cutting tolerances are very poor, and immeasurably inferior to those of the industrial cutting machine.
Ironically, the panda’s thumb is, if anything, an embarrassment for evolutionists, not creationists. The panda’s ‘thumb’ is the same in both the giant panda and the red panda, and it was thought to be a distinctive homology that proved a recent common ancestor to both pandas. Prothero comments:
“For many years, it [red panda] was thought to be a very close relative of the giant panda because it also has the same weird ‘thumb’ jury-rigged from the radial sesamoid of its wrist and used to strip leaves from bamboo, its main food source … . In earlier days, scientists might have regarded such a specialized paw structure as a truly unique feature and could not have imagined that it could evolve in parallel. But fossil, molecular, and behavioral data cannot be denied, so we are forced to admit that it did so” (p. 116).
So the giant panda is now believed closely related to bears, and the red panda to be closely related to raccoons and weasels.
All this exposes the special pleading that is part and parcel of evolutionary thinking. Similarities in living things prove that they evolved from a common ancestor—except when they don’t. Then we have convergence, a reductive ad hoc explanation.
The ‘poorly designed’ human
The author continues his dysteleological dump. He trots out the backwards-retina myth, the one about the ‘inelegantly indirect’ laryngeal nerve (figure 1), the one about wisdom teeth, and the one about hernias caused by the human bipedality that was secondarily imposed upon a quadrupedal ancestor.
Then comes the appendix. Prothero uses rather patronizing language as he writes:
“Evolution deniers try to salvage this hopeless situation by pointing to some vestigial organs that have a tiny bit of function left in an attempt to discredit this entire line of evidence. But this misses the point. If an organ system is greatly reduced (compared to the ancestral condition) and performs minimal function, it is still evidence of a past functional system that has degenerated and thus is not well designed [emphasis added]” (p. 283).
Donald Prothero’s argument is laughable. It begs the question about the ‘original’ function of the organ. Notice how Prothero slips in the word ancestral. How can one possibly know what this original function was unless one deduces it by comparing it with other animals, based upon presumed evolutionary ancestries! Only then can he suggest that an organ has ‘reduced function’. So the strongest argument for evolution, once again, is the assumption of evolution. The circular reasoning is obvious.
Let us now focus on the laryngeal nerve (figure 1). Prothero pontificates that it is ‘unintelligent design’ because if follows an indirect route from the brain, around the aorta, and only then to the larynx. This is supposed to be an evolutionary holdover from our piscine past, illustrating the fact that evolution (unlike the Intelligent Designer) lacks foresight, and that living things do not arise de novo. What makes Prothero so sure that the ‘excessive’ length does not itself have a function, if only in the embryo?2 If we follow Prothero’s logic, we could examine the automobile, and if we find a single wire that is longer than the most direct route possible, we should therefore proclaim that the automobile must not be the product of intelligent design.
What is a minimal-solution system?
Doctrinaire evolutionist Prothero sees living things as barely adequate. Their only sufficiency, after all, is to ‘get by’ long enough to pass the genes on to the offspring (e.g. p. 116). It is in this spirit that he discusses the human body and all its supposed deficiencies. But how do we recognize a ‘barely adequate’ design when we see one? Consider the Olympic weightlifter and the Olympic acrobat. Both put stresses on the human body that exceed, by far, those imposed by everyday living and the sufficiency to pass genes on to one’s offspring. On this basis, it does not look even remotely like the human body is an example of barely adequate design.
Confusing the issue—what is ‘unintelligent design’?
Evolutionists typically try to confuse the issue, which is not whether a living thing was well or poorly designed, but whether a living thing could arise at all without a designer. Besides, whether a device is well designed or poorly designed is a matter of opinion. Consider the automobile. What if someone argued that an intelligent designer would surely think up some kind of a noiseless engine, rather than the ‘jury-rigged’ system of a noise-making engine whose noise must be mitigated by the use of an added-on muffler?
Let’s pile on the dysteoleological arguments regarding cars as evolutionists do for living things. The exhaust system and the tyres are vulnerable to puncture; the battery terminals experience corrosion from moisture; and the engine is constantly in danger from overheating and seizure caused by any significant leakage of motor oil. That is why there is an oil-pressure warning light on the dashboard. Yet nobody suggests that the automobile is ‘unintelligent design’, or a ‘minimal solution system’.
Not satisfied yet with his evolutionistic triumphalism, Prothero extends his dysteleological thinking to everyday human function. He goes on and on about podiatrists, chiropractors, etc. Most if not all of the maladies that need such services are the products of living in a modern, sedentary society, or are otherwise the products of normal wear-and-tear, and age. Note that this is true of every mechanical device, whether living or non-living. It has nothing to do with design or lack of design!
Automobile brake pads wear out, motor oil has to be replaced regularly, and auto repair shops must always be available in order to deal with both foreseen maintenance and unforeseen malfunctions. If we follow Prothero, we must conclude that the automobile is ‘poorly designed’, or not the product of intelligent design at all.
This part of Prothero’s book is especially erroneous and outdated. He repeats the old sweeping argument about the uselessness of junk DNA, and is oblivious to the many discoveries of function that have been made in non-coding DNA.
The author repeats the discredited claim that human DNA and chimp DNA are 98% similar. Even if Prothero were correct, it would be a confusion of a metric of similarity with the essence of the dissimilarity. To illustrate, a child’s scribbling and an artistic masterpiece may use the same canvas and paints, and thereby be at least 98% similar to each other, yet the essential differences between the two are profound. Also, since we have about 3 billion base pairs, a 2% difference would still mean 60 million changes. Yet humans and apes are alleged to have split only about 6 million years ago, nowhere near enough time.
This book repeats all the canned arguments for evolution, as used against special creation and intelligent design. It can therefore serve as a comprehensive reference book on this subject. These arguments are monotonically passed down, from one evolutionist to another, with very little evidence of thinking, much less consideration of alternative explanations.
References and notes
- Woodmorappe, J., Causes for the biogeographic distribution of land vertebrates after the Flood. Proceedings of the International Conference on Creationism 2:361–370, 1990. Return to text.
- Bergman, J., The left laryngeal nerve design in mammals is not poor design, Journal of Creation 25(1):63–68, 2011. Return to text.