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Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 6

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 6, A Blighted Ancestral Tree.

Anybody who follows the evolution/creationism debate on the Internet is familiar with the term ad hominem. It's an attack on a person's character instead of their actual arguments. This passage is a good example of an ad hominem attack.

The materialistic scientists would tell us they have no fault to find with the critics of Ernst Haeckel, who object to his scientific forgeries and falsifications. That is old stuff, they say. Yet this thing [Osborn's proposed family tree - jrl], published in the name of science as an ancestral tree of the anthropoid apes and man, is a 1921 contribution to man's "knowledge" concerning himself. If it is not the same old stuff, newly dressed, what is it? (McCann 81-82)

Ernst Haeckel had some good ideas and some bad ideas. His recapitulation theory is now widely rejected. He was also involved in some controversy over some of his illustrations. In one case, he used the same woodcut three times, labeling the same illustration as dog, chick, and turtle embryos. He also might have doctored some illustrations to emphasize the similarity between embryos of different species. These controversies seriously damaged his reputation, but it doesn't change the actual fact that embryos of different species really do look similar (here's a longer explanation).

But no matter what Haeckel's reputation, proposed evolutionary family trees do not depend on him. There is no reason to bring up Haeckel except to try to use his tarnished reputation to make evolutionary science in general look bad.

(Note, however, that I'm not completely against ad hominem attacks as a kind of shortcut. There are too many claims in the world to thoroughly evaluate all of them. That's why reputations are so important. If you already evaluated some of a person's claims and concluded that they're a dishonest fraud, you can save your time by not looking into their other claims. Logically speaking, this doesn't actually address the veracity of their other claims, and if you're going to get involved in a debate, you damn well better address actual claims instead of resorting to ad hominem attacks, but in the real world where time is precious, you can save yourself a lot of hassle by ignoring hucksters.)

Here's another example of McCann being betrayed by thinking of evolution as a linear process.

But the fine skulls [Cro-Magnons - jrl], the philosphers' skulls, the skulls that might have belonged to any modern European, must have some kind of attention. The dramatists of evolution are ready. Instead of admitting that the races were contemporaneous, occupying Europe at the same time, they summon the Cro-Magnons (a little later) to kill off the Neanderthals. But what were the Cro-Magnons doing when they were getting ready to do the killing? They must have been in existence. They couldn't have just come up around the corner from nowhere. The absurdity of the thing is of such a nature as to make one gasp when the word "science" is used in describing it, unless used in the serio-comic sense. (McCann 83)

As a matter of fact, the Cro-Magnons kind of did "just come up around the corner", only it was from Africa, not from nowhere. Remember that the actual family trees of all the species on this planet is much more like a bush than a tree. Our family tree is no different. We had many hominid cousins, and in fact, we're living in a rather unique period to only have a single surviving hominid species. Back when Neanderthals were the dominant hominids in Europe, it doesn't mean that hominid evolution had stopped elsewhere. The lineage that led to us continued evolving in Africa, giving rise to modern humans around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Once the last ice age ended, our species expanded out of Africa, eventually colonizing every major landmass except Antarctica, and displacing Neanderthals from Europe. The cause of the extinction of the Neanderthals still isn't settled, but it was probably more a case of being outcompeted by homo sapiens in a changing environment, rather than direct, brutal killing.

One of the most common complaints from people who reject evolution is to say, 'I didn't come from a monkey' (a google search for that phrase returned over a million hits). It's a purely emotional argument, and as old as the concept of evolution, itself.

A late instance of this corruption of science took the form of a full page in the New York Sunday American, August 21, 1921, "explaining why baby can't possibly look like papa or mamma. It is still too close to its monkey cousins." According to the "scientific prospects" we shall soon enjoy "well-trained, gentle-mannered, orderly household servants, monkey servants." They will even work in the fields and on the farm "picking cotton and doing other agricultural labor. All monkeys, from the chimpanzee down, are properly to be regarded as PEOPLE. They are our cousins." Adult apes are quite human and human infants are very much simian. "Therefore when mother speaks of baby as a 'little monkey' let us realize that the term is more descriptively accurate than she knows." (McCann 86)

I'll use this as a chance to discuss one of my pet peeves from people arguing in support of evolution. Often times, when someone brings up the monkey argument against evolution (or the related, 'if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?'), someone will pipe up and say that we didn't evolve from monkeys, but that monkeys and us have a common ancestor. If you've been reading these entries, recall my analogy from Chapter 2 with Germans. While living Germans aren't my ancestors, we share a common ancestry. Since our common ancestors lived in Germany, they would certainly be called Germans. Likewise, we're not descended from any living monkeys, but share a common ancestor. However, if we used a time machine to bring that ancestor into the present, I don't think anyone would hesitate to call that animal a monkey, even if it was a different species from any monkey alive today.

This is one of my favorite mistakes of McCann's. It only takes a trip to a zoo and a simple observation to show how he was wrong.

Perhaps, even after the return of the Andrews expedition, we shall have to continue our waiting [for a missing link - jrl]. But in the meantime let us not forget that early in 1921 the same Ditmars, at the request of Professor William K. Gregory, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, acting for the Galton Society of Washington, D. C,. collected the finger-prints of monkeys for comparison with the finger-prints of men. The results have added to the bewilderment, embarrassment and confusion of the monkey evolutionists. The prints show that the human hand is marked on the tips of the fingers and on the tips of the thumbs, as every one knows, with lines arranged in whorls. The arrangement with respect to the monkey hand, as everyone does not know, is just the reverse.

Monkey finger-tips are marked in parallel lines and the monkey whorls, literally gorgeous in design, when compared with the very much simpler and less conspicuous human whorls, are found not on the tips of the fingers where the ape-man evolutionist would have been delighted to find them, but rather on the palms of the hand where, as far as the evolutionist is concerned, they have no business at all. (McCann 92-93>

If McCann ever had gone to the zoo, here's what he would have seen:

Monkey Hand
photo source

The truth is that all primates have figerprints, and that they're as unique to individuals as are human fingerprints.

What really makes this one of my favorite parts, though, is to look at the fantastic claims he spun off into from that erroneous base.

The curious shifting of the whorls through evolutionary processes from mount to tip and from tip to mount should have been followed by other shifts than those now noted for the first time in the matter of parallel lines and whorls. In evolutionary harmony with these radical shifts why should the monkey's eyes not be found in the back of his head? Why should his tail not protrude like a beard from his chin? Why should his feet not be where his hands are, and vice versa, though not in the fashion of Mr. Barnum's mule, whose tail was where his head should have been-in the feed-bag?

Why the monkey's stomach should have remained at anchor while his whorls were searching about for a change of scene Mr. Wells and the professors who have inspired him will have to make clear. Mr. Barnum didn't, and Mr. Ditmars, who waits with eager expectation, is perplexed beyond expression; all of which brings us to the difference between futile enthusiasm on the one hand and changeless truth on the other. (McCann 94-95)

For anyone actually interested in how our bodies develop in the patterns they do, an understanding of hox genes is essential.

From that very same section, McCann shows that even back then, creationists were conflating evolution with abiogenesis.

The difference between the average layman to whom "Wells and his brilliancy appeal and the scientist who deals not with fancy, but with fact, is the difference between futile enthusiasm and changeless truth. The layman talks about evolution as if it were an established historical fact; the scientist confesses that to science, unaided by philosophy, the origin of life is unknown, and that the origin of the main organic types and their principal divisions are to science similarly unknown. (McCann 95)

The origin of life is as relevant to the study of evolution as the origin of the atmosphere is to the study of meteorology. In each case, of course, the latter requires the former, as you can't study something that doesn't exist, and the specifics of the origin of something will define the character of that something. But really, you can understand quite a bit about how complex systems work without knowing how they formed.

Proceed to Chapter 7

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