God - Or Gorilla? Archive

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 7

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 7, "Theologians" Versus "Scientists".

First, we get a taste of some vitalism.

The writer has seen "scientific" milk made of the soja bean. The writer has also seen artificial honey made on a "scientific" formula. The former kills babies: the latter kills bees. Henry Ford, the biologist, or Henry Ford, the bio-chemist, or Henry Ford, the metabolist, perhaps has not yet learned that science misses the essence of life's formula which the scriptures nowhere attempt to reveal and that this essence has ever eluded the scientist who dabbles with synthetics. (McCann 98)

I wonder what McCann would have to say about Ventner's current artificial life project. The truth is - the more we learn about how life works, the more we learn that it's really all just chemical reactions. Sure, they're pretty complicated chemical reactions, but there's nothing fundamentally different between the reactions in a cell and the reactions in a test tube.

Just a bit later, McCann shows his contempt not just for biology, but for modern medicine, as well.

But-synthetic wintergreen when prescribed by the physician does not conduct itself, for some mysterious reason, in the human body, as does natural winter-green, although the chemical symbols of both, as far as science is concerned, are identical. (McCann 99)

Knowing how alternative medicine proponents operate in the present day, I have to wonder if McCann really did have a source of data for this claim. After all, chemicals don't 'care' if they came from biological or synthetic sources. They'll still behave the same way to given conditions.

To his credit, McCann actually gave a very good description of natural selection.

They did not know that the term "Darwinism" as popularly misrepresented by Haeckel is not the theory of evolution, but rather the theory of natural selection. Darwinism does not mean that man descended from an ape. It means that animals, under certain conditions, accommodate themselves better than others to the circumstances of their life, by reason of which they triumph in the struggle for existence while the others are wiped out, so that the victors eventually transmit their special qualities to their descendants, and by such transmission these qualities become more and more prominent until a new variety, a new race, a new species has been developed. (McCann 100)

Unfortunately, he had to follow it up with this paragraph.

These critics did not know that under the theory of natural selection the blood-red robber-ant ought not to make the mistake of selecting its worst enemy, the lomechusa, as a guest to live with, because in doing so it follows an instinct that leads to the destruction, not to the perpetuation of its own species. If the blood-red robber-ant selected a guest that would prove harmful from the moment when it deposited its larvae to be brought up in its own nest for the purpose of wiping out its own offspring, its idea of the theory of natural selection must have been the idea of suicide. (McCann 100-101)

This idea of intent behind evolution on the part of the organisms doing the evolving has to be one of the most common misconceptions I encounter. Look at it this way - did you pick which genetic mutations you wanted, or pick the mutations in your gametes that would go on to your children? Of course not. Genetic mutation is basically a random process.

McCann's example, though, misses the obvious. While the blood-red robber-ant may not be benefiting from the lomechusa, the lomechusa certainly benefits from the robber-ant. Like many parasites, it's 'discovered' how to evade its host's defenses. In this case, along with tactile cues, it uses the same pheromones that the ants use to fool the ants into thinking it's one of them. Lomechusa that are more convincing con artists will be more successful than their less convincing brethren. (more info).

Quote mining seems to be irresistible to creationists. Here's another example of how McCann quoted Darwin.

In "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin," edited by his son, Francis Darwin, volume 1, p. 210, is the famous letter written to Bentham, which most people never read but in which Darwin emphatically declares: "When we descend to details WE CAN PROVE THAT NOT ONE SPECIES HAS CHANGED."

On the following page he says: "I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief in immutability." (McCann 102)

First, as a minor note, according to the edition of the book I found, the quote is from Volume III, p. 25 of the book. Here's Darwin's actual quote from the first letter McCann quoted. The part in bold is the part McCann used.

P.S. -- In fact, the belief in Natural Selection must at present be grounded entirely on general considerations. (1) On its being a vera causa, from the struggle for existence; and the certain geological fact that species do somehow change. (2) From the analogy of change under domestication by man's selection. (3) And chiefly from this view connecting under an intelligible point of view a host of facts. When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change. Bronn may ask in vain, the old creationist school and the new school, why one mouse has longer ears than another mouse, and one plant more pointed leaves than another plant..

The second letter was one long paragraph, but it wasn't too long, so I'll just quote that entire letter. Once again, I bolded the part that McCann used.

MY DEAR BENTHAM,--I have been extremely much pleased and interested by your address, which you kindly sent me. It seems to be excellently done, with as much judicial calmness and impartiality as the Lord Chancellor could have shown. But whether the "immutable" gentlemen would agree with the impartiality may be doubted, there is too much kindness shown towards me, Hooker, and others, they might say. Moreover I verily believe that your address, written as it is, will do more to shake the unshaken and bring on those leaning to our side, than anything written directly in favour of transmutation. I can hardly tell why it is, but your address has pleased me as much as Lyell's book disappointed me, that is, the part on species, though so cleverly written. I agree with all your remarks on the reviewers. By the way, Lecoq* is a believer in the change of species. I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief of immutability; though I am often not a little surprised at the arguments advanced on this side. I remember too well my endless oscillations of doubt and difficulty. It is to me really laughable, when I think of the years which elapsed before I saw what I believe to be the explanation of some parts of the case; I believe it was fifteen years after I began before I saw the meaning and cause of the divergence of the descendants of any one pair. You pay me some most elegant and pleasing compliments. There is much in your address which has pleased me much, especially your remarks on various naturalists. I am so glad that you have alluded so honourably to Pasteur. I have just read over this note; it does not express strongly enough the interest which I have felt in reading your address. You have done, I believe, a real good turn to the right side. Believe me, dear Bentham,

Yours very sincerely,


So, the full meaning of what Darwin wrote, when seen in context, differs from what McCann would want you to believe. And of course, the veracity of evolution doesn't depend on what Darwin thought. He was merely one of the first people to recognize how it worked.

Proceed to Chapters 8 & 9

Friday, March 25, 2011

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

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 5

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 5, The Gibraltar Man.

Once again, McCann shows that he doesn't like tentativeness.

In this opinion Osborn derives satisfaction for the reason that it is shared by Boule and Schwalbe. As to just how long it will be so shared he is not so sure, for he says: "It is possible, however, that the skeletons discovered at Predmost may modify this conclusion and demonstrate Hrdlicka's theory that the Neanderthals survived and left descendants along the valley of the Danube. " (McCann 70)

This is one thing I just never understood in creationist literature. Why should there be absolute certainty about all conclusions? In areas where evidence is sketchy, we can draw tentative conclusions, but we should be prepared to change them in the light of new evidence. Anything else would be close minded, and worse, would indicate a kind of vanity by assuming that our current conclusions are better than anything anybody else might come up with.

I think the following series of quotes is the section that irritated me the most from McCann. McCann starts off by quoting Karl Frank on the potential difficulties in reconstructing the history of life from the fossil record.

The generosity of Osborn in assigning hundreds of thousands of years to his age periods is worthy of note for the reason that he fixes the beginning of the age of man at some 500,000 years ago. On this point Karl Frank ("Theory of Evolution," London, 1913, pp, 18-21), throws a strong light revealing obstacles that must arrest the unreckoning and impulsive speed of the too eager driver. He says: "It is only when it is known which stratum or layer is older or younger than another that we can also know which organisms are older or younger than others accordingly. This determination of the age of the earth's strata is, however, a very difficult matter, and the course of evidence which led to the generally recognized arrangement of the four (or five) groups of formations, is not far removed from a vicious circle, especially when we consider the mode of expression used by many authors.... (McCann 71)

This detailed explanation goes on for a few pages until Frank's conclusion.

"If the fauna of 'a,' or a group of the same, should not, generally speaking, reappear, and is no longer seen at the present day, then it is 'extinct.' How and when it became so, we are so far ignorant.

"It is therefore seen how difficult it is to make clear the process of evolution for a definite group. Many geologists entirely despaired of the possibility of so exact a definition of the ages of the formations as was needful to that end. Incomplete, very incomplete indeed, must our knowledge ever be." (McCann 73)

And what's McCann's well thought out refutation of this detailed explanation?

The confusion knows no bounds. (McCann 73)

That's such a condescending dismissal of several pages worth of intelligent discussion. It also reminds me of the basic gist of most Intelligent Design arguments - 'It's too complicated for me to understand, therefore God did it.'

On a lark, I looked up one of the quotes of Darwin in the book, just to see what the actual context was. What I discovered, to little surprise, was that creationists were no better at quoting back in the beginning of the last century than they are at the beginning of this century. Here's how McCann quoted Darwin (in reference to the various estimates of the age of the earth at the time, particularly Thomson's younger estimate).

Charles Darwin never ceased to dread these difficulties, which so upset him that at times he was actually ready to abandon the whole theory of evolution as something which got farther and farther away from proof as its followers got farther and farther into difficulties. Writing to Alfred Russell Wallace, July, 1871, he moaned: "I feel sick of everything, and if I could occupy my time I would never publish another word. I can say nothing more about missing-links than what I have said. I should rely much on pre-silurian times; but then comes Sir W. Thomson like an odious spectre." (McCann 74-75)

Here's what Darwin actually wrote, with a bit more from before where McCann chose to start quoting him (source). Starting with the sentence where McCann actually started his quote, I've italicized everything that McCann omitted (with nary an ellipse).

I feel very doubtful how far I shall succeed in answering Mivart, it is so difficult to answer objections to doubtful points, and make the discussion readable. I shall make only a selection. The worst of it is, that I cannot possibly hunt through all my references for isolated points, it would take me three weeks of intolerably hard work. I wish I had your power of arguing clearly. At present I feel sick of everything, and if I could occupy my time and forget my daily discomforts, or rather miseries, I would never publish another word. But I shall cheer up, I dare say, soon, having only just got over a bad attack. Farewell; God knows why I bother you about myself. I can say nothing more about missing-links than what I have said. I should rely much on pre-silurian times; but then comes Sir W. Thomson like an odious spectre. Farewell.

BTW, Sir W. Thomson is now more commonly known as Lord Kelvin. What Darwin is referring to is Kelvin's estimate of the age of the Earth. Kelvin performed some calculations to see how long it would take the Earth to cool to its current surface temperature based on a molten beginning. His initial estimate, from 1864, was 20 to 400 million years. He refined this over the years, and finally settled on 20-40 million years in 1897. He made a few assumptions that his contemporaries were already arguing, but he also had no idea of radioactivity - a heat source which significantly affects the calculation. Ernest Rutherford pointed out the effect of radioactivity in a lecture in the first decade of the 20th century, and people were already beginning to try to use radioactivity to estimate the age of the Earth in the early 1900s. Considering that McCann's book was published in 1922, there's no excuse for him not to have known about the then decade old science.

I mentioned this already, but I wonder what McCann would think if he were to see Lucy. Also, I wonder if he even read Darwin, considering how many lines of evidence apart from fossil evidence Darwin used to support evolution.

We have seen that there have been no "pre-human forms" and that the scientists who continue their eager search for "pre-human forms" have confessed that as far as their efforts have been rewarded there are no "pre-human forms." That is, indeed, an historical fact. It cannot be repeated too often. (McCann 76)

And as long as I'm repeating the mention of Lucy, I might as well repeat the link to hominid fossils on the TalkOrigins site. "Pre-human forms" have been found in abundance.

After as much of a big deal as McCann made in Chapters 1 and 2 about how Neanderthals were nothing more than modern humans that fit into the normal natural variation, it might seem surprising that he would be so happy with the following bit of information. I guess this is an argument that Chapter 3 McCann likes.

Referring to the chief feature of the Jersey surprise Osborn says ("Men of the Old Stone Age," p. 226): "The roots, instead of tapering to a point below, as in modern man, form a broad stout column, supporting the crown, adapted to a sweeping motion of the jaw. THIS SPECIAL FEATURE ALONE WOULD EXCLUDE THE NEADNERTHALS FROM THE ANCESTRY OF THE HIGHER RACES." Here we have confirmation of one of our own surprises and are accordingly surprised all the more.

Thus it would appear that if we moderns are "the higher races" the Neanderthals were not our ancestors at all, and therefore cannot be regarded as the missing links connecting us with the ape. (McCann 77)

It's as almost as if McCann doesn't care if he's making a consistent argument, so long as what he's saying is critical of evolution.

Proceed to Chapter 6

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 3 & 4

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 3, The Neanderthal Man, and Chapter 4, The Last Link.

Chapter 3

Let's start off with this quote.

Thus came into existence a whole race of creatures now referred to as Homo neanderthalensis with an age of hundreds of thousands of years! or of but thirty thousand years! as you choose. (McCann 35)

This would only be a problem for strict gradualism, not evolution as we now understand it, or indeed, as some proposed it worked even in McCann's time.

Darwin proposed that all life changes very gradually over time. Many took this too far and assumed that the rate of change was constant, but Darwin himself didn't go that far. In Origin of Species, he actually wrote, "the periods during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured in years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retain the same form." Today, our understanding of this mode of evolution has been formalized into something known as punctuated equilibrium, and it appears that at least in some cases, that is the way history has played out. Even in McCann's time, there were some scientists arguing for saltationism, which was counter to gradualism (though saltationism isn't exactly the same thing as punctuated equilibrium). McCann even discussed 'saltatory theory' on page 384 of this book, so he must have known about it.

Obviously, punctuated equilibrium is not strictly an all or nothing process. Modern humans as we would recognize them have been around for about 100,000 to 200,000 years. We haven't formed into a new species in all that time. That's the stasis part. But there has still been a lot of gradual evolution on a smaller scale. Just look at the differences between different populations alive today, from the tall dark skinned Massai, to the short light skinned inhabitants of the island of Flores.

So, to say that some Neanderthal fossils are hundreds of thousands of years old and other Neanderthal fossils are thirty thousand years old simply implies that Neanderthals as a species existed for that time span. As a matter of fact, the best estimates now are that Neanderthals existed from 130,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago.

Trying to define when Neanderthals existed also illustrates the grey area in classifying species that's to be expected from evolution. As an example, let's imagine a population of short necked animals that gets split into two populations. Let's assume that one population lives in an environment that doesn't change, so the population itself doesn't change and stays the same species. But let's assume that for the second population, the environment changes in such a way that food becomes more scarce, so animals that can reach leaves in trees have an advantage, and natural selection thus favors longer necks. Each individual animal that's born still looks very much like it's parents, and is still very obviously a member of the same species as its parents. But assume that out of all the children born in each generation, those that survive to have children of their own have a neck that's 1 mm longer, on average, than their parents. After 1000 generations, the population would have necks a full meter longer than their great^1000 grandparents. If you compared them to the population that hadn't changed, you'd probably call them a new species. But when, during the course of that thousand generations, could you draw a clear dividing line, separating the old species from the new, saying that one generation of children are the new species, but their parents the old?

I've already explained the error in McCann's line of thinking here the in a previous installment of this review. I'm only including these entries because I thought the emphatic repetition was amusing.

Comparisons soon led to the definite claim that the cranium and bones represented no pathological or accidental monstrosity but a peculiar and thereto unknown type of ancient humanity who was a very close relative to modern man, but "equally close to some pre-existing ape now extinct." In other words he was equally close to something of which nothing existed ! (McCann 35)
Just why the thickness of the bones should be compared with the white man rather than with the African Negro or Australian Bushman is not clear, though the student is forced to admit that it is quite as clear as a comparison with something of which nothing exists! (McCann 35-36)
Professor Osborn himself says, p. 4, American Museum of Natural History guide leaflet series No. 52, May, 1921: "Man is not descended from any known form of ape either living or fossil." But he is descended from something of which nothing exists! (McCann 49)

Moving on...

Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn's 1921 contribution from the pen of the president of the American Museum of Natural History is boldly advertised as "The most important and complete (sic) work on human evolution since 'Darwin's Descent of Man.' It is the first full (sic) and authoritative (sic) presentation of what has been actually discovered (sic) up to the present time in regard to human pre-history. All the known pre-human and human stages of development for the last five hundred thousand years (sic) are described as fully (sic) and fairly (sic) as the material allows." Fully! Complete! Authoritative! Fairly! And this is "science." (McCann 42-43)

In the words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is just one example of what I was referring to in the introductory entry of this series, where I said that McCann was inordinately fond of using '(sic)'.

It's also worth keeping in mind McCann's disdain for tentativeness, whenever scientists describe things as possible, likely, probable, or anything less than absolutely certain. Here, when someone expresses more confidence, McCann criticizes them for not practicing good science.

Chapter 4

I already discussed Neanderthal's relation to humans in the previous installment of this review. I'm including this as an example of how similar McCann's writing is to the histrionics of modern day Internet trolls. Were I to see this posted in a comment section somewhere, I'd tell him not to shout.

Yet in "Men of the Old Stone Age," pp. 233-234, he rushes to the support of Professor Boule by quoting the latter as follows: "All these modern so-called Neanderthaloids are nothing but varieties of individuals of Homo sapiens (modern man), remarkable for the accidental exaggeration of certain anatomical traits which are normally developed in all specimens of the Neanderthal man.


Also, don't forget that in Chapters 1 and 2, McCann was arguing that Neanderthals were humans. So, it's a bit odd for him to now be arguing so emphatically that they weren't our ancestors.

Stay tuned for Chapter 5, The Gibraltar Man.

Proceed to Chapter 5

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 2

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 PicToday's entry will cover Chapter 2, The Trinil Ape-man.

McCann seems to be one of the people that would ask, "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?" He doesn't seem to understand phylogeny.

Out of all this "proof," dignified as the pal├Žontological evidence of man's descent, Professor Osborn draws so many shreds of secret doubt that he must protect himself against the difficulties in his path by admitting ("Guide Leaflet," series No. 52, p. 4) "Man is not descended from any known form of ape, either living or fossil." This confession is not original with Osborn nor is it new with any of the monkey evolutionists. You will find it back in 1871 on Darwin's lips: "But we must not fall into the error of supposing that the early progenitors of man were identical with or even closely resembled any existing ape or monkey." (See 'Descent of Man,' 1871, vol. I, p. 158.) (McCann, 22)

Neither Darwin nor Osborn were making any type of 'confession'. They were explaining a point about the history of life that's too often misunderstood. The easiest way to see the error in McCann's line of thinking is through analogy. I'll use myself as an example. My great great grandfather and grandmother on one side were German - not just of German acenstry, but born in Germany and immigrants to the U.S. So, I can quite literally say that I am descended from Germans. But it's also quite obvious that I'm not descended from any living Germans. A certain group of Germans and I share a common ancestry through my great great great grandparents. The descendants of my great great great grandparents split into two lineages - one that continued in the U.S., and one that continued in Germany. That lineage in Germany is composed of my cousins, not my ancestors. It is a very similar case with us and chimpanzees and bonobos. Around 6 million years ago, there was a population of apes that was neither human, chimpanzee, nor bonobo. Over the generations, this population split into multiple lineages, each of which evolved independently. Most of those lineages have gone extinct, but there are still three of us left. We are cousins. We can go back further in time and find the ancestor that we share with gorillas, and further to find the ancestor we share with orangutans, and on and on all the way back till life began. (Obviously, we haven't actually found fossils of all species that have ever existed. But, in the same way that you know you must have a great great great great great great grandmother, even if you don't have any record of her, we also know that we must have common ancestors with Earth's other organisms, even if we haven't yet found their fossils.)

Where the quote from Darwin is a bit misleading is that word 'closely'. We should expect the common acestor of us, chimps, and bonobos to resemble the three of us. We share many features with our cousins, and the most likely reason is because those features were present in our common ancestor (See here for a look at just how similar we are to bonobos).

To be honest, the main reason I included the following quote is because I thought "ape-manologist" was pretty funny.

Hence Virchow's word of caution to the all-too-eager ape-manologists, urging them in their elaboration of missing links to wait until they can get hold of a real skeleton, a complete skeleton, to take the place of their few fragments of broken bones. (McCann, 25)

This is one of the areas where I do have a bit of smypathy for McCann. In his time, we just hadn't discovered as many fossils as we have now. In the present, though, we certainly do have hominid fossils. Two classic examples are Lucy and Ardi, but they certainly aren't the only hominid fossils we have. (See here for an interesting discussion on how modern day creationists try to deal with those fossils.)

Just a little later on the same page, McCann showed that he didn't realize common descent applied to all life on this planet.

He [Osborn] might have said, speaking of resemblances, "In the hand of man the same bones are to be seen as in the tortoise. The elements in the foot of a lizard are the same even in the highly modified human foot." He would have found the words quoted on page 371, "Human Embryology and Morphology" by Arthur Keith, M.D., F.R.C.S., 1910, Royal College of Surgeons, University of Aberdeen, University of Cambridge, London Hospital Medical College, etc., etc.

From all this are we to have a "Tortoise Theory" or a "Lizard Theory" or are we to go right on, shattering "resemblances" only when they fail to come to our aid in support of something "pre-human"? (McCann, 25)

We fully expect from universal common descent for there to be broad similiarities among life, and for there to be more similarities between more closely related species. For example, consider Tiktaalik Rosaea, which lived around 375 million years ago. Now, this animal probably wasn't our direct ancestor, but rather a close cousin to our ancestors (remember that fossils are rare, and that most species end up going extinct, so we're pretty unlikely to find direct ancestors of any particular organisms). Still, in Tiktaalik we can see many features that all tetrapods share. In its forelimbs, it had a humerus, radius, ulna, and many of the bones that we have in our wrists and hands. It's close cousin, our director ancestor, shared those same bones. Our ancestor passed those traits on to its descendants, which passed them on to their descendants, and on through the generations down to all of the tetrapods alive today. That is why we have the same bones in our hands as tortoises and chimps, because we're all descended from that cousin to Tiktaalik. Since chimps and us share a more recent common ancestor, our bones are more similar to each other than to tortoises.

Picture of Tiktaalik from Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters
Image of Tiktaalik from Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Obviously, new features do sometimes appear, or else we'd all still be single celled organisms. But it's much easier for evolution to modify existing features than to create new ones. That's why most tetrapods alive today are variations on a plan, and none have sprouted extra sets of limbs. (When I say 'easier', I mean 'much more likely to happen' or 'tends to happen more often'. Natural selection is not a conscious process, so there is no easy or hard in that sense. Strictly speaking, anthropomorphisms like the one I just used aren't accurate, but they do make for more concise writing as long as people recognize that they are euphemisms.)

McCann, like many creationists still, seems to be stuck thinking in terms of the Great Chain of Being, and that evolution predicts a steady progression towards perfection.

One of the stumbling blocks created by Professor Osborn himself, but nowhere referred to by himself, is found in the fact that these old pal├Žolithic skulls, described as Neanderthal, although said to be 50,000 years old, had an average capacity of 1626-1635 c.c. Some of them measure up to 1700 c.c. These figures knock the bottom out of the evolutionary procession which, for the sake of plausibility, must ever move from a low figure to a higher figure, and certainly where brains are to be considered must never move backward like Hamlet's crab. (McCann, 32)

Why should evolution cause a steady increase in brain size from generation to generation? Evolution has no goal. It only optimizes populations for their environment, and the environment changes over time. Plus, there are tradeoffs for just about every feature of an organism. If individuals with larger brains produce more offspring in a certain environment than individuals with smaller brains, then larger brained individuals will become more common in the population. But larger brains don't come for free. In modern humans, for example, our brains are about 2% of our body weight, but they consume 20% of our energy. 1 lb out of every 5 that we eat goes straight to our brain. That's a lot. If selection pressure for intelligence were reduced, it's not hard to see that there would be an advantage for smaller brains, because those individuals either wouldn't need as much food, or could 'spend' those resources on larger muscles, better immune systems, or some other trait.

This type of adaptation to changing environmental conditions has been clearly documented by Peter and Rosemary Grant in their studies of Galapagos finches. One of the populations they've studied are the medium ground finches that live on an island named Daphne Major. The plants on the island provide them with a choice of big hard spiked seeds or small soft seeds. Back in 1977, there was a drought that killed 85% of the birds. The drought resulted in their diet being limited mainly to the hard seeds. When the population had recovered to pre-drought levels, it had shifted to larger beaked individuals that could eat those hard seeds. In the 80s, heavy rains on the island caused a proliferation of the small soft seeds, and the population shifted the other way, to smaller beaks. Also in the 80s, a new species arrived on the island, large ground finches. These birds had large beaks well suited to the hard seeds. They created a new aspect to the environment on Daphne Major. When another drought hit in 2004, the large ground finches outcompeted the medium ground finches for the limited amount of hard seeds, so the medium ground finches with smaller beaks did better this time, and the population shifted towards smaller beaks.

There is no eternally perfect form that evolution strives for, no progression towards an ideal goal. There are traits better or lesser suited for given environmental conditions, and as those conditions change, it changes which traits are most favored.

While we're on the subject of Neanderthals, let me back-track a little bit, and pull a quote from Chapter 1. McCann was making the argument, still being used by creationists, that Neanderthals fell within the variation of modern humans, so there's no reason to think they were a separate species. He devoted quite a bit more space to this than just the two quotes I'm using. This first one gives the gist of his argument.

At this point one would think the materialistic evolutionists would pause in their persistent efforts to bolster their pet theory enough to make it comfortable. Even though complete skeletons, instead of fragments fancifully reconstructed, could be found, they would mean absolutely nothing unless the absurd conclusions that all men are cast in the same uniform mould, and that, therefore, the measurements of any one of them apply with equal accuracy to all the others, are to be gratuitously accepted. (McCann 14-15)

The following quote shows McCann explicitly stating that Neanderthals were humans.

The receptive school teachers who visit this famous Hall will not be flattered by the realization of the fact that their brain capacity corresponds almost exactly with the brain capacity of the Neanderthal restorations. Either Professor Osborn has all but made monkeys of the school teachers, or as far as skulls are concerned the Neanderthals were just as human as any other human being is supposed to be or can be. That is precisely what they were! (McCann 31-32)

This still a common argument from creationists, but there's nothing surprising about different closely related species overlapping in characteristics. Look at horses and zebras. With the variation among horses, from miniature horses and ponies, on up to Clydesdales and Shire Horses, zebras obviously fall within the natural variation of horses. But that doesn't make them horses.

Remember that evolution is gradual. Big changes take a while to happen. A good example of this, relevant to the discussion of Neanderthals, is this comparison of hominid skulls on the TalkOrigins website. When you compare the Australopithecus africanus from the top left to the modern human on the lower right, it's easy to see that we're separate species. But if you only move over one picture at a time, the differences become less pronounced. It's like the old conundrum - if you start off with one grain of sand, and add only one grain at a time, at what point does it cease to be a few grains of sand and become a pile? We don't expect there to be clearly defined demarcations for gradual processes.

As one last note on Neanderthals (for the time being), we now know that Neanderthals were mostly a dead end. They went extinct, and at most only a few Neanderthal/human marriages contributed any genetic material to the human lineage in Europe. So, their brain size was irrelevant to our own evolution, anyway. In McCann's defense, though, the place of Neanderthals in our family tree had been contested for a long time, and it's really only with modern genetics that the picture is finally being sorted out.

Proceed to Chapters 3 & 4


Selling Out