Friday, August 10, 2007

What Does An Unscientific Imbecile Know?

Now I realize that I am just an unscientific imbecile who ought to be punished for having the audacity to question the high priests of Darwin, but there are certain things that just don’t seem to add up for me. I read Stephen Jay Gould and I see some of the things he says doesn’t quite match what Darwinism requires. So I write a post on it, and our resident non sequitur claims that I haven’t understood Gould at all. (This would circuitously follow, seeing as how I am an unscientific imbecile who ought to be punished for having the audacity to question the high priests of Darwin.)

But bear with the heathen for a minute more. There happens to be a book that I read immediately after reading Wonderful Life by Gould. This book is entitled Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? It’s by David M. Raup. (1991. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

Who is Raup? you wonder. Let’s put it this way: If you believe that the Permian extinction wiped out 96% of life on Earth...well, he’s the guy who came up with that figure. Interestingly, in Extinction he says:

I am slightly embarrassed by the wide use of the figure of 96 percent for the Permian because I was responsible for it in a 1979 article presenting the reverse-rarefaction method. Although my article contained ample caveats about the random-killing assumption and although I said that the 96 percent estimate was an upper limit, all too many users of the number have neglected to mention the caveats. In truth, I probably did not exert myself to emphasize them (p. 74).
This admission is interesting because it is virtually impossible to find any paleontologist today who views the 96% extinction rate as anything less than Gospel—er, in the "scientific" sense of course. But this is not the reason why I bring Raup up now. Instead, I bring him up for a couple of other quotes.

Let’s start with this one:

The disturbing reality is that for none of the thousands of well-documented extinctions in the geologic past do we have a solid explanation of why the extinction occurred. We have many proposals in specific cases, of course: trilobites died out because of competition from newly evolved fish; dinosaurs were too big or too stupid; the antlers of Irish elk became too cumbersome. These are all plausible scenarios, but no matter how plausible, they still cannot be shown to be true beyond reasonable doubt. Equally plausible alternative scenarios can be invented with ease, and none has predictive power in the sense that it can show a priori that a given species or anatomical type was destined to go extinct (p. 17).
To this, we can also add from the same page:

Sadly, the only evidence we have for the inferiority of victims of extinction is the fact of their extinction--a circular argument (p. 17).
And later:

The fossil record documents extinctions of many species that were doing fine--until their demise (p. 195).
In other words, as I stated when examining Wonderful Life, extinctions (which, when they are mass extinctions, we theorize are caused by some sort of catastrophe) do not operate on the Darwinian level. There must be something more going on than just Darwinism. In fact, Raus says the very same thing. Raus is, of course, a Darwinist, and as such he denies that Natural Selection (which he equates with Darwinism) is overthrown by extinctions; yet after arguing that, he admits: "Thus, Darwinism is alive and well, but, I submit, it cannot have operated by itself to produce the diversity of life today (p. 192)."

And if you were wondering, yes Raus did read Gould too:

I conclude, therefore, that extinction is necessary for evolution, as we know it, and that selective extinction that is largely blind to the fitness of the organism (wanton extinction) is most likely to have dominated. As Stephen Jay Gould and others have emphasized, we probably would not be here now if extinction were a completely fair game (p. 191)
And, yes, Raus also read Wonderful Life: "Edacara is comparable to the somewhat younger Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian of British Columbia), which Stephen Jay Gould has described and interpreted so elegantly in his book Wonderful Life" (p. 25-26).

Despite all this, it remains possible that someone could argue that Raus misunderstood Gould just as I have. But then they would have to deal with a tricky little problem.

Stephen Jay Gould sorta wrote the introduction to the book. And in the introduction, he so obviously says exactly the sort of thing you would say when you write the introduction to a book in which the author has so seriously misrepresented you:

But the primary architect of this shift [toward considering extinction in paleontology] is my brilliant colleague David M. Raup. Dave may be more at home before a computer console than before a dusty drawer of fossils (and he gets his share of flak from traditionalists for this predilection), but he is the acknowledged master of quantitative approaches to the fossil record. He saw the power of the impact scenario right from the beginning, when most paleontologists were howling with rage or laughter, and refusing to consider the proposal seriously. He has made the most important discoveries and proposed the most interesting and outrageous hypotheses in the field, including the suggestion that mass extinctions may cycle with a frequency of some 26 million years. He is also the perennial Peck’s bad boy of paleontology—a hard act to maintain past the age of fifty (I am struggling with him), but truly the most sublime of all statuses in science. If Dave has any motto, it can only be: Think the unthinkable (and then make a mathematical model to show how it might work); take an outrageous idea with a limited sphere of validity and see if it might not be extendable to explain everything. This book is a wonderful exposition of this potentially valid iconoclasm, as Dave not only validates the impact scenario for one major extinction but then asks, Suppose that all extinctions, not just mass dyings but even minor removals in local areas, are caused by impacts of various sizes. What would the history of life look like then? Does the actual history of life look like this after all? (p. xv-xvi).
But obviously our credo must be "Let T-Stone be right and the rest of the world wrong." Therefore, we must conclude that Stephen Jay Gould doesn’t understand his own argument! After all, Raus says what I have said, and Gould did not see fit to respond, "You are so far from understanding this, it’s not even a misrepresentation. Why should I write an introduction to this tripe?"

Be that as it may, Raus also makes some interesting points regarding how wonderful and accurate science itself is. I realize that by repeating this I am helping to spread the heresy, but so be it.

A species is a species if a competent taxonomist says it is. Although a bit cynical, this is the operational definition most widely used in biology and paleontology (p. 14).
(Darn, there goes that precision T-Stone likes so much.)


Because the perception of trends and patterns depends so much on one's vantage point, it is difficult to view the evolutionary record objectively. This is especially true when we deal with evolution of land-dwelling vertebrate animals: amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. It is almost impossible to escape a feeling that the human species is the culmination of an upward progression--whatever "upward" may mean. This notion of progress implies that mammals are somehow better organisms than reptiles or amphibians and that humans are somehow better than other mammals. This, in turn, implies that extinctions in the past were due to the victims' deficiencies--in other words, to bad genes (p. 33).
(Darn, there goes that scientific objectivity T-Stone worships.)


Geologic dating is often so uncertain that one cannot be sure that the rocks at different sites are the same age. Even if the K-T boundary can be identified at each site--not always possible--the boundary itself may not be the same age at all sties. Suppose that at one site, the rocks deposited during the last two or three million years of the Cretaceous were eroded away before the start of the Tertiary. The K-T boundary, defined as the upper surface of the youngest Cretaceous rocks, would be several million years older than the actual age of the K-T transition (p. 76).
(Darn, there goes the ability for T-Stone to get a date. Yes, this is an example of equivocation for the purpose of humor. It’s sad that I have to point out such obvious humorous conventions, but since T-Stone would take it literally, I must do so. I mean, the poor guy takes things far more literally than even the most vicious caricatures of Fundyism would give us.)


In my experience, about as many people say, "Scientific problems rarely have simple answers," as say, "Where there is a choice, simple explanations are most likely to be correct." Both statements are rhetorical rather than analytical, and one hates to see them used as arguments for or against a theory (p. 92-93).
(Darn, there goes T-Stone’s parsimony crutch, which was already broken and impaling his armpit anyway.)


Something is not proven correct merely because it is shown to be plausible. And this is why circumstantial evidence carries little weight in a criminal court. Merely because a defendant could have committed the crime, by virtue of having the opportunity and perhaps even a motive, we cannot say that the defendant is guilty. Many explanations of extinctions are based solely on arguments of plausibility, proposing ways that extinction could have occurred. These are often granted the cynical label of Just So Stories, in honor of Rudyard Kipling's yarns about the origin of the elephant's trunk and the tiger’s stripes.

What if the proposed explanation is the best among many? Suppose we have four competing explanations, labeled A, B, C, and D. Suppose further that we have the power to assess accurately the likelihood that each is correct. Let the chance that A is correct be 40 percent and the chances for the other three be 20 percent each. Explanation A is twice as likely as any one of the others. This is fine and may give us some hope for A. But note that the odds are sixty to forty against A’s being correct. Thus, we cannot select one hypothesis merely because it is better than any of the alternatives. ...

The scientific literature, including that dealing with extinction, contains a surprising number of popular arguments based solely on the "better than any of the others" logic (p. 111-112)
(Darn, there goes T-Stone’s plausibility concept.)

And finally:

Published research articles in science tend to be advocacy statements. In scientific writing, one seldom admits puzzlement or uncertainty. Rather as in a lawyer's brief, the strongest possible case is made to support each conclusion. I don't know how this got started, but it is part of the culture. Although the practice has some benefits, it has the negative effect of polarizing the scientific community on difficult research issues--issues that do not have a clear answer but which still need discussion and a full exploration of alternative hypotheses (p. 178).
(Darn, there goes T-Stone’s peer-review process.)

By the way, since T-Stone talked about the "eyeless" trilobite, I have to add:

The two-lens nature of the trilobite eye is common in modern optical design and is called a doublet. But the shape of the upper lens is unlike any now in use either in nature or in man-made optics. Levi-Setti, with training and experience in optics, was able to recognize, however, that the shape of the upper lens of the trilobite eye is identical to designs independently published in the seventeenth century by Huygens and by Descartes. This lens shape was devised to minimize spherical aberration. The Huygens and Descartes designs were apparently never used, because other lenses were available to serve the same purpose.

The lower lens was the trilobites' idea. Levi-Setti was able to show that the doublet is necessary to avoid spherical aberration under water--something the seventeenth-century designers were not concerned with.

My point is that, even early in the Phanerozoic, organisms had evolved highly sophisticated systems--in this case, systems that in human terms would require a highly trained and imaginative optical engineer. Were trilobite eyes more effective than those of modern crabs or shrimps? We cannot answer this, because we cannot observe living trilobites. We can say only that there is no evidence that the eyes of the modern crab are better (p. 35).
(Darn, there goes what little was left of T-Stone’s credibility.)

I am so looking forward to T-Stone’s papal pronouncement that I have misrepresented Raup too. Perhaps it’s morally wrong to be rubbing my hands in eager anticipation of his continual downward spiral into oblivion.

Give that, it’s probably best if you just don’t mind me. After all, I’m only an unscientific imbecile who just can’t agree to Darwinist dogma.


  1. Is it just me but T-Stone's whining is getting old?

    Keep up the good work Peter!

  2. brilliant! my sentiments exactly. Atheists have never been able to answer my simple luddite q's about human evolution: 1.why is there almost no significant specie-al variation in hominids? 2. why is there no evidcne of progressively sophisticated hominid civilization? hominids have supposedly only had tools for about 200,000 years so where are the "tool analogs" in hominids "just prior" to minus 200,000? You cant turn evolution off, it supposedly always seeks to maximally spread the spoor of its selfish genes, so why are there no hominds with webbed feet to catch fish better, or thick cartilagenous toes to better climb trees to get fruit, what "magic" happened in the otherwise slothfully slow magna-curve of human evolution that erased all evidence of tool analogs so fast? Most vestigial evoltuionary attributes stick around, even tho apparently not necessary for millions of years.... how did hominids suddenly lose almost every "tool analog" attribute and start using physical tools 200,000 years ago? and there should be some extremely remote outland homind groups which still retain some tool analog attributes. Why are there none? and of course not one transitional hominid fossil yet, nada, zip, squat....