Theology According to P.Z. Myers

Over on The Panda’s Thumb blog, Darwinian apologist P.Z. Myers recently posted a pejorative laden critique of a review article by Casey Luskin. Luskin was responding to a recent New York Times article on a study purporting to show how certain genes in fish might hold an important clue on how fins turned to feet.

I won’t rehearse the articles here, you can read them in the links. Rather, I want to look a bit more closely at Myer’s critique of Luskin’s article and the supposedly “scientific” problems he has with Luskin. He begins by highlighting a quote from Luskin’s article where Luskin writes, “Hox genes are known to be widely conserved among vertebrates, so the fact that homology was found between Hox-gene-associated DNA across these organisms isn’t very surprising.”

Myers goes right after this simple observation:

Stop, Casey, and think. Here’s this fascinating observation, that we keep finding conserved genes and conserved regulatory regions between mice and fish, which ought to tell you something, and your argument against a specific example is that it isn’t rare? It really tells you something when your critics’ rebuttal to a piece of evidence is that you’ve got so much evidence for your position that they’re tuning out whenever you talk about the detais.

This is Luskin’s approach to every example given in the NY Times article: ‘Yeah? So? There are homologous genes all over the place!’ I think Luskin might just live forever, which thrills me to pieces. He could get into a running gun battle with a mob from Answers in Genesis, be riddled with bullets, and he’ll just point to a nick in his ear and say, “Yeah, so? This one didn’t kill me!” and then dismiss all the other wounds because they’re so common that no one should care any more. It is truly the logic of immortals.

The specific example he’s addressing in his dismissal of Hox conservation, though, is a region of DNA that may play a role in mammals in the formation of the placenta. Luskin pooh-poohs the relevance of this observation by highlighting what we don’t know, rather than the evidence at hand.

Pejoratives aside, the crux of Myers comment is that he thinks the explanation for all these homologous Hox genes ought to be plainly obvious to Luskin (or anyone else for that matter), “Stop, Casey, and think. Here’s this fascinating observation, that we keep finding conserved genes and conserved regulatory regions between mice and fish, which ought to tell you something…” Well, it did tell Luskin something…just not the something Myers thinks it should have. Here’s what Luskin actually wrote in his article (which Myers refers to as a “tirade” – so brace yourself!)

The real story isn’t quite that interesting. According to the Nature paper, a particular region of DNA associated with a Hox gene cluster in the coelocanth genome showed sequence homology with a stretch of Hox gene-related DNA in tetrapods. Hox genes are known to be widely conserved among vertebrates, so the fact that homology was found between Hox-gene-associated DNA across these organisms isn’t very surprising. The authors aren’t sure exactly what this particular segment of DNA does, though it’s probably a promoter region. In mice the corresponding homologous region is associated with Hox genes that are important for forming the placenta. Ergo, we’ve solved the mystery of how the placenta evolved. Right?

Not really. Again, all that was found was a little homologous promoter region in Hox-gene related DNA in these two types of organisms. Given that we don’t even understand exactly what these genes do or how they work, obviously the study offered no discussion of what mutations might have provided an evolutionary advantage. No evolutionary pathway was proposed, or even discussed. So there’s not much meat to this story, other than a nice little region of homology between two shared, functional pieces of Hox-gene-related DNA. But of course, such shared functional DNA could be the result of common design and need not indicate common descent or Darwinian evolution.

Luskin’s point is quite simple. The evidence cited in the original study in Nature, which was the focus of the New York Times story, is as easily explained by common design as common descent. Later in his article, Luskin reiterates the point:

Again, it’s well known that Hox genes are conserved throughout most vertebrates, including fish (like the coelacanth) and tetrapods (like mice). In this case, the genetically homologous enhancer in the two organisms seems to have had a similar, homologous function as well: in coelacanth it enhanced a Hox gene for building fins, and in mice it enhanced a Hox gene for building limbs. This similarity of function and genetic role makes it unsurprising that that these enhancers had a similar DNA sequence. The similarity of function, genetic role, and DNA sequence is thus interesting, but it’s not overly surprising to find that it sort of worked when inserted in a mouse.

But what’s evolution got to do with any of this? The experiment worked because of functional and genetic similarities between the coelacanth enchancer and the mouse enchancer. Once again, such similarities of sequence and function could be explained by common design and don’t necessarily tell us much about common descent.

Of course, Luskin’s point is well taken, as there is no real scientific reason to reject common design in favor of common descent. But that is exactly what P.Z. Myers thinks is the case. Here’s the crux of Myer’s argument and critique of Luskin:

The key point is the known information: this snippet of DNA is highly conserved across all vertebrates, but the gene it is associated with has decayed in sharks and disappeared entirely in tetrapods. The question is how the switch has persisted: Luskin’s preferred explanation is that God spliced this particular piece of DNA into every vertebrate species; the scientific explanation is that it shows a pattern of shared history, and that its role is conserved in tetrapods because it has found a novel function in regulating a different gene.

Notice how Myers compares the two explanations: Luskin’s “common design” comment is translated as “God did it that way” (even though Luskin doesn’t mention God a single time in his article) while Myer’s explanation is the “scientific explanation”….the pattern of “shared history”.

And lest we miss the point, Myers concludes with:

The evolutionary explanation requires three mundane events, the simple loss of a gene in an ancestral population.

The Intelligent Design creationist explanation requires that every extant species was specifically and intentionally stocked with a set of genes hand-chosen by a designer. God magically inserted IgM into each vertebrate species, except that he missed the coelacanths, and he magically inserted IgW into each and every shark, ray, coelacanth, and lungfish, but he intentionally left them out of every tetrapod and teleost.

Myers can’t resist throwing in the word “creationist”, likely for its emotive, pejorative value and uses “Intelligent Design” as a modifier. Then mentions God again, and magic. It is clear that Myers will accept only the common ancestry explanation. But is he making an actual scientific case against Luskin’s position?

Well, no, not really. Remove the ad hominems, which are colorful and plentiful in Myers post, and Myers actual argument boils down to something like this: 1 – we observe numerous homologies of highly conserved genes across widely divergent species 2 – God or an intelligent designer really wouldn’t have done it that way (magically or otherwise), ERGO, it can only be attributed to common ancestry. Game over…Darwinism triumphant. Except, there’s a problem for Myers here. That second premise doesn’t seem all that scientific to me. Its a theological (or at least metaphysical) premise. What’s a theological premise doing in what is supposed to be a purely scientific argument?

Perhaps Myers could enlighten us as to how or where or by whom it has been determined that if God had in fact created all the various species, He most certainly would not have done so using all these homologous genes. He would have designed everything uniquely, starting from scratch with each species. If that particular hypothesis has been tested and confirmed scientifically somewhere, I would really like to read the peer reviewed research study in the relevant science journal. If there is no such study (hint: there isn’t!), then on what scientific basis does Myers reject the concept of common design as a viable explanation?

Here’s a challenge to P.Z. Myers, and its a purely scientific one, so well within his wheelhouse. How do we know scientifically (not philosophically, metaphysically or theologically) that the properties of biological systems are such that the observed homologies across divergent species can only be the result common ancestry and can not be attributed to common design, even in principle? When Myers or anyone else publishes the purely scientific research study that confirms that hypothesis, I would love to read it. Until that happens, what we have here is yet another example of philosophical prejudice masquerading as “scientific explanation”.

While it is not surprising in the least to read this sort of post over at The Panda’s Thumb, it is worth noting that there is nothing new in this of critique. The late Stephen J. Gould wrote in his book The Panda’s Thumb (the namesake for the blog site),

Our text books like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design–nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative: But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution–paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.

Gould is making the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” argument as “proof” of evolution.  God, it seems, according to Gould, would do “perfect” design – whatever that is supposed to look like!  This is exactly the path taken by Myers and is the main focus of his beef with Luskin’s article. “Common design? Pah! Are you kidding me!?! No God would have done it that way!” Maybe not, but where’s the scientific basis for that premise?  Gould never provided one, and Myers for sure hasn’t.  The only critique Myers has about Luskin is a theological one, and its not a very good one at that.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

16 Responses to Theology According to P.Z. Myers

  1. Gould is making the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” argument as “proof” of evolution.

    He’s just following Darwin’s example. That was Darwin’s primary line of reasoning in The Origin, and remains a favorite of evolutionists today. There is nothing so ironic as the militant atheist — who doesn’t believe in God — arguing so strenuously about what God (you know, that non-existent being that the atheist thinks he knows so well) would or would not have done.

    It is pretty hard to take Myers seriously, as he refuses to or is incapable of understanding a basic point like what Luskin was making. Reasonable minds may differ on some aspects, but his militant, emotional and misrepresentative approach is a fail.

    Incidentally, I’ve always found it amusing that the Panda’s Thumb is named as such, because it was intended originally to be an example of suboptimal design, the sort of thing that God would never do (precisely along the lines of the philosophical/religious argument for evolution above). Later we’ve learned that the panda’s thumb is very well suited to its biological task. But the name lives on, the irony of the name laughing quietly in the background of the clueless thinking that gave rise to the name in the first place.

  2. 2

    For once I’d like to hear these guys explain how they think God would have done it, just for a change. Might be too risky for them though.

  3. That was Darwin’s primary line of reasoning in The Origin,

    Citation needed, I think.

  4. “Citation needed, I think”

    Cite in article >>

  5. wd400, “Citation needed”

    Charles Darwin, Theologian: Major New Article on Darwin’s Use of Theology in the Origin of Species – May 2011
    Excerpt: I have argued that, in the first edition of the Origin, Darwin drew upon at least the following positiva theological claims in his case for descent with modification (and against special creation):

    1. Human begins are not justfied in believing that God creates in ways analogous to the intellectual powers of the human mind.
    2. A God who is free to create as He wishes would create new biological limbs de novo rather than from a common pattern.
    3. A respectable deity would create biological structures in accord with a human conception of the ‘simplest mode’ to accomplish the functions of these structures.
    4. God would only create the minimum structure required for a given part’s function.
    5. God does not provide false empirical information about the origins of organisms.
    6. God impressed the laws of nature on matter.
    7. God directly created the first ‘primordial’ life.
    8. God did not perform miracles within organic history subsequent to the creation of the first life.
    9. A ‘distant’ God is not morally culpable for natural pain and suffering.
    10. The God of special creation, who allegedly performed miracles in organic history, is not plausible given the presence of natural pain and suffering.

    The Descent of Darwin – Pastor Joe Boot – (The Theodicy of Charles Darwin) – video

    And still today we find that the primary line of argumentation from Darwinists is based in Theology:

    The role of theology in current evolutionary reasoning – Paul A. Nelson – Biology and Philosophy, 1996, Volume 11, Number 4, Pages 493-517
    Excerpt: Evolutionists have long contended that the organic world falls short of what one might expect from an omnipotent and benevolent creator. Yet many of the same scientists who argue theologically for evolution are committed to the philosophical doctrine of methodological naturalism, which maintains that theology has no place in science. Furthermore, the arguments themselves are problematical, employing concepts that cannot perform the work required of them, or resting on unsupported conjectures about suboptimality. Evolutionary theorists should reconsider both the arguments and the influence of Darwinian theological metaphysics on their understanding of evolution.

    Dr. Seuss Biology | Origins with Dr. Paul A. Nelson – video

    In this following video Dr. William Lane Craig is surprised to find that evolutionary biologist Dr. Ayala uses theological argumentation to support Darwinism and invites him to present evidence, any evidence at all, that Darwinism can do what he claims it can:

    Refuting The Myth Of ‘Bad Design’ vs. Intelligent Design – William Lane Craig – video

    Here, at about the 55:00 minute mark in the following video, Phillip Johnson sums up his, in my opinion, excellent lecture by noting that the refutation of his book, ‘Darwin On Trial’, in the Journal Nature, the most prestigious science journal in the world, was a theological argument about what God would and would not do and therefore Darwinism must be true, and the critique from Nature was not a refutation based on any substantiating scientific evidence for Darwinism that one would expect to be brought forth in such a prestigious venue to support such a, supposedly, well supported scientific theory:

    Darwinism On Trial (Phillip E. Johnson) – lecture video

    And in the following quote, Dr. John Avise explicitly uses Theodicy to try to make the case for Darwinism:

    It Is Unfathomable That a Loving Higher Intelligence Created the Species – Cornelius Hunter – June 2012
    Excerpt: “Approximately 0.1% of humans who survive to birth carry a duplicon-related disability, meaning that several million people worldwide currently are afflicted by this particular subcategory of inborn metabolic errors. Many more afflicted individuals probably die in utero before their conditions are diagnosed. Clearly, humanity bears a substantial health burden from duplicon-mediated genomic malfunctions. This inescapable empirical truth is as understandable in the light of mechanistic genetic operations as it is unfathomable as the act of a loving higher intelligence. [112]” – Dr. John Avise – “Inside The Human Genome”
    There you have it. Evil exists and a loving higher intelligence wouldn’t have done it that way.

    What’s more ironic is that Dr. John Avise’s theological argumentation for Darwinism from the overwhelming rate of deleterious mutations in humans turns out to be, in fact (without Darwinian Theological blinders on), a very powerful ‘scientific’ argument against Darwinism being true:

    Ironically, the argument from evil, which Darwinists unwittingly continually use as a ‘scientific argument’, which is in reality a Theologically based moral argument, (i.e. without God there can be no objective morality), comes back to bite Darwinists again and again. For if the world truly is amoral as atheists hold, (“at bottom nothing but blind pitiless indifference”: Dawkins), then neo-Darwinists truly have no right to complain as to what is truly good or evil in the world in the first place since morality is merely an illusion in their worldview. PZ Myers himself learned a little about this dilemma for Darwinists from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, when he dared to offer his opinion on the Gosnell murder trial:

    ‘Stop Being a Baby’ – May 8, 2013
    Excerpt: P.Z. Myers, who was trying to argue that the charges against Gosnell do not in any way implicate the abortion industry more broadly. We wrote that Myers had gone off the rails

    Such problems go much, much, deeper against neo-Darwinism, for if atheism is true then, not only does moral speculation become an exercise in futility, but science itself would not be possible for our ‘immaterial’ cognitive faculties of reasoning would not be reliable. (Plantinga Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism).

  6. put more simply, neo-Darwinism is dependent upon Theism in order to make itself seem scientific but if neo-Darwinism were actually true then science would be rendered impossible:

    The Great Debate: Does God Exist? – Justin Holcomb – audio of the 1985 debate available on the site
    Excerpt: The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything. The atheist worldview is irrational and cannot consistently provide the preconditions of intelligible experience, science, logic, or morality. The atheist worldview cannot allow for laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the ability for the mind to understand the world, and moral absolutes. In that sense the atheist worldview cannot account for our debate tonight.,,,

    Comprehensibility of the world – niwrad – April 4, 2013
    Excerpt: ,,,Bottom line: without an absolute Truth, (there would be) no logic, no mathematics, no beings, no knowledge by beings, no science, no comprehensibility of the world whatsoever.

    “nobody to date has yet found a demarcation criterion according to which Darwin(ism) can be described as scientific” – Imre Lakatos (November 9, 1922 – February 2, 1974) a philosopher of mathematics and science, quote was as stated in 1973 LSE Scientific Method Lecture

    The Heretic – Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? – March 25, 2013
    Excerpt: Neo-Darwinism insists that every phenomenon, every species, every trait of every species, is the consequence of random chance, as natural selection requires. And yet, Nagel says, “certain things are so remarkable that they have to be explained as non-accidental if we are to pretend to a real understanding of the world.”,,,
    ,,,Fortunately, materialism is never translated into life as it’s lived. As colleagues and friends, husbands and mothers, wives and fathers, sons and daughters, materialists never put their money where their mouth is. Nobody thinks his daughter is just molecules in motion and nothing but; nobody thinks the Holocaust was evil, but only in a relative, provisional sense. A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

  7. Of semi-related note; I liked this video I found the other day as to contrasting competing worldviews:

    Pascal’s Anthropological Argument – video

  8. Folks, with all due respect to PZM et al, this is beginning to look a lot like Orwellian doublethink, doubletalk language corruption games. Something that needs to be highlighted across the board and corrected. KF

  9. KF – Yes, I think you’re right. There is a doublespeak feel to all this. Science is only what they say is science. Onoly they correctly understand the workings of the cosmos or biological systems. The ID proponent is always in the wrong, no matter what. Even if a sound, logical argument is made, if it is made by an ID proponent, it is rejected, scoffed at, even though the very same logic can and often is applied by one of their own.

    I also agree it needs to be exposed every time it shows up. Especially when it shows up masquerading as some kind of “sound” scientific argument!

  10. Selective hyperskepticism.

  11. How do you people respond to these allegations of empirically-proven speciation in plants, if – Broadway Danny Rose-like – I may interject?

  12. ‘The only critique Myers has about Luskin is a theological one, and its not a very good one at that.’

    It’s odd, isn’t it? Atheists seem to consider theology their forte! And that it consequently provides them with their Get Out Of Jail Free’ card. Though they flourish it, as though it were their trump card, destroying their adversaries with the hardest of empirical evidence.

    Well, it’s not odd for atheists. Alas, such desperation is not a good counsellor in empirical science, any more than it would be in any other field.

    When we need an atheist’s considered opinion on theology, Mr Myers, we’ll let you know. But don’t call us, there’s a good chap. And I promise we’ll call you, when we are curious about the myriad subtleties of the atheist world-view.

  13. Axel in #12. “Atheists consider theology to be their forte”.

    Yes, it is odd isn’t it? They claim expertise in a subject the main focus of which they deny actually exists. I once had an atheist tell me in some online discussion or other that if there were any such being as an actual God, nothing could ever be known about him. The obvious self-refutation of his comment seemed to completely escape him.

    For people who spend a lot OF time, effort, money and words trying to convince everyone of God’s non-existence, they sure seem to know an awful lot about what God would or would not do…if he actually existed…which he doesn’t…we think…we hope…er, at least we’re 88% sure he doesn’t, or maybe 68%…er, well he almost certainly doesn’t exist. (The title of Chapter 3 of Dawkins’s The God Delusion.)

  14. Man, I can not say this for sure. But I believe that pz has developed a following of people that desperately want to believe naturalistic processes, what ever those are scientifically, can explain among other things, us. For whatever reasons. Inadequate science, but does the trick in other ways for, I dont know, for monetary profit, or a desire to be correct, or justification of some sort of philosophical predisposition. Just dont know. would like to understand better. pz, can you respond to these questions.

  15. I’m always amused by atheists who insist that “God wouldn’t have done it that way”. It makes me think that the real message of evolution isn’t that change occurs over time in all species but rather that God doesn’t exist and is unnecessary.

Leave a Reply