A Tale of Three Creationists, Part 2
In part one of this series, I introduced Todd Wood (pictured at right), a controversial Young Earth Creationist scholar and faculty member at Bryan College. In this post, I discuss some of Todd’s previous critiques of the Old Earth Creationist organization Reasons to Believe, and his recent blog series examining the exchange between myself and Fazale Rana.
Since his pivotal 2006 paper, Todd has continued to evaluate and respond to arguments against human common ancestry brought forth by other creationists. One group that is frequently the target of Todd’s criticism is the Old-Earth Creationist group Reasons to Believe, (RTB) a group that I have recently critiqued as well (see here and here). The striking genetic similarities between humans and chimpanzees presents a difficulty for the RTB view that humans were directly created by God apart from common ancestry with other species. One RTB rationalization for the evidence is that since humans and other life are formed from the dust of the ground in the Genesis narratives, such similarities are to be expected:
Genesis 2:7 describes the creation of Adam and states that God “formed the man from the dust of the ground.” The verb “formed” is translated from the original Hebrew verb yasar, which means “to form,” “to fashion,” or “to produce.” Genesis 2:19 uses yasar to describe God’s work to form “out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air.” Together, these verses indicate that both man and animals were fashioned by the Creator from the same substance. It follows, then, that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities should exist between humans and other animals, including the “99% genetic similarity” between humans and chimpanzees.
While RTB views this as a reasonable line of argument, Todd does not. The fatal flaw, as both Todd and I see it, is that this rationalization does not explain the pattern of biological similarity we see in nature:
Being created by one God would be a good reason for some degree of similarity to exist. Likewise, being created to occupy the same world or to participate in the same ecosystem would also necessitate some biological similarity. These types of considerations could explain why all living things use the same basic biochemical building blocks (amino acids, nucleotides, etc.), for example.
What these considerations do not explain is the pattern of similarity. This is quite a different problem that is easy to confuse with the fact of similarity. What we're dealing with in creation is not just bare similarity or random similarity. There is a definite pattern, and it's a pattern that Darwin says is uniquely explained by the inference of common ancestry …
When are building materials sufficient to justify a conclusion that things built will be strongly similar in form? If I get two homework assignments that are identical word-for-word, I do not conclude that the similarity is inevitable given that they're both written in English.
In other words, RTB is content to present a weak argument they feel is theologically satisfying even if it fails to grapple with the compelling pattern that scientists observe throughout nature. Todd, however, isn’t having any of it. He would rather understand the pattern than find ways to explain it away.
Given my appreciation for Todd and his approach, I was pleased to discover Todd’s blog series examining my recent critiques (see here and here) of Reasons to Believe’s “Testable Creation Model”. I found several aspects of RTB’s response to be inadequate, as I will explain below. Still, when one is personally invested in a discussion it can be difficult to evaluate a rebuttal objectively. Far better to have another, more impartial individual look it over and offer their thoughts. Todd is an ideal candidate for this. He is eminently qualified to evaluate the science, he is familiar with the RTB literature, and, since he is a Young-Earth Creationist, he certainly cannot be accused of a pro-evolutionary bias.
Todd starts the series by explaining his motivations:
In my last post before Christmas, I indicated that I would be discussing Reasons to Believe in my next posts. Unfortunately, what started as a single response to some of Fuz Rana's recent assertions about the chimpanzee genome has turned into a long series of posts. Having written almost the entire series of posts already, I've become discouraged by the length and detail of my criticisms. I have even debated whether or not I should bother posting what I've written, since I'm sure it will be either ignored by RTB or misconstrued as personal attack or insult. Despite that, though, I do think I have a duty to the public and to the truth to set the record straight on a topic that I'm familiar with: comparative primate genomics.
In his first post, Todd addressed the accusation that my critique was merely an ad hominem attack on RTB. In my critique, I was careful not to accuse RTB of wrongdoing. That is certainly one possible explanation for the data I laid out in the original critique, but it is not the only explanation. My intent was to make the data accessible to non-specialists and allow them to see what a biologist sees when they look at the RTB model. So, I found this response from RTB to be somewhat puzzling. Todd’s evaluation was similar to mine:
In his first response to Venema's post, Rana wrote,
...instead of discussing the scientific weaknesses of our approach, Venema chose to launch an ad hominem attack against me and Hugh Ross, impugning our integrity as scientists and scholars.
I think that interpretation is pretty debatable. Venema raised some very important questions … about the way RTB has represented published research. He never accused anyone at RTB of any specific wrongdoing or incompetence. By dismissing these issues as just a personal "attack," I would say that Rana is far more guilty of argumentum ad hominem than Venema ever was.
An additional point is that critiquing a model for failing to adequately address the scientific literature is very much a scientific critique. If I submit a scientific paper for publication that makes claims clearly against the published literature, while simultaneously omitting any discussion of the relevant research, the reviewers would, without a doubt, reject my work. That’s not an ad hominem attack on their part, it’s pointing out a scientific weakness in my scholarship. The RTB model, as published in their major books, makes no mention of the key paper comparing the human and chimpanzee genomes. The most recent RTB book, More Than a Theory, even claims that a full-genome comparison has never been done. Moreover, no explanation or evidence is given to back up these assertions. Regardless of the reasons for these omissions, the fact remains that they are a serious scientific shortcoming for the RTB model.
Todd’s thorough analysis eventually spanned eight posts on his blog, and links to each post are provided below for those interested in the details. Having gone over RTB’s response with a fine-toothed comb, Todd offers some conclusions for RTB to consider:
Venema and I have documented a sad but consistent and ongoing pattern of erroneous summaries of published works on the part of RTB (Rana and Ross, but mostly Rana). There's really no way to deny these mistakes have been made or to explain them away, so what are you going to do about them? I recommend apologizing for the mistakes, correcting them if you can, and instituting some kind of serious fact-checking filter on everything you publish.
Todd goes on to challenge RTB to live up to their stated invitation for serious critique of their model:
Rana claimed that "We do invite serious critique of our model (both theological and scientific). We believe that critical evaluation of our ideas will only improve our case for biblical creation." Fine. Venema did that in his critique. You ignored a number of important points he raised and instead mischaracterized his critique as a personal attack, which it was not. I've also offered a serious critique in the fourth post of this series, where I tested Rana's hypothesis that the unaligned portions of the chimp genome are too different to align. Will you ignore that as well? If so, please stop saying that you "invite serious critique" of the RTB model.
I’m hopeful that RTB won’t ignore what Todd has to say. Todd’s blog might not get a huge amount of traffic, but he is an important voice in this discussion. Hopefully posting this here on Biologos will raise Todd’s visibility with those who need to hear what he has to say most: RTB supporters. Folks, when two Christian geneticists who hold radically different views of creation agree that the RTB model has serious scientific flaws, it’s time to ask hard questions.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.