Footprints in the Sand

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January 11, 2010 Tags: History of Life

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

I have a confession to make. I almost hollered in frustration when I read what Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute wrote about this week’s cover story in Nature. Then I read Donald M‘s blog over at Uncommon Descent. It happened all over again—I almost hollered. I am the one who wrote that we need to imagine our exchanges as being like conversation over coffee. I am the one who indicated that as we put away our cups, we need to do so as friends. For far too long the discussion regarding this issue has been like people yelling at each other. The louder we yell, the less we hear. So here I am, coffee cup in hand, ruminating over what I fully expect was a sincere effort to do what they think is right, even though it seemed so wrong to me. I don’t want to holler, and I don’t want to be condescending, we all have to listen to each other. There is much at stake.

The Nature article describes the finding of “footprints in the mud”—some quite detailed—in what is now 395 million year old rock. This set of walks in what was then a marine intertidal zone represent the earliest vertebrate footprints ever discovered. Until last week’s publication, we didn’t know there were animals with backbones walking on land that early. This is 18 million years earlier than paleobiologists expected. I was shocked when I read the article, but my old scientific juices started to flow, too. Science thrives on unexpected results, especially when they show unequivocally that things are not as simple as they first thought. Scientists are—first and foremost—puzzle-solvers. Finding a new piece that doesn’t quite fit into the picture and then revising it accordingly is what brings great joy to being a scientist.

You may remember the excitement engendered by the 2006 report of the discovery of a well-articulated fossil in northern Canada. It contained the impression of the bones of Tiktaalik, a fish that 375 million years ago had obviously been able to support itself on land. Neil Shubin’s book, Your Inner Fish, describes the discovery of Tiktaalik. As one of my two all-time favorite science books, I wrote a blog post about it soon after we started Science and the Sacred last May. Now though, as a result of these footprints-in-the-mud, we know that neither Tiktaalik, nor any of its contemporary cousin species, was the transitional species that led to the first land vertebrates. That transition had occurred at least 18 to 20 million years earlier. As interesting as this information is, it will simply involve a revision in the timing of the origin of land vertebrates.

I am puzzled then, that Donald M. in his Uncommon Descent blog, concludes his discussion of the footprints story this way: “…as more and more discoveries like this one are forthcoming, it seems less and less likely that there even is an evolutionary tape to rewind.” Why would he conclude from this that evolution is untrue—that there was no evolutionary “tape?” Why does he think that because scientists were perhaps two percentage points off on their estimate of the timing of the origin of land vertebrates, that this puts the theory of evolution into crisis? Why does he tell people this?

Excuse me. I need to take another sip of my coffee.

Casey Luskin puts the “crisis” into a broader perspective. After telling the Tiktaalik story in his blog, he goes on to summarize four other cases where new data has emerged this year. For reasons, I do not understand he thinks that when new data arises it puts the entire theory into crisis. Here are his four other events:

  • Archaeoptrix, which has long been known to be closely related to the transitional species on the lineage from reptiles to birds, was shown to have a bone growth pattern which is more like a dinosaur than expected. This is minor tweaking. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that Archaeoptrix is the transitional species. There are likely a whole set of them and the chances that Archaeoptrix itself is on the lineage are probably quite slim. I’m not sure Luskin understands this.
  • The fossilized remains of a 4.2 million year old early hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus were described. Science magazine has declared this to be the most important discovery of 2009. True, there is some ambiguity as to whether this species was on the direct lineage to humans. It may well have been a cousin species. But we have new data and even a new species. The fact that it may or may not be on the direct lineage to humans is irrelevant to the theory of evolution. It doesn’t, in contrast to what Luskin states, even provide reason to doubt. It is beside the point.
  • A paper was published in which the authors conclude that birds may have arisen through the Archosaur lineage of reptiles rather than the dinosaur lineage. I think we can just wait for more data. I don’t know of any paleobiologist who has suggested that this creates reason to doubt that birds evolved from reptiles.
  • There was a great deal of media hype about the discovery of a primitive primate, Darwinius masillae, which lived 47 million years ago. (Primates include monkey, lemurs, apes, and humans.) For some reason this, the earliest complete primate fossil ever found, was touted by the media as a missing link to humans. All it did was fill in some missing data on very early stages of primate evolution 40 million years before the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees strolled upon the earth. It was a nice piece of data that provided a more complete story for primate evolution in general. Certainly its description and the media hype associated with it do not create reason to doubt that primates evolved.

Luskin concludes his discussion of these paleontology discoveries by citing a quotation from Francis Collins: "The evidence mounts every day to support the concept that we and all other organisms on this planet are descended from a common ancestor, and that the theory of evolution is really no longer a theory in the sense of being untested. It is a theory in the sense of gravity. It is a fact." Having quoted Collins, and having discussed the new data described above Luskin goes on to say, ”But yet we see the facts of neo-Darwinism constantly being revised.” Collins didn’t say that these five bits of the still emerging story were facts. He said that the theory of evolution is a fact. Of course, the details are being revised. Is not that how science works?

I need another sip of coffee.

Remember what Steven Benner said in his essay on December 30? “When scientists cease to be more critical of data that support their own hypotheses than data that contradict them, they soon lose the ability to distinguish reality from non-reality.” Science works through constant revision of the individual little hypotheses that make up the entire body of the theory. Luskin and Donald M don’t seem to understand this. Why did the footprints-in-the-mud make the cover of Nature magazine? Why is Ardipithecus on the cover of this week’s Science magazine? It is because scientists, when they are at their best, love to find pieces in a puzzle that don’t quite fit their pre-conceived notions.

So if ID is really science (and I believe it is), why are the scientific leaders of the movement allowing Casey Luskin and Donald M to make statements that are so illogical? With all due respect, as I wash my coffee cup and place it on the wall hanger beside the sink, I am thinking that the leaders owe it to members of the Church who are not scientists to make sure that this kind of writing ceases for good. It is not fair to the Church and it dishonors the discipline. Can we (I say ‘we’ because these people are my brothers and sisters in the family of God) get back on track? I hope so. There is much at stake.

Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Glen Davidson - #2265

January 11th 2010

Oh no, science is being practiced right before our very eyes.  And with no shame.

It’s pretty clear that Luskin would protect us from such a fate.

Glen Davidson

beaglelady - #2269

January 11th 2010

So if ID is really science, and you say you believe it is, how can it be falsified?

Mere_Christian - #2271

January 11th 2010

Hmmm, “I” am a broither in the faith and I see that my being called a “troll” by an anti-Christ (John’s description not just mine) is still up in the comments section elsewhere.

Are you really trying to get along with Church members who are “not scientists”?

When all the dust settles, the Church (all the people) we still be a reality that cannot be sent away by scientific or enlightenment rhetoric.

When will there be articles to edify The Church universal?

VMartin - #2272

January 11th 2010

I participated at the discussion under the DonaldM’‘s article “Editing the Tape..”. My point was that Charles Darwin applied model of competitive liberal society into Nature and posited it there as “Natural selection” or Natural law.

But the main idea of the article is at it’s beginning - the claim of Jay Gould:
“Replay the tape [of evolution] a million times from a Burgess [the Burgess Shale fossils]beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.”

We shouldn’t miss this crucial point debating the article. I wonder if Darrel Falk agree with the bizarre claim. If not where he sees the force that contradicts Gould’s claim (based on “scientific terms” like random mutation and natural selection which Biologos support) and how such forces could be observed. Unless such problems are solved demands like “that this kind of writing ceases for good” are premature.
Needles to say I devoted my blog to such observation - be it professor Adolf Portman, Richard Goldschmidt and others. Prominent scholars who for sure wouldn’t agree with Gould and who were no IDists.

Gregory Arago - #2276

January 11th 2010

Coffee or tea in hand are a good thing especially during some of these discussions, Darrel, I agree!

I can only offer a perspective as a non-palaeontologist as to why the mentioned Donald M. would say what he did or what he meant. So I guess you could call this a ‘psychology of science.’

Many people confuse ‘evolution’ or ‘evolutionary theory’ with ‘natural history.’

On the one hand, there are people who refuse certain features (e.g. mechanisms) of ‘evolution,’ but accept ‘natural history.’ It is a cliche to say ‘history happened.’

Luskin for example, accepts the broad theory of evolution, but doesn’t accept all of the Darwinian mechanisms. Margulis doesn’t either! What is needed then is another name for the newer ‘theory of evolution’ that breaks free from ‘Darwin’s Errors.’ Whose name do you propose?

Otoh, ‘evolution’ is an empty term scientifically if it just means ‘natural history.’

Casey Luskin (a rather decent guy if you meet him) holds a BSc. & MSc. in biology & earth sciences & an LLD. Maybe one of the problems is with American higher education?

Gregory Arago - #2281

January 11th 2010

Does Collins perhaps confuse physics with biology when he writes: “[Evolution] is a theory in the sense of gravity”?

One could suggest that “Reciprocal altruism is a theory in the sense of gravity. It is a fact.”

But what would that really ‘mean’ to people, to society?

Re: Benner’s essay, there is a concept duo that has been discussed in ‘the literature’ about it. Max Weber’s profound essay on “Science as a Vocation” (1919) speaks about the importance of presenting ‘inconvenient facts’ to one’s theories in the classroom. For Weber, this is an example of promoting one’s ‘intellectual integrity.’

I dare say we could benefit from a whole lot more of ‘intellectual integrity’ in the American culture wars over ‘evolution,’ ‘design’ and ‘creation.’

pds - #2287

January 11th 2010


Collins said, “The evidence mounts every day to support the concept that we and all other organisms on this planet are descended from a common ancestor, and that the theory of evolution is really no longer a theory in the sense of being untested. It is a theory in the sense of gravity. It is a fact.”

Collins and others are quite vague about what is “fact” and what is “theory with the details being worked out.”  Which parts of “evolution” are “facts” which will be shown to be false facts ten years from now?  We do not know.  Piltdown man was a fact once.  Straight line horse evolution was a fact once.  I could list hundreds of other examples. 

Luskin’s point it seems to me is that skepticism is warranted.  Skepticism is not “illogical.”  What specifically is illogical in his skepticism?  Science thrives on skepticism.  Why are you attacking Luskin’s so harshly?

In my opinion, Collins comparison of the theory of evolution with the law of gravity is highly misleading and harmful.  Confusing the epistemology of historical sciences with that of operational sciences will dumb down society and the church.

pds - #2295

January 11th 2010

One more thing: 

1.  Successful predictions prove the theory.

2.  Failed predictions refine the theory.

Do you not see any problem with this?

How do you falsify it?

Gordon J. Glover - #2301

January 11th 2010


“So if ID is really science, and you say you believe it is, how can it be falsified?”

Good question: I’m starting to lean towards agreeing with Darrel only becuase the nature of the claim still requires the tools of science to investigate- even if the claim could never be falsified. 

Example: the famous “face on mars” -planetary scientists told us that if the light / shadows are removed, the underlying features were very natural-looking and therefore not “intelligently designed” even though they might appear so.  Now if the face had as much detail as Mt. Rushmore, then I guess ET knows how to carve stone. 

These two extremes are easy. Now imagine a gradual progression from rubble to Roosevelt.  At what point would a reasonable person claim “design”?  Could you ever really falsify it?  I imagine that at some hypothetical point along the transition from one extreme to the other, the planetary scientists would be split 50/50.  Would the “natural” crowd be justified in saying that the “design” crowd was not scientific?  I’m not so sure.  Certainly ET could arrange a pile of rocks such that it looks natural without the light, but makes a face with the shadows.

Just thinking out loud (dangerous, I know).

Gordon J. Glover - #2305

January 11th 2010


“How do you falsify it?”

Adding a new element to the periodic table or chaning the atomic weight of a particular element by a few percentage points based on new isotope ratios does not falsify the theory of chemical periodicity.

At first I thought you were joking, but just in case you were serious, evolution is super easy to falsify.  Just find a mammal in the Cambrian, or show icongruent morphological and molecular phylogenies between major biological groups.  You could also falsify evolution using the evidence from biogeography, if it showed a pattern of species radiation inconsistent with the evolution timeline and geologic history.

In the case of molecular phylogenies, the redundancy of the standard genetic code offers incalculable possibilities for scrambling the universal tree of life without altering a single translated amino acid sequence.  But such is not the case.

Gordon J. Glover - #2308

January 11th 2010

@ Gregory,

Moreover, my use of SETI-related topics as a benchmark by which to judge some of the claims of ID is something that propoents of ID do quite frequently.  And rightly so, since the processes of distinguishing directed from undirected causes, regardless of how much or little we know about the the nature of the intelligence, are very similar.

pds - #2309

January 11th 2010


“Just find a mammal in the Cambrian”

No, scientists would just give mammals new dating, just like Darrel proposes in this post.  Mammals in the Cambrian would just lead to “refining the theory.”

“show icongruent morphological and molecular phylogenies between major biological groups.”

This has been done. 

Historical theories stand or fall on their ability to explain the evidence.  Evolution explains some well; does not explain other evidence well at all.  That is why I believe evolution partially explains the history of life on earth.

Gordon J. Glover - #2311

January 11th 2010


“No, scientists would just give mammals new dating, just like Darrel proposes in this post.  Mammals in the Cambrian would just lead to “refining the theory”

I’m no so sure.  I’d like to see what Darrel’s response to that would be.  But I don’t think common descent could survive something as paradigm-shifting as mammals in the Cambrian.

“This has been done.”

I don’t think it has for MAJOR groups.  I believe you are referring to single-celled organisms that have means by which genetic information can transfer other than reproduction.  I’m also aware that, within the primate order for example, there are subtle differences in molecular phylogenies where different methods of reconstruting trees from base sequences give slightly different results.  But when it comes to major groups, there is congruence.  And there should not be absolute congruence apart from common ancestry.

Can you give an example of “does not explain other evidence well at all”?  Thanks.

John Kwok - #2314

January 11th 2010

@ Gregory -

Have looked at Luskin’s CV and there is no indication at all that he has any expertise in biology, period (Though he may have taken one or more introductory courses, he does not possess either a bachelor’s or master’s degree).

As I noted beforehand - which I see was deleted unfortunately - if Luskin was really a “decent guy”, he’d quit his day job and join the Katy Perry band as a backup guitarist.

@ Gordon -

I think Darrel’s view is erroneous. Take a look instead at Philip Kitcher’s “Living with Darwin”, in which he makes a most persuasive case that Intelligent Design should be viewed as “dead science”, since it once inspired scientific research back in the 16th through 18th Centuries, but no longer serves any purpose as a valid scientific idea, period.

John Kwok - #2315

January 11th 2010

@ Gordon -

It was the great British biologist JBS Haldane, who observed - back in the 1920s if I’m not mistaken - that evolution would be falsified if someone found a rabbit fossil in the Cambrian. What pds doesn’t understand is that we have known how biostratigraphy - the science of correlating geological strata with fossils - works for centuries, starting with Leonard Da Vinci’s pioneering work and culminating with William Smith’s late 18th and early 19th Century landmark work (that was the subject of a popular bestseller by British author Simon Winchester a few years ago).

Gordon J. Glover - #2320

January 11th 2010


Thanks, I’ll take a look at Kitcher’s “Living with Darwin”.  For me personally, the issue is back on the table.  So I appreciate the recommendation.

John Kwok - #2322

January 11th 2010

@ Gregory -

I completely endorse Gordon’s remarks (# 2138).

While we are on the topic of answering “questions”, you have still refused to answer these, so I must conclude that you are, contrary to your claims notwithstanding, an Intelligent Design creationist (which, I might add is also confirmed by your favorable appraisal of Discovery Institute mendacious intellectual pornographer Casey Luskin):

1) Do you accept the scientific fact of biological evolution, especially since it is very well corroborated (and thus established) throughout all of biology?

2) Do you recognize the Modern Synthesis Theory of evolution as the best, most comprehensive, scientific theory currently available that accounts for the scientific fact of biological evolution?

Am looking forward to your answers, so please respond accordingly soon.

John Kwok - #2323

January 11th 2010

@ Gordon -

As far back as the early 19th Century, leading “scientific” creationists like Adam Sedgwick, the Cambridge University cleric who was Charles Darwin’s geology professor, recognized that Intelligent Design was not scientific. For Darrel to entertain that there is some scientific validity in Intelligent Design is not only incorrect, but flies in the face of credible, substantial recognition by scientists, as far back as Sedgwick’s time, who have recognized that Intelligent Design is not scientific. Please add Kitcher’s book to your reading list soon. It will be most rewarding.



Karl Giberson - #2324

January 11th 2010

On Engineering….

ID is an “engineering driven paradigm.”  I think Glover’s knowledge of engineering and clever use of engineering examples is highly relevant to this conversation.

Unlike many engineers though, Glover understands science and how nuanced it is.  The problem with engineering in general is that it is so practical. Many engineers don’t have much of a feel for how nuanced and “fuzzy” science is.

John Kwok - #2326

January 11th 2010

@ Karl -

Very, very well stated (# 2324). I concur completely.

I earnestly hope you can persuade Darrel that there is, quite frankly, nothing to be gained to consider that there is any potential scientific utility for Intelligent Design. It should be viewed instead, as eminent philosopher of science Philip Kitcher has noted, as “dead science”, and also, upon my own recommendation, as mendacious intellectual pornography.

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