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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hm - #2332

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.”

I recommend two books:
1. Del Ratzsch: Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science

2. Mike Gene: The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues
See also Gene’s blog

Gordon J. Glover - #2333

January 11th 2010

@John Kwok,

I’m curious how you would respond to my “thought experiment” in #2301 if the planetary scientists were split 50/50, and one side accused the others’ hypothesis of not being scientific.  Does the lack of any direct evidence for ET intelligence render the claim unscientific from the get-go?

Now obviously when it comes to origin of life issues, such reasoning either leads to theories of panspermia, or to faith in a transcendent immaterial creator—and invoking an immaterial mind to account for molecular machinery only replaces the “DNA enigma” with the “mind-body” problem which is taking one step forward and two steps back. 

But still, are not we still doing science when we ask/answer qeustions about whether a structure is the product of mind or matter? (cont…)

Gordon J. Glover - #2334

January 11th 2010


Here is another example: the other day I was working at home at the breakfast table and heard a strange noise coming from my office.  But every time I walked towards my office to investigate, the noice stopped.  When I returned to the breakfast table, the noise started up again.  I did this several times and concluded that the noise was coming from a critter (ie: something alive that could sense my presence and “descide” not to make noise).  At it turned out, it was the speakers on my computer that were making static.  I still can’t explain why the first few times I walked in the room they stopped, but I could have just as easily been right since the noise sounded just like a rat chewing a hole in a ceiling tile. 

So in this case, I assumedthe cause of the phenomena was ‘intelligence’ and I was wrong.  But does being wrong mean that the qeustion was not scientific?  Once all the facts came out, I realized that the noise was *not* the product of intelligence.  But given the initial pattern of stopping and starting every time I entered / exited the room, was that not a reasonable first hypothesis?

Gordon J. Glover - #2338

January 11th 2010

Thanks Karl, I appreciate the support!

Mere_Christian - #2339

January 11th 2010

Mr. Falk, BioLogos guys et al, do you agree with Kwok here that Intelligent Design scientists are “liars?”

Yes, or no, would be the appropriate response.

Especially if you ever want to be on the “eminent” person list.

John Kwok - #2340

January 11th 2010

@ Gordon -

I would support the side in question that had clear, quite persuasive (in other words, robust) evidence for their position. As for origin of life issues, including the possibility of panspermia (which, I have invoked sarcastically as KRID (Kwok - Roddenberry Intelligent Design hypothesis), having postulated that the primordial Earth was seeded with microbes approximately 4.1 Billion Years ago via Klingons who travelled backwards in time), that’s interesting stuff, but it does not bear directly on the issue as to whether Intelligent Design could be a better, more comprehensive, “scientific theory” than the Modern Synthesis Theory of Evolution in accounting for the origin, history and current composition of Planet Earth’s biodiversity (which less emphasis on origin and substantially more on both history and current composition).



beaglelady - #2343

January 11th 2010

If ID is science, why don’t ID proponents conduct research and present their findings at scientific meetings and/or in peer-reviewed journals?  Why do they side-step the scientific process and go first to schoolboys and schoolgirls?

Darrel Falk - #2345

January 11th 2010

Several of you have wondered about my parenthetical statement in which I stated that I think ID is science. John Kwok is one and I appreciate his concern. However, John, if you have not yet read “Signature in the Cell,” I think you might benefit from doing so. Steve Meyer makes a good point of showing that ID functions in a manner that is analogous to historical science. Also, as I see it, ID functions in a manner that is similar to what Kuhn describes in his discussion of paradigms.

Darrel Falk - #2346

January 11th 2010


So to me the question is not, is this science? I think it can be viewed that way. To me the question is how good is this science? To be very frank, and I’m picking up my coffee cup again, it is really bad science. I think many people had hopes for it 15 years ago. However, as more books have come out and even some papers have been written, it is clear that the biology that is being done is about as poor as one can imagine. Much of the biology is so poorly researched (in my humble opinion) that it would not be worthy of an undergraduate honors thesis in a biology department.

I shudder to say this, because unlike John, I really do believe these folk are sincere brothers and sisters. However, I owe it to the Church to let people know…if this is science (and I think it is) it is science at its poorest.


Glen Davidson - #2353

January 11th 2010

I think that ID could be science, or at least close enough to science that there’s little need to argue about it.

But clearly they’re not starting with a meaningful design cause(s) and making entailed predictions from that (those).  Indeed, when you try to inject something like this, such as asking whether life’s development indicates foresight, rationality, and/or purpose, they complain that you’re “doing theology” (which doesn’t keep Meyer from claiming that the “Designer” is an adept program in certain venues).

Glen Davidson

Glen Davidson - #2355

January 11th 2010

Continuing from #2353:

Looking at life and saying that it’s complex and that somehow ID predicts that and nothing normally known from designers can only be considered to be pseudoscience in my opinion.  It’s a pretense at science, for it avoids entailment—knowing that would lead to falsification, claims that historical sciences are fundamentally different than chemistry and physics (no, they all dovetail together), avoids their duty to explain what present theories do, operates on a level of loose analogy that is not appropriate to science (but is familiar in religion), and try to say that ID predicts complexity without having any kind of causal process identified which would lead to such phenomena.

I can see nothing in it that amounts to even bad science.  Paley came up with something that might be faulted as science, given the way it cherry picks evidence, but was at least a hypothesis that could readily be considered by science.  Today’s ID tries to subvert the normal practice of testing entailed predictions.

Glen Davidson

Charlie - #2356

January 11th 2010

Try to look at this from a different perspective.  Millions of years in the future, a fossil of today’s frog or salamander could be considered the transition from water to land.  We have to remember that evolution goes at different rates.  If there is no pressure on a species forcing it to adapt, it will not change that much.  Just look at the croc or shark.

Charlie - #2359

January 11th 2010

To pds - #2295,

You can disprove theories.  It happens all the time (geocentric universe, the atom is the smallest fundamental unit, etc.)

John Kwok - #2361

January 11th 2010

@ Darrel -

Not only have I read “Signature”, but I obtained a free copy from Meyer’s HarperOne publicist for the purpose of writing an review (which is posted along with yours BTW). If I hadn’t read Meyer’s book, then how would I be able to criticize his erroneous conception of biology as, strictly speaking, a “historical” science and question his contention that Intelligent Design is scientific because it is capable of producing testable scientific hypotheses (e. g. his arguments about assessing “deviations” from perfect Design).

Oh sure, I may slide in a comment or two with sarcasm about Klingons, but I am doing so for valid reasons, merely to illustrate the ample breathtaking inanity seen from not only Meyer’s work, but sadly, from virtually all of his acolytes here.

karl Giberson - #2366

January 11th 2010

Kwok is Kwazy

John:  I am amazed that you continue to think that hyperbolic rhetoric is helpful. All it is, is interesting. There are people I read and listen to that I find entertaining because of their rhetoric.  Ann Coulter is one of my favorites.  She seems incredibly wrong on everything, but she writes over the top so I read her like I would listen to a Sat nite live skit—expecting zero illumination, but lots of fun.  Glenn Beck is the same. 

It might be interesting to call ID “mendacious intellectual pornography” but do you think anyone actually learns anything useful from that characterization?  And, when Newton and Kepler made ID arguments, were they being intellectually pornographic?

karl Giberson - #2367

January 11th 2010

ID as science

What is the status of theories that have been refuted, or abandoned by science?  This is an interesting question, with no clear answer.  It is widely accepted that Darwin refuted Paley.  Now Paley was an ID guy so, if Darwin’s science refutes Paley’s ID, does that mean that ID had to be science?

By Karl Popper’s falsification criteria “irreducible complexity” is clearly scientific.  Ken Miller and others have at least partially refuted several of Behe’s case studies so Behe’s ideas were at least falsifiable. Of course, Popper is just one referee and maybe not the best one.

I think a better question is whether things are “true” or not.

Unapologetic Catholic - #2371

January 11th 2010

“I think a better question is whether things are “true” or not.”

That is Larry Laudan’s position as well.  So it may not be usedful to put ID in a particular category of “failed science,”  “proto-science,” or psuedo science” and it is possible for ID to be in some or all of these categories at the same time.

The actual post, however, by Dennis Falk pretty much says that some ID proponents are misrepresenting the science. 

That is unquestinably “true.” 

This pattern of misrepresentation has been going for so long that John Kwok for one considers the msirepresentaiton to be intentional.

Others are perhaps more forgiving and consider the misrepsresentations to be merely ineptitude.

Eitehr way, Dennis Falk appears to be calling upon all scientists of integrity to identify this consistent misrepersnwation for what it is—disregarding motive if necessary. 

I agree with his clarion call.

John Kwok - #2374

January 11th 2010

Karl -

Of course there is the question as to whether Intelligent Design creationism itself was ever a valid portion of science. After reading Philip Kitcher’s cogent, terse, and brilliant, “Living with Darwin”, I am convinced that it should be seen as “dead science”, as a scientific idea which was once useful to the likes of Kepler and Newton, but, as I have noted, was discarded and refuted by genuine “scientific” creationists like Darwin’s Cambridge geology professor, Adam Sedgwick. Since it is “dead science”, I don’t think there is any need to give it its due, especially when its ongoing interest in “biological information” - which Darrel has mentioned as its most positive aspect - has been rejected soundly by credible mathematicians such as Jeffrey Shallit (who may have been on Dembski’s Ph. D. dissertation committee at the University of Chicago’s mathematics department).

John Kwok - #2375

January 11th 2010

Karl -

I hope you were merely kidding when you dubbed me “krazy”, because I don’t want to think that both you and Darrel may be delusional in your partially positive assessment of some in the Intelligent Design community, even those at the Discovery Institute whom you regard as reasonable. May I suggest that you and the rest of BioLogos resist the temptation of seeking such ties, since there are many others - not only the Militant Atheists (my term for the New Atheists) - who might view BioLogos as a stealth ally of the Discovery Institute (Indeed that very point has been discussed over at Panda’s Thumb at some length, and I am sure both Glen Davidson and beaglelady would confirm this as well.).

Respectfully yours,

John Kwok

Glen Davidson - #2376

January 11th 2010

I did not address the question of whether or not “irreducible complexity” (IC) is falsifiable, and gave the reason why I didn’t—it isn’t entailed by ID.  At all.  How could it be, when they have no identified, or even defined, cause?

It is sometimes addressed by biologists because conceivably irreducible complexity in life could falsify evolution (depending on how it’s defined, and whether or not scaffolding is considered to produce “irreducible complexity”).  Only the false dilemma that ID relies upon (if not evolution, then design) is supposed to relate IC to ID, but, since it’s a false dilemma, it does not.

I did not use forms of “entail” in my comment superfluously.

Glen Davidson

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