Mar 30 2013

The last intelligent creationist


Earlier today, Maggie Koerth-Baker posted this tweet:

I dig this graph, but I think it misses an outreach opportunity by ascribing common misconceptions to creationists only bouncingdodecahedrons.tumblr.com/post/17808416988

It links to a diagram showing evolution as a linear path rather than a branching tree, and it got me thinking about terribly popular misconceptions about evolution that were started by smart people, and a doozy came to mind. A whole collection of doozies, actually, from one single terribly clever person.

You’ve all heard the stupid creationist objection to evolution — “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — but have you ever wondered who the first person to come up with that criticism was? You might be surprised.

The first instance I’ve been able to find was by Richard Owen, head of the British Museum and one of the premiere scientists of his day, and it was said in a rather notorious review of Darwin’s Origin, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1860. So not a stupid fellow, but one with an axe to grind, and also a creationist…but then, just about everyone was a creationist in 1860. Still, it’s a remarkable document.

Some background you need to know, though. This review was authored by Owen. When it needs to cite a scientist for its claims, it cites…Professor Richard Owen. It does so 11 times. Reading it with knowledge of its authorship really diminishes its authority to an amazing degree, and greatly inflates Owen’s appearance of pomposity.

It’s also an agonizing read. Darwin sometimes sounds a bit quaint and wordy nowadays, but at least he’s lucid and logical, and his writing flows well: I found Owen’s review to be a rough read, turgid and inelegant. I know I’ve got a bit of a bias which colors my opinion, but seriously, when you read the excerpt below, you’ll see what I mean.

On the other hand, if you read the whole thing, you’ll be struck by how it uses a whole collection of arguments that sound little different than what creationists say now, but that it is considerably more erudite. I hate to give them advice, but if creationists tossed out the trash written by Gish and Ham and any of the hacks at the Discovery Institute, and just regurgitated Owen’s words, there is a great deal that most of the warriors for evolution would have a tough time rebutting. Owen knew a lot of zoology, and he deploys it effectively to buttress some fundamentally flawed arguments.

Like this one. He doesn’t literally say “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — he uses much more obscure examples and far more convoluted language, but it’s the same sentiment.

But has the free-swimming medusa, which bursts its way out of the ovicapsule of a campanularia, been developed out of inorganic particles? Or have certain elemental atoms suddenly flashed up into acalephal form? Has the polype-parent of the acalephe necessarily become extinct by virtue of such anomalous birth? May it not, and does it not proceed to propagate its own lower species in regard to form and organisation, notwithstanding its occasional production of another very different and higher kind. Is the fact of one animal giving birth to another not merely specifically, but generically and ordinally, distinct, a solitary one? Has not Cuvier, in a score or more of instances, placed the parent in one class, and the fruitful offspring in another class, of animals? Are the entire series of parthenogenetic phenomena to be of no account in the consideration of the supreme problem of the introduction of fresh specific forms into this planet? Are the transmutationists to monopolise the privilege of conceiving the possibility of the occurrence of unknown phenomena, to be the exclusive propounders of beliefs and surmises, to cry down every kindred barren speculation, and to allow no indulgence in any mere hypothesis save their own? Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation, under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?

Doesn’t it sound so much more intelligent to ask, if evolution is true, why haven’t inorganic particles evolved into free-swimming medusae, and hey, why are there still polype-parents of the acalephe? Why aren’t we observing new forms bursting up out of the inanimate world in the same way they must have in Darwin’s version of the past?

The intelligent design creationists are also missing an opportunity. This is one of my favorite parts: Owen is snidely berating Darwin for thinking up this cunning new mechanism and then discarding the other ‘scientific’ mode of biological change…that is, divine creation. Transmutationists, as he calls evolutionists, are unable to see other ways that creation might work. “You can’t handle the truth!” is what he’s saying here.

Here it is assumed, as by Mr. Darwin, that no other mode of operation of a secondary law in the foundation of a form with distinct specific characters, can have been adopted by the Author of all creative laws that the one which the transmutationists have imagined. Any physiologist who may find the Lamarckian, or the more diffused and attenuated Darwinian, exposition of the law inapplicable to a species, such as the gorilla, considered as a step in the transmutative production of man, is forthwith clamoured against as one who swallows up every fact and every phenomenon regarding the origin and continuance of species ‘in the gigantic conception of a power intermittently exercised in the development, out of inorganic elements, of organisms the most bulky and complex, as well as the most minute and simple.’ Significantly characteristic of the partial view of organic phenomena taken by the transmutationists, and of their inadequacy to grapple with the working out and discovery of a great natural law, is their incompetency to discern the indications of any other origin of one specific form out of another preceding it, save by their way of gradual change through a series of varieties assumed to have become extinct.

Similarly, Owen siezes on Darwin’s remark that all life descended from one primordial form “into which life was first breathed” to chastise him for limiting god:

By the latter scriptural phrase, it may be inferred that Mr. Darwin formally recognises, in the so-limited beginning, a direct creative act, something like that supernatural or miraculous one which, in the preceding page, he defines, as ‘certain elemental atoms which have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues.’ He has, doubtless, framed in his imagination some idea of the common organic prototype; but he refrains from submitting it to criticism. He leaves us to imagine our globe, void, but so advanced as to be under the conditions which render life possible; and he then restricts the Divine power of breathing life into organic form to its minimum of direct operation.

I have some sympathy for this argument, and I think Darwin himself regretted making that one concession, because as we can see, creationists will sieze any excuse to invoke their personal god.

There’s also a section where he chides Darwin for not giving enough credit to Lamarck, and another where he favorably cites Buffon for his idea that species are mutable to a limited degree (Owen himself accepted some range of change over time), and calculated that all mammals could be reduced to 15 basic stocks. Creationists calculating storage space on the ark, take notice.

So yes, a lot of creationist arguments have their source not in really stupid people, but in some very intelligent and scientifically conservative people in the past. The problem is that modern creationists are clinging to rotten antique ideas that have long been dismantled. I’d also point out that creationist arguments have decayed: Owen’s writing, opaque and pretentious as it is, is far more challenging than anything I’ve seen from his degraded intellectual descendants.

I think if I were teaching a course in anti-creationism, I’d give this essay to my students and we’d spend about a week taking it apart — it would be a good exercise for them. And oh, they would hate me for it.


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  1. 1

    I’ve read some “sophisticated” arguments from the Spiritual — people who would scorn to be included among the Young Earth Creationists — which invoke the words of ‘scientists’ who lived back in the 16th and 17th century. Do not leave the Spiritual Realm out of science: include mystical means of knowing or science will be too narrow. And yet science didn’t listen and went right ahead leaving soul, vitalism, and God out of its theories. That’s why it’s incomplete — and needs to return to the wise warnings from the Intellectual Giants of the past. We need a new, better, more holistic science.

    Yeah. It’s all the same argument.

  2. 2
    Glen Davidson

    If intelligence evolved, why are there still creationists?

    Glen Davidson

  3. 3

    Owen was a monster. He did good anatomical work and did everything in his power (which was considerable) to destroy anyone who disagreed with him or threatened to have discovered something cool without letting him take credit for it. Eventually, he got so out of control that they ended up kicking him out of his job.

  4. 4

    Yes, Owen was apparently a very nasty man. If you’d like to read a good account of his actions at the dawn of the dinosaur hunting age, I can recommend Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science.

  5. 5

    So after The Fall in 1859, the originally perfect creationist memetic code has mutated and devolved, as each new generation is one step further removed from Owen and Eve?

  6. 6
    Pierce R. Butler

    Don’t your students hate you already?

  7. 7
    PZ Myers

    Hate me more, then.

  8. 8

    Still Owen Agassiz, Kelvin, and scores of other creationist scientist of Darwin’s day had the virtue that they were scientists living in a yet to be vindicated theory of evolution, so I have a lot more respect for them.

    I was thinking to solve all our problems we need a collaborative book written by Ray Kurzweil and Stephen Wolfram, which will completely bypass the silly scientific peer reviewed process once and for all and give us the final unvarnished truth. It can compete with Glenn Beck’s “Mine is the only True Libertarianism”, which will solve all of our political philosophy problems. Then all will be well.

  9. 9

    Modern creationists can’t use Owen’s arguments.

    Too many syllables!

  10. 10

    The only unfalsifiable creationist argument I’ve ever come across is one originally come up with Philip Henry Gosse – the navel argument -Adam and Eve were created with navels -or more generally the 5000 or so age universe was created to appear that it had a long evolutionary history in terms of galaxies, geology and biology. Its absurd and presupposes a malevolent trickster god. I can’t refute it any more than I can refute that my memories were created five minutes ago. Few creationists use this argument probably because they recognize its intrinsic absurdity.

    In a way it is similar to Bostrom’s matrix universe where we are living in a computer simulation. Equally absurd but unfalsifiable. I also think the many worlds quantum mechanics idea is absurd, but more plausible than these other two.

  11. 11

    It seems he also follows the time-honoured creationist tactic of quote-mining!
    From ‘On the Origin of Species’

    ” The day will come when this will be given as a curious illustration of the blindness of preconceived opinion. These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth’s history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother’s womb?”

    Clearly, Darwin was attacking this view, not (As I think Owen was implying) proposing this as a viable mechanism!

  12. 12

    why are there still polype-parents of the acalephe? Why aren’t we observing new forms bursting up out of the inanimate world…?

    I’m reading the excerpt out of context, but I don’t read that passage as the why-are-there-still-monkeys argument at all. Instead, he’s citing a case in which a cat seemingly gives birth to cats and the occasional monkey (‘a very different and higher kind’; evidently medusae are higher on the great chain than polyps). He also mentions Cuvier classifying various larvae in different classes from their adult forms.
    The argument seems to be against descent with gradual modification as a necessary cause of new species. Owen thinks the Creator can just do it at whim, without need for miraculous flashing of inorganic atoms. Not ‘why are there still polyps?’ (i.e., ‘if evolution why not always unidirectional evolution?’), but more ‘with a creator like this, who needs evolution?’ I don’t know, it’s hard to tell what he means.

    But it is true that underlying all of this is the apparent inability to see the bush instead of the Chain (which inability also underlies the why-still-monkeys mal mot and the graphic linked in the OP). Which is inexcusable: he’s reviewing The Origin and he didn’t even look at the Figure (there’s only one)

  13. 13

    not quite done with the formatting there:
    first graph should be blockquoted from the OP
    append interrobang to the end.

  14. 14

    Owen is searching for some ‘creative laws’, ‘secondary laws’, etc. because the way to fame and fortune in the 19th Century was to discover one of the laws of nature but an active creator necessarily tosses all laws out the window. You can’t have any kind of order, any kind of regularity, any kind of science if you have someone sneaking into the lab and breaking all the beakers, remixing all the chemicals and having new critters burst into life in the dirty laundry.

    Pasteur’s spontaneous generation experiment was only a year old at this point so maybe Owen can get a bit of a pass but I don’t see how you can have any natural laws if you have magic too.

  15. 15
    Glen Davidson

    The only unfalsifiable creationist argument I’ve ever come across is one originally come up with Philip Henry Gosse – the navel argument -Adam and Eve were created with navels -or more generally the 5000 or so age universe was created to appear that it had a long evolutionary history in terms of galaxies, geology and biology.

    IDiocy has a similar “argument,” that an unknown designer made life for unknown purposes (except for humans, who were put here to serve holy humans) by unknown processes, and the mere fact that life looks massively evolved without intelligence doesn’t matter because said designer could have either created evolutionarily or made everything look evolved. Because a designer also produces similarities in various creations, and they’ll simply ignore the fact that life is derivative without reason or purpose, just as non-teleological evolution would produce.

    So I don’t know if it’s to be counted as just the same argument with a different application, or if it’s a different unfalsifiable argument (a genuine design argument could very well be falsifiable–and would be immediately falsified–which is why they avoid any honest design predictions), but some sort of unfalsifiable claim seems to be where any creationism eventually rests.

    Glen Davidson

  16. 16

    Good points Glen.

    Another thing that has got me thinking from this thread is the whole “he is a scoundrel” argument. There are plenty of great scientists who arguable were complete scoundrels such a Newton.

    For example, what Watson and Crick did to Rosalyn Franklin, stealing her research, lack of acknowledgment, not to mention unrepentant condescending sexism, was a crucial component in their admittedly brilliant discovery of the structure of the double helix – is this not the epitome of being a scoundrel. But if they had not stole her research, does anyone doubt that someone else would have discovered the structure of DNA. If an equivalent Watson and Crick were to try to repeat the same thing in 2013 instead of 1953, not only would they not be famous, they might not be able to do research again. But 500 years from now, if we survive, the names of Watson and Crick, Einstein and the Beatles, may be the handful of others in the 20th century will be ones that anyone even bothers to know existed.

  17. 17

    The theological matrix argument (“Maybe God made it look that way to test our faith!”) has always bugged me. I have two counter arguments that I like to use:
    - Well, now that you’ve admitted that logic and facts are irrelevant to your argument, we may as well debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!
    - You forgot the other possibilities. Perhaps we don’t see true reality because Harry Potter and a bunch of powerful wizards cast a spell, and we muggles only see what they want us to see. Or, perhaps we live in the Matrix, and this is all a virtual reality. These are just as provable as your argument.

    My favorite is when they say, “Well, prove that I’m wrong!”. My response is “You do realize that you just placed God in the same category as leprechauns and invisible pink unicorns, right? I think they exist, prove that I’m wrong!”

    Ultimately most know they can’t reconcile their beliefs with reality, but since all things are possible with God, any argument for their beliefs is plausible in their minds.

  18. 18
    Marcus Ranum

    One point to make about the monkeys is: we haven’t finished killing them, but in geological time it won’t be long. If you look at the wikipedia listing of endangered primates they all list “human encroachment” – i.e.: competition. And that, as they say, will answer that.

  19. 19

    evidently medusae are higher on the great chain than polyps

    almost sounds like an “ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny” argument, since with cnidarians polyps are of course the juvenile stage of most medusae.

    well, excepting the corals as a group of course.

  20. 20

    The only unfalsifiable creationist argument I’ve ever come across is one originally come up with Philip Henry Gosse – the navel argument -Adam and Eve were created with navels -or more generally the 5000 or so age universe was created to appear that it had a long evolutionary history in terms of galaxies, geology and biology. Its absurd and presupposes a malevolent trickster god. I can’t refute it any more than I can refute that my memories were created five minutes ago. Few creationists use this argument probably because they recognize its intrinsic absurdity.

    which resembles the Omphalos argument. so you might find some ammunition for criticism there.

  21. 21

    That’s also the last good picture of one.

  22. 22

    which resembles the Omphalos argument

    Resembles? It is exactly and precisely the Omphalos argument. Because “omphalos” means “navel”, and Gosse is exactly and precisely the one who came up with it.


  23. 23

    CyberCMDR, I just ask them to describe their god to me, once you get enough characteristics, it’s fairly straight forward to prove it doesn’t exist; or at a minimum is logically inconsistent. If they make the description vague, I point out it’s hardly worth praying to or even bothering with believing in.

  24. 24

    Resembles? It is exactly and precisely the Omphalos argument. Because “omphalos” means “navel”, and Gosse is exactly and precisely the one who came up with it.


    Good thing I remembered it was then.

    for you… less caffeine.

  25. 25
    xerxes the magnificent

    I followed the link and now my brain hurts. Apparently creationists aren’t the only ones guilty of terrifyingly bad web design.

  26. 26

    This is most interesting, because it points out that it isn’t really creationism per se that is so annoying. The annoying thing is the stupid arguments that are used to support it, made by people who have no idea what they are talking about. The flood-caused Grand Canyon can be shown to be false on several accounts (in the middle of all those flood sediments is wind-blown sand!), and they eventually resort to god doing miracles. But why not just START with god doing miracles? They want to SOUND like scientists, to gain the credibility of science, without any of the rigor of science.

    It isn’t the theory that is so annoying, it is the methods behind it that are.

  27. 27

    Richard Owen was 100x nastier than Newton. He was a monstrous human being — seriously, look him up, and you’ll see that he was an out-and-out sociopath in a position of considerable power. But that, of course, is irrelevant to the quality of his arguments.

  28. 28

    James Shearer, you’re absolutely correct. The quote Owen used meant something quite different in the original text. Darwin was not conceding anything to his opponents. He was, in fact, pointing out that they may be unwilling to accept a single event leading to the creation of life but were ignoring the fact that their own theories required *multiple* such events.

    Darwin’s summary: “Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence.”

    Which is very similar to Galileo’s observation: “Aristotle says that ‘an iron ball of one hundred pounds falling from a height of 100 cubits reaches the ground before a one pound ball has fallen a single cubit.’ I say that they arrive at the same time. You find, on making the experiment, that the larger outstrips the smaller by two fingerbreadths. Now you would not hide behind those two fingers the 99 cubits of Aristotle, nor would you mention my small error and at the same time pass over in silence his very large one.”

  29. 29
    Acolyte of Sagan

    The last intelligent creationist….will also be the first.

  30. 30
    Ingdigo Jump

    Please tell me I’m not the only one who saw the resemblence here


  31. 31

    Intelligence may distinguish Owen from today’s creationists, but in the realm of unethical, nasty, rank intellectual dishonesty, they all remain kindred spirits.

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