The ongoing decline of creationist thought

Richard Owen was an intelligent and much maligned 19th century comparative anatomist. It would be fair to say he was completely brilliant — his knowledge of anatomy was encyclopedic, he contributed many concepts to our scientific vocabulary, and he was widely respected and honored. Unfortunately, all people remember him for now is that he was Charles Darwin’s ‘enemy’, that he opposed evolution, and that he was ‘utterly destroyed’ by TH Huxley in debates.

Which are all wrong. He actually favored a historical explanation for similarities between species — he just was dubious about Darwin’s explanation, and had a battery of alternative explanations, including some Lamarckian modes of use/disuse. Ironically, everyone seems to have forgotten that when Darwin got around to postulating a model of inheritance for evolution, he basically proposed the same mechanisms of transformation that Owen was promoting. As for getting crushed in debates…I suggest that the Internet hype machine that makes every argument a resounding victory for one side or the other has a historical precedent.

The hit on Owen’s reputation is largely built on two truths–he was very political (and good at it), and he was disturbed by the idea that one preconception, that humans were the pinnacle of creation, was damaged by Darwinian theory. Of course, Darwin was also troubled by that…why else did it take him decades to publish? But the dethroning of humankind and the rejection of the scala natural was the central iconoclasm of Darwinism. Owen’s ideas were actually very close to those of Darwin, and as is usual, it’s the small differences that inflame the most ferocious antipathy.

And the thing is, the idea that humans aren’t the greatest, that the whole purpose of evolution was not to produce us, is still a major source of…I’ll charitably call it discomfort, but in many cases it is more like wild-eyed frantic loonyness. I didn’t come from no monkey is a comment that denigrates the rest of nature in an attempt to make their own self more “special”.

This overly long introduction is to point out that creationists still make this argument. One ignorant modern loudmouth is Michael Egnor, who just made a series of posts on the Discovery Institute propaganda site trying to argue that humans are the most specialest beings in all of creation because–well, you’re not expecting a rational argument from this guy, are you? — cats are stupid, and Aristotle.

Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the Egnorance because Jeffrey Shallit already has. Twice, even, because Egnor can never get an idea out of his head once it’s in there. Ethnologists will tell you that many animals are capable of abstract thought, but Egnor just can’t grasp the facts.

Michael Egnor is no Richard Owen. When Owen was shown that other apes also had a hippocampus minor, the feature he battened on as showing a unique difference between humans and gorillas, he was able to accept it. Egnor is going to go through his entire life thinking of other animals as mindless machines, which will be his loss.


  1. Sili says

    thinking of other animals as mindless machines

    Isn’t his error that he refuses to extend that description to us?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ethnologists will tell you that many animals are capable of abstract thought…

    Mebbeso, but they’d be getting out of their area of expertise.

    Now, if an ethologist tells you that…

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I thought recent studies have shown that even birds (crows) have “theory of mind” that was once thought a special feature of human thought process. That crows are able to solve complex mechanical puzzles that may require cooperative behavior with other crows..

  4. parrothead says

    Consider the late African Grey parrot “Alex”. He was able to understand numbers, textures, colors, shapes, size comparisons, and even had an understanding of the “null” concept. (How many blue wool? None”) You can still find videos on YouTube of Alex and the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Amazing stuff.

    My own African Grey, Gizmo, is quite chatty and will often throw out proper answers or reactions to questions asked or actions observed. Just picking up my keys will prompt an “I’ll be back”, and a bird offered “yes”, “no”, “alright”, etc. can be quite hilarious.

  5. rq says

    What your argument lacks in sophistication, it certainly makes up in well-saidedness.

  6. cartomancer says

    Aristotle eh?

    I wonder if Michael Eggnog realises that the Aristotelian theory of the rational, motive an vegetative souls also considered that only adult male humans had fully functional rational souls? In this model animals never developed rational souls, but children hadn’t deveoped theirs yet either and adult women had a rational soul in a naturally defective or latent state.

    I mean, I’d be willing to accept an invocation of Aristotle if Eggnog was a 13th century scholastic thinker working in that exciting time when Aristotle’s libri naturales were first available in Latin, but we have kind of had seven centuries of progress since then. Indeed, even our putative Friar Michaelis Egnorius would have been censored by his peers for too slavish a devotion to the Stagirite, when the general opinion of 13th century scholars was that Aristotle might have been a good start, but he was clearly wrong on a lot of things and needed expanding upon.

  7. Scientismist says

    “I didn’t come from no monkey” is a comment that denigrates the rest of nature in an attempt to make their own self more “special”.

    True story: My beloved Mom, when I explained my graduate research and its relation to evolutionary theory, commented “Well, maybe your ancestors were monkeys, but not mine.” She didn’t elaborate on what that might mean regarding my Dad, who just looked at me and smiled.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    You can tell the corvids are intelligent because they’re such arseholes (I like them anyway, which speaks volumes about me, I’m sure). And then there was the heron who got bits of bread thrown to him by tourists. He dropped the bread into the nearby pond, and waited for fish to approach. If the fish was too big for him, he took the bread out and waited until it left. Coupla fish from a chunk of bread – that’s thinkin outside the Egnor box.

  9. marcoli says

    Very good. And thank you for defending Owen. He might not have been a pleasant man, but he was encyclopedic in his knowledge of comparative zoology and he was flexible in his views, to a point. Not much different from most of us, I ‘spect.

  10. A Masked Avenger says

    …cats are stupid…

    My cat is mortally offended by doors. Doors keep cats out. And in. Both unacceptable. If a door is shut, regardless which side he’s on, he looks reproachful, goes and sits with his nose to it, and yells at us until he opens it. Once open, he does not pass through it. But that’s not all.

    When we leave a door ajar, he doesn’t just shimmy through the gap. He doesn’t just nudge the door with his shoulder. He stands on his hind legs, gives the door his hardest shove, and makes it BANG! against the wall. Then he pauses, and marches regally through. But that’s not all.

    He developed the theory that the doorknob was critical to solving this oppression against cats. When he wanted the door open, he would stand on his hind legs, put his paws as close to the handle as he could reach, and make like he was trying to open the door himself. But that’s not all.

    When we redid our front porch, we installed new steel doors with lever handles. He figured out for himself how to open these doors. He now lets himself onto and off of the porch at will. Sometimes he opens the door and then goes about his business, without going through it, because doors are inherently oppressive to cats.

    That is all.

  11. A Masked Avenger says

    Actually, that’s not all: the same cat (along with another of our cats) was attacked by our dog as a kitten. The one cat now refuses to visit the downstairs, where the dog lives, ever. But this cat, he of the door-opening skills, adopted a different approach. Initially, he seated himself on the other side of the gate where the dog could reach him and watched the dog exhaust himself in a fruitless effort to get at him. Then he coupled it with menacing growls and feigned counter-attacks, staying on his side of the gate. Eventually, when the gate was temporarily open, he would come through a short way and menace the dog some more, then retreat to safety. He kept up this head game for YEARS.

    Today the dog becomes terrified when the cat enters the room. Although he weighs 100 lbs (the pound said he’d be small, godammit!), and the cat weighs 10, the dog stands stock still and rolls his eyes fearfully when the cat comes around. Sometimes the cat casually sits by the dog’s food dish, looking disinterested, and the dog stands a little way off and whines because he’s afraid to eat.

    This cat set himself a multi-year project to cow that mutt into submission, and by Dog he did it.

  12. numerobis says

    As a kid I was taught that animals couldn’t think, and the lesson I took was that the textbook writers were human chauvinists. Cats and dogs obviously learn, and are obviously capable of understanding abstract concepts like friend/stranger, like small numbers, like bulk quantity, object permanence, etc.

  13. jacobletoile says

    I remember a story about crow hunting. I’m not sure if it true, but I believe it. Crows ready recognize people and vehicles. Some hunters set up a blind, and let the corvids get used to it. then they went in, and managed to kill a couple of crows, until the crows wised up. Then they tried to trick the crows by sending one in, waiting sending another into teh blind waiting and having one hunter walk out. The crows learned to count, up to i think 7 and keep track of the number of people in the blind.. Only people who never spend time with animals can confidently state they are mindless, stupid unemotional machines. Animals might not think like we do, and they may not feel as we do, but they think and they feel as they do. Some of the stuff I have read on prairie dog communication is really interesting as well.

  14. Rich Woods says

    A couple of years ago there was a report about a murder of crows which harassed one child only, out of a family and all their children. The kid had thrown sticks and stones at the crows’ nests while the crows were busy nest-building in the tallest tree in the garden. For the remainder of the year, and into the next, the crows frequently dive-bombed the kid when he was at that end of the garden, shat on him, and cawed alarm calls whenever he came into the garden. The point is that they recognised him as an individual, the brown-haired and blue-eyed smallish (but growing) human out of all the other small and large humans with mostly similar features, regardless of whether he was wearing a red t-shirt or a yellow jumper or a green raincoat. I have greater trouble remembering names and faces!

    I’m sure their therapod ancestors would have been proud.

  15. unclefrogy says

    the problem around animals thinking is two sided of the same thing. It is centered on us.
    It is seeing that animals do not think like us there fore they do not think, which is a corollary of women do not think like men there fore they are not rational.
    The other side of that is attributing human motives and thought to animals.
    both are wide of the mark. Most animals do not even see the world in the way we do they have a different set of inputs and ranges and responses and motivations then your average middle-class human usually displays.
    uncle frogy

  16. says

    A Masked Avenger@15 I came across a video on YouTube the other night of various dogs who are afraid of cats, and are scared to approach them. It was quite the thing to see some large dogs scared of a single cat.

    Regarding the subject of this post, the idea of humans being the “Pinnacle of Creation” is believed by a lot of people who accept evolution as well. They think the goal of evolution is to create ever more advanced versions of life. It’s the kind of thinking that led to the once common cliché/trope that future humans would have giant heads to contain their evolved to be even smarter that ours brains. It’s also the kind of thinking that can bolster some people’s racism, as they perceive their particular ethnic group as “more evolved” than the rest.

  17. Lady Mondegreen says

    Strongly recommend Frans de Waal’s latest, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal talks about the scala naturae and how it impeded and confused attempts to understand animal cognition. He gives a basic overview of the rise of ethology and modern animal cognition studies (other impediments included strict behaviorism, and the general idea that anyone claiming to see forethought or purposeful action by nonhumans was guilty of the Sin of anthropomorphism.)

    He also tells lots of cool stories about various experiments and observations and stuff. It’s a terrific read.

  18. numerobis says

    tomgueguen: if you can’t understand being afraid of a cat, you’ve never been slashed by one in anger. Sure it’s not an existential threat, but it’s a deeply unpleasant experience.

  19. says

    #15 Masked Avenger, I’ve been a cat behaviorist for a while now, and suspect your cat is a psychopath. Don’t worry; a True Cat is always psychopathic. So many cats nowadays have been corrupted by their humans that True Cats aren’t easy to find. I live with one now, and her plots are far too subtle for me to spot when they begin, nor where they’re going once I spot them – even though that’s my job. Your dog sounds very intelligent, too. A ten-pound cat is the equivalent of at least a 60 lb. dog, as well as faster, more flexible, more coordinated, and has five full weapons instead of one. I mean really – what else does a dog much have except his mouth?

    My psychopath Just jumped up and is sitting right to my left. I don’t think she can read, but she’s trying a kind of mind-meld on me. Gotta go.

  20. Rich Woods says

    what else does a dog much have except his mouth?

    The ability to dump in your slippers.

  21. brucegee1962 says

    The other freaky thing I heard about crows was an experiment where someone messed with the crows’ nests. NOT ONLY were the crows able to recognize that person and treat them differently from other people dressed the same way. ALSO, they arranged for the crows who had actually seen the guy to be away from the group. The other crows STILL recognized the guy. So somehow some crows were able to communicate a description to the rest of the group. If that doesn’t show language, I don’t know what does.

  22. Pierce R. Butler says

    brucegee1962 @ # 30: ALSO, they arranged for the crows who had actually seen the guy to be away from the group. The other crows STILL recognized the guy.

    These people could tell crows apart?!? Pretty smart, for humans…