Emerson McMullen and the non-existence of history

Emerson Thomas “Tom” McMullen has opinions about evolution. He is a Historian of Science, Technology, and Medicine, though, and his opinions are hosted on the official website of Georgia Southern University, so maybe we should take a look at them. He has a lot of them, and they all seem equally well-founded, so I’ll just peek in at one, his claim that common descent is not scientific. Here’s his short summary of his thesis:

While we see natural selection in nature, we do not observe descent from a common ancestor happening today. That fact, taken by itself, makes the idea unscientific. Nevertheless, the idea of descent from a common ancestor does make testable predictions. These are: 1. Over time, life changes significantly. 2. The change is from simple to complex. 3. The change is from one ancestor to diverse offspring. 4. The change involves many transitional forms/intermediates.

Right away, I’m stopped cold by the claim that we do not observe descent from a common ancestor happening today. What a peculiar thing for a historian to say! Common descent is a historical process that occurred over billions of years, so of course it isn’t happening “today”. Similarly, the rise and fall of the Roman empire went on for over a thousand years; does the fact that we don’t see Romulus and Remus building a city, Augustus inheriting an empire, and the Byzantines falling to the Ottoman Turks today mean that none of it happened? This makes no sense. Just as the rest of his arguments make no sense.

So here we go. 1. Over time, life changes significantly: he claims this is false because…

Stomatolites [sic] were made by algae that were thought to be extinct. Then in the 1950s, a scientist found them alive at Shark Bay, Australia, where a high saline environment deters predators. These algae have remained unchanged over eons. They did not evolve. How about that? The oldest living beings we know about never changed!

He has a philosophy degree, but he doesn’t seem to understand that you can’t disprove a general, diverse phenomenon with a single example. What about all the organisms that did change? There weren’t any monkeys or spiders or dinosaurs in the Precambrian. There aren’t any dinosaurs in the Cenezoic. You don’t get to ignore all the significant changes to Earth’s biota to claim that one example means none of it occurred! Further, I’d add that superficial similarities don’t mean that modern stromatolites are genetically identical to ancient ones.

His next argument is to say that evolution claims 2. The change is from simple to complex. This isn’t true! Evolution makes no such claim, so it is a false criticism.

All the Cambrian fossils abruptly appeared, complex and fully adapted to their environment. This is the anomalocaris, which can grow up the six feet long. One of the animals it eats are trilobites. The authors of The Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Briggs, et al.) remind us that “the appearance of diverse shelly fossils near the base of the Cambrian remains abrupt and not simply an artifact of inadequate preservation.” Obviously, this complexity is not predicted by descent from a common ancestor, which says life began simple and became more complex.

Except…no. What he slides right over is that the Cambrian was about a half billion years ago, with 3½ billion years of evolution before it. Living organisms were complex before multicellularity and hard parts evolved, and this was a transition in response to a changing environment, with phenomena such as bioturbation and increasing atmospheric oxygen. Furthermore, the Cambrian wasn’t an instantaneous event — we’re talking about ten million years of change, at least.

You could argue that the evolution of the first cell was an example of increasing complexity, and I’d agree. However, that complexity arose rapidly, and what’s been happening over the last few billion years is an exercise in permutations.

Next is an odd one, 3. The change is from one ancestor to diverse offspring. He doesn’t think the fossil record illustrates a long history of diversity.

I have seen biologists write that evolution explains diversity, but the evidence from the fossil record is just the opposite. As mentioned earlier, during the “Cambrian explosion of life” many different animals, like trilobites, abruptly appeared with no predecessors. The late Stephen J. Gould wrote a popular book, Wonderful Life, on the diversity of Cambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale. Gould points out that these Cambrian fossils include “a range of disparity in anatomical design never again equaled, and not matched today by all the creatures in the world’s oceans.”

That’s a new one. So, the fact that biologists have described spectacular examples of biological diversity, and that far more diverse forms have existed than are now extant, is evidence that evolution doesn’t produce diversity. He’s putting biologists in the untenable position of every example of diverse, new forms is, to his mind, an illustration that diversity did not and never existed.

So now let’s lapse into foolish familiarity with 4. The change involves many transitional forms/intermediates. Oh, no, the no transitional forms argument!

In his [Darwin’s] Origin he asks: “Why then is not every geological formation and every strata full of intermediate links?”(p.280) He answers that the geological record is incomplete. But that was nearly 150 years ago. We have found billions of fossils all over the world since then. The prediction of innumerable transitional forms falls flat on its face, and, from a philosophy of science standpoint, the idea of descent from a common ancestor is falsified.

Finding lots of fossils does not refute the idea that the fossil record is incomplete, and Darwin’s original explanation is still entirely correct. For instance, Stegosaurus species span something on the order of 10 million years in the late Jurassic, and there had to have been billions of them living over that time. We have about 80 fossils. If we doubled that number, would we have a complete fossil record of the genus?

Like so many of Dr McMullen’s arguments, they fall apart into a rubble of innumeracy, illogic, and ignorance. It’s curious that he became an emeritus professor at Georgia Southern, and they let him teach courses on his version of “science”, and that he’s got all this bogus crap on a university website.

This is the price of academic freedom, I guess. I don’t understand how he got past a hiring committee, though — how did a history department end up employing someone who doesn’t understand history? There’s a story there, but since it isn’t happening today we obviously are unable to examine it, and like all of history, only happened in the fleeting moments when we open our morning newspaper.


  1. mnb0 says

    “All the Cambrian fossils abruptly appeared”
    This is one of my favourite stupidities. The Cambrian Explosion lasted at least 20 frigging million years. Thus far Homo Sapiens has lasted less than 1% of that time interval. So we have a historian lacking a proper sense of time.

  2. PaulBC says

    You could argue that the evolution of the first cell was an example of increasing complexity, and I’d agree. However, that complexity arose rapidly, and what’s been happening over the last few billion years is an exercise in permutations.

    Nothing to say, except that I like this. (If I had a quote file–I’m not that organized–I’d add it.)

  3. says

    You’d think a historian would know that “abruptly” is often relative. The Industrial Revolution could be described as abrupt given the number of new technologies that appeared in a short time compared to the rest of human history. Or the history of heavier than air flight, which went from the Wright Brothers Flyer to aircraft capable of flying twice the speed of sound in 50 years.

  4. PaulBC says

    (Speaking as a non-biologist) It seems totally consistent to me that transitional forms would be hard to find precisely because they are transitional. Once there is an organism that is clearly better adapted to the environment, the transitional forms are even less successful. The process of getting from an initial adaptive variation to one that this highly optimized may be fast. After that, you’re likely to see a steady state as long as the same environment persists, and that’s where most of the fossils will show up.

    It makes me think of the stock footage film they used to show of crazy flying machine ideas. Granted, some of those just didn’t work at all (though they were adaptive to an environment of people actively trying to produce heavier than air flight; and their “reproductive success” linked to how they were perceived by the people who reproduced them).

    Some craft such as biplanes and autogyros are not found in large numbers today, though they may have looked good at the time. The reason is that better ideas came along that look more like today’s fixed wing planes. And those designs don’t change very fast. If you took a random sample of one in a million “flying crafts” now extant, you’d also have a lot of trouble finding “transitional forms.” You might hypothesize that the transition was much shorter than the steady state, and in fact you’d be right.

  5. PaulBC says

    [That we don’t see instances today] taken by itself, makes the idea unscientific

    This is complete nonsense (so why does the idea persist?). You can make testable hypothesis about things that you can’t see “happening today.” While a fossil find may be entirely fortuitous, it is a scientific hypothesis to predict that digging to a particular strata from a particular kind of surface rock will result in certain types of fossils. It’s especially interesting when the find is geographically far from some previous one. And this is done all the time. How is that unscientific?

    Even some physical sciences involve processes that are not happening today (cosmology) or that we cannot really “see” or reproduce in the lab but have to rely on indirect evidence.

  6. Ed Seedhouse says

    In astronomy we can’t possibly see the evolution of a star, but by observing many many stars we can make correlations that allow us to have an idea of how stellar evolution proceeds. So apparently the idea that stars evolve is “unscientific”. Either that or I am smarter than at least one self proclaimed “expert”.

  7. unclefrogy says

    talk about an Historian who does not seem to have a very good consistent concept of time.

    While we see natural selection in nature, we do not observe descent from a common ancestor happening today.

    that just does not make any sense at all. we do not of course see the ancestors of all those living today there for they do not exist and further we do not see today the ancestors of all those that will be living in the future either so they do not exist!

    of all the ideas that science has uncovered the realization of deep time from inflation to today is probably the most significant change in our awareness of the nature of reality. I am afraid there is some kind of discontinuity in that historians thinking that appears linked to his ideas about time, how biology works and how long we have been looking at how all the processes have been working on this planet. What level of detail does he expect to be able to see anyway?
    uncle frogy

  8. PaulBC says

    me@5 Actually, I checked some numbers and it sounds like there are far less than a million aircraft ever manufactured (which I find surprising if it includes private single-engine planes). But anyway, the point remains that a uniform sample resulting in 100 aircraft will turn up a lot that look like the most common and final designs. I can’t fill in the numbers to guess how likely you’d be to find an autogyro in the mix, but you’d definitely find more helicopters.

  9. tacitus says

    He is a Historian of Science, Technology, and Medicine, though, and his opinions are hosted on the official website of Georgia Southern University, so maybe we should take a look at them.

    Not exactly. McMullen links to his home page from his official Georgia Southern bio page, but it’s hosted on a homemade Google Sites website mocked up to look like part of the Georgia Southern website, including the georgiasouthern.edu domain in the sites.google.com URL, and links in the look-alike banner back to the real site.

    Something tells me the university is unlikely to approve of their website’s design being co-opted in that way, even if it’s by one of their own staff.

  10. nomdeplume says

    Odd how apparently (?) intelligent people with religious beliefs refuse to realise that the dopey “questions” they ask about evolution and climate change have been asked and answered a million times. They ask them again as if they are fresh and new, as if no one has ever thought of such convincing evidence that tens of thousands of scientists working over 150 years have failed to notice. You can’t get someone to accept something if accepting it would force them to re-assess their religious world views. And so it goes.

  11. Reginald Selkirk says

    … we do not observe descent from a common ancestor happening today.

    Huh? I observe common ancestry between myself and my siblings, none of whom are identical to me.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    These algae have remained unchanged over eons.

    Ancient stromatolites are known from fossils, so we don’t have their DNA and shouldn’t make stupid statements like that. They may well be changing and evolving in ways that are not obvious through examination of fossils.

  13. unclefrogy says

    how is it that his comment about stromatolites not exactly the same as other creationists inane comment “if we evolved from monkeys why are there still monkeys?”
    uncle frogy

  14. bcwebb says

  15. bcwebb says

    I’ve noticed other creationists who end up in “history of science” which has the advantage that when their stories are challenged as being bad science they can claim to have been teaching history.

  16. Stuart Smith says

    It’s pretty bad that a philosophy professor would make a claim as circular as “The oldest living beings we know about never changed!” Of course they didn’t, because if they had you would consider them to be different, less old beings. When you say “the oldest living beings” you are really saying “the oldest unchanged living beings” because otherwise the phrase is meaningless – if we have common descent, we’re all as old as one another, just with different degrees of change over time. So what the phrase actually reduces to, once you unpack those assumptions, is “the oldest living beings that never changed we know about never changed!”

    Hardly a claim worthy of an exclamation mark.

  17. PaulBC says

    The more I think about an airplane analogy, the better it seems. What would a “fossil record” of early aviation look like? This is not the same as the current curated museum record, because there’s an incentive for people to preserve rare and first models.

    But consider that the Wright brothers put a plane in flight in 1903. It was a prototype, so if left to chance, there might be no record of it. (I’m not an aviation enthusiast, so this is just a quick look at Wikipedia.)

    The Cierva C.30 was a practical autogyro first built in 1933. 148 total were built. It was used during WWII and a few survived after.

    The Mitsubishi Zero was made famous by the Japanese in WWII and about 10,000 were built and used over a span of about 5 years.

    The single-engine Cessna 172 (“the most successful aircraft in history”) was first flown in 1955 and continues to be manufactured. So far, over 44,000 have been built.

    A hypothetical fossil record might very easily lose the Wright brothers’ prototype as well as all the autogyros (and what about biplanes? sorry, didn’t look that up). It would show the “sudden” appearance and extinction of Zeros and a long, steady dominance of Cessna 172s. (I mean this is an oversimplification, but there are surprising few aircraft of any kind ever manufactured, compared to say, cars.)

    I could ask “What is this ‘flight innovation explosion’ of which you speak? How could it have happened in such a short period of time when Cessna 172s have remained unchanged for so much longer?” I’d look like an idiot because there are a lot of records on what happened. First off, I’m sure Cessnas have changed. The cockpits at least much have been refined with the introduction of electronics. But the “fossil Cessnas” still probably look about the same. But between 1903 and WWI, aircraft went from experimental prototype to military use. Over another 20 years, many different designs were tried, produced, and abandoned in time for WWII. By 1955, a highly optimized design for a (relatively) economical single-engine plane had been found, and after that, there was a certain amount of variation that continues, but the “explosion” of advance only existed during the short period of time when the optimized design was not there. (There are business and human factors as well, so this is an oversimplification.)

    The upshot is I find it totally intuitive that over 20 million years there can be a lot of adaptation in which every new generation brings substantial improvement, and that in the same environment things appear to settle down for hundreds of millions of years later after reaching an equilibrium. This is also consistent with any kind of iterative algorithm I have ever run. I am not saying biology “works like this” but only that a lot of things do and they’re really not counterintuitive at all if you’ve paid attention.

    It would be a little be interesting to know what McMullen thinks about “explosions” of human innovation, though I doubt he would come to the same conclusion as I do (and it’s also risky to make a comparison here, though I think invention is actually a lot more like evolution than people want to admit and relies on serendipity). My take-away, though, is that he is not really interested in developing these intuitions but in shutting off an attempt to comprehend the fossil record.

  18. John Harshman says

    I have thoughts.

    The first quote is essentially a fancy version of “Were you there?” Not impressed with the quality of the philosophy of science so far.

    One would have to look up the Briggs quote to be sure what he meant, but the first appearance of trilobites happens about 20 million years into the Cambrian, at about the same time as the Chengjiang fauna, but the small, shelly fauna begins gradually, starting in the latest Precambrian.

    And while we have no DNA sequences from ancient bacteria, phylogenetics of both DNA and protein sequences shows us that molecular evolution never stops.

  19. John Harshman says

    According to the university web site, he teaches these courses:

    HIST 3230 American Military History
    HIST 3435 The Scientific Revolution
    HIST 4336 Science and Religion
    HIST 4533 History of Flight
    HIST 4534 Dinosaurs and Extinction

    I’m especially concerned about the last one. What can he possibly have to say? Why, for that matter, is that in the history department?