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.