When Evolutionist Rebukes Evolutionist, Watch Out
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” Solomon said. Sometimes comrades need to rein in their own when they stray too far. Kenneth M. Weiss and Anne V. Buchanan (Dept. of Anthropology, Penn State) had some stern rebukes for Nicholas Wade, who was just trying to praise Darwin in his new book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (Penguin, 2006). Despite the need for a “tempered and timely treatment of an important subject,” this book did not get much praise by Weiss and Buchanan in Nature.1
This book went way over the top in drawing unwarranted genetic and evolutionary influences on human behavior, they complained: Wade seemed determined to “find simplistic natural selection behind every trait, and by a lack of attention to issues that are known to inhibit a credible understanding of complex traits, never mind their evolution.” In rebuking Wade, however, they revealed a load of dirty laundry about evolutionary theory that may prompt quick damage control operations at Darwinism Strategic Command Center.
First, a laundry list of Wade’s logical errors, hypocrisy, and bad storytelling habits:
Wade’s explanations commit various well-known errors, such as equating correlation with causation and extrapolating from individual traits to group characteristics. Often his arguments and trait choices are laden with Western-oriented value judgements….
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. In The New York Times on 15 January 2006, Wade warned against journalists being too ready to accept “overstated or wrong” claims from the science literature, but in too many places where it makes a difference he has ignored his own advice. A journalist doesn’t create facts, but he does select what to repeat and how to colour it, and Wade is long on speculating about what “is reasonable to assume”, and short on circumspection of his own, or anthropologists’, yarn-spinning. Most of the scenarios he reports have not been rigorously tested, nor is it clear how they could be. The book has many internal inconsistencies, and one can easily find contrary evidence or readily construct alternative ‘just so’ stories that invoke the same genetic scenario and the same kind of reasoning.
(This shows that the charge of just-so storytelling in evolutionary theory sometimes comes from within the camp.) Here’s where the review becomes especially damaging. In criticizing Wade’s propensity for drawing conclusions on meager evidence, do Weiss and Buchanan spill too many beans? Imagine the shock of this paragraph on a science teacher intent on convincing students that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming:
How could this subject be better treated, without denying the importance of genes in human traits? For a start, evolutionary arguments should be based on sufficiently credible, consistent and compelling scientific evidence. It is easy to claim that a trait is due to natural selection, but responsible selection-based arguments should have substantial experimental mechanistic support, at least for the fact of selection. That’s not the state of most current evidence. Indeed, after 50 years of investigation, we can’t convincingly demonstrate selection for most of the red-blood-cell diseases, other than sickle-cell anaemia, that are probably coevolving with the strong selective force of malaria. Other best-case scenarios for human genetic adaptation, such as adult lactase persistence and skin colour, are also incomplete. Explaining selection is particularly problematic for behavioural traits because of the powerful role of culture and facultative ability, which is probably what human evolution really favoured. Human phenotypic changes can far outpace genetic ones, making it challenging to know whether such traits are even genetic, much less what they ‘evolved for’ millennia ago.
One can imagine frantic “time-out” signals offstage from the Darwin propagandists. They go unnoticed. “In addition, assertions of genetic causation should be built on what is already known about the difficulties of explaining complex traits, including behaviour or intelligence,” they continue, unabated. “The extensive literature documenting the subtleties of such traits undermines simplistic ‘evolved for’ scenarios, but Wade largely ignores it.”
Weiss and Buchanan explain why traits, especially behavioral traits, are too complex to attribute to selection: “We are far from understanding either the genetic architecture or the evolution of complex biological traits, even in the best data from experimental organisms unaffected by the blur of culture.” Gasp; just when this security leak couldn’t get any worse comes the coup de grace:
But why not just enjoy the sport of fanciful speculation, even if the arguments leak like sieves? Because it’s not just sport. Positions on genetic determinism often correlate with social politics, and few of us are neutral or even changeable on the issues. Wade recognizes that his ideas may not be acceptable to everyone but warns that “to falter in scientific inquiry would be a retreat into darkness”. He seems to be warning, appropriately enough, against benighted political correctness. But we should never become casual about how comparable ‘slopular’ science and very similar speculative evolutionary reasoning by leading scientists fed a venomous kind of darkness not too many decades ago. Wade’s post-hoc tales often put him in step with a long march of social darwinists who, with comfortable detachment from the (currently) dominant culture, insist that we look starkly at life in the raw and not blink at what we see. But given today’s limited understanding of complex traits, too often what one sees is oneself.
Better keep this book review away from the creationists. They could hardly have said it better.
1Kenneth M. Weiss and Anne V. Buchanan, “In your own image,” Nature 441, 813-814 (15 June 2006) | doi:10.1038/441813a; Published online 14 June 2006.
Thank you, Kenneth and Anne, for a common-sense, well-reasoned, historically astute, level-headed, fair-minded, disinterested, impartial, responsible, thoughtful, straight-shooting, devastating critique of evolutionary theory. The cheers you are hearing are from your real scientific allies, the creationists. If enough of your academic comrades read and heed your sermon, the House of Darwin will collapse from within. Fanciful speculation? Exaggeration? Unwarranted claims of causation? Arguments that leak like sieves? Projections of oneself on the world? Post-hoc tales? Slopular science? You’re right, it’s not just sport; it is a deadly game, and Charlie started it.