Paleofantasy: Brain Evolution Is Mere Storytelling
When it comes to explaining the brain, evolutionists are completely in the dark. That was the surprising message in a presentation to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Harvard evolutionist Richard Lewontin. James Randerson blogged the presentation in the UK Guardian, beginning, “We know nothing about brain evolution. Scientists are still completely in the dark about why the human brain evolved to be so big, according to Richard Lewontin.”
Randerson considers Lewontin “one of science’s superb curmudgeons.” Along with Stephen Jay Gould, Lewontin has historically argued against pan-selectionism, or the idea that natural selection produced every trait. Some traits are mere artifacts, they said, like the decorative spandrels on gothic pillars.
Randerson said Lewontin was on “fantastic curmudgeonly form” at the Boston meeting:
His campaign against pan-selectionism was in evidence. “Evolution is not the evolution of traits but the evolution of organisms,” he said.
But he had an even more sobering message, summed up in the title of his talk – “Why we know nothing about the evolution of cognition”. He systematically dismissed every assumption about the evolution of human thought, reaching the conclusion that scientists are still completely in the dark about how natural selection prompted the massive hike in human brain size in the human line.
What are some of the reasons for Lewontin’s pessimism? Randerson summarized the main points:
- Fossils: “Despite a handful of hominid fossils stretching back 4m years or so, we can’t be sure that any of them are on the main ancestral line to us. Many or all of them could have been evolutionary side branches.
- Interpretations: “Worse, the fossils we do have are difficult to interpret. ‘I don’t have the faintest idea what the cranial capacity [of a fossil hominid] means,’ Lewontin confessed.”
- Posture: Lewontin expressed doubt that we can be sure which hominids walked upright.
- Selective forces: “He is also not convinced that we can use current selective forces to infer what natural selection was doing to our ancestors.”
In short, evolutionists cannot be sure about either causes or effects among the artifacts they have to study. Randerson ended with a sentence that sweeps away decades of research and pictorial storytelling: “All in all, despite thousands of scientific papers and countless National Geographic front covers, we have not made much progress in understanding how our most complicated and mysterious organ came about.” Quoting Lewontin, “We are in very serious difficulties in trying to reconstruct the evolution of cognition. I’m not even sure what we mean by the problem.”
How did Science, the organ of the AAAS, report this meeting?1 “Richard Lewontin knows how to grab an audience’s attention,” the news report began. Then they quoted him grabbing some attention: “We are missing the fossil record of human cognition. So we make up stories.” Science reporter Michael Balter titled his article “How Human Intelligence Evolved–Is It Science or ‘Paleofantasy’?”
Balter was quick to point out that others in the meeting disagreed with Lewontin’s pessimism. Dean Falk (Florida State) pointed to fossil evidence, and Christopher Walsh (Harvard Medical School) cited genetic studies. Leslie Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research) pointed to research that can “get us beyond the paleofantasy that Richard Lewontin is talking about.” She said there is enough evidence for large shifts at certain points in evolutionary history, such as “the split between the chimpanzee and the human lines about 6 million years ago and the invention of stone tools beginning about 2.5 million years ago.” Some of these shifts can be correlated with climate change, she argued. All these appeared to be mere suggestions that may provide insight, though – not collections of definitive evidence that produce sound conclusions.
Marc Hauser (Harvard psychologist) said things that seemed to reinforce Lewontin’s pessimism. He argued that the gap between humans and other smart animals is greater than the gap between those animals and worms. Showing the many ways human cognition is unique, Hauser described the capabilities of smart animals as narrow, “laser-beam intelligence” for focusing on narrow problems, whereas humans have “floodlight intelligence” applicable to a wide range of problems. Even the tool use by chimpanzees is “whoppingly different” from what humans do, he said. Balter ended, “He hopes that the manifold human differences summarized in his ‘humaniqueness hypothesis’ will yield clues about how our species evolved.”
For more on Marc Hauser’s views on “humaniqueness,” which emphasizes four cognitive gaps between humans and animals (ability to recombine information, to apply information to novel problems, to use symbolic representations, and to think abstractly), see Science Daily. Hauser is quoted at the end of the article: “For human beings, these key cognitive abilities may have opened up other avenues of evolution that other animals have not exploited, and this evolution of the brain is the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been built.” This statement, however, assumes evolution rather than showing what mutations or variations crossed the divide in the first place. Measuring the width of a canyon is not the same thing as finding a bridge across it.
1. Michael Balter, News of the Week, “How Human Intelligence Evolved–Is It Science or ‘Paleofantasy’?” Science, 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866, p. 1028, DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5866.1028a.
You just saw a series of suicide bombs go off in the Darwin Party headquarters, carried in by Darwinites themselves. Can evolution recover from the admissions these guys made? This is not Duane Gish saying these things: they come from Mr. Can’t-Allow-a-Divine-Foot-in-the-Door himself, Richard Lewontin of Harvard, a knowledgeable, committed Darwiniac if there ever was one. The upshot is that they are a bunch of know-nothings. Now we have a new label for the Darwin Party: the Know Nothing Party. Their motto is, “I know nothing but my Darwinism Storybook, my whole Darwinism Storybook, and nothing but my Darwinism Storybook.” Their favorite amusement park is Paleofantasyland.
Remember this entry the next time you get a National Geographic cover story of a hominid with a philosopher’s gaze. Remember it when you are told stories about hominids walking upright, their hands now freed to scratch their chins and think. Remember it when you are shown a chimpanzee on NOVA performing memory tricks for a banana or smashing bugs with a rock. Remember it when a stack of erudite scientific papers on human evolution is placed on the witness table at a trial over whether students should be allowed to think critically about evolution in science class.
You have just heard all you need to know about human evolution – from the Darwiniacs themselves. The Darwin Party Know-Nothings, daydreaming in Paleofantasyland, have admitted they are just making up stories about the evolution of human cognition. Their breathtaking ignorance is not limited to their answers. They don’t even know what they mean by the question. This is what they want to teach our students: ignorance! Now, not only will public school students learn nothing; after indoctrination by the Know Nothings, they will know even less.