Monday, July 20, 2009

Beating a dead horse...

It's been a while. Is anyone still reading this stuff? If so, here's a little case study in bad scholarship for your Monday afternoon.

Normally, I don't bother responding to bad criticisms of my work. If someone takes the time to thoughtfully critique my work, that's different. Uninformed opinions usually aren't worth my time, but I'm making an exception here. There were recently two articles published commenting on creationism and the horse series. Neither are very good, and I thought they would make an interesting case study in how not to write about horses and creationism.

One article is in the latest Journal of Creation, "The evolution of the horse" by Mats Molén [JC 23(2):59-63). His basic conclusion is
The Cavanaugh et al. (2003) hypothesis of intrabaraminic variation of all animals that belong to Equidae (or animals that they put into Equidae, even if the evolutionists put some of them in different families) is not well supported by the available evidence and ought therefore to be abandoned.
Well that's a pretty impressive conclusion. What is this "evidence?" Molén lists four "facts" that support different created kinds within the Equidae. Here they are:
  • There are two "evolutionary gaps" in the horse series.
  • Hyracotherium is not monophyletic.
  • "'Early' horses have been preserved in strata from the same evolutionary age as several 'later' horses."
  • There are few "transitional fossils" to link brachydont and hypsodont teeth.
As far as "evolutionary gaps" go, he never defines what they are or how to recognize them. To support his claim of "evolutionary gaps," he cites papers by MacFadden, who would (probably passionately) disagree with the idea that there are real, hard gaps in the evolution of the horse. The monophyly of Hyracotherium is interesting but not relevant to our original paper (Cavanaugh et al. 2003). We were dealing with a dataset from 1989 that treated Hyracotherium as a single taxon, based primarily on H. vasacciense with supplementary material coming from H. leporinum. Since vasacciense is supposed to be related to the Equidae, the validity of our conclusions would rest primarily on how many Hyracotherium characters were supplemented using leporinum, which is supposed to be closer to the paleotheres. Molén doesn't really mention that. Nevertheless, we recognize the need to reexamine Hyracotherium, and I've been working with Paul Garner for several years (on and off, as we have time) to put together a more thorough examination of the baraminic position of the various species referred to Hyracotherium. Garner published an abstract on that question in the 2004 BSG conference proceedings (PDF available at #4 on this list). Molén didn't cite Garner's abstract.

The question of horses co-occuring in the same strata is irrelevant. Here's a simple analogy: My lifespan significantly overlaps my parents, but they're still my parents. So too with species' lifespans. More interesting is his reliance here on an evolutionary interpretation of the fossil record. If the Cenozoic is indeed post-Flood, as many have argued, then time is severely compressed, and even species in different strata could very well be contemporaneous. If the Cenozoic is 65 million years, then stratigraphy can be a proxy for a species' "lifespan."

The final objection is not relevant either, as one could make that argument about anything.

So Molén's "facts" are either irrelevant or not facts. He nevertheless concludes
The animals that have been interpreted as different horses are therefore, with the above facts at hand, easily identified as belonging to three completely different animal kinds
That's amazing. I've been working on baraminology criteria and analysis techniques for a long, long time, and I've never seen anything "easily identified."

The real problem with Molén's paper is that he doesn't understand what he's critiquing. For example, he claims that the Cavanaugh et al. hypothesis is that "the horse series... shows real (post-Flood) 'microevolution.'" That's not in the Cavanaugh et al. article. In fact, I have repeatedly denied that microevolution could possibly account for this, in my book (Understanding the Pattern of Life), my AGEing paper, my genomic modularity paper, and most recently here on my blog. Just to be clear: Existing models of 'microevolution' or speciation cannot account for rapid post-Flood diversification of species.

Molén also claimed that Cavanaugh et al. (that's me) "constructed their own horse evolution tree." I just checked the paper, and there was no "evolutionary tree" to be found. There's an ANOPA diagram, which is not an evolutionary tree. We did comment that it was surprisingly similar to MacFadden's phylogeny, but it was not constructed to be an evolutionary tree. That was why it was surprising that it looked like a tree, because it wasn't supposed to be a tree. We were so surprised, we wrote a second paper about it. (By the way, the ANOPA was subsequently confirmed in my multidimensional scaling article [PDF], which Molén also did not cite).

More surprisingly, Molén seems to think that "post-Flood and Flood criteria" are "based on horse evolution," and he cites the Cavanaugh et al. paper and my recent Answers magazine article. No one has ever based a post-Flood interpretation of these fossils on "horse evolution." We interpreted the fossils as post-Flood because there were independent reasons and arguments that could be made to interpret the Cenozoic as post-Flood. Not the other way around.

What lessons can we learn from this? First, try to understand exactly what you are critiquing. Don't put words in people's mouths. Quoting from their work can be quite helpful. Second, make your arguments relevant. Third, make your arguments clear. The question of "gaps" (if by that means discontinuities) is interesting, but it has to be qualified and evidence must be presented to support the claim. Fourth, a complete examination of your opponent's position can be quite helpful. Don't base your claims on just what was in one or two articles.

My favorite part of Molén's article is that it's published in the "Countering the Critics" section of JC, which is usually reserved for arguments against evolutionists. I guess I know where I stand.

Now in the interest of fairness, let's dissect another article, this time by someone who ought to know better. In the latest issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach, Donald R. Prothero has an article titled "Evolutionary transitions in the fossil record of terrestrial hoofed mammals" [Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:289-302]. Since Prothero is an actual paleontologist (and not a physical geographer), he should actually be able to represent his subject well. That would be my expectation. Here is his conclusion regarding the horse series:
Every single comment on horse evolution from the creationists’ literature betrays their complete lack of any firsthand knowledge of horse anatomy or fossils and shows that they cannot tell one bone from another.
Prothero's sample of "creationists' literature" is Gish, Sarfati, and Jonathan Wells, which I know is not the full spectrum of creationists commenting on horse evolution. I've read a lot of creationist literature on the subject, so I'm pretty familiar with the majority and minority opinions, which are kind of all over the map (as the above discussion illustrates). So I'm a little confused by Prothero's claim. Isn't scholarly, peer-reviewed literature supposed to avoid hyperbole? Or do the editors actually think this is true? I'll grant that I'm not a horse expert (or even a paleontologist), but I can tell one bone from another rather easily.

Just in case you didn't get that point, Prothero repeats it in the final conclusion to the paper:
All of these examples are largely ignored by creationists, or when they do mention them, they use completely outdated arguments, quotes out of context, or simple lies and distortions that demonstrate the fact that creationists have no training in anatomy or paleontology and cannot tell one bone from another.
No training in paleontology? Someone better tell Kurt Wise.

But wait, there's more:
Arguments such as this reveal the dogmatism and complete intellectual and scientific bankruptcy of creationists. If they really cared to find out whether there were transitional forms in the fossil record, they would stop quoting out of context from children’s books or outdated secondary sources and obtain the proper anatomical and paleontological training to study the fossils themselves. Since they do not even bother to do this, their arguments are worthless.
So I guess erroneous ranting can get into the scholarly literature, as long as it fits the political agenda of the journal. I guess I'm more disappointed with Prothero, who as I said ought to know better. But when you're right, you're right. Who needs to bother with silly things like accuracy?

I guess I am a broken record.