Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Responding to Senter: Baraminology in JEB again

Long-time readers will recall that Phil Senter published a paper last year in Journal of Evolutionary Biology purporting to demonstrate that dinosaurs and birds are related using the methods of baraminology. He called his paper "Using creation science to demonstrate evolution." I posted a summary of the paper here, and I got some flak for not actually responding to Senter's argument. As one reader wrote in an email, "It seems to me that Phil Senter needs a better response from creationists than 'gee, that's interesting'." Heh. He sure does need a good response, but as I wrote later,
I'd rather take my time and write something genuinely intelligent than shoot my mouth off and say something stupid. Especially on a subject as important as this.

So I wrote a response and submitted it to JEB, and on Monday of this week, they published my response in their online early section. You'll need a subscription to access the full paper at the journal site, so here's the paper in a nutshell. I suppose you could summarize my response in four observations:

1. Not so fast. Senter's multidimensional scaling is not something a baraminologist would use to assign species to baramins. My own analysis using distance correlation (the usual method I use to assign species to baramins) left room for doubting the relationship between birds and dinosaurs.

2. Given the ongoing hostility of some creationists towards baraminology research, it would seem more likely that creationists in general would simply reject baraminology than ever admit that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Rejecting baraminology would then drive modern creationism closer to species fixity.

3. Considering that baraminologists have been active in correcting bad antievolution arguments of creationists, is sowing discord among creationists over baraminology really a good, long-term strategy? It seems to me a big complaint about creationists is the appalling antievolution arguments they advocate to the public, but experience shows us that these antievolution arguments are quite resilient and resistant to criticism from outside of creationism. So here we've got a segment of creationism that wants to fix some of these terrible arguments. Should that be encouraged? Maybe not, but at the very least, do you really want to alienate the baraminologists from creationism at large? Especially if doing so makes creationism more extreme than it was before?

4. Is this really something we want to debate in a journal devoted to evolutionary biology?

In light of that last comment, I suppose I should say something about the fact that my response was even published in JEB. It seems like every time a journal publishes some criticism of creationism or ID, someone submits a response and gets rejected. Then the response gets published on the internet or in a creationist journal. There have been few exceptions to this trend (Behe being the main one that comes to mind, although he's had his share of rejections too). I'm glad that I didn't just rush to post my comments here and leave it at that, but I don't think that anyone should make too much of my published response. It is emphatically NOT a paper that advocates creationism. On the other hand, my experience with this paper make me question the common wisdom that creationists can't get their responses published simply because they're creationists. Perhaps there's more to this... dare I ask - could it be a quality problem?

I'm especially intrigued by a comment in Peter Bouteneff's book Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives: "When we consider our contemporary situation, it is almost inappropriate to speak of a debate between these views, for scholars tend to talk only to their respective camps." Ain't that the truth? It raises an interesting problem, though, in the light of recent developments. If I read things correctly, there seems to be ... well, I'm not sure what to call it. I'm seeing an increasing number of individuals trying to transcend the petty propaganda war and actually have a conversation with the "other side" (whatever that might be). I think this is a very good thing, but Bouteneff's comment remains true: publications in this area tend to take sides (anticreationist or antievolutionist) and few on the "other side" are actually listening. Publications committed to an ideological position also tend to let poor scholarship slide, as long as the paper advocates the "correct" position. Are we in need of a new forum? A forum where individuals of different ideological positions can actually talk?

I don't know. Maybe. If you think we need a new way to talk to each other, send me an email.

Wood. 2011. Using creation science to demonstrate evolution? Senter’s strategy revisited. JEB DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2010.02208.x.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.