[This exchange began with the post Radical Revision. Matt wrote an email, to which I responded in the post A Response to Matt. Matt has written another email, which is reproduced below with my comments interspersed between his words.]
First off, thank you for the thoughtful response. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.
“The standard teaching that I was referring to is that the tetrapods (or close relatives) made the transition from sea to land.”
I would argue that this statement still holds true, regardless of the spinal orientation. The spinal orientation is difficult to know, because it seems that this part of the specimen is embedded in rock. But, there are many equally essential anatomical features which are clearly visible: the structure of the limbs, the shape of the skull (for which there are several specimens), the teeth, the jaw bone. I would argue that the standard teaching, as you have articulated it, is “robust”, even if one particular part of the anatomy were uncertain… especially since there are many other transitional fossils in this series.
Here are the bare bones:
1. A claim is made for a fantastically-intricate transformation from sea-life to terrestrial life through an unguided, non-teleological process. This is a change that would require tens of thousands of changes, many of which would have to occur simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion. Nobody has the faintest clue as to what sequence of genetic mutations could lead, in a step-wise fashion, from a sea-dwelling creature to a land-dwelling creature, so the hypothesis depends on the belief that this is, in fact, possible.
2. The only physical basis to the claim rests on the minuscule amount of information about biological organisms that can be gleaned from skeletal remains (even when the remains are complete and perfectly preserved). We know from history (the case of the Coelacanth) that such claims have been made before, and have turned out to be spectacularly wrong.
3. The fossilised skeletal remains in this case turn out to have been deeply misunderstood. The fact that there are also bits of jaw and teeth is immaterial. If you can’t tell the back of the creature from the front, you probably know very little about these organisms.
If this is what you wish to call a robust scientific claim, I am happy to rest my case here and now.
“It is significantly weakened by the discovery that basic anatomical features of these creatures were completely misunderstood for the past 150 years.”
Here is where I think you may be taking license. Phrases like “significantly weakened” and “completely misunderstood” are subjective statements. As a “consumer of science”, I prefer more precise and objective terminology. Having read the Nature article and the BBC article, I get the impression that this is a more subtle anatomical distinction than you would like it to be. The researchers who do this work are passionate and I very much appreciate their excitement in proclaiming that “textbooks will have to be rewritten”. However, I think that they are talking about *graduate level* textbooks. I don’t think that they mean to suggest that this overthrows the big picture of where that creature fits into the record.
My Response: In my post, I quoted (not paraphrased) the report in Nature and BBC. Here are some of the relevant phrases from those sources:
1. This study fundamentally revises our current understanding of vertebral column evolution.
2. Researchers have found that our understanding of the anatomy of the first four-legged animals is wrong.
3. New 3D models of fossil remains show that previous renderings of the position of the beasts’ backbones were actually back-to-front.
4. Their vertebrae are actually structurally completely different from what everyone for the last 150 or so years has pictured. The textbook examples turn out to be wrong.
In contrast, Matt writes, “The researchers who do this work are passionate and I very much appreciate their excitement in proclaiming that ‘textbooks will have to be rewritten’.”
Matt’s sentiment is offered without any substantiation and is based on his “impression”.
I leave it to readers to decide whose comments can more accurately be characterised as objective.
You claim that this finding “significantly” weakens the notion that Ichthyostega represents a transitional form from fish to amphibian. Allow me to quote the BBC article: “Prof Hutchinson said the findings provided more clues about how the early animals physically moved out of the water and on to land.” This seems to suggest the opposite of your conclusion.
I never doubted that Professor Hutchinson would feel upbeat about the results of his research. The discovery that palaeontologists had completely misunderstood a key piece of tetrapod anatomy for 150 years is certainly a positive step – 150 years is a long time to be wrong. Whether the findings really provide more clues about how early animals moved out of the water remains to be seen. The one incontrovertible fact in this episode is that Professor Hutchinson’s own research indicates that a key piece of anatomy was “structurally completely different from what everyone for the last 150 or so years has pictured. The textbook examples turn out to be wrong.” Everything else is, at best, a prediction (more accurately classified as wishful thinking).
The type of sentence quoted by Matt from the BBC report was called – by the great chemist and ardent opponent of evolution Philip Skell – narrative gloss. Narrative gloss comes in two varieties. The first kind occurs when biologists write articles that have nothing to do with evolution, but whose concluding paragraph contains a passionate affirmation of the authors’ loyalty to the Darwinian paradigm. The second kind occurs when biologists write about research that actually undermines the prevailing paradigm, but whose concluding paragraph contains a passionate affirmation of the authors’ loyalty to the Darwinian paradigm. It’s par for the course for the BBC and Hutchinson to declare that a finding by palaeontologists will advance the Darwinian agenda; no alternative is conceivable.
In the end, as someone who would like to think of himself as “an informed consumer of science” I musty humbly admit that, not being a paleontologist or zoologist, I don’t feel confident making any serious judgement. Is it safe to say that you too are not an expert on this subject matter?
I explain in Genesis and Genes that contemporary scientists are typically people who know a great deal about a very narrow, specialised, technical field, and very little about Science, especially about its history and philosophy. As I wrote,
Many members of the public are unaware that as scientific training progresses, depth is purchased at the cost of breadth. It is at the undergraduate level where the maximum number of courses is taken. The curriculum at this level is designed to give students exposure to a broad range of topics, the better to choose a suitable specialty once they graduate. When pursuing a Master’s degree, the focus narrows, and it shrinks even further when pursuing a PhD., by which time the researcher is engrossed almost exclusively in the specific research interest which will form his doctoral thesis.
The vast majority of science undergraduates do not take a single course in the history/philosophy of science. They do not have the skills that would make them informed consumers of science. And the situation does not improve as their career progresses. Members of the public may feel awed when confronted by general statements made by a professor whose name is followed by an alphabet soup of titles, but the awe is misplaced. Those who have studied the history and philosophy of science are better qualified to assess the general credibility of scientific findings than most scientists. By way of analogy, it is not an artist that you would approach to determine whether a newly-discovered painting is really a Rembrandt. You would approach a museum curator with extensive training in art history.
Might I suggest that we contact the researchers themselves and see what they say? Would you post their response?
You are, of course, at liberty to contact the writers of the Nature article. My policy is to post any communication which is non-vitriolic, adequately well-written and of some substance.
Having said this, I have to ask, What exactly do you expect Hutchinson to say? I am under no illusion as to where his sympathies lie.
A bit of background. Thomas Kuhn was one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century. One of his key insights, propounded in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is that the vast majority of scientists work on ordinary problems within a framework called a paradigm. The problems that undermine the framework itself are seldom discussed, or even noticed. It is only once the problems become too difficult and numerous to sustain the framework that the structure comes tumbling down and a new paradigm emerges.
A related insight into how science works comes from two distinguished philosophers of science:
Or, if the flaws appeared within the proper jurisdiction of the old theory… to abandon it as soon as a new, better one can be contrived. Note the last phrase: a defective theory will be abandoned “as soon as a new, better one can be contrived.” Scientists sometimes prefer an inadequate theory to none at all. [Physics, The Human Adventure, Holton and Brush, Rutgers University Press, 2005, Page 38.]
These words apply primarily to theories in physics, which carry relatively little ideological baggage. With evolution, which represents, for many biologists, an indispensable ideological commitment, the fact that a key point is refuted is usually of no consequence. They will continue to adhere to the paradigm.
I gave detailed examples of this phenomenon in chapter 3 of Genesis and Genes. Lord Kelvin and John Joly continued to insist that their calculations of the age of the Earth would not be affected by the discovery of radioactivity, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They died unregenerate, and it was a new generation of scientists who ditched the old paradigm in favour of viewing radioactivity as the ultimate geological timekeeper.