Dembski and Wells: Fossils Don’t Mean Anything

We recently wrote Dembski and Wells Demolish Darwin — Maybe. Two Discovery Institute geniuses, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, were promoting their book, which we wrote about in Two New Discovery Institute Books.

Now the same two are doing it again. Their new post at the Discoveroids’ creationist blog is Why Fossils Cannot Demonstrate Darwinian Evolution. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The transition from reptiles into mammals via mammal-like reptiles is regarded by many evolutionary theorists as the best example of an evolutionary lineage in the fossil record. There are, however, three fundamental problems with this and all other examples of inferring Darwinian evolution on the basis of fossil evidence.

[*Begin Drool Mode*] Ooooooooooooh! [*End Drool Mode*] Three fundamental problems! This is big news, dear reader. What are those problems? They say:

The first is that any specific hypothesis must use the fossil data selectively; the second is that similarities in fossil or living organisms may not be due to common ancestry; and the third is that fossils cannot, in principle, establish biological relationships.

Wow — we’re in big trouble now! The rest of their post elaborates on those three problems. It’s too mind-wrenching to dig in too deeply, so we’ll just give you the highlights. Regarding the first fundamental problem — that we are using the fossil evidence selectively, they claim:

As in the case of therapsids, fossils more mammal-like can occur earlier in the fossil record than fossils that are less mammal-like. Yet to trace an evolutionary lineage on the basis of the fossil record requires that therapsids structurally more similar to mammals enter the history of life later than those that are structurally less similar. Evolution, after all, needs to follow time’s arrow and cannot have offspring giving birth to parents.

[*Groan*] Different lines of species can exist at the same time, even though one line evolved from the other. Evolution does not require that every example of ancestral stock must become extinct whenever some new species arises. The Discoveroids have more to say about this:

A similar problem arises with geographical mismatches, in which fossil organisms that are supposedly next to each other in a structural progression are widely separated geographically. If the geographical separation is too great, how can one organism be ancestral to the other? Reproduction, after all, requires proximity — parents do not give birth to offspring at the other side of the globe.

[*Groan*] Offspring can migrate, and over a number of generations, their descendants can live far from their ancestral roots. Oh wait — the Discoveroids are prepared for that rebuttal:

The problem of temporal and geographical mismatches is widespread. The Darwinist’s way around this problem is to assume that organisms that appear to enter the fossil record too late or too far away actually entered earlier or closer together. But such assumptions are entirely ad hoc and ignore the actual fossil evidence.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! That’s an ad hoc assumption, but unevidenced intervention by a transcendental intelligent designer isn’t. They have several more paragraphs on this first “fundamental problem,” but let’s move on to the next one — that similarity may not be due to common ancestry:

In evolutionary theory, convergence refers to the origination of identical or highly similar structures through independent evolutionary pathways rather than inheritance from a common ancestor. Darwinian theory attributes convergence to similar environments that apply similar selection pressures and thereby produce similar structures.

This explanation is on its face implausible because there is no reason to think that Darwin’s opportunistic mechanism has the fine discrimination to produce virtually identical complex structures in causally disconnected environments. Yet organisms possess many similar features not thought to arise from a common ancestor.

[*Groan*] Wikipedia has an article on Convergent evolution. They say: “The recurrent evolution of flight is a classic example of convergent evolution. Flying insects, birds, and bats have all evolved the capacity of flight independently. They have ‘converged’ on this useful trait.” It’s a problem only in the minds of creationists. Dembski and Wells declare:

If similar structures can evolve and re-evolve repeatedly, then fossils cannot distinguish convergence from common ancestry, and tracing evolutionary lineages in the fossil record becomes impossible.

Yeah, impossible. Now let’s skip some blather until we get to their third point — that fossils cannot, in principle, establish biological relationships. We’re told:

Imagine finding two human skeletons in the same location, one apparently about thirty years older than the other. Was the older individual the parent of the younger? Simply by looking at the skeletons, one can’t say. Without independent evidence (e.g., genealogical, dental, or molecular), it is impossible to answer the question. Yet in this case we’re dealing with two skeletons from the same species that are only a generation apart. It follows that even if we had a fossil representing every generation and every imaginable intermediate between, say, reptiles and mammals — if there were no missing links whatsoever — it would still be impossible, in principle, to establish ancestor-descendant relationships.

Neat, huh? Darwinists have no evidence at all! Then they quote somebody who purportedly said:

To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story — amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.

Hey — that’s right! After all, were you there? The Discoveroids conclude with this:

In short, fossils cannot demonstrate Darwinian evolution.

That means the only valid, rock-solid theory that explains life on earth is Oogity Boogity! The logic is undeniable.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Dembski and Wells: Fossils Don’t Mean Anything

  1. Christine Janis

    I recommend the review of the Dembski and Well’s book by Puck Mendelssohn.

    This bit in particular:

    The blind spots, unconscious humor and logical fallacies in this book are occasionally amusing, if annoying. What is more unsettling is the flat-out dishonesty of some of the arguments made. For example, the authors attack the case for the evolution of the mammalian jaw from the reptilian jaw of the synapsids, and the migration of jaw bones to form the malleus and incus of the mammalian ear. Among other things, the authors suggest that the evolutionary case is made purely on the basis of “bone count”–that is, that biologists simply noticed a couple of bones missing in the mammalian jaw compared to the reptilian jaw, and noticed a couple of extra bones in the mammalian ear that aren’t in the reptilian ear, and assumed that the missing jaw bones must be the same as the extra ear bones. That would of course be questionable reasoning, if that were the basis for identifying these bones with one another; but Dembski and Wells mischaracterize both the evidence and the reasoning. Dembski and Wells must be aware of the embryological evidence which proves these bones to be homologous (and which, incidentally, was done decades before the Origin of Species was published). They must be aware of the functional evidence that even modern reptiles use their jawbones to aid hearing. They must be aware that the fossil evidence shows a progression from the reptilian compound jaw to the mammalian dentary jaw, and the corresponding relocation of the jaw joint. But there is no reference to any of these important facts, and the enormous body of work done by biologists and paleontologists over the last hundred years is dismissed as a mere brain-dead “bone count.” This is dishonest, and it is an insult to the legions of scientists who have worked on these issues.”

  2. Dembski and Wells proclaim

    even if we had a fossil representing every generation and every imaginable intermediate between, say, reptiles and mammals — if there were no missing links whatsoever — it would still be impossible, in principle, to establish ancestor-descendant relationships.

    Translation: Even an infinite amount of incontrovertible evidence can ever, ever lead us to so much as question our ungrounded a priori assumptions nor override our unsupported ‘intuition’…

  3. michaelfugate

    The misquote is from Henry Gee. See here for commentary.

  4. And what is the ID account for the fossils? What happened?
    Take it as a “whodunit”, where the fossils are the clues, the intelligent designers are the suspects, design is the deed, and you are the detective.
    It is your responsibility to establish the motive, the opportunity and the means which connect the suspects to the deed.

  5. ID has reached new levels of phonyness. Their argument amounts to asking “have you ever seen any gravity thingies stretching from the earth to the moon? No? Then physics can never in principle prove that gravity is true!” The reason everyone takes physics seriously is that Newton’s laws make predictions about the motion of the moon and planets which “fit the facts” to staggering precision. The fact that we can’t see gravity is neither here nor there, what matters is that we can “see” that the theory fits the facts.

    ID can’t deny that science learns by producing explanations that “fit the facts,” but then it pretends not to understand how “fitting the facts” actually works. To fit the facts you have to have a model that makes predictions, which common descent does and ID doesn’t. And the facts, i.e. fossils that we actually have, DO fit the predictions, even though the fit is limited because the fossil record is a poor sample of all the living thing that once existed. But the point is not the fossils that we don’t have, but what we can learn from the fossils we do have. And the fossils we do have, DO fit the predictions of common descent! That is the elephant in the living room that ID is trying to pretend does not exist.

    The whole “but science can never prove” complaint is a foolish anti-science talking point which amounts to “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts!” It is used only to curry favor with those who don’t know the facts of paleontology, and are afraid to learn because of what they might find out.

  6. Ah, yes, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells: the thick-as-two-short-planks end of the Wedge.

  7. Eric Lipps

    So much for poor old Duane Gish and his books Evolution? The Fossils Say No! and its sequel, Evolution? The Fossils Still Say No! If fossils don’t mean anything, how can they be used to argue against evolution?

  8. Not having read the book, I only assume it ignores biogeography and genomics altogether. Which are considered the 2 strongest signals of common descent, fossils coming a rather poor 3rd. But yes; never mind about all that!

  9. “….In short, fossils cannot demonstrate Darwinian evolution….”
    Don’t give a crap!! SHow me evidence that ID is right!!!!
    Also Use your ID BS to demonstrate something useful, like evilution does. Till then your ID may well be right, but who cares?!?!?!?

  10. I think of the fossil record as similar to the view our a window obscured by blinds. The blinds might be over half closed, yet when standing back a bit, one has a pretty good view of what is outside. More than half the detail is missing, but the overall pattern is there.

    The fossil record is not even that good, but the overall pattern is clear.

    Surely Dembski and Wells acknowledge that the fossils exist, and they apparently agree with the dating. They are deep in the forest comparing one tree to the next, but they know the pattern whether they admit it or not. So what is their proposed explanation, if not evolution? Are they asserting that a designer was active for 3-4 billion years creating organisms de novo, discarding them and creating similar creatures, discarding them and creating yet more, ad infinitum?

    What does that say about us? Are we just another experiment, soon to be discarded?

  11. Religion is an explanation of the universe for the simple minded that need to be told and reassured. So many sheep, so many charlatans.

  12. Well jeepers (to borrow a phrase), I’m convinced. Its time to chuck those geology books and double down on oogity boogity.

  13. docbill1351

    Dumbski the Lesser and Dry Wells have finally regressed to the Kurt Wise Defense, which is “nanny nanny boo boo.” What’s next for Dumbski, the once Alfred E. Neuman of Informashun, a shopping cart full of cans in a park?

  14. Charles Deetz ;)

    In case you need proof that Dumbski and Welly are the best creationism has to offer, someone pointed at a creationist thread on Facebook where folks were chatting up all the facts about human/dino footprint fossils.

  15. Dave Luckett

    Any four-year-old knows the basic trick. Ask “why?” When furnished with an explanation, pick one bit of it and ask “why?” again. Repeat as necessary. Eventually you’ll get to “I don’t know”. You must. You can’t not. It’s completely sure-fire.

    When you get to “I don’t know”, say, “Ah-HAH!” like that, and dance the victory dance.

    This is the tedious little schtick these two bozos are engaged in. Or it’s one of them. It’s worthy of a four-year-old. At that, it’s a little more sophisticated than some of their other schticks.

  16. docbill1351

    Late to the party, again (must be all those vacation Mai tais) Dumbski and Dummerski are re-hawking their 8-year old POS as somehow new?????

    Science by republishing, why didn’t I think of that?

  17. Christine Janis

    “What does that say about us? Are we just another experiment, soon to be discarded?”

    Maybe we’re simply the product of a highly incompetent designer who took 3.8 billion years, and an infinite number of side branches, to create something in his own image.

  18. “parents do not give birth to offspring at the other side of the globe.”
    Brilliant! Only now I understand I’m not the grandson of my grandparents. A seperation of 8000 km is not nearly proximity.

    “It’s a problem only in the minds of creationists.”
    Look at the way Dumbski and Wellybelly formulate it: it’s a problem because it’s a problem.

    “Was the older individual the parent of the younger?”
    Or did they belong to the same species? Related species perhaps?

  19. GreatScot!

    This is what passes for intelligent thought in the ‘intelligent design’ world? Pass the sick bag Alice!