Tag Archives: Donald Prothero

Can Fossils Indicate Ancestry?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In most cases, fossils cannot give us ancestry, according to paleontologist Donald Prothero.  This statement, coming from Prothero, shocked me when I first read it, because it seems like fossil news headlines always make claims about ancestry, but here is Prothero, a staunch supporter of evolution, disagreeing.

Let me explain, lest I be accused of quote mining.  In his book Evolution, Prothero dedicates an entire chapter to explaining how scientists classify plant and animal life.  According to Prothero, the dominant method used today is cladistics, where the relationships among animals and plants are determined by the comparison of shared derived characters.  This theory has only taken hold in the last few decades, replacing older systems of classification.

A cladogram (cladistic diagram) comparing an assortment of vertebrates (e.g., lamprey, shark, frog, cow, monkey, human) might look at shared derived characters such as jaws, vertebrae, lungs, four legs, hair, mammary glands, opposable thumb, and stereovision.  Cladograms are powerful tools for classifying life because they are using directly observable evidence taken from living animals and from fossils.  But do cladograms indicate fossil ancestry?  Only minimally.  Here is Prothero:

Some aspects of cladistic theory have proven more difficult for many scientists to accept.  For example, a cladogram is simply a branching diagram of relationships between three or more taxa.  It does not specify whether one taxon is ancestral to another; it only shows the topology of their relationships as established by shared derived characters.  In its simplicity and lack of additional assumptions, it is beautifully testable and falsifiable.

Prothero explains that cladistics frustrate some evolutionists who want to say more about ancestry from the cladograms, but Prothero urges caution:

The biggest sticking point is the concept of ancestry.  We tend to use the term ancestor to describe certain fossils, but we must be careful when making that statement.  If we want to be rigorous and stick to testable hypotheses, it is hard to support the statement that ‘this particular fossil is the ancestor of all later fossils of its group’ because we usually can’t test that hypothesis.  Because the fossil record is so incomplete, it is highly unlikely that any particular fossil in our collections is the remains of the actual ancestor of another taxon.

What is refreshing about these statements from Prothero is that we are seeing actual scientific restraint when it comes to the analysis of fossils.  Unfortunately this kind of restraint is almost never present when the news media trumpet a new fossil find.  We only hear about “missing links” and how “X is the ancestor of Y” throughout the reports.

To be fair to Prothero, he does believe that ancestry can be verified if the fossil sample size is large enough.  In his own research on planktonic microfossils, he claims that there are enough layers of fossils to draw scientific conclusions about ancestry.

Planktonic microfossils aside, it is time that palentologists become more careful with their language and stop referring to new fossils in sensational terms.  In most cases, there is no way to determine ancestry; we can look at what features a new fossil shares with other taxa, but that is usually as far as we can go.

Science as a Religion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I just finished reading a book called Evolution by Donald Prothero, a paleontologist.  The book’s main purpose is to chronicle the fossil evidence for the evolution of animal life.  Prothero, as an expert in this field, seems to do a reasonable job of this throughout the book, although every tenth sentence seems to be a dress down of creationist, religious fundamentalism (back to that point at the end).  Still, he is extremely knowledgeable about fossil evidence, no doubt.

One thing that bothered me about the end of the book, however, is Prothero’s wholehearted and devoted worship of science.  I can almost imagine him bowing at an altar, it’s so overdone.  Read on to see why.

At the very beginning of his volume, he gave me hope that he understood the limits of science when he explained, “Science helps us understand the natural world and the way it works, but it does not deal with the supernatural, and it does not make statements of what ought to be, as do morals and ethics. . . . When science tries to proscribe morals or ethics, it falters.”  Sounds good.

But then we fast-forward to the conclusion, literally the last 2 pages, where he quotes three of his favorite science prophets.  First we hear from the Prophet Michael Shermer, who testifies, “Darwin matters because evolution matters.  Evolution matters because science matters.  Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”  Science, it seems, is an epic saga.

Next Prothero quotes from the Gospel of the Prophet Carl Sagan: “The universe is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.  Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us.  There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height.  We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”  Tingling in the spine?

And finally, a reading from the Book of Darwin, speaking on his theory of evolution.  “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.”  Evolution is full of grandeur.

After having heard from the Holy Trinity, I almost expected Prothero to burst into a hymn of science thanksgiving.  What place does all of this have in a book about fossils?  When all is said and done, Prothero is not just trying to teach about fossils; no, he is all about recruiting us to his religion, the religion of science.  After all, religions tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.  This, according to Prophet Shermer, is what science does for us.

For Prothero, it seems that science is the answer to every question worth asking.  After 358 pages of berating religious fundamentalists, it turns out he is one, too.

What is Intelligent Design?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I’ve been reading Donald Prothero’s book Evolution, which is a book meant to show how powerful the evidence for evolution is.  Prothero, a professor of geology, certainly seems to know a lot about fossils, but he seems to know remarkably little about intelligent design (ID), a theory he maligns early in his book.

Here is Prothero’s take on ID: “Reading the ID creationists closely, you find that they don’t offer any new scientific ideas or a true alternative theory of life competing with evolution.  All they argue is that some parts of nature seem too complex for them to imagine an evolutionary explanation.”

Really?  Is that what ID is?

Perhaps a better way to answer this question would be to ask ID proponents themselves to define ID, since they are the ones proposing the theory.  I know it sounds crazy and Prothero certainly doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but let’s try any way.

According to the website of a leading ID organization, the Discovery Institute, below is a definition of ID.  I will copy the entire definition here for your convenience, although you can go to the site yourself and read it there.

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.

This definition is quite different from Prothero’s definition because it claims that ID is a positive scientific program that is studying the informational properties of certain features of the natural world.  To say that ID is merely arguing that “some parts of nature are too complex to imagine an evolutionary explanation” is a gross distortion.  The first thing one should do when debating an idea is to correctly define that idea.  Let’s hope other writers who participate in this debate take a little more care than Prothero.

Can Science Test for the Supernatural?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Christians believe that a supernatural being can be reasoned to by working backward from effect to cause.  We observe ourselves and we observe the world around us (those are the effects) and we reason that a supernatural cause is the best explanation for the things we observe.  This is how almost all arguments for God’s existence work.

Science can shed additional light on what we observe in the world around us, so in that sense science can be employed in arguments for God’s existence.  For example, science seems to have shown that the universe had a beginning and that the physical laws and constants that govern the universe are fine tuned for advanced life.  Both of these scientific finds are often used in arguments for God’s existence.

Those who hold a naturalistic worldview (the natural world is all that exists) seem to be divided on this subject.  Some naturalists deny that science can ever be used to test the existence of God and others affirm that science can test for the supernatural and that those tests have all turned out negative.  Still others, like evolutionary scientist Donald Prothero, appear to hold both views at the same time.  Consider the quotes below from Prothero’s book Evolution.

Prothero first suggests that scientists “cannot consider supernatural events in their hypotheses.”  Why? Because “once you introduce the supernatural to a scientific hypothesis, there is no way to falsify or test it.”  He adds that scientists are not allowed to consider God or miracles (i.e., the supernatural) because they are “completely untestable and outside the realm of science.”  All right, it seems that Prothero is firmly in the camp of those who say that science cannot say anything about the supernatural.

But in the very next paragraph in his book, he completely reverses course.  Prothero explains, “In fact, there have been many scientific tests of supernatural and paranormal explanations of things, including parapsychology, ESP, divination, prophecy, and astrology.  All of these non-scientific ideas have been falsified when subjected to the scrutiny of scientific investigation. . . . Every time the supernatural has been investigated by scientific methods, it has failed the test.”

Huh??  Is your head spinning like mine?  Prothero first claims that science cannot test the supernatural and then he says that science has tested the supernatural.  Which is it?  It can’t be both.

I am not pointing this out to poke fun at Prothero, but because I see some skeptics making this mistake over and over again.  They want to desperately cling to the claim that science can say nothing about the existence of God (so that they can remove science as a tool in the Christian’s evidential toolbox), but they also desperately want to tell people how science has shown that God doesn’t exist (they retain science as a tool for skeptics to nullify the supernatural).  Unfortunately, holding both of these positions at the same time is flatly contradictory.  The skeptic must choose one or the other. Either science can test for the supernatural or it cannot.

I have seen this same mistake made in the intelligent design/evolution debate.  Evolutionists will claim that Michael Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity is non-scientific or scientifically untestable, but these same evolutionists will then produce scientific research they claim scientifically disproves irreducible complexity!  If it’s not scientifically testable, then how are they producing research which scientifically disproves it?

If you’re a Christian talking to a scientific skeptic, watch out for this skeptical two-step.  If you’re a scientific skeptic or naturalist, make up your mind which it is, because you are really confusing me.

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