So far I haven’t been participating in the anti-Egnor festivities. For those who don’t know, Michael Egnor is a medical doctor who lately has become the flavor of the month over at the Discovery Institute’s Blog. They get very excited, you see, when someone with actual credentials can be found to parrot their talking points. In Egnor’s case he’s harping the meme that doctors don’t need to know anything about evolution.
Since I know next to nothing about medical practice I’ve been content to allow bloggers more qualified than I explain the numerous ways in which Egnor is confused. For a taste of how things are going, I recommend Burt Humburg’s demolition of Egnor’s original post, or Mark Chu-Carroll’s similarly incisive smackdown of Egnor’s more recent expectorations. Go peruse the Panda’s Thumb or the Science Blogs main page for further posts on the same topic. I figured I would weigh in when he started parroting those insipid probability arguments creationists find so appealing.
Nonetheless, this bit of insanity caught my eye. Josh Rosenau has already given it the business, but why should he have all the fun?
Egnor’s missive is entitled “Evolutionary Paleoneurology. The Mind Reels.” It focusses on the same Newsweek cover story I discussed last week. Egnor thinks he has detected a flaw in the work described by the article:
This week’s cover story in Newsweek, “The Evolution Revolution,” is about evolutionary paleoneurology. It is the study of the brains and minds of ancient hominids, dating back to 7 million years ago. Newsweek reporter Sharon Begley gives a credulous tour of the standard Darwinist speculations: we can tell when humans first started wearing clothing by genetic analysis of modern body lice, or perhaps human society was the result of the emergence of the gene for oxytocin, a hormone that causes mothers to secrete milk and that may influence social behavior in humans. Evolutionary paleoneurologists claim to know some of what ancient hominids actually thought by studying fragments of their fossilized skulls. Ms. Begley tells us that “paleoneurology is documenting when structures that power the human mind arose, shedding light on how our ancestors lived and thought.” What can we really know about what ancient hominids thought? (Emphasis Added)
Allow me to focus on that boldface remark.
Since this is Discovery Institute blogger we are discussing, we should take it for granted that Egnor is presenting a caricature. This is normally where I would give a lecture about the sleaziness of attaching your own beginning to someone else’s sentence, or of basing a scathing denunciation of someone else’s work on a single sentence fragment.
As it happens though, in this case the sentene fragment is perfectly clear. The issue is not what our evolutionary ancestors thought, but rather how they thought. These are obviously different things.
The idea, as is clearly explained in the article, is that paleontologists have unearthed a rather impressive collection of hominid skulls. The brains contained in those skulls left impressions on the bone, and by analyzing these impressions deductions can be drawn about the physical structure of the brains. A nice example of this is provided later in the article:
That was a formula for success, and one that may have also left a mark on the brain. Besides revealing the size of a brain, paleoneurology examines impressions of surface features that the brain leaves on the inside of the skull. That yields clues to its organization. Comparing the shapes of the brains of two hominids that lived 2.5 million years ago, Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus, scientists find major differences in the shape of the frontal lobe, which controls higher cognition. “Paranthropus has a teardrop shape, whereas africanus is more squared off, and africanus has a swooping down on the bottom where Paranthropus is sort of peaked,” says Dean Falk of Florida State University. That configuration suggests that africanus had a better-developed region called area 10, which plays a key role in decision-making, taking initiative and advance planning. It may be why africanus evolved while Paranthropus came to a dead end.
Gives rather a different impression from what Egnor described, don’t you think?
Egnor makes some additional claims, equally silly, about the article. What strikes me about Egnor’s writing, however, is that he is another example of a phenomenon I have noted before at this blog.
People seem to completely lose their minds upon deciding to reject evolution publicly. They are suddenly incapable of giving an accurate description of other people’s work. When quoting the work of others, they simply have to distort the intended meaning. Any awareness that sweeping criticisms of modern science need to be backed up with facts goes out the window. They find incomprehensible the notion that you shoud know what you are talking about prior to opening your mouth. They find it essential to affect a tone of smug superiority. And it is no longer enough merely to criticize ideas you find objectionable. Rather, you have to make scientists look foolish and cartoonish.
Imagine that you are reading an article in a popular level venue and encounter something that makes it seem that scientists are trying to read the minds of long dead species. A normal person would furrow his brow and conclude he had misunderstood. And let us suppose that after rereading that portion of the article, you decide that actually, you had correctly divined the author’s intention. At this point a normal person would shrug and conclude that the author, not herself a scientist, had bungled some technical point.
But if you’re Michael Egnor, that’s not how you react. Instead you run straight to the computer, pleased that you have found something that, with abit of massaging and selective quotation, can be used to rhetorical advantage. You make sweeping denunciations based on a comical misunderstanding of something that was clearly explained in the article.
I often tell people that if I ever decide to become a creationist, I could write something much better book than what these jokers produce. It wouldn’t take much. Just a modicum of basic integrity coupled with a willingness to do a little homework. Apparently, that’s too much for folks like Egnor to manage.