Egnor on Paleoneurology

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Fred
    March 19, 2007

    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.

    In all fairness, I see that from our side too. Even the above article exhibits it.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 19, 2007

    Fred-

    It’s okay to make people look foolish and cartoonish when they really ARE foolish and cartoonish.

  3. #3 Monado
    March 19, 2007

    It’s hard not to sound superior when you’re taking someone to task for careless reading for which a good teacher would chide primary school pupil.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vause
    March 19, 2007

    [fred] yes, but Egnor really is foolish and cartoonish

  5. #5 _Arthur
    March 19, 2007

    Egnor works with X-rays and CAT-scans of brain, and mock Paleo-neurologists that have not a single X-ray of a Cromagnon brain !!!

  6. #6 Eric Irvine
    March 19, 2007

    “Egnor works with X-rays and CAT-scans of brain, and mock Paleo-neurologists that have not a single X-ray of a Cromagnon brain !!!” – you write like a Cro-magnon (presumably how they would write, ha).

    Paleoneurologists don’t have CAT scans of the actual brain, but they do have endocasts (fossilized brain / interior of the cranium). In addition, they can recreate a virtual endocast using imaging technology (Dean Falk being one person that does this quite often).

    There aren’t any definite conclusions by any means, but with research in areas such as cognitive neuroscience taking off we may be pleasantly surprised by what we may find out in the future.

  7. #7 RBH
    March 19, 2007

    How appropriate that there’s a recent announcement of a paleoneurology conference just posted on Afarensis. Maybe Egnor might attend and (perish the thought) learn something!

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  9. #9 Chris Noble
    March 20, 2007

    It was a popular science article!
    No matter how good the journalist is they always simplify the subject, make generalisations and throw in a bit of hype.

    Popular science articles are meant to be understandable to lay-audiences. It is revealing that Egnor failed to understand the popular science version.

    It is lazy and arrogant to dismiss an entire field of science based on your own misinterpretation of a popular science article.

    Egnor could have done some further reading of the primary literature but I gues too much information might be dangerous to his belief-structure.

  10. #10 G.
    March 20, 2007

    It does seem odd that someone with an education is unaware that “how” and “what” have different meanings.
    Though perhaps he does deny that brain structure and chemistry has any relationship to personality, intelligence, thought and consciousness. Not an attitude I’d want in a neurosurgeon.

  11. #11 Paul
    March 20, 2007

    Arthur, Cro-Magnon man is simply one of the earliest examples of Homo sapiens sapiens found, and anatomically is virtually indentical to modern humans (which themselves of course show some variation). So it’s probably not streaching things that far to say that paleoneurologists do have access to scan results for Cro-Magnons.

  12. #12 Kevin
    March 20, 2007
  13. #13 Geocreationist
    March 20, 2007

    You think reasoning like Egnor drives you crazy… try being a Christian brother witnessing it! I try to stay on the sidelines of the debate as much as I can, because I find the entire of tone of it too distateful. Most everyone acts as if there is faith OR reason to guide them. As I see it, everyone has a faith switch **and** a logic switch. Unfortunately, atheists appear to have a broken faith switch… and Christians like Egnor appear to have a broken logic switch. I’m not sure who frustrates me more (I don’t mean you in particular Jason, just as a general rule). But then to be fair, I can be pretty frustrating myself. “Why can’t we all just… get along?”

  14. #14 MarkP
    March 20, 2007

    Geocreationist said: Most everyone acts as if there is faith OR reason to guide them. As I see it, everyone has a faith switch **and** a logic switch. Unfortunately, atheists appear to have a broken faith switch…

    I’d put it a little differently: everyone has the ability to reason, but sometimes that ability fails and as a result people believe by faith. If one’s ability to reason never fails, what exactly is “broken”? Why is that unfortunate?

    “Why can’t we all just… get along?”

    Simple – because our “reason switches” sometimes fail. When we believe by demonstrable reason, we can resolve disputes by examining the data, and each other’s arguments. However, when we believe by faith, there is no way to reconcile: I believe X by faith, you believe Y by faith. Sure, we can still manage to coexist, but only by either ignoring our conflicting views, or getting lucky enough to not have any that conflict in a meaningful way.

    That’s the basic reason so much grand-scale violence is driven by faith-based views, and so little via reason-based views. Without reason, there is little choice but to shoot at each other.

  15. #15 Frank
    March 21, 2007

    MarkP-

    Sorry I think you are a bit off the mark here. Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, Hitler, and others have all used “reason” to justify shooting at others.

    Power, politics, intolerance and ambition are the reasons for shooting at each other. Faith is just a convenient excuse in many instances for those who would like to gain power.

    And as Geocreationist and Fred (see first post) have said, both sides have been guilty of this.

  16. #16 David D.G.
    March 21, 2007

    Frank,

    I’d just like to point out that Hitler used religion, rather than reason: “Gott mit uns” and all that. He even said, repeatedly, that he thought he was doing God’s work, and that the core definition of a Good German included being a Christian.

    That said, however, even the rest of your point does not stand well. You are right that “Power, politics, intolerance and ambition are the reasons for shooting at each other,” and that religion is just an excuse for justifying it. But the nonreligious equivalent of what you describe is not reason, but just other kinds of jingoism — usually nationalism, sometimes racism, sometimes a blend. Nationalism blends well with religion, as Hitler showed; it does not blend so well with reason.

    Religion provides a handily independent and very powerful framework for organizing and motivating people on a large scale emotionally, and one of the applications for which this is best suited (and in which it is perhaps most easily directed) is xenophobic violence, whether off in a foreign war or in rooting out the hated “others” in a people’s midst.

    Reason does not do this; religion does, and nationalism does, but nowhere do I recall an outbreak of reason resulting in widespread violence, and certainly never in the very NAME of reason.

    ~David D.G.

  17. #17 Frank
    March 21, 2007

    Perhaps not all that well thought out, agreed.

    The misapplication of faith as well as the misapplication of reason has been used to justify violence on a large scale. Hitler did not wage a religious war. Hitler did not attack Poland because they were of a different religion. Did Hitler use religious justifications? Yes. He also used reasons (not reason in the abstract sense) to justify the attacks. That does not mean that he waged the war in the name of reason either. My point is that people of ill intent will use any means at their disposal to gain power. I agree with you in many ways. “Faith is just a convenient excuse in many instances for those who would like to gain power.” This is perhaps better stated as “Specific faiths or religions are just a convenient excuse in many instances for those who would like to gain power in many cases.”

    And just to be precise, “faith” has never been used as a justification for war only specific faiths or religion. Just as “reason” has never been used as a justification for war but specific ideas have. How many people have died at the hand of socialist atheist ideas?

    Nationalism is an application of an idea or reason. It may be a flawed reason by your or my standards but it is a reason. Most religions say do not kill. If someone goes out and kills in the name of a religion that specifically prescribes against murder does that mean the religion is flawed? No it means that the person has erred.

    Again, it is not the concepts, but the people who do bad things that are the problem.

  18. #18 bpower
    March 21, 2007

    Frank,
    I’m not sure you know what atheists mean by the word “reason”. Faith and reason are not simply two different ways at arriving at an ideology that then must be followed blindly.

    Your whole post is a mess, it displays very muddled thinking.
    “Nationalism is an application of an idea or reason. It may be a flawed reason by your or my standards but it is a reason.” You can say this about anything; racism, theft,sexism, etc. etc.

    “Most religions say do not kill. If someone goes out and kills in the name of a religion that specifically prescribes against murder does that mean the religion is flawed? No it means that the person has erred.”
    Says you! To the person who does the killing you are the one who has erred. How can you argue with him? It’ll always boil down to “I believe x, you believe y”, end of debate.

  19. #19 MarkP
    March 21, 2007

    Frank, my argument was about faith, not religion. Whether it is faith in Jesus, faith in Stalin, faith in Pol Pot, or faith in trickle-down economics, the problem is the same. Hitler supports my point, not yours. Consider your statement:

    The misapplication of faith as well as the misapplication of reason has been used to justify violence on a large scale.

    Now go to the next step. How does one identify a misapplication of reason? Bring new facts to bear.
    Identify flaws in the reasoning. Thus, Soviet-style government has pretty much been analyzed and rejected by most of the world, after a relatively short but brutal test period.

    Contrast this to faith. How does one identify a misapplication of faith?

    [crickets chirping]

    That’s it in a nutshell. Faith is the end, one believes because one believes, and that’s that. There is no common ground on which to build compromise and mutual understanding, no way to correct errors. Thus we have people still believing, by faith, that the earth is 6,000 years old, hundreds of years after the evidence clearly showed otherwise, and no doubt they will still be believing that a hundred years from now.

    Yes, people who do bad things are a problem, but by themselves they are pretty limited in the damage they can do. It’s only when you get a large group of people following said leader on faith that we get the truly horrific grand-scale horrors.

  20. #20 sohbet
    January 5, 2009

    thanks admin..