Luskin Being Silly

Here’s Discovery Institute flak Casey Luskin commenting on an article about evolution posted at MSNBC’s website. The MSNBC article is available here.:

Question: What do you do when a theory logically predicts both (a) and not (a)?
Answer: Apparently you heavily promote it.

MSNBC recently published two articles promoting Darwinian just-so stories to the public. The first article about the evolution of Waterfowl genitalia contends, “Scientists had speculated that male waterfowl evolved longer phalluses to give them a competitive edge over those not as well-endowed when it came to successfully fertilizing females.” That makes sense, I suppose. But the article makes one admission that strikingly contradicts that little just-so hypothesis: “Most birds lack phalluses, organs like human penises. Waterfowl are among the just 3 percent of all living bird species that retain the grooved phallus…” If long phalluses are so advantageous for reproduction, why did so many birds supposedly lose them? Darwinists will look back retroactively and claim that under the environmental conditions or sexual selection pressures experienced by most bird species, long phalluses weren’t advantageous. The problem in so doing is that they now have a theory which can explain both (a) long phalluses, and also not (a).


Now, if (a) is the statement “The long phallus of the male waterfowl is the product of an evolutionary arms race with female waterfowl,” then I’m afraid the negation of (a) is not the statement “The males of most bird species lack phalluses.” That’s basic logic.

As for the broader point, yes, evolution can, in certain cases, explain the presence of a particular anatomical structure in one species and its absence in a closely related species. That is because (a) there is an element of chance in the evolutionary trajectory taken by some particular population of organisms and (b) there is no such thing as the absolute fitness of a trait, so that traits that are fitness enhancing in one environment might be neutral or fitness reducing in another. In the present situation most bird species probably found that there was no advantage to be gained from having a long penis, and consequently found it better to direct its resources elsewhere. But some chance variation in an ancient population of waterfowl caused the females to prefer long penises, and the evolutionary arms race was on.

This is not a defect in evolutionary theory, it is merely a reflection of how nature is. It’s not Darwin’s fault that the course of evolution in the long-term is unpredictable. Luskin may as well excoriate nuclear physicists for being able to explain both the decay and the non-decay of a particular nucleus in a radioactive sample. What is interesting in the MSNBC article is that we now have some tangible evidence that it a sexual arms race lay behind the evolution of the waterfowl penis:

In most birds, the vagina or oviduct is a simple tube. However, in some waterfowl, there are sacs in the sides of this tube, pockets that are just inside the opening of the oviduct. These sacs appear “to function as ‘dead-ends,’ or false passages,” Brennan said. “If the phallus were to enter one of these sacs, it would not progress further into the oviduct where it would deposit sperm more effectively.”

Waterfowl oviducts can also possess a series of tight, clock-wise spirals. “Interestingly, the male phallus is also a spiral, but it twists in the opposite, counterclockwise, direction,” said Yale ornithologist Richard Prum, one of Brennan’s co-authors on the research. “So, the twists in the oviduct appear designed to exclude the opposing twists of the male phallus,” behaving like the opposite of a lock-and-key system.

The number of sacs and spirals in the reproductive tract of various female waterfowl seems to increase as the male phallus gets longer across the 14 different species of ducks and geese tracked by Brennan and her colleagues.

“I became very good at predicting what the genitalia of one sex would look like by looking at the other sex first,” Brennan said.

This suggests the genitalia of males and females have evolved to surpass each other in a kind of escalating arms race over which sex gets to control reproduction.

Interesting stuff. I recommend reading the rest of it.

This criticism is especially rich coming from Luskin. Seeing as how there is absolutely nothing that can not be explained with reference to a whimsical, omnipotent designer, I’d say Luskin should heed the advice typically given to those who live in glass houses. If he believes evolutionists are being arbitrary in their explanations of bird genitalia, perhaps he can show us how ID provides a superior explanation for the same set of facts.

Not content to be foolish just once, Luskin repeats his vapid criticism with regard to this article also at MSNBC, about the evolution of bipedalism. I’ll leave that one as an exercise to the reader.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    July 24, 2007

    “Luskin Being Silly” = “Dog Bites Man”.

  2. #2 FastEddie
    July 24, 2007

    Regarding the article on bipedalism, is it not interesting and informative that we N-E-V-E-R see studies published by the Discovery Institute? When a new genome is sequenced or a cool new fossil unearthed, invariably the institution behind the discovery is not the Discovery Institute. Never. Ever. What exactly do those people do over there all day besides complain about the media, harass school boards, and pray to Jeebus?

  3. #3 _Arthur
    July 24, 2007

    The poor Donald duck’s pseudophallus whithers and falls after mating season.
    I would positively hate having that happening to me.

  4. #4 Hawks
    July 24, 2007

    I did a dissection of Luskin’s post at The DesignInterference. The irony of Luskin’s post is that his initial “question and answer” only describes ID and not evolution.

  5. #5 ERV
    July 24, 2007

    They play this game with ERVs too. Some ERVs mutate into junk. Some parts of ERVs are co-opted by the host for non-viral uses. Therefore, evilution is unfalsifiable.

    If someone had the interest to do so, Im sure you could trace the genes back to figure out exactly why some waterfowl have penises, just like you can with co-opted ERVs, and Im *pretty sure* thats STILL going to point towards common descent and not magic pixies. I mean Designers.

    Write the grant, Casey Baby.

  6. #6 rimpal
    July 24, 2007

    Luskin Being Silly = LHS

    LHS = Acting normal
    LHS = Again?
    LHS = Yawn!

  7. #7 Fred
    July 24, 2007

    If they say that the phallus thing is contradictory, then shouldn’t they also wonder why some birds are blue and others are red? Surely if blue has an evolutionary advantage there should be no red birds. There should also only be one kind of car, because, for example, if higher horsepower is desirable there should only be high horsepower cars. Oh, and women who bleach their hair CAN’T be doing it to attract men, because even brunette women seem to find spouses.

    But here’s one: I’d like to know how ID can predict that junk DNA isn’t really junk because a designer wouldn’t put junk in, yet allow for junk DNA because the designer isn’t necessarily perfect, or that over time some junk may have developed.

    And I’d also like to know how they can say that life is too complicated to have arisen on its own, yet believe in a god who is the most intelligent being EVER, yet arose on his own.

  8. #8 Craig Pennington
    July 24, 2007

    Minor quibble:

    In the present situation most bird species probably found that there was no advantage to be gained from having a long penis, and consequently found it better to direct its resources elsewhere.

    This is misleadingly teleological phrasing. Reminds me of Kauffman.

  9. #9 Science Avenger
    July 24, 2007

    The problem here is very basic and it reveals how the Di crew parrot sciency sounding phrases without understanding their meaning. They hear scientists criticize ID for not making any falsifiable predictions about ANYTHING, and using the same sort of tortured logic Jason skewers above, conclude that evolution must therefore be able to make a falsifiable prediction about EVERYTHING.

    Evolution is science, and ID/creationism isn’t, because the number of falsifiable predictions made by evolution is greater than zero, whereas those made by ID are equal to zero.

  10. #10 W. Kevin Vicklund
    July 25, 2007

    If long phalluses are so advantageous for reproduction, why did so many birds supposedly lose them?

    And why should we assume that the pseudophallus was lost by most birds, Casey? Perhaps it was gained by a select few and is therefore a derivitive, not primitive, trait.

  11. #11 Wobert
    July 25, 2007

    Pseudophallus is a good word for ID.Rates even lower than”a load of hot cock”

  12. #12 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 25, 2007

    And I’d also like to know how they can say that life is too complicated to have arisen on its own, yet believe in a god who is the most intelligent being EVER, yet arose on his own.

    You can’t apply puny logic on omnipotent eternal beings. They are …, um, illogical.

    tortured logic

    Thanks, I’ve now got a vivid imagery of a syllogism strapped tight to the torture bench of the Luskin Inquisition. While the overmage screams:

    “Everybody expects the Luskin Inquisition! Confess – you are a lier, aren’t you?! Confess, or I will twist your premises! Confess, confess, …”

    [White foam splatters from the aroused mage's mouth to sizzle softly on the raised redhot iron. In the background we hear a chorus of IDiots ramble: "Lies! Conclusions are lies! Facts are lies! All information is godgiven in codes! God Goddity God, so there!"]

  13. #13 TomS
    July 25, 2007

    If he believes evolutionists are being arbitrary in their explanations of bird genitalia, perhaps he can show us how ID provides a superior explanation for the same set of facts.

    There are two parts to this:

    1) There are these two accepted facts. Can facts be contradictory? Whatever puzzles one has about the facts, these are puzzles about the facts, not about the explanations for the facts.

    2) While facts – “true facts” – are not contradictory (unless one is a kind of Hegelian or something), there are possible states of affairs which are contradictory. And it is “intelligent design” which is singularly facile at coexistence with all of the mutually contradictory possible states of affairs. (Think of the “big tent” which accommodates thousands, millions, or billions of years.)

  14. #15 mark
    July 25, 2007

    Perhaps the folks at the Diddlyscovery Institute can take up a collection to give Luskin some remedial reading lessons. Or maybe Casey just got too excited because he was reading an article about genitals. Please don’t inform him that evolution can explain why humans are similar to chimps AND why butterflies are not.

  15. #16 harold
    July 25, 2007

    Marcus –

    I can’t tell if the raving, comical, irrelevant, absurdly inaccurate, and in this thread, irrelevant site you linked to is a parody or not. (By the way I’m not an atheist.)

    Are trying to be funny, or are you doing it by accident?

  16. #17 Shawn Wilkinson
    July 25, 2007

    Casey’s site reads at the bottom

    The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site. Unfortunately, much of the news coverage has been sloppy, inaccurate, and in some cases, overtly biased. Evolution News & Views presents analysis of that coverage, as well as original reporting that accurately delivers information about the current state of the debate over Darwinian evolution.

    If you omit the last sentence, the site basically describes itself (lol).

    /random tangent

  17. #18 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    July 25, 2007

    maybe Casey just got too excited because he was reading an article about genitals.

    The he will go flaccIDâ„¢ when he hears that human lacks the baculum most mammals have because of a deletion mutation. Make no bones about it, it is another loss of information he will protest.

    Marcus -

    Actually, it seems to be Hilton himself. ScienceBlogs ought to get a site-wide content based spam filter. (And enforce exclusion of multinyms.)

    Btw, I particularly liked how “copycat pagans” must have used a time machine to spawn christianity in Hilton’s universe. Not even woo.

  18. #19 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    July 25, 2007

    Aargh! The fonts from the preview/comment box doesn’t make it to the page. Well, it was supposed to be flaccID™.

  19. #20 Glen Davidson
    July 25, 2007

    Pot and kettle, of course.

    Why did the “designer” make long phalluses in some birds, not in others? Huh? What are the design principles behind this decision?

    That is to say, much of what we obtain through “random evolution” is in fact scattershot to some degree (with predictable aspects, of course). IOW, we very much expect a variety of “solutions” to problems which might actually have one best solution for at least a large class of organisms, but which is not found everywhere that this would be the “best” solution. Rather, historical, selectional, and mating factors have caused one solution in one species, another solution in another one.

    These guys can’t keep their criticisms straight. Sometimes we’re supposed to believe in mere accident, then they turn around like Luskin and demand uniformity of solution.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  20. #21 Glen Davidson
    July 25, 2007

    Or again, I suppose at some point Luskin is going to demand that we explain why vertebrates have blood vessels in front of our retinas when cephalopods do not. I mean, shouldn’t evolution yield uniform and perfect results?

    I guess it’s good enough for the IDiots. Pretend that evolution is what promises optimal design, while ID predicts nothing due to the fact that the designer is inscrutable like God (with powers like God’s–you know, can make the cosmos with its fine-tuning, etc.). But of course the designer is not God, just like God–sensibly this is necessary for them, since they’re willing not to pinpoint God for the sake of legality, but God has to fall within the set of possible designers, hence the designer is God-like.

    I’m going to tell the IDiots something that they don’t know despite hearing it over and over: Evolution predicts diversity, islands of adaptation where the peak is yet suboptimality, and even cases of sexual selection driving organisms to be less fit environmentally in order to be more fit in terms of mate selection (peacock, to be unoriginal).

    Paley’s ID sensibly predicts optimal design (although he tried to fudge on that) and relative non-diversity due to the much fewer opportunities for optimal design than for the “adequate design” predicted by real (based on causal mechanisms) evolution.

    IDiocy predicts nothing, or more to the point, it tries to claim whatever comes out of evolutionary theory as its “predictions”. Almost purely parasitical, it demands that evolution fit the expectations we’d have for a real designer, while ID is exempted from anything like that.

    It takes a fair amount of chutzpah for Casey to insist that evolution fit the role of an intelligent designer, while his pathetic deity scavenges evolutionary predictions.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  21. #22 mark
    July 25, 2007

    There once was an IDist named Alice,
    Who was intrigued by the length of a phallus.
    She said one that was long
    “Is a jolly good Dong.”
    But she looked at a short one with malice.

  22. #23 Andrew Wade
    July 26, 2007

    Luskin may as well excoriate nuclear physicists for being able to explain both the decay and the non-decay of a particular nucleus in a radioactive sample.

    Speaking of nuclear decay, our best models are fairly poor at predicting decay rates for different isotopes (You can generally get within an order of magnitude or two by picking the right model for the isotope in question). One could argue that these theories are defective, but given a choice between being able to predict decay rates to a couple of orders of magnitude, and not being able to predict them at all, well … (The models do also explain various features of the decay rate/mode vs isotope spectrum; there does appear to be something to them.) All scientific theories have limitations, some more so than others.

  23. #24 tm
    July 31, 2007

    The problem in so doing is that they now have a theory which can explain both (a) long phalluses, and also not (a).

    Wow, the ToE can explain two different observables — what a problem!