Posted by Jason Rosenhouse on July 24, 2005 01:27 PM

If you were beginning to fear that this series of posts was going to go on forever, then at least I will have recreated some of what I felt as I listened to the conference presentations. Seriously though, there will be two more installments after this one. Part five will deal mostly with Werner Gitt's talk, “In the Beginning Was Information,” while part six will focus mainly on Georgia Purdom's talk “The Intelligent Design Movement, How Intelligent is it?”

Monday, July 18. Afternoon.

Phillip Bell was one of the youngest speakers at the conference. He was a handsome fellow with an Australian accent. Unlike his fellow AiG'ers, he was plainly nervous. His subject was “Ape Men, Missing Links and the Bible.” He had the unpleasant task of having to explain away all of those highly suggestive hominid fossils that keep turning up on various African plains.

I was particularly interested in this talk. It wasn't that long agao that I was on the fence about this whole issue. For me, the various transitional fossils linking human beings to our ape-like ancestors were a particularly compelling piece of evidence in favor of evolution. As far as I was concerned, creationists had yet to come up with a remotely plausible reason for why I shouldn't draw the obvious conclusions from those fossils.

Well, they still haven't. Bell's talk was made up entirely of standard creationist boilerplate. All of those fossils were either “fully ape” or “fully human” Piltdown man was a hoax. Evolutionists will find a tooth or a toe and simply concoct an organism to go with it. There's great controversy about the evolutionary relationships among the various hominid fossils.

There was also the standard material about world views and interpretations of the evidence. He reiterated the standard imprecation ot allow the Bible to influence how you interpret the evidence. The Bible is quite clear that Adam was formed from the dust of the Earth (Gen. 2:7) and that he was the first man (1 Cor 15:45). Therefore we should not find any transitional forms between apes and humans. If we find something that appears to be transitional that's not evidence for evolution; it's evidence that we haven't properly discerned the importance of the particular fossil.

Thus, “Lucy” was just an ape and Neanderthal man was fully human. It's a familiar argument, but it won't wash. You can assign whatever label you want to a given fossil, but it's not going to change the fact that the fossils we have show a clear progression from hominids with mostly ape-like features through those that are more and more like modern humans.

Also making its appearance was the beloved creationist ploy of using quotations out of context. Thus we have a quote from Peter Bowler (reviewing a book by Hnery Gee) saying: “We cannot identify ancestors or missing links and we cannot devise testable hypotheses.” (Incidentally, this is one example of something I noticed in several of the talks. Namely, that rather than quoting a book directly, they would quote from some second-hand source like a review. Odd.) There was a quote from The New Scientist, from Bernard Wood, that seems to suggest that it is an illusion to think that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors. And another from the same article that goes, “Certainly the search for the missing link is doomed to failure.” Yet another from Henry Gee about evolutionary reconstructions requiring imagination and story telling. Still another to the effect that, “The more fossils we dig up, the less we know.” (Incidentally, to see how Jonathan Wells once made similar misuse of Henry Gee's writing, read my account of an ID conference available here.)

Now, I have not yet looked up the sources of these quotes for myself, but I can tell you what I am going to find. The illusion being referred to above was not the idea that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, but rather that there was a smooth, linear progression from one hominid species to the next. The search for the missing link is doomed to failure because we would have no way of recognizing it even if it were staring us in the face. And it's very difficult to test statements of the form, “Fossil A is a direct ancestor of fossil B.” That's a far cry from saying that the plethora of hominid fossils somehow hurt the case for the descent of humans from ape-like ancestors.

Bell closed his talk with a truly bizarre statement. He summarized the fossil evidence as follows: There are thousands of hominid fossils, a statement he backed up by citing the Catalog of Fossil Hominids from the British Museum of Natural History. Then he said there are hundreds of human fossils. And there are numerous extinct ape fossils. But nothing in between!

But many of those hominid fossils are, indeed, “in between” in the sense he has in mind.

All in all, not a very convincing talk. However, feeling ornery, I decided to wait by the stage to ask him a few questions of my own. There was quite a large crowd around him, so I had to wait some time for my turn.

As I listened to the things other people were asking, I was struck by how foolish the organizers had been in not allowing a more public Q&A session. Most of the questions were so fawning and obsequious that the speakers could only have grown in stature by answering them. “Sir, you're smart, you're handsome, you're eloquent. If I worked really hard do you think I could be half the human being you are?” That sort of thing. At other talks I saw people posing for photographs with the speaker (at times thrusting their young children forward to be filmed with the speaker as well), others grabbed whatever scrap of paper they could find to collect an autograph. It seemed like many in the audience viewed the conference presenters as rock stars.

Partly because of where I was standing and partly because of my own nervousness, I was the last one to get to Mr. Bell. So it was just the two of us standing there. We had a very pleasant conversation.

I started by asking him about his closing statement, the one about the thousands of hominids and all that. I suggested that all of those hominds were, indeed, in between. His reply seemed to agree that that was the case, but then he went off about naming conventions and about how something he was calling Kenyanthropus was misnamed and on and on. So I tried again and asked, “But the issue is what did the British museum have in mind when they used the term hominid in their catalog? You offered hominid fossils as something separate from ape and human fossils. So what are they?” We were off to the races again.

I didn't want to press this point, since I was little unsure myself of what the technical definition of “hominid” was. So I went on to something else. I decided to ask him about some of the quotes he had plainly abused.

During the talk Hill implied that the search for the missing link was doomed to failure because it never existed. I pointed out that actually Wood's point was that we shouldn't think in terms of missing links, because even if we had the right fossil in front of us we would have no way of recognizing it as such. That was Gee's point as well. He replied with the Phillip Johnson argument that having a large number of candidate “missing links” is somehow a problem for evolutionists, and given the rampant controversy among paleoanthorpologists scientists shouldn't be so arrogant about talking about human evolution as a fact. I replied that he was confusing two separate questions. One question involves reconstructing specific evolutionary lineages. I said that sometimes we might have genetic and embryological evidence to supplement the fossils but in general it is very difficult to reconstruct specific lines of descent. Hence Gee's remarks about imagination and story telling. But a separate question is whether the fossils we have are consistent with the hypothesis of human descent from ape-like ancestors. That hypothesis gets stronger as we dig up more fossils. I concluded by saying that the reason we seem to know less as we dig up more fossils is that there are many possible lines of descent through the thicket of hominid fossils, and it's very difficult to pick out the right one.

He replied by talking about bushes versus trees, and about how those “iconic” diagrams of the ape to human transition that evolutionists use to prattle about are all nonsense. I had to laugh at this point. This was exactly the point Wood was making in the quote I mentioned previously. What he was saying to me at this point was quite right, and it showed that he did understand the quote properly.

A bunch of other things came up as well, but I don't remember all of the transitions. At one point he boasted that he does not believe that evolutionists should be ridiculed and that most are sincere in their beliefs. I pointed out that his boss at AiG, Ken Ham, wrote a book whose title was The Lie: Evolution. He replied that it was evolution itself that was the lie, but that scientists were not necessarily lying in teaching it. I pointed out that perhaps Ham should have called the book The Falsehood: Evolution but that a lie implies deliberate deceit. He answered that Satan was the deceiver. I said “So you're telling me that if I read this book carefully I won't find any implication that scientists are being deliberately dishonest?” He avoided the question.

(Since then I have skimmed through Ham's book. He says next to nothing about the scientific evidence for or against evolution, focussing instead on the importance of a literal Genesis to Christianity. But he is very clear that scientists are not being turthful when they say they are motivated to accept evolution by a desire for scientific truth. Actually, they are motivated by a desire to reject God.)

Another thing that came up was the distinction between what professional evolutionary biologists do and what certain popularizers say. He replied, gesturing at the remnants of the audience who were still milling around, that all most of these folks ever hear about evolution is what's in the popular literature. I had to stifle a laugh again, because his tone and facial expression achieved a level of condescension that would be termed the height of snobbery if someone on my side of this managed to achieve it. Anyway, he said that popularizers are giving an incorrect impression of the evidence for evolution and that was what he was trying to correct in his talk.

I replied that it is certainly true that occasionally a Gould or a Dawkins might be a little less precise than they ought to be in some paragraph or other. But the fact is a conference like this one isn't devoted to making science popularization more precise. It is devoted to convincing people that evolution is total nonsense, and that people would be foolish to believe it. If that is the goal, then you should really have more than a popular level understanding of the subject.

Though I didn't say it at the time, I was thinking about what a field day someone like Bell could have with every chemist who has ever described an atom as a mini solar system with electron planets orbiting a proton/neutron Sun.

Bell was not amused, and responded that the professionals don't seem to worry too much about the misconceptions the popularizers are perpetuating. I replied that they have more important things to worry about, and they figure that such inaccuracies as there are in the popularizations pale in comaprison to the nonsense that comes out of AiG.

We went on for quite a while, discussing the Cambrain explosion and the growth of genetic information and the like. In every case his answers suggested to me that he just didn't know what he was talking about. He did say that he will reread the sources of the quotations we discussed, since he didn't want to misuse scientist's words. I'm not optimistic that he will actualy do that, but I'll take what I can get. We shook hands and parted on friendly terms.

Dinner was next, and then three talks in the evening: “The History and Impact of the Book The Genesis Flood”, by John Whitcomb, “The Truth About the Scopes Trial,” by David Menton, and “Genesis: The Bottom Strip of the Christian Faith,” by Carl Kerby. Somehow I couldn't work up any enthusiasm for any of this, and I spent the evening at a nearby Barnes and Noble instead. It was nice to spend some time browsing through real books.

Next Up: Werner Gitt uses information theory to prove that people have souls.

To Be Continued