Monday, November 30, 2009

An Open Letter to YouTuber AronRa from a Fan

Dear AronRa,

I wish to tell you how deeply I appreciate your video series on the Fundamental Falsehoods of Creationism. Science has nothing to say on whether a God exists or not. The existence of a God may be true. Creationism however, is not true. I appreciate deeply your at times extremely entertaining efforts to set the record straight and preserve rationalism from pseudoscience.

However, I feel the need to set the record straight about the reputation of a great scientist that has been impugned by your video series and who, as he is dead, cannot defend himself.

I’m talking about arguably one of the greatest naturalists of his age, Sir Richard Owen, who totally transformed the institution of the British Museum and was a pioneer in the field of vertebrate paleontology, best known for coming up with the term “dinosaur” in 1848. He also made other crucial contributions to an emerging field, like the identification of two groups of ungulates (even and odd-toed), and recognized classes of extinct South American mammals like the great ground sloth and the glyptodon. In short, Richard Owen was a real scientist and significant figure in paleontology, anatomy, and zoology.

First, allow me to make one thing clear: Sir Richard Owen was not, and never had been, a creationist and his methodology is and always has been entirely naturalistic. Yes, he disliked Darwin and his theory, but his opposition was on rational, scientific grounds. Sir Richard Owen did subscribe to evolution – in fact, one of his crucial, breakthrough achievements was the identification of the relationship between South American and Australian extinct species and their modern-day descendants like the kangaroo, sloth and armadillo. Sir Richard Owen even mocked the theories of Lamarck and his disciples.

Where Darwin and Owen passionately disagreed was on the mechanism of evolution, not on its truth of whether it happened or not. Sir Owen, years and years before Darwin, pointed out homologous structures as evidence of common descent.

As a paleontologist, you should know this. You should know that Sir Owen was not a “creation scientist,” as you say, and did not “believe in magical manifestations.”

Sir Richard Owen did not believe in evolution by the mechanism of natural selection or in developmental theories of evolution, but that rather, species and family trees had “lifespans” determined by a growth energy. This explained for instance, why some species had obviously disadvantageous elements like the sabertooth tiger, as the species was exhausted and “old.”

Sir Richard Owen also did not believe that human beings were related to apes, and thought that human beings were distinct from them. Perhaps he did so partially for religious reasons that led his thinking in that direction as your video suggested – to deny scientists aren’t motivated by ego or cultural forces is frankly, an extremely na├»ve point of view on the scientific method and the operation of peer review, and denies that scientists are human beings with prejudices and egos. But whatever the origin, the opposition that Sir Richard Owen presented to the claim that man and gorillas were related, was scientific in nature, not theological. His point was that humans are distinct because we have faculties that great apes do not and a greater relationship between brain and body weight is a valid scientific point, and no anatomist in the world would ever argue the obvious, that there is a difference between humans and apes in many key ways.

You further make the claim that Sir Richard Owen flatly misrepresented Archeopteryx because he did not believe it was a transitional fossil. This is, once again, untrue. Where Sir Richard Owen disagreed with others was whether Archeopteryx came from thecodont dinosaurs or from reptiles. Once again, Sir Richard Owen did not deliberately misrepresent anything, but had a different view of Archeopteryx on the tree of life. This was not misrepresentation but a legitimate difference of scientific opinion.

Was Sir Richard Owen correct about either the mechanism of evolution, or the similarities between man and ape? Was he correct about Archeopteryx as a relative of reptiles as opposed to thecodont dinosaurs? No, he wasn’t. But there are times in science when you’re just plain wrong, and that’s okay. Sir Richard Owen should go down in history as a noble dissenter that was wrong, like V.V. Beloussov’s opposition to the theory of continental drift, who came up with other interpretations for data that the continental drift theory could account for.

Sir Richard Owen was a man with an ego, but he was a real scientist having a dialogue with science. The mention that Sir Richard Owen was a devout Anglican was a low and ugly smear meant to hint ever-so-subtly that he was disreputable…because in his private, personal life he was religious. Many scientists have no problem with reconciling their private faith with the scientific worldview, with too many examples to list – including another giant in your own field, Robert T. Bakker, who moonlights as a pentacostal preacher. Frankly, the most troubling thing about your videos is the idea that there is something slightly irrational about religion…which is not paying attention to anything theologians have said in the past 2,000 years.

The most outrageously untrue part of your video is the claim that Sir Richard Owen believed religious beliefs should override science. This is easily countered. In 1849, a full ten years prior to the publication of Origin of Species, Owen claimed that humans developed from fish by natural processes, a theory that isn’t so shocking to any given anatomist and anyone that has ever read Neil Schubin’s Your Inner Fish. It is important to note that this proclamation got Owen into trouble with the English clergy! Does that sound like someone that would put religion before science?

Finally, the paragraph from U.C. Berkeley that Owen finally accepted evolution was ridiculous since Owen argued for evolution decades before Darwin – the difference was in the mechanism.

The comparison to creationists like Michael Behe was a low blow. You say that Creationists have never produced any workable research and don’t submit to peer review. This is true. But considering the list of his very real achievements and workable research that stands the test of time to day within your very own field which Sir Owen produced, I find this a monstrous comparison. And I hate to keep on repeating this to the point of nausea, but I will: Richard Owen was not a creationist!

Also, the claim that religion in general retards the growth of rationalism is occasionally true but does not do justice to the historical interrelationship of religion and the rise of modern science. The modern scientific method owes a historic debt in the West to religious thought. The view that the world could be understood by observation and reason came from St. Thomas Aquinas, not Galileo.

To summarize: I am not saying that Richard Owen was an always honest man, nor am I saying that he did not have an ego that often guided his research and made him at times arrogantly wrong, an extremely unsavory trait in a scientist. I am saying that he was not a creationist, he did subscribe to evolution, and your video tragically misrepresents one of the key figures of his time.

I would like to close by saying despite these differences I remain an eager fan of all of your videos and I hope you produce many more.

Scientifically yours,

Esperanto Grrl
(Cristina Fernandez)

1 comment:

  1. Had any of the half dozen references I read implied anything like this, perhaps my video would have been different.