Saturday, September 6, 2014

Flock of Dodos Shows Randy Olson Engaging in Triviality

At a high school level, the aim of the [text]book is to convey some basic concepts of biology, not to confuse students with the complexity of a subject.
    - Alan D. Gishlick, NCSE
Unrelated to my viewing Flock of Dodos, I had recently started looking through The Origin of Animal Body Plans (Wallace Arthur, 1997) and The Shape of Life (Rudolf Raff, 1996).  Figure 2-7 in Arthur shows Haeckel's embryos but attributes them to a figure from Embryos, Genes, and Evolution.  Raff uses the same figure and actually does name it as ultimately from Haeckel and qualifies it as "exaggerated," but Arthur gives no indication that they are obsolete or exaggerated.  Neither author uses the diagram for merely historical value but to illustrate vertebrate similarities in the phylotypic stage.  One might argue that they are not textbooks, but the 2002 Biology featured above is certainly a textbook, and so was Futuyma's Evolutionary Biology, and the other textbooks highlighted by Dr. Wells.
My copy of The Cell from the LIFE Science Series has drawings clearly based on Haeckel's artwork on page 103 (1964 edition), a page I clearly remember from my school library in the '80s. Figure 1-36 of Molecular Biology (1994) uses an illustration from 1874 as paradigmatic. Yet Flock would have its audience believe that these illustrations went out of fashion shortly after 1914.  Science reporter James Glanz wrote ["Biology Text Illustrations More Fiction Than Fact," 4/8/01] for the New York Times in 2001 that the "drawings were reproduced in textbook after textbook for more than a century."
Indeed, Glanz pointed out that one of the biology textbooks recycling Haeckel's embryo drawings was co-authored by none other than Bruce Alberts, then-head of the National Academy of Sciences [emphasis mine]:
I remember seeing these same images both in college and in earlier education, and despite what Randy Olson claims, the textbooks in which I saw them used them as iconic evidences of evolutionary reality.  Olson makes no bones about idolizing Stephen J. Gould, and yet Gould himself claimed less than 20 years ago that Haeckel's drawings were still being used in many "if not most" textbooks.  Eugenie Scott of the NSCE had acknowledged (and defended) the fact.  Even P.Z. Myers has admitted it.

I'll jump ahead to my main point here, and work my way back to it.  You'll mostly hear two conflicting ideas about Haeckel's embryos depending on whom you ask.  Either they are being used because they are basically correct, or they haven't been used in years.  (Few would probably react with as much umbrage as Stephen Gould at the obvious fakery of the images.)  Olson, maker of the anti-Intelligent Design documentary Flock of Dodos, uses the issue of Haeckel's embryo drawings to present Jonathan Wells as a mass market hack, implicitly comparing his book Icons of Evolution to supermarket tabloids.  Wells' criticism of the use of  these embryos was published in the peer-reviewed journal The American Biology Teacher in 1999.  The Discovery Institute has pointed out several current textbooks that use them.  Recently I browsed through The Shape of Life, a modern evo-devo book that does point out the "hour glass" of ontogenic development, also uses a variation of Haeckel's illustrations.

Olson has since defended his retention of his treatment of Wells in the film by retorting that it is a trivial issue whether Haeckel's embryos are actually still used.  This however is exactly the trivial point that Olson uses for his hatchet job on Wells, to demonstrate somehow that Wells either invents things or hasn't done his homework.  In fact, either Olson invented something or didn't do his homework.  If this was such a trivial point, why of all the points in Icons of Evolution did Olson pick this one?  In Michael Moore-esque fashion, Olson hands a biology textbook to a Darwin critic and asks him to find Haeckel's embryos, as though the existence of such a textbook was meaningful. (Perhaps this demonstrates the harm that evolutionary logic has done to thinking in general.)  Why did Olson mislead the audience about a "trivial" point in a book that has little to do with explaining ID but rather criticizes the misinformation used in teaching evolutionary biology?

Olson has been so on top of the "anti-science" crusade that over the years his mother sends him updates on what the poor anti-science rubes in her part of the country, which eventually led to Flock.  Olson, who has spent most of his life dedicated to understanding marine ecology specifically in light of the Darwinian narrative, is yet another disinterested third party reporting objectively on Intelligent Design.  About the only thing that Olson presents favorably for ID is expressing his surprise that ID conventioners seemed well-dressed, educated, and obsessed with scientific details, and that they weren't the provincial trailer trash that he very evidently was anticipating.  The footage of him sitting in his hotel room the night before the convention talking in a mock country drawl makes me wonder whether his whole idea for the film had to change when he didn't find the sort of people there he hoped to find.

Dr. Jonathan Wells has extended his Cracked Kettle analogy to Olson's defense of the disinformation he knowingly left in his documentary Flock of Dodos.

It is worthwhile to note that soon after claiming to not want to stoop to childishly satirizing the ID group (which is laughable since the whole point of the movie is to present the ID crowd as the biggest bunch of "dodos"-- pro-evolutionary figures are criticized for not making the truth accessible to the poor unwashed), Olson immediately launches into a strawman attack on ID.  He has a short interview with Michael Behe that gets into a very rough analogy, and from there starts making "sub-optimal design" arguments.

If one had any doubts that Wikipedia apparently winks its eye at neo-Darwinian activists, he could  look at the entry for Flock of Dodos.  If there was an even-handed arbitration at the site, it would have mentioned the Discovery Institute's rebuttal to the claim that Haekel's embryo drawings aren't used.   Frankly, I'm surprised that it even mentions the Institute's challenge to Olson's gross disinformation about the Discovery Institute's budget (not to mention how their budget compares to the overwhelming stacks of money that fuel the pro-Darwinian evolutionary paper mill).  Wiki's misleading assertion that "[t]he film gives equal air time to both sides of the argument"is enough to telegraph that Wikipedia is promoting the film as some sort of even-handed presentation.

Even Eugenie Scott acknowledged that Haeckel's embryos are still used!

Actually, the rise of Intelligent Design while a thorn in the NCSE's side has been good for business.  In the decade leading up to 2007, the alarm bells about a coming repressive age of theocracy drove their budget from $250,000 to $800,000.  But the NCSE is just one lobby at the forefront.  The actual money driving the entrenched paradigm is the money that pays for the thousands of papers on evolutionary science that present their findings in a neo-Darwinian framework (a la Panglossian manner highlighted by Stephen Gould in his famous "Spandrels" paper).

Among the "Pulled Punches" which Olson claims, he shows Jack Cashill off the top off his head echoing Wells' dates about Gould but getting the dates wrong.  He says "25 years" between 1995 and when Gould last published a rebuke of the Haeckel drawings, where Wells had in mind "over 20 years" between 1977 and 1999/2000, the latter date when Gould says Haeckel's drawings are used in "many (if not most)" textbooks.  Olson refutes Cashill as a strawman for Wells in "Pulled Punches" by interviewing a former student of the late Gould who cites his lambasting the drawings in a campus lecture in 1975 (criticizing the post-1914 image recycling that Flock implies never happened).  Wells might be overly judgmental about Gould's relative silence on the subject (especially during the time period he was helping "pro-science" establish U.S. law on what could be said about evolution in science classes), it would be helpful if he would give the precise dates.  Again, Olson later admitted that he was wrong about the drawings not being used, but that this doesn't change anything (because being a Darwin believer means never having to say you're sorry--you're still basically right no matter how the facts turn out).

What is perhaps even more ironic than Olson's accusation of harping on trivialities is the idea conveyed by Flock that the acceptance of the neo-Darwinistic narrative (and with it the unquestioning acceptance of related evolutionary hypotheses as undisputed facts) is waning because evolutionary eggheads are so far above us mentally that they can't convey these truths with the sort of catchphrases and simplistic pictures/narratives that the rest of us rubes are starving for.  If Olson did indeed read Icons of Evolution (and perhaps he didn't), a central point went over his head.

The reason that Haeckel's drawings weren't more criticized or noticed (at least before Richardson and Gould and Wells brought them back into the light) is because of their simplicity.  They make the "truth" more obvious to the poor unwashed than it would be simply presenting the facts.

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