Making it up as he goes along: A review of Replacing Darwin part 1

* ‘locations’ refer to locations of text in the Kindle version of Replacing Darwin.

An overview.

Nathaniel Jeanson’s Replacing Darwin [1] could be called pseudoscientific, but arguably this may be unfair. Pseudo comes from the Greek pseudēs for ‘false’ and pseudos for ‘falsehood’. Labeling Replacing Darwin as pseudoscience suggests the participation in a deliberate lie and at the moment I’m unwilling to offer that suggestion. I am happy to grant Jeanson his sincerity. Because the bulk of the errors in Replacing Darwin are errors of omission I lean towards describing it as quasiscientific. Quasi is Latin for ‘as if’ and it is indeed as if what you are reading in Replacing Darwin is science. It is in fact only partially and ostensibly science.

I am also willing to be generous and accept that the majority of these omissions are simply due to an author with no actual expertise in the field he is writing about. The subject of Replacing Darwin is rooted in population genetics, biogeography, ecology, phylogeography, speciation, molecular evolution and systematics, none of which are fields where Jeanson possesses any professional expertise.

I am also unaware of Jeanson ever having someone with any actual expertise in these fields reviewing either his book or any of his articles published on the Answers in Genesis website. As far as I know he’s only had his fellow like-minded creationists chime in on his work or at best someone with some molecular biology background who he has described as a friend and theistic evolutionist. His only attempts at outside reviewers are high-profile popularizers of evolution like Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers. With the exception of Jerry Coyne he apparently never solicited a review from anyone with active research in the fields the book covers, despite the fact there are thousands of working population geneticists and systematists out there.

Isaac Newton famously said if he’s seen any further it’s because he stands on the shoulders of giants, meaning in science we build from the findings of others. The entire book has the feel of someone who has abandoned Newton’s maxim and replaced it with “I’ll make it up as I go along.” Steven Pinker in his book Better Angels of our Nature said, “No one is smart enough to figure out anything worthwhile from scratch” and yet that seems to be exactly what Jeanson attempts to do.

However, Jeanson has enough biology background to give his arguments the appearance of being grounded in science. The audience of this book are predominantly like-minded creationists with little or no scientific background themselves and to them a Harvard degree in biology seems all that is necessary to provide credibility in any field of the life sciences, or the sciences in general. Answers in Genesis plays to this and hires people like Georgia Purdom or Nathaniel Jeanson and touts them as legitimate scientists with ongoing research programs. The reality is they have a legitimate scientific background that they are leveraging in an attempt to lend scientific credibility to what is ultimately a cultural, ideological and overtly religious agenda.

Answers in Genesis is by its own admission a religious ministry that requires its employees from Jeanson to Purdom to someone working the register at the gift shop at The Creation Museum or The Ark Encounter to adhere to particular fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and agree to a number of specific positions on social “culture-war” issues. No working scientist or other academic scholar would agree to these terms and effectively trade their academic freedom for employment.

Michael Behe is a full professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and a vociferous critic of evolution. Behe never lost his job as a result. He never was in violation of some employment contract requiring his full-throated support of evolution. Such agreements simply do not exist in academia. Now of course, any academic scientist promoting pseudoscience or committing outright fraud places their career in jeopardy. It is as difficult for a geologist who believes the earth is 6,000 years old to maintain a credible career in geology as it is for a geographer who thinks the earth is flat to maintain their career in geography. However, merely questioning anything in evolution is not considered grounds for termination in science. Questioning the empirical truth of a literal reading of the Biblical book of Genesis however is considered grounds for termination at Answers in Genesis.

Jeanson says he doesn’t get any royalties from sales of Replacing Darwin and that “the leadership” prior to publishing approved its release. No one in academia would agree to such terms. Actual academics deservedly receive royalties from the books and textbooks they produce (it’s very seldom enough to make one rich) and such works along with their published research are virtually never required to go through some ideological or theological vetting process by the administration. Such things are almost unheard of among actual working scientists. This ideological gatekeeping that occurs at organizations like Answers in Genesis should prompt questions regarding the credibility of any work from those organizations that is promoted as science. Had Jeanson published Replacing Darwin at a university like Marshall or Harvard he would be on more solid footing calling it “his book”, instead it seems to be much more “Answers in Genesis’ book.”

This point cannot be emphasized enough – Answers in Genesis is a religious ministry. It is not a museum. It is not a research institution. It is not promoting science. Replacing Darwin is quasiscience. It is ostensibly scientific presenting arguments constructed carefully around glaring omissions and mostly divorced from the actual primary literature in the fields of study it seeks to replace. It’s as if it were science and an audience with shared religious and ideological leanings and little knowledge of biology are simply incapable of escaping their own tribal preferences and thus cannot view it critically.

The danger with works like Replacing Darwin is that it seems to legitimize narrow fundamentalist religious views as science and those readers who are simply enamored by Harvard credentials cannot appreciate what is actually going on. Appeals to beliefs in divine agency are not scientific propositions. That’s not to say that people should be devoid of such appeals. If the discussion is about whether or not people should be free to exercise their religious convictions and whether those religious convictions themselves are legitimate as personal theological beliefs, then I suspect I am on Jeanson’s side of that discussion. I’m not out as a scientist or a science educator to rob anyone of his or her religious beliefs. My goal is simply to teach science literacy, not atheism. However, religious beliefs are not science and presenting them as such does both science and religion a great disservice.

Chapters 1-3: Jeanson’s biology 101.

Jeanson presents the origin of species as a question of the origin of traits (location 138). He says, for example, the origin of elephants is about the origin of trunks and the origin of eagles is about the origin of white feathers (location 138-139) and the origin of leopards and cheetahs is about the origin of spots (location 668). However, trunks, spots and white feathers have evolved outside of the context of elephants, cheetahs, leopards and eagles. The origin of species is more accurately put as a question of the origin of lineages and within lineages we see the evolution of character states (be they adaptive, deleterious and neutral). The origin of traits therefore in no way represents “constraints” on the origin of species and do not define any “edges” to Jeanson’s puzzle (location 147), a metaphor overused throughout the book.

Speciation is a population genetic phenomenon involving the isolation and divergence of lineages. That process will of course include the evolution of character states, but character states also evolve outside of the context of speciation, so simply knowing how phenotypic characters change from one generation to the next is not the whole story in speciation.

Chapter 1 introduces a recurring theme throughout the book. Jeanson readily dismisses entire fields of study if those fields can’t be used to further his agenda. He forgets that common ancestry is a model that we test against multiple independent lines of evidence and in doing so we repeatedly see the predictions of common ancestry supported. The fossil record is one of those lines of evidence that supports common ancestry. He dismisses the fossil record in this context based on a very simplistic application of strict dominance/recessive Mendelian inheritance. Most of the characters we look at in the fossil record are not however simple Mendelian traits but quantitative traits whose variation is under the influence of many genes in conjunction with environmental influences. Evolution works by a simple rule of inheritance, namely that offspring tend to resemble their parents. Fish do not spontaneously spawn spiders (location 169) and offspring are constrained by the genes they inherit from their parents. We know that there is heritable variation in morphological character states and as such there simply is no reason to exclude the fossil record from the study of evolution. Jeanson is committing his first errors of omission by overemphasizing simple Mendelian dominance/recessive inheritance and disregarding a compelling line of evidence for common ancestry, the fossil record.

Jeanson says, “Genealogical relationships are directly recorded in genetics – and nowhere else” (location 649) and this is true by definition but common ancestry is a model that leaves us with predictions that we may measure in the real world. Real genealogical relationships result in a world that appears to us in a certain way. Even if we cannot resolve those genealogies directly we may look for the signatures of common ancestry in both living and extinct forms. If life existed in discrete lineages that arose entirely independently of other lineages never sharing a common genetic history then biological diversity would appear to us entirely differently. We test different hypotheses about ancestry all the time without having complete ancestor-descendent genealogies.

Jeanson dismisses Darwin because of his lack of knowledge of genetics saying,

“How could Darwin have written On the Origin of Species without any genetic data to test his ideas” (location 657).

All Darwin needed to know for his model to work is that offspring tend to resemble parents and that populations vary in heritable ways. That’s it. Plus, Darwin was not the beginning and end of evolutionary biology and since we have applied rigorous genetic approaches to evolution dealing with many types of inheritance, other than strict Mendelian inheritance.

Jeanson makes the obligatory references to the ENCODE project [2] in chapter 3 where he claims that there is a correlation between non-coding DNA and “organismal complexity” (location 1077) with not much resolution to the paradox of onions and lungfish having more non-coding DNA than humans. He says,

“Together, these experiments, suggested that the majority – if not the vast majority – of gene and non-genic sequences were functional. The function might not be essential for life. But the genome appears to contain enormous amounts of information that act in ways yet to be explored.” (location 1086).

This is a typical creationist appeal to the future “maybe” and also completely ignores any rigorous definition of “functional.” Jeanson has criticized Dan Graur in prior talks on this subject for saying the ENCODE project is an “evolution-free paradigm”, however, only evolution has provided us with a meaningful definition of what “function” in biology actually means [3, 4]. Many of the transcripts identified by the ENCODE project exist at extremely low levels, as few as one molecule per cell, and have a high turnover [5]. Where is the function in ephemeral transcripts that exist at miniscule background levels? Also, RNA polymerase II is subject to “noise” initiating transcription of random mRNAs [6] and likely explains many of these low copy number short-lived transcripts.

Then there is the fact that variation in genome size is enormous with no obvious correlation with function. Jeanson makes passing reference to what is called the C-value paradox [7] mentioning that some organisms that are apparently less “complex” than humans have far more DNA. Lungfish, for example, have 20 times the genome size of humans (location 950) but buried in the endnotes Jeanson says that the explanation for this disparity is “not yet clear” (location 5788). Not only is the lungfish genome much larger than the human genome but the flowering plant Kinugasaso (Paris japonica) has a genome over 50 times the human genome [8]. There are even single celled amoebae with genomes over 200 times larger than human genomes [9]. For some organisms like the eukaryotic parasite Entamoeba ploidy may vary ten fold from one individual to the next in the same population and even human individuals may vary in genome size by 360 million bases with no discernable differences in health [10]. Deletions of millions of bases in mice have been demonstrated to have no measurable effects on their survival or reproduction [11]. Genome evolution in eukaryotes is dynamic and contrary to Jeanson’s dismissal we do have some good ideas as to why genome size varies and it has little do with some necessary variation in function in the organism [12].

In light of these facts the claim that the majority, much less the “vast majority”, of virtually any eukaryotic genome is functional is arguable at best. Jeanson barely discusses the problem and says virtually nothing about the work that has been published to offer a solution. Why? Again, it is part of a reoccurring theme in Replacing Darwin where Jeanson ignores evidence that doesn’t suit his narrative.

Throughout chapters 1-3 Jeanson is laying out some very general biology you may find in any biology textbook. His treatment of the general biology is fine if not a little basic, probably commensurate with the background knowledge of his intended audience. He presents virtually everything I would in the context of my undergraduate introductory biology course. Where he ends up however is with this idea of understanding trait evolution to understand species but yet abandons this later in the book by suggesting sometimes that variation in mitochondrial DNA that is neutral and other times that all mtDNA, and all DNA variation in general, is functional.

Chapter 4: The creationist answer to biogeography. Where is it?

The very first thing Jeanson said in our debate on The NonSequitur Show was wrong. Deduction is not merely doing science by “thinking” as he characterized it. To the contrary, it is the basis of the classical experimental approach to falsifiability. In fact, that method is called the hypothetico-deductive method. In chapter 4 Jeanson gets into a discussion of induction versus deduction and says induction is the opposite of deduction (location 1522). This is not an accurate characterization of these two approaches. They are complimentary approaches in a broader approach to doing science. Jeanson’s problem with induction is that multiple explanations are possible, and this is true. However, deduction based on faulty premises provides no certainty and how a null model is framed can easily invalidate an experiment. Also, classical statistical inference through deductive experiments do not provide one with a probability their hypothesis is correct. Additionally, we may use a Bayesian approach where instead of determining the probability of our data (as one would in classical statistical inference to reject a null) we can assign probabilities to competing hypotheses given the data. Jeanson however shows little appreciation for the varied and nuanced approaches to doing science.

Science is not a single rigid methodology. Science broadly speaking is the exercise of reason to measure our explanations for the natural world against the available evidence. We do that by integrating multiple approaches including induction and deduction; field and laboratory; theory and experimentation.

Jeanson continues chapter 4 with a discussion of biogeography. At location 1640 he starts this discussion with a blunder, namely that river otters are native to Hawaii. A search for the American River Otter (Lonchura canadensis) on the Global Biodiversity Information Facility ( revealed zero occurrence records for Hawaii. The species account in the journal Mammalian Species published by the American Society of Mammalogists listed no subspecies for Hawaii, never explicitly said the Hawaiian Islands were ever part of the distribution [13].

The sentence listing states were American River Otters are “absent or rare” is copied verbatim from Lariviere and Walton [13] in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species account and Hawaii is listed as part of the native range. This however is in error. The Lariviere and Walton paper lists where this species is “absent or rare” and lists all states where it is absent in the interest of completeness, including those where it never existed, such as Hawaii.

Zeigler et al. [14] describe their discovery of a fossil vespertilionid bat in Hawaii dating to the Pleistocene and say,

“Located over 3800 km from the nearest continent, the Hawaiian Islands have previously been thought to support only one endemic land mammal, the extant Hawaiian hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus semotus), a taxon that apparently initially dispersed from mainland North America between 10,000 and 7000 years ago.” [14]

Zeigler et al. continues to say that their new fossil bat discovery doubles the number of known native terrestrial mammals from the lone Hawaiian Hoary Bat to two species, both bats, neither otters. To someone like Jeanson with little background in basic natural history this admittedly would be an easy mistake to make.

Jeanson continues to be seemingly puzzled over well-known biogeographic phenomena, like for instance why Madagascar has more species than the Galapagos (location 1715). This is of course because Madagascar is both much older and much larger than the Galapagos [15]. He then talks about zebras inexplicably trekking across highly unfavorable habitat, the Sahara, to reach the wetter Sub-Saharan Africa and then not getting back out again (location 1751), ignoring the well-established conclusion that the Sahara has gone through climate cycles including periods of much wetter conditions [16]. Rather than any even brief scholarly treatment of these points he merely says,

“Historic geologic events add nuance to the overall explanation. But the dominant reason for why species are localized to their current habitats is movement from another location.” (location 1801)

The term vicariance never once appears in Replacing Darwin much less any even cursory discussion of the interplay between vicariance and migration in explaining biogeographic patterns. These are mistakes that would be expected for someone with no real expertise in the field they are writing about.

He continues in this chapter on biogeography to talk about the biogeography of the group of mostly large, flightless birds in the Southern hemisphere, the ratites. Ratites include ostriches, rheas, cassowaries, emu, kiwi, and extinct elephant birds from Madagascar and moas from New Zealand. Nested within this group is a lineage of flying birds from Central and South America, the tinamous. Jeanson discusses the biogeography of ostriches and rheas (conveniently omitting the rest of the ratites) and lays out a hypothetical as to how each species arrived in its present geographic location while diverging into multiple species. In his hypothetical he again makes errors of omission, ignoring the long-history of research on ratite evolution (location 1759). Ostriches are no more closely related to rheas than they are to any other ratite or even tinamous despite their superficial similarities [17-20]. Ratites are an old group of birds that pre-date the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary and they are a classic example used to test competing hypotheses of vicariance versus migration for explaining patterns in biogeography. The disjunctive distribution of the ratites was long explained as a classic example of vicariant divergence; divergence of species separated by emerging geographic barriers, in this case the tectonic breakup of Gondwanaland. However, with the emergence of genetic tools, including those techniques useful for ancient DNA, the picture became much more complex. New Zealand kiwis were found to be most closely related to extinct elephant birds in Madagascar and the giant, flightless New Zealand moas most closely related to modest sized and flying (albeit comparatively poorly) New World tinamous. The real story of the ratites that Jeanson ignores is far more detailed and well established than his naive hypothetical would suggest with both roles for vicariance and migration and multiple gains and losses of flight over time. Jeanson, again, invokes this example without any reference to the actual literature on the subject and instead invents his own scenario divorced from any reference to the actual evidence.

He ends this chapter rather abruptly acknowledging Darwin used biogeography to make a compelling case against the fixity of species (location 1809) but while really offering no evidence of any understanding of the field or any alternative explanation built from a creationist model. Jeanson’s casual and very incomplete account of biogeography is only a device to argue against the fixity of species, setting the stage for an absurd creationist hyperspeciation hypothesis to come. Despite his repeated claims of his Biblical young earth creationism being a testable model he offers no explanation as to why a creationist approach explains the biogeographic data better than would the consensus approach using the evolutionary concepts of common ancestry, divergence, vicariance and migration.

Chapter 5: The obligatory false comparison with human technology.

 Jeanson is repeatedly arguing that all explanations for biological diversity have not been explored. However, he ignores the fact that his model is predicated on an explanation that has been well trodden and eliminated. The idea that species or groups of species share no genetic history with other species is an explanation that is completely at odds with the facts and has as such been eliminated many times over [21-25]. Creationism is not some null model waiting in the wings for everyone else to fail in a war of attrition. The creationist model, especially the young earth model makes predictions of the data that simply are not met in the real world across virtually every field of scientific inquiry. It has essentially been falsified.

Jeanson gives an overview of the evidence for common ancestry based on homology of morphological characteristics and nested hierarchies but offers up the predictable alternative common designer model complete with the obligatory reference to human technology. He says the similarities in automobiles for example have nothing to do with common ancestry but still may be forced into a nested hierarchical pattern (location 1970). Jeanson here, as he does repeatedly throughout the book, gaslights the reader into thinking the predictions of evolutionary biology were really those of creationism all along,

“In light of these parallels, we would be justified in claiming that the hierarchical pattern of life strongly suggests it was the result of deliberate design.” (location 2024)

Not so fast. Humans, plural, design automobiles and humans copy off of the designs of their predecessors. They don’t invent every automobile or computer from scratch rather each time they borrow on designs that worked in the past, jettison designs that perform poorly, improve where they can as they learn of new technology, and often keep quirks of history that are holdovers and have nothing to do with function. Therefore, human technology can also only be explained within the context of a historical iterative process rather than one of de novo creation.

Consider the QWERTY keyboard. In 1868 Christopher Latham Sholes and colleagues shipped the first typewriter from their factory in Milwaukee to the Porter Telegraph College in Chicago. By 1870 they were shipping typewriters to other telegraph operators when they started to receive complaints about the arrangement of the keys. The first typewriter keyboard was like a piano keyboard with the keys labeled with letters in alphabetical order that was soon changed to more typical button style keys with added numerals and a different arrangement of the letters. But still it was not a QWERTY arrangement of keys. For telegraph operators the arrangement was a problem, especially the placement of S, E, and Z. Z in Morse code is the same as SE and an operator sometimes has trouble deciding between entering SE or Z until they receive the rest of the word. This means there is a bit of a gap until the other letters come in and the operator can decide if SE or Z is more appropriate and they have to type either SE or Z quickly, so operators asked for these letters to be closer on the keyboard. This and other improvements designed for telegraph operators led to the arrangement that we now use on everything from laptops to cellular phones [26].

Once typists became accustomed to the QWERTY arrangement there was no desire to change it despite the fact it was an arrangement designed for a purpose that it was later very seldom used for. Soon every device in need of a keyboard borrowed the QWERTY arrangement, an arrangement designed largely for telegraph operators. This is but one example of something we see time and time again in technology. Our technology is the way it is because of history and often that history has little to do with function. The QWERTY keyboard was indeed designed but not for what it is primarily used for today. The QWERTY keyboard is an example of technology borrowed for use across other completely unrelated devices. For these reasons, technology, like life, carries a stamp of a historical process whereas de novo creation by omnipotent, supernatural designers is a decidedly ahistorical process.

We see that stamp of historical processes in nature among those organisms that exhibit a mosaic of characters between two seemingly disparate lineages. These species have been traditionally referred to as “transitional forms”. Generations of young earth creationists have long denied even the existence of transitional forms so it’s a bit astonishing that Jeanson acknowledges transitional forms are indeed real entities but again he gaslights the reader to think this was a prediction of creationism all along. Again using the well-worn creationist parallel to technology says,

“For example, amphibious assault vehicles resist classification. They are the perfect example of a designed “transitional form” – designed for the transitional environment between water and land.” (location 2034)

Jeanson repeatedly throughout Replacing Darwin attempts to construct convoluted ways to usurp the predictions of evolutionary biology for his own agenda.

Also, human designs are often the way they are because of constraints. Humans are limited beings and our technology takes shape not just within the constraints of history but also physical and material constraints. Humans also are constrained in their purposes. Humans make things for a limited set of specific purposes. We only may identify design in human technology because we know both human limitations and purposes.

Shift the designer to an inaccessible omnipotent supernatural agent and all bets are off. Such agents by definition have no limitations and may create anything they wish including things that may appear to us mortals to have arisen by natural processes. Thus, an appeal to supernatural agency isn’t science, as it may not be falsified. No conceivable data would be at odds with the notion of a divine omnipotent creator in general and the only way to test such a hypothesis is to impose limitations on the creator that require adherence to beliefs about the creator (i.e. God can not lie in his creation for example).

Jeanson argues that we can apply a classification scheme on technology that we know was designed just as we do for living things. After repeated criticisms of Darwin for being out of touch with modern science Jeanson ironically longs for a return to the work of a science even further removed from modern genetics, Linnaeus. Jeanson says,

“As added support for this conclusion, it’s instructive to keep in mind that the Linnaean classification system was originally based, not on ancestry, but on function. Species fall into a hierarchical pattern because their characteristic functional features fall into a hierarchical pattern. This fact alone should immediately evoke thoughts of design.” (location 2034)

Of course we can cluster things according to their similarity, including functional similarity, but mere clustering is not what systematics does. Jeanson repeatedly confuses the bookkeeping of taxonomy with the modern science of systematics, the latter of which seeks to uncover historical relationships. Modern taxonomic delimitation is grounded upon these historical genetic relationships just as we define groups of populations within species by patterns of historical gene flow or groups of individuals by their place in a pedigree. Someone may bear an uncanny resemblance to Ken Ham for example but that resemblance alone is not enough to say they are siblings. For that we need evidence of a historical genetic relationship to a shared parent. Bookkeeping is what Linnaeus did, but he was doing this completely uninformed about why living things could be arranged in a nested hierarchy. Jeanson’s casual dismissal of Darwin for not knowing about the mechanism of genetic inheritance is in stark contradiction to his desire to emulate Linnaeus.

If we really want a taxonomy of technology based on design you would have to do so on the basis of shared designers and grouping technology according to its actual historical origins. We would have a clade for example that would be a monophyletic Honda clade founded by Soichiro Honda that would start with piston rings for Toyota and aircraft propellers and later lead to motorized bicycles and later cars and now everything from lawn mowers, outboard motors, leaf blowers, solar cells, portable generators, and even bipedal robots. The Mitsubishi group would constitute and even more diverse technological clade. Starting as a shipping business in the 19th century Mitsubishi went to manufacture everything from cameras to audio equipment to airplanes to cars to chemicals to financial products and insurance. Everything from a bank account to a Nikon camera to a Japanese Navy World War II A6M Zero could be found in the Mitsubishi clade.

Building a tree based on the historical origins of technology, one that incorporates actual designers and the historical quirks of our devices, would be much more analogous to trees in biology in principle. Jeanson’s neat distinctions and the resemblance to actual species trees would then fall apart. Such trees would be enormously complex compared to trees in biology; they would be rife with horizontal transfer throughout because of the rampant borrowing of components across divergent technological devices (i.e. like cellular phones with QWERTY keyboards). So many horizontal connections exist among technological objects from different designers that a tree of their various relationships would cease to be recognizable as a tree at all but instead would take on the form of complex reticulate networks. The point here is this, trees in systematics, like those of pedigrees in genetics, are trees based on history, not mere functional similarity. Jeanson says,

“The resemblance between the classification of life and the classification of means of transportation is strong” (location 2017)

Linnaeus would have obviously come to this conclusion as well precisely because he himself was a creationist and was working many decades before Darwin was even born. Darwin demonstrated that biological diversity very often has the appearance of design but is better explained from a scientific perspective by natural selection (which apparently Jeanson acknowledges in fact exists). It is difficult to overstate the irony in an author who calls for replacing Darwin primarily because he knew nothing of genetics while seemingly applauding a researcher working at least an additional century removed from any working knowledge of genetics. Why? Of course Linnaeus is looked upon more favorably merely because he was a creationist, like virtually every 18th century person.

An important line of evidence that Jeanson largely ignores are those nested hierarchical patterns based on neutral variation. In those cases common design cannot explain away the patterns as the patterns occur independent of function. Based on his earlier false assertions that all DNA is functional however he seems to believe neutral variation doesn’t exist. At least he seems to believe this sometimes, but sometimes apparently not. It all depends on which assertion serves his purposes at the time.

He also explicitly says his basis for the design hypothesis is borne out of a literal reading of the book of Genesis (location 2048). He says,

“If humans design things in a certain way, then perhaps God might as well. This logic leads to testable scientific predictions about the pattern and relative hierarchy among extinct and extant species.” (location 2060)

Except that God is under no obligation to design anything as a human being would because omnipotent Gods are not limited as humans are, they do not have the same purposes as humans do, unlike humans they are not constrained by history and don’t have to borrow from the designs of others or design collaboratively. There is nothing about an appeal to an inaccessible, supernatural, omnipotent agent that is testable and what if it were? If Jeanson is saying that Biblical creationism is indeed a testable hypothesis then he is saying that he can conceive of some potential evidence that would falsify Biblical creationism. This claim is in direct odds with the statement of faith from Answers in Genesis and Ken Ham’s own words on this subject that say that no conceivable finding would lead to rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis. Jeanson may however be saying that his model is testable within a young earth creationist framework. He seems to want to have things both ways; he wants a testable scientific model and an infallible, literal Biblical interpretation, but in doing so he is requiring anyone interested in testing his hypotheses to adopt his particular religious convictions a priori.

When Jeanson says that creationism and design hypotheses predict the data with “equal force” to common ancestry and that “Darwin’s evidences fail to eliminate competing explanations” he is completely wrong (location 2075). He seems to think the only argument against common design formulated by “evolutionists” are appeals to “bad design” (location 2075) or “vestigial” traits (location 2106). He says that trade-offs in biology are due to a designer balancing “several competing design purposes” (location 2122) implying a designer under constraint. But why would an omnipotent designer have to deal with these trade-offs and constraints? Jeanson goes on to say that one can get along fine without one of their hands (tell that to someone who struggles with loss of a limb however) and therefore evolution would say that two hands are vestigial (location 2122).

This is the typical nonsense of Jeanson throughout the book. He discusses emergent, environment-dependent population level phenomena in terms of individuals. You perhaps may be able to point to an individual amputee with no impediment, but in an environment with no technological help, individuals with missing limbs will perform, on average, more poorly relative to those in the population with both hands. Mice that have experienced an amputation or hindlimb disability when kept separately experienced very large louse loads and could only maintain lower loads by allogrooming [27]. Desert Bighorn Sheep released after amputation generally had lower survival and reproduction than their intact counterparts [28]. It should be obvious that two limbs are relatively more advantageous compared to one limb, especially in the wild.

Jeanson goes on to attempt to argue for limits to the created kinds using domestic breeds. He says,

“…the diversity among breeds far outstrips the variety in the wild” (location 2162)

Actually it does not. He’s careful later to say, “far more visible diversity exists among donkey and horse breeds” (location 2177) but we are talking about any biological diversity among lineages. Lineages of wild species are far more divergent than are domestic breeds. They exhibit more genetic variation among species than do domestic breeds, despite the often dramatic but recently acquired and superficial differences among breeds. Despite all his prior dismissals of phenotypic evidence suddenly Jeanson is spectacularly unconcerned about genes over morphology.

If we include extinct lineages, as we should, the diversity becomes even more striking. No modern horse breeds exhibit the morphological diversity seen between Eohippus and Equus. Breeds are partitioning heritable variation among pedigrees as a result of strong selection for individual character states. That is all. Those species that have been domesticated more recently or simply have attracted less interest in producing different breeds have far fewer breeds. He attempts to extend these arguments in chapter 6 and there is additional discussion of these points below.

Jeanson goes on to appeal to a literal reading Genesis to define the boundaries among the created kinds as being at the family or order level. This is completely absurd. He calls these “modern creationist views” (location 2307) but these positions are hardly novel for a creationist. First, Jeanson is again asking for a scientist to accept a literal and very narrow interpretation of a religious text before moving on with doing science. Second, taxonomic ranks above the level of species are rather arbitrary. They are defining monophyletic groups but there is no set criterion defining what a family entails. Some families incorporate far more genetic and morphological diversity than others. Some families contain a single species, while others contain thousands. Finally, acknowledging that evolutionary change can generate diversity of entire taxonomic families means that you are allowing evolution to explain more biological diversity than exists between humans and other non-human apes. This in my opinion lays bare the hypocrisy of a Biblical creationism ostensibly presented as scientific as it excludes humans from common ancestry within a taxonomic family for no clear or well-supported scientific reason. 

Chapter 6: Forget about all the emphasis on genes Jeanson had before.

Time is a critical issue, if not the issue, for a young earth creationist. Jeanson begins this chapter discussing the early debate about the age of the earth and here he goes back to his prior claims about the “visible variety” in domestic breeds of animals (location 2362). Jeanson says,

“If the greater variety in breeds took 12,000 years, then surely the lesser variety in species took the same amount of time – or less. By evolutionists’ own logic, species must have arisen in 12,000 years or less.” (location 2382)

This has nothing to with logic, “evolutionist” or otherwise. It is a claim based on a false premise, namely that breeds of domestic animals are more diverse than species except at times in some superficial phenotypic variety. We know this “visible variety” in domestic breeds is the result of strong selection that is deliberately imposed by humans. It also ignores the phenotypic variety in the fossil record that for many groups with domestic breeds far exceeds that of their domesticated cousins. Domestic breeds are in fact not more genetically diverse than species in a family. They have extreme character states brought about by strong artificial selection and in some cases this resulted in the spread of a relatively small number of alleles.

An astute reader may recall that in earlier chapters Jeanson seemingly wanted nothing to do with a discussion of phenotypic characters but instead wanted the focus only to be on genetic characters. In part ignoring phenotypes meant he could ignore the fossil record that for the most part only preserves phenotypic variation. Now in chapter 6 focusing on the genetic diversity of domestic breeds versus wild species no longer serves his purposes so it is largely ignored in favor of references to “visible variety”. But let’s for a moment discuss “visible variety” in his favored example, horses, and because his emphasis now is on ”visible variety” we are no longer limited to living species. Take Donald Prothero’s description of early horses,

“Most early horses were about the size of a beagle or fox (250 to 450 millimeters [10 -18 inches] in height….They had a primitive number of four short toes on their front legs (although the pinkie was very tiny, and the thumb lost completely, so they walked on three toes). They had a long bony tail similar to that of a cat, not the reduced bony tail with long hairs that later horses developed. In short, if you saw one of these horses, you would never mistake it for a horse, not even the smallest dwarf pony. It might remind you more of a coatimundi or another non-horse-like mammal, although no extant mammal remotely resembles it.” [29]

Clearly if we include extinct species then groups of wild organisms may show much more variety than do domestic breeds even if we limit our observations to only that biological variation that is readily “visible”. The diversity of domestic horses from Clydesdales to Kentucky thoroughbreds to Shetland ponies certainly is impressive, but no modern breeds of horses are the size of a beagle and walk around tropical forests on three toes or have long bony “cat-like” tails.

Take domestic maize as another example. Ranere et al. [30] conducted a radiometric study involving milling stones found in the Central Balsas region of Southwestern Mexico along with a companion study on phytolyths from the same site [31]. These studies traced the origin of domestic maize and squash to around 8,700 years ago. Maize was domesticated from a group of wild grasses in Mesoamerica called teosinte. The “ears” containing the seeds of teosinte are nothing like an ear of maize. They differ dramatically in size, easily as much phenotypic difference as Jeanson marvels at among domestic horses. However, these dramatic phenotypic differences, such as the greater size of the ear and the loss of the hardened casing that protects the individual kernels, are due to differences in a relatively small number of genes [32-35]. Maize is far younger and less genetically diverse than the species of wild teosinte despite the dramatic differences in its “visible variety”, as Jeanson would put it, which itself is due only to intense selection favoring a relatively small number of genes. Jeanson does anticipate the criticism that these large phenotypic differences are indeed due to strong selection imposed by humans but he does virtually nothing in this chapter to actually confront that argument.

One could demonstrate this for virtually every domestic species compared to their wild counterparts. Clearly Jeanson’s claim that the variety in domestic breeds is greater than the species variety does not match the evidence. Once again he wades into an area where he has little expertise and makes sweeping generalizations based on incomplete evidence. This is ironically one of the very problems with induction. The approach he cautions against using recklessly in chapter 4 he himself now misuses.


Brandolini’s Law – “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” Accredited to a 2013 tweet by Alberto Brandolini @ziobrando

All this is enormously frustrating for me as a professional scientist and science educator. Creationists write blogs, articles in their in-house journals and magazines, and popular books for their constituency and they do so completely untethered to the actual science. They borrow grains of truth from the science and make the rest up as they go along. They refuse to participate in the same rigorous system of scrutiny that is demanded of virtually every professional scientist. They produce little if any of their own original data. Like all science denial their approach is predicated on sowing public cynicism and unfounded doubt of science and scientists that suits a particular ideological narrative and little more. The Answers in Genesis book Replacing Darwin by Nathaniel Jeanson fits this time honored creationist mold.

What do scientists and science educators do in response? The strategy is often to simply ignore works like Replacing Darwin. Answers in Genesis is interested in public validation to further their religious and ideological agenda and pretending the books they produce are to even be considered as serious scientific works gives them the validation they crave. Additionally, like Brandolini’s Law states, the amount of time it takes to refute even the most casual and uninformed claims is excessive and scientists and science educators simply have better things to do. So why bother?

I understand these arguments and many times question my advocacy in confronting science denial like that found in Replacing Darwin when I could be spending more time on actual science. However, actual scientists with professional expertise in the fields of study relevant to creationist critiques need to be part of the opposition to the creationist agenda. If we are not then those who are less interested in science literacy and more interested in promoting atheism fill that void. When the science side of the debate is yielded to those who see this as merely a venue to bludgeon religion in general the problem is simply exacerbated.

I have no issues with religious beliefs in the broad sense, nor am I an atheist. As long as you are not harming anyone, forcing your beliefs on others or misrepresenting your religious beliefs as something they are not I respect anyone’s right to believe in what they wish. However, the mingling of science, “culture war” social issues and fundamentalist religion is dangerous. It places in jeopardy science literacy and trust in the scientific community and our scientific institutions which in turn in the long term only serves to erode the standing of the United States as a global leader in science and basic research. The brand of quasiscientific special creationism peddled by the likes of Nathaniel Jeanson, along with the similar approach by intelligent design organizations like the Discovery Institute, are Trojan horses. They ostensibly look like science on the outside but inside are narrow religious views that their proponents wish to impose on public life in America.

Jeanson’s goals are very clearly in line with the social agenda of Answers in Genesis and have little to do with gaining a better scientific understanding of nature. In an October 13, 2017 interview on the You Tube channel Heritage of Truth with Jeanne Dennis he says the following before going on about the varied moral threats he perceives from the “outside world” which include everything from sex outside of marriage to public nudity to the LGBT community (which he describes as “strange and immoral”) to children watching the PBS show Dinosaur Train.

“Many times evolution is just a front for underlying moral issues.” Nathaniel Jeanson, October 13, 2017

Evolution is well-supported scientific model. It is never a “front”. When we debate ideas in science we do not question the morality of our colleagues merely for accepting the evidence for a particular scientific position. Jeanson is no more moral, or, being gracious, less moral than any evolutionary biologist simply by virtue of his denial of evolution. Anyone reading Replacing Darwin should remember these statements. He is dressing up his fundamentalist religious beliefs and his culture-war agenda as science. He describes accepting evolution as an “awful progression” that changes how people view God and presents his creationist “science” as the beginning of a discussion designed to lead people to a fundamentalist, literalist interpretation of a Biblical God. Replacing Darwin is Answers in Genesis’ Trojan horse. It is ostensibly scientific on the outside but delivering their narrow brand of fundamentalist religion and bigoted culture-war agenda on the inside. 

Prelude to part 2.

Brandolini’s Law calls for more effort than what I may contain in a single post (even an exceedingly long one) in dealing with Jeanson’s claims. Part 2 of my review will cover the final 4 chapters and the afterward in Replacing Darwin.

Jeanson complains I did not read Replacing Darwin in our September 5, 2018 debate on The NonSequitur Show. I did. Twice. I wish I didn’t have to, but I did nonetheless. Jeanson’s model is like every other young earth creationist model. It posits there are created kinds, lineages of organisms created genetically independently of one another de novo by an omnipotent God of the Bible a mere 6,000 or so years ago. The science clearly and unequivocally refutes that claim and my presentation for The NonSequitur Show debate clearly laid out that refutation and pointed the listener to the published literature.

Jeanson’s only response to this was some hand waving about his model making the same predictions as common ancestry and the repeated appeals to quoting his book chapter-and-verse. He asked me directly what does his model predict. Clearly any young earth creationism model, including Jeanson’s, says that there are independent genetic lineages they call “kinds” which never shared a common ancestry and typically most creationists in the past few decades arbitrarily delimit taxonomic families as kinds (just as Jeanson does with the obligatory exception of one species in particular). Jeanson claims comparative genetic studies among the created kinds should still exhibit nested patterns across independent lines of evidence but never bothered to explain how. Instead he insisted on me explaining his own claim to him. Jeanson pretends that nested hierarchies in the genetic data are all due to functional variation created by God. This is exactly as I said in the debate and Jeanson refused to explain his position instead insisting on a carefully controlled, one-sided debate that narrowly focuses on specific details in his book while ignoring any facts he chose to omit.

The NonSequitur Show debate demonstrated clearly that Answers in Genesis cannot operate effectively in an open debate but must tightly control the forum. Jeanson couldn’t discuss coalescent theory. He couldn’t explain exactly how divinely mandated function explains the patterns in the data. He gave no compelling reason to dismiss other estimates of substitution rates. He couldn’t explain the distinction between de novo mutation rates and long-term substitution rates. He casually dismissed the fact that there are tens of thousands of different coalescent times in any recombining genome and gave no compelling reason why he focuses so extensively on only one of them.

Jeanson in the subsequent chapters of Replacing Darwin shows he has no understanding of the application of the coalescent to molecular genetic data (a central approach to modern population genetics), he doesn’t understand the relationship between de novo mutation and substitution rates in relation to time scale and its relevance to his model, he demonstrates little if any understanding of the decay of heterozygosity and linkage disequilibrium in small inbreed populations, he has no understanding of phylogenetic inference or substitution models in molecular evolution and can’t seem to deal with any tree produced by anything but the simplest distance-based methods. It’s no wonder why he leaned on “did you read my book?” as his lone mantra in The NonSequitur Show debate.

Stay tuned for part 2 demonstrating how so very true Brandolini’s Law proves to be.


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