Monday, February 06, 2012

Joseph A. Kuhn, MD. Part 1.

Some creatocrap was smeared on the Internet today. (Yes, what a surprise). The bit I examined was from the Discotute touting “peer reviewed” papers supporting ID creationism. Most of the papers the Discotutes promote as “supporting intelligent design” creationism don’t really do such a thing. So, I started reading the paper at the top of their list, “Dissecting Darwinism” by Joseph A. Kuhn, MD, published in Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings (BUMC Proceedings).

I didn’t get very far before I read, “John Hunter proposed a gradual formation of species through mutation 70 years before Charles Darwin published his observations in On the Origin of the Species. Therefore, history reveals that surgeons are uniquely capable of gathering information, making observations, and reaching conclusions about scientific discoveries.” (The secondary reference is eventually found to a popular press book).

Needless to say really, but Dr. Kuhn is a surgeon, and so by his logic also “uniquely capable” because over 200 years ago, John Hunter was an accomplished scientist and surgeon. What should we then conclude about the career of Josef Rudolf Mengele? When I was a professor of medicine in psychiatry, we often marveled how surgeons imagined they were “uniquely capable” in all aspects of life. Kuhn goes on to brag that physicians are the “the brightest minds, based on competitive test scores and undergraduate performance.” Since his audience are most likely physicians, I am sure this claim is accepted as sage wisdom. Kuhn does provide one early chuckle when he writes, "In fact, the physician represents the penultimate expert on applied molecular pathways as they relate to human conditions." The "penultimate" anything is the "next to last." Of course this egotist thinks it meant the 'most superior,' but that will always be the actual scientist who did the actual research that physicains learn to apply clinically.

Kuhn does do the full bore creationist dance, which I'll return to in Part 2.

I was more curious that Darwin never mentioned John Hunter. In all the later editions of “Origin of Species,” Darwin began with a “Historical Sketch” of evolutionary thinking. His remarks on the speculations of Buffon regarding the species question explain why he was less impressed with Hunter as well. Darwin wrote it was unnecessary to go into details with Buffon because he did not, “enter on the causes or means of the transformation of species.” It was this which Darwin's theory addressed.

The collected papers from John Hunter (1728-1793) mentioned by Kuhn were published in 1861, edited, and augmented by Richard Owen. “Essays and observations on natural history, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and geology, Volumes 1, 2” John Hunter, and Richard Owen. London: J. van Voorst, 1861. In his “Introduction to Natural History,” Hunter makes the observation at the beginning of a section titled, “On the Origin of Species,” that “Are we not led on to the wolf by the gradual affinity of the different varieties in the dog? Could we not trace out the gradation of the cat, horse, cow, sheep, fowl, etc. in a like manner?”

This section is very brief, merely two paragraphs. In the second, Hunter approached a point similar to Darwin when he speculated that the East Indian cattle were probably the more primitive, as they had fewer varieties, and were “… more likely to go through varieties in new countries [i.e. under new external influences] than in its original country.” Owen is often portrayed as an opponent of Darwin’s, so I was surprised that in a footnote to this section, he remarked “The best attempt to answer this supreme question in zoology is has been made by Charles Darwin in his work entitled “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection” 1859. (Footnote 2, Page 37).

I read nothing in the rest of the 399 pages of Volume 1 that Kuhn could have confused with mutation, or heritable variation, natural selection (or any other selection than agricultural). Since Kuhn's assertion apparently relied on a secondary reference, and even that rather vague, I decided to plow on through the entire ~1000 pages.

The second volume of “Essays and observations on natural history” is a 491 page text on comparative anatomy, and a number of Appendixes. Hunter in his opening essay urged that only those well versed in human anatomy should under take comparative studies. I personally went in the opposite direction, dissecting fish by the hundreds before I studied much human material, and I should add that my interest was nearly entirely on bones. Hunter and I would agree on this latter focus, as he wrote on page 2 of his comparative anatomy regarding the skeleton. On the same page, Hunter wrote, "... I dare say that the different manner of living gives rise to the different formation of the viscera." He later added that an animal's 'external matter,' "... relate to the way of life that each animal is adapted to..." To this, Owen added a footnote saying, "A question still under controversy. The advocates of the 'Transmutation' or 'Natural Selection' hypothesis may take Hunter's words in their literal sense, and claim him as of their party." (Footnote 1, Page 2).

Hunter did not finish 3 pages before his examination of humans took a powerfully racist turn. He wrote that “white” men were “the most perfect of that genus” as we have the largest hands, and heads. These were the features he felt indicated “perfection” in humans, and he asserted that “The negro from Africa has both a small head, and very small hands and feet.” Even so, these obviously false statements compare well against the notorious modern “scientific” racist J. Philippe Rushton. Rushton claims to have “proven” that a large penis results in low intelligence and criminality, and thus Africans are stupid criminals due to big penises. Compare these beliefs with Charles Darwin, who wrote in "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" (John Murray, London, 1871), "It may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant." Also, "By the way, a Negro lived in Edinburgh, who had traveled with Waterton and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man." -- Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (restored edition)(1958), Nora Barlow editor, p.51., Or, "I do not see that an orthognathous face would cost more than a prognathous face; or a good morale than a bad one." (LETTER 412. TO FRANCIS GALTON. Down, January 4th, 1873).

However, there was nothing that I read which justified Kuhn's claim that Hunter, "proposed a gradual formation of species through mutation." Maybe if Kuhn knew how to provide a proper citation, we could learn what he referred to in his paper. In psychiatry, we called it "making shit up."

There was one feature of particular interest to any student of the relationship between scientific advancement, and religious bias. In 1855, Richard Owen gave a lecture to the Royal College of Surgeons as part of his appointment as the Hunterian Professor of Anatomy. The talk was examining a yet unpublished manuscript by Hunter, “On Extraneous Fossils,” written from Hunter’s address on fossils given in 1793 to the Royal Society of London. In the latter paper, Hunter described his results from treating various recent bones, and shells and similar fossil specimens with different acids. Hunter was particularly interested in what he called “the animal substance.” From his descriptions, I suspected this “animal substance” is mostly collagen, and osteocalcin, and this seems to be confirmed in Hunter’s essay “Of the Preparation of Bones,” when compared with "Chemical Technology and Analysis of Oils, Fats, and Waxes" (Kowitsch, 1895).

The address in 1793 was never published. Owen explained that the the Society editors objected to Hunter's conclusion that the the Earth was very ancient. Variation in the degree of fossilization among the thousands of specimens Hunter examined had clearly led him to conclude that this was the result of processes across “many thousand centuries.” A Major Rennell wrote to Hunter on behalf of the Royal Society requesting that the time frame be altered to “many thousand years” so as to not alienate young earth creationists. Instead, Hunter withdrew the paper from publication only months before his death on October 16, 1793. This early example of how creationism impedes scientific understanding of Nature was new to me.

I will say that refuting creatocrap can occupy the days I am not fishing.

Here is a link to Part 2.


GuyM said...

I saw this before somewhere and still have the same question. What did hunter mean by "mutation"? As DNA was not known back then it must have had some other meaning to the one that I suspect Kuhn was trying to infer.

Gary S. Hurd said...

As you say, we think of "mutation" today almost exclusively as a change of DNA between generations. In the 18th, and 19th centuries, scientific writers used "mutation" to mean a permanent physical change. This contrasted with the creationist's position that species were "immutable" and were found today just as they had been created.

I am going to add a bit more this morning about a footnote early in Volume 2 that Richard Owen wrote in 1855. He again referred to Darwin, and said that a "literal" reading of one paragraph by Hunter could allow the Darwinists to count Hunter "as one of theirs."

Gary S. Hurd said...

Well, I added a bit, and did some rearranging. I hope that it reads better now.