The retraction of a PLoS ONE paper on the hand that made repeated reference to a Creator shows that biologists are “very hostile to those who invoke the supernatural in their science,” writes Professor Jerry Coyne. But it turns out that the paper’s authors weren’t referring to God, but Nature. One of the paper’s authors, Ming-Jin Liu, explains:
We are sorry for drawing the debates about creationism. Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language. Our understanding of the word “Creator” was not actually as a native English speaker expected. Now we realized that we had misunderstood the word “Creator.” What we would like to express is that the biomechanical characteristic of tendi[n]ous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is a proper “design” by the Nature (result of evolution) to perform a multitude of daily grasping tasks. We will change the “Creator” to “nature” in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.
(Spelling of “tendinous” corrected by me. – VJT.)
Another commenter writes:
The phrase ‘the creator’ has nothing to do with a designer god from the two-party-state, the Afro-Eurasian sky deity, or Mr Paley’s writings, but is a well-known ancient Chinese way of saying something alike “nature” or “evolution”, by way of zaohua zhe 造化者 ‘the Creator, creation’ (or, more literally, “the one who forms and transforms”, or “what forms and transforms”).
The commenter then proceeds to quote from The Encyclopedia of Taoism A-Z (edited by Fabrizio Pregadio, 2008, Routledge; article “creation” by Isabelle Robinet, vol. II, p. 1214):
The term zaohua, which means ” to inform (zao) and transform (hua),” derives from the *Zhuangzi and is generally used as a synonym for the cosmos. Zaohua zhe 造化者, lit., “what informs and transforms [the world],” is the Dao itself or its *qi (pneuma), the energy of life that does not create anything, but, like a potter, gives a determinate and transient form to the indeterminate. The analogy ends here, because the zaohua zhe is neither a person nor an entity, and does everything naturally and spontaneously without working. In this sense, zaohua is a synonym of *ziran (natural or spontaneous).
Zao is the coming of something out of nothing (*wu), and hua is the return to emptiness. Zao is movement, and hua is quiescence (see *dong and jing).
(Emphasis mine – VJT.)
The commenter buttresses his case by quoting a passage from the writings of the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon (129-200 or 216), who expresses sentiments similar to those of the paper’s authors:
It was, then, for the sake of these activities [ἕνεκα μὲν δὴ τούτων] that the
convexities at the ends of the ulna and radius came to be; but nature also makes use of
them to secure another advantage [χρῆται δ’ αὐταῖς καὶ πρὸς ἄλλο τι χρηστόν],
just as she is accustomed frequently to make something that has come to be on account
of one thing serve other uses as well [τῷ δι’ ἕτερόν τι γεγονότι συγχρῆσθαι καὶ
πρὸς ἄλλα]. For she located the heads of the tendons moving the fingers in the
concavity between these eminences, thus establishing as if with a wall or tower a safe
refuge for the tendons. (UP 2.11, 1.97.19-98.2 H, 3.133 K)
(Schiefsky, Mark J. 2007. Galen’s teleology and functional explanation. In Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 33, ed. D. Sedley, 369-400. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)
In his paper, Schiefsky acknowledges that Galen “describes the construction of the human body as the result of the effort of a supremely intelligent and powerful divine Craftsman or Demiurge,” but he goes on to argue that this reflects “a highly sophisticated, functional analysis of the organism,” and he suggests that in the foregoing passage, we can think of Galen as referring to “nature’s craftsmanship.”
Skeptical readers might object that in another passage, the authors of the offending article in PLoS ONE also wrote that “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention,” which suggests a theistic interpretation. But a 2005 article in MIT Technology Review refers to “Nature’s inventions,” and similar phrases can be found in textbooks on evolution.
Retraction Watch has set up a poll inviting readers to weigh in on the issue: Should “the Creator” paper have been retracted? The results are as follows:
Correct it 42.4% (254 votes)
Retract it 26.54% (159 votes)
Issue an expression of concern while it investigates 22.2% (133 votes)
Nothing 8.85% (53 votes)
However, the main issue in this ongoing saga is not whether the authors actually intended to allude to a “Creator,” or but the clear evidence (manifested in readers’ comments) of a bias against publishing ID-friendly views in the mainstream literature. One commenter writes:
Regretfully I have to withdraw my support for the journal as a reviewer. Also to bring this shameful incident to the attention of my academic colleagues and students who might consider submitting their work for publication at PLOS ONE.
Another scientist who is also a PLoS ONE academic editor writes:
As a scientist, as well as a PLoS ONE academic editor and author I feel outraged by the publication of a ms making explicit reference to creationism. This is an extremely serious issue for which the academic editor who handled the paper as well as the journal, besides the authors themselves, should be blamed.
I feel my scientific reputation to be put at risk by this incredible mistake, so should this paper not be retracted as soon as possible I will be compelled to resign from my position of PLoS ONE academic editor. Moreover, I am determined to avoid taking on any further assignment until this issue is fully solved.
That is the kind of mindset we are up against, folks.
For readers who may be interested, here’s a short article by creationist Brian Thomas M.S., titled, Human Hand Capabilities Impossible to Duplicate. And here’s a copy of The Fourth Bridgewater Treatise on the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation: The Hand; Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833), by Sir Charles Bell (1770-1842), K.H., F.R.S., F.R.S.E., F.R.C.S.E., M.W.S. This was science as it used to be done.
Comments are welcome.