The hand of god

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Article in ScienceAlert today (3/4/16):

"Scientists are freaking out over a new paper that says our hands were designed by God"


The article in ScienceAlert begins:

Twitter exploded today with the news that a peer-reviewed scientific paper about the human hand credits its design to "the Creator", and scientists around the world are so furious, they called for an official retraction.

The paper, which mentions a "Creator" several times throughout, was published by the journal PLOS ONE back in January, but went largely unnoticed until James McInerney, a researcher in computational molecular evolution at the University of Manchester in UK, used twitter to call the journal "a joke".

To say that the paper has generated an enormous amount of controversy would be an understatement.

Here's the formal citation for the publication:

Liu M-J, Xiong C-H, Xiong L, Huang X-L (2016) Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living. PLoS ONE 11(1): e0146193. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146193

Reference to "the Creator" occurs three times in the paper.  First, in the Abstract:

The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.

Then, in the Introduction:

Thus, hand coordination affords humans the ability to flexibly and comfortably control the complex structure to perform numerous tasks. Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.

Finally, in the last part of the Discussion:

In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.

One of the authors, Ming-Jin Liu, apologized for the team thus (in the Reader Comments section for the paper):

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 tendious 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.

But the apology was immediately questioned by another commenter, Head:

Sorry, but I don't buy this excuse. As mentioned by others, it is not just the incorrect use of the word "creator". The whole context of the sentences is very clearly about creationism. The words "superior", "proper", "mystery" and "invention" are at least as disturbing and appalling as the word "Creator" (see the citations below). And if it is all just an incorrect use of a word (mentioned no less than 3 times in the paper) by a non-native speaker, why was it (plus the other appalling words) not picked up by the editor or one of the reviewers?
– "An important advantage that makes human hand superior to other animals"
– "proper design by the Creator"
– "the mystery of the Creator's invention"

As I write, the debate rages on.  What I can add is to suggest several Chinese terms that the authors may have had in mind when they wrote "the Creator".

chuàngzàozhě 创造者 (lit., "the one who createsmakes")

zàowùzhǔ 造物主 (lit., "the lord who makes things")

These first two terms are both modern and are used mainly by Christians to refer to God the Creator.

But there are also very ancient terms for "creator" that go back, for example, to the Zhuang Zi (Master Zhuang), which dates from the late Warring States period (476–221 BC).

zàowùzhě 造物者 (lit., "the one who makes things")

zàohuà[zhě] 造化[者] (lit., "[the one who] makes-transforms")

These two terms occur a total of seven times in the sixth chapter of the Zhuang Zi, which is titled "The Great Ancestral Teacher" (Zhuāngzi. Dà zōngshī 莊子.大宗師).  Here are a few representative examples:

`Wěi zāi! Fū zàowùzhě, jiāng yǐ yǔ wéi cǐ jūjū yě.'「偉哉!夫造物者,將以予為此拘拘也。」

"Great is the Creator of Things!  She's making me all crookedy like this!"


`Jiē hū! Fū zàowùzhě, yòu jiāng yǐ yǔ wéi cǐ jūjū yě!'「嗟乎!夫造物者,又將以予為此拘拘也!」

"Alas!" he said.  "The Creator of Things is making me all crookedy like this!"


Jīn zhī dàyě zhù jīn, jīn yǒngyuè yuē, “wǒ qiě bì wéi Mòyé”, dàyě bì yǐwéi bùxiáng zhī jīn. Jīn yī fànrén zhī xíng, ér yuē, “rén ěr rén ěr”, fū zàohuàzhě bì yǐwéi bùxiáng zhī rén. Jīn yī yǐ tiāndì wéi dà lú, yǐ zàohuà wéi dà yě, è hū wǎng ér bùkě zāi!


"Now, the Great Smelter casts his metal  If the metal were to jump up and say, 'You must make me into Excalibur!' the Great Smelter would certainly think that it was inauspicious metal.  Now if I, who have chanced to take on human form, were to say, 'Man!  I must remain a man! the Great Transforming Creator would certainly think that I am an inauspicious man.  Now, once I accept heaven and earth as the Great Forge, and the Transforming Creator as the Great Smelter, I'm willing to go wherever they send me."

See Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way [Bantam, 1994; University of Hawaii Press, 1998], pp. 132-136

On conceptual, theological, and philosophical grounds, some may argue that terms in ancient Chinese texts meaning "creator", like zàowùzhě 造物者 (lit., "the one who makes things") and zàohuà[zhě] 造化[者] (lit., "[the one who] makes-transforms") do not signify a monotheistic god, but refer to "nature", "Nature", "natural selection / evolution", a process (especially the second one), not a deity.

On the other hand, we should note that the suffix -zhě 者 is a nominalizer or agentive, i.e., "a person / agent / being / power / force who / that" brings about whatever immediately precedes it.

Be that as it may, no matter what the authors may have meant if they were thinking of a Chinese term, or even if they weren't thinking of a particular Chinese term, this paper was written in English for consumption by the international community of scientists, and "the Creator", plus all of the other mystical verbiage that surrounds it, conveys the wrong message for a scientific paper.

The paper was written by four Chinese researchers:  Ming-Jin Liu, Cai-Hua Xiong, Le Xiong, and Xiao-Lin Huang.  The first, second, and fourth authors are from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan); their English ability may not be up to snuff.  But the third author, Le Xiong, is affiliated with the Foisie School of Business, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, Massachusetts, so one would expect that their English would be sufficient to understand that "the Creator" refers to a god or being of some sort.  Even if they were unaware that "the Creator" — especially when capitalized, as it always is in the paper under consideration — generally refers to the Judeo-Christian God, at least Le Xiong must have been aware that the Latin suffix -or indicates one who performs a specified action.  Thus "the Creator" (not "a creator") is a very different proposition from "creation".

The responsible editor for the paper at PLOS ONE was Renzhi Han of The Ohio State University Medical Center.  He has been living in English speaking countries for over fifteen years, so his English should be plenty good enough to understand the meaning of "the Creator" and he should by all rights have caught this blunder.  As editor, it was his job to do so.

PLOS ONE (publishing since 2006) is a relatively new online science journal.  Its goals, principles, and modus operandi are worth looking into (it publishes around 85 papers every day at a rate of roughly 70% of submitted manuscripts).  Overall, PLOS ONE would seem to be a quick and easy pay to publish operation.

Here are a few of the many articles reporting the PLOS ONE "Creator" scandal:

"Scientific paper which says the human hand was designed by a 'Creator' sparks controversy"

The paper's perceived references to intelligent design have provoked anger and calls for a boycott of the journal  (Independent 3/4/16)

"A Science Journal Invokes ‘the Creator,’ and Science Pushes Back" (WIRED 3/3/16)

"The Creator Gets a PLOS One Mention" (Genomeweb 3/3/16)

At 12:20 p.m., I went back to look at the paper again and was pleasantly surprised that the editors of PLOS ONE had retracted the paper, the notice appearing against a light red background.  Score one for scientific rectitude.

[Thanks to Jason Cullen]


  1. maxh said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 10:09 pm

    Hey, at least people are talking about hands that aren’t Donald Trump’s.

  2. D.O. said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 11:12 pm

    It seems that some proponents of "intelligent design" theory are not afraid to call the purported designer the Creator. And, yes, some of the quoted passages sound like work in intelligent design paradigm.

  3. julie lee said,

    March 4, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

    Thank you, Professor Mair, for giving us the several Chinese terms for Creator such as the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi's "zao wu zhe" (He who makes things), which has passed into general usage. I believe Ming-jin Liu's explanation that the authors' lack of familiarity with English usage was responsible for the use of the English word Creator, tying it inadvertently to creationism. As I understand it, all those Chinese terms for Creator means Nature, mother-nature or father-nature. I don't think the author's "Creator" meant the Judeao-Christian God or meant to subscribe to, or sneak in, creationism. The editor, also Chinese, may have been in the U.S. for fifteen years, but he still may not have been as sensitive to the English word Creator and its ties to creationism as a native-speaker. He may have been thinking in his mind of the Chinese word zao wu zhe (Creator) in its sense of Nature.

    Similarly, I don't think the editor of the unfortunate juxtaposition of two headlines in your previous post deliberately meant to mock Xi Jinping, though he got fired for it. I was once editor of a newsletter and made a few similar embarrassing mistakes. Sometimes the editor or author can look at a page and fail to see certain things.

  4. Fr. said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 6:17 am

    One of the authors, or someone parading as such, has left another, pretty unambiguous comment. The hypothesis of a linguistic failure is down to nil to me.

  5. Paul said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    Apparently, Ms Xiong's (the second author) Linked-in page is here

    She claims less than native-speaker English competence.

    It remains odd that no editor, review manager or reviewer caught the problem.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 9:06 am


    Thank you for finding Ms. Stephanie Le Xiong's Linked-in page. From it we learn that she was at the University of Iowa – Henry B. Tippie College of Business, where she earned a Bachelor's degree in Finance, from 2010 – 2014. All of my Master's students from China who earned their Bachelor's degrees in English speaking countries have good to excellent English.

    I do not have access to Le Xiong's full profile on Linked-in, so I would appreciate it very much if someone would read it to see whether she expresses interest in religion. Also check to see if she has any competence in science. Under the "Author Contributions", it says that she "Performed the experiments" and "Analyzed the data". I suspect that her main role in writing this paper, if any, was to check the English.

    Incidentally, Stephanie is the third author of this paper. The second author, Cai-Hua Xiong, is likely a relative.

  7. Brett said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    I have experience with a lot of Chinese scholars, both graduate students and junior faculty. In a number of cases, I have observed that these individuals can gain strong fluency in the English language while still having a seriously lacking understanding of American culture. It seems perfectly plausible to me that a Chinese researcher living in America could be completely unaware of the connotations of "the Creator," especially if (as I have also noticed), he or she pays very little attention to American politics.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 10:03 am


    Thank you for calling our attention to the further comment of Ming-Jin Liu, the first author of the paper. You say that it is "pretty unambiguous", but I would like to invite discussion on what Ming-Jin Liu (male) is actually attempting to convey by these remarks:


    As we know, human hand is an amazing instrument that can perform a multitude of functions, such as the power grasp and precision grasp of a vast array of objects, with ease and an absence of effort. Although expended great attempts by scientists and engineers, there is no artificial hand matching the amazing capacity of human hand. The origins of human hand remain unclear. It is too miraculous to let us think that human hand is the masterwork of Creator and indicates the mystery of nature. The further discussion about the Creator is indeed out of place in our article.

    [VHM: The bolded part here is equal to the highlighting on imgur as linked by Fr.]


    Ming-Jin Liu's comment of 2/15/16 is in response to Jason Friedman's polite, but prescient (in light of the current controversy), remark earlier the same day.

    I cite the operative paragraph in full because I had a bit of a hard time getting to it from the current page of the comments section at PLOS, and had to go through a French blog account of the controversy on The Sound of Science: "PLoS One et la main du Créateur" (3/2/16).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 10:32 am

    A sampling of recent media coverage of the PLOS ONE firestorm:

    "PLOS ONE retracting paper that cites 'the Creator'” (Retraction Watch 3/4/16)

    "Paper on PLOS ONE creates a firestorm by referencing 'the Creator'" ( 3/4/16)

    "Intelligent design: Backlash as PLOS One study claims human hands were designed by 'the Creator'" (International Business Times 3/4/16)

  10. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    Overall, PLOS ONE would seem to be a quick and easy pay to publish operation.

    Ha, no! I published there in September 2015 after it had taken the journal half a year to find an editor (it was handed down from one to the next several times, apparently) and two reviewers. Admittedly, the field is small, and the manuscript was unusually large; but still.

    Unlike most journals, PLOS ONE doesn't care how breathtakingly groundbreaking a manuscript is. It only cares about whether the science in it is sound. The job of judging this falls to the editor (there are 6000 of them, BTW) and the reviewers. Normally that's no less rigorous than elsewhere; I've reviewed for PLOS ONE five times, as probably have lots of colleagues at this point. In this case, the reviewers failed utterly, and so did the editor, who "has been asked to step down". I have to wonder if there's one of those peer-review scam rings going on.

    PLOS journals aren't printed; they publish online only. It is not restricted by printing costs or by having to bundle papers into issues. This has allowed at least PLOS ONE to become a so-called megajournal: it publishes every day, and a lot.

  11. julie lee said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:18 am


    Brett, thank you, I agree with you. I think the Chinese authors and Chinese editor of the offending article, in using repeatedly the English word "Creator", meant it in the Chinese sense of "Mother-Nature", or another Chinese word, Tian, "Heaven". As a foreigner, we can live in a country for thirty or fifty years and still make cultural mistakes. There is a very prominent English-language journal whose editor-in-chief is Chinese and whose English-language editor is Chinese and I find many grammatical errors in its pages, At first I thought they were just sloppy, until I found the English language editor was Chinese. I don't think anyone has told the editor-in-chief, who is an eminent scholar, about the "sloppy" editing, and I haven't gotten around to doing it either.
    I hate to contradict Victor Mair, as he has invariably proved to be right, but I do disagree with him about the offending article.

  12. julie lee said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:24 am

    The afore-mentioned editor-in-chief grew up and finished college in China and has lived in America for more than fifty years. I'm saddened by the brouhaha.

  13. bks said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    The standard way of dodging The Creator in life sciences papers about X is to write X is poorly understood.

  14. michael farris said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    "I have experience with a lot of Chinese scholars, both graduate students and junior faculty. In a number of cases, I have observed that these individuals can gain strong fluency in the English language while still having a seriously lacking understanding of American culture"

    This. Isn't it a lot to expect not only fluency in particular areas of expertise but also in depth knowledge of cultural connotations? These can trip up native speakers from different countries let alone second langauge users.

  15. JS said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    It seems to me that Chinese frequently have the impression that "God," "Creation," etc. are ubiquitous Western cultural concepts, coin of the realm into which indigenous concepts like those mentioned above (esp. tian) are to be converted for the sake of cultural cromulence. Neither is this at all surprising, really.

  16. julie lee said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    @David Marjanović,

    "…the editor 'has been asked to step down'…" . So he's been fired. This would have been unjust if by the word "Creator" the authors really meant creationism They, not he, would have been responsible for the backlash. However, if they only meant "Mother-Nature" and he didn't warn them about the dangers of the English word "Creator", they could in good conscience pin the blame on him.

    Do the anti-creationists have any objection to the word "Mother-Nature" ?

  17. cr said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    To be honest I too find this feature of American culture extremely difficult to understand. Americans would proudly say they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Why not hands?

  18. cr said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    To put it more succinctly: Is the Declaration of Independence creationist as well? Or does it use the word Creator in the sense of Mother-Nature?

  19. DG said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

    cr: Quoting from an ancient document is a bit different from actually using such language spontaneously. You won't find many liberals in the US willing to say that human rights are created by God, or some such thing (except when quoting). Conservatives of course do use such language.

    More to the point, scientists have been studiously avoiding these kinds of terms for at least a hundred years (depending on the field). In a scientific culture this is as much a faux-pas as, say, advocating for or against Donald Trump in a biology paper.

  20. cr said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

    @DG: I don't think that this is about God, let alone God in a monotheistic sense. It's about our Creator, Mother-Nature.

  21. Rosie Redfield said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    Southern Fried Science suggests that retraction was unwarranted:

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 5, 2016 @ 9:35 pm

    From the eruption of the controversy, the comments section for the paper in PLOS ONE has carried an extremely lively and edifying exchange of views on the significance of the expression "the Creator" and the other language about "mystery", "proper design", and so forth that was closely related to it by the authors. Unfortunately, I have not found an easy way to go to earlier pages of the comments section.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:03 am

    I barely know any Chinese, but how does『我且必為鏌鋣』translate to 'You must make me into Excalibur!' Specifically, how does "I" in the original become "you"?

    Google Translate is no help, translating it as ""I am and will be for the ROBOT 鋣" (鋣 is shown as yé)

  24. cr said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    This is merely personal (I hope):
    Reading the discussion at PLOS ONE made me cry. Tears were shed, literally. I had almost forgotten such things could make a [hu]man cry, but this one rekindled long forgotten emotions. I have roots on both sides of Eurasia, Germany and south China, and it tears me apart. Is mentioning the Creator that close to creationism in the US, despite their heritage? — This reminds me of Galileo Galilei's championing of heliocentrism. What an utter (im)profanity!

  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:38 am

    @Chas Belov

    "…how does 'I' in the original become 'you'?"

    The "I" in the original becomes "me" in the translation.

    Tomorrow morning I will post on the difficulties of learning Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC), and then you'll know what you're up against.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:55 am

    I'm sorry that it made cr cry, but the discussion of Intelligent Design that is going on now on PLOS ONE is the most intense interrogation of exactly what it is and why it matters.

    As I mentioned before, I'm still finding it hard to go back to pages that have earlier comments I read a day or two ago. Does anyone know how to do that?

  27. peter said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 3:08 am

    As with any language, communication in English can require subtlety. Even New Scientist magazine was unable to avoid teleological language in a recent article about plant evolution, implying both intentionality of evolutionary processes and collective action by the members of an entire species:

  28. John Swindle said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 3:14 am

    Shouldn't the question be whether the article's approach was teleological and whether that's a problem, regardless of the terminology?

  29. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 3:58 am

    I think the imbroglio is a result of cultural misunderstanding on both sides. The Chinese authors probably didn't know how loaded and dangerous the word "design" is in this context. If they had used the word "configuration" of the hand instead of "design" of the hand they might have avoided trouble. Chinese tends to be expressed in concrete images and metaphors rather than abstractions. "Creator" and "Heaven" are metaphors, more concrete than the abstraction "Nature".

    Intelligent design and creationism are anti-evolution. But the Chinese authors clearly subscribed to evolution in their introduction.

    I am saddened because this uproar reminds me of the execution of a high minister of the Manchu court in the 19th century because he had failed in negotiations with the British due to lack of understanding of Western culture and of the foreign language. That lack of cultural understanding prompted the urgent establishment of schools for foreign languages in China and programs to send Chinese students to study abroad. It also reminds me of General Stilwell's lack of understanding of Chinese culture when he was American military representative to Chiang Kai-shek during World War II, this lack of understanding contributing vastly to America's alienation from the Chiang government and the loss of Mainland China to Mao Tse-tung.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    After all the discussion here at Language Log and on many other forums, one thing remains unclear to me about the business of "the Creator", "proper design", and so forth in the paper under discussion. Namely, the controversial language that has the whole world of science (and religion) in an uproar is not necessary for the authors' presentation. It strikes me as an adventitious addition or insertion that is otiose to the argument of the paper.

    As I noted in the original post, the controversial language occurs only in the Abstract, Introduction, and concluding Discussion. It is not essential to the authors' argument.

    In contrast, the entirely unobjectionable term "biomechanical" occurs 18 times throughout the paper, alone or in combination with other words (architecture, characteristic[s], constraints, structure, basis). The expression "biomechanical architecture" occurs 9 times in the paper, including 3 times in the Abstract at the very beginning and 2 times in the concluding paragraph of the Discussion at the very end. It is essential to their presentation, and rightly so. There is much other nonteleological, perfectly suitable language in the paper, such as "structure", "function(al)", "control", "complex", "coordination", and so on.

    Indeed, if we excise the few bits of objectionable language that are all concentrated in sorely obvious places, the is really quite a nice paper.

    Consequently, I will close this comment with a hypothesis and a proposal:


    The paper was originally conceived and executed without the controversial language. The talk about "the Creator", "proper design", "mystery", and so forth is an add-on. At some point after the experiments were carried out, the statistics computed, the data analyzed, the conclusions drawn, the figures prepared, and the paper written, one of the members of the team — perhaps without the knowledge of his / her colleagues — inserted the superfluous, offending teleological terminology.


    Since, absent the controversial language, this is actually a worthy paper, I would suggest to the editors of PLOS that the problematic sentences simply be removed, the retraction withdrawn, and the paper reinstated. Case closed — but much will have been learned by all sides in the process.

  31. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    May I recommend Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China? This recounts how US policy toward post-1945 China was influenced by a number of missionary sons brought up in China who served in Congress. The Christianity of the Chiangs was a major criterion.

  32. julie lee said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    Victor Mair's proposal to PLOS to reinstate the controversial paper is both rational and humane.

  33. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

    meant it in the Chinese sense of "Mother-Nature", or another Chinese word, Tian, "Heaven"

    But that's still a really, really bad metaphor for evolution!

    Mutations happen, and then they turn out to be an advantage or disadvantage (or, most often, neither!) for the organism in question in the environment in question. There is not just no person involved, but no impersonal force either. Replacing monotheism with pantheism or the like doesn't actually change anything here.

    I would suggest to the editors of PLOS that the problematic sentences simply be removed, the retraction withdrawn, and the paper reinstated.

    I agree that your analysis is highly likely; but a published paper must not ever be modified after publication. The improved manuscript will have to be submitted, reviewed and published all anew.

    As I mentioned before, I'm still finding it hard to go back to pages that have earlier comments I read a day or two ago. Does anyone know how to do that?

    On PLOS? No. That site isn't really well designed (…and I just noticed what I did there).

  34. David Marjanović said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

    To be honest I too find this feature of American culture extremely difficult to understand.

    This isn't about Americans, this is about biologists. Globally of course.

  35. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    If David Marjanović, who has published on and reviewed for PLOS ONE, has a hard time finding his own comments on the site, you can imagine how frustrating it has been for me to try to go back to comment pages before the one that is currently showing. Perhaps they never expected to get more than a page of comments for any paper! Such, of course, is not the case with the paper about the "Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living", where they've been flooded with comments and comments upon comments….

    By various convoluted and time-consuming means, I was able to find some of the earlier comments on this paper at PLOS ONE, including one of David Marjanović's here: david_marjanovic replied to devilsadvocate2 on 03 Mar 2016 at 23:40 GMT.

    He also commented on the paper elsewhere, as at Pharyngula: Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal, one of the Freethought.blogs: 3 March 2016 at 7:25 pm.

    I can understand the protocols of science publishing, such that it would be impossible to revise and resubmit a paper that has been retracted to the same journal, but I am glad that David Marjanović agrees with my analysis of what happened in the final writing up of this paper. Therefore, I would encourage the authors to remove the problematic language and submit the paper to a different journal.

  36. Brett said,

    March 6, 2016 @ 10:15 pm

    It's very common in collaborative research for the junior author(s) who did most of the nitty-gritty work on a research project to write the body of a paper, but for the more senior author to write the abstract, introduction, and conclusions. This allows the people who are most intimately familiar with the details of the work to lay out the detailed explanation of what was done. At the same time, the senior author, who ought to have a better understanding of the context of the work and how it fits into the current state of the field, can do a better job selling the accomplishments of the paper (to editors, referees, and potential readers).* Of course, in this case, whoever wrote the key sections of the manuscript was clearly not so well versed in the English style used in evolutionary biology.

    * As I was writing this, I was reminded of an anecdote from when I was a post-doc. I was coauthoring a paper with my supervisor, and I had already written out the main body of the manuscript. My supervisor told me that he had an angle he wanted to use to sell the work, but that he did not want to tell me what it was until he had written the abstract, introduction, and conclusion. He wanted to find out whether I found the proposed angle compelling, so he did not tell me what it was until I was able to read a complete draft of the paper.

  37. GH said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    To Victor Mair's point that the offending passages are superfluous to the paper, could any of the Chinese speakers who are arguing that it's all a misunderstanding explain what they are supposed to mean? Because aside from explicitly invoking a "Creator", the statements seem like an argument for mysticism ("indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention"), where the sophistication of the human hand supposedly requires us to consign it to a different realm of explanation. That in itself seems highly dubious in a scientific paper.

    I have a hard time coming up with something substantive the statements might be trying to convey, beyond "hands are impressive", that wouldn't be controversial.

    As for the author's later comment, I can't quite parse it:

    "It is too miraculous to let us think that human hand is the masterwork of Creator and indicates the mystery of nature. The further discussion about the Creator is indeed out of place in our article."

    I assume it should be something like:

    "It is too miraculous, leading us to think that the human hand is the masterwork of the Creator and indicates the mystery of nature."

    And again, I find it hard to come up with any non-trivial, non-controversial reading of that.


    Aside from the fact that the Declaration of Independence is 240 years old, it also belongs to an entirely different genre. The difference is part and parcel of Western dualism: the distinction between mind and body, spirit and matter, or in this case, political philosophy and empirical science.

    Even in a scientific paper – depending on the field – you might be able to get away with reflections on the mystery and grandeur of Nature/the Creator, as long as it's clear that those are strictly personal musings (e.g. using an apposite quotation from Scripture or some poet to introduce or conclude the topic) that readers need not share. But here the authors appear to claim (unintentionally?) that the scientific evidence bears out their religious views.

  38. Ray said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    victor mair wrote: "As I mentioned before, I'm still finding it hard to go back to pages that have earlier comments I read a day or two ago. Does anyone know how to do that?"

    if you click on the yellow box "Comments" along the top navigation menu ("Article" "Authors" "Metrics" "Comments" "Related Content"), it will display a list of all the reader comments, along with with their threads (the first was made by ArthurDent on march 2).

    here's the url:

  39. Mark Young said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    I'm curious about the use of the name "Excalibur" in the translation. Presumably this translation is replacing culturally significant references from the source place/time with similarly significant references from the destination place/time. But what actually is the metal supposed to be saying? Google translate renders that part of the passage as "and I will be for the ROBOT Ye", which is not so helpful to me.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 10:29 am


    I appreciate your effort, and have gone to that Comments page dozens of times, but can never get back into February and January. Does anybody know how to do that?

    I want to read the comments that began right after the paper was published in January, and continued through February.

  41. Keith said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 10:42 am

    Americans would proudly say they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Why not hands?

    I think that most of the instances of Americans making such a claim could be ascribed to "ceremonial deism", as described in a Wikipedia article of the same name.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 12:01 pm

    @Mark Young

    You have raised a very important issue, one that Chas Belov had raised earlier in the thread, but to which I had only partially replied.

    I have to do some other things now, but will try to give a fuller answer about Mòyé 鏌鋣 later on today.

  43. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

    David Marjanović said,
    March 6, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

    meant it in the Chinese sense of "Mother-Nature", or another Chinese word, Tian, "Heaven"

    But that's still a really, really bad metaphor for evolution!
    I'm both surprised and not-surprised that David would object to the alternative word "Mother-Nature" as a substitute for the offending word "Creator". "Mother-Nature" is simply another term for "Nature".

    As I read it, the authors wanted to express their awe at the marvelous, mysterious workings of Nature, of Mother-Nature, of evolution (in the apology they said they meant Nature as evolution).

    Yes, it looks like personal feelings have no place in a scientific paper. Was that always so historically? (I have a brother-in-law who is an award-winning professor and scientist, who grew up in the U.S. and got his Ph.D. in the U.S., who once told me he wished all scientific papers would start with personal feelings.) Perhaps the Chinese authors of the offending article were simply stylistically backward in introducing personal feelings, as Chinese are still backward and catching up with the West in so many things, including scientific etiquette in a scientific paper.

    But back to "Mother-Nature". Does David then object to the use of the word "Nature" for "evolution"? What about the name of the premier international journal for life sciences, "Nature" magazine? Should that magazine expunge the offending word "Nature", just as universities in America and South Africa are now forced to remove the names and images/statues of once iconic, now politically incorrect , figures, such as Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes, from campuses?
    (I do not subscribe to creationism or Intelligent design. Am not religious, don't subscribe to any religion, and don't use the word "Mother-Nature" as a pantheistic,. religious, word. I use it as Nature magazine uses the word "Nature". I think of creationism and ID believers as literalists who read the Genesis literally, as facts and not as myths.)

  44. Sili said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

    Do the anti-creationists have any objection to the word "Mother-Nature" ?

    Don't personify Mother Nature. She hates that.

  45. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

    It occurs to me that by saying "She hates that" you are personifying Mother Nature.

  46. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 3:39 pm

    Keith, thanks for the Wikipedia article on "ceremonial deism", which explains references to God such as the national motto "In God We Trust" and "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance as having
    " lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."

  47. BZ said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 4:05 pm

    So let me get this straight. "Under God" was added in 1954. "In God We Trust" was included on paper money in 1957. The term "Ceremonial Deism" was probably applied to these in 1962 when they were "deemed to be merely ritual and non-religious through long customary usage". 5 to 8 years is long customary? I understand that these terms have a long history in other contexts, but how do you justify introducing them in new usages? What is the non-religious benefit of doing such a thing?

    To be clear, as a religious person I have no theological problems with these inclusions, but claiming that they are non-religious seems odd to me.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

    @julie lee

    Sili personified Her on purpose.

  49. julie lee said,

    March 7, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Ok, Sili is mocking me with reductio ad absurdum. But Sili's reductio ad absurdum can also apply to many other personifications, such as "Motherland", "Fatherland", "Mother-tongue".
    I wouldn't push a metaphor or personification too far, or take it too literally.

  50. GH said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 4:42 am

    @ julie lee:

    Some of these metaphors are deader than others, and I think "Mother Nature" is more alive than your other examples. It may not conjure up an image of a literal mother goddess, but it still suggests an entity or force that is fruitful, generous, nurturing, and wise; that provides for and perhaps has special regard for humans. (And you see that it is not quite synonymous with "Nature" as a catch-all for the natural laws acting on living things.) It is in danger of falling into a pathetic fallacy. It's not as politically fraught as "the Creator", but I think most scientists would still want to avoid such romanticized notions about nature in scientific writing, just as they wouldn't start talking about mammals as "our furry friends".

    My intuition is also that "Motherland" or "Fatherland" would not be appropriate in many contexts, especially the latter, which has picked up associations with nationalism and the Nazis in particular.

    This is not saying that these terms are off-limits completely, but that there are subtleties that depend on the genre of the text and on how they are used within it.

  51. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    "Paper Praising ‘Creator’ Puts Fear of God in Open-Access Giant"

    The Chronicle of Higher Education

    By Paul Basken March 07, 2016

    "…the academic editor listed on the paper, Renzhi Han, an associate professor of surgery at Ohio State University, appears from a web listing to have had an affiliation with the Chinese Evangelical Church in Iowa City, where he previously worked."

  52. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    As I mentioned at the very beginning, I hate to contradict Victor Mair, as he has invariably been proven right. Obviously, it's always risky to voice an opinion in this learned forum, as one always risks getting egg on one's face or getting one's nose out of joint. If Renzhi Han, the Chinese academic editor of the pilloried article, is indeed a confirmed creationist, he still misjudged the current culture of the U.S., which sets the tone for the scientific world, because surely he did not intend to invite opprobrium and have the article killed. And perhaps his misjudgment came from the fact that he was a foreigner to the U.S. and to Western culture.

  53. Brett said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    The pledge of allegiance has been monkeyed with a lot, beyond just the addition of "under God." The original text makes a lot more sense than the one I was forced (against controlling Supreme Court Precedent) to recite as a kid.

  54. ROBOKiTTY said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:39 pm

    @julie lee:

    Sili was clearly making a joke, not (necessarily) mocking you.

    In fact, this brief exchange demonstrates how easy it is for cultural subtleties to fly over the heads of people who may otherwise seem reasonably fluent in a foreign language.

    One big challenge Chinese speakers face when writing in English is that the expected style for formal writing in Mandarin is more ornate than what you'd expect in English. When they try that style in English, the result is generally weird. The abstract, introduction, and conclusion seem like logical places where a Chinese speaker might get the urge to wax poetic.

  55. julie lee said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:51 pm

    Thanks for your comment, especially the point about "Fatherland".

  56. GH said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:48 am

    @julie lee

    And thank you for your efforts to elucidate some of the cross-cultural communication difficulties.

  57. peter said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 2:04 am

    @julie lee @3.39 on 2016-03-07:

    Brennan J's words, "lost through rote repetition any significant religious content", express an odd thought. The main activity of most religious ritual is rote repetition of a standard set of words. It is hard to see how mere repetition would by itself diminish the religious content, even thoughtless repetition. Indeed, an entire branch of Russian Orthodox Christianity, the Name Worshippers movement, was based on an enhanced connection with the divine achieved through repetition of certain words (the names of God).

  58. julie lee said,

    March 17, 2016 @ 11:00 pm

    @BZ, @peter
    Yes I see the points you are making. "Lost through rote repetition any significant religious content" is indeed controversial and has been disputed. I think there are two sides to "rote repetition". It can become mere ceremony, becoming empty and well-nigh meaningless for those who have lost, or who never had, faith. Or it can with repetition affirm and fortify faith in the faithful. And this applies not only to Christian language, but those of other faiths as well, Confucianism, Marxism, Communism, Maoism, and so on.

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