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Darwin’s Doubt in review; Meyer, Matzke, and some of their critics

paul_book_-1Yesterday I wrote about Casey Luskin’s critique of Nick Matzke’s review of Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, but not everyone knows (why should they?) who Luskin is, or who said what in which way about whom. So I’ve written this brief survey of the dramatis personae, and review of reviews of reviews.

Luskin is Program Officer of the DI’s Center for Science and Culture, of which Meyer is director, Berlinksi a Senior Fellow, and Kenyon a Fellow. According to his bio on the CSC website, he ‘is co-founder of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, a non-profit helping students to investigate evolution by starting “IDEA Clubs” on college and high school campuses across the country.’ His 5 year stint with Scripps Institute of Oceanography produced one publication; he was one of several junior authors on a study of paleaomagnetic dating of sediments, which has attracted 17 citations. So, moderately useful routine work. No life science qualifications or experience.

David Berlinski is a Senior Fellow of the CSC, mathematician and philosopher, and has written serious works in his own area, including a 1972 article on the philosophy of molecular biology. As the review I cited shows, he writes powerfully and amusingly, even when (as here) he is attacking a fictional straw man.

Dean Kenyon is a CSC Fellow. He was at one time a respected biologist, but in the 1970s was converted by Morris’s Genesis Flood to Young Earth Creationism. He was co-author of Of Pandas and People.

Nick Matzke is just finishing the formalities of his PhD at Berkeley,and will be moving to a postdoc at NIMBioS at U. Tennessee Knoxville in September. Web of Knowledge lists him as author of 19 publications, with a total of 330 literature citations to date.

[Added (h/t Christine Janis): an even more thourough and, therefore, destructive review, by Aaron P. Baldwin, is here]

Stephen Meyer, Director of the CSC and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, holds a joint degree in physics and earth science from Whitworth, a private Christian liberal arts university, and a PhD in the philosophy of science from Cambridge, and has taught at  Palm Beach Atlantic, a faith-based liberal arts college. He is now director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and author or co-author of a number of works of fiction, including Explore Evolution, a pseudotextbook that shows that the creationists have discovered Batesian mimicry, other works of fiction including Signature in the Cell, and, of course, Darwin’s Doubt. Which is where we came in.

The Creationist Obsession with Darwin; from Louisiana to Discovery Institute to Glasgow

From Louisiana through the Discovery Institute to Glasgow, examples of the creationist obsession with Darwin (and inability to quote him correctly) continue to accumulate.

You may have heard of the Louisiana Science Education Act (how’s that for protective colouring?), which allows creationism to be taught in the State’s publicly funded schools in the name of “academic freedom.” The law was apparently suggested to State Senator Ben Nevers by the Lousiana Family Forum, whose upcoming Leadership Academy, to be addressed by Governor Bobby Jindal, promises to “teach you how to defend Conservative principles within policy!” (Exclamation mark in original. I set the last two links at “No-Follow”)

And now here’s the bit that’s relevant to my theme, courtesy Zack Kopplin. To quote Sen. Nevers, the Louisiana Family Forum “believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.” So there are scientific data relevant to creationism (what, I wonder?), but a century and a half of evolutionary science are merely “Darwin’s theory”. As in, the Earth goes round the Sun in an elliptical orbit is “Kepler’s theory”, and stuff is made out of atoms is “Dalton’s theory”.

Stephen Meyers’ Darwin’s Doubt uses similar tactics, from the title on in. The contents give us three references to Darwin in its 23 chapter and section headings; “Darwin’s Nemesis”, “After Darwin, What?”, and “The Post-Darwinian World and Self-Organisation”. Darwin’s name also occurs seven times on the book’s front flap. This (free view on Amazon) presents one short argument, to introduce one very long book, based on compressing the Ediacaran and Cambrian radiations, ignoring everything we know about the events leading up to them (see Robert Hazen’s Story of Earth for a good brief overview), and comparing the resulting mystification with the problem of the origin of life. The index gives ten subheadings and 21 page references for Darwin, and sixteen subheadings and 43 page references to “Darwinian evolutionary theory”. These include six to “Agassiz’ challenge”; that’s Louis Agassiz, who was generously acknowledged by Darwin for his discovery of the Ice Ages, and died 1873. And I nearly forgot: twentysix subheadings and 38 page references for “neo-Darwinism”.  For comparison, Carl Zimmer and Douglas J. Emlen’s Evolution; Making Sense of Life (one of the few textbooks I have come across that is actually a pleasure to read) has 16 subheadings and 33 page references to Darwin. And for “Darwin’s theory”, “Darwinian theory”, or “neo-Darwinism”? None at all. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last came across those expressions, other than from a historian or a creationist.

And of course Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, a Discovery Institute echo chamber, has done its poor best to support Stephen Meyer. How? By mangling Darwin to totally shift his emphasis, and refocus it on Meyer’s chosen pseudoproblem. You will find the full gory details here on my friend Robert Saunders’ blog, Wonderful Life. There is also more about Meyer’s book on the BCSE website; I discussed it here, but think Nick Matzke’s dismemberment may be impossible to improve on. Disclosure: I lectured about “Dalton’s theory”, though I didn’t call it that, to Alastair Noble, now the Centre’s Director, many years ago. I like to think my teaching has improved since then. But at least I wasn’t responsible for teaching him about biology, or geology, or complex systems theory, or elementary logic, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame myself too much for what he’s been up to since.

Six Day Creationist publicly endorses Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt

The reasoning behind Stephen Meyer’s latest offering will not stand up to examination. However, the Discovery Institute have proudly announced that it has been endorsed by one of Britain’s leading scientists. It turns out, however, that the leading scientist is actually a doctor, not an evolutionary biologist, that he has been deeply involved with the Discovery Institute for many years, and that he required no convincing of the book’s central claim that biological information is the work of a designer. Nor, perhaps, is he the right person to evaluate Meyer’s critique of evolutionary science, because he never accepted evolutionary science in the first place. He believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Genesis I through XI is a historically accurate account, and that biological information actually originated on Days Three through Six of Creation, some 6000 years ago, at God’s say-so.

Darwin’s Doubt has been billed by the Discovery Institute as a game changer, but it is not clear what game is supposed to have been changed. Certainly not the game as played by the Discovery Institute, which continues to rely on various publicity stunts, and on its readers’ (and perhaps its writers’) ignorance of the underlying science.

Meyer’s argument rests on two pillars; that there was a sudden unexplained explosion of multiplicity of body plans around 500 million years ago (the “Cambrian explosion”), and that this is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that evolution cannot generate information as complex as that found within living things.

It would be chutzpah on my part to claim any originality in my refutation of these claims, when the job has been done so expertly in a pandasthumb posting by Nick Matzke, written as he finishes graduate school. To summarise Matzke’s argument, the “explosion” was not a sudden event at all, but part of a complex sequence, and so far from the simultaneous de novo appearance of numerous unrelated body types, we have detailed knowledge of the family connections between them. As for the argument that evolution cannot generate new complexities, it is simply wrong. We see it happening all the time. Matzke actually knows something about this sort of thing, having written important papers on the origins of the bacterial flagellum and, more recently, the timing of the endosymbiotic events that gave rise to mitochondria.

What I want to talk about here is the latest publicity stunt. I have already written about the earlier pre-launch stunt of passing the hat round the Discovery Institute’s supporters in order to buy media coverage. What the DI have now done is to trumpet the endorsement of the book by Prof Norman Nevin, a leading biological scientist, as an example of a leading scientist who has been swayed by the book’s arguments.

There are just a few things wrong with this claim. Prof Nevin is not an evolutionary scientist at all. He is a medical geneticist, and if I wanted advice on whether it would be wise for me to marry my cousin, he would certainly be the right person to go to. However, that does not magically give him any deeper insight than anyone else into the origins of the deleterious genes that might manifest themselves in our offspring. (As we shall see later, he does claim such an insight, but not one that many readers here would accept.) He is not an independent judge of the Discovery Institute’s activities, since he is Chairman of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), which derives materials, arguments, and prominent speakers from the Discovery Institute, and whose very foundation was inspired by a visit to the UK of Phillip Johnson, the DI’s original creator. Finally, we can be completely confident that Prof Nevin’s acceptance of Intelligent Design is not the result of what Stephen Meyer has just written. His chairmanship of the Centre, which exists precisely to promote it, goes back to its foundation in 2010, and his acceptance of Intelligent Design derives, not from scientific argument, but from parochial religious obscurantism.

I am now going to resort to an ad hominem argument. Some people will say this is very wrong of me, and indeed I have been barred from posting comments on the C4ID FaceBook page for doing it. However, I will use the playground excuse of “they started it”. It is the Discovery Institute that invoked Prof Nevin’s authority in the first place, and so it is fair play to subject that authority to scrutiny.

Prof Nevin has told us what he thinks, at considerable length, in a series of sermons given at Bethany Church, Belfast. You will find his views on Adam and Eve here and here, and on the historical reality of Noah’s flood here. Or, if you’re not willing to sit and suffer for two hours, you can find a few representative quotations on the British Centre for Science Education website:

I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis as the word of god and as historical fact.

Genesis is the foundation of God’s word and I believe that it is crucial to our understanding of the rest of scripture.

Indeed the eleven chapters, the first eleven chapter of the Book of Genesis, are referred to in the New Testament. So the Book of Genesis is foundational to the word of God.

So the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon Adam and Eve, he looked upon Abel and Cain as historical figures… and when he discusses the Flood and Noah… the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon these early chapters as historical fact.

And what’s good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ is good enough for Norman Nevin. So there!

I must admit that here Prof Nevin has the advantage of me. I do not claim to know exactly what was said in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know whether references to older texts implied that they were to be understood literally or allegorically, a distinction already well-developed in the rabbinical tradition of the time.

And what about those genetic defects, on which Prof Nevin really is an expert, which irrevocably condemn a child to the slow choking death of cystic fibrosis, or an adult to the mental degeneration of Huntingdon’s? How could it possibly be their fault? Again, Prof Levin has the answer. The world, as created, was “very good”, as Genesis 1:31 assures us. So all these nasty things were not in the world as created, and must be the result of something that happened later. Of course, the Fall! The choking child, the confused and twitching adult, deserve everything that is happening to them because of something their remote ancestors did 6000 years ago. So that dreadful Something really must have happened, as a matter of historical fact, and everything those nasty evolutionists and Darwinians are telling you is wrong.

If you can believe that, no wonder you can believe that Stephen Meyer’s ramblings are superb science.

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