Science & Faith
7/19/13 at 04:15 PM 17 Comments

What is the Significance of a “Darwin's Doubt” Review by a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Science Journalist?

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Wikipedia Commons (artistic reconstruction based on fossil evidence)
Here is one of the animals that first appeared in the Cambrian explosion. This extinct sea creature had five eyes.

I ended my last blog with a comment that prompted a response from Gareth Cook, who is the Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist who authored The New Yorker review of Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt:

When Dr. Stephen Meyer appeared on the Michael Medved Show last week, the two men discussed … the very prominent review of Meyer's book that appeared in The New Yorker. Learn just how significant this review was. It turns out that The New Yorker offered an affirmation (while also trying to critique the book) of the high level of scholarship in Meyer's book.

The imprecise prose of my last sentence drew this blog comment from Gareth Cook:

Mike, I wrote the review in the New Yorker, and your statement that I affirmed its "high level of scholarship" is simply untrue. I called it "a masterpiece of pseudoscience." Please correct your post, and I would encourage readers to follow the link to the New Yorker article.

Subsequently Mr. Cook and I engaged in an email exchange. He indicated that he was not interested in debating the merits of Meyer’s book. My first sizeable email to him consisted of a nearly identical draft of what will be today’s post. You will see (below) how I invited Gareth Cook to defend his book review--an offer he declined.

But first, here is some background on Mr. Cook:

Gareth Cook is a Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine journalist, a contributor to NewYorker.com, and the editor of a forthcoming book series, The Best American Infographics. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, NewYorker.com, Wired, Scientific American, the Washington Monthly, the Boston Globe Ideas section and elsewhere. He is also editor of Scientific American’s Mind Matters neuroscience blog.

The rest of my blog is now an open letter to Gareth Cook and other science journalists who may write about evolutionary biology and intelligent design. We need to learn from each other.

Dear Gareth,

Just before posting my last blog I thought of inserting the word “unwitting” before the word “affirmation,” but then decided against it. I should have used that word for clarity. I will add this word to my blog, document the change, and further engage in this conversation. The new sentence will now read:

It turns out that The New Yorker offered an unwitting affirmation (while also trying to critique the book) of the high level of scholarship in Meyer's book.

Let me explain how this revised sentence captures the significance of your review of Meyer’s book.

You wrote in your review:

But do not underestimate “Darwin’s Doubt”: it is a masterwork of pseudoscience. Meyer is a reasonably fluid writer who weaves anecdote and patient explanation. He skillfully deploys the trappings of science—the journals, the conferences, the Latinate terminology. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. He appears serious and, above all, reasonable. The Cambrian argument has been a part of creationism and its inheritors for many years, but Meyer’s project is to canonize it, a task he completes with great skill. Those who feel a hunger for material evidence of God or who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read. Which is to say, Meyer will find a large audience: he aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.

How is this an unwitting affirmation of the book’s high level of scholarship (while attempting to critique it)?

You recognize the book as a “masterwork” (I’ll get to the pseudoscience and other similar accusations later) by a writer who is “reasonably fluid” and who “skillfully deploys” scientific terminology and concepts found in refereed journals (and the conferences where peer review also occurs). You reaffirm these positive traits more pointedly in this sentence: “He appears serious and, above all, reasonable.” Not bad if a guy exhibits traits that appear “above all, reasonable.”

You also recognize Meyer’s “great skill,” which helps support your conclusion that “Meyer will find a large audience.” Finally, you conclude that “he aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.” So much for the explicit affirmative language in your review of Darwin’s Doubt. There are excellent reasons to affirm all the things that you did.

I will argue that the negative assessment language that you weave into the fabric of the above affirmative statements depends upon claims that are unlikely or false. If my argument stands, that would mean that the only aspect of your book review that survives careful scrutiny turns out to be an affirmation of Meyer’s book.

Most of the documentation needed to make this case is already accessible in various ENV articles posted over the past few weeks. I will cite these essays below. They in turn cite the primary scientific literature.

In your review of Meyer’s book you wrote:

Scientific readers will likely find that “Darwin’s Doubt” has an inspired-by-true-events feel: a few elements are recognizable, but the story makes no sense to anyone who was there. The problem for Meyer is that what has come to be called the Cambrian explosion was not, in fact, an explosion. It took place over tens of millions of years—far more time than, for example, it took humans and chimpanzees to go their separate ways.

Your assessment of the Cambrian explosion’s time frame is out of touch with what the vast majority of Cambrian fossil experts conclude, namely that the Cambrian explosion took place within 5-10 million years (as also Meyer documents in his book). In a July 16th ENV essay Casey Luskin highlighted this major error in your review and cited additional primary literature to prove the point. The ancestry of this error may be traced back to Nick Matzke’s hastily written review of Meyer’s book (an essay that appeared one day after Darwin’s Doubt was available in bookstores). Luskin notes that Matzke “criticized Meyer for not recognizing that the Cambrian explosion ‘took at least 30 million years’ -- despite expert opinion showing it was far shorter.”

Luskin continues:

Since Matzke published his review, The New Yorker reviewed Meyer's book. Gareth Cook, the science writer who wrote the piece, relied heavily on Matzke's critical evaluation, even though Matzke is a graduate student and not an established Cambrian expert. Cook uncritically recycled Matzke's claim that the Cambrian explosion took "many tens of millions of years," even saying that the main problem with Darwin's Doubt is that Meyer failed to recognize this alleged fact.

Luskin proceeds to quote numerous authoritative peer-reviewed scientific sources to make the point. He also clarifies what the vast majority of Cambrian experts mean by “Cambrian explosion.” This term is almost always used to refer to the main pulse of morphological innovation during which a huge number of the basic animal body plans that have ever existed on earth make an abrupt appearance. This event took place during the Tommotian-Atdabanian interval of the Cambrian period, which encompasses a mere 5 to 10 million years. In fact two of the three experts that Matzke cites (but in a publication Matzke does not cite) call this brief span of time a “geological blink of the eye.”

Gareth, next you write:

Decades of fossil discovery around the world, combined with new computer-aided analytical techniques, have given scientists a far more complete portrait of the tree of life than Darwin and Walcott had available, making connections between species that they could not see.

It turns out that many of the major gaps that Meyer identifies are the result of his misleading rearrangement of the tree. Nick Matzke, a scientist who blogs at Panda’s Thumb, makes a convincing case that Meyer does not understand the field’s key statistical techniques (among other things).

In another essay on Matzke’s treatment of Darwin’s Doubt Casey Luskin writes that Matzke claims

that methods of phylogenetic reconstruction can establish the existence of Precambrian ancestral and intermediate forms -- an unfolding of animal complexity that the fossil record does not document. Though he accuses Meyer of being ignorant of these phylogenetic methods and studies, he seems unaware that Meyer explains and critiques attempts to reconstruct phylogenetic trees based upon the comparisons of anatomical and genetic characters in his fifth and sixth chapters. He also criticizes Meyer for being ignorant of cladistics in reconstructing such phylogenetic trees, though, again, Meyer critiques many of the assumptions and methods of cladistics in the context of the larger evaluation of phylogenetic reconstruction that he (Meyer) offers in those chapters (as well as in accompanying endnotes, as I'll explain).

Gareth, you then write:

For example, Meyer presents a chart on page thirty-five of “Darwin’s Doubt” that appears to show the sudden appearance of large numbers of major animal groups in the Cambrian: the smoking gun. But if one looks at a family tree based on current science, it looks nothing like Meyer’s, and precisely like what Darwinian theory would predict.

The “family tree based on current science,” which proposes common ancestry for all new Cambrian animal phyla, is not based on fossil evidence that demonstrates this alleged branching pattern of appearance. Instead, as Meyer points out in his book, it is based primarily on highly inconsistent molecular comparison studies of currently existing animals. Such studies assume that these creatures all evolved from a common ancestor, and then proceed to determine the most likely timing of the many branching points (based mainly on percentages of sequence similarity in DNA, RNA, and proteins). So, of course such family trees will look “precisely like what Darwinian theory would predict” (as you put it), because this research program already assumes common ancestry. You would do well to reread Meyer’s chapters 5 and 6 to better grasp this point. Luskin’s essay about Matzke’s treatment of Darwin’s Doubt also patiently explains this topic.

Neither you nor Matzke cite the numerous Cambrian fossil experts who agree with many of Meyer’s key claims. Luskin documents this in an essay about the other major book of 2013 about the Cambrian explosion authored by two leading Cambrian authorities: The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity.

Luskin explains:

First, as the title suggests, The Cambrian Explosion acknowledges that the Cambrian explosion was a real event, and is not merely an artifact of an imperfect fossil record. They write:

[A] great variety and abundance of animal fossils appear in deposits dating from a geologically brief interval between about 530 to 520 Ma, early in the Cambrian period. During this time, nearly all the major living animal groups (phyla) that have skeletons first appeared as fossils (at least one appeared earlier). Surprisingly, a number of those localities have yielded fossils that preserve details of complex organs at the tissue level, such as eyes, guts, and appendages. In addition, several groups that were entirely soft-bodied and thus could be preserved only under unusual circumstances also first appear in those faunas. Because many of those fossils represent complex groups such as vertebrates (the subgroup of the phylum Chordata to which humans belong) and arthropods, it seems likely that all or nearly all the major phylum-level groups of living animals, including many small softbodied groups that we do not actually find as fossils, had appeared by the end of the early Cambrian. This geologically abrupt and spectacular record of early animal life is called the Cambrian explosion. (p. 5, emphases added)

They thus date the main pulse of the Cambrian explosion -- when "all or nearly all the major phylum-level groups of living animals" appeared -- to about 10 million years, consistent with the timescale given in Darwin's Doubt.

Gareth, later in your review of Meyer’s book you proclaim:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

Here you completely misfired. Consider this piece at ENV about your error:

As you may recall, among the backhanded compliments in Gareth Cook's New Yorker review of Darwin's Doubt there is the characterization of Stephen Meyer's book as a "masterwork of pseudoscience." While not referencing Cook directly, Frank Turek responds eloquently to the point about ID as "pseudoscience" in a review of Darwin's Doubt at Townhall.com. Turek writes (answering your pseudoscience charge and your paragraph above well):

[C]ritics attempt to smear Meyer by claiming he's doing "pseudoscience" or not doing science at all. Well, if Meyer isn't, doing science, then neither was Darwin (or any Darwinist today). Meyer is using the same forensic or historical scientific method that Darwin himself used. That's all that can be used. Since these are historical questions, a scientist can't go into the lab to repeat and observe the origin and history of life. Scientists must evaluate the clues left behind and then make an inference to the best explanation. Does our repeated experience tell us that natural mechanisms have the power to create the effects in question or is intelligence required?

Meyer writes, "Neo-Darwinism and the theory of intelligent design are not two different kinds of inquiry, as some critics have asserted. They are two different answers -- formulated using a similar logic and method of reasoning--to the same question: 'What caused biological forms and the appearance of design in the history of life?'"

The reason Darwinists and Meyer arrive at different answers is not because there's a difference in their scientific methods, but because Meyer and other Intelligent Design proponents don't limit themselves to materialistic causes. They are open to intelligent causes as well (just like archaeologists and crime scene investigators are).

So this is not a debate about evidence. Everyone is looking at the same evidence. This is a debate about how to interpret the evidence, and that involves philosophical commitments about what causes will be considered possible before looking at the evidence. If you philosophically rule out intelligent causes beforehand -- as the Darwinists do -- you will never arrive at the truth if an intelligent being actually is responsible.

Since all evidence needs to be interpreted, science doesn't actually say anything--scientists do. So if certain self-appointed priests of science say that a particular theory is outside the bounds of their own scientific dogma, that doesn't mean that the theory is false. The issue is truth -- not whether something fits a materialistic definition of science.

Let’s return to my thesis about your New Yorker review:

The strong negative assessment language that Gareth Cook weaves into his review of Meyer’s book depends upon claims that are unlikely, false, or sheer worldview prejudice. The only components of his book review that survive careful scrutiny amount to an affirmation of Meyer’s book. This means Darwin’s Doubt is a “masterwork” authored by one who “skillfully deploys” scientific communication. Meyer “appears serious and, above all, reasonable.” He “aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.”

David Klinghoffer’s thoughts about your review offer similar insight:

The New Yorker's review of Darwin's Doubt is negative, yes, but it's full of backhanded compliments. Ignore the snarkiness, and read between the lines.

I have done some of this excavation work here, and more. Klinghoffer continues:

Cook dismisses ID as "pseudoscience" in part because he lets grad student Nick Matzke's bogus response to Stephen Meyer's book, over at Panda's Thumb, carry much of the scientific burden of his own review for him. (See Casey Luskin's reply to Matzke.) Cook seems to have absorbed the National Center for Science Education's false narrative about the origins of ID, and I don't think he understands the argument that Meyer makes.

I agree with Klinghoffer.

I strongly encourage all my readers to read all of the essays linked in this blog (rather than just my excerpts). Compare them to your own reading of Gareth Cook's review of Meyer's book and decide (especially after you have read Darwin's Doubt), who stands on firm rational ground, and why.

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