The Lord hath delivered Meyer into Prothero’s hands.
If you’re a regular here, you’ll know about paleontologist Don Prothero, who wrote one of my favorite “evidence-for-evolution-and-anticreationist” books, Evolution: What the Fossils Say And Why It Matters (read it!). He’s a crack paleontologist and a superb science educator, as well as an inveterate debunker of creationism (he was one of my co-arguers on the “Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism” show).
It’s in the last role that I want to highlight Prothero today, for two days ago he published on Amazon a scathingly informed review—an unmitigated pan—of creationist Stephen Meyer’s new book on the Cambrian Explosion, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Called “Stephen Meyer’s Fumbling Bumbling Cambrian Amateur Follies“, Prothero’s one-star assessment is a classic.
It’s long, but I’ll give a few excerpts. First, the overview:
Stephen Meyer’s first demonstration of these biases was his atrociously incompetent book Signature in the Cell (2009, HarperOne), which was universally lambasted by molecular biologists as an amateurish effort by someone with no firsthand training or research experience in molecular biology. (Meyer’s Ph.D. is in history of science, and his undergrad degree is in geophysics, which give him absolutely no background to talk about molecular evolution). Undaunted by this debacle, Meyer now blunders into another field in which he has no research experience or advanced training: my own profession, paleontology. I can now report that he’s just as incompetent in my field as he was in molecular biology. Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. But as one of the few people in the entire creationist movement who has actually taken a few geology classes (but apparently no paleontology classes), he is their “expert” in this area, and is happy to mislead the creationist audience that knows no science at all with his slick but completely false understanding of the subject.
Meyer’s sins include these:
1. Ignoring the length of and precursors to the Cambrian “explosion”. (All indentations are Prothero’s quotes.)
His figures (e.g., Figs. 2.5, 2.6, 3.8) portray the “explosion” as if it happened all at once, showing that he has paid no attention to the past 70 years of discoveries. He dismisses the Ediacara fauna as not clearly related to living phyla (a point that is still debated among paleontologists), but its very existence is fatal to the creationist falsehood that multicellular animals appeared all at once in the fossil record with no predecessors. Even more damning, Meyer completely ignores the existence of the first two stages of the Cambrian (nowhere are they even mentioned in the book, or the index) and talks about the Atdabanian stage as if it were the entire Cambrian all by itself. His misleading figures (e.g., Fig. 2.5, 2.6, 3.8) imply that there were no modern phyla in existence until the trilobites diversified in the Atdabanian. Sorry, but that’s a flat out lie. Even a casual glance at any modern diagram of life’s diversification (Figure 1) demonstrates that probable arthropods, cnidarians, and echinoderms are present in the Ediacara fauna, mollusks and sponges are well documented from the Nemakit-Daldynian Stage, and brachiopods and archaeocyathids appear in the Tommotian Stage–all millions of years before Meyer’s incorrectly defined “Cambrian explosion” in the Atdabanian.
2. Falsely implying that animal evolution during the Cambrian was too fast to be explained by natural processes. (Meyer is of course an exponent of Intelligent Design, and uses the “too-fast” argument to buttress the intervention of the Intelligent Designer, aka God.)
Meyer claims the 5-6 million years of the Atdabanian are too fast for evolution to produce all the phyla of animals. Wrong again! Lieberman (2003) showed that rates of evolution during the “Cambrian explosion” are typical of any adaptive radiation in life’s history, whether you look at the Paleocene diversification of the mammals after the non-avian dinosaurs vanished, or even the diversification of humans from their common ancestor with apes 6 m.y. ago. . . The Cambrian Period contains plenty of time to accomplish what the Proterozoic didn’t without invoking processes unknown to population geneticists–20 million years is a long time for organisms that produce a new generation every year or two. (Knoll, 2003, p. 193).
Yes, Don gives references.
3. Larding the text with errors and deliberate misrepresentations about phylogenetic trees, punctuated equilibrium, and modern discoveries bearing on evolution.
[Meyer] blunders through the fields of epigenetics and evo-devo and genetic drift as if they completely falsified Neo-Darwinism, rather than as scientists view them, as supplements to our understanding of it. (Even if they did somehow shoot down some aspects of Neo-Darwinism, they are providing additional possible mechanisms for evolution, something he supposedly does believe in!). In short, he runs the full gamut of topics in modern evolutionary biology, managing to distort or confuse every one of them, and only demonstrating that he is completely incapable of understanding these topics.
4. Relying on the intellectually disasterous “God of the gaps” gambit.
Even though ID creationists say that this supernatural designer could be any deity or even extraterrestrials, it is well documented that they are thinking of the Judeo-Christian god when they point to the complexity and “design” of life. They argue that if scientists haven’t completely explained every possible event of the Early Cambrian, science has failed and we must consider supernatural causes.
Of course, this is a lie. For one thing, Meyer’s description of the “Cambrian explosion” is distorted and false, since he deliberately ignores the events of the first two stages of the Cambrian. Secondly, this “god of the gaps” approach is guaranteed to fail, because scientists have explained most of the events of the Early Cambrian and find nothing out of the ordinary that defies scientific explanation. Only a few details remain to be worked out. As our fossil record of that time interval improves and we understand it even better, there will be nothing left for the creationists to point to that might require supernatural intervention. This is a losing strategy for them in every possible way.
Indeed, but it’s all the IDers have, for there is no positive evidence in favor of their position. They are perforce constrained to find their “evidence” for a designer in the things science has not yet explained. And when science does—when those missing fossils are found, or our understanding of early life improves—their faces should be red, but they’ll just move on to another gap. We’ll never understand everything, so there will always be room for Jesus.
And Prothero’s damning peroration:
In short, Meyer has shown that his first disastrous book was not a fluke: he is capable of going into any field in which he has no training or research experience and botching it just as badly as he did molecular biology. . . Some people with creationist leanings or little understanding of paleontology might find this long-winded, confusingly written book convincing, but anyone with a decent background in paleontology can easily see through his distortions and deliberate misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Even though Amazon.com persists in listing this book in their “Paleontology” subsection, I’ve seen a number of bookstores already which have it properly placed in their “Religion” section–or even more appropriately, in “Fiction.”
Now the Discovery Institute isn’t going to take this lying down: within a day they’ll assign their resident Jewish creationist David Klinghoffer to find reasons why Prothero doesn’t know his onions, is biased against Meyer, or is simply part of the great Darwinist-atheist-Hitlerian conspiracy against intelligent design. But each time the DI fails to listen to those who really know about the science, they further erode their credibility—at least among the fence-sitters.
IDers are crying in the wilderness and they know it, but that just makes them lie all the harder. After all, God is at stake.