Charles R. Marshall, once my colleague here at Chicago, is now a professor at the Department of Intergrative Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Along with a handful of other people, including Andy Knoll, Jim Valentine, and Martin Brasier, Marshall is one of the most respected experts on the evolution of early life. He specializes in the Cambrian Explosion and has written several influential papers on it, including the 2006 paper given at bottom (free download).
Marshall has just published a review of Stephen Meyer’s ID book, Darwin’s Doubt, in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Science (reference below, but I’m not sure readers get a free download). And his review is a complete pan, though written without rancor or “shrillness.”
The name of Marshall’s review, “When prior belief trumps scholarship,” gives away the game, for Meyer’s book is completely motivated by his attempt to show that an intelligent designer was responsible for the Cambrian Explosion of animal phyla around 545 million years ago. Meyer’s book has been trashed by every competent scientific reviewer I’ve seen, including Don Prothero and Nick Matzke, but this is the first major review in a major scientific journal.
Meyer won’t take much comfort from words like these, which accuse him (as have other reviewers) of “a systematic failure of scholarship”. But of course that’s what’s required when you have to push aside any truth that might impede the return of Jesus:
Meyer’s scientific approach is negative. He argues that paleontologists are unable to explain the Cambrian explosion, thus opening the door to the possibility of a designer’s intervention. This, despite his protest to the contrary, is a (sophisticated) “god of the gaps” approach, an approach that is problematic in part because future developments often provide solutions to once apparently difficult problems.
Darwin’s Doubt begins with a very readable review of our knowledge of the Cambrian explosion. Despite its readability and a plethora of scholarly references, however, there are substantial omissions and misrepresentations. For example, Meyer completely omits mention of the Early Cambrian small shelly fossils and misunderstands the nuances of molecular phylogenetics, both of which cause him to exaggerate the apparent suddenness of the Cambrian explosion.
. . . And so even after reading the flawed first part of his book, I dared hope that Meyer might point the way to fundamental problems in the way we paleontologists think about the Cambrian explosion.
However, my hope soon dissipated into disappointment. His case against current scientific explanations of the relatively rapid appearance of the animal phyla rests on the claim that the origin of new animal body plans requires vast amounts of novel genetic information coupled with the unsubstantiated assertion that this new genetic information must include many new protein folds. In fact, our present understanding of morphogenesis indicates that new phyla were not made by new genes but largely emerged through the rewiring of the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of already existing genes (1). Now Meyer does touch on this: He notes that manipulation of such networks is typically lethal, thus dismissing their role in explaining the Cambrian explosion. But today’s GRNs have been overlain with half a billion years of evolutionary innovation (which accounts for their resistance to modification), whereas GRNs at the time of the emergence of the phyla were not so encumbered. The reason for Meyer’s idiosyncratic fixation with new protein folds is that one of his Discovery Institute colleagues has claimed that those are mathematically impossibly hard to evolve on the timescale of the Cambrian explosion.
As Meyer points out, he is not a biologist; so perhaps he could be excused for basing his scientific arguments on an outdated understanding of morphogenesis. But my disappointment runs deeper than that. It stems from Meyer’s systematic failure of scholarship. For instance, while I was flattered to find him quote one of my own review papers (2)—although the quote is actually a chimera drawn from two very different parts of my review—he fails to even mention the review’s (and many other papers’) central point: that new genes did not drive the Cambrian explosion. His scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective.
The ending is very polite (Charles isn’t a contentious guy), but still sticks a knife in the book:
Meyer’s book ends with a heart-warming story of his normally fearless son losing his orientation on the impressive scree slopes that cradle the Burgess Shale, the iconic symbol of the Cambrian explosion, and his need to look back to his father for security. I was puzzled: why the parable in a book ostensibly about philosophy and science? Then I realized that the book’s subtext is to provide solace to those who feel their faith undermined by secular society and by science in particular. If the reviews on Amazon.com are any indication, it is achieving that goal. But when it comes to explaining the Cambrian explosion, Darwin’s Doubt is compromised by Meyer’s lack of scientific knowledge, his “god of the gaps” approach, and selective scholarship that appears driven by his deep belief in an explicit role of an intelligent designer in the history of life.
This review is important as previous critical reviews have been dismissed by the Discovery Institute (DI) because their authors weren’t recognized experts on the Cambrian Explosion (this is, for example, what the DI did to Don Prothero’s cogent but negative review that was published on Scepticblog. Well, Marshall’s review can’t be dismissed so easily: it’s in a refereed journal—a major journal—and is by a recognized expert on the topic of Meyer’s book.
One thing is absolutely predictable: the DI will simply dismiss this review, although I don’t know on what grounds. Given that they have none, they’ll probably just whine that the Scientific Establishment can’t handle the truth (shades of Jack Nicholson!). Despite its claim to be science, Intelligent Design never has, and can’t, accept scientific criticism. So they go their own merry way, peddling their lies and religion to the subset of Americans who want real scientific assurance that God and Jesus are in there somewhere.
It does say something, though, that modern creationists can’t just dismiss science, but have to tackle it on its own turf. And they always fail when they try.
h/t: David Sepkoski
Marshall, C.R. 2006. Explaining the Cambrian “explosion” of animals. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 34: 355-384.
Marshall, C.R. 2013. When prior belief trumps scholarship. Science 341:1344. DOI: 10.1126/science.1244515