This past week two reviews of WEIT have appeared, one in the Christian Science Monitor, which includes an attached podcast (click under the cover icon), and one by Eugenie Scott in the scientific journal Nature. Both are pretty positive, I think, though, that the Nature review is quite tepid. I suspect that one reason for this is that I have angered the National Center for Science Education (Genie Scott is its executive director) by claiming that science and faith are largely incompatible. The purported compatibility of these areas is a keystone of the NCSE’s strategy for selling evolution in the public schools, and the organization has a history of being diffident towards scientists who question such religious accommodationism, either in principle or as a tactic for getting evolution into the schools. The NCSE even has a “faith project” for demonstrating that faith and religion are compatible. My own view is that an organization designed to defend the teaching evolution should do just that and only that, and should stay away from religion completely.
There is one issue Genie Scott brings up that I want to respond to. She says this in her review:
A book for the public must simplify, but there lurks the possibility of subsequent distortion. Many people misunderstand evolution as a great chain in which simple forms evolve into more complex ones, rather than the branching and extinction of lineages. Amphibians did not evolve into reptiles, and reptiles did not evolve into mammals and birds. Rather, a population of early tetrapods — four-legged vertebrates — gave rise to a diverse group of organisms that included ancestors of modern frogs and salamanders, and to a separate branch characterized by having an amniotic egg. A primitive amniote gave rise to reptiles and birds on one branch, and mammals on another. Given that the branch leading to mammals preceded that leading to reptiles, it is misleading for Coyne to use the outmoded term ‘mammal-like reptiles’ instead of ‘non-mammalian synapsids’.
Well, this is a dispute about whether the common ancestor of mammals and reptiles could be considered a reptile, which many cladists don’t since the group “reptiles” must include ALL the descendants of a common ancestor. But if the common ancestor has many diagnostic characters of a reptile, then why not call it one? If you followed Scott’s line of reasoning, you could not say that the ancestor of modern amphibians was a fish, since the category “fish” must include the ancestral fish and ALL of its descendants. But everybody calls early lobe-finned fish “fish.” This criticism, I think, is pretty trivial.