Famous paleobiologist savages Stephen Meyer’s ID book

September 20, 2013 • 5:15 am

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

48 thoughts on “Famous paleobiologist savages Stephen Meyer’s ID book

  1. I have a prediction for how the DI will dismiss this review: It is too short. (A version of the Courtier’s Reply.)

    They will fault Marshall for not engaging in more detail. They will claim that he did not — and therefore could not — refute Meyer’s arguments.

    1. Additionally, Little Casey Luskin will whine that Marshall doesn’t understand IDC (“It’s science,” Casey will bleat over and over, though he wouldn’t recognize actual science if it rode past him on a bicycle.). Brave Sir David Klinghoffer will fling his ad hominem poo from behind the protective skirts of EN&V’s no comment policy. All very predictable. They’re a sad lot over at the Disco Tute.

      1. “…if it rode past him on a bicycle.”

        Given the penchant of latter day bicyclists to wear dazzle-camouflage spandex, helmet, sun glasses, etc, that’s a weak analogy: it’s quite possible for a close friend to cycle by unrecognized.

        Let me suggest that the down-home version of this line, viz. “…if it jumped up and bit him on the ass”, might be more appropriate and to the point.

        1. He wouldn’t recognise actual science if it painted its bottom purple and danced naked on top of a harpsichord, singing ‘Actual Science is Here Again’.

    2. I was thinking that they would just focus on the tone of the review, obviously Marshall is close-minded to anything other than the dogmatism of darwinism, and thrown in the unscholarly and unscientific comments of Marshall as an ad-hominem attack. In acknowledging the ad-hominem they will proceed to try to refute that point only and show that Meyers is scientific and scholarly (maybe he once wore a lab coat or he wears glasses).

      Luskin has already mentioned their god-of-the-gaps approach and the huge quote mine in other places, I don’t think he (or whoever tries to dismiss this review) will try to tackle these problems again. They may just be linked too with a description that these points have already been refuted.

      The one thing we can all be sure on is they wont refute Marshall’s scientific arguments.

      1. “the dogmatism of Darwinism”

        Anyone who thinks that way has clearly never read Darwin’s own words. Far from being dogmatic, Darwin bent over backwards to marshal his evidence and explain his reasons, using language that nearly anyone can understand. Indeed, one of the interesting features of “On the Origin of Species” is a chapter devoted to problems with Darwin’s theory.

        There’s an old saying that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Modern evolutionary theory is, indeed, an extraordinary theory, one that explains so much that it staggers the mind. But the evidence to support that modern theory (as opposed to Darwin’s initial formulation of it, which had lots of missing pieces, notably a mechanism for inheritance of characters); the evidence to support the modern theory of evolution is itself extraordinary. Moreover that evidence is derived from investigations in many widely disparate fields. Barbara McClintock’s famous use of Indian painted corn as a jumping off point for insight into how genes work can be contrasted with the paleontologists and the rock hammers and dental tools they use to hoick fossils out of their rock matrices.

  2. “This review is important because previous critical reviews have been dismissed by the Discovery Institute (DI) because their authors weren’t recognized experts on the Cambrian Explostion . . .”

    It always amazes me that people can say such ridiculous things with a straight face, and that there are always a significant number of other people that will accept those ridiculous things.

    Here we have a book by a person who is not a recognized expert in the Cambrian Explosion, not an expert in any branch of science, has actually stated as much in the book, and the DI dismisses negative reviews of said book because the authors were non-experts.

    Irony is not dead I tell ye.

  3. I’m sure that the DI will whine that the review is too short. But the word limit for these reviews is 800 words, and I think Charles did an admirable job in a relatively short space. They should feel lucky that they got any words at all–not every book on science gets a review in Science.

    Charles is, as Jerry pointed out, not just a leading expert on early evolution, but also a world-class nice guy. I think he was a perfect person to review this book: he didn’t lose his cool or snark as many of us would have done. I’ll be very interested to see whether the attack gerbil goes after Charles personally the way he’s gone after others. Well, the creationists got just what they wanted–ask and ye shall receive–a review by a genuine authority in the field. Let’s see how they spin their way out of this one.

  4. It’s always fun to watch how the DI folks are happy to find endorsements of Meyers book from non experts in the field but demand the complete opposite from those who criticize it.

    Most likely, the DI will use this review to show how dogmatic science is & decry its narrow minded view that rejects faulty Jesus infested scholarship.

    1. Pesky institutional access cookies – confusing poor innocent Ceiling Cat Professors into thinking things are free when they’re extortionate.

  5. His scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective.

    Apparently in such a formal review it is considered too rude to point out than an author is simply lying.

    1. Not rude, but unscientific, if you lack evidence of lying.

      I’m more inclined to think confirmation bias, rather than lying.

    2. Or simply quotemining:

      “—although the quote is actually a chimera drawn from two very different parts of my review—”.

  6. The Marshall paper has an amusing bit in fig. 1 where he uses a Christian cross icon to indicate the demise of the ediacaran biota! At least I assume that is what it is. I wonder if he would use a skull and cross bones or something more secular now…

  7. Stephen Meyer is a prime example of how trying to persuade committed creationists as to the errors of their ways is futile. They simply dismiss real evidence because it does not comform with their vision of an intellegent designer. Anyway the huge mass of adoring followers of people like Meyer will not question these ID claims. Such challenges to devine truth should not be voiced or at the very least should not be listened to.

      1. Yup. And therefore ‘science’ by implication, especially since Marshall described Meyer’s approach as “scientific” instead of ‘criticizing science’. :-/

  8. “Meyer completely omits mention of the Early Cambrian small shelly fossils”

    Shelly Fossil sounds like the name of an exotic dancer in Boca Raton

  9. Why is it always that the Cambrian Explosion throws eggs in the faces of creationists?

    Obligatory name dropping:

    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.

    I’m not terribly familiar with Marshall (and the Cambrian Explosion), but Knoll, Valentine and Brasier from astrobiology.

    Brasier et al wrote a paper -06 (IIRC) where they reject the earlier rampant use of pattern matching in early fossils. Luckily the teacher of the basic astrobiology course I attended added it as a center piece. (And the participating astronomers and astrophysists loved the use of testable constraints.)

    Valentine’s energy theory on Archaea sorted out my personal confusion on the domain splittings, whether it will stand or not. It is a nice complement to Lane’s energy theory on Eukaryota, which does the equivalent work against Bacteria as common reference. (And perhaps they strengthen each other.)

    Knoll has no result that stands out for me as I write this, but he is on the other hand ubiquitous.

  10. Actually Meyer *does* sneak in a reference to the Small Shelly Fauna — a line or two in one of the endnotes. Almost as if it was just so he could refute Marshall and others —–

  11. As most of the readers of this blog know, the evidence that evolution happened and is happening is overwhelming. Has anyone ever produced a single bit of evidence for “intelligent design”? “Some bloody god did it” really doesn’t count as evidence.

    1. If I’m not mistaken, it is fairly standard knowledge that the entire creationist (whether traditional or ID) case against evolution is both negative and fallacious. I’m not even sure if there is a coherent concept of how one would go about obtaining positive evidence for creationism (quoting ancient religious myths does not count), especially given that their mechanism consists solely of magic.

  12. 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, …

    Why, oh why, do god-squaddie discussions of the “Cambrian Explosion” always trot out the Burgess Shale? It was MILLIONS of years after the “Explosion”.

    505 MyrDeposition of main body of Burgess Shale
    509 MyrKaili formation,a south China lagerstätte.
    ~514 MyrEmu Bay Shale, an Australian lagerstätte, including the first-discovered eyes of Anomalocaris
    ~518 MyrSirius Passet lagerstätte in north Greenland, a major study site of Simon Conwy-Morris of “oh dear, another new phylum” euphemism. The site remains “under-explored,” so volunteers please.
    520-525 MyrThe Chengjiang biotaof the Maotianshan Shales, a highly diverse lagerstätte in south China.
    529 – 540.5 Myr”Small Shelly Fauna” comprised various fossils which may not be particularly small, nor particularly shelly, but do represent a fauna with hard parts, even if it’s difficult to identify components. Halkeriids sclerites are one component ; are present ; hooks and plates assigned to echinoderms ; possible mollusc radula ; and lots of bits that haven’t been identified (yet).
    540.5 MyrThe δ Carbon-13 excursion that marks the boundary between the Ediacaran and Cambrian series of rocks.

    Can’t these God-squaddies get it into their heads that the action in the Cambrian was over WAAAAAY before the Burgess got deposited. In human terms, it’s like looking at … well you can’t do it in human terms ; we haven’t been around for long enough.

  13. The article says: “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”

    This is a classical case of begging the question: You need data in order to rewire it. But now you need to rewire data in order to get new data?

    ?? Seriously? You expect me to believe that the cambrian explosion came from reorganizing pre existing code?

    Now sir, please riddle me this: Where did the pre-existing code come from in the first place??

    Oh yes, I remember now – alien directed panspermia. (According to Francis Crick, if I remember correctly. We’ll believe ANYTHING, even alien designed ID, is long as it does not involve God.)

    At least Crick was honest enough to admit that time alone cannot write code. At least not the amount of time provided by the CE.

    “When prior belief trumps scholarship,”

    Tell me, Sir, how does your a priori faith in the non-existence of a creator NOT influence your scientific scholarship?

    Maybe you should look in the mirror, Mr Pot, before you comment on Mr Kettle.

  14. How did God come about?

    Atheists believe in an uncreated universe. Theists believe in an uncreated God.
    Why is belief in one more rational than the other? As far as rationality goes both beliefs have the same problem: One of ontology.

    So atheists who make fun of the uncreated God (being uncreated is part of the definition of God) should be careful, their universe is also uncreated and therefore just as ludicrous.

    The trouble comes with the anthropic principle.

    Theism invokes one God to account to account for the anthropic universe.
    Atheism invokes a bazillion to the googleplexth power universes to account for the anthropic principle. (Holy Father Dawkins calls it a bubbling foam of universes.)

    So which theory is more rational? Which passes Ockham’s Razor? Although theism adds another level of ontology, atheism’s googleplex of universes is a googleplex times more complicated that theism’s one God.

    You see, there is no rational reason to be an atheist. There is definitely no scientific reason to be an atheist. The reason why you reject God is not because of science. (Science would have you embrace theism, as I just proved.) It is because you want to be you own God.

    There is no such thing as atheism. Only egotheism.

    And only a fool would believe that the code for legs was there all along in the pre-Cambrian DNA. If evolution needs environmental pressure on the phenotype in order to develop code, how can code develop without being expressed in the phenotype, and than one day get switched on magically and be expressed as legs, gills, mandibles, exoskeletons and all sorts of whatnots?

    I simply cannot muster enough faith the believe in atheism.

      1. Hehehe.

        Yea. Sure. Bazillions of universerses with bazillions of failed sets of laws of nature are totally not complex.

        And the DNA that codes for bilaterality, legs, gills, probosci, GIT tracts, circulating systems and so on is really so not-complex that a formless sponge can develop it, without expressing it as phenotype, and then just magically switch it on one day by “rewiring of the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of already existing genes”.

        I wonder who is confused here.

        The problem is, if you accept the evidence that there is an uncreated Intelligence at work you’ll have to stop being your own little god.

        And few people have the guts to do that. The moral implications of such a worldview shift is more than they can bear.

        1. Yet the laws of physics in this universe — which give rise to chemistry, biology and thus to (human and other) intelligence — are so simple that they can be legibly written on a single sheet of A4/legal paper!

          (And how do you know that the laws of physics in other universes in the cosmos are “failed”? In fact, the very idea of failure implies a teleological view that is the antithesis of naturalism.)

          In fact, there is no evidence for an uncreated intelligence (there is no need in science for such a hypothesis). Moreover, there is considerable evidence from quantum theory (no hidden variables), LHC (no unknown forces), and Planck (no energy input to our universe at creation) against!

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