A paleontologist debates an IDer on the Cambrian Explosion

December 2, 2013 • 9:35 am

Charles Marshall, a paleontologist and expert on early life at the University of California at Berkeley, recently debated intelligent-design advocate Stephen Meyer on the Cambrian Explosion, the topic of Meyer’s recent book, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin for Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. I haven’t yet listened to the hour-long debate, but I will, and readers interested in ID and paleontology should as well.

I confess that I had an small hand in this: when Meyer’s book came out, arguing that the suddenness of the Cambrian “Explosion” (it actually took at least ten million years), accompanied by the origin of several new body plans, was evidence for intelligent design, I wanted to see his argument addressed by scientific experts. I called it to the attention of several early-life paleobiologists, hoping that they’d review the book. Only one of them, Charles, took the bait, but he produced a great review, and in an important journal (Science). You can read Marshall’s negative review here, for free. And that review led to this debate.

The debate, of course, was conducted on a Christian station, Premier, a station in the UK, and on the “Unbelievable?” show hosted by Justin Brierley. You can go to the show’s website here and access the Meyer/Marshall debate by clicking on “click here to listen now,” or, better yet (since that way can crash your browser) listen to or download an MP3 of the show here.

Since I haven’t heard this yet, and many readers won’t, put your take on the debate below if you’ve listened to it.

I wish more paleobiologists would have a look at Meyer’s book. Not that he’ll listen to their critiques, for he and his Discovery Institute cronies aren’t interested in scientific argument, and always find a way to discredit the several negative reviews.  And although it’s annoying to take time out of one’s science to debunk ID, having a paper record against its arguments is valuable. Paleobiologists should, for instance, note that if you look on the Amazon rankings under “organic evolution,” you’ll find this:

Picture 3It’s a travesty that a religiously-motivated book is #1. That ranking doesn’t reflect its scientific or literary quality, of course: it reflects America’s extreme religiosity and the fact that Meyer’s book adds to religious Americans’ confirmation bias.

In the more sensible and less religious UK, Meyer’s book isn’t even listed under “evolution” (or at least doesn’t appear in the top 80), and is #42 in paleontology.

49 thoughts on “A paleontologist debates an IDer on the Cambrian Explosion

  1. I’ve heard that several people including Nick Matzke were talking with Marshall prior to the debate.

    I wish he’d waited another week, because I found another quotemine by Meyer of Marshall’s work after the debate.

    1. I thought he was a bit generous to Meyers as well, and I also think that the Justin Brierley was a little uncomfortable with Charles Marshall’s refutations of Meyer’s book; although he listened to him, he seemed to want to cut him off where he didn’t react that way with Meyers.

      1. That’s the way the Unbelievable? show works. Justin Brierley is always there to bale out the Christian viewpoint and make it a 2-on-1 debate if required.

        1. That is rather unfair, Justin does try very hard to be fair, and any lapses in neutrality are hardly surprising, it is after all a Christian radio station. I have listened to the vast majority of these programmes and and on the whole Justin does a good job, and in this particular instance Meyer just hung himself by spouting the usual ID canard.

  2. The debate, of course, was conducted on a Christian station

    Come to think of it, this is probably the most proper place for debates and discussions of this type.

    Academia isn’t so appropriate, as it lends an unwarranted credibility to the superstitions of the gullible.

    But for a scientist to step into a church and give a solid, scientific debunking of church doctrine? That’s not only an appropriate venue, it’s the most effective way to reach those most in need of education.


    1. Spot on. It has been said before on WEIT that Richard Dawkins will not debate these issues with ID folk for that reason.

      1. And I agree that he has no business debating IDiots.

        But, it does seem that it might not be such a terrible idea for him to address a gathering of religious people in a religious venue, as a guest, possibly even with an IDiot representative on stage with him.

        Not in the context of a debate, but as a scientist offering to educate the congregation about why evolution is true and Creationism is a pernicious lie.



    2. I absolutely agree. Challenge the woo right at its source and right among those that should know better. No better venue, really.

      1. The presenter repeatedly refers to Marshall’s university as “the University of California at Barkly.” Tee-hee. I wasn’t aware the UC system had campuses in England.

      1. There’s a comparable place-name phenomenon here in Western Australia, where Derby, Albany, Perth, and various other placenames are not pronounced like the originals.

  3. I subscribe to the Unbelievable? show in podcast form, and first I’d like to say that it’s a refreshing change from most Christian programming in the US. Justin Brierley is a Christian himself, but is pretty open-minded and gives each side a fair hearing.

    I’ve listened now to most of this episode, and I thought Marshall should have been more firm in rebutting Meyer’s claims. The conversation was a little more congenial than I would have liked.

    Marshall did a good job of questioning this unnamed “intelligence” that Meyer claims designed the world, asking how you could have intelligence without a physical brain. That’s one of the two big holes in Meyer’s thesis IMHO: he says that he’s just ascribing effects to known causes, and we know intelligence causes information. But we also know that intelligence comes from brains, so that violates his principle.

    The other major hole is that Meyer claims that information comes only from intelligence, and I didn’t yet hear Marshall correct him on that. We know information can come from random processes – in fact random processes are known to produce the maximum amount of information.

    1. “Justin Brierley is a Christian himself, but is pretty open-minded and gives each side a fair hearing.”

      I also subscribe and think Justin Brierly does a pretty good job of being even handed, but not entirely so. I remember an episode where the theists outnumbered the atheist 3 to 1 and were given an unfair proportion of the air time, just to recall one instance.

      One of the saddest episodes of Unbelievable was listening to the odious Richard Swinburne defend the full measure of the Holocaust as necessary so that Christians could have the opportunity to do good. Cognitive dissonance in intelligent, cocksure people can be an ugly thing.

      1. Justin Brierley has been an excellent host and the discussions were often excellent. I stopped listening a year or so back when they started to allow creationists on the show. Very unbritish.

        1. Yeah, he seems to be a bit of a Creationist sympathiser, which is weird because he seems so otherwise well read and educated…

      2. Oh my goodness yes I have just listened again to that Swinburne travesty, a prime example of an intelligent person arguing himself into an absurd position because of the need to reconcile his religious belief with facts of the real world!

  4. Perhaps everyone else knows that the Discovery Institute now has a laboratory. It was news to me. So we should now expect a torrent of research papers?

    1. He probably meant to say “lavatory“, not laboratory. Easy mistake for someone from the DI or AIG to make given the level of science they would do in either is about the same.

  5. If one needs to prove that his religious beliefs are right, then there is something wrong with that religion.

  6. In listening to Prof Marshall, please note that he is referring to biologist Sean B.Carroll, not the physicist. Also, note that the body plan genes had their origin in the 500,000,000 years before the Cambrian, which gives evolution a lot more time to work with.

  7. It seems to me that ‘Darwin’s Doubt’ is fatally based upon a blunder, not in the the science, but from Information Theory. The blunder is revealed by Meyer in the introduction of his book when he quotes a falsehood…
    “The Creation of Information is habitually associated with conscious activity”… Henry Quastler (1908-1963)
    Look at the equivocation, ‘…habitually associated…’ Quastler used deliberately oblique language, because he must sense that such a claim is open to quick and immediate refutation. And Meyer, in turn, uses that quote, perhaps because he feels somewhat shielded from scorn by the idea that the belief contained in the quote is not proved, but is merely ‘…habitually associated…’
    The living world is full of accidental information, and very little deliberate information. And all that mass of accidental information is most certainly NOT to be habitually associated with conscious activity. Fun example; the tiger and the pig. The pig reveals his whereabouts by his spoor, his smell, his squeal, his habits at the waterhole, and by his visual presence. The pig does not intend to alert the tiger, but he does… unconsciously, and unintelligently. The tiger only has to react upon accidentally-derived information to have pig for supper. One might suggest that consciously derived information is outplayed by accidental information at a ratio of a billion to one. So Henry Quastler’s statement holds no truth.
    Curiously Professor Marshall seems to make his own mistakes in Information Theory about halfway when he suggests the differences between man-made and evolved structures and objects. (From memory) he seems to suggest that the act of changing a word in the text will usually destroy the meaning of that text. It may seem surprisingly counter—intuitive, but this is not often the case.
    • Many writers will tell you that when they make a mistake and put the wrong word in a text, it so very often holds the sense even better! (A misplaced word surprisingly usually gives rise to a deeper, fresher meaning!! Go figure!)
    • Those of us who pore over Shakespeare find that when a word in a play may be discovered to have been an error by the scribe copying a stage-play in shorthand, but the real word so often diminishes the cleverness of the statement, whereas the wrong word is glorious in its accidental appearance.
    I have outlined a principle here, that bears my name.

    Marshall’s idea that man-made objects and systems have only a dedicated utility, is also wrong. Practical people like myself spend wasted hours reassigning previously designed objects, an alarm-clock turned into a light; wheels off a pram into a wood-barrow; screws into a wool carder; an old WiFi box with flashing lights into a fox-scarer. That is the life of a small farmer. …………………………………
    Darwin’s Doubt is based upon two serious mistakes and perhaps twenty minor scientific misunderstandings. Meyer insists loud and long that he is interested in the science, and does not base his understanding upon prior spiritual beliefs. He also insists that revealing someone’s motives (Meyer the theologian) in not way impacts on the credibility of his scholarship. This sounds disingenuous. Many of the statements made by Meyer are based upon theological assumptions. He must be aware of it. His attempts to distance himself from any discussion upon the identity of the Intelligent Designer undermines his own credibility.
    Finally, There is a weak understanding by both upon chance and probability in evolution, which they often see as more random than it really is. As an analogy, Shakespeare did not have to invent and design all the 60,000 words he uses; they already existed. And so, too, the form of stage drama, and the many conventions of drama; existing as ‘stable states’ for a thousand years or more. The idea of long-term ‘stable states’ is fundamental to the understanding of evolution; and it is a matter of amusement that human activities such as music, drama, the novel, poetry, all exist and evolve by means of stable states from which further development can continue, giving the appearance of inexhaustible and infinite possibilities hidden within the idea of evolution.
    All this is dealt-with in ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’, and that is why it is over 2000 pages long!

    1. Your points are well taken, but the creationist jabber about information is even less well founded than that.

      To talk about the creation of information, one must have a way to measure information. The two main definitions are Shannon’s and Kolmogrov’s.

      All of the creationist claims about what information is and how or whether it is created completely fall apart under these two definitions. That genetic copy errors introduce new information into a genome is an almost trivial conclusion. A random sequence has more information in it than a purposeful one.

      Information is not cleverness, or purposefulness, it’s just a measure of hard something is to describe.

      They use the term without understanding it’s meaning, like Chopra talking about quantum fields, and like Chopra, it’s no surprise that this results in self-serving nonsense.

      1. Unsurprisingly, they fail at every opportunity, not just the particulars of information theory.

        Just for shits and giggles, let’s grant them that the information in the genome could only have gotten there with the assistance from a capital-eye Intelligence.

        Said Intelligence has even more information than what’s in the genome, no?

        So where’d the Intelligence get its information?

        I mean, according to the IDiots, it can’t just spontaneously arise, and it can’t be an emergent property of something fundamental, which means we now have to go looking for where the Intelligence got its information.

        Wait — what’s that I hear? Special pleading? Platonic “prime mover” bullshit based on an abhorrence of infinities and zero? Quelle surprise. Wake me up when they come up with something that hasn’t been primitively passé for multiple millennia.



        1. You need to listen to W Lane Craig the answer is obvious God is timeless, changeless, omnitemporal,immaterial, etc etc

          1. Believe me, I have. Dude can’t open his mouth without uttering at least a half a dozen contradictions per sentence — and that’s even when he’s not endorsing child rape, genocide, and slavery.


  8. So many people care about life…Meyer effortlessly conjures a large audience. Meyer would never write a book about the empirical knowledge of a single electron, for which he would know of no arguments to hide behind why any god would willingly keep such information from us until science made this lepton known to us.

    Electrons are not the place that the theological flock: it undermines their spirit. When the audience thinks that evolution is ‘obviously’ something that happened long ago (ohmygod), it is easy to push the punditry and question facts (ohmyf–kinggod).

  9. Meyer is a pretty clever guy. I can understand how he is persuasive to listeners who imagine that the question in biological evolution is whether it was (problem there, as well) directed or undirected. Whereas the real questions involve the nature of the process. I wish that Marshall would have pressed more on this. “So, Stephen, how do you propose life does evolve? Idle speculation is fine. Just something that would allow us to see evidence for the process.”

    1. Yes, I noticed that in the conversation – if you do not know any better, you would listen to him because he is well spoken and a good communicator. It is why I wanted his book removed from the science section of bookstores.

      1. Strange assortment of stuff on the counter. Why is the biohazard waste bag at eye level on the counter?! There is a person in the background. Nothing on the counter apperars to be in use.

    1. checked the journal: not a productive bunch, least I can say. Why not just fill it up if you don’t need any data for back-up? Seems they are sending it to the wrong reviewers (scientists) or something.

  10. Meyer started by laying out his argument that he thinks there’s not enough time to generate the information needed for all the body plans during the cambrian explosion, given the low chance of functional mutations. He used the lock analogy and randomly trying out combinations in a limited time.

    I’m surprised Marshall didn’t pounce on this and exposed the faulty reasoning and assumption here.

    The trial and error does not have to be consecutive of course. If there is a 1 in billion chance of hitting the jackpot, don’t buy 1 ticket each time for the next billion drawings. Buy 1 billion tickets on the first draw.

    This is a very basic error. Nobody who wants to write a book critical of evolutionary history should argue that there was not enough time. Because if you really look into it this amounts to arguing there was not enough simulataneous trials going on – that the population size was too small. There’s a 100 trillion bacteria in one human body alone. The Cambrina Explosion occurred 3 billion years after the beginning of life. Meyer didn’t do the math.

    1. The situation is even worse for Meyer than that implies. Mutation is not a random search over the whole of a fitness landscape. Mutations preferentially search the near vicinity of an already successfully reproducing population. Under those circumstances, calculating the probability of a beneficial mutation on the assumption of a uniform distribution are mere noise.

      1. Can you elaborate? Your wording is a bit confusing in that mutations don’t ‘search’ or have preferences (although mutation rate higher in some parts of the genome.) I think the point you are trying to make is that the ‘rich get richer’ (natural selection favors the already producing population.) Though I’m not sure I’d go as far, depending on the type/effect of the mutation, to say that the probability over the entire population is ‘noise.’ It may well be proper to estimate it over the entire landscape.

  11. When Meyer trundled out specified complexity, I suddenly realised I’d heard it before: BORING PROPHET: …Obadiah, his servants. There shall, in that time, be rumours of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi– with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock. Yea, it is written in the book of Cyril that, in that time, shall the third one…

  12. Most theological claims are in the form of syllogisms whereby agreed premises give rise to conclusions by reasoning. But the theological trick through the millennia is to hide the conclusions in the premises, so that the lengthy exegeses are finely established upon one or more great big fat lies. In the case of Meyer’s ‘Darwin’s Doubt’ we can see the deceitful premise in his Introduction, where Meyer quotes Henry Quastler…
    “The Creation of Information is habitually associated with conscious activity”… Henry Quastler (1908-1963)
    Ten seconds of reflection show this to be untrue. And so here, in Meyer’s introduction, we have an apparent premise of his whole argument front-loaded with the results of his deliberations! He has hidden Intelligent Design in Quastler’s false observation concerning the nature of ‘information’.
    If we go to the Intelligent Design website, ‘Biological Institute –Research, we come across the following premises.
    “Everyone agrees that life is full of systems and structures that have an appearance of intelligent design…” –Biological Institute for Intelligent Design (Creationism)
    Speaking as a duck-farmer, that is simply not so! For me, the world; its objects and processes resemble a horrendous abattoir. Out of a hundred thousand frogspawn eggs in February scarcely 100 survive as young frogs by July. Sam Harris talks of nine million children dying before the age of five. The December 26th Tsunami took the lives of a quarter of a million people, mainly women and children. The whole ‘design’ idea is ridiculous! It is the misleading observations of a seventeenth century rural pastor in his flower-garden. There is no design. There is not even the ‘appearance’ of design. Therefore the opening sentence of the Biological Institute is based upon one great big fat lie.
    I have in front of me an original copy of James Hervey’s 1735 ‘Meditations and Contemplations’, which is the key text for all intelligent design. In its 244 pages it outlines how flowers were designed by the gods to please us (we know it isn’t true) and that honey-bees make honey just for us (not true) The only people who could possibly believe in ID are those who have worked backwards from a prior belief in gods.
    And so we have to address the problem of prior religious beliefs driving all thoughts and all observations of true believers, against the great weight of observable reality. Evidence will not turn them. In that respect, religion resembles paranoia. It is a collection of beliefs held against the great weight of evidence. Best, I think, to emphasise that whenever they speak or write or lecture, they have brought their gods along with them, in their pockets, and are prepared to use any form of deception to keep their gods alive. Any discussion between a theologian and a scientist is like a discussion between a man from afar with a bucket of chicken entrails and a New York cardiac doctor on the best way to diagnose heart disease. It is an uneven discussion, and not worth entering.

  13. I think Charles Marshall should have called out Meyers even more on the so obvious question of his flawed critical thinking that Meyers thinks he has of evolutionary theory . If meyers is going to posit that life is such a complex problem that it must have had a designer,How does he logically stay consistent by positing an intelligent designer based on what we understand of the real world for which he says things like “We know minds can solve problems because we know this from experience” thus suggesting that from our own experience the answer to the problem must be an entity with a mind.After trying to make this point this is where Meyers critical thinking stops and jumps to faith based conclusions that bare no resemblance of what we know from experience.So on one hand is he using our experience of the real world to try and discredit evolutionary science on “what we know” Then posits a solution that bares no resemblance to what we know from experience.

    1) He posits minds can think without Material matter but we know this is simply not true. Example if we damage our brains, we could entirely lose our ability to reason. So we have absolutely no reason to think an unbodied mind can exist. Mind is just a metaphor for what the material brain actually does.

    2) the idea of an intelligent designer just pushes the question one step backwards instead of actually answering the hard questions.. If Meyers is going to come here and try to sound critical of evolutionary theory as if hes doing proper science, How does he get around the fact that the intelligent designer itself must have an explanation for its existence. If the universe and the study of life is so complex that one must posit an intelligent designer,Then how much more complex must the intelligent designer be.. Even MORE complex i’d say if we are going to be critical.. And yet whats the explanation for the intelligent designers existance? Just magic? Poof into existence? ..How are any answers to this problem found without gigantic leaps of faith? Intelligent design is entirely religious propaganda.

    Charles Marshall did a good job of answering what we currently know, and that a lot of organisms just reuse the same genes .So you tons of “new” stuff all the time for every single organism. As we all know, Abiogenesis is a difficult question, But we get no where by positing a designer without showing massive leaps of faith into that conclusion. The whole point of science is to remove “faith” so we will not be side tracked by bogus individuals like meyers who want to derail science for his own personal agenda.He is using GOD of the gaps arguments , And has Neil has showed. If your god requires a god of the gaps argument, What do you do “if” that gap gets filled?

    We all know what they do. They shrug it off and claim the things that science has destroyed scripturally as “just metaphors”.

    Religion is wishfull thinking.

Leave a Reply