A Taxonomy of Evasion: Reviewing the Reviewers of <em>Darwin's Doubt</em> - Evolution News & Views

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A Taxonomy of Evasion: Reviewing the Reviewers of Darwin's Doubt

For his review in Science of Stephen Meyer's Darwin's Doubt, UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall wins a prize. Almost alone among critics of the book, Marshall grapples with the main evidence and arguments.

DebatingDD.jpegThe rest of the hostile reviewers, Darwinian scientists and others, have been... interesting. I've read a lot of book reviews in my professional life. After college I went to work at National Review where soliciting, receiving, accepting, rejecting, and editing book reviews, from academics and journalists, was what I did for a decade. It was an education.

One thing I learned is not to be intimated by professors, in science or the humanities. Once you've seen their output in the raw, before being edited, you are never the same again.

Steve Meyer's book tackles a subject that is not only important -- what could be more so than the question of whether life's history reflects purpose and intention? -- it's also challenging intellectually. While written accessibly for a general audience, it brings together interdisciplinary topics of scholarly study that are not easy.

You look to the men and women who work in the relevant fields for their response. Unfortunately, among critics of Darwin's Doubt, the overwhelming unifier has been a consistent evasiveness as to the actual contents of the book. Marshall's review in Science is the exception. The field of evolutionary biology and its allied disciplines disappoint me.

Hostile responses of Meyer's book, from Darwinian scholars and the Internet evolution activists who love them too much, fall roughly into the following categories, a taxonomy of evasion:

1. The Review Based on Undisguised Ignorance

It started months before publication of Darwin's Doubt, when of course no one had read the book, with Jerry Coyne (University of Chicago) and Joe Felsenstein (University of Washington) reassuring blog readers that they already pretty much knew what Meyer's arguments would be. Coyne's classic summary of Meyer's book: "Yes, baby Jesus made the phyla!"

2. The Review Based on Disguised Ignorance

Nick Matztke (UC Berkeley) supposedly read and reviewed Darwin's Doubt, in a post of more than 9,400 words published at Panda's Thumb less than 24 hours after he purchased the book on the date of its publication. The suspicion that Matzke failed to give Meyer's book a fair examination, the kind where you read the words on the pages rather than just flipping through and looking for your name in the index, is supported by the fact that he ignored its most important arguments. This didn't stop other writers (Jerry Coyne, Gareth Cook in The New Yorker, John Farrell in National Review) from citing Matzke as the authoritative source of their dismissals.

Meyer's previous book, Signature in the Cell, received much the same treatment, notoriously from Francisco Ayala (UC Irvine) who has given his name to this procedure. To "Ayala" a book is to read and pan it without having read the work.

3. The Reviewer Who Cannot Remember That His Objections Have Already Been Answered

Donald Prothero (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County) is the holotype specimen here, though Nick Matzke falls into the category as well. See "Among Darwin Defenders, Evidence of Short-Term Memory Loss."

4. The Reviewer Who Cannot Remember That Previous Reviews of Darwin's Doubt Have Already Been Answered

John Pieret is only a blogger as far as I can tell, not a scholar in any field. He received congratulations for rounding up hostile reviews of Darwin's Doubt -- without anywhere acknowledging that we have been assiduously demolishing them pretty much as they appear. Again, it's like these guys experience a kind of memory reset when they come across information they don't like, as if they can't retain displeasing data so that it is sloughed off almost as soon as it is encountered. See "More Evidence of Darwinian Short-Term Memory Loss."

5. The Stalled Review

I love this one. At Panda's Thumb, Richard B. Hoppe (apparently not employed as a scientist but identified by Wikipedia as the "holder of a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Minnesota") brandishes "the most ambitious effort" at a review of Darwin's Doubt, authored by an "anonymous scientist" -- Smilodon's Retreat -- not to be confused with the Unknown Comic of Gong Show fame. This reviewer

is slogging through the book section by section. Eight posts are up and we’re just into Chapter 1 (of 20). Go there, read, comment, and cheer the reviewer on.

Sadly the Unknown Scientist has not made much progress since then, being currently stalled out at Chapter 2. He needs more cheers!

6. The Review, or Other Response, to the Book Whose Name One Dare Not Speak

Casey Luskin points out an interesting strategy employed by a team writing in Current Biology, led by Michael S.Y. Lee (University of Adelaide, Australia). In offering a purported solution to what they call “Darwin’s dilemma," they "make reference to 'opponents of evolution,' and critique a very Meyer-esque argument, but...refuse to cite Meyer or Darwin's Doubt by name."

So too the commentary article in Science accompanying Charles Marshall's review, by M. Paul Smith (Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and David A. T. Harper (Durham University), which offers to clarify the true "Causes of the Cambrian Explosion." No mention of Meyer. On the day it came out, Smith and Harper's article was plugged by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times -- again, with no reference to the real news peg, Meyer's book.

As Casey notes, "It's now evident that, their previous denials notwithstanding, Darwin defenders have been unnerved by Darwin's Doubt." They can't ignore us but they can't speak our name either. Why? Probably they think they would be doing us a favor. Writing at Why Evolution Is True, Coyne today tries to answer Michael Egnor's recent takedown here of his views on free will. He excuses himself for doing so: "The [Discovery Institute] has nothing more to do than attack atheists, evolutionary biologists, and tout its Jesus-soaked books; and I don’t feel like giving them hits." Ah, baby Jesus and the phyla, again!

For Coyne, by his own account, it's about getting "hits" for your blog. For us, it's about an argument on questions of ultimate significance. For us, the point is to establish the truth. A dialogue involving two parties would be helpful in that. Coyne sees things differently. This may explain why, despite wearing the mantle of Darwinian evolution's most vocal American defender, he persistently ducks from a debate.

Have I missed any taxonomic categories? Undoubtedly. Well, the argument over Darwin's Doubt is really just getting started. Kudos to Charles Marshall for manning up and wrestling with Meyer's book.