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Will The American Spectator Publish My Comment Defending Stephen Meyer and Darwin's Doubt?

DebatingDD.jpegI often enjoy reading articles in The American Spectator, and over the years they have published some excellent pieces on the intelligent-design-versus-Darwinian-evolution debate. ID-critic John Derbyshire's recent accusations that intelligent design has connections to "occasionalism" or "fundamentalist Islam" wasn't one of them. David Klinghoffer has already responded to Derbyshire, and Derbyshire has now replied to various critics in the letters section of the magazine's March issue.

Recently I attempted to post a comment on that same page, responding to Mr. Derbyshire's rebuttals. At first the site said my comment was undergoing "moderation" -- nothing unusual there. But it still hasn't been posted and I now see no evidence that it's going to be. Below is my comment, but before I provide that, I'll share some perhaps relevant background.

The last time I posted a comment on an AmSpec article was back in September 2013, after Matthew Walther published a short piece titled "'Intelligent Design' Is Not Science, attacking Darwin's Doubt for supposedly being "chock-full of logical fallacies, elisions, and outright errors."

Mr. Walther, an assistant editor at the magazine, was writing to scold Tom Bethell, a senior editor, for his favorable review of Stephen Meyer's book. This was curious in itself. I was surprised by the disrespectful way that Walther, a relatively young guy to judge from his photo, addressed his senior colleague, expressing personal condescension toward Bethell and contempt for an article published by the magazine they both serve in different roles. I suppose every organization has its own internal culture and ideas about what is acceptable behavior.

Anyway, this turned out to be an eventful comments thread.

Since Walther gave no evidence to back up his criticism of Meyer, I asked him three questions: "(1) Would you be willing to provide any actual examples of 'logical fallacies, elisions, and outright errors' that are in the book, rather than just asserting that they are there?," "(2) Have you read the book 'Darwin's Doubt'?," and "(3) What books about intelligent design have you read?" Mr. Walther never answered any of my questions, but he did demand that I "stop spamming our comments threads." Now of course none of my comments were "spam" or anything like that; they were all relevant and substantive comments responding to specific comments made in the thread and in Mr. Walther's article. I disregarded his demand that I stop commenting.

Meanwhile I was subjected to literally dozens of personal attacks on the thread by other commenters. It was the usual ad homimens -- "fraud," "liar," "dishonest," and spreading "bull****," etc. These were left untouched by the moderator even though AmSpec's policies request that commenters "be respectful" and not "profane" or "grossly impolite."

One commenter, who goes by the name "Mnestheus" but who I'm 99 percent sure is Harvard emeritus physicist Russell Seitz, launched into defamatory claims that I (a) flunked out of a PhD program at UCSD/Scripps (that's false because I've never entered a PhD program anywhere; I entered and completed the Contiguous Bachelor's/Master's Earth Sciences Degree Program at UCSD), and (b) failed to produce a masters thesis (that's false, and my masters thesis is easily found here in the UCSD library).

After I refuted these completely invented accusations, Mnestheus stopped attacking me. Then, a new commenter came on the thread and was angry because I argued (correctly of course!) that in Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe defined the "blood clotting system" as only the elements after the "fork," and didn't argue that the components before the fork were "irreducibly complex" (see here for all the documentation from Behe's writings that refute this critic). In the process, it seemed like this new commenter quadrupled the number of ad hominem attacks against me on the thread.

An online publication is entitled to publish comments or not. But if you're going to do so, you should keep things civil -- a responsibility that, given the culture of the Internet, admittedly imposes a considerable staffing burden. Eventually I decided it wasn't worth wrangling anymore with these angry people, and decided to stop subjecting myself to their verbal abuse. Thus the unmoderated incivility allowed on Mr. Walther's article thread shut down what might have been a useful discussion.

In any case, here is my comment in response to John Derbyshire. It still languishes, unpublished. Why? I'm not sure. You can draw your own conclusions.

Rather than directly engaging critics, John Derbyshire simply cites the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling and the TalkOrigins website as if they inerrantly settle these debates. This reminds me of the "TalkOrigins bumper sticker" we gave Mr. Derbyshire back in 2006.

In any case, there are MANY rebuttals showing that TalkOrigins' articles consistently (a) are outdated, (b) cherry-pick the evidence, (c) are full of errors. For some examples, see here, here, here, here, here and here.

Regarding the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling, the fact that one federal judge disagrees with ID does not settle this debate. Judges are not inerrant and a court ruling cannot negate the scientific evidence pointing to intelligent design. In fact, that ruling contains many factual and legal mistakes, including:

  • Adopting a false definition of ID by claiming that ID requires supernatural (i.e., divine) causation, that it is nothing more than creationism relabeled, and that it is a strictly negative argument against evolution.
  • Denying the existence of pro-ID, peer-reviewed, scientific publications and research that were testified about in his own courtroom.
  • Adopting an unfair double standard of legal analysis where religious implications, beliefs, and motives count against ID but never against materialist theories of origins.
  • Presuming it is permissible for a federal judge to try to define science, settle controversial scientific questions, and explain the proper relationship between evolution and religion.
  • Attempting to turn science into a voting contest by claiming that popularity is required for an idea to be scientific.

Commenting on Judge Jones's mistakes, the leading anti-ID legal scholar Jay Wexler stated that "the part of Kitzmiller that finds ID not to be science is unnecessary, unconvincing, not particularly suited to the judicial role, and even perhaps dangerous both to science and to freedom of religion." (Jay D. Wexler, "Kitzmiller and the 'Is It Science?' Question," 5 First Amendment Law Review 90, 92-93 (2006).)

Despite these problems, Mr. Derbyshire takes the "Judge Jones Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It" approach to ID...perhaps Mr. Derbyshire should try on this bumper sticker as well.

Finally, I'm glad that Mr. Derbyshire suggested that AmSpec readers pick up a copy of Douglas Erwin and James Valentine's 2013 book, "The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity" to learn about the "scientific consensus" on the Cambrian explosion. Why do I say this? Because their book validates many of the central points in Stephen Meyer's "Darwin's Doubt" and contradicts Derbyshire's authority, Nick Matzke, on some central points.

For one, readers of Erwin and Valentine's book will learn that this crucial question "what evolutionary process produced the gaps between the morphologies of major clades?" is, in their own words, "unresolved." That's one of Meyer's central points in Darwin's Doubt.

For two, Erwin and Valentine contradict a number of Matzke's arguments against Darwin's Doubt. For example:

(1) Matzke questions whether the Cambrian explosion was a geologically sudden or abrupt event, but Erwin and Valentine observe that it was just that:

"[A] great variety and abundance of animal fossils appear in deposits dating from a geologically brief interval between about 530 to 520 Ma, early in the Cambrian period. ... This geologically abrupt and spectacular record of early animal life is called the Cambrian explosion. ("The Cambrian Explosion," p. 5.)

"Because the Cambrian explosion involved a significant number of separate lineages, achieving remarkable morphological breadth over millions of years, the Cambrian explosion can be considered an adaptive radiation only by stretching the term beyond all recognition. ... the scale of morphological divergence is wholly incommensurate with that seen in other adaptive radiations. ("The Cambrian Explosion," p. 341.)

Erwin and Valentine suggest that nearly the full breadth of Cambrian diversity arose in less than ten million years, writing: "the basic structure of Phanerozoic ecosystems had been achieved within at most 10 million years after the onset of bilaterian diversification." (The Cambrian Explosion, p. 226.)

Erwin and Valentine thus define the Cambrian explosion as an event that encompassed about (or even less than) 10 million years, just as Meyer does, not one that took "at least 30 million years" as Matzke claimed.

For a rebuttal to Matzke that lists many authorities who would agree with Meyer (not Matzke) that the Cambrian explosion was geologically "sudden," see here

(2) Matzke claimed Meyer made a "basic error" by calling Lobopodia a phylum, but Erwin and Valentine recognize Lobopodia as a "phylum" (see "The Cambrian Explosion," p. 350). It looks like Matzke was the one who made the "basic error," or at least was unfamiliar with the literature. For the details, see here.

(3) Notwithstanding the quote that Mr. Derbyshire offers from Matzke, Valentine and Erwin doubt that there is a "a whole series of transitional forms showing the basics of how" arthropods evolved from lobopods. Instead, Erwin and Valentine show that cladistics has struggled to make sense of the mosaic of features we see in so-called "stem group arthropods" precisely because they DON'T form a nice, neat evolutionary grade. They write:

"A glance back through the figures in this section will identify some of the problems currently facing researchers in this area. For example, the lobopodians all share fairly simple, unspecialized legs, yet Opabinia and anomalocaridids lack legs but have paired, lateral flaps that, particularly in Opabinia, have gills along the upper aspect of the flap. Beyond the Radionta, however, well-sclerotized jointed appendages reappear. Are arthropod appendages homologous to those of lobopods, as Budd has argued? Are they homologous to the lateral flaps of Radionta [sic]? Or are they entirely novel structures? This debate is far from settled, illustrating the complexities of understanding the evolutionary pathways among these groups." (Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (Roberts and Company, 2013) (internal citations removed), p. 195.)
In other words, Cambrian experts like Erwin and Valentine aren't even sure if lobopod legs (the structures that supposedly link lobopods to arthropods) are homologous to arthropod legs. To put it another way, these leading Cambrian experts doubt Matzke's supremely confident claim that lobopods were "transitional forms" leading to arthropods.

There's a whole mess of other problems with Matzke's inaccurate treatment of arthropod evolution that I won't go into here, but the bottom line is this: in "The Cambrian Explosion," Erwin and Valentine calls arthropod evolutionary origins "far from settled" and even "problematic." (p. 202) THAT is what the "scientific consensus" says: arthropod evolution is not nearly as well-established as Matzke and Derbyshire's overconfident bluffing makes it sound.

So yes, I agree with Mr. Derbyshire that AmSpec readers should pick up both Meyer's book "Darwin's Doubt" and Erwin and Valentine's book "The Cambrian Explosion." Both books show that the "scientific consensus" still has not provided satisfactory evolutionary explanations of the Cambrian explosion.