September 26, 2004 - October 2, 2004 Archives

Denyse O’Leary on the Meyer controversy

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Denyse O’Leary has posted an entry on her weblog at on the controversy surrounding the 2004 Meyer paper titled Darwinism - An Intellectual Scandal in Science?. O’Leary makes several claims and accusations about various critics of Meyer’s 2004 paper as well as some general accusations towards Panda’s Thumb. In this posting I will go through her major claims and show how they are based on various errors, such as getting the order of events wrong. O’Leary is author of the book By Design or by Chance and a freelance writer as well a columnist for various Christian resources.

I recently acquired O’Leary’s book “By Design or by chance” and have started to review the book. My overall impression of the book is that it presents the ID argument without much skepticism, and presents a strawman argument of Darwinism and its supporters. For instance Darwinism is often presented as relying on chance alone, or even as what remains after design is eliminated. The author is clear that she is on the supportive side of intelligent design and considers herself a ‘post-darwinist’, meaning that she accepts evolution but doubts that Darwinism is an adequate explanation. Her stated reasons are that “Darwin did not anticipate the complexity of the problems so his theory is not likely the solution”.

The National Museum of the American Indian has opened in Washington, D.C. I haven't seen it, so I can't offer my own perspective, but this article in the Washington Post gives grounds for concern. According to Joel Achenbach, the great virtue of the Museum is that it does not attempt a scientific or technical understanding of the history or cultures of American Indians.

The Bathroom Wall

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With any tavern, one can expect that certain things that get said are out-of-place. But there is one place where almost any saying or scribble can find a home: the bathroom wall. This is where random thoughts and oddments that don’t follow the other entries at the Panda’s Thumb wind up. As with most bathroom walls, expect to sort through a lot of oyster guts before you locate any pearls of wisdom.

The previous wall got a little cluttered, so we’ve splashed a coat of paint on it.

I Was a Token Darwinist

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I was the “Opposing View” at last week’s Darwin, Design and Democracy V conference, held on September 24th and 25th in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The title of this post is derived from one of the videos sold at the conference, “I was a Teenage Darwinist”, which in turn was derived from the 1957 Michael Landon horror movie “I was a Teenage Werewolf.”


One of many open questions in evolution is the nature of bilaterian origins—when the first bilaterally symmetrical common ancestor (the Last Common Bilaterian, or LCB) to all of us mammals and insects and molluscs and polychaetes and so forth arose, and what it looked like. We know it had to have been small, soft, and wormlike, and that it lived over 600 million years ago, but unfortunately, it wasn't the kind of beast likely to be preserved in fossil deposits.

We do have a tool to help us get a glimpse of it, though: the analysis of extant organisms, searching for those common features that are likely to have been present in that first bilaterian; we're looking for the Last Common Bilaterian by finding the Least Common Denominators among living species. And one place to look is among the flatworms.

A recent paper by Bagun and Riutort examines one specific subgroup of the flatworms, the acoelomorphs (pronounced a-seel-o-morphs). These are tiny marine worms that have long been grouped under the platyhelminthes, but molecular work has been revealing that the platyhelminths have been a victim of our "worm is just a worm" bias, and are almost certainly polyphyletic. Bagun and Riutort argue that the acoels ought to be recognized as a separate phylum of their own, and further, that they represent basal bilaterians. They propose on the basis of molecular data that most of the Platyhelminthes belong in the protostome clade, and that they've secondarily lost characters common to most members of that group, such as segmentation. and that the acoelomorph flatworms are an early branch off the bilaterian root.

Continue reading "Acoelomorph flatworms and precambrian evolution" (on Pharyngula)

A great post from A Stitch in Haste.

Nova: Origins

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A late notice:

After the successful series on ‘Evolution‘, PBS has started airing another excellent miniseries, this time on Origins. (Origins will appear on PBS on Sept. 28-29 at 8:00 p.m. EDT. (Check local listings).)

See Nova Origins website

This series documents in detail the historical trail allowing science to understand the historical links between the Big Bang all the way to our existence.

The website provides a wealth of resources, additional links and interviews.

Deja vu again. Again.

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Well, although it took us an oddly long time to notice it, it is now clear that Meyer’s infamous PBSW paper was not the second, but the third time Meyer has published his “Cambrian Information Explosion” material as a putatively “peer-reviewed” article. The text-dissection-by-Perl has been carried out elsewhere (see the PT post Meyer and Deja Vu Revisited), so I would like to give readers a bit more background on recent Meyer-related writings, and critique Meyer’s recent open letter responding to some of the press coverage of the controversy over his paper.

Intelligent Design creationism is bad theology, bad politics, bad education, and bad science. That last point is made for me every day as I read the real science literature, and see what a contrast it makes with the ideological press releases that come out of the Discovery Institute. In particular, as I was reading a recent review article by Peel (2004), I was struck by the way scientific work builds on past observations, integrates multiple lines of evidence, and makes justified predictions about the natural world that are amenable to testing…all things deplorably absent from ID creationism.

The common theme in ID creationist research seems to be an assertion of the negative: science can't explain X. Y is an impenetrable barrier. Z can't possibly happen. You can't get here from there. Dembski, Behe, Meyer, and Nelson are all taking this approach, and worst of all, justifying it by carefully omitting all the evidence that shows that X can be explained, Y can be crossed, Z did happen, and of course we got here from there. It's also a failure as a research program, because their point of view is utterly dependent on not finding evidence.

So let's take a look at how scientific minds deal with an awkward problem in evolution.

Continue reading "A scientific model of segmentation" (on Pharyngula)

This is the week the American Library Association celebrates "Banned Books Week." The Association keeps track of attempts by parents to remove books from school curricula or school libraries--or even attempts by citizens to have books removed from public libraries--as well as more extreme forms of book banning in the past. The ALA urges you to celebrate your right to read, by reading a great banned book like Huckleberry Finn, or The Handmaid's Tale. (In fact, of the 100 titles on the Modern Library's recent list of best twentieth century novels, a third have been banned, or actually censored, in American history!)

Fortunately, no books on the ALA's list of this year's most frequently banned books have been targeted due to content about evolution. But in a famous Supreme Court decision on the subject, Board of Ed. Island Trees Union Free School Dist. No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), parents attempted to remove several books from the school library, including one on evolutionary theory: The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.

Sternberg Replies

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Richard von Sternberg has created this website to reply to the various criticisms of his editorial judgment in publishing Stephen Meyer's ID paper in The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

I read with great interest what he had to say, and I have posted a reply in this post over at EvolutionBlog. It seems to me that at times his phrasing is just a bit too cagey, and his reply leaves me wondering about a number of things.

Vatican Accepts Evolutionary Science

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“A recent Vatican document analyzed evolution in the light of faith, stepping into an area that has long been a religious and scientific minefield. “ Thus starts an article on the recent work by the International Theological Commission.

First, it accepts as likely the prevailing tenets of evolutionary science: the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in a “big bang”; the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago; all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism; and man emerged some 40,000 years ago with the development of the larger, human brain. John Travis Creative tension: omnipotence of God vs. dynamism of a universe

Noticable quote by U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory:

“But I think the question itself is wrong. It’s not just necessity or chance, it’s also opportunity. We live in a universe that statistically offers so many opportunities for the life-building processes to work together,” he said.

Carl Woese is regularly quoted by ID proponents as ‘rejecting common descent (Dembski)’ or arguing that ‘the Darwinian emperor has no clothes (Meyer)’.

However ID proponents are not totally to be blamed for their flawed interpretation of Woese since mainstream press articles make similarly flawed assertions [1], [2], [3], [4]

Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch already made this clear to Meyer in Teaching the controversy: response to Langen and to Meyer

In clause (ii) of Meyer’s definition, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that he conflates the undebated idea of common ancestry in general with the actual debate about whether it is possible to identify a single universal common ancestor. Woese’s work (e.g. [7]), to which Scott was alluding in the forum that Meyer mentions, contributes to the latter debate. There is no reason not to sketch Woese’s basic idea in a pre-university biology class. However, it would be scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible to pretend that it challenges the common ancestry of primates, tetrapods, or eukaryotes, or that it constitutes evidence for a special creation of the three domains, or that it is anything but a necessary refinement of the idea of common ancestry. Scott and Branch in “Teaching the controversy: response to Langen and to Meyer”

Recently Carl Woese has corrected these interpretations so this should be the end of it. But will it?

Woese scoffs at Meyer’s claim when I call to ask him about the paper. “To say that my criticism of Darwinists says that evolutionists have no clothes,” Woese says, “is like saying that Einstein is criticizing Newton, therefore Newtonian physics is wrong.” Debates about evolution’s mechanisms, he continues, don’t amount to challenges to the theory. And intelligent design “is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn’t offer any explanation whatsoever, except for ‘God did it.’” Ratcliffe as quoted by PZ Myers

The story of the antecedents of the recent paper published by Stephen C. Meyer is turning into a saga of its own. Back on September 8th, 2004, I documented that Stephen C. Meyer’s recent paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington – a paper which is being trumpeted far and wide by the Discovery Institute – was in fact copied in substantial part from a previous “peer-reviewed” paper published in Darwin, Design, and Public Education. There are four variants of essentially the same paper that have been identified so far:

  • Meyer 2004, published in PBSW (2004b): Meyer, Stephen C. 2004. The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2):213-239.
  • Meyer 2004, published in “Debating Design” (2004a): Meyer, S. C. 2004. The Cambrian information explosion: evidence for intelligent design. Debating design: from Darwin to DNA. W. A. Dembski and M. Ruse. Cambridge, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press: 371-391.
  • Meyer, Ross, Nelson, and Chien 2003, published in “Darwin, Design, and Public Education” (2003): Meyer, S. C., Ross, M., Nelson, P. and Chien, P. 2003. The Cambrian explosion: biology’s big bang. Darwinism, design and public education. J. A. Campbell and S. C. Meyer. Lansing, Michigan, Michigan State University Press: 323-402.
  • Meyer, Nelson, and Chien 2001, published to the World Wide Web (2001)

Here, I’m going to compare the various documents and report the proportions of text taken from earlier versions that appear in the later versions.

Yesterday, I was reading a good article in the October 2004 issue of Wired: "The crusade against evolution", by Evan Ratliff. It gives far more column space to the voices of the Discovery Institute than they deserve, but the article consistently comes to the right conclusions, that the Discovery Institute is "using scientific rhetoric to bypass scientific scrutiny." Along the way, the author catches Stephen Meyer red-handed in misrepresenting Carl Woese (by the clever journalistic strategem of calling Carl Woese), and shows how the DI's favorite slogans ("Teach the controversy" and "academic freedom") are rhetorical abuses of the spirit of the ideas behind them. It's darned good stuff. I should probably say more about the good article, but I'm still picking magma out of my ears after reading a one page insert in the article -- a ghastly, ignorant broadside by George Gilder that prompted a personal eruption. I've calmed down now, so I can tear it apart more delicately than I might have yesterday.

I'm still a bit peeved at the fool, so I'm going to remonstrate against him first—but maybe later I'll say more about the Ratliff article.

Continue reading "The sanctimonious bombast of George Gilder" (on Pharyngula)

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