Microdissecting Meyer

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The extensive, 6,000 word review of Meyer's recent 'peer-reviewed' Intelligent Design paper by Gishlick, Matzke, and Elsberry takes a broad look at all of the flaws in the work, and gives us the big picture view of why it is poor science that shouldn't have made it past any qualified reviewers. I'm going to take a much more narrow approach, and look at a single paragraph and show why it represents poor, biased scholarship. I'm motivated in part by a ridiculous critique from Joe Carter. One of the things he does (in his second point, if you bother to read it) is a practice creationist pseudoscientists are getting very good at, and that Meyer also practices in his paper: throwing a bunch of scientific references at the reader that, in Carter's case, the creationist has never read, or in Meyer's case, may have read but misrepresents. How many people would bother to check that these esoteric references are being reported accurately? How many of us who actually are comfortable with the scientific literature have the time to cross-check and report all of the misrepresentations being made?

I sure don't. That's why I'm just going to pick on one paragraph.

The general topic of the Meyer paper is the Cambrian explosion, which he calls "a paradigmatic example of the origin of biological form and information", and what he wants to assert is that we need "a new and specifically causal theory" which is, of course, Design…which is neither causal, nor specific, nor a theory, except in the vaguest senses of the words. Reading the introduction to the paper, where he brings up modern ideas in developmental genetics as examples of revolutionary stuff that is shaking up neo-Darwinism was very aggravating to me (Intelligent Design, I know developmental genetics well…and you, sir, are no developmental genetics), but I'll criticize something more central to the paper, Meyer's version of the Cambrian. Here's his short summary of the event:

The Cambrian explosion represents a remarkable jump in the specified complexity or "complex specified information" (CSI) of the biological world. For over three billion years, the biological realm included little more than bacteria and algae (Brocks et al. 1999). Then, beginning about 570--565 million years ago (mya), the first complex multicellular organisms appeared in the rock strata, including sponges, cnidarians, and the peculiar Ediacaran biota (Grotzinger et al. 1995). Forty million years later, the Cambrian explosion occurred (Bowring et al. 1993). The emergence of the Ediacaran biota (570 mya), and then to a much greater extent the Cambrian explosion (530 mya), represented steep climbs up the biological complexity gradient.

Notice the citations. The idea behind scientific citations is that they should be papers supporting the ideas being discussed, and are shortcuts for the author—instead of tediously enumerating all the evidence to support a claim, he points the reader to another source that documents it. There is a bit of trust involved; a scientific paper may easily throw 50 references at the reader, and it's a difficult chore to check them all. (This, by the way, is one reason peer-review is supposed to be done by individuals qualified in the field; they are likely to have already read many of the cited papers, are more or less familiar with their contents, and reviewing one paper doesn't necessarily involve scurrying to the library and reading 50 more papers to see if they were correctly represented.)

There are three citations in this paragraph. Let's see how well Meyer represents their contents, and to be generous, I'll start with one that he gets right.

Forty million years later, the Cambrian explosion occurred (Bowring et al. 1993).

Meyer tells us the relative timing of the Cambrian explosion, and he gets the dates right. The Bowring et al. paper is titled "Calibrating rates of early Cambrian evolution", and it's all about more precisely dating the events of the Cambrian period using uranium-lead zircon geochronology. Meyer is capable of reporting a single number correctly!

For over three billion years, the biological realm included little more than bacteria and algae (Brocks et al. 1999).

Uh-oh. This one is very misleading. Brocks et al. is a paper about molecular fossils: they analyzed trace materials in ancient rocks, looking for the chemical signatures characteristic of different domains of life. While it is talking about trace molecules left largely by bacteria, it makes no statement about the absence of other organisms, and explicitly states that the phylogenetic position of the eukaryotes responsible for the lipids they found is unclear. And in fact, one of the main points of the paper is to push back the timing of the origins of greater cellular complexity, which apparently is something Meyer would like to sweep under the carpet. Brocks says,

We conclude that the domain Eucarya first appeared before 2700 Ma and is at least 500 to 1000 My older than indicated by current paleontological data. This age should provide a new calibration point for molecular clocks and the universal tree of life.

The other citation in this paragraph is similarly used selectively, ignoring the bulk of the paper to support a minor point.

Then, beginning about 570--565 million years ago (mya), the first complex multicellular organisms appeared in the rock strata, including sponges, cnidarians, and the peculiar Ediacaran biota (Grotzinger et al. 1995).

Grotzinger et al. is an interesting work: it builds on the timeline of the Bowring paper to place known Precambrian and Cambrian fossils in better context. It doesn't deny that there was a diversification of body plans in the mid-Cambrian, but it takes a position that contradicts Meyer's:

Once held as the position in the rock record where the major invertebrate groups first appeared, the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary now serves more as a convenient reference point within an evolutionary continuum. Skeletalized organisms, including Cambrian-aspect shelly fossils, first appear below the boundary and then show strong diversification during the early Cambrian. Similarly, trace fossils also appear first in the Vendian, exhibit a progression to more complex geometries across the boundary, and then parallel the dramatic radiation displayed by body fossils.

Here's the concluding sentence of the paper:

Considered collectively, however, the most parsimonious interpretation of the available fossil and age data is that the early development of animals proceeded as a single, protracted evolutionary radiation, culminating in the Cambrian explosion.

It's saying something entirely different from what the Discovery Institute wants you to think of evolution and the Cambrian.

Now you might be able to see what a qualified reviewer would see when reading the Meyer paper. It's full of these peculiar disconnects from the reality of the scientific literature—he's constantly citing little fragments of papers while ignoring the bulk of the work. It's a more rarefied version of more typical creationist quote mining, made slightly more sophisticated and much more difficult to check, and designed to wow the rubes rather than persuade anyone knowledgeable in the subject.


Bowring SA, Grotzinger JP, Isachsen CE, Knoll AH, Pelechaty SM, Kolosov F (1993) Calibrating rates of early Cambrian evolution. Science 261:1293-1298.

Brocks, JJ, Logan GA, Buick R, Summons RE (1999) Archean molecular fossils and the early rise of eukaryotes. Science 285:1033-1036.

Grotzinger,JP, Bowring SA, Saylor BZ, Kaufman AJ (1995) Biostratigraphic and geochronologic constraints on early animal evolution. Science 270:598-604.

Meyer, SC (2004) The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2):213-239.

5 TrackBacks

In my original post on "Pandas and Peers" I criticized the critics at Panda’s Thumb for failing to address the citations the citations used by Stephen Meyer in his review. One of the contributor’s, PZ Meyers, attempts to address this... Read More

In my original post on "Pandas and Peers" I criticized the critics at Panda’s Thumb for failing to address the citations the citations used by Stephen Meyer in his review. One of the contributor’s, PZ Meyers, attempts to address this... Read More

In my original post on "Pandas and Peers" I criticized the critics at Panda’s Thumb for failing to address the citations the citations used by Stephen Meyer in his review. One of the contributor’s, PZ Meyers, attempts to address this... Read More

In 1987, Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, an acclaimed economist and graduate of both Harvard and MIT, became the first social scientist in history to win the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for originality, innovation and impact in a Read More

In 1987, Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, an acclaimed economist and graduate of both Harvard and MIT, became the first social scientist in history to win the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for originality, innovation and impact in a Read More

14 Comments

“I’m personally not well-versed in science” - Joe Carter

You can say that again. He shares this characteristic with Philip Johnson and most Bible college graduates. In fact the latter can expect to be “badly misinformed” (worse than ignorant) when it comes to science.

The scientifically ignorant substitute rationalizing and propositional logic for scientific thinking. It’s pretty much useless to debate science with those lacking some fluency in “scientific method”.

To support his apparent hypothesis, Myers must at least concede that the fossil record is at least accurate back to the Camrian period, that radiological dating is accurate at least back to the cambrian period, and that common descent is valid at least through the Cambrian period. Can the Discovery Institute agree that his paper must spell the death knell for young earth creationism?

Yer killin’ me, man.

My name is Myers (or Mrrzay, or Mazzuzah, or something), while the author of the bad Discovery Institute paper is Meyer. I readily agree to all of your statements, and I disagree with most everything the DI says. I hope you meant “Meyer”, right? Please?

Although if we could get the DI to agree that I speak for them, we could solve a lot of problems fast.

PZ – nice post.

The habit that I notice is this bizarre one where the creationist picks some recent scientific paper that begins with some phrase like “Currently, there is not agreement in the field with respect to the levels of blah blah” and using that phrase for the proposition that nobody has a clue what the hell is going on.

Estimates of the age of this or that have changed over the past 50 years???? According to the creationist, this means that nobody has a clue. The earth could be 10 billion years old or it could be 10,000 years old.

Estimates of mutation rates have changed????? Maybe there is no mutation rate. Or maybe it’s a billion times slower than the slowest rate yet measured. Who can tell??? After all, that paper says that “there is disagreement among evolutionary biologists …”

Etc., etc.

Which makes this paper’s appearance in the taxonomic journal so sneaky. Even if it had been properly reviewed, the reviewers would be able to say “Wait, this tree shrew was first described in 1949!”, not to know much about pre-cambrian fossils.

Argh!!! My screw up, and I actually checked the spelling because I knew of the name similarity. Complete synapse malfunction on my part. All I can say is that it happened with no warning and completely out of the blue…I have no explanation. Such an unexplained malfunction is surely evidence that it was induced by the designer(s).

And, of course, I’d love it if you’d speak on behalf of DI–that would indeed solve quite a bit.

A serious question about the peer review process and the use of references: I’m not a scientist, I’m a lawyer. In legal writing the use of citations is very critical. The use of individual citations is also signaled by agreed conventions. Citations can be a general reference to a non-controversial general proposition, a reference to a specific point, an example of a typical discussion, an acknowledgement of opposing authorities, etc. Piling a series of references on at a single point is called “string citing” in legal circles and is appropriate only when the proposition is so well accepted that you are demonstrating the point by listing ten or twelve representative samples to demonstrate the very fact that the proposition is so widely held. Citations are used in both legal briefs made in court and in scholarly legal journals and treatises. In court, attorneys have an obligation to identify opposing controlling authority if they argue a legal proposition to a court. Failure to do so or using citations in a misleading manner is grounds for discipline. You can get disbarred for it. Burying a single reference in a string citation is one way to abuse the process. So is mischaracterizing the point made in the citation.

In legal journals and treatises, at least theoretically, citations are supposed to be verified. I’ve read Intelligent design related law reviews and legal treatises and it’s apparent that the citations are NOT checked. The use of a bunch of citations dumped at a single footnote is frequent. (Is the occurence of the same phenomenon in both legal and scientific journals evidence of “design?”) Another abuse is the “circular footnote”—a footnote sends you merely to some other section of the same article where the subject is purportedly discussed in more detail. Upon arrival at the identified section that further explication is absent. Moreover, the dumped citations are usually not “legal” but massive references to scientific sources difficult for lawyers to access. In the legal context, reality frequently departs from the ideal, but you do have to consider the professional disciplinary consequences and academic reproval.

In light of that long background, is there any way that a peer review journal would retract an article or publish a correction when it’s been demonstrated that the references are misleading? Is there any other disciplinary action that is taken when references are abused?

“Failure to do so or using citations in a misleading manner is grounds for discipline. You can get disbarred for it.”

Has that ever happened to your knowledge? I’ve never seen it happen. The one case I recall where a Federal Judge (Schwarzer) punished an attorney for a misleading citation, the case was overturned on appeal and Judge Schwarzer was reprimanded for abusing Rule 11!

Seriously, Meyer’s sloppiness is hardly unique or outrageous among scientists at large.

But it is noteworthy insofar as his overall claim, if it turns out to be true, would be the most noteworthy advance in our understanding of biology since the discovery of the cell. And certainly the single most important scientific development since Einstein’s work.

You would THINK the guy would be more careful. Of course, all this assumes that he is a genuinely honest human being and not an evangelical crank with the emotional and intellectual maturity of a 10 year old.

I started reading Joe Carter’s article and found this sentence near the beginning:

“Meyer has managed to elbow his way into the process with a “review article” criticizing the idea that the materialistic theory of evolution can account for the origin of the information necessary to build novel animal forms.”

Was there any reason to keep reading past the word “materialistic”?

Frank J asked

Was there any reason to keep reading past the word “materialistic”?

Nope. You saved yourself some time by stopping right there.

Hi PZ,

I’ve been looking at Meyer’s evo-devo arguments over at ARN, starting here:

http://www.arn.org/ubb/ultimatebb.p[…]4;p=4#000146

Meyer’s scholarship in this doesn’t impress me much, especially since he misses some important hypotheses regarding the Cambrian explosion. Unfortunately, evo-devo–or even devo, for that matter– isn’t my area of expertise. I’m appealing to evo-devos to chime in and give some more in-depth criticism of the paper. Now that it’s ‘peer-reviewed’, it’s fair game for a grilling.

This is a question, not a comment.

From Genetics 101 a few year ago, (so I assume there is alot that I don’t know) we learned that if a mutation causes a gene to make a defective protien, that gene will never be completely selected out of a population (genetic diseases are of course an example). And, if bad mutations outnumber good mutations (100 to 1?), why do not negative mutations accumulate.

What is it that I am missing, and can you suggest some books or websites that will give me current and basic information evolution.

Merlin Perkins

Negative mutations do not accumulate because they are selected against. Mutation is balanced by negative selection.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on September 10, 2004 11:29 AM.

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