John S. Wilkins Archives

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis' Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.


[Review of Shapiro, James A. Evolution: A View from the 21st Century. FT Press Science, ISBN: 0-13-278093-3, $34.99 Publisher’s site]

Over the years there have been many books that purport to “radically revise” or “supplant” Darwinian evolutionary biology; they come with predictable regularity. Usually they are of three kinds: something is wrong with natural selection, something is wrong with inheritance, or something is wrong with phylogeny. This book, by geneticist James A. Shapiro, exemplifies all three.

[Republished from Evolving Thoughts]

A while back I published a paper in a special edition of Synthese on "Evolution and its rivals". My paper was titled "Are Creationists Rational?" in which I argued that yes, in a bounded sense they are. I was very pleased to be invited to publish in this front rank journal by the special editors. However, when the printed version arrived, the editors-in-chief had inserted a rather nasty statement, a disclaimer in fact, bringing the academic standing of the contributions into disrepute. Although I do not think my paper was directly involved in this, I post below a statement about the disclaimer by the special edition's editors, Glenn Branch and James Fetzer. I fully support it.

RE: "Evolution and Its Rivals", SYNTHESE 178:2 (January 2011)

Dear Members of the Philosophy Community,

As the Guest Editors of a special issue of SYNTHESE, "Evolution and Its Rivals", we have been appalled to discover that the Editors-in-Chief added a prefatory statement to the issue that implies that the Guest Editors and their contributors have not maintained the standards of the journal. Our purpose here is to convey to you an explanation of the history of this special issue and the unusual problems we encountered in dealing with the Editors-in-Chief, in the hope that our reflections will place their statement in the proper context and guide you in future dealings with the journal.

The following statement was published in the printed but not the on-line version of this issue:

Statement from the Editors-in-Chief of SYNTHESE

This special issue addresses a topic of lively current debate with often strongly expressed views. We have observed that some of the papers in this issue employ a tone that may make it hard to distinguish between dispassionate intellectual discussion of other views and disqualification of a targeted author or group.

We believe that vigorous debate is clearly of the essence in intellectual communities, and that even strong disagreements can be an engine of progress. However, tone and prose should follow the usual academic standards of politeness and respect in phrasing. We recognize that these are not consistently met in this particular issue. These standards, especially toward people we deeply disagree with, are a common benefit to us all. We regret any deviation from our usual standards.

Johan van Benthem
Vincent F. Hendricks
John Symons
Editors-in-Chief / SYNTHESE

First and foremost, we deeply regret the decision to insert this disclaimer, which insults not only us but also the contributors to the special issue. It was inserted without our consent or approval, without our being directly notified by the Editors-in-Chief, and despite our having been assured twice by one of the Editors-in-Chief that it would not be inserted (as we will explain below). In retrospect, we perhaps should have warned the contributors when the proposal to insert such a disclaimer was broached, but it did not occur to us that the Editors-in-Chief would renege on their assurances that no disclaimer would be inserted. Nevertheless, we would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our sincerest apologies to the contributors.

The background to the disclaimer involves Barbara Forrest's contribution to the special issue, "The Non-Epistemology of Intelligent Design," which vigorously critiqued the work of Francis Beckwith. Shortly after the papers were published on-line in advance of publication by SYNTHESE in 2009, friends of Beckwith began to protest -- not to the Guest Editors, but to the Editors-in-Chief -- about Forrest's article, one even going so far as to claim that it was "libelous."

In response, the Editors-in-Chief discussed the matter with Jim Fetzer, who has an extensive history with the journal, including serving as one of its co-editors from 1990 to 1999 and editing six previous special issues. In preparation for this discussion, Fetzer solicited the opinion of another former editor of SYNTHESE, who regarded the paper as unproblematic with the minor exception of Forrest's mention of Beckwith's recent return to the Catholic Church, a matter that has not surfaced in any of the discussion that has followed.

The outcome of the discussion was that Beckwith would be allowed a chance to respond in a later issue of SYNTHESE (which he has now taken; his response has already been published on-line in advance of publication), but that "[n]othing is to be done to the special issue" (as Fetzer summarized his understanding of the discussion to the Editors-in-Chief, none of whom expressed any disagreement).

Subsequently, in September 2010, Forrest advised Glenn Branch that she had been asked by two of the Editors-in-Chief to revise her paper -- which, again, had already been published on-line -- on pains of an editorial disclaimer being added to the issue. This condition was not, as would have been appropriate, discussed with or even divulged to the Guest Editors. Branch passed this news on to Fetzer, who protested vehemently to the Editors-in-Chief; it appears that the third was not aware of the demand from the other two. In November 2010, the third Editor-in-Chief assured us that both the request for a revision and the idea of an editorial disclaimer had been dropped. (We should also mention that the publisher of the journal was by no means enthusiastic about the idea of revising an already published paper.) With that, we believed we had resolved any issues between the parties involved.

It therefore came as a complete -- and most unwelcome -- surprise to discover such a statement included in the printed edition.

Several of the contributors have informed us and/or the Editors-in-Chief that they would have withdrawn their papers from the issue had they known that they would have been published under the shadow of such a disclaimer. (Note that the disclaimer speaks of "some of the papers," in the plural, suggesting that Forrest's was not the only paper that is supposedly objectionable.) We ourselves would have reconsidered our proposal to edit a special issue on this subject had we any idea that such opprobrium might attach to our efforts, which have conformed to appropriate standards of scholarship and publication in general, and with the standards of SYNTHESE in particular, with which we are very familiar.

We are both shocked and chagrined that a journal of SYNTHESE's stature should have sunk so low as to violate the canons of responsible editorial practice as the result of lobbying by a handful of ideologues. This tells us -- as powerfully as Forrest's work -- that intelligent design corrupts. We regret the conduct of the Editors-in-Chief and the unwarranted insult to the contributors and ourselves as Guest Editors represented by the disclaimer. We are doing our best to make the misconduct of the Editors-in-Chief a matter of common knowledge within the philosophy community in the hope that everyone will consider whatever actions may be appropriate for them to adopt in any future associations with SYNTHESE.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.

James H. Fetzer
McKnight Professor Emeritus
University of Minnesota Duluth

(Institutions are listed for the purposes of identification only.)

It looks very much like Francis Beckwith's sympathisers' objections were unilaterally accepted without question by the editors-in-chief. One can only wonder why. Perhaps threats of legal action were made against the journal or the editors? If so, this action is execrable and should be withdrawn. The proper forum for academic dispute is in debate, not attack based on fear of litigation. Beckwith has his forum, and readers can decide for themselves whether they think he has a case. One wonders whether or not a similar disclaimer will accompany his contribution.

Is this what the academy has been reduced to? In the light of recent attempts to silence or discourage criticisms by certain allied political interests, this looks very bad.

Over the past few years there have been increasing numbers of calls for governments to properly fund systematics and taxonomy (and a number of largely molecular-focused biologists insisting they can do the requisite tasks with magic molecule detectors, so don't fund old-school, fund new-fangled-tech). But I think that there is considerable confusion about what systematics and taxonomy are.

Now the usual way a philosopher resolves such questions, apart from interrogating their intuitions relying upon what they learned in grade school, is to go find a textbook or some other authoritative source and quote that. If it is someone they already know, all the better, like Mayr or Dawkins. This is problematic, so I thought I'd do a slightly better job at reviewing what people think. And then I will of course give my own view.

The song of the title of this post is a catchy and highly amusing piece that suggests that if we’re just mammals we should have sex. It’s sort of a low brow version of Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress. Instead of Time’s wing�d chariot, we should do what mammals do on the Discovery Channel. Except, humans don’t. They do something special. Think about it. We aren’t dogs, monkeys, dolphins or bowerbirds, we’re humans. We are a species (which, as I keep reminding folk, is the noun of “special”).

So when Phillip Johnson, the father of the modern intelligent design movement, attacks Christopher Hitchens for calling “great men” “mammals”, and points out:

While Hitchens never refers to the authorities on his side as “mammals,” reserving that category for those whom he wishes to belittle, it will not escape the reader that if “great men” are only mammals, then so are scientists, including the esteemed Charles Darwin and the not-quite-so-esteemed Richard Dawkins, and so, of course, is Hitchens himself. Which raises the question: Why should we take seriously any speculation by a mere mammal, or even the consensus of mammal opinion, about the origin of its species, no matter how much evidence the mammals imagine themselves to have gathered?

… we might be inclined to agree. If we’re just mammals, then we shouldn’t pay attention to Hitchens or Dawkins or Darwin, right?

I call this Darwin’s Monkey Mind Puzzle. Darwin wrote near the end of his life:

But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [Letter to William Graham, 1881]

It is recently the argument presented by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga against evolutionary theory - it’s self defeating. If evolution is true, then we have no warrant for thinking that evolution is true, ergo Augustine is right. Or something. I would like to discuss this a little, reprising some arguments Paul Griffiths and I have presented in a forthcoming paper. On my blog.

The “Darwin Year”


Following on from Wesley Elsberry's post, readers may be somewhat surprised that Evolving Thoughts hasn't made much of the Darwin bicentennial and the Origin sesquicentennial so far. Well, I haven't needed to, given the number of other folk making hay from this. In particular I recommend Carl Zimmer's piece, over at his new digs with Discover magazine. Carl points out John van Whye's paper that showed that Darwin didn't "sit on the theory for 20 years" but rather followed a preplanned sequence for backing up his ideas. However, when Charles planned this research, he greatly underestimated the time it would take him (the Cirripedia volumes, where he dissected and described all known and extinct barnacles, took him much longer than he anticipated), and so it blew out from 8 to 20 years.

But there's another point I want to make about this anniversary, and it is this: Darwin, as important as he was, is not the crucial man in the history of biology. And to make this claim out, I have to discuss some theories of history, and how they affect the history of science.

Read more at Evolving Thoughts

What is a species?

If somebody asked me to write a short essay giving an overview of my favourite topic, the nature of species, I doubt that I could. I can write a long essay on it (in fact, several) but it would be excruciatingly hard to write a short one. For that, we need a real writer. Carl Zimmer is the guy. He has an essay on species in the current edition of Scientific American. And despite quoting some obscure Australian philosopher, it is a good summary of the issues. How he manages to get up on a topic like that amazes me. It took me a good five years. Read the rest of this post at my blog here.

Evolution and Accident


A common attack upon evolutionary biology, from ranking clerics in the Catholic church to the meanest creationist blogger, is that it implies that life arose and came to result in us by accident. We are asked to believe, they say, that three billion years led to us as a series of accidents. No matter how often evolutionary biologists and informed respondents try to point out that the sense of “accident” in biology is based on the lack of correlation between the future needs of organisms, the trope is repeated ad nauseum.


Read on at Evolving Thoughts

Students are often overwhelmed by the number of species concepts cited in the literature. Here is a working list of species concepts presently in play. I quote “Concepts” above because, for philosophical reasons, I think there is only one concept - “species”, and all the rest are conceptions, or definitions, of that concept. I have christened this the Synapormorphic Concept of Species in (Wilkins 2003).

Read the rest on Evolving Thoughts.

Macroevolution FAQ updated


The Macroevolution FAQ is now in version 2. The original FAQ was a bit light on for discussion, and I wanted to deal with some technical issues. It is not a comprehensive review of the concept, but of the meaning of the concept and a couple of philosophical issues it raises.

The University of Kentucky held its debate on ID, and Colin Wier, a law student there, has written a report on it from his notes. I have taken the liberty of correcting typos (he wrote this during the presentations) and posting it below the fold. Many thanks to Colin for this hard work.

[Oops, did I say Kansas? Sorry, this isn’t Kansas any more…]

[Note: everything below this is Colin’s report]

Law debate on ID in Kentucky


A law student, Colin, advises the following event at the University of Kentucky:

On Wed, Feb. 22, the UK School of Law is hosting a seminar on “Religion, the First Amendment, and the New Supreme Court” at 12:00 noon. The speaker at the event is Thomas Berg, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas, and Co-Director of the Terrance J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy. As the notice says, “Everyone is invited.” I assume that refers to the public as well. It’s in the College of Law Courtroom, and being presented by the Federalist Society.

Normally this would be a ho-hum affair, with a speaker and perhaps a few questions. The event the next week, however, is what would be of penultimate interest to readers of both the aforementioned blogs. It is entitled, “Intelligent Design: Question and Controversy in Law and Philosophy.” The speakers are Prof. Brandon Look (Philosophy, UK), and Prof. Paul Salamaca (Law - Constitutional and Federal, UK). They’ll be talking about the restrictions the First Amendment places on public schools, where Science and Religion end, and whether Intelligent Design is really Creationism re-labeled. It’s called a “discussion” where they’ll both talk about the facts, arguments, and theories of Intelligent Design. The flyer notes that “Everyone’s Welcome” and will also be in the College of Law Courtroom on Monday, Feb. 27 at 4:00 p.m. It is presented by both the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society.

I would expect only the best of discussions from either of these professors. In fact, to take one side, and not objectively study the issue, would seem to contradict the entire method that we’ve built here in Law (Socratic) and also in Science (the basic nature of science is to question everything, even those things previously thought established). As a citizen in the camps of both I have a great desire to see there be some great discussion.

In full context, Ky. has a law on the books that allows the teaching of Creationism in Public Schools, but does not mandate it. In other words, it is not “against” the law to teach Creationism. It is KRS 158.177, and an interesting read. The notation is that it has been “repealed and superseded by the 1990 Ky. Acts” but to my knowledge it’s still published and law in Ky. Recently, Ky. Gov. Ernie Fletcher (who’s in the hospital with an infection right now, so let’s hope he’s going to be okay) also advocated the teaching of it recently in his “State of the Commonwealth” speech. The seminary where William Dembski teaches (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is in Louisville, and only an hour away so an appearance, I think, would not be out of the realm of possibility though not in a speaking role. Finally, the Ky. Law Journal has previously published a note, “NOTE: When May a State Require Teaching Alternatives to the Theory of Evolution? Intelligent Design as a Test Case.” It’s at 90 Ky. L.J. 743. It was published in 2003, and to my knowledge has never been cited.

Following up on comments by the maker of Flock of Dodos, PZ Myersh has taken to task the idea that we ought to dumb down our message in order to entertain [summarized by PvM here, with links]. On the Dino List, Kent Stevens posted the following analysis of why science programming is so poor in terms of the sets of audiences and advertisers, which I think needs to be widely available. He has given permission to reproduce it:

The Calculus of Science Documentaries

[Read the rest on my blog, Evolving Thoughts]

The eminent science journal Nature has a letter (subscription required) from Professor A. Richard Palmer of the Systematics and Evolution Group, at the University of Alberta.

In it, he proposes that we teach the controversy - not only should we teach that there is an Intelligent Design hypothesis, we should also teach that there is an Intelligent Deceiver motivating the ID movement.

Individuals who understand how to debate alternative scientific hypotheses would never intentionally promote religious dogma as science. So an intelligent deceiver must be at work, guiding proponents of ID to sow confusion over valid scientific debate.

A new fossil mosasaur, one of a group of non-dinosaurian reptiles that return to marine existence, has been found by an amateur fossil hunter (see? Science can be done by non-professionals) near Dallas Texas, appropriately called Dallasaurus turneri after the location and discoverer Van Turner who found it 16 years ago.

This fossil is interesting because it is one of your classical “missing links”. Mosasaurs, which ended up 40 feet long (12m) at the end of the Cretaceous when they and dinosaurs and a whole lot of other life went extinct from a bolide impact, evolved fins from their limbs, and many of the primitive mosasaurs had partial limbs/fins.

D turneri, however, has the complete set of limbs it shared with its reptilian ancestors and cousins. This is interesting for mosasaur specialists of course, but it also allows me an opportunity to talk about two often-misunderstood terms in evolution - “missing link” and “primitive”.

Continue reading “The Mosasaur and the missing link” on Evolving Thoughts

The words of the world

A study in Science has returned biological methods to linguistic evolution in a reversal of history, and concluded that one can, within limits, reconstruct the history of language. Charles Darwin was not the first person to suppose that historical evolution could be recognised by homologies and represented by tree diagrams. That honour goes to Sir William Jones in 1797, although the tree idea was later. Jones argued that one could compare cognate terms and infer a historical relationship between languages and this has become the foundation of modern philology. For example, words that are based on the idea of "knowing" (including, as it happens, "idea") generate a tree of Indo-European languages. [And like biological evolution, there are "creationists" who think that all language was created in Sanskrit.] Now, a study in Science has returned biological methods to linguistic evolution in a reversal of history, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

A new report in Science has come out firmly in favour of the Homo floresiensis not being a “pathological microcephalic”. Read more [URL =[…]pinhead.html]here[/URL].

I recant! ID works

| 11 Comments | 1 TrackBack

It pains me to say this, and I have to do it on my own blog as the ranters on Panda’s Thumb will delete my entry forever, but I am announcing my conversion to intelligent design, and all that implies…

See more on my [url =[…]-design.html]Evolving Thoughts[/url] blog entry.

Comic evolution


There has been something of a reaction by American cartoonists to the recent creationist and ID attempts to get evolution out of, or their theology into, public schools. For your delectation and amusement, courtesy of Nick Matzke, here they are in one hit: Evolving Thoughts

One Nation, Under the Designer


I have [URL =[…]tml#comments]blogged[/URL] an [URL =]article in Phi Beta Kappa[/URL], the online magazine of the Professional Association of Educators, on the true significance for education and society of the Wedge Strategy on my [URL =]Evolving Thoughts blog.[/URL]

The article, by educator Mark Terry, who works just down the road from the Disco, sorry, Discovery Institute, covers Huxley and religion and is a piece worth reading.

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