Battle in Beverly Hills: Reflections on the Prothero/Shermer vs. Meyer/Sternberg "debate," Nov. 30, 2009

By Don Prothero

Don Prothero is a paleontologist and Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and author ofEvolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, in my opinion the very best book on fossils and evolution for the general reader. Last night, Monday, November 30, Prothero debated (along with Michael Shermer) ID advocates Stephen Meyer (longtime head of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) and Richard von Sternberg (the former editor who in 2004 published Meyer’s pro-ID article in the last issue of the _Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington_ (D.C.) which Sternberg was scheduled to edit, despite the article being wildly off-topic for an alpha taxonomy journal, substantially copied from other Meyer publications, badly inaccurate, and just weird in several ways). Sternberg is now, I believe, an employee of the Discovery Institute.

Prothero wrote these remarks directly after the debate and emailed them to me. I have added links where relevant. — Nick Matzke

My mind is a bit fuzzy from the loss of sleep, and the two hours of “debate” went by very quickly, so I cannot recall all the details, let alone recount them. Here are my morning-after thoughts about last night’s “Battle in Beverly Hills.” I don’t know when they’ll release the video recording of the event, but when it does come out, hopefully it will be possible to post it so you can all see for yourself how it went. My subjective summary of it is that our side did very well: I caught them off-guard with new arguments they had no answer for; Shermer pushed them hard repeatedly to state who the “Designer” was (and Meyer finally conceded it was God), while we both pushed them hard on the fact that neither of them ever addressed the topic of the debate, “Origins of Life.” I could tell that they were rattled a number of times, and I definitely shook up Meyer and got under his skin with my answers. Several times Meyer and Sternberg were arguing with each other, leaving the moderator, our side, and the audience wondering who runs their show. The best sign of my effect on them was Meyer trying to challenge MY credentials, or dodging a tough question by playing the sympathy card and calling me “condescending” — and the virulent post on the Discovery Institute site this morning, full of lies and spin. Of course, the event is staged so that no one will really “win”. Their supporters turned out and dominated the audience, but I had a LOT of people come up to me during the book signing (we sold a LOT of books) and congratulate me, or discuss points further with me. And we got just as much applause and sympathetic laughter at our well-turned phrases as they did.

As some of you already know, I didn’t do this debate willingly, but got roped into it by my friend Michael Shermer. I normally won’t waste my time in this format giving them credibility, but once I’d said “yes,” my only choice was to be prepared. After seeing Meyer’s demolition of Peter Ward online and reading Meyer’s stuff, I realized he was a lot slicker than the troglodytic young-earth creationists, who have limited science background and are easy to demolish. So I used a lot of the tips generously provided by the Panda’s Thumb bloggers and other veteran creationism watchers, did a LOT of additional reading, and in the end, I had every angle they could mention completely covered.

The debate was organized by the right-wing “American Freedom Alliance,” so I expected some unfair treatment. Sure enough, they were dishonest. For weeks, I’d known only that the title of the debate was about “origins of life,” and I prepared accordingly. Five days before, the moderator and organizer, Ari Davis, called and discussed the rules, and said he’d send us the final specifications immediately. Instead, he emailed it to us the morning of the debate, and I saw that he had switched the topic to the “adequacy of Neo-Darwinian natural selection and mutation to explain the origin of life,” which puts us in the difficult position of proving the affirmative, and allows the creationists to say: “Not proven — we win”. If someone analyzes the video recording with a timer, I think it will be clear that he gave the ID side a lot more time for rebuttal. The moderator allowed Meyer to interrupt me repeatedly, even though he had forbidden that in his own rules, and after a while I caught on and interrupted Meyer’s lies right back. The lobby before the debate was full of creationists, religious tract pushers, and even some Holocaust deniers (right in the middle of a Jewish theater in the heart of the Jewish district of L.A). Still, it wasn’t as bad as the debate against Gish in 1983, where entire busloads of churchgoers were brought in. [Note: Prothero debated famed creationist debater Duane Gish at Purdue on October 1, 1983, with apparently good results. — NM]

Meyer had debated Shermer many times before, but apparently he did little to prepare for me. Just minutes before the debate, he ran out and bought a copy of my 2007 “Evolution” book (since he had never read it), after he tried to cadge the copy for free from my wife who was guarding the Skeptics Society booth. (She insisted that he pay for it). I know I caught him off-guard, since I have degrees in both biology and geology, and know most of their arguments better than they do. The only time I did not get a solid reply in was during the statements where there was no opportunity for rebuttal, or when we had run out of time.

Our “affirmative side” went first, and Shermer did a quick run-through about why ID is a religious and not a scientific doctrine, methodological naturalism and the scientific method, and “god of the gaps.” I took the remaining 15 minutes with my Powerpoint presentation where I slammed them hard and fast with long list of things: why ID is not testable (including bad designs like the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the inverted retina, and the whale’s pelvis and femora); then a five slide run-through of the molecular research into origin of life, from Miller-Urey to the stuff published in the past few years, emphasizing over and over how many successes the molecular biologists have had at simulating every step of the process; then a quick run through the Pre-Cambrian fossil record, focusing on why it is not the “Cambrian explosion” but the Cambrian “slow fuse” (and pointing out that I’m a paleontologist, I’ve actually seen and collected these outcrops, and neither of my opponents had). My final segment was pointing out the fallacy of Meyer’s “information” angle, with the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, and then a real twist for Meyer. I asked the audience if they could think of a system that grows and becomes larger and more complex naturally, has mutations, and replicates itself — and then revealed I was talking about mud. Three quick slides on how clay minerals replicate lattice defects (= mutations) exactly like life but without divine intervention, and I asked Meyer if he needed the “Designer” to make every glop of mud. I concluded with a summary of why ID was not science and how they don’t play by the rules of science, don’t attend real scientific meetings, don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, and are just PR flacks that masquerade as scientists (complete with the “Wedge document” to prove it). My last slide was quotes from Paul Nelson and Phillip Johnson that ID has no real theory or explanation yet. I finished with time to spare, even though I tried not to rush it. It may have overwhelmed the audience with how much information I crammed into 15 minutes, but it had the salutary effect that I hit them with lots of arguments and data they couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, so most of my assertions stayed unchallenged.

Their side then got the next 25 minutes. Meyer opened with his usual crap about “information” but did not address my critique of the argument. Then Sternberg got up and did some really strange stuff. Instead of talking about the “origins of life”, he put up the entire sequence of transitional whale fossils (from my book), conceded that it was all real and well-documented, and then made this bizarre argument that normal rates of gene substitution are too slow to account for that much change in a few million years! Now we know where Casey Luskin got that bizarre critique of whale evolution that appeared on the National Geographic site on Nov. 24. Meyer got back for the final minutes and just kept hammering on the point that Neo-Darwinian mutation and selection are supposedly insufficient to explain life, and that was their entire case. Not ONE mention of the topic of the debate. Not ONE argument relevant to the topic of the debate, let alone scientifically valid.

The rebuttal period then got going and it was so fast and furious I can barely remember the details. Shermer used his time to keep pushing them hard to actually propose a scientific explanation for life, and to reveal who the “Designer” was. He eventually got Meyer to concede that it was God. We both chastised them on ignoring the debate topic entirely, but to their minds, the debate was about Neo-Darwinian gradual selection. Even though Meyer hogged the time and cut me off, I did get in a good reply to his lies about the Cambrian. He was trapped by his own words for his ignorance all the pre-trilobite faunas, and I’d shown that he had lied on that matter — so he then tried to claim that when the trilobites appeared they had all these complex structures like eyes with no precursors. Of course, what’s really at issue here is the environmental threshold that allowed large skeletons to finally calcify 520 m.y. ago, but that point never got a chance to be mentioned. At another point, I tried to get in a complete rebuttal to Sternberg’s weird whale argument, highlighting his invalid assumptions about population size, reproductive rates, and the constancy of point mutations, and arguing that a lot of people are looking at evo/devo to explain the suite of soft-tissue modifications that whales show. Somewhere in there, Meyer used the “condescending” sympathy line but their rebuttal to evo/devo was so garbled that they ended up arguing with each other about those hypothetical reconstructions of 12-winged dragonflies and completely missed the point of evo/devo. (I never got a chance to set that one straight). I knew they were desperate when they suddenly pulled out their “junk DNA” kit of lies, and I slammed them with endogenous retroviruses, pseudogenes, and the onion argument — and then Sternberg got all tangled up admitting these were real but trying to dismiss their importance. Even though the moderator let them get away with more time and interruptions, I feel like we held our own, and most of their garbage got a least a partial challenge and rebuttal from our side.

We then each took a few questions from the audience and moderator, and most were a piece of cake to answer. Shermer did really well using his question to bring up Margulis’ endosymbiosis model of origin of eukaryotes. Meyer broke the rules here and tried to rebut my answers to questions, even though he had no right to do so. Sternberg ended up conceding that he disagrees with not only young-earth creationism but even most of the ID creationists ideas. Apparently, he’s an old-fashioned “structuralist” who dislikes the ideas of Neo-Darwinian random point mutations to explain macroevolution. (I actually agree with him to a degree, but he clearly doesn’t understand evo/devo enough to see how it provides a solution to this problem). They tried to ridicule the idea that we share 99%of our genome with chimps, but they garbled it, and we had no chance to reply.

Then we did our summations. I used very little time, but stated that they ignored the topic of the debate, had no answers for all of my data in my Powerpoint talk, and that scientists were indeed working hard on the problem [of the origin of the first life — NM] and had successfully solved most of the steps, even if there’s still more to do. Shermer had plenty of time left, so he posed the question again: who is the Intelligent Designer, an alien or some deity? Who designed the designer? Meyer and Sternberg repeated their strange idea of science, and that was it. No mention of the “persecution” at the Smithsonian (even though I was well prepared to ambush them here with what I know). No attempt to brag about their “peer-reviewed” papers (and I was prepared to cut that to pieces, and point out that my more than 200 peer-reviewed articles far outstrip the entire Discovery Institute’s pathetic list). No mention of many of the other things the PT members had anticipated, and I was prepared for. In short, a totally weird experience.

We must have done something right to rattle Meyer as we did, getting under his skin so that he tried to question my qualifications to talk about molecular biology (and then I cut in with “I have a degree in biology”), pull out his “condescension” sympathy line, and now the DI flacks are now busy trying to spin and lie their way out of the debacle. Even though I know I was pretty intense and talked too fast for many in the audience, Shermer and I were a effective “good cop/bad cop” routine. Shermer is brilliant at coming off as charming, affable, relaxed, and managed to convince people who value personality over data, where I played the role of high-energy scientist with tons of data they didn’t answer. (Shermer even kidded me at one point by telling the audience that they just got the equivalent of 15 weeks of lectures in 15 minutes). Of course, we know that most of the audience comes in with their minds made up, but we got lots of applause despite our minority status in the audience, and LOTS of congratulations and praise as we were signing books afterwards. Several of the fence-sitters in the audience said I’d convinced them and beat the creationists soundly. That’s as good as we can hope for in this kind of setting with a hostile audience and unfair moderator, and a hard-to-defend affirmative position sprung on us just hours before the debate.

And they’re NOT going to get me to waste my time at this again unless they pay me a LOT of money!