Stephen Meyer: workin' in the quote mines

Stephen Meyer’s new book, “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design,” has received highly critical reviews from several working scientists. Don Prothero panned the book for (among other things) its misrepresentations of paleontology, and Nick Matzke showed Meyer’s ignorance of (among other things) phylogenetic methods (see also here). Now John Farrell has critically reviewed the book in National Review (behind a $0.25 paywall). Farrell’s review criticizes Meyer’s book on several grounds, but the part of immediate interest here is Meyer’s quote mining of a genuine scientist. I’ll quote from the review at some length below the fold.

In his review Farrell writes:

Consider again the alleged absence of transitional intermediate fossils connecting the Cambrian animals to simpler Precambrian forms. Meyer argues that Darwinian scientists have no explanation for this; indeed, just as Darwin once did, they’ve tried to dismiss this challenge by falling back on the convenient hypothesis that the fossil record was poorly preserved and/or had been insufficiently sampled. Meyer:

Developmental biologist Eric Davidson, of California Institute of Technology, has suggested that the transitional forms leading to the Cambrian animals were “microscopic forms similar to modern marine larvae” and were thus too small to have been reliably fossilized. Other evolutionary scientists, such as Gregory Wray, Jeffrey Levinton, and Leo Shapiro, have suggested that the ancestors of the Cambrian animals were not preserved, because they lacked hard parts such as shells and exoskeletons. They argue that since soft-bodied animals are difficult to fossilize, we shouldn’t expect to find the remains of the supposedly soft-bodied ancestors of the Cambrian fauna in the Precambrian fossil records. University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Charles R. Marshall summarizes these explanations . . .

Meyer then quotes Marshall:

It is important to remember that we see the Cambrian “explosion” through the windows permitted by the fossil and geological records. So when talking about the Cambrian “explosion,” we are typically referring to the appearance of large-body (can be seen by the naked eye) and preservable (and therefore largely skeletonized) forms. . . . If the stem lineages were both small and unskeletonized, then we would not expect to see them in the fossil record.

I went to Marshall’s paper and discovered that this passage had been lifted out of context, with the final statement – the part after Meyer’s ellipsis – tacked on from 15 pages later in the article, a section in which Marshall was commenting on a detailed diagram outlining the various factors scientists deem relevant to understanding the entire Cambrian explosion. The implication of the cut-and-paste quote in Meyer’s account is that a leading paleontologist is, like his colleagues, trying to explain away a significant challenge to evolution: the lack of intermediate forms in the Precambrian period. But in fact, Marshall was not doing that. Here are the key missing words from Marshall’s passage that would have appeared immediately before Meyer’s ellipsis:

Finally, I place the word “explosion” in quotation marks because, while the Cambrian radiation occurred quickly compared with the time between the Cambrian and the present, it still extended over some 20 million years of the earliest Cambrian, or longer if you add in the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran and the entire 55 million year duration of the Cambrian.

The italics are original.

So Meyer (or maybe Casey Luskin, Meyer’s research assistant on the book), mashed up quotations separated by 15 pages in the original to create a statement that the original author did not make. I’m not sure that ellipses zooming past 15 pages is a new land speed record, but it has to be well out in the tail of the distribution. This sounds like a case for John Pieret and the Quote Mine Project.