Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Exchange with Robert Meyer on Gould

As I often do, I sent a link to my article, Idiot of the Week? Or Liar of the Week?, to the target of my criticism, Robert Meyer, and invited a response. That has led to a brief exchange of e-mails, which I will reprint here along with a further response to the last one from Mr. Meyer. I will put his words in italics and mine in regular type. Here is the first response he made, interspersed with the reply I made in e-mail:

Checked out your article. Interesting disscussion. But, of course saying that Punctuated Equilibrium is nothing like the Hopeful Monster theory, etc. rings hallow when there is little functional difference in principle.

Again, your ignorance of this subject is stunningly obvious. There is an enormous difference, not only in principle but in reality. But I doubt you have ever bothered to read even a single paper by Goldschmidt, on his “hopeful monster” notion, or by Gould and Eldredge on PE. Nowhere do Gould and Eldredge advocate saltation as a source of speciation, which is what Goldschmidt advocated. PE does not require any mechanism for speciation that is any different from any other model of evolution. In fact, the genius of PE was that it applied normal speciation mechanisms and population genetics to the question of what the fossil record would look like as a result. If the dominant mode of speciation is allopatric rather than sympatric, as numerous studies on population genetics going back to at least Mayr’s work in the 50s and 60s have shown, then the patterns found in the fossil record are what would be expected. Again, even a cursory familiarity with genetics and evolutionary theory would help you avoid making silly statements like this.

This is not a case where saying “that’s stupid” is just a way of saying “I disagree” – this is objectively stupid. PE is not a theory of genetics, it is the application of genetics to paleontology. Goldschmidt’s argument for hopeful monsters required an entirely different mechanism for speciation. They are not only different in function and principle, they aren’t even addressing the same question. PE does not address the question of what causes speciation, it only addresses how modes of speciation common to all of evolutionary theory would impact the patterns in the fossil record. Goldschmidt was suggesting an entirely new mechanism for speciation, one that is rejected by all evolutionary theorists, including Gould.

I also noted that your website seemed to be another infidel preaching to the congregation forum. I suppose this is your greater service to mankind-your attempt at sweeping away the theological debris of slavery and catapulting us into a new age of liberating enlightenment! Well have at it my friend, but it ain’t going to happen arguing about the origins of formations of bones!

You are clearly throwing around terms you don’t even understand in an attempt to sound far more educated than you are. The phrase “formations of bones” isn’t even coherent, nor do I address any such thing on my blog.

For you and I, it comes down to one simple axiom. Either I am wrong or else you are wrong in what you believe(although technically we could both be wrong). If I’m wrong I’m no worse off then you are in being correct; not so the other way around. I can’t live with such an untenable predicament, I hope that you can. As I stated, the test of a philosophy is not in the living with it, as much as the dying by it. No witty remarks can change your position.

Pascal’s Wager is no more compelling now than it was when he thought of it.

And I should have added at the time, but did not, that Pascal’s Wager has exactly nothing to do with the substance of my critique of Meyer’s article. He made the following claims: that Gould “admitted” that there were no transitional fossils and that therefore evolution was “in crisis”; that he therefore invented PE as a way to get out of that dilemma; and that PE was identical to Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monster” speciation hypothesis. All three of those arguments are completely and utterly false, and anyone with even a cursory understanding of basic biology would know that they were. The fact that Meyer made them can only mean one of two things – either he is ignorant of the subject and doesn’t know that they’re false, in which case he shouldn’t be making bold claims on the subject in the first place, or he is not ignorant of the subject and is simply lying. Here is the second e-mail from Mr. Meyer, in response to what was written above.

I’ll call your bluff here. Since you took the time to inform me that I’m stupid, then I’m sure that you won’t mind giving me some links or a few book titles that will help “educate” me as you say. I do like to keep abreast of the lastest (sic) developments in the opposition camp. And since your (sic) a professional debater, that shouldn’t be too threatening. I’m really not interested in any links that are devoted to mud-slinging though. One can go through all the trappings of presenting themselves as a technician, yet convince nobody on account of their presentation style.

There is no bluff to call. The one who was bluffing was you, in claiming to know what Gould “admitted” and believed without ever bothering to read anything he wrote on the subject. I already gave you a link in my original response to Gould’s article on the very arguments that you made. I’d start there. But frankly, you don’t need the latest developments; you need to understand the very basics of evolutionary theory. But see, here’s the thing – you should already have done that research. An intellectually honest person takes the time to understand a subject before making bold claims about it. There are lots of subjects about which I know virtually nothing. You know why you’ll never hear me criticizing, for example, Steven Hawking’s theories on black hole formation? Because I am not competent to offer such a criticism. I know virtually nothing about the physics of cosmology and it would take an enormous amount of study before I would feel qualified to speak on that subject. So I don’t.

What baffles me about not only this article, but millions like it, is that people who obviously know nothing about a subject nonetheless spout off about it. One would think that even if they were not at all concerned with intellectual honesty or whether they really were correct in their claims, they would at least avoid doing so just to avoid looking foolish when someone who actually does know the field points out why they’re wrong. But then perhaps Mr. Meyer just assumed that no one who read that website would know enough about it to offer a critique of it. But that still leaves the issue of intellectual honesty in place.

Here’s a good place to start, since you’re making claims specifically about PE. If you do not know what the terms “allopatric speciation” or “cladogenesis” mean, then you have no business making any statements whatsoever about what PE says or what it was designed to explain. Those are very basic concepts in evolution. You don’t need a PhD to understand them. You just need a layman’s understanding of the concepts. And if you want to get a basic understanding of PE, I recommend reading this FAQ by my friend Wes Ellsberry.

I really think you missed the whole purpose of the editorial though. Noboby is going to mistake an opinion piece for a technical research paper.

And no one thinks it should be a technical research paper. But if you’re going to say “Scientist X says Y”, then you damn well better have read the work of scientist X to know if he really DID say Y. Is that in any way unreasonable? Are you really going to take the position that since it wasn’t a “technical research paper”, there are no standards for accuracy that you are obligated to maintain? Opinion pieces that contain either outright falsehoods or lies about the views of someone should be held to the same standards of honesty and intellectual rigor as any other claim, shouldn’t they?

The editorial was presented as a philosophical piece to illustrate the lengths scholars will go to, in order to avoid having to consider the possibility of creationism; hence the quotation from Nagel.

But what you actually illustrated was the lengths YOU would go to in falsely representing the views of Gould. Every single statement you made about Gould’s views was not only false, it was the exact opposite of what he actually believed and said on the subject. You didn’t just get it a little bit wrong. You didn’t just interpret something differently. Your representation of his views was 180 degrees opposite to his actual views.

As far as Nagel is concerned, I couldn’t possibly care less why this obscure law professor is an atheist, since I am neither an atheist nor would I share his reasons for being one if I was. I am interested in the falsity of your statements about evolution, and particularly about Gould’s views on it, something you seem frantic not to discuss.

You are evidently more benevolent then myself. If I thought someone’s writing were foolish or silly, it would serve my cause better if I just let them hang themselves by continuing on. And besides, some people actually liked the piece.

I’m not interested in “serving a cause” other than making sure that false statements get corrected. My cause, if I have one, is simply pursuit of the truth. Your statements were completely false. And I don’t care if a million people “liked” your article, it was still wrong.

You go to the ends of the earth to spell out the technical distinctions between PE and Hopeful Monster-and you do it well.

What I spelled out were not “technical distinctions”, they are enormous differences. PE and Goldschmidt’s hypothesis are not just “technically distinct”, they address entirely different questions. One doesn’t have to “go to the ends of the earth” (you do have a talent for the meaningless rhetorical flourish) to understand or show the differences. One merely has to have a basic understanding of the ideas. Which, again, one really should have before making claims about it.

In doing so you miss the larger point though. Neither hypothesis would be neccessary if Darwin’s original theory had panned out. Yet neither Gould or Goldschmidt consider the possibility that evolution may never have happened. You’re not trying to tell me that evolution is any more than a metaphysical hypothesis are you? Oops another dumb statement.

You’re right, that’s another dumb statement, and another meaningless bit of rhetoric attached to a silly claim. And here again, even a basic understand would help you avoid these ridiculous statements. Darwin’s “original theory” was a very broad and simple model of the natural history of life on earth – the notion that all modern life forms are derived from a common ancestor through descent with modification as a result of natural selection. That theory has “panned out” very well. It has been confirmed by a century and a half of research. But there were many things that Darwin did not understand, which is hardly surprising since he didn’t even know about Mendelian genetics. But it is simply false to say that PE was developed because evolution hadn’t “panned out”. PE was not developed to explain away anything, it was developed the way all theories are developed, to explain a set of data. And – yet again – if you had taken the time to actually read Gould and Eldredge’s work on the subject, you would know this.

I think the problem your (sic) going to encounter gaining converts is that in saying “your position dumb-my position enlightened”(I’m not just talking about my piece), it that there are only so many 160+ I.Q. folks on the Bell curve, and you can’t reach them all with arcane arguments. Few people are going to spent the time trying to understand.

LOL. This just becomes more and more ridiculous as it goes along. I have no interest in “gaining converts” (converts to WHAT?). My interest is simply in countering nonsense. Your article was nonsense. One does not need a 160 IQ to understand basic evolutionary theory. But I find it fascinating that you seem more interested in who is going to be convinced than you are in making sure that the statements you make on the subject are accurate. This is not an exercise in persuasion. There is a basic truth here. Either Gould had the views that you attributed to him or he did not. If he did not, then you should not claim that he did. We can at least agree on that, can’t we?

Comments

  1. #1 Tim B.
    July 26, 2004

    Bottom-line: creationists are threatened by evolution, so why in the world would they wish to increase their discomfort by actually trying to understand allopatric speciation or cladogenesis? Since they are already in possession of a sufficiently gratifying truth, why waste time studying anything contrary. Therefore, whatever little they do know about evolution will always be, in principle, enough to attack it.

  2. #2 OGeorge
    July 26, 2004

    Nice try Ed…but you can’t teach pigs to sing. They’re really nice critters, but some things are just flat beyond them. People who don’t accept the fact of evolution, don’t accept it because they need something it can’t supply; peace for their immortal souls. It’s unfortunate that they have to knowingly lie to prop up their (intellectually lazy) beliefs.

  3. #3 Paige
    July 26, 2004

    I love what you are doing here, Ed, but I wonder why you bother. I’m willing to place a wager, that Mr. Meyer will never even address this issue of him getting Gould’s position wrong. He will wander around it until you are blue in the face, bringing up philosophy and rhetoric but not actually ever discussing what Gould actually said. There’s no benefit to Mr. Meyer of addressing your points, or finding out what Gould actually said.

  4. #4 Reed A. Cartwright
    July 26, 2004

    Ed, you should really point out your exchange with meyers on PT.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    July 26, 2004

    Reed-

    I just did so. Thanks.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    July 26, 2004

    To those who wonder why I bother:

    I do not write posts like this in order to educate the person being corrected. Mr. Meyer appears quite impenetrable and I doubt it is possible to educate him. He will likely continue to change the subject and obfuscate. Believe me, I’ve been through enough of these arguments to know that. I write primarily for two reasons. First, because an undecided reader may see the exchange and I might help them understand why the arguments from creationists are so bad. Second, because I am just constitutionally incapable of allowing nonsense to be spoken without pointing it out. We all have our crosses to bear. :)

  7. #7 shulamite
    July 26, 2004

    Mr. Brayton,

    This is interesting. You are merely trying to make a point of attribution, and clarify the views of Mr. Gould. And yet the first three comments on this post presume that you are speaking as to the truth or falsity of evolution/creationism.

    This is why I brought up previously that it is important to remember that all the theories might be false- by which I mean they might be anything from outright lies (pseudo- science) to partial explanations of things (Newtonian physics), perhaps even the best but not wholly adequate explanations.

    If you are not discussing the truth of the matter, I would hope you would make this clear to everyone, both evolutionists and creationists.

  8. #8 shulamite
    July 26, 2004

    oops, I meant, when I said “I hope you would make that clear…” I meant to say “I hope that you would make that clear again”

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    July 26, 2004

    This is interesting. You are merely trying to make a point of attribution, and clarify the views of Mr. Gould. And yet the first three comments on this post presume that you are speaking as to the truth or falsity of evolution/creationism.

    While I would be happy to discuss the truth or falsity of evolution or creationism, and often do, that was not the point of this critique. Even if evolution is 100% false, Mr. Meyer’s claims about Gould’s views and the nature of Punctuated Equilibrium are completely inaccurate and untrue. The real point I’ve been trying to make is how intellectually dishonest the whole thing is. Tim and OGeorge were commenting on what motivates Mr. Meyer to distort the truth, and why he apparently feels he has no obligation to be concerned about whether they were true, and they believe, correctly I suspect, that he does so because he views evolution as a threat to his religious views.

    This is why I brought up previously that it is important to remember that all the theories might be false- by which I mean they might be anything from outright lies (pseudo- science) to partial explanations of things (Newtonian physics), perhaps even the best but not wholly adequate explanations.

    All of which is quite reasonable, but it doesn’t really have much to do with whether Meyer’s claims are correct. Nor, I maintain, does it have much to do with whether evolution is true or false.

  10. #10 Tim B.
    July 26, 2004

    Shulamite,

    Since mine was the first post of the three you cited: I was being truth-neutral, opting only to give my opinion about those I’ve encountered who believe in the literal Biblical account of creation and their reluctance to learn about evolution.

    The mechanics of revealed truth, more often than not in my experience, work according to principles of closemindedness and willful ignorance. That’s simply the dynamic, regardless of whether or not creationism might be true.

  11. #11 Mike Price
    July 26, 2004

    What the heck, Shulamite? Do you go around to every single message board and make that same tired old point? Science is about what we can observe and the conclusions we can pull from that. You can ALWAYS state that our observations might be wrong due to some unforeseen reason, but unless that reason is obviously present, why even bother? Why go into science with a defeatist attitude? That we might make incorrect observations is an unstated caveat in science, and one that scientists take into consideration. But there’s no reason to go about throwing the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater on the off-chance that science could possibly, just maybe be wrong; especially when there’s strong evidence to support the theory.

  12. #12 Russell
    July 26, 2004

    If that’s “intellectual conservatism”, one shudders to think what the “un-intellectual” variety looks like.

  13. #13 Jon Rowe
    July 26, 2004

    I liked the Pascal’s Wager point. What kind of a God do these people believe in? Alan Dershowitz has some good remarks about this: Pascal’s Wager turns the cosmos into a great big Chicago School of Economics Cost/Benefit analysis.

  14. #14 Steve
    July 26, 2004

    The reductio ad absurdem of Pascal’s Wager is that it applies equally to ALL religions. What if you decide to be a good Christian your whole life, on the off chance that it might actually be true, and then die and discover that Islam is the true religion? You can’t be both a good Christian and a good Muslim at the same time.

  15. #15 Jon Rowe, Esq.
    July 26, 2004

    Your remarks on Pascal’s Wager reminds me of a joke that Reagan used to tell. Let me paraphrase it (since I don’t remember the exact way that he — or actually second hand from Dinesh D’Souza — told it). A Christian Fundamentalist and a Catholic are talking. One says to the other: “I don’t believe what happened…Biblical prophesy has just been fulfilled…and there’s good news and bad news.” The other says, “what’s the good news?” Answer: “Jesus has just returned to Earth and made his second coming.” Reply: “What could possibly be the bad news?” Answer: “He made his return in Salt Lake City.”

  16. #16 PZ Myers
    July 26, 2004

    You know, the sharpest distinction between PE and “hopeful monsters” is that PE is about how populations change, while Goldschmidt’s ideas were about the transformation of individuals in development. They aren’t talking about the same processes at all.

    One thing I have to add, though, is that Goldschmidt was actually addressing some important and interesting questions, and his ideas have been consistently misrepresented. If you ever read that book from the 1940s, you’ll find lots of stuff to make you go “hmmm.” The basis for his ideas was the demonstrably factual observation that genomes encode multiple forms: the examples he used were sex differences, larval and adult forms, and phenocopies. Nowadays we might add the fact that single point mutations can have dramatic phenotypic effects, and that the relationship between the magnitude of a genetic change and the consequences to morphology are not simple or linear.

    Goldschmidt’s only real problem was that he was alone. His fellow developmental biologists were all still strongly focused on experimental embryology, while the movers and shakers of the neo-Darwinian Synthesis were all nearly completely oblivious to development and failed to understand what he was saying…something that is still true, but at least it’s all being slowly corrected.

  17. #17 Marty Erwin
    July 26, 2004

    Ed,

    Never wrestle with a pig…you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

  18. #18 Ed Brayton
    July 27, 2004

    PZ wrote:

    One thing I have to add, though, is that Goldschmidt was actually addressing some important and interesting questions, and his ideas have been consistently misrepresented. If you ever read that book from the 1940s, you’ll find lots of stuff to make you go “hmmm.” The basis for his ideas was the demonstrably factual observation that genomes encode multiple forms: the examples he used were sex differences, larval and adult forms, and phenocopies. Nowadays we might add the fact that single point mutations can have dramatic phenotypic effects, and that the relationship between the magnitude of a genetic change and the consequences to morphology are not simple or linear.

    I think is what Gould meant when he said that he was attracted to some aspects of the non-caricatured version of Goldschmidt’s work. He pointed out that Goldschmidt had been caricatured by his opponents and that there was more reasonable perception of them that had some legitimacy to it, and I agree with you that he was right. You can particularly look at the evo-devo studies that show that changes in the developmental genes can make staggering changes in phenotype in the organism.

  19. #19 Dave S
    July 27, 2004

    Jon,

    I also heard this joke, but in a more compact and I think funnier way:

    The Pope is in his study when his assistant comes in and says, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Jesus is on the phone and He wants to talk to you.”

    “That’s terrific”, says the Pope, “what could possibly be the bad news?”.

    “He called collect from Salt Lake City.”

  20. #20 KeithB
    July 28, 2004

    Too bad that all that Newton stuff did not work out either. After all, relativity came along and showed us just how wrong and useless it was.

  21. #21 Jonathan Abbey
    July 28, 2004

    It should also be noted that the quote that Robert Meyer attributes to Julian Huxley in the piece is misattributed.

    From an old talk.origins post on the matter:

    >From google groups advanced search
    From: Ed. Stoebenau (rot13-rfgbrora@ig.rqh)
    Subject: Re: Letter to James Kennedy
    Newsgroups: talk.origins
    Date: 1999/01/04

    On 4 Jan 1999 11:36:23 -0500, harshman.diespamdie@sjm.infi.net (John
    Harshman) wrote:

    Numerous times (radio programs, his book _Why I Believe_ [1980], and
    probably other places) Kennedy has claimed that Julian Huxley was on a
    PBS television show wherein when asked why everyone excepted
    evolution, it was “to do away with sexual mores.” I think it is very
    safe to say that this quote is entirely made up, and the TV show in
    question never occurred. Further, I think it is very safe to say that
    the forger of the incident is Kennedy himself.

    First, as a short history of the quote it should be noted that it is
    an abridgement of a seriously out of context quote by Aldous Huxley in
    his book _Ends and Means_ [1937]. So far, the oldest misquoting I
    have found has been an article entitles either “Confessions of an
    Atheist” or “Confessions of a Professed Atheist,” attributed to Aldous
    Huxley and appearing in some magazine in 1968, two (?) years after
    Huxley’s death, IIRC (forget the title, something like _Insight on the
    News_ or _Perspective on the News_ or similar). The earliest use by
    Kennedy of this quote is in _Why I Believe_, where he attributes it to
    Julian Huxley on an unnamed TV show. Interestingly, and IMO a smoking
    gun to his dishonesty, Kennedy footnotes the quote to Henry Morris’s
    _The Troubled Waters of Evolution_, page 85 (or maybe 58).
    Interestingly, that quote nowhere occurs in Morris’s book; it is a
    false citation (and why would one cite a book for a television show?)
    He has repeated this claim on his radio show as recently as 1998. He
    has thus had numerous time to retract it, or, at a very minimum, stop
    using the claim, though he has not. I thus think that the story was
    fabricated by Kennedy, and is just one example of his dishonesty.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    July 28, 2004

    Thanks Jonathan. I didn’t even bother to chase down the quotes, but I knew the Huxley one was a fake. It is of course something of a cottage industry among creationists to invent or distort quotes from scientists. We jokingly refer to this as working in the quote mines. There are literally dozens of examples.

  23. #23 Bill Ware
    July 29, 2004

    ‘If that’s “intellectual conservatism”, one shudders to think what the “un-intellectual” variety looks like.’

    Well, Russell,

    If you insist on a look, come on down to Dayton, TN for the annual reenactment of the 1925 Scopes [Monkey] Trial.

    In the meantime, see this:

    http://www.rhea.xtn.net/index.php?template=news.view.subscriber&table=news&newsid=113300

  24. #24 KeithB
    July 29, 2004

    Aldous died in November, 1963. (Ironically the same day that JFK and CS Lewis died.)

    But we *do* know that Gish said “Bullfrog” on TV.