Stranger Fruit

On Evolutionary Monographs [repost]

For some years now, we have been hearing about Paul Nelson’s forthcoming monograph On Common Descent, which one assumes will stem from his now [eight] year old PhD in philosophy Common Descent, Generative Entrenchment, and the Epistemology in Evolutionary Inference. As the DI/CSC website notes, “[h]is forthcoming monograph, On Common Descent, critically evaulates the theory of common descent, and is being edited for the series Evolutionary Monographs.” The Wedge document notes:

William Dembski and Paul Nelson, two CRSC Fellows, will very soon have books published by major secular university publishers, Cambridge University Press and The University of Chicago Press, respectively. … Nelson’s book, On Common Descent, is the seventeenth book in the prestigious University of Chicago “Evolutionary Monographs” series and the first to critique neo-Darwinism.

Ignoring that the book has been in press for nearly seven years now (surely a record!), these references had been puzzling me for some while. Though trained as an evolutionary biologist, I had never read “the prestigious University of Chicago ‘Evolutionary Monographs’ series” and had never seen it referred to in research papers. Indeed, I had – wrongly – assumed that the Evolutionary Monographs series had something to do with the University of Chicago Press. Checking the UCP website revealed no such series. So, off to the library I went.

Evolutionary Monographs was formed in 1979 by the paleontologist Leigh Van Valen. with an initial mission statement as follows:

Evolutionary Monographs is a new monograph series for all the evolutionary half of biology, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Evolution. The series is designed for monographs and other papers that are two long for unsubsidized publication in ordinary journals. (J. Morph 164: 311)

All good. It leads one to wonder what types of “monographs” are intended. In the fifteen years between 1979 and 1994, fifteen monographs appeared, usually in the 60 to 80 page range. Virtually all of these are taxonomic or descriptive works what – for various reasons – usually are eschewed by mainstream journals. This is not to argue that the works below are not valuable or professional, far from it, but that Evolutionary Monographs is a specialized outlet for certain types of publication, chiefly in taxonomy or morphology. Indeed, the published monographs are very similar to papers that would appear in a journal such as Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Are we sensing a pattern here?

  1. The comparative osteology and phylogeny of the Beryciformes (Pisces: Telostei) / Steven J. Zehren. (1979, 389 pp)
  2. Fossil history of the rodent genus Sigmodon / Robert A. Martin. (1979, 36pp.)
  3. Swain Quarry of the Fort Union Formation, middle Paleocene (Torrejonian), Carbon County, Wyoming, geologic setting and mammalian fauna / J. Keith Rigby Jr. (1980, 179pp)
  4. Biology of Ithycerus noveboracensis (Forster) (Coleoptera) and weevil phylogeny / Michael Sanborne. (1981, 80pp)
  5. The new world species of Cynanchum L. subgenus Mellichampia (A. Gray ex S. Wats.) Woods. (Asclepiadaceae) / Eric Sundell. (1981, 63pp.)
  6. Miocene-Pleistocene planktic foraminifers from D.S.D.P. sites 208 and 77 : and phylogeny and classification of Cenozoic species / Barry G. Fordham. (1986, 200 pp.)
  7. On competition / C.T. de Wit. (1986, 82pp)*
  8. A revision of the genus Prionocera (Diptera, Tipulidae) / Fenja Brodo. (1987, 93 pp)
  9. Revision of the Nearctic Dicrotendipes Kieffer, 1913 (Diptera, Chironomidae) / J.H. Epler. (1987, 109pp)
  10. Paleocene dinosaurs or Cretaceous ungulates in South America / Leigh M. Van Valen. (1988, 79pp)
  11. Revision of the weevil genus Tyloderma Say (Col., Curculionidae) in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the West Indies / Guillermo J. Wibmer. (1989, 111pp)
  12. A comparative study of the developmental osteology of Syngnathus scovelli and Hippocampus zosterae (Pisces, Syngnathidae) and its phylogenetic implications / Marie Y. Azzarello. (1990, 90pp)
  13. Global extinctions, recoveries and evolutionary consequences / John C. Briggs. (1990, 47pp)
  14. La fauna local de Punta Peligro, Paleoceno Inferior, de la Provincia del Chubut, Patagonia, Argentina / J.F. Bonaparte, L.M. Van Valen and A. Kramartz. (1993, 61pp)
  15. The origin of the plesiadapid primates and the nature of Purgatorius / Leigh M. Van Valen. (1994, 79pp.)

The last published monographs date from over ten years ago. They are typed manuscripts, nowhere near the quality of printed volumes either from academic presses or from journal publishers. Indeed, the information for authors notes that “[a]ll accepted monographs will be retyped by the author, instructions for this being given with notification of acceptance. Such retyping constitutes page proofs.” As such, Evolutionary Monographs very much resembles Van Valen’s other self-published product, Evolutionary Theory (which I had heard of!).

While it is clear that the production values of the series are perhaps “second tier,” the series does have an editorial board who suggest referees for submissions. In 1994, the board contained some well known names; Gould, Hull, Lewontin, Nevo, Ostrom, Provine, Schopf, Simberloff, Wake, and Wiley.

Regarding theses, the instructions for authors note that “theses are welcomed but must be revised into publishable form. This should be done by the author before submission; otherwise the manuscript will be returned to the author without review.” I have Nelson’s 241 page thesis of August 1998 in front of me. The Wedge document has been dated to the same year. Thus, Nelson completing his PhD and his submission of a modified manuscript must have been separated by very little time. Assuming referees approved – and the Wedge document and other mentions indicate that the manuscript is in press – Nelson appears to be taking an inordinate amount of time to submit his final version to Leigh Van Valen.

Bill Dembski noted in 2000:

I challenge anyone to read Paul Nelson’s “On Common Descent”, which critiques Darwin’s idea of common descent from the vantage of developmental biology, and show why it alone among all the volumes in the University of Chicago’s Evolutionary Monographs Series does not belong there

[Six] years later, we’re still waiting. Evolutionary Monographs is not really the “prestigious” outlet that ID supporters would like one to believe; it is largely a venue for taxonomic work, and in that sense On Common Descent does not really belong there. Given that Nelson’s manuscript must have passed muster with referees chosen by the editorial board, one is left asking how come a PhD thesis that was good enough for the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy, has not been submitted to a more prestigeous publisher?

[I originally posted this on April 30th 2005. Nelson offered a reply here and later noted that he and Dembski "have been working on a shorter article, with some of the monograph's main points, which we plan to submit to the best peer-reviewed biology journal we can find." Still waiting.]