The problem with Shermer's endorsement


A mass of tusks, teeth, and bones. From William Buckland's Reliquiae diluvianae.

The problem with a lot of folks tapped as "authorities" on Charles Darwin is that they don't seem to know much about history. We assume that eminent evolutionary biologists and vocal personalities in the creation/evolution public controversy have a firm grasp of the context and content of Darwin's work, but they often do not. I would much rather hear what Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond, or Martin Rudwick have to say about Victorian science than E.O. Wilson, James Watson, or Richard Dawkins. (Stephen Jay Gould was an exception to this trend, but even he got some things wrong. See John's paper for more on this.)

What got me all riled up about this is Michael Shermer's endorsement quote for a new volume called For the Rock Record. It is a collection of essays refuting creationism by geologists and paleontologists, and it sounds like it will be an interesting book. It is frustrating, then, to see Shermer pay homage to St. Darwin (a construct which does not represent Darwin as he was, but as some wish him to be) in his endorsement;

Creationism began with the fossil record and there it shall end. Before Darwin, the geological strata with their accompanying fossils formed the first geological theory of life on earth--creationism coupled to flood geology. It was Darwin who stood that theory on its head and showed that, in fact, these same fossils could be used to support his new theory of evolution by natural selection. Ever since Darwin, geology has unequivocally supported evolution and not creationism, and yet today Intelligent Design thrives in popular culture. Here at last we have a definitive collection of world-class geologists and paleontologists who systematically demonstrate precisely why geology destroys all design arguments, and reveals instead a deep and rich history of life on earth. A perfect companion to all science courses.

Creationism began with the fossil record, eh? Somehow I doubt whoever wrote the Pentateuch was much concerned with paleontology, but let's assume that Shermer meant that early paleontologists were somewhat similar to the "Flood geologists" of the 20th century. This is a squishy sort of statement because even some paleontologists who believed there was geological evidence of a Flood, like William Buckland, did not attribute to it the entire fossil record. Geologists like Buckland tried to match their reading of the Bible with science, but it was not the same as creationism as we know it now.

Indeed, some early paleontologists like Georges Cuvier did not support a literal reading of Genesis. Cuvier did not publicly support evolution, that is true, but neither was he a "biblical catastrophist" who attributed all geology to events written of in the Bible. Charles Lyell, likewise, was not a flood geologist, and while many early-mid 19th century geologists were religious they were not fundamentalists who believed in a literal Genesis. To essentially equate the founders of geology & paleontology with modern day creationists is an insulting false equivalency.

In Shermer's mind St. Darwin came to the rescue and set everyone straight, but this was not actually so. Paleontology posed some big problems for Darwin, most of all that the fossil record did not contain the finely-graded transitions evolution by natural selection predicted. The fossil record was not inconsistent with his theory, yet it did not provide overwhelming support for it. (If we want to pin down who first applied the idea of evolution to the fossil record, Richard Owen preceded Darwin, if he was not the first to do so.) This was pointed out among some of the earliest paleontological critiques of On the Origin of Species, and Darwin often relied of what could be observed in the present to extrapolate what occurred during the past.

Even those who affirmed that evolution had happened did not always agree on what the mechanism was, and some paleontologists relegated natural selection to a subsidiary role relatively unimportant to evolutionary change. On the creationist side of things, the beginnings of what really could be called "Flood geology" did not begin until the beginning of the 20th century with figures like George McCready Price. Even then, the creationism associated with the American fundamentalist movement had more to do with defending the Bible from a perceived threat than scientifically proving the Bible to be true, and this is where creationism as we now know it is most firmly rooted.

I am not suggesting that the geological record supports creationism or intelligent design, only that the relationship of geological sciences & evolution has been so complex that "Ever since Darwin..." statements only spread confusion. As I have learned while researching the book I am working on the fossil evidence for many major evolutionary transitions has only become known recently. Discoveries made during the past 30-40 years, particularly, have filled in many of the gaps that were frustratingly open (like the origin of birds, whales, humans, etc.).

When confronting creationism it can be tempting to make grand pronouncements that things have been straightforward "ever since Darwin." That isn't the truth, but it makes us feel comfortable. As we enter the "Year of Evolution", though, I hope more people dig a little more deeply into history. The complexities of the history of evolution as an idea make it all the more fascinating, and we shortchange ourselves when we idolize St. Darwin.

[Hat-tip to PZ]

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I'm glad you posted this, Brian. It's an issue that needs to be adressed. Even though it probably doesn't, science, especially paleontology and geology, has, and will, continue to inadvertently contradict the Bible at certain points (Genesis, especially). That's what make Science, science. It's also true that scientists who uphold Natural Selection high, actually forget or don't know the original theory. Another problem with mass printing. Keep posting this stuff, dude!!

Well said.

Darwin's ideas were founded (at least in part) in geological ideas that preceded and were contemporaneous to him. The recognition of the incredible depth of geologic time, dating back to at least the 1700s (Hutton), was a huge achievement in my mind.

In fact, I would say that the lack of understanding for just how deep geologic time is is still one of the major hurdles for broader appreciation of evolution from non-scientists.

One of the things that i love about science is that no one is above reproach. I have a lot of respect for Shermer He does a lot of good work for advancing the embrace of science and reason in our world, but as you so rightly pointed out, that does not preclude him from accountability for what he says. Thanks for the information. I look forward to reading your book.