Monday, August 28, 2006

Review of Jonathon Wells's new book

Jonathon Wells, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, Regnery Publishing, 2006. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.

Recently a short letter of mine was published in The New York Times. The letter criticized a boilerplate, straw man attack on intelligent design written by a crusading Darwinist—an all too common occurrence, sadly. I received two letters castigating my audacity in criticizing Darwin.

One letter claimed that no amount of empirical evidence could support design because design is not a physical property. Exactly so. This confirmed my letter's comment that opposition to ID is based on methodological naturalism: no intelligent causes are allowed in the game. Why is this? It is because this is how they—the Darwinian priesthood—set up the rules (dogma). In other words, the question is begged. That is a fallacy.

Another letter accused ID proponents of Lysenkoism; that is, they would get their way by strong arm tactics, as did the Soviet scientist who shut down dissent to his ideas I the old USSR. I wrote back saying that the Darwinists are the real Lysenkoists, since they constantly shut down ID from being presented in public institutions and attack ID proponents personally. (Wells gives plentiful evidence for that.) Moreover, ID people have never advocated banning the teaching of Darwinism. They only want to allow it to be challenged with scientific evidence to the contrary. (Wells also demonstrates that Lysenko, common opinion to the contrary, did not oppose Darwinism, but rather Mendelian genetics.)

These letters highlight just some of the wrongheaded responses of Darwinists against ID. Wells addresses all the rest, such as:

1. ID is religious, not scientific.
2. ID is the same as creationism.
3. ID makes no scientific predictions and is not testable.
4. ID proponents want to restrict the teaching of Darwinism.
5. No ID arguments have been published in peer review literature.

But Wells also presents the positive case for ID with clarity, logic, and ample documentation. He thoroughly and engagingly explains some of the more rarified ID concepts, such as specified complexity, with aplomb but never glibly. (Don’t let the title of this book deceive you; it is never flippant, glib, or unserious.) Wells also repeatedly skewers Darwinian fallacies. My favorite fallacy is the claim that ID is not testable, but that all the evidence is against it. If it is not testable, then no evidence could be marshaled for it or against it.

Wells covers the whole spectrum of issues related to Darwinism and ID: scientific, philosophical, cultural, and political. His concluding chapter predicts the eventual ascendance of ID over Darwinism, given the strength of its evidence and the unimpressive strategies of its antagonists.

This book is ideal for the neophyte who wants to get to the bottom of the debate. However, the more seasoned reader (such as myself) will also benefit from some new ideas she might have missed in her other reading as well as from the sheer pleasure of reading such a well-crafted and timely presentation.

11 comments:

Frank Walton said...

I loved this book. I got it the moment it hit the bookstores.

John Stockwell said...

You should be furious!

Jonathon Wells is the only person resembling an actual scientist in the Discovery Institute group and he is sitting around writing popularized materials! He should get to work and do some real science!

I haven't read his book, so I can't comment, except to suggest that readers might also find Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller, a good read. In contrast to Wells, Miller publishes enough real science that he can afford to put out a pop-sci book from time to time without losing his credibility.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Wells refutes Miller's attack on Behe in the book.

Wells also reports on more scholarly work he has done and is doing.

Ed Darrell said...

I think it's difficult to defend the work of Jonathan Wells. He denigrates good researchers, he misstates science. He attributes things to scientists they do not say.

I wonder, once again, what could compel anyone to look at this work and defend it. There is a moral standard that books should measure up to -- and this latest book does not.

But you defend it?

Philosophy that defends the unethical always mystifies me.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Ed:

These are all general accusations without any arguments. Engage Well's arguments, don't just attack him--and me.

Darwinists can no longer take the supposedly high ground and issue condemnations from on high. They need to argue. Typically, they don't. Wells explains why they do this in his final chapter.

Ed Darrell said...

What's to engage? Wells starts with silly claims, and it goes downhill from there.

For example, in chapter 1, Wells makes some grand statements about "errors" biologists make in dealing with developmental biology -- but it turns out that it is Wells who has erred, if we're being charitable.

In one place, for example, he appears to confuse the pharyngula and gastrula stage. P. Z. Myers, an expert in pharyngula state, puts it like this:
This is the heart of Wells’s strategy: pick comments by developmental biologists referring to different stages, which say very different things about the similarity of embryos, and conflate them. It’s easy to make it sound like scientists are willfully lying about the state of our knowledge when you can pluck out a statement about the diversity at the gastrula stage, omit the word “gastrula”, and pretend it applies to the pharyngula stage.

Literally. He is actually that dishonest.

Here’s how Wells quotes William Ballard (a well known elder developmental biologist, who has done a lot of work on fish and is therefore familiar to me):


It is “only by semantic tricks and subjective selection of evidence,” by “bending the facts of nature,” that one can argue that the early embryo stages of vertebrates “are more alike than their adults.”

(pp. 30,31)


Always be suspicious when you see partial phrases quoted and strung together by a creationist. Little alarm bells should be going off like mad in your head.

This is from a paper in which Ballard is advocating greater appreciation of the morphogenetic diversity of the gastrula stage—that is, a very early event, one that is at the base of that hourglass, where developmental biologists have been saying for years that there is a great deal of phylogenetic diversity. Here’s what Ballard actually said:

Before the pharyngula stage we can only say that the embryos of different species within a single taxonomic class are more alike than their parents. Only by semantic tricks and subjective selection of evidence can we claim that “gastrulas” of shark, salmon, frog, and bird are more alike than their adults.

(Ballard WW (1976))


See what I mean? He has lifted a quote from a famous scientist that applies to the gastrula stage, stripped out the specific referents, and made it sound as if it applies to the pharyngula stage. It’s a simple game, one he repeats over and over in this chapter.
[end quote from Dr. Myers]

I don't think one need be a practicing biologist to understand that such doctoring of quotes is unacceptable in academia, in law, and in reasoned discussion. It's unethical.

In my experiences with Dr. Wells he has cited experts, claiming they say exactly the opposite of what they really said -- every single citation in his chapter on moths in his earlier book, for example, had such quotes. Anyone could tell simply by checking out the original sources.

What is the high ground here, Dr. Groothuis? Wells has started out slinging mud. I pointed out that I find his style of quote doctoring to be dishonest. Dr. Myers points out it is scientifically inaccurate, though a non-scientist who doesn't check out the original quotes might not notice.

It seems to me Dr. Wells is banking that his audience will not check out the original science documents. He is, in short, playing Christians for suckers.

That is the true substance. Should we follow those who argue dishonestly? I think not.

That his arguments are scientifically vacuous simply seals the deal.

Now, what sort of substance do you care to argue other than that? His science is wrong, plus he is dishonest. As a Christian, I cannot stand by and let such dastardy go without comment.

Ed Darrell said...

Here is where one finds Dr. Myers' full fisk of the first chapter: http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/08/the_politically_3.html

John Stockwell said...

A good book for laymen on the topic of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo)
is
Endless forms most beautiful
by Sean B. Carroll, a leading expert in the field.

Ben Z said...

I've come to always be cautionary of attacks on Wells. How easy it is to make such a refutation and claim all of these things without letting him respond.

For instance, he has made massive responses to earlier accusations:
http://www.idthefuture.com/2005/12/icons_of_evolution_a_response.html#more
(I don't know where parts 1 and 2 went).

It makes those who say he is dishonest look suspicious. This doesn't prove that Wells wasn'y wrong in this instance, but it does show a desire among many to make him out to be a kook before anyone starts to listen.

Ed Darrell said...

Wells responds, except when one points out that he commits academic sins. I've e-mailed him, noted the problems in testimony (to the Texas Education Agency), and made it generally known -- as have many others.

His response? Judith Hooper wrote a whole book about the Kettlewell research controversy, and spent a page and a half talking about how reluctant the moth scientists were to talk to her, since they had already been so grotesquely misportrayed by Wells. They said the creationists would seize on her book. She noted how silly that would be, because her book notes the controversy is not over the whether of evolution, but the specific how in a specific case.

Sure enough -- in his contribution to the Texas Education Agency, Wells listed Hooper as supporting his views, though of course, she had said exactly the opposite.

He's never responded. He can't possibly defend the quotes. Each and every one of his sources has repudiated his version of the stuff. What possible response could be made?

Maybe its genetic.

Ed Darrell said...

Ben, don't take my word for it. Go check out his footnotes. See if they support his case.

I've never known anyone to check the footnotes to say he's dealing squarely.