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Why Are Darwinian Atheists Afraid to Read?

posted by David Klinghoffer
It’s somehow cheering to know that while the pompous know-nothingism of Darwinian atheists in the U.S. is matched by those in England, so too not only in our country but in theirs the screechy ignorance receives its appropriate reply from people with good sense and an open mind. Some of the latter include atheists who, however, arrived at their unbelief through honest reflection rather than through the mind-numbing route of fealty to Darwinist orthodoxy. Such a person is Thomas Nagel, the distinguished NYU philosopher. He praised Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design in the Times Literary Supplement as a “book of the year,” concluding with this enviable endorsement:

[A] detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter — something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin….Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

Nagel’s review elicited howls from Darwinists who made no effort to pretend they had even weighed the 611-page volume in their hand, much less read a page of it. On his blog, Why Evolution Is True, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne complained that they hadn’t ought to let such an opinion even appear in the august columns of the TLS:

“Detailed account”?? How about “religious speculation”?

Nagel is a respected philosopher who’s made big contributions to several areas of philosophy, and this is inexplicable, at least to me. I have already called this to the attention of the TLS, just so they know.

No doubt the editors appreciated his letting them know they had erred by printing a view not in line with the official catechism. Coyne then appealed for help. Not having read the book himself, while nevertheless feeling comfortable dismissing it as “religious speculation,” he pleaded:

Do any of you know of critiques of Meyer’s book written by scientists? I haven’t been able to find any on the internet, and would appreciate links.

Coyne was later relieved when a British chemist, Stephen Fletcher, published a critical letter to the editor in the TLS associating Meyer’s argument with a belief in “gods, devils, pixies, fairies” and recommending that readers learn about chemical evolution by, instead, reading up on it elsewhere from an unimpeachable source of scientific knowledge:

Readers who wish to know more about this topic are strongly advised to keep their hard-earned cash in their pockets, forgo Meyer’s book, and simply read “RNA world” on Wikipedia.

Responding in turn with his own letter to the editor, Nagel seemed to express doubt whether the chemist had actually read Signature in the Cell before writing to object to Nagel’s praise:

Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

Nagel’s letter appeared beside another from a different British chemist, John C. Walton at the University of St. Andrews, who presumably did read the book since he blurbs it on the back cover as a “delightful read.” In his letter, Walton reflects:

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, [Fletcher] offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation!

Are you noticing a pattern here at all? All the people who hate Meyer’s book appear not to have read it. So too we have the complaint of Darwinian-atheist agitator P.Z. Myers, a popular blogger and biologist. Myers explains that he was unable to read the book, which he slimes as a “stinker” and as “drivel,” due to his not having received a promised free review copy! But rest assured. The check is in the mail: “I suppose I’ll have to read that 600 page pile of slop sometime…maybe in January.”
Dr. Myers teaches at the Morris, Minnesota, satellite campus of the University of Minnesota, a college well known as the Harvard of Morris, Minnesota. So you know when he evaluates a book and calls it “slop,” a book on which he has not laid an eye, that’s a view that carries weight.
In all seriousness, what is this with people having any opinion at all of a book that, allow me to repeat, they haven’t read and of which, as with Jerry Coyne, they admit they haven’t so much as read a review? Even a far more measured writer like Jonathan Derbybshire, reporting for the New Statesman on the Nagel-TLS dustup, concedes, “I haven’t read Myer’s book, nor am I competent to assess Fletcher’s contention that Nagel had simply got the science wrong.” Honesty counts for something, though Derbyshire (not to be confused with National Review‘s John Derbyshire) might have at least taken the trouble to spell Steve Meyer’s name correctly.
Alas, carelessness and dishonesty are hallmarks of the Darwinian propagandists. Hordes of whom, by the way, have been trying to overwhelm Signature‘s Amazon page. They post abusive “reviews” making, again, little pretense of having turned a single page even as they then try to boost their own phony evaluations by gathering in mobs generated by email lists and clicking on the Yes button at the question, “Was this review helpful to you?” 
Per Amazon’s easily exploited house rules, this has the effect of boosting the “review” to enhanced prominence. It’s a fraudulent tactic, and sadly typical.
Cross-posted at Evolution News & Views.



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Comments read comments(14)
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Sandy

posted December 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm


Here is a good source regarding Darwin
http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/010323.html



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Lauren

posted December 16, 2009 at 8:08 pm


David K,
Have you ever taken a college course in evolution? If not, why?



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Dan

posted December 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm


I guess all those peer-reviewed publications with biological experimental evidence demonstrating intelligent design are wasted on atheists. Oh, wait, there are none.
Interesting criticism of PZ Myers – like a dog nipping at one’s heels, – coming from someone only able to obtain a bachelor’s degree. And, I’m guessing it wasn’t in a very rigorous discipline, either. (the ridiculousness of such statements is best viewed in a mirror)
Then again, perhaps it is merely the will of Isis that directs our educational paths.



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Ray Ingles

posted December 16, 2009 at 10:52 pm


I haven’t read his book, but I read his op-ed flogging it ( http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/07/15/jeffersons_support_for_intelligent_design/ ).
He makes basic mistakes about information theory. For example, he writes that “We know that software comes from programmers. Information – whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in a radio signal – always arises from an intelligent source.”
If he’s using any coherent, mathematically rigorous definition of ‘information’, that’s flatly false. If he’s got some other definition of ‘information’, bully for him, but it’s not what anyone else is talking about when it comes to information theory.
And the notion that software only ‘comes from programmers’, that information must arise “from an intelligent source”, rings extremely hollow to me, since I actually wrote a simulation that developed new, clever software by mutation plus selection. And I know that information didn’t come from me, because several of the developments didn’t just surprise me – they actively confused me and I had to spend a fair amount of effort sussing out how they worked: http://ingles.homeunix.net/sofware/minev/intro.html
I haven’t read the book. Maybe it’s an awesome tour-de-force of intellectual magnificence. But the bits I have read by Meyer – and the reports of others I trust regarding talks he’s given and so forth – leave me… doubtful.



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What's Good for the Goose

posted December 16, 2009 at 11:20 pm


But David, they’re the rational ones. They don’t have to read the book to know it’s drivel. Why, it’s almost like a faith thing to know it’s drivel. And Darwin forbid they actually be confused by potential facts and argument. The grand old man is rolling over in his grave at the unscientific nature of these complaints.



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Chris

posted December 18, 2009 at 4:04 pm


Thanks David, since it got a good review in the Times it must be true.



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Sarah

posted December 19, 2009 at 10:15 am


As another person who didn’t read the book (and, indeed, never heard of it or the controversy) this is an interesting view into how we form our epistemic judgments.
I’m inclined to believe Thomas Nagel, and disinclined to believe in ID. Then I see that the reviews of the book are pitifully uninformative. Nagel’s simply summarizes the preface, taking it at face value. Meyer’s article rehashes some old, familiar ideas about whether it’s possible for complex things to be undesigned. Myers himself is a professional ID-pusher, which weakens his credibility. (I prefer science to come from people who spend as little time as possible advocating to the press about it.) Myers is not, in fact, a scientist at all.
The question of how life began is an old one — so old, in fact, that I was taught about it in high school, along with the now-conventional hypotheses on how organic molecules could have come to be. The RNA world is one of them, and is more than twenty years old; alternatives have been argued, but it’s not pure speculation. It’s been possible to synthesize nucleotides, at least, in the lab, from non-organic components. Wikipedia, incidentally, tends to be very reliable in the sciences, and in fact has once been confirmed to have fewer errors than the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s a good source for general, common knowledge.
I’m willing to guess that there’s not much to this book. The question it’s addressing isn’t new, and the author isn’t involved with new research, so what useful points could he come up with?
My reaction to the idea of “seeing God’s hand in nature” isn’t uniformly negative. A rough deism is actually pretty common among scientists I’ve met. Jefferson’s idea of “Nature’s God” seems like a perfectly natural way of viewing the world, and it is, in fact, how I view the world. It just doesn’t strike me as a hypothesis at all. “Someone designed life” tells us absolutely nothing about how life came to be, in terms of physical and chemical processes. If that’s his thesis (and apparently it is), then no, I don’t need to read the book, because he’s not making a falsifiable claim.



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Mark2

posted December 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm


Sarah writes: “Myers himself is a professional ID-pusher, which weakens his credibility.”
Does this logic apply everywhere? Would you say that the leaders of the climate scientists are professional global warming pushers, which weaken their credibility?
“Meyer’s article rehashes some old, familiar ideas about whether it’s possible for complex things to be undesigned. ”
Old ideas are “rehashed” when you don’t like them, and “raised again” when you do like them.
“Myers (sic) is not, in fact, a scientist at all.”
He was a geophysicist.



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Mergatroid

posted December 19, 2009 at 11:56 pm


@Ray Ingles: “I actually wrote a simulation that developed new, clever software by mutation plus selection.”
Can you describe your selection criteria? I’m just curious if it filtered out ALL the bad stuff, or only, say, half of it. (And if you can define ‘bad’ for me…) Thanks!



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Ray Ingles

posted December 21, 2009 at 8:44 am


Mergatroid: I answer those specific questions at the link I gave. Short version: the only selection criteria are those in nature; “does it survive and reproduce better than its neighbors”?
That’s all the ‘selection criteria’ you need. Seriously, read the link.



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Mergatroid

posted December 21, 2009 at 11:06 pm


It’s a bad link.
And is it true that in nature, the principle of “does it survive and reproduce better than its neighbors” is THE operating principle?



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Scott F

posted December 22, 2009 at 4:33 pm


Nice sweeping generalization, Mr Klinghoffer!
Seriously, if Meyer’s ideas have merit let them undergo the same scrutiny that other theories do – in the lab, the peer-reviewed literature. If he has a compelling argument, some other (presumably non-atheist?) scientists will pick it up, extend it, and create a fruitful framework for new research. Now, if it runs counter to decades of successful science (evolution, methodological naturalism, etc) don’t whine because it is being treated like cold fusion (which still attracts some research). Just because you have written a book doesn’t mean everyone has to spend their time reading it if, in their opinion, it is not promising.
Has the reaction been rude in the blogosphere? You need to get out more. Blogdom is like sports radio, designed to produce noise. More generally, the most vocal element of either side of any debate is the least refined. How many ID-proponents are still trotting out the Second Law of Thermodynamics? If they made the effort to understand it, they would drop that line of argument as the canard it is.



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Mark2

posted December 23, 2009 at 8:20 am


Ray Ingles, I thought you’d appreciate this peer-reviewed article:
“Mere possibility is not an adequate basis for asserting scientific plausibility. A precisely defined universal bound is needed beyond which the assertion of plausibility, particularly in life-origin models, can be considered operationally falsified. But can something so seemingly relative and subjective as plausibility ever be quantified? Amazingly, the answer is, “Yes.” A method of objectively measuring the plausibility of any chance hypothesis (The Universal Plausibility Metric [UPM]) is presented. A numerical inequality is also provided whereby any chance hypothesis can be definitively falsified when its UPM metric of ? is



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Oolon Colluphid

posted January 11, 2010 at 7:23 pm


I haven’t read the book either so I’m not going to comment on it, but I agree it’s bad form (to say the least) to dismiss a book one hasn’t actually read, unless of course it’s Sarah Palin’s latest offering (joke!)
Of course, as the title of Darwin’s book made clear 150 years ago, evolution by natural selection is not a theory to explain how life actually began “from lifeless matter”. No, no; it’s a theory to explain the origin of species.
For those who somehow did not know this (despite the title ‘On the origin of species by means of natural selection’)and who have read Meyer’s book, no doubt he’s done them a favour by disabusing them of this woeful misunderstanding.
I very much doubt that Coyne, PZ Meyers and others are “afraid” to read Stephen Meyer’s book.



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