Another reason to hope there isn’t an afterlife »« To Ireland’s sanity!

It’s summer head-asplodey time!

Gang, don’t try this at home. I’m a trained professional, so I can get away with it, although I do face extreme risk of brain damage.

I am reading two books at once. OK, that part isn’t too scary, I’m actually just alternating between the two — an hour with one at lunch time, an hour or two with another before bed. I trust you all are able to do this, no problem.

It’s the pairing that is the killer. In one corner, I’m reading the marvelously detailed, juicy, thought-provoking The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity by the highly regarded scientists, Erwin and Valentine. In the other corner, the tedious and misleading Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by the highly self-regarded philosopher and creationist apologist, Stephen Meyer.

Some would say I’m mad to do this; others would say the shock of the combination will drive me mad. They are both right, I fear.

I’m only a few chapters into each so far. The Erwin & Valentine book is terrific — a bit dense and technical, but full of the right stuff. I’m learning a great deal; it starts with material I’m not at all familiar with, the geochemistry of the pre-Cambrian. The point is to set the stage, to explain the environment in which the Cambrian explosion will occur, and also most importantly, to explain how scientists know what the world was like between a billion and 500 million years ago.

It also discusses real controversies and real science. For example, there was a world-wide shift in ocean and atmospheric chemistry during this period: was it primarily an abiotic process, or did the expansion of bacterial forms and the emergence of multicellular life contribute significantly?

We haven’t even gotten to the fossils yet, let alone the biology! I’m appreciating the education, though — the story simply cannot be understood without this background material. It’s also fueling an interest in, of all things, geology. I may have to read more about this subject.

The Meyer book, on the other hand…maybe it’s best that I am reading it in conjunction with some real science. The contrast is jarring and enlightening.

The first bit of this book is an extended whine about how no one understood his last book, Signature in the Cell, which was another gloppy bit of tripe from a mediocre mind with a magnificent ego. That book was entirely about the origin of life, he says, and how it’s impossible to create new information with undirected processes; everyone thought it was about how undirected processes can add information to existing organisms, but it wasn’t, and this new book about the Darwin’s Doubt and the Cambrian explosion is the one that is going to show that’s impossible, too. So he begins by repetitively reciting the same bogus assertions he made in his previous book.

The type of information present in living cells — that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole — has generated an acute mystery. No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information, starting from “purely physical or chemical precursors”. For this reason, chemical evolutionary theories have failed to solve the mystery of the origin of first life—a claim that few mainstream evolutionary theorists now dispute.

Simply rebutted: random peptides exhibit catalytic activity. There’s a process that starts from “purely physical or chemical” precursors and uses the information defined by the sequence of amino acids to produce a naturally selectable function. And I’m sorry, but what is an example of a non-physical, non-chemical process in biology?

Are we done yet?

Of course not. Meyer is going to drool out a few hundred pages of drivel that will only convince the gullible, the ignorant, and the already dedicated creationists. There is not one bit of substance in the book so far; just rehashed Intelligent Design creationist talking points. This “specified information” of which he speaks is undefined and unmeasurable — it’s the phrase they flap at anyone who challenges their claim of have concrete evidence against evolution.

Meyer then dives into more misleading statements, such as that the Cambrian biota just erupted abruptly into the fossil record, with no precursors — surely you don’t expect a creationist to explain the geological and biological context of the pre-Cambrian/Cambrian, as Erwin and Valentine do? That would take work and knowledge, which Meyer lacks. Nick Matzke at the Panda’s Thumb has torn into the superficiality and wrongness of Meyer’s arguments already — go read that if you want to see ID arguments taken down a notch.

Otherwise, wait a bit and somewhere in my looming frantic schedule I’ll be reading deeper into The Cambrian Explosion…and I see that the next section is titled “The Record of Early Metazoan Evolution”. I think I’ll trust Ervin and Valentine’s competence over Meyer’s religiously driven ignorance.

If this combo does not hurl me down the stairs of madness into the abyss of total chaotic brain-scrambling, there’s a third book gazing ominously at me from the bookshelf. I’ve been asked to consult with Tony Ortega, who runs an anti-scientology website on a public evisceration of Scientology: A History of Man by L. Ron Hubbard. It’s a “cold-blooded and factual history of your last 76 trillion years” — it contains Scientology’s version of evolution. I’m pretty sure I’ll be curled into a fetal ball, gibbering, by August.

Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole

    I presume if I actually read the book I would understand the distinction between “the sequence of characters” and “the sequence as a whole.” Where does the magic get inserted?

    No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information, starting from “purely physical or chemical precursors”.

    Given the definition of “specified” information he offered in the previous sentence, I don’t see why not. Is he pulling the old switcheroo on his definitions?

  2. says

    I’m in the middle of Richard Foley’s “Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life On Earth”.

    Highly recommended.

    I’ll get Erwin and Valentine next — though I think a dead-tree version is probably better than e-reader.

  3. marcoli says

    Has there been any other cases of someone giving themselves a lobotomy? There must be. In any case, please be careful.
    Thank you as well about the link to Kauffmans’ The Origins of Order. Did not know that was now a Google e-book. I am looking it over now for inclusion in the reading list for my Evo class.

  4. says

    Of course Meyer did attack evolution in his wretched book, but only in a devious and almost certainly deliberately dishonest manner. He repeated the tripe that life “appears designed” (Dawkins said it, no need for evidence) from the beginning, used Dembski’s BS “design inference” against evolution without apology, then at the end he attacked evolution in various ways, such as “They [the critics] do not dispute that DNA contains specified information, or that this type of information always comes from a mind…” Any informed critic definitely dispute that such information always comes from a mind.

    I’ll have to get hold of the Erwin and Valentine book, to wash the stench of endless disinformation gotten from both of Meyer’s books from me.

    Glen Davidson

  5. says

    used Dembski’s BS “design inference” against evolution without apology

    That is, Dembski’s “design inference” was invented to attack evolution, but Meyer uses it to attack abiogenesis, yet nothing changes the fact that it remains an anti-evolution “argument,” which apparently is fine with Meyer.

    Glen Davidson

  6. machintelligence says

    Treat L. Ron Hubbard’s book as (bad) science fiction and you won’t go far wrong.

  7. Karen Locke says

    Ha, another sucker person induced to read a book about geology. And you will like it. It will intrigue you. Geology rules!

  8. pHred says

    Geology is awesome! I am going to have to get Erwin & Valentine’s book. It sounds fascinating. It has been a few years since I taught Historical Geology – when I do I spend way, way longer than the other faculty do on Hadean and Archean Earth (All Dinosaurs all the time, sigh. I like dinos too but they are not the only interesting part of Earth’s history), leading slowly into the Cambrian explosion. So much so that for the Quaternary I pretty much just have time to tell students to look outside before they all run screaming from the room at the end of the semester. It sounds like they are just lucky this book wasn’t around.

  9. pHred says

    Squee! The cover has Opabinia on it ! Cool! Gotta love a critter with five eyes and one long, flexible proboscis coming out the middle of their “face” that has grasping spines at the end.

  10. Sastra says

    ” For this reason, chemical evolutionary theories have failed to solve the mystery of the origin of first life—a claim that few mainstream evolutionary theorists now dispute.” … And I’m sorry, but what is an example of a non-physical, non-chemical process in biology?

    Meyer is hinting at the common-sense view that our thoughts are neither physical nor chemical because you can’t feel or see them. So every time you decide to move your arm you’ve witnessed an example of a non-physical, non-chemical process in biology (the brain’s there with a bunch of neurons, yeah, but that’s only accidental; it’s not necessary.) God is like us, but better: when God imagines something it becomes real, bypassing the need for material causation through the use of mental causation. Easy peasy.

    Creationists won’t explain this process with any sort of detail at all because it would make them sound like a New Age woomeister…. the lowest of the low.

    I’m pretty sure I’ll be curled into a fetal ball, gibbering, by August.

    Poor baby. I’ll lend you my copy of Course in Miracles.

  11. Randomfactor says

    OOOooh! L-Ron’s book where he states we’re all descended from clams, and you can “restimulate” the “clam engrams” causing jaw pain.

    Also Piltdown Man is in it. He liked to bite his wife.

  12. Azuma Hazuki says

    I.D. is actually a terrible argument for the Judeo-Christian God, mostly because of how badly the design seems to have been done.

    If you unpack this, essentially they’re saying “Okay, yes, it LOOKS just like complete random chance, like a literally God-forsaken chaotic mess of trial and error, BUTGODDIDIT!” Yeah, uh…just based on what we see, it is much more likely, if there is a Designer, that it’s aliens, a weak god-with-a-lowercase-g, or an evil being.

    Do these people never consider these things? It’s like the Argument from Design version of Stephen Law’s “God of Eth.” Everytime someone with their head on straight takes on these arguments with the evidence in question, it turns into “If your arguments are valid God is evil.”

  13. davidjanes says

    or an evil being

    Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. Or a committee.

  14. CaitieCat says

    Funny coincidence, PZ, as I’ve also been reading about the Pre-Cambrian in the last few days, in Nick Lane’s Oxygen: The Molecule that made the World, where he’s talking about the evidence for a highly-oxygenated world at various points before the Cambrian. Strontium isotopes figure prominently. :)

  15. unclefrogy says

    you could not make read L. Ron Hubbard nor pay me enough actual money to read!
    what you do for us, we owe you much gratitude!
    uncle frogy

  16. magistramarla says

    PZ – reading shit so you don’t have to!
    Of course, this only refers to the Stephen Meyer book.

  17. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    First church, now this? Back away from the ledge, man. You have a lot to live for.

  18. gregpeterson says

    Hey! I am ALSO reading “Cambrian Explosion,” and it’s just excellent. Of all the explosians, the Cambrian one is my favorite. Seriously, great book.

    And also something called “The Happy Atheist.” Got a review copy I’m working my way through. About one third of the way so far. Learned PZ is from a planet of hats. He didn’t specifically mention ass hats, but I bet every planet has’em.

  19. Brain Hertz says

    The type of information present in living cells — that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole …

    This, again? Any reference to “specified information” is always a big tell, but it leaves an open question…

    The whole idea of “specified information” was devised by William Dembski because he needed a do-over of the accumulated knowledge of information theory in order to fix an embarrassing problem: the answer to the question he claims to be investigating turns out to be already well-known, and is the exact opposite of what he wanted.

    That is to say, Dembski wanted to be able to say that information could not arise spontaneously without some unspecified “intelligent” input (whatever that is). It turns out to be the exact opposite: any stochastic process generates information, and the second law of thermodynamics implies that information never decreases in a closed system (yes, there is a direct connection between information and the second law of thermodynamics. It just has the opposite implication to that the CDesign Proponentsists would like to believe). So Dembski came up with his ruse of redefining “information” to be his own version, which has no formal definition other than “that which produces the answer I want”. I’m still waiting to see his actual definition.

    So the open question, when anybody uses the term “specified information” as the basis of their argument, is always: “Are they being deliberately disingenuous, or do they have no idea what they’re talking about?”.

  20. naturalcynic says

    Hardly the ultimate combination. About 20 years ago I read CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

  21. RFW says

    Work on that interest in geology, P-zed.

    If you are geological noob, I can’t recommend a better book than John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World to help bring you up to speed. Plus there’s the state-by-state series from Mountain Press, Roadside Geology which of necessity takes the broad view. The Oregon volume, for example, explains the bright red color of a certain eroded road cut on I-5 (which, unfortunately, I am not able to pinpoint on Google Streetview).

    Of course, science is actually an integrated whole: biology, cosmology, chemistry, physics (high-energy particle physics and string theory included), astrophysics, paleontology, geology: it’s all one big integrated – but indigestible because it’s too big a mouthful – blob of knowledge, with mathematics serving as a maid of all work. No scientist has ever been the poorer for looking outside his specialty at other fields of inquiry!

    We’re fortunate that there is a wealth of up to date popular titles that touch on these fields. The ones that look at both evolution and cosmology are particularly tantalizing.

  22. davidjanes says

    My physical geology professor had Basin and Range, whic was the first part of McPhee’s opus as a required text. Not only will you learn some geology, but you might learn a thing or two about writing when you read it. At least I did.

  23. anchor says

    “The type of information present in living cells — that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole — has generated an acute mystery”

    Heh. Only in his mind and the equally ignorant like-minded to which that excuse of a book is aimed.

    Here’s a far more acute mystery: how phenomenally stupid must a person be in order to dismiss and resist any information or evidence that utterly contradicts their favorite belief flavor?

  24. anchor says

    “No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information, starting from “purely physical or chemical precursors”

    Astounding. This enormous idiot is surrounded by an entire universe of “specified information”, and he must require every last bit of it to be “directed” by some invisible uber-agency.

    One is moved to wonder how every snowflake acquires the organized structure in its crystalline lattice, or how every spiral galaxy achieves its form, or how every commonplace flame in earth’s atmosphere may rapidly oxidize a convenient chemical fuel, or how sediment gradually settles out from a standing volume of water to produce orderly layers, or how erosion – that bastion of “destruction” – produces intricate dendritic patterns in a landscape (re: Grand Canyon and a great many lesser yet lovely ditches) and endless similar examples everywhere we look, every last single one of them down to the quantum interaction level, processes that yield “specified information”. And we are asked to entertain the absurdity that all of this is constantly and actively attended to by an uber-agency?

    Know what? Any Omnipotent Creator that fabricates a universe as preposterous as that which we actually find that requires such an enormous investment of attention and constant maintenance post-creation must be at least as stupid as those tiny sub-constituent afterthought “intelligent creations” who constantly insist we should believe in it.

    “For this reason, chemical evolutionary theories have failed to solve the mystery of the origin of first life—a claim that few mainstream evolutionary theorists now dispute.”

    On the other hand, that bogus reason quite well solves the mystery of how a simpleton and liar goes about claiming ignorance on the part of the scientific community, in the ease with which he misrepresents the consensus of genuine expertise beyond his understanding, all of it, simply and completely, just because it doesn’t square with his pathetic conceit, a belief in a god that creates an entire universe, specifically and expressly “intelligently designed” to contain its most important inhabitant: himself.

    Oh, how extravagantly important that constantly piloted idiot-puppet must be.

  25. randay says

    Just goes to show that simply having the name “Steven” or “Stephen” doesn’t mean you are a genius.

  26. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Just goes to show that simply having the name “Steven” or “Stephen” doesn’t mean you are a genius.

    /looks at the last 20 years of Morrissey records and sadly nods.

  27. says

    I used to work in the science fiction field, and worked with someone whose father was one of the original Futurians (club of NYC SF fans founded in the 1930s, many of whom became writers, editors & agents. Some members were Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Fred Pohl, Hannes Bok, Damon Knight, Judith Merrill, James Blish, etc.) Anyway, apparently Hubbard would get drunk at conventions and such back in the day and say “I’m going to found a religion and make a million bucks!” The only funny part in retrospect is how little he thought he would make from his made-up religion.