Terrible awful no-good writing


It’s an appropriate way to start a Monday morning, I think, with a small collection of really badly written articles. It can only go upwards from here!

First, I blame Jeffrey Shallit for introducing me to the glurge of Stephen Talbott. He’s one of those guys who has a nagging feeling that evolutionary theory is inadequate because it doesn’t appreciate teleology enough, and the corrective is to ask sufficiently vague and pretentiously phrased questions. So he asks, Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously? (“Yes,” I answer) with this kind of empty noise.

As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation. It brings forth this or that kind of growth with no need for the artifice of an alien hand arbitrarily intervening to arrange parts and causal relations this way or that. The choreographing is brought about, it would appear, from that same depth of reality where the causal forces themselves arise, not from “outside”. However we conceive this “inner” place, it is, at least for now, inaccessible to our own engineering prowess.

At the same time, we ourselves possess varieties of conscious activity that other organisms do not. When I refer to the organism’s intelligent agency, or its purposiveness, or its directed coordination of means to serve particular ends, I do not imply anything equivalent to our own conscious purposing or planning. But neither do I suggest something inferior to our particular sort of wisdom and power of action. If anything, we must consider organic life — for example, the life of our cells — to be an expression of a higher sort of intelligence and intention than we ourselves can yet imagine consciously achieving in the technological realm.

You can tell he really wants to sign on with Intelligent Design creationism, but he can’t, because those people are such peasants. He must carve his own bold path through cheesy metaphysics, in which he waves his hands and claims that design is immanent in cells, but doesn’t have to deliver any actual evidence, other than his own feeble intuition.

Oh, hey, as long as we’re talking Intelligent Design creationism, let’s move on to a familiar source of bad writing, the Discovery Institute. In our second case, Matthew Herron points us to Cornelius Hunter, the cocksure ignoramus who at least likes to angrily attack the evidence evolutionary biologists bring up. He never actually levies a substantial criticism, but just the fact that he barks loudly must be proof that it’s wrong, right? His latest is Shared Errors: An Open Letter to BioLogos on the Genetic Evidence, Cont..

In this case, he has a different target, as you can tell from the title: BioLogos, and specifically, Dennis Venema. It’s an endlessly amusing fact of life that many Intelligent Design creationists really despise Theistic Evolutionists, and vice versa, despite the fact that I can’t hardly tell them apart (David Klinghoffer, another thuddingly awful writer, also really hates Venema. Consider yourself lucky that I’m not introducing you to Denyse O’Leary today). The root of the disagreement is that Intelligent Design creationism wants to outright deny evolutionary theory; their main approach consists of arguments from incredulity and claiming that evolution not only didn’t happen, but is impossible. The theistic evolutionists, on the other hand, are willing to acknowledge the evidence and say that organisms actually do evolve, but they want to coopt the theory as somehow, in some fuzzy undefined way, is compatible with invisible supernatural intervention. The theistic evolutionists are undermining the Discovery Institute’s whole strategy while still invoking magical superbeings.

So Venema thinks the plagiarized error argument is good evidence for common descent. This is the observation that many lineages perpetuate historical mistakes; it’s hard to argue that all apes just independently broke the gene for synthesizing vitamin C, and further that they independently broke the gene in exactly the same way. Even if you argue that somehow it was functionally adaptive to give apes scurvy if they don’t eat their fruit, it would be peculiar that a malicious Designer took the gene out with the same deletions and point mutations in every case — the simplest explanation is that the gene was wrecked in a common ancestor, and we all inherited the same damaged copy. Hunter does not like that, so he resorts to the common canard of accusing evolutionary biology of being a religion.

The “shared error” argument is bad science and bad history, but it remains a very strong argument. This is because its strength does not come from science or history, but rather from religion. As I have explained many times, evolution is a religious theory, and the “shared error” argument is no different. This is why the scientific and historical problems don’t matter. Venema explains:

The fact that different mammalian species, including humans, have many pseudogenes with multiple identical abnormalities (mutations) shared between them is a problem for any sort of non-evolutionary, special independent creation model.

This is a religious argument, evolution as a referendum on a “special independent creation model.” It is not that the species look like they arose by random chance, it is that they do not look like they were created. Venema and the evolutionists are certain that God wouldn’t have directly created this world. There must be something between the Creator and creation — a Plastik Nature if you will. And if Venema and the evolutionists are correct in their belief then, yes, evolution must be true. Somehow, some way, the species must have arisen naturalistically.

No, it’s looking at specific genes/pseudogenes and seeing that random chance has caused differences in organisms, that are then inherited by their descendants. It’s an observation that is compatible with and supports evolutionary theory — a naturalistic explanation for the origin of an organism’s features.

It is interesting that Hunter gives away the game in that last paragraph. He is objecting to the theistic evolutionist’s suggestion that the actions of their deity are indirect — God would use evolution to create humans in his image. The Intelligent Design creationists are arguing that the deity acted directly, zapping every novelty straight into the genome. I’ll let them hash out their theological distinctions however they want, in the hopes of a Kilkenny Cats solution.

My third example is the indefatigably incompetent Suzan Mazur. Mazur is a weird case. She clearly aspires to be a real live science journalist, but the science she wants to track down is all this fringey nonsense about undiscovered mechanisms that will revolutionize the theory, and she doesn’t have the intellectual background to discriminate between noise and signal. She’s the one who went into hyperbolic raptures over the Altenburg meetings, which she was sure was going to conclude with Massimo Pigliucci descending from the mountain cradling a revolution in his arms. She was enthusiastic about Fodor and Palmarini’s ill-founded criticisms of evolution. She was an ardent supporter of Stuart Pivar and Vincent Fleury. You get the idea: she loves her them crackpots.

She’s also the worst journalist since Denyse O’Leary. She simply cannot tell a story. Here she is hectoring a guy who edited a book on astrobiology. His sin: he did not pay sufficient attention to her poorly understood obsessions with novel mechanisms in evolution.

Suzan Mazur: The big question is, regarding the discussion of evolution in the Primer, what’s cited is that one of the features of life is “progressive adaptation via Darwinian evolution.” But there’s no mention of any other approach to evolution aside from Darwinian selection. With all the breaking news about alternative evolutionary approaches, why wasn’t there any room for alternatives?

Lucas Mix: To start with, it’s important to recognize that the Primer is an attempt in 81 pages to summarize the background information of all of astrobiology and that what happened was that we solicited input as to what needed to be in the document and then we tried to edit draconianly short descriptions of topics. So the evolution section really is meant to give only the most introductory of remarks about evolution.

Suzan Mazur: But it was introduced in a dogmatic way regarding Darwin. I mean, this is it. This is the way it is.

Lucas Mix: That was not my impression.

Suzan Mazur: But nothing else was offered.

Lucas Mix: A great deal of work was done to ensure that it talked about neutral selection.

Suzan Mazur: There was nothing about self-organization, for instance, in your Primer.

This is her thing. There are Forces out there that scientists do not comprehend — that she doesn’t understand them either is irrelevant — and stuff like selection and nearly neutral theory are dogmatic Darwinism.

But here’s the real shame. For once, Mazur has an interesting story to write up, and she loses it in a disorganized, incoherent mess of a ramble, that just has to touch on her obsessions. This is actually kind of important:

NASA’s Astrobiology Program — headed by Mary Voytek — awarded $1.108M (5% of its annual budget) to the Center of Theological Inquiry, a religious think tank with more than $23M in assets, to investigate how the world’s religions might respond to the discovery of life on other planets. John Templeton Foundation is co-sponsoring the two-year project (2015-2017) with a $1.7M grant to CTI.

Hang on. NASA gave a million dollars to a prosperous theological think tank, which also got a hefty donation from the Templeton Foundation, to do what? We don’t need to investigate how religion will respond, we already know: some will take it in stride and try to incorporate discoveries into their belief systems, and some will actively deny it. Why is a NASA program throwing away 5% of their budget on trying to scry how the irrational will respond to something they haven’t found yet?

That’s a story. Unfortunately, Mazur simply cannot focus on the very subject of her own piece, and buries it in irrelevancies.

Now let’s spend the rest of the week doing better than Talbott, Hunter, and Mazur. At least I’ve set myself achievable goals!


  1. rietpluim says

    Immanent design? That’s a new one. I really have no idea how that should work. +1 for originality (and -99 for the rest).

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    IE: Magic is how Evolution really works. You know, the magic of not just arcane mumbo jumbo but concsious willl exrting power to influence unseen forces to achieve a desired outcome, if concentrating hard enough. Even a general will amongst the population can exert enough influence on these unseen orces to make changes happen. Like Giraffes desiring longer reach to get the leaves out of reach, resulting in offspring with longer necks. And cows that like to swim and wanted to swim a little deeper and faster. And so on.
    ack. too easy.
    to share my own bad writing [may I? anyway here goes]:
    People often think of mechanical devices as domesticated animal pets. Such as ones automobile. Often considered and treated like a pet. Take it the petrol station [sic] for food, or the service station for a medical checkup. Conversely, people sometimes treat their domestic pets as appliances. Take dog to vet to get repaired, and pump them with food for fuel.
    Treating cars like animals, and the “magic” presented earlier. People sometimes think that it is important to “love” ones car to keep it running. Regular visits to the service station is just an incidental detail, but love is the more important aspect. This seems to work with pets, but that is also just projection. The benefit of loving ones animal is the personal effect on ones psyche, combined with the extra attention o attending to the animals needs, that benefts the animal. Not the ethereal love itself.
    pffft. I’ll stop here now before I run completely off the rails… thank you for your tolerance

  3. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Some people just have trouble with the concept of random mutations, which can happen when DNA replicates. Or the carbon 14 in the purine and pyrimidine bases decays and becomes nitrogen, changing hydrogen bonding. Somehow, it must be planned by a hastily conceptualized phantasm of some sort. They always forget the first question, which should be “what created the phanstasm?”

  4. Richard Smith says

    Consider yourself lucky that I’m not introducing you to Denyse O’Leary today

    So lucky that, instead, you intruduce us the putatively worse writer Suzan Mazur. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

    @Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls (#4):

    “what created the phanstasm?”

    That would be New Breed Productions Inc., BOY!

  5. microraptor says

    This reminds me: a couple weeks ago I was browsing the shelves of the local used bookstore when I discovered that someone had put a few ID books on the fantasy shelf next to the Piers Anthony novels.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 7:
    sequels to Legends of Xanth. I presume. appropriate. [excuse this next TLA] LOL

  7. multitool says

    Sorry, but Venema has to be the coolest or least cool name ever. Venom! Enema?

    The most frightening New Age colon treatment ever?

  8. microraptor says

    slithey tove @8:

    Well, in the DI’s defense, if anyone there has a creepy obsession regarding 40-70 year old men hooking up with teenage (or younger) girls, they at least don’t share it with the rest of the world on a regular basis.

  9. Scott Simmons says

    I see that P.Z. has already corrected the typographical error pointed out by chigau in comment #2.

    Yep. It’s not even noon on Monday, and by correcting his own simple and obvious mistake, he’s already achieved his stated goal for the week. I guess he should just kick back and pop a beer now.

  10. Crimson Clupeidae says

    There was a time when I forced myself to read those nitwits on a regular basis as part of my volunteer job with Kansas Citizens for Science.

    Thanks for the flashbacks PZ, and reminding me once again why I got away from that shite.

  11. A Masked Avenger says

    So Venema thinks the plagiarized error argument is good evidence for common descent. This is the observation that many lineages perpetuate historical mistakes; it’s hard to argue that all apes just independently broke the gene for synthesizing vitamin C, and further that they independently broke the gene in exactly the same way.

    I can’t tell whether you (PZ) appreciate how devastating this argument is. It strikes to the heart of the last bastion of faith in the creationist: the idea that common features weren’t inherited, but instead were reused by the designer. It’s not very effective to counter that these common features form nested hierarchies, and that we find the same hierarchy regardless which clusters of features (or which genes, if we’re looking at molecular evidence) we choose: that’s easily attributable to the whim of the designer. The argument is that commonalities can reflect a common design[er] as easily as a common ancestor.

    What’s devastating about things like ERVs, or the broken pathway for vitamin C, is that these are shared errors. If they reflect a common designer, then they reflect a common incompetent designer, since apparently he’s making the same mistake over and over again. As long as we’re talking about God reusing things that work, we’re at a stalemate. Once we shift the conversation to god reusing broken design elements, it’s all over. Nobody is interested in a common designer who is incompetent.

    When I say “devastating,” I mean that learning about ERVs led to my own deconversion by a direct path. I’d been an anti-evolutionist gladiator for decades, and had elaborately constructed defenses against every argument you can think of… except the incompetent designer argument. I don’t claim to be representative of all fundies everywhere, but in my experience that’s the angle from which they’re completely defenseless. The only recourse at that point is to flat-out ignore you. The ones honest enough (and there ARE honest ones; I was one) to try and address your argument must, in the end, bow to it.

  12. says

    The choreographing is brought about, it would appear, from that same depth of reality where the causal forces themselves arise, …


    Deepak Chopra would be proud!

  13. emergence says

    This Hunter guy didn’t even argue against pseudogenes and ERVs. He just insists that they aren’t evidence of evolution and calls evolution a religion. What’s his explanation for pseudogenes having premature stop codons at the same location in multiple groups of animals? How can he explain why allegedly unrelated organisms have the same bit of broken viral DNA at the same locus in their genomes? Does Hunter think that nonsense mutations in pseudogenes were deliberately designed? Is he trying to argue that stretches of DNA that code for reverse transcriptase and other viral compounds somehow didn’t come from retroviruses? I hate it when people just posture and throw around personal attacks instead of addressing their opponent’s argument.

  14. emergence says

    Another thing that pisses me off about creationists is that they think that the abrahamic god just poofing things magically out of thin air is more scientific than the universe forming thorough natural processes. Miracles aren’t left out of science because scientists are biased, they’re left out because they don’t really answer anything.

  15. schini says

    @slithey tove at #3:
    I really did not fully get, what you wanted to say with your first paragraph … do you think that evolution is “giraffes wanting to have a longer neck and then getting it” or are you mocking that “concept”?