I have read a whole book by Denyse O’Leary. I don’t recommend it. It was not a pleasant experience, ranking among the worst books I’ve ever encountered, which is saying a lot since she’s one of the stable of incompetents working out of the Discovery Institute. She doesn’t actually write, you see — she assembles collections of quotes with short sentences linking them and telling you what the author actually said, explanations that are often totally at odds with the authorial intent, but that’s OK, she got to name-drop a famous scientist or philosopher to ‘support’ her belief in dualism and psychic powers and life after death.
Here’s her bio.
Denyse O’Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.
I read the one she co-authored with Beauregard, which was bad enough. I won’t even dare to touch the one co-written with that twit, Egnor. I’m also not interested in sticking an immersion blender in my ear and turning my brain into a bloody froth.
If you don’t believe me that she could be that bad, you can get a non-lethal taste of her style and content at a blog out of the Discovery Institute called Mind Matters. Her latest post there is titled The Mind has no History, in which she attempts to tell us that the human mind leapt into existence fully formed by recounting a few examples from history. I had hopes that a history of the mind that claims the mind has no history would be short and, optimally, blank, but she does her O’Leary thing instead and slaps together a series of non-sequiturs, unaware that every word refutes her thesis.
She begins with the tremendous news that philosophers disagree with each other on the nature of consciousness, implying that dualism is shaking up the world of academic philosophy.
Briefly, the leading theory has been trashed as “pseudoscience.” Tellingly, so far as one can make out from reading the letter signed by over 100 angry prominent neuroscientists, a big issue is that that leading theory is not as friendly to “abortion rights” as they might wish. (If the theory is correct, humans may enjoy prenatal consciousness…)
Oh, right. Another of her big obsessions is abortion, and she thinks bringing up weird ideas about how the mind works is useful to justify the argument that embryos might possess a fully function mind. Sorry. Reading O’Leary often quickly throws you into the maelstrom of incoherence that is the religious anti-abortion world.
What follows, though, is a grab-bag of long quotes from the scientific literature in which we see evidence of the long history of the development of human technology, with the characteristic O’Leary misinterpretation. For example:
Usually, Neanderthal Man takes it on the ear for being less evolved than us but, more and more, no one can figure out why. Here’s a find from Neanderthal cooking from somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago:
Then she quotes an article from phys.org about the discovery of a Neandertal hearth in Portugal. I don’t know anyone who argues that Neandertals were
less evolved than other species, an idea that doesn’t even make sense in evolutionary theory, and I don’t think anyone is surprised that Neandertal used fire, given that we know that Homo erectus was cooking food over a million years ago.
Next, she googled up an article about excavating wooden beams from 476,000 years ago.
Nearly half a million years ago, humans were building wooden structures, of which only a very few have been preserved:
Interesting. And…? Denyse O’Leary is the one arguing that human intelligence is sudden and binary, finding old artifacts showing that ancient hominins could carve wood is not the surprise she thinks it is. It’s a weak argument, so she asks Casey Luskin to back her up. That’s desperation!
This rare find shows that some of the very human-like forms in the fossil record — perhaps Neanderthals which lived at this time period — were actually much smarter than we thought. In any case, this kind of evidence does not support the idea that early humans were unintelligent brutes and that we are descended from intellectually primitive precursors.
Uh, that gives the game away. The scientists aren’t the ones claiming that
early humans were unintelligent brutes. What’s going on is that O’Leary is steeping in the assumptions of creationist culture, and whenever it’s pointed out that her biases are invalid, she takes that as evidence that she was totally right all along.
So she finds another anecdote.
Roughly 600 limestone balls (spheroids) , the size of plums, have been found alongside tools at a site in northern Israel, dating from 1.4 million years ago. What were their makers trying to do?
I don’t know. So Homo erectus was shaping stones? Is this a revelation? Maybe they were playing, or practicing, or maybe they were just bored. How does this support O’Leary’s thesis? She doesn’t say.
She has one more example, though, and she comes so close to getting it.
Researchers: Neanderthals invented process to produce birch tar. The tar can be used for glue, bug repellent, and killing germs. This finding tracks growing recognition of Neanderthals as intelligent. Why didn’t Neanderthal culture — and other human cultures — advance more quickly? Tech progress is not a stepladder. Much depends on specific discoveries.
Maybe Victorians thought Neandertal was unintelligent, but then, they thought everyone who wasn’t white and British was inferior. We’re well past that, I hope, except in the creationist community.
Think about her last two sentences. Technological progress depends on specific prior discoveries, it is true, which means it is like a ladder, with each step building on previous steps. She undercuts her own claim, that the mind has no history, by focusing on technological advancements that actually do have an obvious history. That’s Denyse O’Leary for you, though: she piles up observations she does not understand and then simply decides they all support whatever conclusion she wanted.