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“Geologists on Intelligent Design” Book Botches Attempts to Demonize Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

The latest anti-intelligent design book to hit the shelves is a 2009 collection published by University of California Press, For the Rock Record: Geologists On Intelligent Design. Many of the contributors seem stuck in a timewarp, as if the last time they checked into the debate was 1980 when evolutionary geologists were fighting against young earth creationists. The book thus opens with a comparison of intelligent design (ID) to young earth creationism, proclaiming the “enormous joy and relief” (p. 1) that came when the authors read the Kitzmiller ruling that declared ID “a particularly pernicious variant of creationism we had hoped was banished a quarter-century before.” (p. 1) If you haven’t already guessed, the book reads more like a polemic than a serious treatment of the subject, yet it was published by University of California Press. Conflations between ID and young earth creationism abound thereafter:

ID is part and parcel of pseudoscientific explanations for numerous geological phenomena–from the caves of Tennessee to global climate change to erosive mud flows from Mount Saint Helens. The first Conference on Creation Geology, held at Cerdarville, Ohio in May, 2007 in Petersburg Kentucky, reflect this resurgent interest in the search not just for biological but geological ‘evidence’ for design. So too does the recent publications of books such as Geology by Design: Interpreting Rocks and Their Catastrophic Record (2007), The Earth Will Reel from Its Place: Scientific Confirmation for Bible Predictions of Geological Upheaval (2006), and Geology in the Bible: Earth’s Evidence for Intelligent Design (2005). (p. 2)

Even though I’m pretty closely involved with the ID-world, I had never heard of any of these purported ID books, nor any of their authors. So I looked them up on the internet: they’re all patently young earth creationist books.

The subtitle, For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design, is misleading. There’s geology in For the Rock Record — but much of it doesn’t deal with ID. There are attacks on ID in For the Rock Record, but most of the attacks on ID don’t deal with science or geology (many of them deal with philosophy of science or theology). The chapter with the lengthiest discussion of science and ID also happens to be the most polemical chapter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was written by Donald Prothero. Prothero’s harshest attacks are built upon blatant factual errors and misrepresentations of ID literature and history.

Misrepresenting Meyer
The punchline of Prothero’s chapter is that ID proponents promote “lies and deception.” As a part of his “deception” narrative, Prothero (citing the NCSE and “Expelled Exposed” as his sources) asserts the false claim that Stephen C. Meyer’s article in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington was “snuck into the journal by an editor.” Prothero must actually believe what he reads on anti-ID blogs and websites, because the reality is that Dr. Roy McDiarmid, the President of the Biological Society of Washington and a scientist at the Smithsonian, admitted that there was no wrongdoing regarding the peer-review process of Meyer’s paper:

I have seen the review file and comments from 3 reviewers on the Meyer paper. All three with some differences among the comments recommended or suggested publication. I was surprised but concluded that there was not inappropriate behavior vs a vis [sic] the review process. (See Congressional Staff Report, e-mail from Roy McDiarmid, “Re: Request for information,” January 28, 2005, 2:25 PM to Hans Sues, emphasis added.)

Even Eugenie Scott privately (not publicly) admitted that “other editors have not always referred all articles to the Associate Editors, and because editors justifiably have discretion,” that therefore the BSW should not “come down too hard on Dr. Sternberg for errors in the procedure followed in accepting this article.” (See Congressional Staff Report, pages 25-26.)

Prothero’s Case for Demonization of Intelligent Design Collapses
As I read further in Prothero’s chapter, I found it very odd that he repeatedly made the erroneous claim that the second edition of the pro-ID textbook Of Pandas and People was published in the year “2004.” The facts on this point are well known: the first edition of Pandas was published in 1989, and the second edition was published way back in 1993. In this regard, it’s odd that Prothero’s chapter focuses intensely upon Pandas, even though it was a very early ID book that predates much cutting-edge ID thinking. A reprint of Pandas was published in 2004, but the copyright dates and publication dates were stated, accurately, as 1989 & 1993, and for recent books like this, it’s not customary to cite a book based upon its reprint date, but based upon its copyright/publication date. As the textbook’s publisher page states:

I could not understand why Prothero continually misrepresented the textbook’s publication and copyright date as 2004 until I got to the end of the chapter and realized this was no trivial or unintentional error.

Prothero is known for his highly charged rhetoric, and his chapter gets more polemical as it goes on, ending by asserting that “ID creationists” are guilty of promoting “lies and deception,” and having “un-Christian behavior.” The words “lie,” “deception,” and “dishonesty” are scattered quite liberally throughout Prothero’s chapter, and his punchline is a quote from the Bible: “Perhaps they should go back to their Bibles, where Proverbs 12:22 states ‘Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.'” (p. 56) If we evaluate these uncivil and inflammatory arguments, Prothero’s centerpiece evidence that ID proponents have purportedly “lying lips” is a quote from Pandas‘ 1st and 2nd editions which says that “there are no transitional fossils linking land mammals to whales.” Prothero then argues that the “1980s and 1990s yielded an amazing array of transitional fossils that clearly link terrestrial land mammals to full-fledged aquatic whales” and therefore “there is no excuse for creationist ignorance or denial of these fossils,” (p. 51) citing to “Davis and Kenyon (2004, p. 101).” So his argument is built upon the claim that Pandas was published in 2004, and therefore came out after all these fossils were known, and thus the authors of Pandas have acted inappropriately by failing to mention them.

Here are the fossils Prothero mentions, with their first publication dates, as well as the actual publication dates of both editions of Pandas:

  • Pakicetus: First reported in 1983 (Prothero, p. 49); at the time all that was found was part of a skull and some teeth.
  • Pandas First Edition: Published in 1989.
  • Basilosaurus: First published in 1990 (Prothero, p. 49).
  • Pandas Second Edition: Published in 1993 (mentions Basilosaurus).
  • Ambulocetus: First published in 1994 (Prothero, p. 51).
  • Rodhocetus: First published in 1994 (See Gingerich et al., 1994).
  • Dalanistes: First published in 1995 (See Gingerich et al., 1995).
  • Gaviocetus: First published in 1995 (See Gingerich et al., 1995).
  • Takracetus First published in 1995 (See Gingerich et al., 1995).
  • Date that Prothero falsely claims Pandas was published: 2004

Given the correct publication dates, the truth is that 6 of the 7 fossils Prothero mentions were first reported after Pandas was first published, and 5 of the 7 came after Pandas‘ second edition was published. The only fossil that predated both editions was Pakicetus, a fossil then-known only from a skull fragment and some teeth–hardly a noteworthy example of a transitional form at the time. The other fossil that predated Pandas‘ 2nd edition was Basilosaurus, and guess what? Pandas‘ 1993 edition mentions this fossil by name on page 101. And both editions of Pandas mention Mesonyx, a land mammal that, at the time, it notes had “been suggested as the terrestrial ancestor of the whale” (p. 101). Thus, in no case did either of Pandas‘ editions fail to mention an alleged transitional whale fossil of reasonable completeness, listed by Prothero, that was published before that edition was written.

No wonder Prothero wants to put forward the false claim that Pandas was published in 2004: The real timeline refutes his argument. Most of these fossils weren’t even publicly known at the actual times Pandas was published.

Prothero Ignores Current ID Literature

In fact, Prothero has very little to complain about: both editions of the Pandas textbook contain extensive discussions of alleged transitional fossils in the reptile-to-mammal transition, the fish-to-amphibian transition, and alleged bird-to-reptile sequence, as well as hominid fossils claimed to allegedly represent precursors to humans. Compared with other mainstream pro-Darwin biology textbooks published around that time, Prothero should be praising Pandas for its in-depth discussion of these purported transitional forms: Curtis & Barnes’ Biology (1989) discusses virtually no alleged transitional fossils apart from the infamous (and now highly questionable) horse series, Archaeopteryx, and some hominid fossils, admitting in its discussion of punc eq (something Prothero is loathe to discuss) that “fewer examples of gradual change have been found than might have been expected” (p. 1028).

Likewise, Mader’s 1993 edition of Biology discusses four allegedly transitional fossils over the course of two brief paragraphs: Archaeopteryx, Eustheopteron, Seymouria, and the infamous horse series (which is given another couple more pages later on). Comparatively, Pandas devotes far more space to discussing transitional forms.

Not only does Prothero erect a straw man by expecting Pandas to discuss fossils that weren’t even known when the book was written and failing to acknowledge the alleged transitional fossils that Pandas does discuss, he fails to mention that the sequel to Pandas, The Design of Life (published last year, long before Prothero published his most recent book chapter), has a lengthy discussion of whale fossils that fully acknowledges some of these alleged transitional forms. As The Design of Life states:

To be sure, filling gaps between minor divisions continues to show some progress, as recent fossil finds for whales, turtles, and elephants make evident. But far from confirming Darwin’s view of gradual evolution, such finds actually under cut it, because for every link connecting minor divisions there should be hundreds connecting major divisions.

(William Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, p. 73 (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008).)

This doesn’t mean that Dembski and Wells feel the case for this evolutionary transition is solid. They go on to give a lucid critique of the alleged land-mammal-to-whale fossil series, specifically discussing by name many of the fossils that Prothero wants mentioned, including Pakicetus, the basilosaurs, Ambulocetus, and Rodhocetus (see The Design of Life, p. 85), stating in part:

Some Darwinists regard fossil evidence for the evolution of whales as a success story second only to the fossil evidence for the evolution of mammals from mammal-like reptiles. In fact, the evidence for neither is compelling. … According to Berkeley paleontologist Kevin Padian, all of the fossils in the whale series have “distinguishing characteristics, which they would have to lose in order to be considered direct ancestors of other known forms.” At best, therefore, each fossil represents a terminal side branch of the whales’ hypothetical lineage … Fossil similarities suggest that hippos are close evolutionary relatives of other even-toed hoofed mammals such as pigs and camels, but far removed from whales. On the other hand, molecular similarities suggest that hippos are close evolutionary relatives of whales, but far removed from pigs and camels. But if the original fossil similarities are not the evidence for common ancestry, then by the same logic molecular similarities need not be either. There’s no compelling reason to trust either hypothesis. In fact, there is good reason to distrust both hypotheses.

(William Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems, pp. 84-85 (Foundation for Thought and Ethics, 2008).)

Dembski and Wells do not even delve into the fact that the fossil record permits dramatically insufficient time to convert a land-mammal into a whale. The evolution of whales from land-mammals supposedly took place in less than 10 million years. Think about that for a moment. Whales, with all of their complex adaptations for aquatic life, evolved from what Steven Stanley called a “primitive little mammal” to fully aquatic whales in less than ten million years. Whales have a long generation time, meaning that there were perhaps only a few million generations at best to allow for the change to add up. If they had a generation time as short as 5 years, Haldane’s dilemma predicts that only a few thousand mutations could become fixed into an evolving population during that time period. Regardless of what fossils are found, the timeline of the fossil record provides a significant challenge to neo-Darwinian accounts of whale evolution. Prothero doesn’t even attempt to tackle this mathematical problem with this argument.

Instead, Prothero’s centerpiece argument is based upon false representations of the publication date of a book, intended to buttress his most uncivil argument that ID proponents have “lying lips,” and promote “deception” and “dishonesty.” What is more, Prothero fully ignores that the book’s sequel discusses many of the fossils he wants discussed and acknowledges that there has been “some progress” in finding fossils that are “possible intermediates” for whales.

It’s incredible to think that a book with such inappropriate name-calling, incivility, and inaccuracy was published by University of California press. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the first reference listed in its “Selected Resources Relevant To Intelligent Design” was the likewise rhetorically charged book The Panda’s Black Box. Apparently, this is what passes for anti-ID scholarship at university presses these days.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Donald ProtheroFor the Rock Record