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Storming the Beaches of Norman

Norman, Oklahoma, that is.

Okay, so there aren’t any real beaches in Norman, Oklahoma. But when Steve Meyer and I went there recently, the Darwinists who have installed themselves as absolute dictators at the University of Oklahoma (OU) made our arrival feel like D-Day.

On September 28, Steve gave a talk on his best-selling book Signature in the Cell at the Oklahoma Memorial Union on the OU campus. The following evening, September 29, Steve and I answered questions after a showing of the new film Darwin’s Dilemma at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, again on the OU campus.

Darwinists at OU are still gloating over the abuse to which they subjected Dr. William A. Dembski in 2007. On September 14, 2009, one of the organizers of that abuse, OU graduate student Abbie Smith, announced on her foul-mouthed blog that Steve and I were coming to OU and urged her readers to give us the same treatment.

The day after her announcement, retired OU zoology professor Victor Hutchison, of the militantly Darwin-only Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), posted the following on Smith’s blog: “

Folks at OU are experienced in how to put down such events. An example is the thorough dismantling of Dembski about three years ago. I expect that there will be plenty of students and others well-prepared with good questions and comments at both scheduled events–especially on the crap the film will have about the so-called ‘Cambrian Explosion.’… However, opponents should get to the events EARLY.”

The same day, Darwinist blogger P.Z. Myers scolded OU for allowing Darwin’s Dilemma to be shown.

“Shame on the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History,” Myers wrote. “This will put a little spot of schmutz on their glossy reputation, I fear. And they’re planning to turn it into a real kookfest, with both Jonathan Wells (whose book, Icons of Evolution, revealed that he was an ignorant maroon on the subject of the Cambrian) and Stephen Meyer, the philosopher-creationist with his own book on molecular biology (hah!) to peddle, there to lecture at the opening. I guess any clown can rent the integrity of the U of Oklahoma for a day.”

In response, Sam Noble Museum Director Michael A. Mares issued an “Open Letter” of appeasement, stating:

“Although the museum does not support unscientific views masquerading as science, such as those espoused by the Discovery Institute, the museum does respect the religious beliefs of all people. Moreover, the museum is obligated to rent its public space to any organization that is engaged in lawful activities, free speech and open discourse. The museum does not discriminate against recognized campus organizations based on their religious beliefs, political philosophy, scientific literacy, or any other factors.”

In an attempt to counter the impact of Darwin’s Dilemma, Mares announced that the museum would open its evolution exhibit to the public, free of charge, until 11 PM on September 29. In addition, the museum would sponsor a free public lecture at 5 PM that day by Dr. Stephen Westrop, its curator of invertebrate paleontology, titled “The Cambrian Explosion and the Burgess Shale: No Dilemma for Darwin.”

On September 18, Smith applauded Mares’s letter, the extension of the museum’s hours, and Westrop’s planned lecture. She wrote:

“If you live in the OKC [Oklahoma City] area, you’ve got a problem. Sure, you want to go see the TARD [short for retard] parade at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, you can always count on Creationists for a good time. But the problem is, Wells and Meyer are incredibly stupid. While recreational exposure to Creationists can induce euphoria and irrepressible giggles… long-term exposure to pure TARD from DI [Discovery Institute] fellows can cause seemingly irreversible brain damage.” Smith also announced that she would “be around, completely uninvited,” at the showing of the film. “I’ll even talk to Johnny Wells about HIV-1 evolution, since he thinks neither of my research topics exists.”

(Not true, of course, though I question the relevance of HIV microevolution to Darwinian macroevolution.)

A few days later, Oklahoma Daily columnist Jelani Sims criticized Mares’s letter on the grounds that it “assumes that those presenting the documentary and supporting it must be religious, have conservative political views and lack scientific literacy, while disguising the museum’s malicious shot at those people and groups as tolerance.” According to Jelani,

“the museum should not have opposed the event in this way. Rather than hijacking the night of the documentary presentation with an opposing seminar and free extra hours of operation, it should have let the event stand on its own. And, rather than releasing a statement of vehement opposition, thinly veiled in tolerance, it should have said nothing.
OU and the surrounding halls of learning and education should be places of academic freedom and the open exploration of ideas. Instead of fostering and working toward this ideal, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has chosen to align itself with the many mean-hearted voices that wish no one would hear any alternative outside of evolution.”

On September 28, Steve spoke to an audience estimated at 300 in the Meacham Auditorium at the Oklahoma Memorial Union. (I had not yet arrived from Seattle.) “If you apply Charles Darwin’s method of reasoning to what we know now that he didn’t, you come to exactly the opposite conclusion that he did,” Meyer said. “There is evidence of design in nature, and you find that evidence most obviously on display in the digital code that is stored in the DNA.” The evidence shows that DNA is not only complex, but also highly specified to encode functional proteins. To people who claim that intelligent design is not science, Steve said, “It’s important to amend the rules of science to allow scientists to follow the evidence to wherever it leads.” [8,9]

The ensuing Q&A was surprisingly friendly, with the exception of one man who insisted that most human DNA is junk and who persisted in this claim even after Steve pointed out that recently published scientific research shows that most so-called “junk DNA” is not junk at all. Abbie Smith was there, but she spent the entire time blogging on her laptop. Her entries included the following:

7.10 — Meyer is clueless on origin of life and Darwin.
7.27 — ‘Origin of information in DNA’. HAHAHA I made all the mathematicians facepalm [place their hands over their eyes and shake their heads].
7.40 — Bored. Now watching porn.

Despite her earlier threats to expose publicly how “stupid” Steve is, Smith left abruptly after the lecture and did not stay for the Q&A.
On September 29, The Norman Transcript announced the 5 PM lecture by Professor Westrop and the 7 PM showing of Darwin’s Dilemma. The article mentioned Steve’s position that the pairing of events was good because it allowed for students to get two views. “I think it’s great that students will be party to that,” Steve said. “That’s what an academic experience is all about.”

I attended the lecture by Professor Westrop, which was informative and entertaining. Westrop began by saying that the Cambrian explosion was no dilemma for Darwin. Indeed, if Darwin knew what we now know he would have celebrated the fossil record and written about it at length. Westrop disputed the idea that most of the animal body plans (“phyla”) emerged “almost overnight” in the Cambrian. Instead, he argued that they began to emerge much earlier, in the pre-Cambrian period known as the Ediacaran. He mentioned trace fossils (signs of worm burrows) and the “small shelly fauna” that are older than the two most famous sites for Cambrian explosion fossils, the Burgess Shale in Canada and the Chengjiang beds in China–both of which show exceptional preservation of even the soft parts of early animals.

Professor Westrop mentioned pre-Cambrian sponges and the fossil Kimberella, which most paleontologists think was an early mollusc. He went further, however, and claimed that the Ediacaran fossils Vernanimalcula, Parvancorina, and Arkarua were early bilaterians (bilaterally symmetrical animals), arthropods (the phylum that includes crabs and insects) and echinoderms (the phylum that includes sea urchins and starfish), respectively. This would push back the beginning of the Cambrian explosion and make its duration 40 million years instead of the 5-10 million years mentioned in Darwin’s Dilemma. (Steve later addressed this in the Q&A after the film; see below.)

Professor Westrop suggested that the explosion might have been due to an increase in atmospheric oxygen and/or the opening of ecological niches by a mass extinction event at the end of the pre-Cambrian. (I thought to myself that increased oxygen and new ecological niches may have been necessary for the Cambrian explosion, but they were far from sufficient. New body plans need new information, not just air and space.) Westrop concluded by taking exception to J.B.S. Haldane’s claim that finding a fossil rabbit in the pre-Cambrian would prove Darwin’s theory wrong. If such a fossil were found, Westrop said, paleontologists would simply revise their reconstruction of the history of life.

During the Q&A, one student asked him whether any fossil find could falsify Darwin’s theory, and Professor Westrop said “No,” since Darwin’s theory is really about natural selection, which operates on a much shorter time scale than the fossil record. Another student asked him whether he had seen the movie Darwin’s Dilemma; he said he hadn’t, but his lecture was not intended to be a response to the movie.

During the lecture I caught several people glaring at me; the tension was palpable. After Westrop’s lecture I toured the museum exhibit on evolution and the Cambrian explosion. It seemed factually accurate for the most part, emphasizing (among other things) that many of the Cambrian explosion fossils were soft-bodied — which puts the lie to the common explanation that their precursors are absent from the fossil record because they lacked hard parts. The exhibit also made it clear that the Ediacaran fossils went extinct at the end of the pre-Cambrian, so (with a few possible exceptions) they could not have been ancestral to the Cambrian phyla.

One particular panel in the exhibit caught my attention. It showed over a dozen of the Cambrian phyla at the top of a branching tree with a single trunk, but none of the branch points corresponded to a real living thing. Instead, the branch points were artificial technical categories such as “Ecdysozoa,” “Lophotrochozoa,” “Deuterostomia,” and “Bilateria.” The artificiality of the branch-points emphasized that the branching-tree pattern imposed on the fossil evidence was itself an artificial construct.

By 7 PM the auditorium was filled to standing-room-only capacity with about 200 people. During the film Steve and I waited outside; we came in for the Q&A as the film was ending and the audience was applauding enthusiastically.
Steve led off with a short statement explaining that we were not challenging the facts, but only the Darwinian interpretation of them. He acknowledged that there are disagreements over the duration of the Cambrian explosion — even among Darwinian paleontologists–but the real issue is the origin of information. Even if the Cambrian explosion had lasted 40 million years, as Westrop had claimed, there would not have been enough time for unguided processes to produce the enormous amount of specified complexity in the DNA of the animal phyla. Then Steve opened the floor to questions, as the moderator walked around the room with a hand-held microphone.

The first “question” came from Victor Hutchison of the OESE, who claimed that the filmmakers had deceived Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine into granting interviews that were now 9-10 years old. Steve responded that he had had tea with Simon just a few months earlier, and although Conway Morris was not a supporter of intelligent design (nor did the film make him out to be), his views on the Cambrian explosion were accurately portrayed in the film. Steve said he had not spoken with Valentine recently, and that the latter had every right to distance himself from the views promoted by the film; but both Conway Morris and Valentine had signed releases and accepted payment for their participation. (In fact, Illustra Media interviewed Conway Morris and Valentine for this project in October and November of 2006–less than three years ago. Both Morris and Valentine knew they were being interviewed by Illustra Media, which was well known for having previously produced two pro-intelligent design films, Unlocking the Mystery of Life and The Privileged Planet. They were not deceived in any way.)

The second question came from a man who was concerned that the film said nothing about the role of viruses in changing DNA. The retrovirus-derived gene PEG10, he argued, explains how mammals evolved placentas millions of years ago. I replied that biologists can establish that certain genes are necessary in the formation of specific organs, but they have never established that genes alone — much less any one gene — can account for any organ. Indeed, I pointed out, we can (and have) mutated the genes of fruit fly embryos in every possible way, and there are only three known outcomes: a normal fruit fly, a defective fruit fly, or a dead fruit fly. Not even a new species, much less a new organ. So the fact that PEG10 may be necessary for the development of a placenta does not justify the claim that a retrovirus caused the evolution of the first placenta. The questioner persisted, pointing out that PEG10 is widespread among mammals (which is irrelevant to whether it caused the origin of placentas), and when the moderator moved to another person the questioner got up and stalked out of the room with his hands in the air.

The next person–apparently a professor of developmental biology–objected that the film ignored facts showing the unity of life, especially the universality of the genetic code, the remarkable similarity of about 500 housekeeping genes in all living things, the role of HOX genes in building animal body plans, and the similarity of HOX genes in all animal phyla, including sponges. Steve began by pointing out that the genetic code is not universal, but the questioner loudly complained that he was not answering her questions. I stepped up and pointed out that housekeeping genes are similar in all living things because without them life is not possible. I acknowledged that HOX gene mutations can be quite dramatic (causing a fly to sprout legs from its head in place of antennae, for example), but HOX genes become active midway through development, long after the body plan is already established. They are also remarkably non-specific; for example, if a fly lacks a particular HOX gene and a comparable mouse HOX gene is inserted in its place, the fly develops normal fly parts, not mouse parts. Furthermore, the similarity of HOX genes in so many animal phyla is actually a problem for neo-Darwinism: If evolutionary changes in body plans are due to changes in genes, and flies have HOX genes similar to those in a horse, why is a fly not a horse? Finally, the presence of HOX genes in sponges (which, everyone agrees, appeared in the pre-Cambrian) still leaves unanswered the question of how such complex specified genes evolved in the first place.

The questioner became agitated and shouted out something to the effect that HOX gene duplication explained the increase in information needed for the diversification of animal body plans. I replied that duplicating a gene doesn’t increase information content any more than photocopying a paper increases its information content. She obviously wanted to continue the argument, but the moderator took the microphone to someone else.

The next questioner suggested the film might have been better if it had included some Darwinists skeptical of its conclusions. (I learned later that the producer/director had invited several such critics to be interviewed, but they had declined.) Steve agreed that the film might have been better if it had done that. I chimed in that there seemed little need for the producer to pay for such views when the University of Oklahoma was spending so much public money to provide them. (I wished later I had said that if OU were doing its job it would be providing students with both sides of the story in the first place, and there would have been no need to make the film.)

Someone asked why the film refers to “designers” in the plural. Steve answered that this merely followed from the application of Lyell’s explanatory method of inferring past causes from those known to produce comparable effects in the present. We can infer the need for intelligence, but single or multiple designers could be responsible. In response to another questioner who noted that the film apparently assumes the standard geological time scale, Steve said that both he and I hold to the antiquity of the Earth.

An emeritus professor of immunology pointed out that the immune system is essentially the same in all vertebrates, but the supposedly primitive lamprey has a completely different immune system. He regarded this as evidence of a molecular explosion comparable to the Cambrian explosion that also pointed to design.

Then someone suggested that there is a fundamental distinction between the time organisms first arise and when they appear in the fossil record. He said there is abundant fossil and molecular evidence that many animal body plans arose before the Cambrian. I pointed out that three of the pre-Cambrian fossils cited by Professor Westrop as precursors to Cambrian animals were disputed by other paleontologists. According to Stefan Bengtson and Graham Budd, the bilaterian interpretation of Vernanimalcula is “not well-founded” but an “artifact” of changes in the organism after death and changes in the sediment after deposition. [Bengtson, S. & G. Budd, “Comment on ‘Small Bilaterian Fossils from 40 to 55 Million Years Before the Cambrian’,” Science 306 (2004): 1291a.] According to James Valentine, Parvancorina is not “convincing” as an arthropod ancestor; it lacks a head, jointed limbs, compound eyes and antennae. Also according to Valentine, without more shared features with echinoderms the relationship of Arkarua “remains uncertain.” [Valentine, J.W., On the Origin of Phyla (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 287, 397.]

I then pointed out that molecular evidence comes entirely from modern organisms; no biomolecules have been recovered from Cambrian fossils. The molecular data are fed into a computer that has been programmed to generate a branching-tree pattern; the computer is not given the option of concluding that the organisms may not share a common ancestor. Even then, different molecules–or the same molecule analyzed by different labs — can give different trees. So molecular phylogeny is riddled with inconsistencies, and when applied to the Cambrian phyla it is speculative at best.

Finally, someone mentioned Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and asked whether the current controversy over Darwinism and intelligent design fits Kuhn’s description. Steve answered that in many respects it does–not only in the way the Darwinian scientific establishment is using all means at its disposal to suppress the new theory of intelligent design, but also in the way the very definition of science has become part of the controversy.

The formal Q&A ended, but many people came up afterwards to continue the conversation. Both we and the organizers — the courageous students of the OU Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club — were pleased with the outcome. As IDEA Club secretary Trevor Clark wrote in the student newspaper on October 1, “One of the most spectacular features of these events was the broad spectrum of people who attended. I am thrilled that so many people with different viewpoints could converge to join a discussion about intelligent design.”

Darwinist blogger P.Z. Myers, who had scolded the museum for letting us show the film, did not come all the way from the University of Minnesota, Morris, to attend. Yet he wrote afterwards about Steve’s September 28 lecture:

“I knew ahead of time exactly what it was going to be: complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, therefore, DESIGN. It doesn’t follow. The logic is nonexistent. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect a competent person with a Ph.D. in philosophy to recognize, but no, it’s the same ol’ thing, trotted out every time they get up to speak.”

Of course, Myers is absolutely correct: Complexity, therefore design, doesn’t follow. And yes, “you’d expect a competent person with a Ph.D. in philosophy” to know this.

That’s why Steve Meyer devoted an entire chapter to it in his book. In fact, it’s the chapter from which the book takes its name (Signature in the Cell HarperOne, 2009, Chapter 4.). If Myers had bothered to read Steve’s book, he would have known this. Indeed, you’d expect that a competent person with a Ph.D. who’s paid by the taxpayers of Minnesota to teach their children would read a book before ridiculing it. But no, it’s the same ol’ thing, trotted out every time Myers blogs on the subject.

Oh, and porn-watcher Abbie Smith was a no-show. In a blog post the day after Darwin’s Dilemma showed, she called Steve a stupid idiot, and gave as her reasons for not coming (1) “I’d be trapped in a theater!” and (2) “I got no response to my debate request re: Wells HIV/Evolution Denial… I just don’t understand why ID Creationists don’t want to debate me.”

A debate about HIV? I don’t know what relevance HIV has to the Cambrian explosion, and I didn’t receive any “request” to debate it, but I would have been willing to discuss the matter with Smith if she had had the guts to show her face.

So our landing at Norman was a success. Despite all their taxpayer-funded professors and museum exhibits, despite all their threats to dismantle us and expose us as retards, the Darwinists lost. We’re now moving inland, and the end of the war may be coming into view.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.