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When a Book Review Is Not a “Book Review”

Last updated 3/9/10, 7:00 pm.

As a former book review editor (at National Review), I take a professional interest in book reviews and all the things that can go right or wrong with them. I confess, though, I’ve never seen anything quite like the treatment of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, on BioLogos, the curious website funded by the Templeton Foundation and specializing in Christian apologetics for Darwin. The site published what was clearly, unambiguously written to look like a review by biologist Francisco Ayala that, as Steve Meyer pointed out already, actually gave every evidence that Ayala had not read the book. (My colleague Dr. Meyer thinks Ayala did read the Table of Contents, but on this I must disagree.)

On what did Ayala base his views about Signature? This is a bit of a mystery. BioLogos president Dr. Darrel Falk is unstinting with fulsome praise for Ayala (“one of Biology’s living legends”). Falk claims he actually asked Ayala to respond to Falk’s review of Signature. Falk purports that in publishing Ayala’s review, he mistakenly failed to introduce it with the disclaimer that Ayala was reviewing Falk’s review, not Meyer’s book per se. Yeah, sure. Falk’s review did not provide Ayala with his absurd misrepresentation of Meyer’s argument. Instead Ayala gives every impression of having derived that from his own assessment of the book itself. As Ayala claims,

The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell [sic] is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point?

Yet that is certainly not the keystone argument of Signature, and Meyer in fact spends only 66 pages (out of 613) on it. But that is not really the point here.

What’s notable is that Falk in his own review, whatever its other faults or merits, never claimed that Signature is all about proving that “chance by itself, cannot, account for the genetic information found in genomes.” Falk doesn’t mention the word “chance.” So where did Ayala get his mistaken notion? All one can say is, not from the book, which he patently didn’t read, and not from Falk. Indeed, Ayala in his essay does not mention Falk or Falk’s review. Clearly, Ayala wanted readers to think he was reviewing Signature in the Cell–or Signature of the Cell as he repeatedly calls it. Thus, for example, he commends Meyer for his “elegant prose.” The idea that Ayala was merely acting in good faith on Falk’s assignment of responding to Falk’s review is hardly believable.

Okay, so far we have a reviewer reviewing a book he did not read and a book review editor (Falk’s apparent role here) claiming disingenuously that it was all an innocent mix-up, that the review by the “living legend” was never intended as a review and was merely presented as one by mistake, even though it clearly reads like a review or critique or a critical evaluation–call it what you will.

On top of this, there is Falk’s introduction to Meyer’s response to Ayala. Here he essentially ambushes Meyer by agreeing to publish his reply to Ayala and then introduces the reply, in italics above it and at some length, in a blatant and again disingenuous attempt to undercut its credibility. Thus Falk claims that Meyer originally agreed to limit himself in his response to “Ayala’s philosophical and theological arguments.” In Falk’s presentation, Meyer then stabbed him in the back by going ahead and writing about the science after all. In reality, in his full response, Meyer writes about philosophy (multiple competing hypotheses), theology (Ayala’s claims about junk DNA), and science. The three are inextricably linked.
To be more specific, Meyer’s response does address–as he promised–Ayala’s main theological argument, namely, the argument that junk DNA shows that the human genome could not have been intelligently designed by God because it is chalk full of nonsense DNA. To refute Ayala’s theological argument Meyer shows it is based upon false scientific claims. But Falk declined to publish that part of his response until later in the week. Fair enough, but then why criticize Meyer for acting in bad faith in a preamble to the first part of his response on Monday knowing full well his response to Ayala’s theological argument is coming later?

You can only appreciate theistic evolutionists for finally agreeing to engage in dialogue, but arbitrarily limiting what can be said by the other side–tying one, or both, hands behind their back–is hardly an equitable way to hold a meaningful exchange of views. Anyone who has read the reviews in question knows that only a fool would agree to the condition of totally conceding the scientific facts to Ayala, especially since his theological argument is based upon false scientific claims. Implicitly accepting Ayala’s say-so on the science, “living legend” or not, would pull the legs out from under any philosophical or theological argument that Meyer chose to make. Steve Meyer, no fool, assures me that he never agreed to such a condition.
Falk is not a fool either, I assume. Neither is Ayala. So what, then, is wrong with these people

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.