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Sneers and Double Standards Pass for Scholarship in Evolution: Education and Outreach

Casey Luskin

Pop quiz: Did the following quote come from (A) Panda’s Thumb, or (B) An article in a scholarly journal published by Springer science publishing?

“An especially good example of silliness is the ID assertion that natural processes cannot create new genetic information. ID advocates have recently been pushing this line heavily as of late (Meyer 2009)…”

If you answered (A), then…

…you’re wrong. It came from a recent article by former NCSE staff-member Nick Matzke in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach — an NCSE-aligned outfit, where apparently such language passes for scholarly argument. But in the words of Jay Richards, “a sneer is not an argument.”

Of course Matzke’s reference in the quote from his recent paper is to Stephen Meyer’s 2009 book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The extent of Matzke’s technical response is to call the book’s argument “silliness” and to later bash the book for allegedly alluding to Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”:

Meyer’s reference to a “purpose-driven life” is of course a direct reference (though without citation) to the massively popular book of the same name (Warren 2002) authored by Rick Warren, a megachurch pastor and one of the leading evangelical voices in America today. In any standard scientific book on the origin of life, this would be quite the odd reference, but with creationist works, even ID works, it is par for the course.

But exactly how does Meyer allude to the “purpose-driven life”? Matzke’s paper garbles a passage from Signature of the Cell (SITC) as follows:

As a teenager in the mid-1970s, I sensed this absence of meaning in modern life…What heroism, thought or feeling, labor, inspiration, genius, or achievement will last, if impersonal particles are all that ultimately endure? …Though the theory of intelligent design does not identify the agent responsible for the information–the signature–in the cell, it does affirm that the ultimate cause of life is personal…The case for intelligent design challenges the premise of the materialist credo and holds out the possibility of reversing the philosophy of despair that flows from it. Life is the product of mind; it was intended, purposed, “previsioned.” Hence, there may be a reality behind matter that is worth investigating.

If the conscious realities that comprise our personhood have no lasting existence, if life and mind are nothing more than unintended ephemera of the material cosmos, then, as the existential philosophers have recognized, our lives can have no lasting meaning or ultimate purpose. Without a purpose-driven universe, there can be no “purpose-driven life.” (Meyer 2009)

Using Matzke’s quote as a guide, the second paragraph in this quote is extremely difficult to locate in SITC because it appears two pages before the first paragraph. Of course, this reflects the fact that Matzke took the liberty of engaging in a significant amount of re-arranging of Meyer’s words, leaving out much context.

Had Matzke continued with the actual context after the first paragraph, as his quote wrongly implies the second paragraph ought to be, one would have discovered the following prose from Stephen Meyer:

These implications of the theory are not, logically speaking, reason to affirm or reject it. But they are reasons–very personal and human reasons–for considering its claims carefully and for resisting attempts to define the possibility of agency out of bounds. (p. 451)

The context of Meyer’s discussion indicates that he’s is talking about the larger implications of ID, and not the arguments for ID. But Matzke’s argument implies that discussing larger philosophical or theological implications or alluding to religious topics is inappropriate for “any standard scientific book on the origin of life.” Ironically, Matzke is doing exactly what Meyer warns against: trying to define ID as “out of bounds” without actually addressing the argument. Hence, Matzke is reduced to calling SITC‘s arguments “silliness” and making irrelevant complaints about Meyer’s discussion of theological implications.

But is Matzke correct that mainstream scientific books never engage in discussions of the larger implications–even religious implications–of the science? I pulled a few scientific books dealing with origins off my bookshelf, and this is what I found:

  • At the end of his book A Brief History of Time, acclaimed physicist Stephen W. Hawking states: “However, if we do discover a complete theory … [t]hen we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God.” (A Brief History of Time, p. 185, Bantam Press, 1988)
  • At the end of his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan states: “For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.” (Cosmos, p. 296, Ballantine Books, 1980)
  • At the end of his book Creation Revisited: The Origin of Space, Time and the Universe, Oxford chemist Peter Atkins mimics the first chapter of Genesis, stating “In the beginning there was nothing. Absolute void, not merely empty space. There was no space; nor was there time, for this was before time. The universe was without form and void. By chance there was a fluctuation … From absolute nothing, absolutely without intervention, there came into being rudimentary existence.” (Creation Revsited, p. 149, W.H. Freeman, 1992)
  • At the end of his book on the origin of life, Life Evolving, Nobel Prize winning cell biologist Christian de Duve writes the following in a chapter titled, “How About God in All That?”:

    How About God in All That? This question was reportedly asked by Emperor Napolean and the First of the physicist Pierre-Simon de Laplace, who had just explained to him the strictly deterministic principles of his Mêcanique cêleste. “Your Majesty,” the famous French physicist is said to have replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” … On what has been convincingly demonstrated, science can make no concession. If there is conflict between what science knows and what religion believes, the latter must give in. This conflict has become particularly acute in the domain of life, in which a widening gap separates the discoveries of science from a number of notions contained, explicitly, or implicitly, in the religious message. (Life Evolving, pp. 284, 286, Oxford University Press, 2002)

Contra Matzke, it seems that standard scientific books on origins — by leading scientists — commonly discuss the implications of their scientific arguments at the end. After spending 400+ pages laying out the scientific evidence for ID, and explaining why this argument is scientifically based, Meyer has more than earned the right to spend a few pages talking about the larger religious implications he draws personally from that evidence.

Nick Matzke is well-accustomed to treating ID proponents with a different standard than that to which he holds evolutionary scientists: Evolutionary scientists are given freedom of speech to discuss the greater philosophical or theological implications of their scientific ideas and still have their ideas called scientific. In my view, that’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But he applies a double-standard to ID proponents, claiming that if they explore the theological implications of their scientific arguments then they “are engaging in religious apologetics in the guise of science.”

Apparently such blatant double-standards are welcomed in Evolution: Education and Outreach.


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.



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