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In National Review, John Farrell’s Predictable and Misleading Review of Darwin’s Doubt

We’re beginning to see a formula, repetitive and predictable, among critical reviews of Darwin’s Doubt.

First, critics refuse to engage the central arguments of the book. Readers will recall that in Darwin’s Doubt Meyer shows that the abrupt appearance of the Cambrian animals in the Cambrian period contradicts the Darwinian expectation of a slow, gradual unfolding of animal life. Nevertheless, readers will also know that Meyer’s main argument concerns the cause of the origin of the Cambrian animals, not their pattern of appearance in the fossil record. Specifically, Meyer argues that the genetic information (as well as the circuitry and epigenetic information) necessary to produce novel forms of animal life is best explained by intelligent design, rather than by various unguided evolutionary processes (like the mutation-selection mechanism).

Second, rather than engaging the book’s primary arguments, critics seek to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of readers about Meyer’s trustworthiness, impeaching his scientific credibility and expertise. They try to do this largely by nitpicking over secondary issues in the book. For example, Nick Matzke claimed that Meyer made “basic errors.” Donald Prothero asserted that Meyer, in failing to agree that the Cambrian explosion is merely “an artifact of preservation,” “deliberately and dishonestly distorts” the evidence.

We have already responded to these charges, showing that what Matzke called “errors” were not, according to leading authorities, errors at all, and that what Prothero called “dishonesty” actually represented the consensus view among leading Cambrian paleontologists. Now, writing in the conservative outlet National Review, longtime ID-basher and Huffington Post-contributor John Farrell employs the same strategy. (For responses to some of Farrell’s previous misrepresentations of ID, see here, here, here, and here.)

Predictably, Farrell fails to engage Meyer’s central argument. Indeed, he blatantly misrepresents it. After repeating the false claim that Meyer exaggerates the brevity of the Cambrian explosion (previously refuted here), he claims that Meyer argues for the Cambrian explosion mainly on the basis of the suddenness of the explosion. (While the abrupt appearance of the Cambrian animals is one feature of the explosion that Meyer argues intelligent design can explain, it is by no means the main basis for the inference to design that Meyer draws.) He also claims that Meyer’s argument for intelligent design is based upon his own “personal incredulity” about the creative power of mutation and selection. Indeed, Farrell presents Meyer’s argument for intelligent design as a purely negative argument against evolution. Farrell misrepresents Meyer as follows:

What he [Meyer] does is reject two bedrock principles of modern evolutionary biology: the common ancestry of all living things, and natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of new species. If you reject these two notions of evolutionary biology, then by default you’re left with only one alternative: the discrete interventions of an intelligent agent, a Designer, to explain the origin and diversification of life.

Yet anyone who knows Meyer’s work knows that his argument does not constitute a purely negative argument from ignorance, as Farrell’s use of the phrase “personal incredulity” also implies, but instead is a positive inference to the best explanation based upon our knowledge of cause and effect. Specifically, Meyer does not just show that the main evolutionary mechanisms lack “the causal power” to produce the new functional information (both genetic and epigenetic) necessary to produce the Cambrian animals. He also argues that we know of a cause capable of producing functional information, including both digital and hierarchically organized forms of information. That cause is intelligent activity or intelligent design. Thus, he argues that intelligent design constitutes the best explanation for the explosion of new functional information in the Cambrian period.

Instead of addressing, or even accurately representing, Meyer’s main argument for intelligent design, Farrell devotes a significant portion of his review to criticizing the book for the alleged misuse of an ellipsis. You read that right. He takes issue with Meyer’s punctuation! Of course, Farrell presents this as a serious matter. He claims that by grouping together two quotations from different parts of an article by paleontologist Charles Marshall (and by omitting another passage), Meyer gives the false impression that Marshall affirmed something called the artifact hypothesis — the idea that the missing ancestors of the Cambrian animals were not preserved in the Precambrian fossil record because they were too small or soft, an idea Meyer shows to be untenable later in the book.

But Farrell (who holds a BA in English and has no training in the earth sciences) badly misread both Marshall and Meyer.

First, Meyer did not claim that Marshall supported the artifact hypothesis, only that he “summarized” it.

Second, Marshall himself repeatedly does affirm the artifact hypothesis in the article in question and he clearly does so in the passages that Meyer quotes.

Third, the specific passage that Farrell objects to Meyer’s omitting, the one directly following the first quotation Meyer provides of Marshall discussing the artifact hypothesis, addresses another topic altogether (i.e., the duration of the Cambrian explosion, not the artifact hypothesis). Thus, it was entirely appropriate for Meyer to group (and omit) the passages that he did. And he did not misrepresent Marshall in so doing.

That’s the basic gist of what Farrell got wrong. Here’s more of the background to help interested readers determine who did, and did not, read and represent Marshall correctly.

In Chapter 3 of Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer describes and critiques versions of the artifact hypothesis. To introduce his readers to the artifact hypothesis, Meyer quotes various scientists who attempt to explain away the absence of Precambrian ancestral fossils in the sedimentary record on the basis of the incomplete preservation of these putative ancestors. He cites such modern evolutionary scientists as Eric Davidson, Gregory Wray, Jeffrey Levinton, and Leo Shapiro who propound this argument in relatively recent papers. He also demonstrates that this argument is not new, quoting a textbook from 1894, and another from the 1940s, using the artifact hypothesis to explain away the abrupt fossil appearance of animals. Farrell doesn’t protest any of these quotations or citations, nor should he — the artifact hypothesis has been widely invoked by evolutionary scientists to explain away the Cambrian explosion. (I remember being taught about this idea in an upper division “Biodiversity” evolutionary biology course during my undergraduate studies at UC San Diego.)

Farrell does take issue with one particular source Meyer quotes to summarize the artifact hypothesis. That is the aforementioned Charles Marshall in a 2006 paper in Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, “Explaining the Cambrian ‘Explosion’ of Animals.” (It’s available free online here.) Meyer quotes Marshall as follows (pp. 57-58):

University of California, Berkeley paleontologist Charles R. Marshall summarizes these explanations:

[I]t is important to remember that we see the Cambrian “explosion” through the windows permitted by the fossil and geological records. So when talking about the Cambrian “explosion,” we are typically referring to the appearance of large-body (can be seen by the naked eye) and preservable (and therefore largely skeletonized) forms. . . . If the stem lineages were both small and unskeletonized, then we would not expect to see them in the fossil record.

Farrell does not contest Meyer’s general point that evolutionary scientists have invoked the artifact hypothesis to explain away the Cambrian explosion. Farrell only objects to Meyer’s use of this particular quotation. He claims that Meyer misrepresents Marshall as affirming the artifact hypothesis when he does not. That’s where his beef with Meyer’s punctuation comes in. He claims that Meyer misused an ellipsis to omit a passage that places the quotations he includes from Marshall in a different context. He also objects that the two quotations that Meyer groups together separated by an ellipsis are separated by 15 pages in Marshall’s original text. According to Farrell:

I went to Marshall’s paper and discovered that this passage had been lifted out of context, with the final statement — the part after Meyer’s ellipsis — tacked on from 15 pages later in the article, a section in which Marshall was commenting on a detailed diagram outlining the various factors scientists deem relevant to understanding the entire Cambrian explosion. The implication of the cut-and-paste quote in Meyer’s account is that a leading paleontologist is, like his colleagues, trying to explain away a significant challenge to evolution: the lack of intermediate forms in the Precambrian period. But in fact, Marshall was not doing that.

Farrell calls Meyer’s use of Marshall a “misleading quotation” and explains why he thinks Meyer represented the argument:

Here are the key missing words from Marshall’s passage that would have appeared immediately before Meyer’s ellipsis:

Finally, I place the word “explosion” in quotation marks because, while the Cambrian radiation occurred quickly compared with the time between the Cambrian and the present, it still extended over some 20 million years of the earliest Cambrian, or longer if you add in the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran and the entire 55 million year duration of the Cambrian.

The passage Meyer lifted has nothing to do with intermediate life forms — missing or not — in the Precambrian.

Mr. Farrell is correct that the sentences are separated by 15 pages. But he is incorrect that Meyer misrepresented Marshall’s arguments or that his use of the ellipsis (and his decision not to quote the intervening passage Farrell cites) in any way distorted Marshall’s position. Notice that the passage Meyer omitted, the one that Farrell cites directly above, discusses a different topic than do the other two quotations, namely the duration of the Cambrian explosion, not why the ancestral forms of the Cambrian animals are generally missing from the Precambrian record. (Marshall’s view is that the Cambrian explosion lasted 20 million years, or much longer if the Ediacaran period is included.) Notice also that Marshall begins that passage with the enumerative word “Finally” followed by a comma, clearly signalling the introduction of another separate point. Farrell misses this obvious exegetical clue and, thus, fails to understand Meyer’s perfectly defensible reason for omitting the passage in question.

Notice also that both of the passages from Marshall that Meyer cites are summarizing the same idea. In particular, both passages describe the idea that the apparent explosion of animal life in the Cambrian (Marshall puts the word “explosion” in scare quotes) reflects the fact that large and hard-skeletonized parts are more easily preserved in the fossil record, and thus in his view the Cambrian explosion may be an artifact of imperfect preservation. The first passage that Meyer cites (before the ellipsis) clearly makes this point, for there Marshall states:

So when talking about the Cambrian “explosion,” we are typically referring to the appearance of large-body (can be seen by the naked eye) and preservable (and therefore largely skeletonized) forms. …

And the second passage that Meyer cites (the one after the ellipsis), found in Table 1 of Marshall’s paper, also clearly discusses this same topic for there Marshall states:

If the stem lineages were both small and unskeletonized, then we would not expect to see them in the fossil record.

Farrell charges that these passages from Marshall’s paper that Meyer quoted “had been lifted out of context.” But it is hard to see how that is the case when Marshall is expounding the same point in both quotations and the text that Farrell objects to Meyer omitting is making a different point.seco

In any case, Meyer doesn’t even claim that Marshall endorses the artifact hypothesis. Marshall’s article is a review essay, and all Meyer says is that Marshall is “summarizing” the artifact hypothesis so readers may understand it. And clearly Marshall is doing at least that.

Even so, Marshall’s paper does more than “summarize” the artifact hypothesis. It also seems to affirm it, making Meyer’s use of Marshall’s paper for this purpose doubly defensible. Indeed, if one reads the intervening text (the “missing” 15 pages to which Farrell objects) Marshall is mainly discussing various causal possible explanations for the Cambrian explosion. (His article was, after all, a scientific review article published in an “Annual Reviews” journal.)

In that section of the paper, Marshall writes that the artifact hypothesis comes into play as an auxiliary hypothesis in support of three possible explanations for the Cambrian explosion: the “increased oxygen level” hypothesis, the slow “developmental” evolution of the Cambrian animals, and the “origin of predation.” Combined with the molecular clock hypothesis, these explanations span 7 of the 15 pages between the two offending quotations of Marshall. But if you read Marshall’s paper, and his Table 1 carefully, you learn that Marshall believes that many of the explanations of the Cambrian explosion he’s proposing also require the artifact hypothesis as an auxiliary explanation to help explain why the ancestors to the Cambrian animals are missing in the Precambrian fossil record. Some specific quotes help show this.

Shortly into those intervening 15 pages, Marshall states, “it is likely that evolutionary lineages have their origins in rocks older than their first observed occurrences in the fossil record.” As evidence of this, he argues that “attempts to use molecular clocks to estimate the time of origin of the animal phyla have led to much larger estimates of the incompleteness of the fossil record.” (Meyer doesn’t ignore this argument, and addresses and rebuts the molecular clock argument in detail in Chapter 5 of Darwin’s Doubt.) On the next page, Marshall argues that the Cambrian animals’ “unskeletonized forebears almost certainly had an Ediacaran, and perhaps more ancient, existence” and thus “the fossil record typically misses the early history of major clades.” But why, according to Marshall, do the Cambrian animals “have their origins in rocks much older” than where they’re “first observed”? It’s because, as Meyer quotes Marshall later stating, “If the stem lineages were both small and unskeletonized, then we would not expect to see them in the fossil record.” That’s the artifact hypothesis, and far from Marshall critiquing or rejecting it, the artifact hypothesis is a thread that is woven throughout that entire section of Marshall’s paper — appearing at the beginning and end (which Meyer quotes), as well as various points in the middle.

As to Farrell’s charge that Meyer misuses an “ellipsis,” this too is contrived, because, though the two quotes are separated by fifteen pages, they occur in similar contexts and make the same point. Indeed, Farrell failed to mention that the first quotation from Marshall appears in the body of Marshall’s article, while the second occurs in a caption to Marshall’s Table 1, which summarizes the discussion of the preceding pages of Marshall’s main text, including his discussion of “the artifact hypothesis.” Thus, there was a simple, obvious reason why Meyer used the ellipsis: he was grouping two quotations together that made the same point in helpfully different ways. Moreover, given the context of Marshall’s larger discussion and the way he used his Table 1 to summarize it, the quotation in the figure caption clearly amplified his earlier points.

Indeed, the two statements about the artifact hypothesis roughly bookend his main discussion, and somewhat different focus in the intervening text, about possible causal explanations of the explosion animal life in the Cambrian. Why not group together such related, bookending passages?

It is worth pointing out as well that even if Meyer had misconstrued Marshall’s position on the artifact hypothesis, it would have had no material bearing on the argument Meyer was making, which shows you how superficial Farrell’s review is. In point of fact, many evolutionary scientists (I noted some others that Meyer cites earlier) have tried to explain away the Cambrian explosion by citing the artifact hypothesis. Meyer isn’t wrong to rebut an argument that is commonly made. So what exactly is Farrell’s point? Farrell wants readers to think that Meyer is ignoring a stronger argument that Marshall makes.

Thus, the larger context for Farrell’s complaints is that he takes issue with Meyer’s discussion of the artifact hypothesis in Chapter 3 in order to accuse Meyer of failing to acknowledge the alleged “steps” of evolution in the fossil record which make the “artifact hypothesis” unnecessary as an explanation for the Cambrian explosion. This is an odd charge to make against Meyer. Farrell shows no awareness that Meyer discusses this supposed early fossil record of animal evolution in great detail in Chapter 4 of Darwin’s Doubt.

In complaining about Chapter 3 of Meyer’s book, Farrell writes:

Consider again the alleged absence of transitional intermediate fossils connecting the Cambrian animals to simpler Precambrian forms. Meyer argues that Darwinian scientists have no explanation for this; indeed, just as Darwin once did, they’ve tried to dismiss this challenge by falling back on the convenient hypothesis that the fossil record was poorly preserved and/or had been insufficiently sampled.

He then accuses Meyer of ignoring the alleged fact that, in reality, the Cambrian explosion “included a particular series of steps,” because there is a “radiation of animal forms that shows a great deal of continuous evolution over a 50 million-year Cambrian period.” This, supposedly, makes the artifact hypothesis superfluous. According to Farrell, by critiquing the artifact hypothesis, Meyer has erected a straw man, and failed to acknowledge a much stronger argument from evolutionary scientists, that there is in fact a long, continuous record of animal evolution.

We already responded to the charge that the Cambrian explosion lasted many tens of millions of years, showing that leading authorities mark the Cambrian explosion as a roughly 10 million year period of rapid evolution. So where does Farrell get this idea of a “50 million-year Cambrian period” of evolution? Farrell cites Charles Marshall’s paper, but Farrell apparently misunderstood what Marshall wrote.

Marshall actually wrote that the animal radiation “extended over some 20 million years of the earliest Cambrian, or longer if you add in the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran.” That’s not 50 million years of the “Cambrian period,” since 30 million of those years are from the Ediacaran period. And the Ediacaran period, of course, is from the late Precambrian, just before the Cambrian. Why is this significant? Because, as I noted, Meyer devotes Chapter 4 in Darwin’s Doubt, to discussing the supposed Precambrian fossil record of animal evolution, including many fossils from the Ediacaran period.

In that chapter, appropriately titled “The Not Missing Fossils,” Meyer looks at numerous fossils and explains why they don’t solve the problem of the Cambrian explosion. On the contrary, they lack morphological affinities to the Cambrian animals that would link them to the Cambrian animals as possible ancestors. Meyer cites multiple leading authorities who agree that the Ediacaran fossils simply don’t represent the kind of organisms necessary to serve as evolutionary ancestors to the Cambrian animals.

Indeed, in a diagram that Farrell claims Meyer ignores, Marshall seems to endorse Meyer’s position on this. Marshall recognizes that the Precambrian fossils from the Ediacaran period are plagued by “Phylogenetic uncertainty,” reflecting the fact that few think the fossils known from the Ediacaran represent clear ancestors to the Cambrian animals. Marshall writes that “the phylogenetic status of many of the Ediacaran taxa is uncertain. These uncertainties make unraveling this time of prelude to the Cambrian ‘explosion’ difficult.” Much later in the paper Marshall tepidly proposes that “Perhaps some of the Ediacarans are in fact the missing bilaterian stem groups,” but he isn’t sure.

But bear in mind the broader point at stake here: Farrell wants you to think Meyer misquoted Marshall in order to avoid dealing with Marshall’s discussion of fossils that purportedly document animal evolution.

But it’s not at all the case that Meyer fails to recognize this sort of argument – in fact he devotes an entire chapter to rebutting it. This discussion happens, however, in Chapter 4, long after Meyer’s quotation on Marshall on an entirely different topic.

Ironically, far from misquoting Marshall or taking what he writes out of context, Meyer could have quoted Marshall in support of his argument that a straightforward reading of the fossil record shows an explosive appearance of animals. Marshall also notes that:

Valentine and colleagues (1991), in the only quantitative treatment of the suddenness of the Cambrian ‘explosion,’ conclude that the suddenness of the adaptive radiation is real, even when the incompleteness of the fossil and rock records is taken into account.

Marshall’s article certainly does not describe the Precambrian fossil record as documenting a “continuous evolution” of animal life. Indeed, on page 357 of the article, Marshall asks poignantly about why the anatomical characteristics thought to be associated with Precambrian “stem groups” are missing in the fossil record. “Where are they?” he asks.

If anything, we could accuse Farrell of taking Marshall “out of context,” for failing to recognize that Marshall, at points, admits that the record shows an abrupt appearance of animals. But it’s better to not play Farrell’s games, and just let the evidence speak for itself.

To recap what we have seen:

  • Meyer only said Marshall was “summarizing” the artifact hypothesis, and never claimed that Marshall endorsed it.
  • Marshall not only summarized the artifact hypothesis, but in fact endorsed it — not just in the places Meyer quoted him, but also in the intervening pages represented by the offending ellipsis.
  • Meyer hardly ignores the other arguments Marshall makes in those intervening pages about a supposed Precambrian animal fossil record or a molecular clock, and in fact discusses them extensively in Darwin’s Doubt. Farrell doesn’t recognize any of this, but Chapter 4 of the book is devoted to assessing the alleged Precambrian animal fossil record, and Chapter 5 critiques the molecular clock.
  • Marshall even notes that a literal reading of the fossil record shows the abrupt appearance of animals, and he is skeptical that the Ediacaran fossils are the missing animal ancestors to the Cambrian animals. This is why the artifact hypothesis is woven as a theme and thread throughout his paper.

On top of all of this, Farrell frames Meyer’s argument as a strictly negative critique of evolution based upon “personal incredulity,” ignoring (and thereby failing to address) Meyer’s extensive critique of the mutation-selection mechanism, as well as Meyer’s rigorous positive case for design. Instead, Farrell takes the low road, refusing to engage Meyer’s central arguments, and misrepresenting the literature, all for the purpose of impugning Meyer’s scholarly integrity through a tired, worn-out — and entirely baseless — “out of context” quotation charge. This weak and contrived review is unworthy of a respected outlet like National Review.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, 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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