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Early Science Review of Darwin Devolves — A Panic Attack?

Darwin Devolves

Today here in Seattle people were panicking about a big oncoming snowstorm, promised for tomorrow afternoon. With our mild climate, we’re not prepared for an event like this. Shoppers were hustling out to crowded stores in an anxious search of the aisles for deicing salt (all gone!), snow shovels (gone!), and other short supplies.

Reading Mike Behe’s response to the fundamentally non-responsive review of Darwin Devolves that came out this morning from the journal Science, two weeks plus before the book is to be published, I thought of our local snow-related anxiety attack. The review of this forthcoming book has three authors — Richard Lenski, Joshua Swamidass, and Nathan Lents. They say that “Darwin Devolves fails to challenge modern evolutionary science” but they have no answer to the main challenge that the book lays down.

Three? Why Not One?

Why was it written and published in this way? It’s odd to review a book that hasn’t been publicly released yet. For a review of a book that’s presumably of trifling importance, why is one author not enough? Lenski is a star in the science world, whose work Behe addresses in his book. Swamidass and Lents are not well known, unless you’ve followed our interactions with them at Evolution News. I’m curious how this partnership, which sounds like an attempt at a firing squad, came about.

It feels like a panic. Behe offers the compelling case that the blind evolutionary process is real but that it’s more accurately characterized as devolution, expert at breaking genes for survival purposes, not building up wonderful novelties. If correct, that would be devastating to evolution proponents.

So here we have Science, the most prestigious technical science journal published in the United States, getting out ahead of the release of Darwin Devolves, recruiting a National Academy of Sciences member and two lesser scientists, the latter known primarily for their critiques of intelligent design (Swamidass) or complaints about the “poor design” of the human body (Lents).

An Anxiety Dream

These three are hustled out to critique Behe, but when they get up on the stage they find they have no reply to the main point of Behe’s book. This is like one of those anxiety dreams where you accept an invitation to give a public address, only to realize, when you step forward to the podium, that you’ve left your notes at home. Did they search the aisles for an adequate response but find the supply all gone? 

Whatever else was going on here, the editors of Science clearly wanted to cut off this threat before it got any further along. The “embarrassing, cringe-inducing weakness” (Behe) of the review aside, Science didn’t want you to read this book. Interesting. And what are you going to do about that? Here’s an idea.

Photo: Snowstorm, by Al Jazeera English [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.