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An Unintended Endorsement of Marcos Eberlin’s New Book, Foresight


Some reviews that try to make a book look bad are so ill-informed and malicious that they actually make a good book look better.

A person who calls himself or herself “Puck Mendelssohn” (hereafter PM) on Amazon, and “Darwin’s Bullfinch” in his or her profile, has long ridiculed books critical of Darwinism or supportive of intelligent design. PM’s latest hatchet job mocks Brazilian chemist Marcos Eberlin’s new book, Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose.

Obligatory Sneering

EberlinAfter some obligatory sneering (which dismisses most Americans as “rubes” and Eberlin’s internationally recognized expertise in mass spectrometry as “not a promising start”), PM calls Eberlin’s argument even looser and sloppier than Michael Behe’s argument for irreducible complexity. According to PM, “Eberlin focuses on things that he calls ‘causally circular,’ by which he seems to mean only that a biological system has multiple interdependent components.” PM assures us that this does not “pose any particular difficulty for evolution.” Whew! What a relief.

But PM badly misconstrues Eberlin’s argument. In Eberlin’s own words: “The old chicken-and-egg problem is an example of causal circularity: To get A we need B, but to get B we first need A. We can’t have one without the other. To get both together, we need foresight.” (p. 137) In other words, we need intelligent design.

Eberlin continues: “We find examples of this causal circularity — and thus the need for foresight — throughout living systems.” One example is the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins: “Without DNA and RNA, the cell could not synthesize the proteins it needs. Yet without a suite of complex proteins the cell could not synthesize more DNA and thus could never divide. And without another suite of complex proteins the cell could not make RNA. No DNA and RNA, no proteins. No proteins, no DNA or RNA.” (p. 138)

Eberlin describes other cases of causal circularity throughout his book. In each case, the organism needs A to make B, but it has to already have B before A exists. And in Eberlin’s examples A and B are both complex entities. Michael Behe used the human blood-clotting system as an example of irreducible complexity, because all of its complex components have to be present in order for a clot to form when and where it’s needed. But the components themselves do not depend on the prior existence of the other components. Causal circularity is a much stronger claim, and (as Eberlin repeatedly points out) it poses a serious problem for the notion that the components evolved step-by-step from simpler entities. 

The Wrong Foot

Having already gotten off on the wrong foot, PM stumbles along to ridicule Eberlin’s discussion of the human cervix. Eberlin goes into some detail about amazing features of the cervix that enable it to deliver a baby at the right time. The cervix and baby are like the chicken and egg: To get A we need B, but to get B we first need A. And this points to foresight.

Eberlin writes: “If in the first-ever baby delivery, the cervix was not able to hold the baby in place and then open at exactly the right time, this poor pioneer infant would have been expelled too early or been trapped inside the mother’s womb, leading to the death of both child and mother.” (p. 117)

According to PM, this sentence shows that Eberlin is appallingly ignorant. “Does Eberlin understand anything at all about the evolutionary history of reproduction in chordates, in amniotes, in mammals? Does he know that all placental mammals have a cervix? It does not appear that he does.” But “we have a LONG history of faunal succession that gives us considerable insight into such things.” 

How Much Insight?

Just how much insight is debatable. According to a 2016 article published by the Royal Society (UK), “the timing of the origin and diversification of placental mammals [in which the cervix first appears] is a highly contentious topic.” 

Yet PM argues that if we trace the faunal succession back in time, “we’d get to where the ancestors were no longer hominids, then no longer primates, then no longer mammals,” and so on until we reached the Cambrian explosion. It’s just stupid of Eberlin to think there ever was a “first baby” human. Why is PM so sure? Because evolution is true, absolutely and beyond a doubt. There was no first human, no first primate, and no first mammal, just a shadowy blur in which things somehow smurfed into other things.

Years ago I was in a philosophy class when a student asked the professor how to answer a particularly difficult question. The professor thought for a moment and said, “Better to be vague.” He meant it as a joke, of course, and everyone cracked up. But I don’t think PM intends his description of evolution to be funny.

Salvaging Evolution

Continuing to stumble along, PM calls Eberlin’s treatment of punctuated equilibria (“punk eek”) so bad that it scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Eberlin’s main argument against evolution is based on causal circularity, but in his last chapter he criticizes punk eek as one of many attempts to salvage evolutionary theory in the face of its growing problems.

Punctuated equilibria is a term introduced in 1972 by Darwinian paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould to describe the observed fact that the vast majority of fossil species appear abruptly in the rocks (punctuation) and then persist unchanged for some time (equilibrium) before they disappear. According to Gould, “every paleontologist always knew” that this is the dominant pattern in the fossil record. (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, 2002, 759.)

Eldredge and Gould argued that the observed pattern is consistent with the theory of “allopatric speciation.” “Speciation” refers to the origin of new species, and “allopatric” (from words meaning “other” and “fatherland”) refers to geographical separation. According to the theory (which PM kindly summarizes for us rubes), part of a large population becomes geographically isolated. Then genetic changes somehow turn the isolated fragment into a new species, possibly in a short time (geologically speaking). Because of its size and rapid evolution the small isolate would initially leave no fossil record. By the time it started to leave fossils, it would seem to have originated abruptly and with no connection to the original population.

Pattern Versus Process

There is direct fossil evidence for the pattern of punctuated equilibria, but only indirect and circumstantial evidence for the process of allopatric speciation. Apart from its consistency with the fossil record, the most powerful argument in favor of the theory of allopatric speciation is that primary speciation has never been observed, so speciation must occur where we can’t detect it. In other words, the point of the theory is to explain why we can’t find any direct evidence for the most important class of events in evolution.

Eberlin doesn’t buy punk eek, because (he writes) it “offers no credible mechanism for the geologically rapid evolution of new forms.” (p. 139) PM finds this “embarrassing,” since “the whole foundation of ‘punk eek’ is evolutionary mechanisms.” But the mechanisms are only hypothetical.

A Leaping Howler

Yet PM doesn’t consider criticizing punk eek to be Eberlin’s worst sin. That distinction belongs to what PM calls a “red-hot screaming howler” that “really leaps out of the text.” In his description of Darwin’s work on carnivorous plants, Eberlin writes: “Darwin applied his idea of homology (which modern evolutionary biologists call “homoplasy).” (p. 95)

According to PM, even “a freshman in a college biology class” knows that homology and homoplasy 

are essentially opposites: two wholly different, completely incompatible conclusions about the origin of a feature in a pair (or more) of lineages. If the feature arose from a common ancestor which had the feature, it is homologous. If it arose independently in the two lineages, no matter how similar the feature may be, it is homoplasic.

This is modern evolutionary theory, with which Eberlin is quite familiar. But Charles Darwin sometimes used “homologous” to describe features that today would be called homoplasic (or, more commonly, “homoplastic” or “homoplasious”). For example, in The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin wrote that the swim bladders of fish are “homologous” to the lungs of higher vertebrates. According to modern biologists, however, “the presence of air-filled bladders or lungs in different groups of fishes is an example of convergent evolution.” In other words, they originated independently in different lineages. So swim bladders are not even homologous to the lungs of fish, much less to the lungs of higher vertebrates.

The word “homoplasy” was coined by evolutionary biologist Ray Lankester in 1870 to distinguish similarity due to independent origins from similarity due to common ancestry (which he called “homogeny”). Homoplasy caught on, but homogeny did not. Instead, evolutionary biologists simply redefined homology to mean similarity due to common ancestry.

Darwin’s 1875 book Insectivorous Plants does not contain the word “homoplasy” (or adjectives derived from it). Darwin just continued to use the word “homologous.” Yet according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Experimental Botany (which Eberlin cites), carnivory “evolved independently at least six times” in flowering plants. So carnivory in plants — as Eberlin correctly points out — is an example of homoplasy, not homology. 

According to PM, “Eberlin really does not know that these common, garden-variety opposite terms, in general use in evolutionary biology, are not synonyms.” In fact, PM wrote, “It is, indeed, such a ridiculous mistake that I couldn’t quite believe it.” So PM checked Darwin’s book and “looked up” the 2009 article, and concluded “there is nothing in the paper and nothing in Darwin” to account for Eberlin’s “ridiculous mistake.” Yet the first line of the 2009 article is: “Carnivory has evolved independently at least six times in five angiosperm [flowering plant] orders.” 

More Details to Clarify

Maybe Eberlin could have added more details to clarify what he meant. But what he wrote is not wrong. So why does PM heap so much abuse on him? Only PM can answer that. But in 2005 Douglas Kern wrote about this phenomenon: 

Ewww…intelligent design people! They’re just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who’re trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science. They are poopy-heads. There. I just saved you the trouble of reading 90 percent of the responses to the ID position.

Forget about civilized discussion of the evidence. Forget about making a sincere effort to understand what Eberlin writes. Just mischaracterize and ridicule. So many evolutionary biologists have been relying on this approach for so many years that I think it deserves a name. I propose to call it Teleophobia. Or perhaps Design Derangement Syndrome.

In the meantime, if you really want to understand Eberlin’s argument, I suggest you read Foresight.

Photo: Marcos Eberlin, speaking in Dallas this month, by Chris Morgan.