Evolution Icon Evolution
Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design

Debunking “Professor Dave’s” Hit Piece Against Stephen Meyer

Günter Bechly
Photo: Dave Farina, via YouTube.

In a previous series at Evolution News (Bechly 2022a2022b2022c), I answered the diatribe by YouTuber “Professor Dave” directed against our Discovery Institute colleague, geologist Dr. Casey Luskin. The popular YouTuber, whose real name is Dave Farina, is neither a professor nor a PhD but just a failed ex-teacher who unsuccessfully tried twice to get a master’s degree in chemistry. These are simply facts about him. But his more than two million subscribers and others, who may come across his misleading content, deserve some fact-checking. Therefore, I exposed the non-professor’s propaganda and incompetence. In a second episode (Farina 2022) aimed at intelligent design proponents, Mr. Farina did it again, focusing on philosopher of science Dr. Stephen Meyer and in particular Meyer’s New York Times bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer 2013a). This YouTube video runs to about an hour and a quarter, so I will be answering him once again in a series, minute by minute. I have added timecodes in square brackets for easier reference.

So Let’s Begin

I have no problem at all with people who disagree strongly with intelligent design theory, nor with other worldviews including atheism, but one should at least assume that the other side is as honestly committed to a quest for truth as you yourself are. However, civilized discourse is not Farina’s cup of tea. In the first five minutes of his new video, he calls ID proponents “clowns,” “charlatans,” “frauds,” and “liars,” and calls ID arguments “pseudo-science,” “rubbish,” “horse manure,” and “dishonest tripe.” His personal agenda is revealed by the ridiculous statement [TC 3:00] that genocide, infanticide, eugenics, and other evils are “all the heinous acts that historically have been the exclusive domain of religion.” Has he never heard of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot? 

Apparently, Farina thinks the best way to deal with anybody he disagrees with is to bully and berate them with hate speech and gutter language. Here is an example of what I mean from one of his comments on YouTube (I’ve replaced certain letters with asterisks to make the profanity more tolerable to read):

Um, I’m pretty sure I would make Meyer cry. He’s a f****ing moron, as I demonstrated in this video you didn’t watch. Why are all you creationist tools such cowardly sh**bags?

When a commenter on his video against Stephen Meyer criticized his harsh language, Farina responded with even more over-the-top vituperation:

They are liars. I show how they are liars. That’s all it is. And for f****’s sake, I’m exposing the agenda of what is essentially a terrorist organization that wants to drag America back to an authoritarian theocracy and ruin millions of lives, and you have the balls to call me nasty and mean-spirited for speaking out against them? You’re f****ing stupid. I suggest you work on that. [“They” refers to Discovery Institute and ID proponents.]

What Is Wrong with This Guy? 

This is not how a sane and reasonable adult writes. Since when are academic questions and intellectual debates settled by lobbing f-words? I can only pity the school kids who suffered under such an intolerant and rude person as a science teacher. Farina seems to have some significant anger management issues. He certainly is not the type of person any reasonable parents would like to have around their kids! This has nothing to do with intelligent design vs. materialism or religion vs. science. Farina’s immature pottymouth should disqualify him from any serious discourse about anything with anyone. He really needs a “time out.”

What is more, nobody who knows his stuff and is confident about his position talks or writes like Farina does. The only reason I bother to address his erroneous arguments is to equip viewers of his video with some accurate information about the scientific evidence. Therefore, I will have to heavily quote from the technical literature and provide references to mainstream peer-reviewed scientific sources. You’ll see that Farina is parroting familiar claims by ID critics like Charles Marshall (2013), Nick Matzke (2013), and Donald Prothero (2013) that have been addressed and refuted many times (e.g., Klinghoffer 2015 and CSC 2019). 

Farina’s Ridiculous Parodies

[TC 5:06] Farina initially suggests that the two following arguments characterize the position of Stephen Meyer in Darwin’s Doubt

“1) Some lies about the Cambrian explosion mean intelligent design is true.”

“2) I don’t understand genetics even a little bit so intelligent design must be true.”

Every reader should recognize these two points as ridiculous parodies. To justify his silly claims, Farina would have to establish that Meyer is not just wrong about the Cambrian Explosion and genetics, but that he is deliberately lying. He also would have to establish that Meyer suggests intelligent design is true only because of explanatory gaps in the Cambrian Explosion or genetics. Of course, Farina does nothing like that. He shows no evidence whatsoever that Meyer is lying, because of course Meyer is not doing so. He fails to show that Meyer’s claims about the Cambrian Explosion and about genetics are incorrect or that they do not represent good science. And of course, Farina himself is grossly misrepresenting the design argument, which as Meyer shows in meticulous detail is not an argument from ignorance but an inference to the best explanation based on what we do know about the causal structure of the universe. 

[TC 6.55] Farina says that denying that the fossil record documents gradual change is a “huge lie.” He claims there are countless examples and lists the transitions of reptiles to mammals, fish to tetrapods, amphibians to reptiles to birds, land mammals to sea mammals (e.g., walking whales), and early hominids to humans. We will come back to these examples shortly.

A Claim of Science Denial

[TC 7:30] Farina also maintains that disputing transitional fossils is science denial. This claim has two major problems.

First, it uses an ambiguous term, “transitional fossil.” Evolutionary paleontologists and Darwin skeptics mean different things by this term. As I have written (Bechly 2021e: 346-7):

Evolutionists often say that there are many transitional fossils, while creationists often say that there are none. It seems that one side must be wrong, but actually both are right because they talk past each other and use the same term for two different things. When evolutionists talk about transitional fossils, then they usually only mean transitional in the anatomical sense. This refers to fossils that possess a mosaic pattern of characters, with some primitive characters of the assumed ancestors still retained, while some (but not all) derived characters of the assumed descendants are already developed so that the fossil is anatomically intermediate. Evolutionists do not necessarily imply with the term transitional fossil that these forms are direct ancestors, as they could well be side branches from the ancestral lineage. Therefore, transitional fossils are not necessarily in the correct temporal sequence, because such side branches could persist and even outlive more advanced forms. 

When creationists and critics of Darwinism say that there is a lack of transitional fossils, they usually mean transitional in the sense of a gradual sequence of direct ancestor-descendent relationships, which implies not only a fine-graded directional anatomical transition but also a correct temporal order. While transitional fossils in the first sense are indeed very common and exist for most groups of organisms, transitional fossils in the second sense are extremely rare and mostly missing indeed.

Second, it is a total red herring because, as I and others have emphasized ad nauseam in the past, intelligent design theory is agnostic concerning the question of material common descent. Farina over and over confuses intelligent design with Biblical creationism. Many prominent design proponents explicitly affirm common descent (e.g., Michael Behe, Michael Denton, Richard Sternberg, and myself) and therefore have no problems with transitional fossils and transitional series at all.

Farina gives his viewers the misleading impression that the fossil sequences he mentions establish a gradual and continuous development as predicted by Darwin. This is false. 

Let’s Look at Each of His Examples

Reptile-mammal transition: Even though the so-called mammal-like reptiles indeed form a nice roughly transitional series (according to the evolutionist’s definition, given above), which is elegantly explained by common descent, they do not form an unbroken gradual series, even though this has been claimed in a few older studies (e.g., Hopson 1994 and Sidor & Hopson 1998). Rather they exhibit four distinct radiations (i.e., pelycosaurs, therapsids, cynodonts, and mammaliaforms), where each new construction appears abruptly in the fossil record (Carroll 1988: fig. 17-1). The first synapsids, previously called “pelycosaurs,” appear without precursors in the Upper Carboniferous about 307-310 mya, so that the lack of a gradual series of ancestral forms cannot be attributed to the famous “Romer’s Gap” in the fossil record after the end of the Devonian. As Kemp (2012) has emphasized, “Pelycosaur-grade synapsids originated as one of the amniote lineages that constituted part of the explosive radiation of tetrapods in the Carboniferous.” The same authors talk about the “explosive Middle Permian radiation of therapsids.” Kemp (2005: 84) mentions in his textbook on the evolution of mammals “the sudden appearance of the diverse therapsid fauna 270 Ma,” which has also been called the “therapsid event” (Lucas & Shen 2018: 13) or “Kazanian revolution” (Bakker 1980). Spindler (2014) says that the successful clade of therapsids occurs rather suddenly in the fossil record.” He refuted the alleged earlier therapsid Tetraceratops, and described a possible older bone fragment, but admits that its identification as a therapsid is weak because of limited anatomical information and conflicting characters. Cynodonts appear suddenly in the latest Late Permian (Botha et al. 2007). The first mammaliaforms (i.e., Haramiyida) appear likewise suddenly about 247-245 mya in the Lower Triassic with an “explosive origin followed by a rapid early diversification” (Abdala et al. 2007). This was followed by a “Jurassic Big Bang” of mammaliaform evolution (Brusatte & Luo 2016). It was not Stephen Meyer who came up with terms like “therapsid event,” “Kazanian revolution,” or “Jurassic Big Bang,” but rather the experts in the mammalian fossil record, who would not have used such terms for a slow and gradual pattern of appearance.

Fish-tetrapod transition: This transition is far from being resolved in a gradual way, which is why a recent study concluded that “the fish-to-tetrapod transition is one of the fundamental problems in evolutionary biology” (Wood & Nakamura 2018). Is there a series of transitional fossils morphologically connecting lobe-finned fish and tetrapods? Yes, they are often called fishapods, and include famous taxa like Tiktaalik and Ichthyostega. Do tetrapods appear gradually from these fishapods? No, not by any stretch of the imagination! Actually, the oldest evidence for tetrapods (the Zachelmie tracks from Poland) predates the oldest fishapods by 10 million years (Ahlberg 2019). It even predates fish-like forms such as Eusthenopteron that rather resembled a salmon. Of course, this inconvenient truth can be explained away with ad hoc hypotheses like ghost lineages and an incomplete fossil record. What cannot be explained away is the simple fact of an extremely sudden appearance of tetrapods. But there is not just this temporal paradox of assumed descendants being older than their assumed ancestors. There are also large gaps in the morphological transition. This holds true especially for the transition from typical pectoral and pelvic lobe-fins to the typical tetrapod hand and foot skeleton with phalanges, for which the first evidence was just recently discovered in a well-preserved specimen of Elpistostege (Cloutier et al. 2020).

Amphibian-reptiles-birds transition (especially the dinosaur-bird transition): For most of the feathered dinosaurs the phylogenetic position is highly controversial and in some (such as Aurornis) the dating as well as the authenticity of the fossil are in question (see below and Bechly 2022f). Just as in early tetrapods there is a well-known temporal paradox, as shown by Feduccia (1994, 1996), with the earliest birds being older than their assumed stem group dinosaurs. This paradox has not been solved by any of these fossils (Bechly 2022f). Indeed, modern crown-group birds appear and diversify so abruptly in the Paleogene (Lower Tertiary) that it has been called a “Big Bang of Tertiary Birds” (Feduccia 19952003Ksepka et al. 2017).

Land mammals to sea mammals (e.g., walking whales): It is beyond dispute that there is a beautiful transitional series of fossils spanning from quadrupedal animals (e.g., Pakicetus) to fully marine whales of the modern suborders of toothed and baleen whales. These fossils may well establish a lineage of common descent and phylogenetic relationship, but they also pose a severe problem for Darwinian gradualism. Here is why: The fossil record documents a narrow window of time for the transition from quadrupedal land animals (such as Raoellidae and Pakicetidae) to fully marine whales of the Pelagiceti clade (i.e., Basilosauridae). How narrow? About 4.5 million years. The fossil record documents a far shorter window of time for the crucial transition between quadrupedal amphibious protocetids with hindleg-driven swimming to the fully marine pelagicetids with tail-fluke-driven swimming. How short? Less than 1.2 million years. For comparison, the average longevity of an artiodactyl mammal species is 4.1-4.39 million years (Prothero 2014). This means that the major re-engineering of the body plan, which required many coordinated genetic changes, was achieved within the lifespan of a single species. This raises a severe waiting time problem (Evolution News 2016, also see further on) because a neo-Darwinian slow and gradual accumulation and selection of small changes over long periods of time cannot explain such fast transitions. It is not a question of implausibility, but a question of mathematical impossibility.

Early hominids to humans: It is a common misconception that the human fossil record shows a nice gradual transition from the ape-like early hominins (i.e., australopithecines) to our own genus Homo and modern humans. The truth is that there is a distinct gap between australopithecines and early Homo. The latter appears so abruptly that it has inspired a “Big Bang Theory of Human Evolution” (Swanbrow 2000). The renowned paleoanthropologist John Hawks has written (Hawks et al. 2000) that “In sum, the earliest H. sapiens remains differ significantly from australopithecines in both size and anatomical details. Insofar as we can tell, the changes were sudden and not gradual.” The authors explain it with an assumed population bottleneck two million years ago that led to a series of sudden, interrelated changes.

Next, “Untangling ‘Professor Dave’s’ Confusion about the Cambrian Explosion.”