The Edge of Evolution

UPDATE (31 May 2007): For more on this topic, see Mark Chu-Carroll’s review, my follow-up and this list of reviews.

Yet more fallout from Time Magazine’s lamentable choice to have a fraud write their profile of Richard Dawkins:

Michael Behe’s mealy-mouthed description of Dawkins offers an interesting tidbit of news: he’s got a new book in the pipeline. Called The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, and due out this June, it promises a level of dreck not seen since Darwin’s Black Box (1997).

I have little doubt that the pro-fact sector of the Blagopelago will drown The Edge of Evolution in scalding, scathing, witty and above all factually correct reviews. To get the process started, I’d like to look at the laudatory quotes which currently praise this book which is almost certain to be a waste of paper.

The Amazon page already has “editorial reviews” praising this bullet-train-wreck-in-the-making. Orac will not be pleased, but two of the four come from M.D.s. The fourth comes from “Dr. Philip Skell, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at Pennsylvania State University, and member of the National Academy of Sciences” — a byline which made me go “WTF?” Skell has raised eyebrows before; see, e.g., these posts at the Panda’s Thumb and the old Pharyngula. Here is how PZ Myers describes Skell in the latter essay:

I got a friendly note from an .edu address, asking me what I thought of a couple of quoted paragraphs. I assumed it was someone asking for assistance in dealing with a creationist, so I sent them back a brief critique.

If I’d looked a little closer, I would have discovered that the author was a third rate creationist, one Phil Skell, a chemist at PSU. He’s one of these guys who frequents various web-based fora, and whose only routine is to dogmatically declare that biologists don’t use evolution. Over and over. He’s a kind of pedantic creationist screed machine, who generates these tedious declarations and never, ever responds to any criticism.

His message to PZ was a classic example of the Gish Gallop: a sequence of so many errors following hard upon one another that no reasonable person could hope to address them in a limited time. In this case, Skell managed thirty-seven errors, distortions and/or outright lies in four short paragraphs.

Over at the Panda’s Thumb, we read that the Discovery Institute misrepresented Philip Skell‘s position, calling him a biochemist at least once. He’s definitely not that, and it goes without saying that the National Academy of Science’s position is the following:

Intelligent Design is a recent permutation of “creation science” that is being touted as an alternative to the modern theory of evolution.

Pretty plain, isn’t it? The NAS offers Science and Creationism for free download, a book which they describe as follows:

While the mechanisms of evolution are still under investigation, scientists universally accept that the cosmos, our planet, and life evolved and continue to evolve. Yet the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren is still contentious. In Science and Creationism, The National Academy of Sciences states unequivocally that creationism has no place in any science curriculum at any level. Briefly and clearly, this booklet explores the nature of science, reviews the evidence for the origin of the universe and earth, and explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. This edition includes new insights from astronomy and molecular biology.

The other gush comes from David Snoke, a physicist (ah, Orac, now I get to feel the burning shame). He’s the one who co-authored “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues” (2004) with Michael Behe (a paper critiqued all over the place), and he’s written books advocating Old Earth Creationism. In shorter language, he’s not worth listening to.

The two medical types who have whored themselves out for the cause of antiscience are Michael Denton and “JEffrey M. Schwartz” (capitalization is Amazon’s). The former is an ISCID Fellow who has argued that “macroevolution” is impossible. People who offer up drivel straight from the Talk Origins Index are not worth our time. It’s also funny that the review byline doesn’t mention Denton’s ISCID affiliation. . . . Schwartz is a UCLA neuroscientist who believes that quantum physics is connected with consciousness; in other words, he’s proven himself capable of switching off his brain and embracing whatever sort of woo is necessary to make the Universe warm, cuddly and intimately concerned with our own selves.

Not a single one of the four “editorial reviews” carries real meaning or rises above the level of dried vomit. The ad copy also promises us a treatment of the fine-tuning argument, a construction of bad science and pseudo-logic which, despite its hallowed place in modern sophistry, has come to smell like a schoolgirl uniform after a bukakke film.

Business as usual, in the grimpen mire of deception.

UPDATE (6 May): I now have a rant about quantum consciousness woo available for your delectation.

UPDATE (29 May): No, I don’t care about being polite. Creationism is a blot on the world, and if our species survives long enough to write a historical chronicle of this time period, creationism will be a black mark against organized religion, politics and science education alike.

7 thoughts on “The Edge of Evolution

  1. Schwartz is a UCLA neuroscientist who believes that quantum physics is connected with consciousness…

    Might want to be a little careful how you state that. There’s actually one completely non-woo connection that’s been seriously hypothesized: That quantum mechanical effects may lend a modicum of randomness to the chemical workings of the brain which might help generate consciousness.

    This is known as “Orch-OR,” and while controversial and still in debate, it is legitimate science. Of couse, this is a far cry from what Schwartz actually believes, but it is a connection between quantum physics and consciousness.

  2. I recall reading a web page by Jeffrey Schwartz a year or so ago when I was reading a bunch of neuroscience articles; I’ve since deleted it in one of my great link purges, but it was rather useless to me. So many advances are being made with neurotechnology that his ideas just read like quantum mysticism, though admittedly I don’t really understand QM. However, I can compare his ideas to what’s actually being currently done in neuroscience. Too, reading reviews of his latest book on Amazon, it appears that some people with OCD like that part of his book, but think the rest is bunk. A lot of his Buddhist-inspired meanderings are just old, rehashed ideas with a new twist. The bigger concern in all of this is the authority that their academic degrees afford and give credence to the likes of Behe, et al. It’s like a “war of degrees,” and I’ve encountered this with the global warming issue: an MIT guy writes an article downplaying global warming, then I return with an article by someone with equal if not better credentials. With IDers it’s become such a game, and their egos at stake, but it all signifies nothing in the long run…a waste of energy and brainpower. I trust no authority without triple-checking these days.

    …construction of bad science and pseudo-logic which, despite its hallowed place in modern sophistry, has come to smell like a schoolgirl uniform after a bukkake film.

    I remember you posting that comment on Pharyngula. I think it beats out David Brin’s awful high school zit-popping metaphor. Possibly not very endearing to your female readers as well.

    It’s more akin to endless litterbox cleaning…

  3. Melusine:

    Actually, you closed an <i> tag with an </a> one. Fixed!


    I recommend A. Litt et al.‘s article, “Is the Brain a Quantum Computer?Cognitive Science 30, 3 (2006): 593-603. Abstract:

    We argue that computation via quantum mechanical processes is irrelevant to explaining how brains produce thought, contrary to the ongoing speculations of many theorists. First, quantum effects do not have the temporal properties required for neural information processing. Second, there are substantial physical obstacles to any organic instantiation of quantum computation. Third, there is no psychological evidence that such mental phenomena as consciousness and mathematical thinking require explanation via quantum theory. We conclude that understanding brain function is unlikely to require quantum computation or similar mechanisms.

    There’s lots of good stuff in this paper, including references into the literature. My favorite bit might be the quotation they give from P. S. Churchland, who said, “The want of directly relevant data is frustrating enough, but the explanatory vacuum is catastrophic. Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules.”

    The Wikipedia article to which you link is, for lack of a better term, a thoroughly biased advertisement. For one thing, it neglects to mention how in the years since Orch-OR was first proposed, other models of how anaesthetics work have come forward which don’t require quantum effects. Occam’s Razor.

    I’ve got a post about this topic now.

  4. Oh yeah, I have no problem admitting that there’s a very slim chance that Orch-OR is actually right (having taken some time to look into it further). I really didn’t look into whether it was probably right or wrong before as I was just trying to check whether it was a legitimate scientific hypothesis or not. A hypothesis doesn’t have to be right to be scientific.

    The scientists who originally proposed this theory may have been wrong about it, but that doesn’t make them woos. Now, if they kept at it to today, completely ignored contrary evidence rather than adapted to it and tried to account for it under their theory, maybe wrote books aimed at the public in an attempt to bypass peer-review, then they’d be woos.

    As far as I can tell, Penrose hasn’t been doing this. He did stick to his theory for a while (though I see nothing since 2000 on it), and although he does aim at laymen in a few places, he doesn’t seem to be trying to bypass the peer-review process. In the end, it looks just like typical scientist behavior from someone who proposed a theory that didn’t pan out. Though if there’s some woo-like behavior from him I haven’t seen, feel free to point it out.

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