Idiot of the Week? Or Liar of the Week?

Idiot of the Week? Or Liar of the Week? July 23, 2004

Today’s target is one Robert Meyer, who wrote this train wreck of an article, Were We Fooled by Stephen J. Gould ? on a site called If this article represents what they consider to be intellectual, it’s time to redefine the term. It’s one of those extraordinarily common articles where someone who clearly knows nothing whatsoever about evolutionary theory nonetheless feels qualified to spout off about it, combining smugness with ignorance along the way. In it, Meyer goes for the two oldest and most often refuted lies about Gould. They were in fact refuted by Gould himself, as we shall see. But Meyer, either out of ignorance or utter dishonesty (take your pick), repeats them nonetheless. Here’s the first one:

Gould was a neo-Darwinist who was honest enough to admit that Darwinian evolutionary theory was in grave crisis. He knew that the absence of transitional forms (missing links) threatened to discredit traditional evolution.

In this one breathtaking bit of utter nonsense, Meyer proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he either has no idea what Gould really thought or said on the subject, or that he is willing to lie through his teeth. He’s not alone in this, of course. It’s so common, in fact, that Gould wrote an essay about it to set the record straight, and he did so over two decades ago. Here is what Gould had to say on this particular claim:

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am—for I have become a major target of these practices.

I count myself among the evolutionists who argue for a jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change. In 1972 my colleague Niles Eldredge and I developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record—geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)—reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species—more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

We proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium largely to provide a different explanation for pervasive trends in the fossil record. Trends, we argued, cannot be attributed to gradual transformation within lineages, but must arise from the different success of certain kinds of species. A trend, we argued, is more like climbing a flight of stairs (punctuated and stasis) than rolling up an inclined plane.

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know—as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups. Yet a pamphlet entitled “Harvard Scientists Agree Evolution Is a Hoax” states: “The facts of punctuated equilibrium which Gould and Eldredge…are forcing Darwinists to swallow fit the picture that Bryan insisted on, and which God has revealed to us in the Bible.”

Mr. Meyer has obviously read the pamphlets full of distortions rather than reading Gould’s words himself. Or he has read Gould’s work and he just wants to lie about it. Take your pick. Had he actually read just this single essay, he would see that not only does Gould not “admit” that the “absence of transitional forms threatens to discredit evolution”, he argues that the existence of transitional forms is strong evidence for evolution:

The third argument is more direct: transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common—and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim. The lower jaw of reptiles contains several bones, that of mammals only one. The non-mammalian jawbones are reduced, step by step, in mammalian ancestors until they become tiny nubbins located at the back of the jaw. The “hammer” and “anvil” bones of the mammalian ear are descendants of these nubbins. How could such a transition be accomplished? the creationists ask. Surely a bone is either entirely in the jaw or in the ear. Yet paleontologists have discovered two transitional lineages of therapsids (the so-called mammal-like reptiles) with a double jaw joint—one composed of the old quadrate and articular bones (soon to become the hammer and anvil), the other of the squamosal and dentary bones (as in modern mammals). For that matter, what better transitional form could we expect to find than the oldest human, Australopithecus afarensis, with its apelike palate, its human upright stance, and a cranial capacity larger than any ape’s of the same body size but a full 1,000 cubic centimeters below ours?

But Meyer doesn’t stop there. He also offers the tried and true false “Punctuated Equilibrium = hopeful monster” argument:

Gould co-authored a new addendum to his religion of meaningless existence, and called it “punctuated equilibrium.”

This idea was hardly original, but a polished version of an older tale, known as the “hopeful monster theory.” He claimed that evolution was not a gradual process, but occurred in rapid spurts with long periods of changeless plateaus in-between. This clever idea inoculated evolution from refutation by bringing it in harmony with the existing fossil record. One wonders if Gould might have tried to castle out of check (an illegal move) when he played chess.

Again, in the very same essay, Gould corrects this bit of misinformation by explaining that PE is not a theory of saltation and it in fact has nothing to do with Goldschmidt’s hopeful monster theory:

Continuing the distortion, several creationists have equated the theory of punctuated equilibrium with a caricature of the beliefs of Richard Goldschmidt, a great early geneticist. Goldschmidt argued, in a famous book published in 1940, that new groups can arise all at once through major mutations. He referred to these suddenly transformed creatures as “hopeful monsters.” (I am attracted to some aspects of the non-caricatured version, but Goldschmidt’s theory still has nothing to do with punctuated equilibrium—see essays in section 3 and my explicit essay on Goldschmidt in The Pandas Thumb.) Creationist Luther Sunderland talks of the “punctuated equilibrium hopeful monster theory” and tells his hopeful readers that “it amounts to tacit admission that anti-evolutionists are correct in asserting there is no fossil evidence supporting the theory that all life is connected to a common ancestor.” Duane Gish writes, “According to Goldschmidt, and now apparently according to Gould, a reptile laid an egg from which the first bird, feathers and all, was produced.” Any evolutionists who believed such nonsense would rightly be laughed off the intellectual stage; yet the only theory that could ever envision such a scenario for the origin of birds is creationism—with God acting in the egg.

At least Mr. Meyer can take comfort in the fact that he stands in a long line of creationists who, either out of ignorance or dishonesty, made similarly ridiculous statements. Ah, but he is not done yet. To prove once and for all that he is utterly ignorant of evolutionary theory, he gives us this little gem of nonsense:

But Gould may have been half too clever to cover his own tracks. If environmental changes are the catalyst moving the evolutionary process (species adapting to a gradually changing environment), how can Gould account for abrupt changes in the fossil record, without proving the earth went through corresponding cataclysmic changes?

For someone with even a single semester of basic biology, the only response to this profoundly silly question is, “Did he really just ask that? Is he that clueless about evolutionary theory?” The answer, it appears, is yes. There are two incredibly obvious errors of thinking in that sentence. First, Mr. Meyer obviously believes that cataclysmic changes in the natural history of the earth present some sort of problem for evolution. Why? I haven’t a clue. Not only are cataclysmic changes and events not a difficulty for evolution, they are an inescapable part of the earth’s history and they have dramatically influenced the paths that evolutionary biodiversity has taken. Without the extinction of the dinosaurs, probably caused at least partly by the Chixilub meteor impact, human life would likely not exist on earth. The same is true of the other major extinctions that have occured in response to some sort of cataclysmic event at various points over the last 600 million years or so, particularly the Permian extinction. The answer to Meyer’s question, how can Gould account for abrupt changes in the fossil record without proving that the earth went through major environmental change, is patently obvious: he wouldn’t try, nor would he need to.

The second major error in that sentence is that it assumes that in order for abrupt changes in the fossil record within a lineage to be seen, there must have been some cataclysmic change in the entire earth’s environment at the time. But this is obviously false, because speciation is not a global event but a local one. A local change in environment, brought on by a change in weather patterns, a river or earthquake cutting through a species’ territory, a large local flood, or any number of other events, provides all the change necessary to spur a speciation event within that lineage. Punctuated Equilibrium, because it applies Mayrian allopatry and theories of species selection (selection between species competing for a territory rather than selection within a species) to predictions about the fossil record, shows why we would expect to see abrupt changes in the fossil record rather than smoothly gradual ones. And none of this has anything to do with hopeful monsters or the lack of transitional forms.

Mr. Meyer, I strongly suggest that you get even a basic education in evolutionary theory before making bold claims about it. You’ll save yourself a good deal of embarrassment.

P.S. Perhaps the best part of this article is the author’s bio at the end:

Robert Meyer is known by his opponents as a “clever rhetorician” who often exposes the fallacies of knee-jerk arguments presented in local papers. Seeking to develop precepts for every aspect of life — based on a conservative Christian worldview — Robert often gleans inspiration from looking off his back deck, over the scenic Fox river and recalling the wise counsel of those who mentored him.

In other words, Robert Meyer has no background whatsoever in the field he is pontificating about, which explains why he doesn’t understand it at all, and he is really just a crank who writes a lot of letters to the editor of the local newspaper. And he can sit on his back porch and have Kung Fu flashbacks all he wants, but it’s not going to make this article any less absurd or the claims in it any less false.

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