Introducing Puck the Amazon Reviewer

Continuing the discussion from Does Behe Quote Axe?:

Oh wow. I’m gonna get a @Puck_Mendelssohn review! I’m excited, and I hope you like the book. Keep in mind that it is endorsed by secular scientists. See for example:

Can you tell us more about yourself? Are you an atheist, agnostic, or are you religious someway?

Nemesis might be too strong a word. Many of them do know you by name, and express their opinions about you, for better or worse!

What drew you to engage so deeply with the ID literature? Have you read the Crossway TE book yet? What did you think of my review?

It is my hope that what follows will not be incredibly boring…

Am I an atheist? Long answer.

I grew up in Seattle. My father was raised as a Lutheran, in a fire-breathing, German-speaking Lutheran church where he reported that he often had the finger pointed at him, with a declaration that “YOU killed Christ with your sins.” A man so raised can only become the most fervent of Lutherans or a non-Lutheran, so he became the latter. He was sure that Christianity did not hold the answers to Life, The Universe and Everything that he sought, and so he read very widely and acquainted our family with all manner of ancient writings from all manner of traditions, particularly Eastern. I wish I could say that this meant I became literate in Buddhism and Hinduism, but it did come to us through a bit of a filter. His favorite writer was Ernest Holmes, who wrote The Science of Mind, sort of the 1930s version of The Secret: all reality is subjective and is created by our minds rather than merely observed by them, so if we can BELIEVE, we can mold it.

My mother was much more of a connoisseur of the human experience of faith; she grew up in an Episcopalian church, loved the singing, and was largely indifferent to and unconcerned with the more paranormal aspects of belief.

Like any good boy I followed my father, to a point. But I think I was a born empiricist. Experience seemed to teach, despite considerable effort, that reality was NOT actually changed by my belief – my attitudes and my efforts might be shaped by my belief, but rocks did not fly from the ground at my command. That was probably a good thing, but it was disappointing.

And so I went on my own “quest.” One brother had become a Mormon – a couple of sisters had become spiritualists of a sort. And others (there were nine children, in a one-bedroom house) more or less left it on one side. But to me there was something vitally important here. If there was a god or gods, I was damned if I wouldn’t find them (which, as it happens, is sort of the formula taught to my peers at school, only re-worded). So I began to read. The Bible, first. Then other things – the Koran, snippets of this and that from the east. I attended a variety of Christian services. I attended a Jewish synagogue. I went to a Buddhist “church” (yes, I know, Buddhists don’t have churches. These ones did.). I tried talking to people who were raised in different faith traditions.

Well, a person thinks about these things for a long time. I never was the sort to arrive at a preliminary answer and follow it, because I knew how we channel ourselves into believing things if we start with bad premises. So I stood outside of faith, but as a vaguely pantheistic spiritualist sort of teenager who was doggoned sure something or other was happening in the realm of whatever-it-is, but that I did not know what that was.

Teenagerhood being what it is, I seldom met people who spoke of any form of Christian faith that was not hard-core literalist in approach. Such people existed all around me, of course, but they were not the loud voices in the room. And I knew of the Scopes “monkey trial” – somewhere in my oldest papers I have a satirical short play I wrote on it when I was perhaps thirteen years old – and I was quite sure that I didn’t think the earth was 6,000 years old.

I did finally find a writer whose work spoke quite directly to my views, and illuminated a way through the thicket (or, rather, a way of not getting out of the thicket, and not pretending the thicket did not exist): Thomas Huxley. His debate with Henry Wace over “agnosticism” stirred my soul (which, like a small-c conservative or small-l liberal, is a small-s soul). It seemed to me exactly right: that the question whether gods exist and are acting is not one I can answer with the tools before me.

But atheists and agnostics are fond of arguing about definitions, so to be clearer: my view is that whether it is a philosophical or empirical problem, the existence of gods cannot be meaningfully solved, at least on the evidence before us. Ergo, I am an agnostic. But I am also inclined to believe that the weight of evidence is against the gods existing, and so I am an atheist. As to knowledge, agnostic; as to belief, atheist.

Why am I an atheist? It has nothing to do with evolution, which I view as fully consistent with the actions of gods. My thinking – which is a weight-of-evidence line of thought, not some sort of rigorous logical structure – is that the Phineas Gage problem is not easy to confront. We can’t scrutinize the “proper object” of theology itself, if that object is said to be inscrutable, ineffable and mysterious. But we can view the proximate end of the spirit realm, which is the individual “soul.” If humans are animated by souls, then such things as feelings and ideas are not incarnate but are the action of the soul through the medium of the body. But run an iron rod through Phineas Gage, and his “soul” is transformed. Build plaques upon my mother’s brain for a couple of decades, and a delightful, literate and clever woman is reduced to an almost vegetative condition. And the books of V.S. Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks provide more and more examples.

If the individual soul is the proximate end of the spectrum of the spirit world, then it seems to me that it is surprisingly dependent upon physical structures. And this persuades me (I am not unpersuadable on this, I am sure, but I would like to SEE something) that the soul – a thing which is a vivid and real part of human experience – is generated by the brain, rather than sitting in it as one sits in a driver’s seat.

As I get older, however, I do sort of warm to a subjective interpretation of everything. We only live through subjectivity. I cannot say that a person who interprets his experience of the world through the lens of Christian faith is “wrong.” Well, I can say it, but I am aware that my saying it isn’t of much value. I often think that the difference between people with and without faith is mostly just in the manner in which they characterize subjective experience. When I stand among the stones at the Ring of Brodgar and the wind whips through the heather, I am filled with an awe and a deep, stirring wonderment which must, I think, be akin to what others feel when they say they believe in Jesus, or when they say they feel lines of energy reaching up out of the earth, and that sort of thing. I do not disparage it, with one exception: when people are so cock-sure of the objective truth of their subjective experience that they deny science as a result.

I apologize if that’s a bit much. But I feel that people label themselves “agnostic” or “atheist” as though these labels were self-explanatory, and I find they are not. I have more in common, dispositionally, with a good friend who is a UCC pastor than I do with many atheists.

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As to personal details: I am a high-school dropout, graduate of the University of Washington with an undergrad degree in Business Administration (advice: mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to attend Business School!), followed by a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. I practiced civil rights litigation for about nineteen years and then retired from the practice and built a small business here in Seattle which employs about a dozen people.

My real-life name is not hard to figure out for anyone curious enough to investigate, and has its roots deep in Seattle punk-rock culture of the early 1980s. But my wife was deeply concerned when, after the Seattle Times published a letter of mine to the editor, we started receiving creepy threatening calls from religious fundamentalists. I therefore write under a pseudonym because she’s probably right that one is better safe than sorry. If anyone does know, or figures out, who I am, I ask that that information not be shared.

I loved Biology in high school. However, as a vegetarian (now going on 49 years, after turning vegetarian at 8) I was terrified of the idea that I would be called upon to dissect some small animal, and was relieved when our Biology teacher had no money to get frogs. So I never pursued further instruction in it. I was taught high-school biology in the classic “march of the phyla” manner which has now fallen badly out of favor. I think that the loss of that method is a tragedy and that public illiteracy in the diversity of life is a significant contributor to creationism.

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Engagement with ID literature: why?

After learning about the Scopes Monkey trial (which I learned about so long ago that my education was closer to the time of the trial than it is to today!) I think I initially supposed that these strange relics of a primitive faith were a cautionary tale about the past. Then a girl showed up at school with a flood geology book (Henry Morris, I think) and I realized this was not dead after all. Pining for the fjords, perhaps; dead, no.

As a constitutional litigator I was always interested in the legal aspects of the problem. But for most practitioners, myself included, it doesn’t tend to come up much. Civil rights practice is likelier to be about truncheons on heads, or conditions in prisons, than it is about religion in schools.

I became interested in claims of paranormal action – my father was a huge believer in Uri Geller – and began reading Skeptical Inquirer and things of that sort. But I was not focused particularly upon creationism at all.

Then an odd thing happened. I became a baseball fan, and met others. One fellow with whom I conversed all the time was a pastor-in-training in some fundamentalist church, and I would ask him questions about his views on Christian scriptural tradition and the like. One day our team signed Carl Everett, a creationist, and while everybody else was complaining that he was an ill-mannered, crotch-grabbing clown, I was more concerned that we now had an athlete, a potential role model for children, who thought dinosaurs never really existed. I said something about the silliness of creationism, and my fundamentalist friend said that while what I said might be true of OLD creationism, there were NEW creationist ideas that were thoroughly, scientifically credible. He recommended Darwin’s Black Box as the leading example.

I picked up DBB. I had not read significantly in biology in at least a decade, apart from popular articles about hominid finds and the like. But immediately I found the book bizarre. I wrote an extensive critique of it which I sent to my fundamentalist friend, who then vanished – no response, no further contact, ever. Looking for more, I decided to seek out other reviews of it. As I did, I realized something concerning: that while I had largely been correct in spotting the issues I had spotted, I had missed a great deal that I might have seen if my thinking had been clearer or my knowledge of basic biology stronger.

And so an odyssey began. I started with various broad-overview books. The Ancestor’s Tale by Dawkins was very helpful to me, though I felt he strayed from the path to whack religion too often. But as I read I found more and more interesting bits that I needed to explore. Evo-devo was something my wife, with her Bryn Mawr biology degree, had talked about, and I found it amazing. And when I’d been in high school, I had asked where mammals came from, and got nothing beyond an extremely vague reference to some “mammal-like reptiles.” Now I wanted to know who these creatures were and what we knew about them.

Along the way I realized how badly most people understand these things. It took me forever to get around to understanding punctuated equilibria, for example, because it is often portrayed, even by people who know better, as primarily a claim about evolutionary process rather than a claim about what sort of fossil record we should see if evolutionary processes are as we think they are.

In the course of commenting upon Amazon reviews, which I started doing mostly at the time of Darwin’s Doubt, I met new friends. The paleontologist Christine Janis has become a particularly good friend and a huge resource for me – when I cannot understand things, I have her, and her colleagues, to turn to, and I am immensely grateful for the time people are willing to take to educate a middle-aged man with silly questions.

But then, after Darwin’s Doubt tired out most of the commenters, I started seeing ID books go up with nothing but five-star reviews. The scientific community was not showing the interest in these books that I felt they deserved – not because of their merit, but because they endanger the position of science within our society. And so I decided that I had better start reviewing them, lest they meet with un-dissented-from praise. This is a challenge for me. When dealing with biochemical issues, for example, I just pretty well have to step aside and let experts speak. But as many of these books rely upon misrepresentation of the broad features of evolutionary theory, I am able to comment on those things reasonably well and point readers to other resources.

On that: when a man is drowning, it will do no good to get the water out of his lungs if you can’t also get air in. I believe that many who read these ID books are genuinely curious about biology, and I try very hard to redirect them to better sources on the particular subjects at issue.

I have read, and reviewed, the TE book. I found the book very strange, and I marveled at the intellectual poverty of a movement that has got to have Casey Luskin write chapters on human evolution. If someone asked me to write a chapter on it, I would politely decline and explain that I am not remotely qualified to do it; but I’m pretty sure I could write a better account than Luskin’s! I kept my comments upon it mostly to the scientific chapters because this is where my understanding is best; my view is that if the scientific claims make no sense, then there is no riddle for philosophers or theologians in it.

I liked your review. It seems to me that part of what you are saying, and with which I agree, is that miraculous divine action is not really discernable through the lens of historical inquiry. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it is impossible to demonstrate definitively that it did or didn’t happen. What we can do is evaluate things that work in the world today, and attempt to apply those principles to things that plainly have happened in the past in order to explain them. Philosophically this never proves that anything in the past happened for the reasons why analogous things happen today. But what it can show us is that the likely proximate causes of things are intelligible even if the possible ultimate causes of those same things are not.

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I should add – and then I will relieve you by shutting up for a bit – that I do not find the notion of ID problematic in itself. What I find problematic is that there just isn’t good evidence that bears upon ID’s positive claims, and that the literature on ID is so much evolution-denial with hand-waving added. I would be utterly fascinated by convincing, empirically grounded demonstrations of the existence of design in living things. I doubt that there is likely ever to be such a thing, however, as it is very hard to imagine what that would look like.

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Over my entire professional life in the biological sciences, I haven’t needed to dissect anything with more than one cell or kill anything with a spinal cord. (Which is to say I did some research on insecticides for a bit).

Overall, I’m pretty much aligned with your view of religion and ID. Nice description and well articulated!

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Thanks for the extensive bio.

I don’t think that’s right either. It’s about what sort of fossil record we should see if evolutionary processes are as Ernst Mayr thought they were. (They are not.)

Sorry, what book?

Probably this.

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I think he was talking about the training to become a biologist, not what might or might not be required in the daily work of someone who specializes in microbiology – who obviously is not going to be dissecting squirrels, etc.

In my first-year zoology course, weekly labs involved much dissection. I can still remember the sickening smell of the formaldehyde. And at my school, if you majored in biology, you would have to take that course sometime in either first or second year.

Maybe it’s possible nowadays to become a biologist and never once have to take a high school or university course where a dissection is required. I don’t think that was the case at any time from the late 19th century through to about 1975, and probably much later in many high schools and university undergrad biology programs.

I hope not. You should at the very least have to take a course in comparative vertebrate anatomy.

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My experience has been different. Quite often I’ve seen ID books on Amazon receive lots of 1-star reviews (sometimes from people who proudly admit they haven’t read the book, because ID is garbage and not worth reading)! One Amazon reviewer, called “Anonymous,” savages any and all ID books on principle.

The problem with Amazon reviews is that they tend toward the extremes, being either uncritical raves or below-the-belt attacks. The middle range of constructively critical reviews of ID books is not usually well-represented.

For more constructively critical appraisals of ID, see the works of Kojonen and Ratzsch. Ratzsch in particular may have some helpful ideas for you about what a proper design argument would look like.

Just an aside, but my old eyes look quickly at the title of the thread and see “Puck the Amazing Reviewer”.

Kudos to @swamidass for this sleight of hand.

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“It’s about what sort of fossil record we should see if evolutionary processes are as Ernst Mayr thought they were. (They are not.)”

Fair enough, and more accurate than my statement. But now you have piqued my curiosity. I am aware of all sorts of considerations that one might raise in saying that Mayr’s conception of evolutionary processes were not correct. But are there any of these considerations, in particular, that you think bear upon “punk eek” especially strongly?

And I am aware, as well, that Gould was something of a self-promoter and that the first papers on PE are a bit on the pompous side – clearly he wanted to be the author of a revolutionary idea and he took Eldredge’s work and made the presentation of it more grandiose. After reading David Sepkoski’s book, Rereading the Fossil Record, I certainly could understand why some called it “evolution by jerks.”

The TE book is Theistic Evolution, a kind of three-part anthology: (1) bad science, and the (2) philosophical and (3) theological considerations that flow from bad science.

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Yes. PE is a theory about speciation, and it depends on Mayr’s theory of genetic revolutions in peripheral isolates being the main mechanism of speciation. As far as we can tell, peripatric speciation is rare and genetic revolutions are a fantasy. And Gould’s ideas of stasis depend on evolution without speciation being unlikely; there’s no reason to believe this is true either.

Of course there could be stasis for other reasons, and the fossil record could fail to show smooth intermediates between morphotypes (you can’t actually recognize biological species, just morphospecies) for other reasons. But that isn’t PE.

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“My experience has been different. Quite often I’ve seen ID books on Amazon receive lots of 1-star reviews (sometimes from people who proudly admit they haven’t read the book, because ID is garbage and not worth reading)!”

Well, I haven’t seen that happen much lately. There was a wave of 1-star reviews of Darwin’s Doubt after somebody (PZ Myers, perhaps?) had a blog post about it. I have never been willing to participate in that sort of thing; if I review a book, I have read it.

I actually sort of enjoy reading the uncritical raves, as they have a kind of unintentional humor. The DI tries so very hard, most of the time, to stick to the “this really is purely about science” script, but its supporters lack any sort of commitment to deception and subtlety, so they tend to post reviews that are all about how this book affirmed the truth of God’s word. Having been at a few DI events, I can see how this must be hard – there is very little in the Q&A to suggest that anyone in the room could tell a chloroplast from a plesiosaur. The chatter is all god, god, god, god and, by the way, god, with a bit of “how do we get god back into the schools” mixed in.

The other hilarious bit with the raves is the way that a book that is insanely, absurdly dumbed-down will get people repeatedly saying how it really was too technical for their tastes and was a hard slog to read because of the vast amounts of novel scientific information contained within. It certainly speaks volumes about the general scientific literacy of that crowd.

But these days it really is mostly uncritical raves, with the occasional didn’t-read-the-book pan mixed in. When I raise this point to biologists, they wonder why anybody should bother and they generally seem to think that the whole silly thing was put to bed with Kitzmiller.

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Thanks. Very interesting. To be honest, I have not had much occasion to really deal with PE except in connection with creationist statements about it, which tend to range from wrong to not-even-wrong. My sense always is that the fossil record is about as rich with evidence of major transitions as one could possibly ask, and getting richer. But people tend to assume that fossils – especially those bearing really tell-tale transitional features, like Diarthrognathus – are just a lot more plentiful than they are.

Well, I don’t know about “DI events,” but regarding another event where a large number of leading ID people got together, I was at the Cornell conference, where none of the talks had anything to do with either God or the schools. They were about evolutionary algorithms, ways of measuring biological information, the effect of mutations in the early stages of organismal development, the ecology of termite mounds, an experiment to test for possible signalling between microorganisms, and so on. And the speakers could definitely tell a chloroplast from a plesiosaur. One of them was a Cornell botanist with about 30 or 40 genetic patents, and I think he probably knows what a chloroplast is.

Yes, do you make a point of reading the books you review, and I thank you for that.

To be clear, the “program” at these DI events is not about god, god, and god. It’s when one gets to the audience participation that it becomes evident that nobody in the room is the slightest bit interested in science. I am sure that Jonathan Wells could tell a chloroplast from a plesiosaur, but having read his books I am also convinced that if he thought blurring the distinction would help his argument, he’d be on it in a heartbeat.

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Well, one could always ask for more. But PE isn’t about major transitions. It’s about small transitions between closely related species. Creationists constantly make that mistake.

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Very true, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. It’s just that PE is generally raised by creationists purely to argue that the fossil record is devoid of any evidence of any transition of any type, minor or major. I am constantly pointing out to creationists that it is only about the small transitions and that, in fact, transitional forms between major groups are plentiful and becoming more so.

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