Puck's Review of "Return of the God Hypothesis"

I’d thought I wouldn’t bother. So much of the answer to stealth creationism of the ID variety is directed to showing how it’s really a particular sort of religion in disguise, but now the mask is off and that’s less difficult. But after watching the usual parade of credulous positive Amazon reviews which accompanies every ID Creationist book, I decided I had to actually read this one. While it would have been better, from a brain-cell-death perspective, to down a gallon of Wild Turkey, sleep under a bush in the park, and see whether I wake up again or not, I ordered the book.

This is my review, probably in its final form, about to post over at Amazon. I’d be happy for any suggestions or corrections. Alas, once upon a time an Amazon review might have enabled a lively comment thread there, but I think that the lengthy comment threads building on pro-Orange Peril and anti-Orange Peril books probably made Amazon give up on the whole idea of comments upon reviews. Those were, once upon a time, a good place to find people who were just beginning to think about some of these issues.

As usual, Meyer is a better writer and a better ball-hider than some of his “colleagues.” Where other DI books tend to contain rip-roaring howlers aplenty, Meyer gets fewer of them in. But this one did really grab my attention:

Although the Cambrian explosion of animals is especially striking, it is far from the only ‘explosion’ of new living forms. The first winged insects, birds, flowering plants, mammals, and many other groups also appear abruptly in the fossil record, with no apparent connection to putative ancestors in the lower, older layers of fossil‐bearing sedimentary rock.

I have commented upon that in the review. Sometimes, though, when something is that awe-inspiring, I am just tempted to follow Wittgenstein’s advice and deem it one of those things of which one cannot speak and therefore must remain silent. Surely, with mighty falsehood like that on the march, one is in the presence of the gods – not the gods as popularly conceived, but such gods as the ID Creationists kneel before. pmghreview.pdf (112.8 KB)


That’s almost exactly the list in the book I reviewed recently, Thinking about Evolution from RTB. I wonder which of them got it from the other or whether there’s a third source that’s the true original. Any citations? It’s nonsense, of course, and I took quite some time pointing that out in my review. Don’t know which claim about “no apparent connection” is the most ridiculous.


No citations, not even to Meyer’s own publications or to EN&V.

As for which claim, yeah, I don’t know. I took the mammals as I’m more familiar with that evidence than on the others, and because even I think a review shouldn’t be quite endless, but I’m sure he makes no more sense on the others than on mammals. On birds, I do know that the DI keeps publishing books that attack Archaeopteryx as a proto-bird while ignoring the fact that we now have all these new dino-bird fossils. It’s like they’re stuck in the 1970s with Stephen Meyer’s sportcoat.


Must have missed that. What? They did give themselves an out in the bit you quoted, about “putative ancestors in the lower, older layers”. Of course we don’t assign ancestry to fossils, because we can’t. And they demand that transitionals be claimed as ancestors, and must therefore be older. Since almost all feathered, non-avian theropods are considerably younger than Archaeopteryx, they can, so they claim, ignore them. Nor are any older theropods put forth as ancestral to birds. But angiosperms are as bad. Winged insects, maybe not, as the fossil record of insects is spotty.

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I’ll have to dig around a bit for details as it’s been a while, but it seems to me that several of the recent books – Wells and Bethell, I think, were two – go on at some length repeating traditional creationist arguments that Archaeopteryx is misinterpreted, isn’t really relevant to the origin of birds, et cetera. And they do this AFTER all of the discoveries of recent years, while mentioning none of those, which seems quite bizarre – it’s like they are writing for a now-lost world in which Archaeopteryx is the only really decent fossil that suggests anything at all about the line leading to birds.

And yes – all those fallacious approaches to the fossil record, and more, are always in evidence in creationist writing. In this particular book, Meyer talks about fossils much less than I would have expected, given Darwin’s Doubt, so he doesn’t get deep into that type of thing here.


I know that Wells did that in Icons of Evoluton, but that’s the only one I know. Perhaps he recycled all that in a later book? Bethell, I have no idea.

Yes, I think Wells re-used it in Zombie Science, published just a couple of years ago.

Here’s my response to Icons:

In Icons of Evolution, Jonathan Wells poses 10 questions for students to ask their teachers. This is an attempt at one of them, and I would appreciate suggestions on improvements. The attempted audience is high school science teachers, and secondarily their students.

Question 5: Archaeopteryx:

“Why do textbooks portray this fossil as the missing link between dinosaurs and modern birds — even though modern birds are probably not descended from it, and its supposed ancestors do not appear until millions of years after it?”

How likely are we to find direct ancestors of living species in the fossil record? That depends on the quality of the fossil record. If we have found most of the extinct species that ever lived, our chances are good; on the other hand, if our knowledge is spotty, our chances are bad. We can judge the quality of the dinosaur fossil record based on the species we have found so far. Half of all known dinosaur genera are known only from a single specimen, which suggests that there are many more genera for which not even that single specimen has yet been found. Moreover, many of the genera with multiple specimens are known only from a single time and place. We have seven [now ten] specimens of Archaeopteryx, all from a single limestone quarry in Germany. Archaeopteryx is the only known Jurassic bird. How likely is it that the single Jurassic bird we happen to have found is the ancestor of all subsequent birds? Given the small sample we have, we are unlikely to have found the ancestors for most dinosaur groups, including birds. Fortunately, we often can find fossils that are not too far removed in time and appearance from those ancestors. Archaeopteryx is one such fossil. It probably isn’t the ancestor of birds. (And distinguishing ancestors from cousins of the ancestors is itself an unsolved problem.) But it does represent a key transitional stage between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. It has some features of theropods, some of birds, and others that are in between. Wells offers no explanation for Archaeopteryx. We have other fossils for both more primitive and more advanced transitional stages. Some of the more primitive transitional stages — Velociraptor, for example — lived later than Archaeopteryx. Such are the vagaries of preservation. Nobody claims that ancestors appeared after their descendants, only that we have sampled a big family of cousins and siblings at random points through time, some of whom resemble their common ancestor more closely than others.

A comparison may be helpful in understanding this point. The top figure below is a tree showing human relationships. Branch tips at some points in time represent species we know about. We have a number of fossil apes, most over 10 million years in age. We also have a number of fossil hominids, of which Australopithecus afarensis, represented by “Lucy”, is perhaps the most famous and has often been mentioned as a possible human ancestor. While it’s not clear whether A. afarensis is or isn’t a direct human ancestor, it’s definitely not too far from that line. The next closest human relatives are the chimpanzees. Chimpanzees have no known fossil record. A creationist might try to cast doubt on this human phylogeny by claiming that modern humans are probably not descended from Lucy, and her supposed ancestors (meaning chimpanzees) do not appear until millions of years later. Of course, there are other, earlier fossil apes, but they are much farther from humans than are chimpanzees.

The case of Archaeopteryx, the bottom figure below, is exactly the same. We’re not sure if it’s a direct ancestor of modern birds, but it’s not far from that line. The theropod dinosaurs that Wells calls Archaeopteryx’s “supposed ancestors”, like Velociraptor, are merely the closest known relatives of Archaeopteryx, and stand in the same relationship to it that chimpanzees do to Lucy: later in time yet more primitive. And of course there are plenty of earlier, even more primitive theropod relatives. We know that the fossil record is incomplete, and it’s incomplete for both birds/dinosaurs and humans/apes. The fit between the actual fossil record and our natural expectations that primitive characters will appear earlier than advanced characters is surprisingly good, but it’s not perfect; as in these two cases, some fossils we would like to see have not been found. But enough have been found to give us a clear picture of both human and bird evolution.

Archaeopteryx trees.pdf (26.1 KB)


That’s a splendid bit of work! Clear and concise.

When it comes to information, is there anything more than Axe (2004) that Meyer refers to in support of the assertions regarding the impossibility of new information arising by chance (or words to that effect)? Any really new or original contributions from the ID community ? In reading the review, I get the impression that Meyer really hasn’t updated his ideas on this from Darwin’s Doubt. Is this really the case?

That’s pretty much right. He treats the subject of Axe’s “work” in two places in the book. In the first, starting at p. 202, he cites nobody but Axe. There is one rather long endnote, in which he cites a few more papers without much comment, He points to some work by Dan Tawfik and while I don’t recall the details it seems to me that the DI has misrepresented Tawfik’s work in the past. I can scan that later and send it to you if you like.

He then returns to the topic at p. 319, in the aptly-named chapter “The Information Shell Game.” There, he responds to criticisms from Haarsma and Venema but there’s not a whole lot new to be seen here. At one point he tells us that Axe’s work has been confirmed by four other studies, for example; I haven’t read the papers in question, but one of them is from 1977, which doesn’t suggest we’re going into novel insights here. He again cites Tawfik. There are a few papers referenced in endnotes, and again, I haven’t looked them all up, but he certainly doesn’t make any of this other material a particular focus.

So, the upshot is: yes, Meyer’s entire case continues to rest upon Axe (2004). This would be incomprehensible, if Meyer’s audience were the scientific community, but it makes perfect sense if his audience is a bunch of blinkered fundamentalists. Axe’s paper “proves” evolution is impossible; what is left to do but to celebrate the glorious victory?


I would be interested to know how I can insert a picture into a post. Don’t know about you, but all I see is “blocked plug-in”.

The book title is Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe.

What I cannot seem to find, and is not explicit in the table of contents, is, “specifically, what three discoveries?”. Did I miss something relevant to the God Hypothesis from CERN, the COBE project, or some other unheralded result? What has changed in the past few years?

The title’s implication is that three recent discoveries have occasioned a shake up, and a return to some sort of fundamental cosmology inferring the Mind of God. What seems to be more the case is, while amazing progress has been made in terms of details, precision, and confirmation, physics and cosmology has been rather stuck for the past decade or so in terms of resolving outstanding questions such as dark energy, dark matter, and what may be beyond the standard model. Fine tuning has been discussed by some of the best minds on the planet for the most part decades ago and it is what it is; nothing much has recently been added to the conversation so far as I know. If, as your review suggests, much of this volume is a rehash of his earlier books on life origins, and his cosmology brings nothing fresh to the fine tuning discussion, maybe the book should be titled, Rehash of Tired Intelligent Design Arguments: Nothing New but it’s Time to Publish". If this is an unfair characterization, it would be nice to be informed what content to expect otherwise.


That would seem to further confirm that the DI is no longer interested in even appearing to be trying to make a case to scientists and the scientifically informed. It’s just full on preaching to the choir.


If you mean your .pdf image above, it looks fine on my computer.

You know, I hadn’t focused on that either. I suspect, putting my textual criticism hat on for a moment, that this is a holdover from an earlier version of the work where that was made more explicit. The nearest thing I find to it is at p. 15-16, where he seems to identify three things – not really “discoveries” exactly – as the beginning of his formulation of the problem. These three things are (paraphrasing, I hope not unfairly) that the universe seems to have had a beginning, that the universe seems fine-tuned, and that abiogenesis seems impossible.

Those, of course, are old arguments and hardly blockbusters, for various reasons.

That’s probably their best strategy, I would think. It’s certainly useful for them to PRETEND to be making a case to scientists. But I think that they’ve figured out that their audience believes deeply in its own persecution complex, and that the fact that the scientific community responds with a combination of contempt and giggling to the DI’s monstrous notion is therefore good; it confirms the idea that the atheistic, materialistic science baddies are keeping God out of science only because they’re mean and don’t want to share or admit that they’re wrong.


Huh? The origin of the mammals is without a doubt one of the best documented examples of evolution in the fossil record. Where do they get this stuff from?


He used the temporal paradox to argue against archy in Icons and then in
Zombie Science he used the fossil discovery (a pre archy feathered dinosaur) that solved the temporal paradox (which wasn’t really a paradox) to say archy wasn’t even the first bird and therefore not the ancestor of birds. Yep. He took a dinosaur and called it a bird.


Well, yeah. The audacity of these people is just astonishing sometimes.

Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten that. Hilarious own-goal on that one…


If Meyer’s new book is a rehash of Darwin’s Doubt, the third “thing” is possibly the supposed foundational role of information in biology. This would encompass abiogenesis as well as other obsessions (such as the Cambrian Explosion).