Letter to the Editor
Response to R. E. Woodward's Review
Review of Evolution: A Theory in crisis, by Michael Denton
48 Carling Street, #1
Hamilton, Ontario L8S I M9 Canada
From: PSCF 41 (December
Responses by Mills
Essay Review by Geisler
I am writing in response to the recent (December 1988) and lengthy review of Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. The reviewer (T. E. Woodward presented a very favorable account of a book whose claims to scholarship or integrity are woefully deficient. The book is praised as an 'intellectual and spiritual delight,' a 'forceful critique' and a "careful historical review.' Furthermore, the impression is given that informed reviews likewise share the same positive appraisal. I take serious objection to all these points.
To start in reverse order, five out of seven reviews I could obtain in my University library pointed out the serious errors of logic, synedoches, direct misquotes, gross factual mistakes and even spelling errors in Denton's book. The only slightly positive comments came from the Parabola-an eastern mysticism journal-and from Stephen Rose who approved of the critique of the path of avian evolution of flight even. though he acknowledged the serious errors and oversimplifications in the book.
Why are all these reviewers so irate? Basically, the same old creationist tactics and ill-founded objections. Consider Denton's facile explanation of why evolution- the object of the critique is macroevolution-is accepted by the scientific community: the "priority paradigm." This Kuhnian notion (already problematic in Kuhn's own work) is given the sole task of founding Denton's portrayal of a theory in "crisis' which is nevertheless not abandoned.
Denton's lack of precision-he conflates natural selection with chance-and expertise is also evident in his treatment of technical disputes within biology. These include the punctuationalists attempts to decouple macroevolution from microevolution, the cladist attack on Darwinian phylogenies, Kimura's neutralism and discussions of the paths of evolution (such as avian flight). The standard creationist tactic consists of 'research by exegesis," or eisogesis in this case; quotations from opponents in some minor technical dispute are judiciously chosen to make both positions seem untenable leaving agnosticism or creationism the only remaining altematives. Denton's mishandling of these technical disputes enables him to conclude that there is no reason to believe that evolution of the higher taxa ever occurred.
Denton unearths the typological perception of nature which was legitimately abandoned due to its lack of explanatory power.. Denton proposes that all mammals are 'derived" from a mammalian 'archetype," fish from a fish archetype and so on. But how many archetypes will Denton need to account for the incredible diversity of past and present species? Secondly, how are these species 'derived" and what are the limits to change since he allows for microevolution? Thirdly, how can this anachronistic typology account for the examples of species which are not rationally explainable in terms of types and which constitute powerful evidence for the fact that evolution has occurred? Thus, whales with femurs, Archaebacteria, strange mammals on Madagascar, marsupials, toothed birds ... are either ignored or dismissed by some sleight of hand-see Denton's treatment of Archaeopteryx. The whole discontinuous/continuous argument of Denton founders on his lack of precision and his failing to take into account significant research on the transitions between species or "types."
Perhaps the best example of Denton's lack of intellectual acuity can be seen in his mishandling of molecular homologies. He confuses cousin-cousin relationships with ancestor-descendant relationships and comes up with the profound conclusion that both fish and humans are "equidistant" from lamprey. From the gross differences that both fish and mammals have from lamprey he fallaciously concludes that all vertebrate groups are equidistant from each other. The remarkable agreement of molecular data with traditional evolutionary phylogenies beggars description. There is no reason why humans need to be more closely related to chimpanzees than most other species of primates. Ironically, even Denton's diagrams of nested sets point to the hierarchical nature of taxonomy (already derived from paleontology and comparative anatomy) which is yet another line of evidence for the fact of evolution.
Denton's major flaws lie in his scholarship and integrity. Firstly, his citations of leading biologists often distort and tmst their intent (his discussion on taxonomy where he makes Halstead sound like a cladist!). Secondly, he ignores arguments which he cannot criticize. Thus, key evidences for the fact of biological oddities and 'imperfections," some of the better fossil transitions, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and the remarkable congruence of the geological column with evolutionary hypotheses are not even addressed.
On a personal note, I must confess to the surface persuasiveness of Denton's book. The selective treatment of evolutionary biology-focused on difficult transitions and especially abiogenesis-and the impressive if fraudulent citations belie the true nature of the book's argument. On a second and more perspicacious reading I was at first disappointed and then finally infuriated by the unsustainable attacks on evolution and the even more repulsive misuse of sources. Denton rightly belongs with other recent misbegotten attacks on evolution such as Ian Taylor's In the Minds of Men-their popularity is inversely proportional to the biological or historical knowledge of their readers. Unfortunately, the desire to see evolution refuted often grants evolution's critics a prior claim to truth. If we should go about refuting evolution it will require sound arguments and careful scholarship; nothing less is worthy of the evangelical community.