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Saturday, June 09, 2012

My Review of Shapiro's Book Is Finally Published!

I wrote a review of Evolution: A View from the 21st Century for NCSE (National Center for Science Education). It was finished last September but NCSE delayed publication until they fixed up the website for Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

Here's the Table of Contents of the latest issue. All articles are free!

Shapiro threatens to respond to my review if he doesn't like it. I'm certain he won't like it. I'm looking forward to seeing how he responds to my criticisms, especially concerning his lack of knowledge of the history of evolutionary theory and his confusion about the meaning of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.


  1. Here's another review of Shapiro's book - it's behind a paywall, so I'll summarise by saying this makes it 2 out of 2 votes against reading it:

    This extract is not behind the paywall:

  2. Good review. Anyone trying to decide whether they should read Shapiro's book, after reading your review, might well decide against it.

    Your terse comment about whole genome duplication was what sold me. I didn't know much about the subject, but could appreciate the argument that if it's generally accepted that something between 0 and 3 conserved whole genome duplications occurred in the vertebrate lineage, then it makes little sense to see these events as generalized sources of genetic variability.

  3. I'll summarise by saying this makes it 2 out of 2 votes against reading it: konrad

    How is anyone to judge what he says if they don't read it? I mean, how is anyone to judge what he says honestly, accurately, intelligently and importantly if they don't read it fully? Of course, blog blather about evolution being far more than 95% a matter of sports supporter rather than informed opinion, not having read something wouldn't stop people from having the most definitive, loud and uninformed opinion of it expressed in language that dishonestly purports to the status of knowledge.

    There's a difference between the parts of your review, Larry Moran, which argue with points Shapiro makes, which is good, and that which is merely an appeal to your side, which isn't going to do much but appeal to your side. Which, in turn, isn't going to do anything to change the political situation - the second and most effectively important part of the game for the large majority of the population. An inside ball game review is great, for the less than perhaps 2% of the population that might understand the issues at all. But, as with most of what gets written in these evolution battles, there are more than one goal for each side.

    The political goal, the battle for funding and control of science classrooms, has to appeal to people who are quite ignorant of the scientific issues. That ignorance in a subject like this is probably inevitable as the issues involved are so enormously complex and yield more than one conclusion by even full faculty members in fine universities. I'm left wondering how well those faculty members dealing with such enormously complex, unwieldy issues that fit into other complex, unwieldy issues which, in turn, fit into wider and far more complex real-life situations can hope to come up with a unified general idea about that real-life situation when they don't appear to entirely understand each other? Which isn't to blame them if they can't come to unity, it's just to point out the nature of the topic.

    I haven't read the book but I haven't read anything in your review that will prevent me from reading it and finding out what Shapiro says. That wasn't your goal in writing the review was it? Because that's hardly a worthy reason write a review on a book dealing with a topic like this, is it? 's not a novel. If I do read the book it won't be with the expectation that I'm going to come away with a definitive understanding of the issues, never mind the topic of evolution. Your review and the scuffle between Shapiro and Coyne just convinces me that no one is ever going to have that definitive understanding of the topic. Your review does, though, point to some things I might watch out for if I read it. I think I know enough to have noticed that the topics such as spandrels are missing. Which is something. I'll be interested if Shapiro responds what he says about the purported omissions.

  4. While a molecular machine to translate proteins back to ADN/ARN looks quite unlikely, one might argue that "Evolution" was just waiting for the opportunity to enroll biologists dispirited with The Central Dogma into the creation of the former. I am really quite ignorant of the current state of the art (so I take my own beliefs with a grain of salt) but I find it difficult to assert that reversing translation will never look easy enough to achieve - easy enough to achieve for someone to find it fun or worthwhile to try. If only to spite the Central Dogma!

    On a more serious side, the tension in your critique of Shapiro reminds me of a related tension I felt while attending to a university introduction course to evolution, for biologists. And to make what I have to say clear, I need to state that I come out of a really atheistic family and epoch/area. God, churches, religion, faith, priests, monks, adepts, flocks and prayers weren't objects of either sympathy, animosity, scorn or familiarity. They were literally outside the horizon, totally ignored. Spotted incidentally in the street, for some; a bit like stray dogs :)

    What I felt in the evolution course was a slightly exaggerated zeal at denying intelligence to evolution. Of course any good biologist can start an in(de)finite list of examples of evolution acting stupid (that just as we would expect of anybody under appropriate scrutiny btw). My own very gripe was less though about intelligence being denied, than about intelligence being denied outside positive goals.

    So to home again on (your portrait of) Shapiro, this means that I don't agree with him either, but with a rather different formula of criticism: he would have us believe that P=NP!.