Sean Carroll and the Den Yers
August 21, 2011
He's a smart fellow, Sean Carroll is, author of The Making of the Fittest. Nobody here is saying otherwise. I've said kind things about his book, for the most part, and may in time say more. But.....hang it all.....how come he can't spell deniers? He takes aim in the latter portion of his book at those who deny evolution, and again and again he misspells the word. It's not d-e-n-y-e-r-s! It's d-e-n-i-e-r-s! Any schoolboy knows this. Why doesn't he?
Check it in your shelf dictionary. Check an on-line dictionary. Check a Scrabble dictionary; if anyone can stretch a word for acceptable spelling variations, it will be a Scrabble player. Google the odd spelling, if you like. It doesn't matter where you check. One who denies something is a denier, not a denyer! Let's be honest. You can't read that word without thinking...... “den'-yer? 'What the heck is that?”
Well, maybe denyer is the British spelling of the term (notwithstanding that Carroll hails from Wisconsin).....I admit I'm grasping at straws. We all know Brits can't spell properly, just as they can't pronounce properly. Or maybe, in that rarefied scientific world Sean inhabits, they have dispensed with plebian spellings, in favor of lofty revisions more appropriate to their scientific status. Or maybe it's a deliberate misspelling....his attempt at tweaking the idiots...those, in his view, who do deny evolution. But that seems a bit mean-spirited, and I don't think he's that kind of guy. Plus, it seems an inside joke that even most insiders would miss. Or.....you don't suppose that Carroll's quirky spelling is just an application of his own theory? Has the 'i' mutated into a 'y'?
None of these hypotheses make much sense. They're all lame. And don't misunderstand. It's just spelling. It's not that big of a deal. It really isn't. But....blast it all....IT IS! It's like the pebble in my shoe that doesn't seem big at first, but drives me crazy (is that the purpose?) the more I walk on it. Sean Carroll's been to college. And grad school. And doctorate school. How come he doesn't know to spell? And what about his editors? What good are they if they can't catch something so blatant? The Ministry School guidebook counsel keeps nagging at me: if you are incorrect in some detail, no matter how obscure or irrelevant, invariably someone will pick up on it and say “huh......he doesn't know that?” And from there it's just a tiny hop to “Maybe he doesn't know anything else, either.”
When I go to his web page, I see he introduces himself with the same Michael Ruse snippet with which I introduced him: “Of all the scientists in the world today, there is no one with whom Charles Darwin would rather spend an evening than Sean Carroll.” That means he thinks like me (or I like him). I tell you, I come to like this fellow more and more. And evolution books like his written post genome mapping advance their case in a powerful way. Why mess it up with a spelling blunder that any orangutan would get right? This makes no sense at all.
Ah well, Sheepandgoats, get over it. Figure it's a mystery. Like the Trinity. Just accept it.
Okay, I will. Enough said.
But it's hard to just get over it because he repeats the error so many times! Carroll likens his book to a full course meal, served in courses (not unlike how Jehovah's Witnesses are apt to describe their meetings as “spiritual meals,” their assemblies as “spiritual feasts!”). His after-dinner dessert conversation, it turns out, consists of a strategy session on how to counter the denyers, some of whom (gasp!) are to be found within his own ranks: “There are some individuals with scientific credentials who doubt or deny certain elements of evolutionary science that are widely accepted by the scientific community; some may even doubt the entire theory,” he observes. “But getting a doctoral degree and making negative arguments are relatively easy – making new, verifiable discoveries is an altogether different matter. The denyers specialize is rhetoric and the mining of quotes, not in laboratory research. (pg 218)
I'm not so sure I agree with his premise. Even if making “negative arguments” really is “relatively easy,” that does not mean those arguments are not useful. Must everyone be out turning over rocks and growing stuff in petri dishes? Is there not a place for someone to review the conclusions of the discoverers, much as attorneys review evidence collected by the police? They don't just accept police conclusions. Frankly, whenever folks are running herd-like in any discipline, the arguments of those who oppose are always worth looking at closely. You don't just sneer at them because they are the minority.
I'll bet he's taking aim primarily at Michael Behe, king of all the denyers with scientific background, who was even interviewed by Awake! magazine back in September 2006. Behe certainly has “scientific credentials,” and he “doubt[s] or deny[s] certain elements of evolutionary science that are widely accepted by the scientific community.” Behe doesn't doubt that the mechanics of evolution took place, and are taking place still. He has no problem with mutation and gene duplication and fossilized genes. It's hard to have a problem with these since scientists today can grow goo and slime and algae, life forms which reproduce very quickly, and can track each and every gene. They can spot which ones reproduced faithfully, and which ones did not. They can spot which ones build with successive generations, and which ones do not. They can then compare with the genomes of prior life forms and try to piece together how evolution has progressed through generations.
Michael Behe endorses all of this. He simply maintains it doesn't add up to what Carroll and most others say it adds up to, that there's an edge.....the “Edge of Evolution,” per the title of his 2007 book..... beyond which pure Darwinian randomness cannot carry developing life. Follow along on his own blog as he discusses research of the day. It's interesting stuff.
And...man...is he ever castigated for not holding the party line! His book, critics rail, is a blatant attempt to bypass scientific peer review! He takes his case directly to the unwashed masses, unlearned dolts who are in no way qualified to render an opinion! No such objection is made to Carroll's own books, since his represents the majority view. Now, you know I'm going to be sympathetic to Behe's position, since it is much like Jesus' position. Jesus didn't first present his case to religious leaders of his day to secure their prior approval, since he knew their only interest would be to shoot it down. He went over their heads, directly to the common people. And did he ever catch heat from those leaders! Listen to them grouse (and note their contempt for the regular folk):
"Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees [us] has put faith in him [Jesus], has he? But this crowd that does not know the Law are accursed people."
Look what happens when one of their number....a first-century Behe counterpart?.....breaks ranks:
Nicodemus, …..who was one of them, said to them: “Our law does not judge a man unless first it has heard from him and come to know what he is doing, does it?” In answer they said to him: “You are not also out of Galilee, are you? [a big-city Jerusalem slur against the stupid bumpkins from the rural hills of Galilee] John 7:48-52
But there's another point Carroll makes, a point that dovetails very well for Jehovah's Witnesses, though not at all for the fundamentalists (which we are not). I'll lead off with it in a future post.
By the way, Sean B Carroll is not to be confused with Sean M Carroll, a scientist atheist to the core, even though he doesn't fly the Atheist Scarlet A on his blog, perhaps out of respect for Nathaniel Hawthorne. I don't know if Sean B is atheist or not. He doesn't say. Although both are accomplished science writers in overlapping fields, a more dissimilar looking pair you've never seen.
[edit: 1/20/2012, interview between National Republic's John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Sean Carroll & his work comes in for mention, around the 11-12, 22-24 minute marks. He's a nice guy, Behe says.]
[edit update here]