Abstract variation on the theme of life originated in water 3.8 billion years ago
The origin of life on Earth. Abstract variation on the theme of life originated in water 3.8 billion years ago
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Stephen C. Meyer Philosopher of Science
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Debate on Origins of Life

Stephen Meyer and Richard Sternberg Debate Michael Shermer and Donald Prothero

Advocates for intelligent design and Darwinian evolution squared off to debate the origins of life, the challenges to Darwin’s theory of evolution and the alternative theory of intelligent design. 

The great debate over the adequacy of evolution continues. Sort of. The latest head to head meeting had Dr. Stephen Meyer and Dr. Richard Sternberg debating Dr. Michael Shermer and Dr. Donald Prothero. Heading into the debate I was quite excited; these aren’t lightweights, after all. The defenders of evolution are well known in science circles and to followers of the overall debate. Indeed, we’ve blogged a fair amount on Dr. Prothero who has, shall we say, a colorful and cavalier way with the facts. He is known more for polemical bromides and spurious personal attacks than for any serious science.

Waiting for the event to start, I was wondering if Prothero would be better behaved in person than he is hiding behind a keyboard. His partner was Skeptic magazine’s head honcho, Michael Shermer, who has debated Stephen Meyer before, and is known for making more theological arguments against ID, as opposed to bringing any serious scientific criticisms bear. I expected he would be the good cop to Prothero’s keystone cop. What I didn’t know was that Prothero would be Ed McMahon to his Johnny Carson.

On the other side, the contenders are just as well credentialed — maybe more so — with one holding a philosophy of science degree from Cambridge (Meyer) being the less qualified, since Sternberg holds two degrees in evolutionary and theoretical biology. Not to mention that Meyer’s new book, Signature in the Cell, is by far the most prominent book of any of the participants, having just been named a bestseller by Amazon.com, and last week honored in the Times Literary Supplement of the London Times as one of the best books of the year.

It was all shaping up to be a serious heavyweight bout. And then Meyer and Sternberg simply KO’d the competition in the opening round. If I were being generous I might say that Prothero tripped over his own arrogance and impaled himself on his condescension, but let’s be honest; he was completely knocked out by Sternberg. I think Sternberg earned a third degree tonight, one in evolutionary bulldozing.

The debate video will be made available at some point by American Freedom Alliance, the sponsors of the debate, along with Center for Inquiry, The Skeptics Society and Discovery Institute.

Shermer opened by denouncing intelligent design as not science and not to be confused with science, which is what he and Prothero apparently assumed to be the topic of the debate. (It wasn’t, sadly.) Then he turned it over to Prothero, who — after repeatedly repeating that science cannot resort to the supernatural — proceeded to race through a litany of complaints against intelligent design and assertions about the creation of amino acids and proteins, most of which was non-controversial and also not evidence for Darwinian evolution. Prothero made a number of claims about RNA chains, about how the evidence of the fossil record is “ironclad” or would be if people treated it fairly, and about how the Miller-Urey experiment was right, “and even if they weren’t it still works” (quit laughing, he was serious!). His Darwinian motivational rant went on about how the Cambrian explosion was really a “slow fuse,” not an explosion. Amazingly, he claimed that almost all the major phyla had ancestors 50 million years before the Cambrian. Alas, he was so far wrong that it wasn’t all that much effort to point it out, completely discredit him, and then let him hang himself with his twisted rope of unearned arrogance and condescension. If you’re going to be arrogant, you’d better be able to back it up with something better than, “I climbed some rocks in Russia and read an article in The New Scientist.”

To call the debate a massacre would be a discredit to Sitting Bull. The only thing I can say is that Shermer needs to add a point to his booklet on how to debate “creationists” — namely, leave Donald Prothero at home in his van by the river.

This guy is to be taken seriously? I had to remind myself not to laugh every so often during his presentation — it was so pathetic and ill-informed. Basically, Shermer and Prothero blathered on about supernaturalism, and Meyer ceded his time to Sternberg, who made an interesting presentation about whale evolution. Then he proceeded to point out the topic of the debate to Shermer and Prothero: Has Evolutionary Theory Adequately Explained the Origins of Life?, something which they never addressed because they were so busy falling all over themselves to denounce intelligent design.

Some of the best points came later in the debate, when Sternberg slammed Prothero with factual put down after factual put down, citing the current literature time and again. His command of the subject matter — from population genetics to junk DNA — was so far and above beyond Shermer and Prothero’s knowledge, so far above their pay grade, that it was almost painful to watch him school them point after point. As I said before, shortly you’ll be able to watch the debate for yourself. But be warned, it isn’t pretty.

Debate summary by Robert Crowther.