Field of Science

NCSE reviews

On NCSE's website there are three new reviews of three books on evolution and creationism:

  • Kenneth Miller's Only a Theory, reviewed by Andrea Bottaro,
  • Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, reviewed by Donald Prothero, and
  • Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, reviewed by Peter Dodson.
I have only read the Prothero's book, and, like Dodson, I love it. Also like Dodson, I have my complaints, but they aren't the same as his. Dodson ends his review thus.
I do have a complaint, however. The book preaches to the converted. Its polemical tone can become wearying and may produce the unintended effect of nudging undecided readers in the wrong direction. Poorly disguising his contempt, Prothero's rhetoric is sometimes over the top, as when he refers to "hard working, dedicated, self-sacrificing biologists who spend years enduring harsh conditions in the field" in contrast to "creationists who sit in their comfortable homes and write drivel" (p 113). Please! The facts of paleontology stand on their own. They do not need to be undermined by rhetorical shenanigans.
Dodson seems to favor writing that strokes the creationists and/or the fence-sitters by the hair. I agree that Prothero's rhetoric is at times over the top, but the whole situation, the level of discourse between scientists and creationists, is already over the top. I personally find it relieving to hear Prothero vent his frustration, but I guess that's because I share it. I am part of the choir, I suppose you could say. However, I don't think there's much chance that Prothero's polemic tone is going to nudge anyone in the wrong direction (i.e. towards creationism), because the book - being detailed and technical and spanning almost 400 pages - is highly unlikely to be read by anyone who isn't extremely interested in (and on the side of) science in the first place. [Update: Turns out I am wrong about that - see Don's comment below.]

Also, the statement that Prothero's style of writing "may produce the unintended effect of nudging undecided readers in the wrong direction" really is pure guesswork. People may have anecdotal evidence that this is so (or not so), but as far as I know there aren't any studies that have examined this at all. (If someone can point me to such work, I'll be thankful and apologetic.)

Besides, if "[t]he facts of paleontology stand on their own," then what do we need the NCSE for?

My complaint with Prothero's book is his accommodationism. Of course, since the NCSE has chosen to bet that accommodating those who believe that the science that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible can be unified with being a Christian (or the same for other creationisms of other religions) is the best way of promoting the teaching of evolution in schools, they are not likely to publish reviews disagreeing with that position. Jerry Coyne would not likely be reviewing Prothero's or Miller's book on NCSE's website, for example.

I have previously tried to formulate my views on this matter. And a question for the Christians who believes in God and evolution at the same time: How is it that you choose what to take literally, and what to read as allegory? If you make up your own mind about it, then how do you know that you (or your clergyman) didn't make a mistake? If you discard some verses, then how do you know where to stop? I have asked a lot of people this, and no one has given an answer better than "it's obvious" or "from the context." Well, if it's obvious, then why is there so much disagreement between the denominations?

The answer is, evidently, that while there are some good teachings in the Bible (love your neighbor, the golden rule, etc.), in no way do these point to the existence of God, nor are they unique to the Bible. Which in turn means one can live a perfectly "Christian" life with Christian values without needing to ever the read bible, nor having to believe in any deity.

Related posts about the NCSE:
Why teach Intelligent Design?
10 minutes on Intelligent Design


  1. Thanks for your review of my book, Bjorn. Personally, I would have liked to have been more militantly atheist like Coyne or Dawkins, but having grown up in religious family, and knowing the political/ religious realities of the US, I thought it best not to antagonize people unnecessarily--especially if they agree with science. What they believe privately is their business. However, that "accommodationist" approach is only in the preface to the book. As you know, the early chapters completely undermine any fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and possibly will shed doubt in the mind even of scientifically-sympathetic believers. Either way, my most important task was to convince anyone not already a fundamentalist of the reality of evolution, and the lies of the creationists.
    I don't have formal polling numbers, but I do have over 12,000 copies sold, over 50 reviews on the book's site on, and almost daily emails from people all over the world that the book has reached the intended audience: fence-sitters who might have been exposed to creationist lies, but who weren't sure what to think. Almost universally, they found my book persuasive, and were glad to see someone discredit the creationist lies. Hard-core fundamentalists, of course, don't even pick up the book, and I have had a surprising lack of response (not even attacks) from them. Only when the short NewScientist version appeared last year in Britain did they even notice me.

    Don Prothero

  2. Don, I often get the feeling that authors and others (e.g. NCSE staff) want to be more provocative and straightforward, but choose not to for various reasons. Many, like yourself, have religious family and friends, and I sure can understand why they don't feel like antagonizing them. I suspect that many scientists, especially evolutionary biologists that I know, don't want to say out loud what they think about religion precisely because they don't want to hurt the feelings of loved ones.

    As for your book, my criticism is indeed very minor. I really hope interest will be renewed and much more than 12,000 will be sold. This book should be widely read, particularly because it completely demolishes the perpetual creationist claim that there are no transitional fossils. Having read your book, this claim becomes just as ludicrous as the 2nd law of thermodynamics prevents evolution argument. I'm glad it has been read by fence-sitters.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. RE: Somatic ontogeny vs. Intellectual ontogeny!?

    I think most (silent but well erudite) scientists, philosophers, et al, would be able to differentiate the difference between our knowledge of somatic ontogeny (of evolutionary biology) and of intellectual ontogeny (of religious texts worldwide) as I recently analyzed here: “Adam’s rib and the sanctity of Knowledge -- RE: Well done, John!” (TheMermaid'sTaleUSA; September 29).

    Best wishes, Mong 10/5/9usct12:24p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), Gods, Genes, Conscience (iUniverse; 2006) and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now (blogging avidly since 2006).


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