Book Review: Cosmosapiens
Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe
by John Hands
Overlook Duckworth, 2016
Cosmosapiens, this big, magisterial, unapologetically dense overview by John Hands of all cosmological science, clearly shoots to be a milestone of comprehensive inquiry. Hands wants to create here a grand synthesis of the history of scientific research in such fields as astronomy, physics, and evolutionary biology. He lays out a sharply lucid picture of each of these disciplines and expertly summarizes the latest thinking on each.
The conceit, more often successfully realized than not, is that Hands will come to this data and hence these summaries without any previous ideological leanings, free to assess their strengths and weaknesses from a more Olympian viewpoint than that available to the various scientists researching in the trenches. And for most of the book’s enormous ambit, Hands actually manages to pull off something very close to such a performance.
But there are troubling notes and themes running through this grand symphony, and those notes sound most often around what is arguably his book’s most politically charged subject. It’s true that his bland, approving citation of Steven Pinker’s daft 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature is a bad sign, and his flat comment, “We are matter. We may be more than matter,” is bristlingly unscientific. But the real problems crop up when Cosmosapiens approaches the subject of the origin of life on Earth. When he brings up Michael Behe’s 1996 Darwin’s Black Box, this is how he summarizes the book’s origin:
[Behe] says he was forced to conclude that the first form of life, the common ancestor cell, could only have resulted from intelligent design. To reconcile this with biological evolution he suggests that this first cell contained all the DNA necessary for subsequent evolution. He does not identify the designer, but says that orthodox science has rejected this conclusion because of its possible theological implications.
Hands goes on to paint a portrait of the critical reaction to the book:
Orthodox evolutionists were quick to condemn Behe’s 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. In his review in Nature, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne finds a clue to Behe’s reasoning by identifying him as a Roman Catholic. Most scientists, however, don’t dismiss Newton’s work on mechanics because he believed in alchemy or Kepler’s work on astronomy because he believed in astrology.
The calm and critical tone of the rest of Hands’ book goes right out the window in paragraphs like these, which are every bit as intelligent as the rest of Cosmosapiens but deeply, subtly deceptive, not least in that characterization of the critical condemnation Darwin’s Black Box received. Why the pussyfooting of “most scientists,” as if there’s even one scientist anywhere in the world who dismisses Newton’s physics because of his belief in alchemy? And why impute ideological motives at all, when the “orthodox” evolutionists who attacked Behe’s book did so exclusively on scientific grounds? And why so strenuously work to misrepresent the actions of the ideology involved? The point isn’t that scientists don’t dismiss Newton’s physics because of his belief in alchemy, it’s that Newton’s belief in alchemy had no influence on his research into physics. Hands spent years researching Cosmosapiens; if he didn’t come away from those years aware of the fact that scientists don’t do “orthodoxies” (and that they don’t attack works of science on non-scientific grounds), he wasn’t paying much attention.
He continues his short account of the intellectual con-game that’s come to be known as “the theory of intelligent design,” bringing up Jonathan Wells, whom he describes rather dodgily as a “former postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkley.” Hands mentions that Wells attacks some of the most popular evolutionary talking points in his book Icons of Evolution and then goes on:
In a more recent book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, Wells accepts the phenomenon of biological evolution; indeed he goes on to say that natural selection is the obvious mechanism by which adaptive gene variants spread through a population. He maintains that random mutation, couple with natural selection, is not a sufficiently powerful engine to drive the evolution of biological innovation and increasing complexity.
This is even more deceptive (not to mention sloppy – The Edge of Evolution was written by Michael Behe), starting with the way it carries over the same impression we got from the description of Behe being forced to conclude that the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution are insufficient. The same impression is here: that Wells is perfectly willing to “accept” the phenomenon of biological evolution – but that’s about as far as his careful, measured, objective scientific training will allow him to go. It creates the image of people like Behe and Wells beetling away in their laboratories and rudely, involuntarily crashing into the limits of Darwinism – and then, very reluctantly, turning against it.
In reality, the opposite is true. Behe and Wells both decided beforehand, for ideological reasons, to attack Darwinian evolution and then went looking for ways to do that. In other words, they’re charlatans, not scientists, literal-minded religious dogmatists rather than researchers. And in this case Hands must know that but not want his readers to know it – what else explains that fancy-dancing about Wells being a “former postdoctoral research fellow”? When Wells wrote Icons of Evolution, he had for years been a bought-and-paid-for member of the “Discovery Institute,” a creationist propaganda-mill in Seattle. So why doesn’t Hands identify him that way? What reason could there be, other than to bolster the impression that calm, objective scientific assaults on the theory of evolution have cropped up all along the research spectrum?
“If the NeoDarwinian hypothesis fails to explain major biological innovations and increasing complexity – which is true – it does not follow that other scientific, testable hypotheses now, or in the future, cannot provide an explanation,” Hands writes. “In summary, advocates of Intelligent Design fail to offer any testable explanations of their beliefs, which puts Intelligent Design outside the realm of science.” But the first part is simply false – NeoDarwinism explains nearly perfectly both major biological innovation and increasing complexity (as Hands must bloody well know, since he’s seen the fossil and molecular records that furnish the explanations). And the second part is infuriating. If creationism falls outside the realm of science, then why keep bringing it up? Nowhere else in the 600 pages of Cosmosapiens is a non-scientific notion brought into play, kicked around, dismissed, and then brought back over and over again. Likewise, nowhere in Cosmosapiens are lawn faeries or the gods of Asgard mentioned at all.
A relatively charitable reading would be that Hands simply likes a scrap and can’t find one in, say, inorganic chemistry or plate tectonics. But in a long work about the latest scientific thinking, that can’t excuse the folly and deceit of giving creationism even enough credibility to dismiss. What is this nonsense even doing here at all? He claims that adherents of the “current orthodoxy” of NeoDarwinian evolution “respond with an institutional defensiveness that fails to admit defects in the NeoDarwinian model shown by conflicting data or to give adequate consideration to other hypotheses consistent with those data.” But “orthodoxy” implies a belief system, not a body of data, and such an implication is wrong and Hands knows it. And “other hypotheses consistent with those data” implies both that creationism is a hypothesis and that it’s consistent with any data found outside the Bible – and such implications are not only wrong but dangerous. Creationism cares about data in exactly the same way a bank robber cares about his getaway car, and “God did it” is not any kind of hypothesis. The next edition of Cosmosapiens would do well to leave gods and immortals back in the temples where they belong.