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Book Review: Cosmosapiens

By (January 26, 2016) 6 Comments


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.



  • David Thompson says:

    I did not have to get far into Cosmo Sapiens to see where Mr Hands was trying to take me. The carefully “balanced” position he wraps himself in is the classic strategy of the Intelligent Design cabal. By cherry-picking the few authors who have been able to get fringe material published, and dismissing the general community as an elitist “orthodoxy”, while portraying the lively and ongoing discussion of the newest discoveries as disarray where there is in fact general agreement, he seeks to muddy the waters as much as possible for the layman reader. As that reader, I am glad I was able to see through this subtle and well crafted deception. I fortunately had just read Monkey Girl (Edward Hines) which describes this strategy in its real-world application, and Discovery Institute prominent in its implementation. Unfortunately this is just the sort of “magisterial work” that will be cited for years to come as these people try to foist this bad science on our schools and public policy. Cosmo Sapiens, while a stalking horse for an odious agenda, very neatly and elegantly presented a lot of current cosmology. Such a waste.

  • John Hands says:

    I confess that I’m saddened by the review of COSMOSAPIENS. The first two paragraphs say the book expertly summarizes the latest thinking in the disciplines that provide the scientific evidence of human evolution from the origin of the universe and, for the most part, the book is an impartial assessment of these theories. However, the next eight paragraphs constitute not a review of the content of the book but ad hominem attacks, accusing me of being “deeply, subtly deceptive” and making allegations like “Hands must know that but not want his readers to know it.”

    Permit me, Steve, to address your three principal allegations.

    First, the review accuses me of repeatedly giving space to creationism. Untrue. In the historical section on pre-evolutionary ideas (Chapter 16) I describe creationism as a belief that God created each species and these remained unchanged ever since (p. 247). In Chapter 2: Origin Myths I say that not only is the evidence against the truth of the creationist belief overwhelming but also the Judeo-Christian and Islamic accounts are logically self-contradictory (p. 11).

    In Chapter 22 I consider 16 complementary and competing hypotheses to the NeoDarwinian explanation of complexification in biological evolution. One of these is Intelligent Design (which differs significantly from creationism). As the review reluctantly concedes, I conclude that it is not scientific. The reason I gave it space is that if I had not, then its advocates would accuse me of suppressing what they erroneously claim to be a scientific explanation.

    It surely would not have escaped your notice, Steve, that I also considered and rejected some equally unscientific ideas, such as Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick’s claim that life evolved on Earth because an advanced civilization deliberately targeted Earth with microorganisms.

    Second, the review implies that I try to disguise the fact that work on Intelligent Design is funded by the Discovery Institute. Untrue. I say “The problem with using the term intelligent design is that, since the mid-1990s, it has become inextricably associated with Intelligent Design, a claimed scientific theory whose proponents are funded by, or who are staff members of, the Discovery Institute, an American think tank established and financed by Christians with the purpose of proving that God created life.” (p. 231) I then consider non-theistic intelligent design claims, such as Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom’s equation that—erroneously in my view—purports to show that we are computer simulations created by an advanced posthuman civilization.

    Third, the review states that “Neo-Darwinism 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).”

    Have you not read, Steve, Chapter 21 Causes of Biological Evolution: the Current Orthodox Account? Most of this chapter comprises a section What NeoDarwinian orthodoxy fails to explain. The fossil evidence contradicts NeoDarwinism, as distinguished palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould concluded in 1972 (for a more detailed account, see earlier pp. 296-299)

    The rapid sequencing of genomes in the 21st Century has produced a wealth of genetic and genomic evidence contradicting NeoDarwinism. The fact is that, while NeoDarwinism provided a theoretical explanation of natural phenomena 60 years ago, it has ossified into a belief system. Like any belief system, its adherents refuse to acknowledge more recent evidence that contradicts its essential tenets, or attack those that produce the evidence, as they attacked Eldredge and Gould. As I say, “Paradoxically, ignoring or denying evidence that contradicts NeoDarwinism provides ammunition to creationists and the Intelligent Design movement.” (p. 409)

    I would not expect the managing director of an Arts and Literature Review to be familiar with recent scientific evidence. But neither would I expect ad hominem attacks in place of informed criticisms.

    I invite your readers to read the book and judge for themselves whether I am “deeply, subtly deceptive” or whether they agree with the 12 Advance Reviews from distinguished philosophers, physicists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, and sociologists given on the opening pages of the book.

    • Matt Herzel says:

      Mic drop indeed. I’m on my third read of Cosmosapiens, and I commend Mr. Hands on his achievement, and his concise defense of the book above. If you ever stop by this comment section again, thank you! It’s essentially an incredibly thorough literature review and, in my opinion, accomplishes Mr. Hand’s ambitious goals. I’m a layperson who only recently extracted myself from a conservative Christian tradition, so I’m still very interested in the topic of human origins and the young earth creationist/ID/evolution “debate.” I found Mr. Hands’ approach refreshing.

      As someone who is very sensitive to dogma and appeals to authority, I must admit that I do see a thread of dogmatism weaving through what many scientists say about commonly accepted evolutionary theory. I think this review is a good example of how quickly some will rush to attack anyone who even seems to be questioning the orthodox view. I no longer believe in a young earth or creator God, and do my best to proportion my beliefs to the evidence, but reactions like this review harm rather than help the cause of science.

      Besides the fact that these attacks don’t typically deal in evidence, they also provide ammunition to the anti-science conspiracy theorists, who want nothing more than to drag the method of science down to the level of their own dogmatic epistemology. The scientific community can do better. Thanks Mr. Hands for the insightful and dogma-free perspective. There are those of us why see the effort and appreciate it.

  • Remo "Uzi" Gwaldabi says:

    On, I think it’s the third page of the book, he says one would expect to find evolutionarily related creatures on the opposite coasts of land masses that split during movement by plate techtonics. A perfectly logical idea that is no doubt well chronicled. But he uses the example of the west coast of South America and the east coast of Africa. What I hope he meant was the west coast of Africa and the east coast of South America because those were the formerly connected spots, not the opposite which he cited. I could not read any further and had already sniffed the fetid air of Intelligent Design that was seeping from the manuscript. I curse myself for falling (to the tune of 30+ dollars) for this intellectual ruse.

  • juan fontecilla says:

    I agree with a comment above that as I read this book (that I also bought for +30 bucks) I increasingly got the impression that ID was lurking behind the lines. I am a practising biochemist and I noticed several clear mistakes of Hands’concerning my subject. I cannot say the same about the cosmology part but I was surprised by the way Hands contradicted people like Penrose and Hawkins.
    I also think that the theory of biological evolution is the best proof that we came about by purely material processes. Any other explanation requires evidence that has not been (and most likely cannot be)provided.

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