Gorillas, Girls, and Specious Nonsense
This is my report on the launch of a creationist book The Origin of Specious Nonsense. It previously appeared on the Atheist Ireland website. In reproducing it here I have made some minor formatting changes, added a few links and corrected one typo but I have left the text unchanged (despite my awareness that it could use some polishing). I’ve kept the sub-headings that were added by an Atheist Ireland editor as I think they improve it, but the rest – including the photographs – is entirely my own work.
I arrived a little late at the book launch of The Origin of Specious Nonsense to find the author John J. May, already in full swing, railing against the “offensive” letters from skeptics that had appeared in newspapers. He defended the right of the Minister for Science Conor Lenihan to launch his book which, he claimed, was to be done in a personal capacity and was not an endorsement of the contents of this book. He did not seem to understand why so many people were so vehemently opposed to this. The problem, of course, is that a government minister has a duty to consider whether something he does – even in a personal capacity – conflicts with his position. In this case, his apparent endorsement of an anti-scientific book was an issue of considerable concern and justified anger.
The Argument from Lucy the Pig
While being filmed for a documentary about his book, the author says he was asked about Lucy and whether this discovery did not provide evidence for evolution. May dismissed it as a hoax, saying that it was made from a pig’s jawbone and that this was a well-known fact. At this early stage, this bizarre comment was mostly greeted with rolled eyes and suppressed giggles. As May continued presenting “facts” of this calibre, the objections from the audience were to become louder and more sustained.
The claim that Lucy is a hoax is of course nothing new but the reference to a pig bone was certainly new to me. Having investigated, I can find it nowhere else and suspect that May has conflated the case of Nebraska Man which involved a pig’s tooth with a lingering but mistaken belief among creationists that Lucy’s knee bone was found some distance from the rest of her skeleton. Possibly he was also incorporating elements of the famous Piltdown Man hoax. May’s embarrassing lack of knowledge of his chosen subject only became more obvious as the evening wore on.
The Argument from Being Amazed
May invited the audience to “judge [his] book by the cover” which seems more than fair. The glaring grammatical error on the front cover and the spelling and punctuation errors on the back cover should provide some preparation for those brave souls who wish to undertake reading the whole book. The author appears to have invented several new words as well as misspelling some old favourites. It may seem churlish to criticise someone for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation but to go to the expense of publishing a book (and it was self-published) without employing a copy editor seems extremely foolish.
The bulk of May’s argument – such as it was – consisted of a sort of beginner’s guide to embryology with a focus on how amazing certain aspects of it were, each followed by a loud and emphatic claim that chance could not be responsible, but that it must be the work of a great scientist (or Great Scientist). May claimed to have been greatly influenced by three books. He mentioned four, however. The first was Lennart Nilsson’s A Child is Born, a photography book charting the development of the human embryo and foetus from conception to birth. This certainly influenced him, as he uses nine of its photographs and a large chunk of the text in the sample chapter of his book available online, but I don’t think it was one of the books he claimed as an influence in his life.
Of the other books he mentioned, the first was the Bible – and while he was quick to claim that he did not believe all of it and did not follow the bloodthirsty god, described therein, he seemed to be impressed by its mere antiquity; and then irrelevantly and inaccurately claimed that there is no evidence that humans have been around for more than a few thousand years.
The Argument from Counting Words
The next was Darwin’s The Origin of Species which he claimed to have read “forensically”. One audience member challenged him on what he meant by that, and the answer was somewhat unclear (at least to me) but what he seemed to mean was that he studied it in detail. In this frenzied forensic examination, he discovered more than 1,500 suppositions. The exact nature of these suppositions was also unclear but it seems that he simply counted instances of words such as “if” “possibly” and “likely”.
Of course, it’s really not that surprising or concerning that the foundational text of a theory, especially one with such explosive implications, should be written in a somewhat tentative manner. May seems unaware of the thousands of other books that have been written on the subject of evolution in the past century and a half that fill in most of the gaps that were there in Darwin’s day.
The final book mentioned was Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe, something that has clearly influenced May deeply in that it validated his existing skepticism of evolution by coating it with a thin quasi-scientific veneer, and provided him with several of the “facts” he mentioned. He even had a mousetrap with him to demonstrate irreducible complexity but thankfully didn’t delve any further into the argument.
The Argument from Fancy Dress and Tennis Balls
It was around this time that Darwin, King Kong and two busty models in form-fitting t-shirts arrived. (A fellow skeptic later showed me a photo of Darwin that he had taken at the earlier photo shoot. That Darwin was a ruddy-faced fellow, in contrast to the swarthy gentleman I saw. I can only conclude that these are actually Darwin’s helpers, the real Darwin being too busy to come to every creationist book launch himself.)
May had a glass bowl filled with 15 tennis balls which he announced he would dump on the floor, and if they arranged themselves in a perfect circle, he would stop the meeting. Unsurprisingly, the balls arranged themselves quasi-randomly as everybody expected. I’m not sure exactly what this was supposed to demonstrate but nobody seemed impressed. The theatrics only worked against May as the large skeptical contingent in the audience became increasingly more exasperated and increasingly vocal about it.
Like many creationists May argued against chance, and at one point specifically claimed that Darwinian evolution was entirely based on chance. This led to an objection from a member of the audience. When May asked what it was based on if not chance, I questioned how he could claim to have read The Origin of Species in such depth and not know the answer. When he asked what I meant, I referred to natural selection. He replied that natural selection doesn’t exist. He then said that the word natural implies intelligence.
This was greeted with derision by most of the audience. One boisterous young man in the audience began loudly jeering May, calling him, among other things, “an imbecilic idiot”, leading to a loud and angry exchange in which May and his antagonist both swore at each other, and May attempted to have him removed but then relented as other people managed to calm the interloper down.
The Argument from Subjectively-Judged Prizes
May then invited questions from the floor. Prompted by another Twitterer, I asked about the €10,000 prize on offer and whether a prize fund actually existed. May claimed that his brother has the money, and his brother who was in the audience confirmed this. It’s not exactly a cast-iron guarantee but I didnt pursue the issue further. I then asked what one needed to do to win it, whether it was simply to provide evidence that speciation has occurred.
May confirmed this, so I offered the example of Drosophila which – at least when I referred to them as fruit flies – May claimed to be familiar with. He quickly dismissed this as just variation and then quoted Lynn Margulis as having challenged biologists to name a single example of speciation by the accumulation of mutations, claiming they have to date been unable to do so. I didn’t know at the time that this lie also came from Behe but it is discussed here for those interested.
He was interrupted by another audience member who pushed him on exactly what the criteria for winning the money were, whether it was just the beliefs of one scientist, or whether the beliefs of other scientists – the overwhelming majority of whom would disagree with May – would be taken into account. May told him that the sole criterion for getting the money was convincing him, not anyone else.
I managed to steer things back to Drosophila and informed May that several instances of speciation had been observed and meticulously recorded, that these were not merely examples of “variation” as after several generations the flies were not just morphologically different but could not interbreed with the parent stock, that this was widely reported and studied and could be tested as the direct evidence still existed. May’s response was: “A fruit fly will never turn into a rabbit”. I think his money is safe.
The End of the Arguments
Shortly after that the talk ended abruptly when the young man May had threatened to eject became rowdy again and couldn’t be calmed down. May declared the event to be over. The young man left, whether voluntarily or not I don’t know but most of the audience stayed for the “Gorillas and Girls” party. As the sole gorilla had already left, the title was somewhat inaccurate but there were quite a few attractive young ladies present, so it wasn’t a total washout.
The author’s brother (I believe the one who was holding the prize fund) came over to me and introduced himself. He said he found my questions interesting but then told me he was a creationist. His reason was that his daughter was severely physically handicapped and belief in a god gave him hope. This of course is a heartbreaking but irrelevant reason for believing in something. I pointed this out as tactfully as I could and expressed my hope that modern medicine would some day be able to help his daughter.
I also spoke briefly to one of the author’s sons, who surprised me by admitting he knew nothing about evolution – not in the sense his father knows nothing about it – but literally nothing at all. He asked me if it was the idea that humans came from monkeys. I tried to give him a slightly more accurate idea, but I found it odd that he had never discussed the subject with his father.
The End of the Party
I took advantage of the free wine and sandwiches and had some interesting conversations with a few other people. From what I could tell, a large minority, perhaps as much as half, of the attendees were May’s friends and family, while most of the rest were atheists and skeptics. There were a few evangelicals and perhaps a handful of people who had wandered in from the bar in search of free drink.
I managed to speak to the author briefly, and thanked him for an entertaining evening. I advised him I was still interested in the money and referred him to the Talk Origins website for numerous examples of speciation. Tellingly, he didn’t seem to have heard of this website.
John May is a charming man, a rebel and a maverick, a dynamic individualist who has always refused to follow the herd, and has in the past acted according to his conscience at significant personal cost. He’s not a lunatic, an imbecile, an idiot or a religious fundamentalist but neither is he an expert on evolution and this book is unlikely to make any impact even among creationists. He is deeply, laughably, and embarrassingly wrong but I think his motives are pure.
As the free wine dried up and people started leaving, some going home, some including May and his entourage to the hotel bar I found myself among the last to leave, along with another atheist, arguing information theory with two Hare Krishnas, while “Darwin”, now beardless, carried away armfuls of unsold books.
- John May Lives (skepacabra.wordpress.com)
- Gorillas and Girls (marginalrevolution.com)
- Irish “Science” Minister Promotes Creationism [Dispatches from the Culture Wars] (scienceblogs.com)
- Why did Ireland’s science minister agree to launch an anti-evolution book? | Eoin Butler (guardian.co.uk)
- Good heavens! You’re the science minister… (sluggerotoole.com)