Gorillas, Girls, and Specious Nonsense by Derek Walsh

Gorillas and girls

Gorillas and girls

Derek Walsh reviews the launch of the anti-evolution book that Ireland’s Minister for Science had planned to formally launch.

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 increasinly 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 Having a Wealthy Brother

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.

You are a pig...



  1. Avatar
    bipedalhumanoid September 18, 2010

    That was hilarious. I nearly fell off my chair.

    There was an ad for his book on Newstalk during the lunchtime show on Newstalk yesterday. He seems to be fairly well funded.

  2. Avatar
    Isaac September 18, 2010

    “There were… perhaps a handful of people who had wandered in from the bar in search of free drink.”

    That’s Ireland for you! Haha.

  3. Avatar
    Brian Rogan September 18, 2010

    Thanks for the review Derek, after Conor Lenihan withdrew from the launch I decided not to attend, but after reading your post I kind of regret my decision, it sounds like it was fairly comical and the free wine would have been a pleasant bonus.

  4. Avatar
    agnosticwuss September 19, 2010

    I really enjoyed reading this. It seems that the book is a mere vanity project and will vanish without trace, but I’m glad that some people stepped up and told the guy that he’s an idiot. For what it’s worth, I am one of (I’m sure) the many hundreds who wrote to Conor Lenihan urging him not to attend. Glad you got to drink the guy’s wine.

  5. Avatar
    Michael Nugent September 19, 2010

    That’s a great review, Derek. I particularly like this piece:

    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.)

  6. Avatar
    Jim B September 19, 2010

    Nice writeup. In reading the back cover pictured above, it ends saying evolution breaks a cardinal rule of science: no first cause.

    He not only doesn’t understand evolution, he doesn’t understand science. Every discipline accepts certain things as axioms (although in the provisional way that science treats everything) and then discovers what it can from there. Does he imagine that before a research scientist attempts to discover, say, what is the purpose of a particular signaling molecule, he must first prove how the universe began and also formally prove why 1+1=2?

  7. Avatar
    Derek Walsh September 19, 2010

    Thanks to all for the feedback.
    For the sake of completeness I want to include the disclaimer I originally posted with this review:

    I missed the photo call at the start (if there was one) and the beginning of the talk; I don’t know how much I missed although I arrived only one or two minutes past the scheduled 7:30 start time so likely, it wasn’t much. I was tweeting some of the more interesting points which undoubtedly meant I missed some others, and as I wasn’t taking notes, I have to rely entirely on memory, so some events may be out of sequence or slightly different to what I remember. Nonetheless I believe the [above] to be a reasonably accurate account of the evening I experienced.

    I also want to add that despite what might have been implied elsewhere, I did not attend this event as a reporter (intrepid or otherwise!) or at the request of Atheist Ireland or any other party. I decided quite last-minute to attend with the intention of tweeting if anything interesting happened. The above review started as my reply to the thread in the Atheist Ireland forum and accidentally grew into a full-scale review. I feel the need to make this clear because I was asked that evening whether I was a reporter and about my affiliation, and while I mentioned that I had been tweeting and that I was a member of Atheist Ireland, I specifically said (quite truthfully) that I was not a reporter and that I was not representing Atheist Ireland in any sort of official capacity.

  8. Avatar
    Zeno September 19, 2010

    The glaring grammatical error on the front cover

    Despite the various other idiocies associated with the book, I’ll have to give the author a pass on the supposed grammatical error. “This DNA language that was once you and I” is in conformity with the rule that says “to be” takes the nominative in the subject complement. “It is I” is the favorite example of this usage. Grammarians are hardly unanimous in preferring the nominative in this instance, but I’d say John May (or the copy writer of the cover text) has sufficient cover to be absolved of the charging of making a glaring error — in grammar, anyway.

  9. Avatar
    Stonyground September 19, 2010

    Hi. I followed the link from Pharyngula and I’m happy to be able to bookmark another infidel website. Thanks for the report, it was both amusing and entertaining.

    I think that he could have found a better Darwin lookalike, do you suppose that he could have persuaded Daniel Dennet to do it?

  10. Avatar
    Ambidexter September 19, 2010

    Judging from May’s video and the sample chapter of his book, he appears to base his rejection of evolution on the argument from ignorance and the argument from personal incredulity. He’s obviously intelligent but very poorly educated. He’s trying to be Charles I’s successor as the wisest fool in Christendom. I think he succeeds in this endeavour.

  11. Avatar
    JP September 19, 2010

    Where did this take place? This was repub’ed on Pharyngula, and I still can’t find the location.

  12. Avatar
    Tom Hall September 19, 2010

    Fantastic people,
    It is nice to see people confronting the objectional ignorance that underlies religion. You were lucky to escape the popes rounds of the arse lickers and the stupid, I`m ashamed of the goverment and media over here ( britain) for their syncophantic dealings with prince of princes. The Jamacians have a good name for those people raass claarks.

  13. Avatar
    Lee September 19, 2010

    Great review! So why did the beardless Darwin carry away armfuls of unsold books, and what is he going to do with them?

  14. Avatar
    Japanther September 19, 2010

    Brilliant writing, my friend. Thanks for the review.

  15. Avatar
    Russ Painter September 20, 2010

    Nicely written Derek. You’re much more patient than I am. If anyone ends up with that €10K, it ought to be you.

  16. Avatar
    Susannah September 20, 2010

    I was surprised by the photos from Nilsson’s book. The “Nonsense” was self-published. I’m wondering now whether May had permission from Nilsson, or whether we’ll see an interesting lawsuit in the future.

    Not saying, just wondering.

  17. Avatar
    Anonymous September 20, 2010

    An excellent account. Well done.

    “I found myself among the last to leave, along with another atheist, arguing information theory with two Hare Krishnas”


  18. Avatar
    Toby September 20, 2010

    Someone should tell May, who is clearly a nut, about the Modern Synthesis. May is even out of step with Intellgient Designers, but Young Earth Creationists should have a soft spot for him.

    I work in a scientific discpline with a heavily science-oriented company. For our Minister for Science to have a whiff of anti-scientific obscurantism about him only adds to us being an international joke. If is like having Sarah Palin as Director of MIT. I do not work in biotechnology, but I am sure the bio people must be squirming.

    Conor Linehan is entitled to his own personal beliefs, but he is Minister for Science and represents the country’s scientific efforts at EU level. At leat he pulled out in time, on the next occasion we may not be so lucky!!!

  19. Avatar
    Derek Walsh September 20, 2010

    Grammarians are hardly unanimous in preferring the nominative in this instance, but I’d say John May (or the copy writer of the cover text) has sufficient cover to be absolved of the charging of making a glaring error — in grammar, anyway.

    I’d still prefer “and me” in this case, but am willing to concede that perhaps a case can be made for “and I”. I don’t think it’s something May and his copy editor stayed up all night debating though, given the peculiar capitalisation of the statement and the fact that the author’s own name is punctuated incorrectly on the front cover.

    Where did this take place? This was repub’ed on Pharyngula, and I still can’t find the location.

    Buswell’s Hotel on Molesworth St.

    So why did the beardless Darwin carry away armfuls of unsold books, and what is he going to do with them?

    He was obviously a friend of the author, and it was the end of the evening so they were clearing things away. There were a lot of unsold books. I suspect the author will keep trying to sell them, then try to give them away and eventually store them in a cardboard box in his attic to be discovered by his grandchildren many years from now.

  20. Avatar
    demotic September 20, 2010

    Great article!

  21. Avatar
    Aditya Rao September 20, 2010

    Excellent review – I was reading it while sitting at a table in a busy mall and laughing hysterically by myself.

    I imagine the looks I received from passers-by must have been akin to the ones received by May.

  22. Avatar
    Caligula September 21, 2010

    With all the atheist books out there now he probably found a market gap. If he manages to make money out of the book then fair play to him. The whole thing is obviously complete crap but bullshit usually outsells logic and reason. Sad but true. What’s the biggest selling book of all time??? Yup, The good ole Bible

  23. Avatar
    David Millar September 21, 2010

    I saw Mr May’s letter in the Irish Times (Monday 20th) wondering why people had such an issue with the Minister (“an evolutionist”) helping launch his book. I was going to give the following analogy –

    “For the same reason people would have an issue if the Minister for Health was planning on launching a book, the premise of which was that most serious mental health issues were due to demonic possession. Especially if the author’s knowledge of the area was based only on having seen ‘The Exorcist’ movies – with no qualifications in psychiatry, psychology or, indeed, “exorcism”. Then the Minister’s ‘defence’ along the lines of ‘it’s good that both sides of the issue are explored’ would make a grown man cry.”

    But then I though – there are probably even more people out there who are credulous of demonic possession than there are of creationism.

    Jesus wept.

  24. Avatar
    Les Reid September 22, 2010

    Excellent review. Your efforts to defend evolution against the assaults of this ill-informed but well-funded buffoon are to be highly commended. One can only hope that the whole idiotic project of publishing a book on a topic the author does not understand will have cost said buffoon a pile of money.

    The sobering implication of the episode is, however, that the morons are many and they have money. They have certain advantages too. Creationist stories are so cosy and simple even a child can understand them. They also have a well-worn, familiar place in our folklore and the backing of the churches. Scientific explanations, by contrast, demand some intelligence and willingness to work at the subject. They have only their integrity, their intrinsic worth and the support of the scientific community to commend them. So it is an unequal struggle, but one which we must pursue with vigour. And with good humour, as you have done, Derek, for which we are all in your debt. Well done.

  25. Avatar
    Deanjdk September 23, 2010

    Excellent write-up.
    I was at the event myself,actually i believe i was standing directly behind the author of this article if i was to guess.I also got to speak with John briefly after the event.I have to agree in person he is both polite and welcoming to discussion however a quick look on the forum of his own nonsensical website will demonstrate the level of ignorance and bias here.

    During the event John dissmissed the accusation of being a creationist by a member of the crowd.I asked him “do you believe a god created the universe” he said “yes” ..I replied “your a creationist then”….a few people laughed and he continued with the bullcrap…an unbelieveable dishonest hiding of bias is what that event was.Thankfully i dont think his ideas won any new supporters..at least not that night anyway.

    Youtube user Mrodub and myself have made a video responce to one of John J Mays youtube videos.

    Heres the URL
    Why do people laugh at John J May

  26. Avatar
    John J May September 25, 2010

    I would like to thank Derek Walsh for his amusing friendly and innacurate analysis of the very successful launch of my non academic expose of the unscientific HOAX of evolution, through my book THE ORIGIN OF SPECIOUS NONSENSE.

    Appealing to “majorities” in any community of believers is always suspect. If Connor Lenihan had decided to launch a book that was PRO-GLOBAL WARMING he would have been denounced by thousands of scientists who are ANTI- GLOBAL WARMING and vice versa.

    Yes i was wrong about “Lucy” in that that particular simian was a smaller type of australopithecine and mixed it up with the hoax of Pilltown man and some others I am aware of. It was difficult concentrating in a hostile environment and I am sorry.

    If I write a comprehensive reply Derek can I be assured it will be published in full and not edited to score points?
    I await your reply as you appear to be a reasonable and fair man unlike MANY who feel free to simply call names without ever meeting me or reading my book. Incidently I love the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins in particular and am VERY SORRY to hear he is ill.

  27. Avatar
    Derek Walsh September 27, 2010

    John, thanks for your feedback. I would certainly welcome a comprehensive reply from you but I am not an administrator on this site and could not guarantee it would be published here.
    What I would suggest is that you post it on your own site, linking to this one and I will do what I can to make sure it’s publicised to the same extent as my review: I will post the link on Twitter and Facebook, and request that Atheist Ireland does the same and updates this review with the link. I’ll even try to get PZ Myers to link to it.
    I intend to start a blog in the very near future, so if necessary I can host your response there. You have my word that it will appear in full and unedited.
    If anything I wrote was inaccurate, I apologise. As I wrote above, I originally had no intention of writing a review and was working entirely from memory but I certainly did my utmost to record my experience truthfully. I know you were having the event video-recorded so it would be great to see that online soon. That way, those who weren’t there will be able to judge for themselves. The camera never lies.
    I look forward to hearing from you, and I still hope to win your €10,000!

  28. Avatar
    Deanjdk September 28, 2010

    Heres part 2 of “Why people laugh at John J May.”

    John …I can only recommend you stop the strawman arguments in your videos.I hope some day you can grasp and understand evolution to the point where you have the ability to at least describe what is being proposed

    Heres the link


  29. Avatar
    David Millar September 29, 2010

    Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.
    Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

  30. Avatar
    bipedalhumanoid September 29, 2010

    Every philosophical publication in existence has been written by an ape… in fact everything ever written, at least on our planet, was written by apes.

  31. Avatar
    Barry Spencer May 29, 2011

    I’ve read Mr. May’s book and have corresponded with him. I caught a glimpse of a glowing intelligence behind his bluff and bluster, an intelligence I somehow suspected was there. Turns out he is capable of shifting gears and communicating like a reasonable and normal person. Proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar, a warm, refined tone without excessive capitalization or gratuitous insults: he can do it all. And at one point he surprised and delighted me with a pertinent logical argument.

    It seems to me, based on what he says in his book, that his motivation is fear of death; he viscerally hates evolution because it undermines and threatens his belief in God and therefore his hope of evading death.

    The bluster, insults, and bad arguments are merely things he throws at fear to keep it at bay. His God amounts to ignorance; God is a black curtain May pulls down to keep the boogie man out.

    Like many or most men, I fear death. My problem, which I share with May, is to prevent my fear of death from blighting my life. I’m an atheist, so have no hope of evading death. I don’t have the option Mays chose.

    I gather May was indoctrinated when a child with Christian ideas. He admits he’s poorly educated. No doubt those factors contribute to his emotional embrace of creationism and rejection of evolution. But there’s some difference between his mind and mine. The difference isn’t intelligence or sanity. It’s… I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it courage? Am I more courageous than May because I face my fear of death? That’s hard for me to believe, as I’m a timid man.