Darwin’s Doubt: Too Hot for Science To Handle?

Book Review

Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer.

201306171558.jpgThirty or so years ago I smuggled some new Christian media into a closed Communist country. I remember the thrill vividly: the sense of risk, the satisfaction of completion. I’ve had a similar sensation lately reading Darwin’s Doubt. It’s the book the evolutionists won’t want you to read. It’s too hot to handle: it might cause you to question whether evolution happened the way they say it did.

This risky volume Stephen Meyer’s latest challenge to theories of undirected/unguided evolution. I have to admit, though, that it took a few hundred pages for me to warm up to the adventure of reading verboten material — and that’s because the first 80 percent or so of the book contains nothing but mainstream science. Sure, it raises serious doubts about unguided evolution’s explanatory power, but where do those doubts come from?

They come from Charles Darwin, to start with.

Darwin’s Doubt

The title of the book refers to the difficulty he had in explaining the “Cambrian Explosion,” the vast proliferation of new animal body plans (new “phyla” or major animal groupings) that appears in fossils in the Cambrian strata, deposited some 530 million years ago. These animals appear suddenly in the fossil record, without any plausible predecessor such as Darwin’s theory predicted. Darwin wrote,

The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the Silurian [i.e., Cambrian] epoch, is very great. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks.

Darwin saw this accurately as a challenge to his theory. It remains one still. The animals appear too quickly in the record to be explained through his gradualistic theory.

Mainstream Science’s Continuing Questions

And it remains a challenge from the perspective of mainstream science. Various theories have been proposed in explanation of the suddenness with which these new phyla came on the scene. Perhaps selective fossilization caused their predecessors to disappear from paleontologists’ view. Mainstream science casts serious doubt on that view. Statistical paleontology renders it deeply improbable. The soft-body hypothesis appears unlikely to succeed, since the evidence shows soft-bodied organisms have been frequently fossilized.

Or maybe the Cambrian animals’ precursors really are there in the record, in the form of exotic Ediacaran fossils. But these organisms are not clearly animals of any sort, and what they are is so in confusion that they could hardly be considered evidence for anything. Further,

As Nature recently noted, if the Ediacaran fauna “were animals, they bore little or no resemblance to any other creatures, either fossil or extant.” … This absence of clear affinities has led an increasing number of paleontologists to reject an ancestor/dependent relationship between the Ediacaran and Cambrian fauna.

Scientists have proposed genetic histories for these phyla, but as Meyer pointedly puts it, these scenarios all “assume a gene.” And a lot more besides. That is to say, they beg the question of evolution’s explanatory adequacy by assuming that it must be true. From there they suggest pathways according to which genes “must have” evolved. But there’s no evidence of it in the record.

I could go on summarizing chapter by chapter, but even in summary form it would lengthen this review beyond reason, and besides, the pattern remains the same: the hypotheses for explanations of the Cambrian explosion have been rejected — by mainstream science.

That’s the account Meyer gives of it. I’m no expert in the field, but I have to admit it’s convincing. The Cambrian Explosion remains unexplained on any standard terms.

Too Hot for Science?

So if it’s all basic science, what makes this book so hot? It’s Meyer’s suggestion that explanations need not be limited to standard terms; that the data might point to a Designer who intelligently guided the world to be the way it was 530 million years ago — and by extension, today as well.

That’s a tough one for mainstream science to swallow. I think I can see, or almost rather feel, why that might be. I’ve written about it previously, in the context of another ID-related passage on the Cambrian Explosion; I called it “What’s Wrong and What’s Right About Intelligent Design.” There’s a definite weirdness to the idea that God (yes, I’ll identify him as the designer, even though that conclusion doesn’t derive from ID) did something like that in our world. One almost wants to shout “Hey! Quit meddling with our world! Stick to your own reality, would you?” — as if our reality were not first and above all God’s.

Too Hot For the (Ahem) Reviewers?

And I wouldn’t be surprised if that same feeling might explain the anger that ID provokes. I get the sense from Lawrence Krauss that he doesn’t want God meddling in his world.

That anger was evident when Meyer’s last book, Signature in the Cell, was published.  Some time after its release I ran a quantitative study of Amazon.com reviews of the book. Here’s some of the analysis.

  • Negative (1-star) reviews were significantly more likely to come from reviewers who definitely (31 percent) or likely (43 percent) hadn’t read much of the book. Only 26 percent of 1-star reviews came from people who had definitely read it.
  • Theological considerations clearly motivated just 8 percent of 5-star rating reviews, but 51% (!) of 1-star criticisms.
  • Only 9 percent of 1-star reviewers were able to avoid black/white, simplistic dogmatism in their statements, while 75% of positive reviewers avoided that kind of language.
  • And  86 percent of 1-star raters used personal pejorative language (accusations of stupidity, unthinkingness, or worse) with respect to Meyer or ID proponents generally.

It adds up to a general response that could far better be characterized as emotional rather than reasoned; reacting rather than thinking; stereotyped rather than reflective. I’ll be interested to see how the same kind of analysis pans out with this book.

Signature in the Cell was too hot to handle; or at least, its Amazon.com critics handled it poorly. Darwin’s Doubt promises to be just as hot to the touch — even though most of it is really quite mainstream. It’s that suggestion of a meddling Designer that bothers people:

There’s More to Reality…

One almost wants to shout “Hey! Quit meddling with our world! Stick to your own reality, would you?” — as if our reality were not first and above all God’s. The problem with a book like this isn’t with its science. It’s with the suggestion that there’s more to reality than we want to deal with.