Review: Darwin’s Doubt

Atheism, Book Review, philosophy, religion, science 7 Replies

An acquaintance suggested I do a review of Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer. My approach here will seem odd to folk who are opposed to creationism Intelligent Design being taught in high schools, as their approach is usually to attack the biology-related claims in the book. And it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of false claims about biology (and Evolution) in the book. But I’m not interested in any of that.

What I am interested is, if we just take all the lies and deceit to be true, whether the whole argument hangs together, or not. The subtitle of this book is “The explosive origin of animal life and the case for intelligent design”. Meyer is, according to his biography, someone with a PhD in Philosophy, who specialised in Philosophy of Science. I intend to meet him on that ground, stipulate to all of his claims, and see if this supports the argument that he ultimately makes.

Short version? No, his argument isn’t supported by his claims at all.

From the website of the book:

“In the origin of species, Darwin openly acknowledges important weaknesses in his theory and professed his own doubts about key aspects of it.  Yet today’s public defenders of a Darwin-only science curriculum apparently do not want these, or any other scientific doubts about contemporary Darwinian theory, reported to students.  This book addresses Darwin’s most significant doubt . . . and how a seemingly isolated anomaly that Darwin acknowledged almost in passing has grown to become illustrative of a fundamental problem for all of evolutionary biology.” —FROM THE PROLOGUE

Charles Darwin knew that there was a significant event in the history of life that his theory did not explain. In what is known today as the “Cambrian explosion,” 530 million years ago many animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record without apparent ancestors in earlier layers of rock. In Darwin’s Doubt Stephen C. Meyer tells the story of the mystery surrounding this explosion of animal life—a mystery that has intensified, not only because the expected ancestors of these animals have not been found, but also because scientists have learned more about what it takes to construct an animal.

Expanding on the compelling case he presented in his last book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer argues that the theory of intelligent design—which holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection—is ultimately the best explanation for the origin of the Cambrian animals.

It’s worth making explicit at this point that Meyer’s argument is entirely centered on the phenomena of speciation, i.e. the formation of a new species. To this end, he focuses primarily on the so-called “Cambrian Explosion“. He spends the first seven chapters making claims about the quantity of life, the abundance of new species, and the inability of Neo-Darwinism to explain all of this.

Something else worth noting is that Meyer doesn’t define Neo-Darwinism until quite late in the book, so I spent a lot of time quite confused as to what Meyer was arguing against. I know that in my Philosophy training that it was hammered into me (over and over and over) that when writing an essay it was absolutely necessary to define my terms from the outset. The creationist Intelligent Design advocate acquaintance who suggested that I review this book took some umbrage when I pointed this out this was likely for his audience to conflate it with ‘evolutionary biology’, claiming that this was a well-known term. Perhaps it is, but if I were to write a book attacking NeoPlatonism, I’d be a fool to assume that my audience is familiar with the term, regardless of how ‘well known’ I believed this term to be. In any case, he requires his reader either to make some assumptions, or do a lot of googling to figure out what is and is not Neo-Darwinism (not all folk use the term in the same way).

Whizzing through 15 chapters of lists of entities living and dead, we finally get to a list of modern tools of Evolutionary Biology that go well beyond the two meager tools of the Modern Synthesis, to what is sometimes called the Extended Synthesis. Of course, in the brief overview of Chapter 16, Meyer denounces them all as failures.

It’s at this point that Meyer makes his case for creationism Intelligent Design in earnest. And I have to say that I find his arguments quite puzzling. I mean, coming from someone who wasn’t trained in Philosophy, I can kind of understand why they would make some of these arguments, but coming from someone trained in Philosophy of Science… Well, either Meyer is incompetent, or he is intentionally misleading his readers.

In Chapter 19, Meyer makes the argument that creationism Intelligent Design is excluded “by fiat” (pg 403), and argues against Methodological Naturalism (pg 384-6) as ‘unfairly’ excluding these kinds of arguments. In preparation for this, I created a short post on this topic just a few days ago. The short version of this is that creationism Intelligent Design is an explanation that fails to explain, and this is why it’s excluded from scientific consideration. As much as Meyer wants to put certain scientists (Richard Sternberg) on a pillar for daring to stand against the establishment, in reality he’s arguing for really shitty arguments to be allowed to be made in academic journals.

To put this in another frame of reference: Meyer is arguing for the existence of a Type (‘intelligent beings that create life without leaving any trace of themselves other than the life that they created’) without being willing to present a Token of that Type. It’s akin to me saying that “Gravity is caused by a type of entity known as ‘space ghosts’, and how dare you require me to define these beings!”: this is clearly ridiculous. Meyer’s claims aren’t any less ridiculous for all their pseudo-academic dressing.

Meyer further makes basic Philosophy errors in claiming that since modern biology has exhausted a certain set of possible theories about speciation, that the requirement for having good, supported explanations should be dropped. I mean, if it were the case that all logically possible explanations for speciation had been tested out (and failed), then sure: we should start to cast the net wider in an attempt to find an explanation here: but all of those explanations would need more evidence in support of them than the mere existence of the phenomena that they are supposed to be explaining. This is the very definition of a circular argument:

  1. Space Ghosts create gravity
  2. There is gravity, so that proves the existence of Space Ghosts.

Meyer also ignores the success of Evolutionary Biology in all other spheres, and instead focuses on its alleged failure to explain speciation.

Ultimately, this 400-page monstrosity is little more than a waste of paper, and a prime example of motivated reasoning in action.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Darwin’s Doubt

  1. pbamma

    Thanks for the review. I always appreciate internet copy out there if and when people refer me to them. I often don’t have time to read garbage.

  2. Daniel Groovimus

    This review announces to the reader that the reviewer can be really cute with the gimmick of the word ‘creationism’ crossed out, instead of just focusing the intellectual energy on points of debate. Here is a point for the reviewer: faulting Meyer for not precisely and concisely defining neo-Darwinism is like faulting Darwin for not concisely defining Darwinism because it took him two large books to do this. Meyer had no intention of defining neo-Darwinism as there is no one book out there that is up to the task of doing that and nothing more than that much less doing so in a concise space. Instead, he has a two column index in very fine print, and neo-Darwinism index entries take up 2/3 of one column. Now if the reviewer can give an example of just one real-world application of neo-Darwinian macroevolution, please share it with us. This application must be shown to depend on the statistical non-correlation between all of the expressed mutations giving rise to new form or function, with careful statistical proof of such as part of the pedigree of the advent of such.

    And since the ID project as far as I know never references creation, only design, please, based on this, explain the cute crossed out words as anything other than an intentional distraction and distortion.

  3. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    And since the ID project as far as I know never references creation, only design, please, based on this, explain the cute crossed out words as anything other than an intentional distraction and distortion.

    It’s well-known and well-established that “the ID project” is thinly-disguised creationism. I’m somewhat surprised that you aren’t aware of this.

    Now if the reviewer can give an example of just one real-world application of neo-Darwinian macroevolution, please share it with us.

    Is this because you don’t know how google works? Or you’re just lazy? Or what? I’d need a good reason to do research on your behalf before I spend an afternoon doing so.

  4. Daniel Groovimus

    Show us the thin disguise please. Thomas Nagel in “Mind and Cosmos” certainly does not reference creationism in any way. This atheist philosopher, the most famous U.S. academic scholar in the field, in the book has quite favorable things to say about the ID project, quotes not necessary around those 3 words BTW.

    Now what has happened here is what always happens with you guys. Posing the question “Or you’re just lazy” is another example of throwing up a personal reference, perhaps a thinly disguised cover for contempt instead of interest in reasoned debate.

    So then we are left with the remark “Meyer also ignores the success of Evolutionary Biology in all other spheres….”. Now I’m asking you to not ignore “the success of Evolutionary Biology in all other spheres”, reasonably I think. Since you imply that you know that there is real world success here, please share with us an everyday application of this science in the sphere of macroevolution as evidence of success. Not asking for an afternoon of work, just tell us what you know. And if you would, maybe avoid getting personal.

  5. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    This atheist philosopher, the most famous U.S. academic scholar in the field, in the book has quite favorable things to say about the ID project

    This is entirely irrelevant: selecting a single source doesn’t demonstrate anything. Nagel doesn’t represent any sort of consensus on this.

    quotes not necessary around those 3 words BTW.

    Quotes are necessary when quoting people. Writing 101.

    Posing the question “Or you’re just lazy” is another example of throwing up a personal reference, perhaps a thinly disguised cover for contempt instead of interest in reasoned debate.

    So show me the attempt you made to find this information. Show me the google searches that failed to turn up things. Show me that you bothered.

    “Reasoned debate” is only possible between two informed individuals: show me that you are informed. Show me that you are prepared to actually do some research.

    In short: show me that you are acting in good faith, rather than just requiring me to spend time digging up things that you are going to ignore. Or be blocked. Your call.

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