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:
- Space Ghosts create gravity
- 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.