on 9 April 2015
“Darwin's Doubt” by Stephen Meyer was easily the most controversial book published in 2013. A veritable “science war” (or “troll war”) over its contents is still raging, almost two years later, at its main Amazon (US) product page. Heavily promoted by the (mostly conservative Christian) Discovery Institute, Meyer's book attempts to make a scientific case for “Intelligent Design” (ID). The main argument of “Darwin's Doubt” is that the so-called Cambrian explosion cannot be explained by appeals to naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms. During the geological period known as the Cambrian, about 500 million years ago, many new animal phyla and body-plans seem to appear abruptly, with no evolutionary pre-history. After rejecting the standard scientific theories (and a few alternatives one) about the explosion, Meyer reaches the conclusion that the only possible explanation is an infusion of new “information” from an outside source, an “intelligent designer”, which could be the Biblical God.
“Darwin's Doubt” is difficult to review, both because it's a veritable “door stopper” (nobody *really* believes that Nicholas Matzke read all of it in one day!) and because the debates and acrimonious conflicts surrounding both the book and the general creation-evolution controversy constantly intrudes, whether you like it or not. Hence, this review will be somewhat “dogmatic”, perhaps not taking all subtleties of Meyer's argument into account (or that of his opponents). I will also take the liberty of referencing a debate between Stephen Meyer and paleontologist Charles Marshall, available at YouTube. Marshall wrote a critical review of “Darwin's Doubt” for the journal “Science”.
Personally, I veer strongly towards the notion that evolution is, at least to some extent, teleological and hence not entirely “blind”, intelligence being part of the deep structure of the universe. Thus, I have no particular problem with a heavy dose of “information” coming from “outside” (or emerging from the “inside”, as it were), but I don't think Meyer's particular approach is very helpful. In order to become properly scientific, rather than simply an interesting philosophical position, ID must explain how the designer creates his designs, or at least how he implements them. How do the designs get embodied in matter? Even if we assume that the designs are created by miraculous means unfathomable to humans, the last part of the designing process, where the “information” gets grafted onto the material medium and becomes part of it, should be open to scientific exploration. Yet, the proponents of ID, as far as I know, have never presented a theory about this. This is doubly strange, if we bear in mind that the “information” itself doesn't seem to be paranormal, but similar in important respects to that found in computers or other complex man-made objects. Or perhaps not so strange, if we assume (as most critics do) that ID is simply a front for creationism. Then, ID is really a theological position (perhaps Old Earth creationism) dressed up in scientific-sounding language. It could still be true, of course, but it's not really a *scientific* proposition in the strictest sense. If ID proponents want to launch a new science, rather than restating old theology (or simply creating trouble for the local school district), they should either dust off Rupert Sheldrake's concept of “morphogenetic fields”, or band with slightly heterodox scientists doing research on “self-organization”. A more daring project would be to venture into parapsychology, trying to prove the existence of etheric or astral bodies!
Meyer admits that there is no explanation for how the designer created and implemented his designs. He doesn't consider this a problem, however. After all, there is no explanation for how the mind causally interacts with the brain, either. Still, we know that the mind *does* interact with the brain. In the same way, we can know that ID is true, despite not knowing how it concretely functions. I don't think this analogy holds water (we have no experience of a creator-designer at work, while we experience our minds constantly), but a more interesting question is whether Meyer believes that the process of ID is forever mysterious, or whether he thinks its riddle can be solved at least in principle? If the former, then ID is suspiciously similar to the theological idea that a monotheistic god created the world through miraculous and hence unfathomable means. If the latter, then ID could (at least in principle) generate testable scientific hypotheses, say about morphogenetic fields. Why doesn't Meyer embrace the latter perspective? I suspect it's because it collides with his theological presuppositions. Note also that there is a theological idea according to which mind-brain dualism is mysterious works only through miraculous divine intervention. Meyer's perspective is compatible with this idea, too.
The problem with ID is that it risks becoming a “science stopper” by simply declaring that the Cambrian explosion must have a (de facto) supernatural explanation about which nothing meaningful can be said apart from “God did it”. This seems absurd even philosophically or theologically, since the living organisms of the Cambrian were just as physical as the small shellies or the Ediacaran fauna preceding them. If a (de facto) supernatural designer exists, why can't the designer preprogram an Ur-genome in the primordial ocean with all the necessary “information” that subsequently unfolds during life's evolution? Once again, I think Meyer rejects this notion on purely theological grounds: such an idea is compatible with deism, theistic evolutionism or even pantheism (and hence with evolution, albeit of an ultimately non-naturalistic variety), three positions the author doesn't want to invite to the table, since they risk undermining his Old Earth creationism. Hence, Meyer has to insist on the Cambrian explosion being inexplicable and mysterious, so he can claim that *new* information (really a new creation ex nihilo) was necessary to create the animal body-plans.
Marshall refers to Meyer as an “Intelligent Design-ist of the gaps”. I think there is some truth in this. If the seemingly abrupt appearance of new animal body-plans during the Cambrian is the foremost evidence for ID, then ID can be disproven by simply producing a sufficiently convincing transitional fossil, say a transition between “the small shellies” and the trilobites. Indeed, Marshall points out that the same kind of genes can underlay very different body-plans, so the Cambrian explosion may simply have reshuffled genetic information that was already present during the Precambrian. Meyer's response is that Marshall can't explain where all the information *originally* came from. While this is a relevant question, Marshall is correct that it's a different argument from the one advanced in “Darwin's Doubt”, where Meyer says that the *Cambrian explosion* required a fresh infusion of information from the designer. By changing the goalposts when Marshall came up with a naturalistic explanation for the explosion, Meyer in effect resorts to a version of “God of the gaps”. Ultimately, *any* naturalistic explanation of anything can be countered by asking where all the information originally comes from – really a version of “why is there something rather than nothing”. While this question is legitimate, the response could just as well be deism, pantheism or theistic evolutionism – positions incompatible with cryptic creationism.
Another problem is that the very concept of “information” is somewhat slippery. At times, “information” seems to be another way of saying that an object is complex. But since virtually everything in the universe is complex, this too is compatible with pantheist or deist notions rejected by Meyer. It doesn't prove that the intelligent designer has to be the Biblical God. It doesn't even prove a non-Biblical designer who for whatever reason intervenes 500 million years ago. Perhaps complexity has always existed, since the cosmos is divine? Or perhaps complexity was created by a deist “deus absconditus” who then let cosmic evolution unfold naturalistically, come what may? Seen in this way, “information” is such a broad concept that it can't be used to say anything meaningful about the Cambrian body-plans in particular. At other times, “information” seems to be something more computer-like, something that “programs” the living organisms. But surely this is simply an analogy, and a poor one at that – the differences between living creatures and computers are more striking than the similarities. If we find a watch on the heath, we recognize it as designed since it's *different* from the surrounding heath (which is made up of living organisms), not because it's similar to it! Thus, I'm not sure if “information” really is the right way of talking about the complexity of the cosmos.
Stephen Meyer's “Darwin's Doubt” is an interesting book in many ways, and it's also well-written. At 540 pages, it might to far too long for the general reader, though. Interested parties should procure the second edition (published in 2014), since it contains a new chapter responding to Meyer's naturalistic critics. Relevant material can also be found at YouTube or at the Discovery Institute's website “Evolution News and Views”. Ultimately, however, I think that the approaches found in Michael Denton's “Nature's Destiny” or Simon Conway Morris' “Life's Solution” are more fruitful. (It's interesting to note that Denton supports the Discovery Institute, while Conway Morris opposes it.) I also suspect that some of the alternative naturalistic approaches rejected by Meyer, such as “self-organization” or “symbiogenesis”, might be fruitful areas for further research. For a more useful philosophical approach, see David Ray Griffin's “Whitehead's Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy”.
Oh, and then there's the question of those small shelly fossils…blaaaaaah!
on 12 July 2013
If you have an inquisitive mind, you will probably have noticed you learnt as much--if not more--about a topic by examining what its critics had to say, and not only its supporters. And you will doubtless have had occasion to either become agnostic, or to adopt a contrary position to what may be portrayed as orthodoxy.
What Meyer's book is *not* about is pushing religion. In the first two parts, and the first two chapters of the third (16 of 20 chapters in all), he looks at the orthodox view of evolution, which he reports accurately. I speak as someone with a degree in zoology and a little research experience in the subject; so whilst I don't claim to be an expert, I know enough to know he's not distorting anything. At the same time, his aim is to show that orthodoxy does not explain the evidence of the fossil record with respect to the Cambrian period, nor how so many new body plans could have arisen in such a comparatively short time, with no readily identifiable pre-Cambrian precursors.
He's not alone in this view, even amongst non-ID-supporting scientists. In fact, in Chapters 15 and 16, he examines alternatives to standard neo-Darwinism (or the New Synthesis if you prefer) being put forward by them as we speak. And generally, throughout the book, you will find copious references to the literature, as well as amplifying footnotes at the end of the book. Check out the references; chase up the bios of the chemists, biochemists, geneticists, paleontologists, geologists, etc. who in various ways and degrees challenge an orthodoxy that is frequently put across to the public as completely settled, completely unquestionable truth. I've done quite a lot of such checking, and I can report that many of them are hardly great fans of ID.
It's a fascinating read, and I hope that open-minded people will welcome a single tome that tells them so much about orthodox views, and at the same time offers evidence why the explanatory power of those might be open to question. It's evidence I personally find persuasive, whilst I accept others might not; but even so, if one has an open mind, it should be found engaging. All the more so if one isn't overly familiar with the subject of evolution: because it covers a great deal of ground in a pretty accessible way. It's quite an education, and I'm speaking as a trained and qualified (recently retired) educator. I learnt an appreciable amount that I didn't already know, and it clarified my understanding on a number of specific scientific points.
If you don't want to read about ID, fair enough: simply ignore the last 4 chapters, which is the only place he explicitly deals with it. He thinks ID explains what neo-Darwinism, and those other competing, but non-ID theories I alluded to earlier, can't. He may be right or wrong about that, but that has no bearing on the previous 16 chapters where he's demonstrated the severe shortcomings of neo-Darwinism in explaining the Cambrian explosion, during which the majority of phyletic body plans still extant today seem to have arisen: something that is absolutely contrary to orthodoxy, where body plans should have gradually appeared through time.
We should find evidence for a single tree of life (with an ultimate single ancestor in the first single-celled life form on earth, appearing maybe 3.8 billion years ago, well before the Cambrian began around 500 mya). However, what we actually find in the case of animals is what appears to be an "orchard", with separate animal lineages diversifying ever since the Cambrian. Top-down rather than bottom up: complex plans appearing early, not late.
It's true that there were a few body plans of multicellular organisms extant before the Cambrian in the pre-Cambrian (including the extinct Ediacaran fauna), and that one of those, that of the sponges, still persists to this day. But one can find nothing in the pre-Cambrian that is an obvious precursor of trilobites (early arthropods) or any of the other new body plans that emerged in the Cambrian (around 20 of them, still around today, including the Chordates to which humans belong--amongst a total of around 25-35 depending on the classificatory system applied).
It stretches credulity beyond breaking point to postulate that precursors in the pre-Cambrian were soft-bodied and hence not fossilised, when in fact soft-tissue preservation in both the pre-Cambrian and Cambrian is readily demonstrable. It stretches credulity to think that we haven't yet found precursors but one day will, when statistical analysis of the fossil record shows it's extremely unlikely we would have missed *all* such evidence.
The new Cambrian body plans must have come from somewhere, unless your idea is of an intelligence that can magic up something from nothing, but Meyer doesn't deny the possibility of common descent, and certainly not the reality of evolution in the sense of change over time. He fully accepts that the earth is billions of years old, and, one might wrily argue, that the fossil record means what it actually says: that neo-Darwinian gradualism doesn't occur at the macro-evolutionary level (e.g. the formation of new body plans), even if it might occur at the micro-evolutionary level (e.g. low-level species divergence within a genus). He doesn't even deny that random mutation and natural selection have a role to play at the micro-evolutionary level.
Meyer gives a very good introduction to the concept of Shannon information and how that contrasts with functional, or specified, information. Put simply, any random combination of, say, fifty alphabetic characters is as likely, and contains as much information, as any other. But only a very few would spell out a recognisable English sentence. Vanishingly few from the 26^50 (approx. 5.6 x 10^70) combinations would do so. The issue is enormously amplified when one considers a modest protein containing 150 amino acids, for which any of 20^150 (approx. 1.4 x 10^195) combinations are possible, but for which a vanishingly small proportion have been demonstrated to be likely to be of functional use to organisms.
Neo-Darwinists will insist that it isn't only random mutation that is involved in evolution, but crucially, natural selection. But before the latter can select for a mutation, it has to have occurred, and most mutations are likely to be harmful than beneficial. The problem gets even worse when it is realised that innovations may require a number of proteins to act in a coordinated fashion. These are the kinds of facts that are addressed in "post-Darwinistic", non-ID theories (such as evo-devo and self-organisation, neo-Lamarckism, neutral theories and natural genetic engineering) discussed in chapters 14 and 15, and I have to agree with Meyer, they aren't convincing either.
If there's one key theme throughout the first 16 chapters, it's to do with where *new* information comes from as organisms evolve over time. An enormous amount of specified information is required to change a putative pre-Cambrian precursor into a Cambrian one. Information, for example in the case of a trilobyte, enabling the formation of the complex arthropod exoskeleton and its accompanying muscles and ligaments, not to mention the appearance of complex compound eyes. The Cambrian predator, Anomalocaris ("strange shrimp"), up to a metre or so long, had very advanced compound eyes, only exceeded in complexity by present-day dragonflies. We even find primitive jawless fish (ancestors of lampreys) appearing in the Cambrian.
It's all quite astonishing and I can't for the life of me see how anyone would prefer to stick with the one theory that can't possibly explain it. I don't know what *does* explain it, but I have to hand it to Meyer, nothing currently explains it better than a postulate of intelligent input of some sort. He probably believes that is the Christian God, but by no means all ID proponents do. I even know of some people who are atheists who think that intelligence may in some sense be inherent in nature in everything from atoms to stars and galaxies to organisms. Maybe some non-ID explanation will eventually be forthcoming that better explains it, but for the moment, ID's at least worth consideration.
Darwin's Doubt is a fascinating read, and for its content alone, it's worth 5 stars. However, it is not entirely without fault, because in places it seems somewhat repetitive and in need of tighter editing, which might have reduced its size appreciably. So overall, I'll give it 4 stars along with a recommendation for any independent-minded person to read it. Don't pay a lick of attention to 1-star reviews from ideological neo-Darwinists who obviously can't bring themselves to read it, yet nonetheless feel it's okay to carpet-bomb the Web with their ill-informed comments. They have little integrity and even less good manners.
on 17 October 2015
Not finished reading yet but excellent and in depth appraisal of the deep problems the Cambrian explosion poses for Darwinian evolution. Meyer dissects the weaknesses in the various excuses for the missing intermediate fossils which have been used from Darwin onwards. Various attempts to explain away the millions of absent 'missing links' or shrug their absence off as not being important are laid bare in a meticulous and heavily referenced work of science.
Meyer also considers the mathematical evidence against evolution, evidence which has been generally sidelined and ignored. He also examines the misrepresentation of the science of evolution, citing his opponent Eugenie Scott who publicly stated that here were no problems with evolutionary theory, at a time when he had a bundle of 100 scientific papers addressing those problems which the establishment denies, at least in public.
Like his first book 'Signature in the Cell' Meyer's writing can suffer from being excessively meticulous, its not easy reading, but I guess that is because he is determined to be scientific and not appeal to Christian belief. This will not stop those who believe that science and materialistic philosophy are the same thing from writing him off as a religious nut, although as he makes clear he accepts a very old earth and much of common descent so is clearly not a Biblical creationist. But I wish he would issue a smaller summarised version of both books at about a third of the length for the less technical reader.
Meyer's meticulous scientific arguments against the science which supposedly supports neo-Darwinian evolution deserve to be much more widely considered. It says something about our media that they are not even mentioned in public discourse, except on the occasions when they are traduced as 'creationism in a cheap tuxedo.' Think about it.
on 2 December 2015
I have not studied Biology since I was 15, so I went into this book with only a weak understanding of evolution and complete unfamiliarity of biological terms. I find that Meyer does a decent job of explaining various Biology concepts but I still found the book very technical and have to admit that I did not completely follow it all the way through. Meyer went into a lot of detail in arguing his case and clearly shows that he has looked into this thoroughly. I am in no real position to ascertain whether this concerns are well grounded or not but his argument was persuasive and I am at least convinced that some of biology has adopted theories without good evidence to support it because of ideological reasons, i.e. not wanting to give intelligent design advocates ammunition against them.
Whilst I am a Christian, I usually take a lot of the arguments for intelligent design with a pinch of salt, as often I fear they fall into the fallacious God of the gaps argument. I don't know whether there is a completely naturalistic explanation for the evolution of life but Meyer does a good job in persuading me that even if there is, Biologists still do not have a great understanding and explanation of it. There are gaps in our understanding which some Biologists are ignoring or glossing over.
In all its an interesting book but very long. I appreciated the attention to detail that Meyer goes into but for me it was a little too much and a lot of it I skimmed over. I would have been happier with a book more like half the size with less detail and more an overview of the arguments. Still it was an enjoyable book, though I think many people will find it a little too technical.
on 20 December 2015
I have to say I'm very impressed by the ID movement. I've read many atheistic books, and whilst finding them about as intellectual as a wet sponge, somehow I fell for their anti-ID propaganda. I believed Darwinian evolution was essentially true, and believed the 'consensus' lies. I'm quite annoyed at myself that it took my friends nagging me for years to finally listen and read ID books. This was my first. It was excellent. Comprehensive, concise, and convincing. Hats off to Meyer and the team.
Umar Nasser, from endofatheism.com
on 21 March 2015
Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Mayer is a work of pseudoscience. It digs up some convenient facts and builds a case that would never see publication in a peer reviewed journal because it simply ignores much recent research. Charles Darwin felt uneasy about the Cambrian explosion because seemingly from nowhere complex, multicellular life appears in the fossil record. If his idea of gradual change over long periods of time was true, there had to be simpler fossils that predate the Cambrian explosion, but they were not found in his time. Darwin hoped that future paleontolo-gists would be able to show a complete lineage for each of the then known fossils of the Cambri-an explosion. Stephen Meyer pretends that nothing has happened since Darwin expressed his doubt. The title of the book, and the centrality of Charles Darwin himself in the argument is, however, a rhetorical ploy: Darwin himself had his doubt, nothing substantial has been found ever since, and so even Darwin himself would now, on the basis of the continued riddle of the Cambrian explosion be forced to reject his own theory. That is the case Meyer wants to make.
While many details still need sorting out, we now know that the time frame of the Cambrian ex-plosion was much longer and there are antecedent multicellular fossils so it is difficult to maintain that there was a sudden explosion of complex life – and no one actually does that anymore. Evolution needs time and small steps, and both have been provided by recent research. The best book on the Cambrian Radiation is: 'The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Bio-diversity' by Douglas Erwin and James W. Valentine which is endlessly more sophisticated than Darwin's Doubt. Erwin and Valentine show convincingly that there is no sudden explosion but a long radiation.
Most of the book is not on the Cambrian explosion however, but on a strange idea on infor-mation. Meyer postulates that increasing complexity can only emerge if more information goes around. And of course information supposes intelligence - so where there is more information some intelligence must be adding that information. Quite a few readers will be intimidated by these chapters, because Meyer throws with big numbers and big words. But to console the intim-idated reader: the whole information argument is a dead end and nothing more than clever word-play. The point is, again, rhetorical, and again there are instances where Meyer simply ignores modern research and harks back to history (in this case the 1960s) to make his point.
There is a whole chapter on the Wistar Institute Conference, a meeting of scientists from disci-plines as diverse as mathematics, computer science and biology. The goal of this chapter, which is laced with information science and mathematics, (probably for no other reason than to give the impression of serious science) is to undermine one of the fundamentals of evolution: that varia-tion (needed for natural selection to work on; traits cannot be weeded out or favored if there is no variation in phenotypes) cannot rise by accidental variations in DNA. Meyer brings in a branch of mathematics, combinatorics, to prove that minor changes in DNA will go nowhere. Biologists were always convinced that small mutations could do the trick, but that the effect of the muta-tions would be so small that they could not be seen in experiments. It has now turned out that they were wrong: small mutations have real effects, and they are sometimes big enough to be seen: “single-gene changes that confer a large adaptive value do happen: they are not rare, they are not doomed and, when competing with small-effect mutations, they tend to win”. Small ef-fect mutations are also relevant, and can be caught in experiments nowadays: “they provide es-sential fine-tuning and sometimes pave the way for explosive evolution to follow” (Tanguy Chouard, Nature 2010). So the gradualists are right: minor genetic changes have major effects, directly or in small sequences of steps. It just took a couple of decades for empirical research to catch up with theory.
But the information approach to DNA does not merely serve to make the point that small muta-tions do not go anywhere, there is a more fundamental issue at stake. By treating DNA as an information carrier Meyer can suggest that complexity is a function of information – more com-plex structures need more information. Since the information does not form itself, it needs to come from somewhere – and this is where the intelligent designer steps in: he or she adds the information that increased complexity needs.
DNA often invokes terms like 'information' or 'blueprint' but the beauty of creation is that no information goes around. DNA is not a set of instructions - it is a very complex molecule with some 200 billion atoms. And when it comes into contact with other substances things happen. There is nothing at the molecular level of life that cannot be understood as chemistry and physics doing their thing. DNA is blind and deaf and without knowledge and meaning. The absurdity of the idea that DNA is somehow stored information becomes clear when looking at another form that seems to be designed: a mineral. Pyrite for instance forms shiny cubes with beautiful sharp edges, and while they seem designed and crafted, this is simply the way one iron and two sulfur atoms react to each other under certain circumstances. Their chemical and electric properties force them into a regular structure. Information does not enter the process; the complexity of the cube with sharp edges is not somewhere stored in iron or sulfur. The whole process can be understood without ever using the word information, and of course the atoms do not know they are forming cubes. It is a dumb and blind process, it just happens to produce something we recognize as a shape. More complex substances no doubt produce more complex things, but just as information-less as iron and sulfur. The fact that the chains of events between DNA forming atoms and organisms are endlessly more complex than between iron and sulfur forming pyrite cubes does not change the fact that they are in the end the same process: interactions between atoms forming a large clump of something. Nowhere is there any need to translate the process into an information process - it merely complicates things unnecessarily. Simple atoms can form complex molecules simply because when atoms come together substances are formed. Something as complex as an organism contains many billions of molecules, but not a bit of information. The whole part on information and DNA in the book is actually slightly absurd - it merely translates biochemistry into another language - that of information science - but one wonders why? Bio-chemistry is not an information process. The ‘instructions’ that DNA contains are chemical reac-tions. If someone drops a brick in the sand and removes the brick its shape will be visible in the sand. This could probably be put in terms of information about shape stored in the brick that is being transferred to the sand, but it is simply a matter of not too complicated physics. Putting it in terms of information needlessly complicates things. Likewise, life consists of meaningless biochemical reactions of ever increasing complexity ever since abiogenesis occurred. They are meaningful to us, but not to themselves. An organism will just as happily produce a killer T-cell as a cancer cell, provided the right chemicals meet under the right circumstances. But the process is dumb and blind – hence the title of Richard Dawkins’ book: ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. The information science approach adds nothing but the possibility to postulate an 'informer'.
One question that remains is why Meyer and his intelligent design colleagues are so intent on proving that the creator is somehow directly involved in shaping matter. Why must there be a creator behind the Cambrian radiation? Why must the hand of this creator be present in the sup-posed informational content of DNA? Why not simply believe, as so many people do, that some creator created the laws of nature which are so good at explaining everything? A lot of contorted logic and strange arguments go into a point that is very hard to prove and is not really interesting. Why must Darwin be proved wrong at all cost, while it would be perfectly acceptable to live with Darwin's god?
on 10 May 2014
Meyer has written a groundbreaking classic. The weight of the science stands on its own merit, regardless of associations or origins. Like his nemesis Donald Prothero, Meyer has produced exquisite science, but unlike Prothero, he has produced it without recourse to adversarial language. The downside of this is that Meyer's work is weighty with words and evidence. It should have been made easier for non-experts to read: I had to work hard to be sure I'd understood it (as did even Amazon's highest-starred reviewer, Prof David Snoke). And it might even slip past people's awareness that Meyer fully supports the notion of evolution over millions of years. It is simply a key detail of evolution with which Meyer has issue, but it is a detail seen by many scientists in many relevant areas of research.
"Darwin's Doubt" takes its name from the one area of evolutionary theory in which Darwin himself expressed doubts - what is known in geology as the Cambrian Explosion. What geology shows is that after billions of years in which only sponge and single-cell fossils are found, representatives of nearly all the main groups (phyla) of animals suddenly appear, in a geological "explosion" of essentially five million years. This is a simplified picture but Meyer deals with anomalous details, like the fascinating Ediacaran fossils, without losing the overall perspective.
Meyer shows that the current evidence, while supporting evolution in principle, is totally ranged against the accepted modus operandi of Natural Selection. Damning evidence arises again and again, as the findings of statistical probability are applied to many different areas of evolution research. The official science has generally slid over these feasibility challenges; there has been little checking of statistical probabilities. Evolution "happens". Sure, all the evidence shows it happens. The issue is the modus operandi, the mechanism.
Meyer goes into the question of the likelihood of the selection of helpful mutations in enormous detail, mainly but not entirely working at the chemical molecular level, and with consistent support from the findings of other scientists, including many who are not ID fans. What Meyer draws together from all the cutting-edge research, and from quoting others' estimates of statistical probabilities, is that the probability of "natural selection" of favourable mutations to the point of new species creation is vanishingly small in practice, in any natural process of evolution.
Chapters 9 and 10, devoted to the issues of mathematical probability, must be understood in order to grasp this failure of Evolution's presumed modus operandi. It is the failure to estimate statistical probability that has enabled evolutionists who believe in Natural Selection to continue, in all areas of evolution, to make claims which assume the workings of chance mutations in chemical processes. Meyer demonstrates again and again that the statistics of probability show that mechanistic Natural Selection is impossible even over a timescale of millions of years. It is only in the light of such vanishingly small likelihoods, demonstrated at all the cutting edges of evolution research (and which a growing number of scientists acknowledge) that Meyer finally suggests that we could consider whether a hypothesis of "intelligent design" could actually help Science begin to grapple legitimately with an otherwise intractable mystery.
It is clear that many scientists privately support such an approach. David Snoke actually quotes what would appear to be a typical example of the many US scientists who would like to speak out openly, if they were not in fear of their academic lives being cut short, if it were to become known that they supported, or even simply expressed desire to explore, the theory of "intelligent design". It is a shame that many who are rightfully critical of "young earth" Creationism conflate those claims with the very different claims of Intelligent Design. It is a shame that Meyer's pure science here, which has not the slightest hint of either ad hom or of slanting the balance of evidence, should be conflated with the work of activists. Meyer's work stands on its own merit, whatever the funding and whatever the attitudes of others who support him. Given the history, it is understandable, but still a crying shame that such conflation has reached screaming pitch in the US, and that this has seriously compromised freedom of speech in the context of academic science - and is now seriously preventing Evolution Science from advancing.
Meyer's hypothesis does not limit the freedom of scientists to do research. Rather, it gives them wider resources on which to draw for further investigations. Thankfully, there is a growing number of scientists, many of firstrate calibre and qualifications, but still mainly outside the accepted halls of Science, who are working with phenomena which simply do not fit the current scientific laws of reality. This all looks like good scientific potential. But it does present a big challenge to those who believe that all scientific hypotheses, and even Scientific Method, have to exclude supersensible levels of reality. For there is nothing in the essence of Scientific Method which precludes its application to supersensible levels of reality.
The scientific and statistical evidence Meyer puts forward stands on its own merit, and should therefore not be associated with any "fundamentalist Christian" takeover threat. It is perfectly feasible to separate the issues - as should always be the case. I say, Dismantle the current evolutionists' Berlin Wall! Meyer has provided the cool mathematical evidence that openness to higher realities than what the materialistic explanation of Evolution allows, is now needed, for the sake of Evolution and indeed Science itself.
I have again subtly rewritten my review, to further separate the pure science from the activism on all sides. It now provides slightly clearer answers to the many points commenters have made. But I cannot make anyone read me more carefully if they have already closed their mind. Yet the science cannot advance until the shouting/repressing stops ON ALL SIDES!!!!!! (!) Shouting/repressing usually betrays insecurity: is fundamentalist Christianity inadequate on scientific truth, and fundamentalist Science inadequate on evidence for God? Why not work to build bridges and start mending past inadequacies and faults?
Both Science and Christianity are essentially and ideally about truth, despite the failings of both in practice. But only Christianity has built into it the pursuit of both Love and Truth as "moral imperatives". It should therefore fall to Christians to take up the work of reconciliation, which has to listen to the other side, listening for their truths however partial, listening for the emotional roots of grievances. I haven't been able to do complete justice in this respect to my commenters. It has been hard work to try to winnow any just grievances from the bombardment, wearisome repetition, simple irrelevance, and subtly ad-hom comments that have nothing to do with Meyer's science. But I've done what I could and hereby put out the request for more attention to this in future.
on 18 October 2015
Excellent, ground breaking read. Thought provoking information on the fossil evidence and the attempts by evolution scientists to circumvent the many holes the Cambrian explosion punches in the theory of evolution.
on 12 September 2013
It has taken me quite a long time to read this book (all 413 pages, excluding reference material), but it was worth the perseverance! Not because the book was badly written, on the contrary, I found it superbly written - and very stimulating... The perseverance was associated with looking up the substantial amount of notes, bibliography and other allied documentation.
Somewhat like his previous book, `Signature in the Cell', Stephen Meyer has presented us with a `milestone' book i.e. one which, in my opinion, substantially places `Intelligent Design' on the scientific `map'.
The book is very well set out; in three main parts, with a logical series of chapters making up each part.
Part one - "The Mystery of the Missing Fossils"
Stephen Meyer gives a good historical background to Charles Darwin's book, `On the Origin of Species'; he even calls it a "singular achievement"..., but he swiftly moves on to describe the main problem facing Darwin's hypothesis, namely, the `Cambrian Explosion'.
Meyer also spends time introducing contemporaries of Darwin, such as Agassiz and Sedgwick (both of whom were, respectfully, leading palaeontologist and geologist of the day). They had serious doubts about Darwin's proposition of the abrupt appearance of the Cambrian creatures. Darwin proposed that the geological record was "a history of the world imperfectly kept" rather than anything seriously wrong with his theory, but Agassiz and Sedgwick would have none of it.
As expected, the Burgess Shale is given its own chapter, with good historical coverage of Charles Doolittle Walcott, the discoverer, also director of the Smithsonian Institution. Sketches of the fossilised creatures are excellent, with good explanations about morphological diversity and various family trees.
There is a very good chapter dealing with `punctuated equilibrium', the proposal by Eldredge and Gould to explain the systematic `gaps' in the fossil record, where, according to neo-Darwinian theory, there ought to be a continuum of transitional forms leading from one body plan to another.
Meyer explains fully why "punk eek" fails as an explanatory proposal for the origin of complex creatures found within the fossil record.
All of the supportive diagrammatic sketches that Meyer includes, within his text, are superbly produced and very easy to understand. This applies throughout the book.
Part two - "How to Build an Animal"
This part is principally about biological information, and in this respect, there is an overlap with Stephen Meyer's first book `Signature in the Cell.'
There is a short explanation of Shannon information, and how this differs from functional information (or specified information) found in living organisms.
Meyer waxes lyrical about the contribution made by Murray Eden in respect of the "Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution". Murray had pointed out that "the combinatorial space corresponding to an average-length protein"... is about 10 to the power 325 "possible amino-acid arrangements. Did the mutation and selection mechanism have enough time - since the beginning of the universe itself - to generate even a small fraction of the total number of possible amino-acid sequences corresponding to a single functional protein of that length? For Eden, the answer was clearly no." This was in the 1960's - but according to Meyer, the `mathematical challenge' has been an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved ever since. He spends a substantial amount of space justifying this position through the work of Douglas Axe, who in the late 1980s examined the then accepted work of Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker, in which Dawkins used a computer programme to illustrate how natural selection could "generate the Shakespearean phrase: "Me thinks it is like a weasel.""
Intelligence was found to pervade this kind of `evidence' to prop up the Neo-Darwinian model...
Meyer goes on to build on his case that the mathematical challenges have remained un-bridged throughout "the various experiments and calculations performed between 2004 and 2011." Although Meyer makes a substantial case here, he is too reliant upon the work of too few specialists, in my opinion.
Meyer's section on "Developmental Gene Regulatory Networks" was particularly interesting - and helped to introduce even greater complexity issues in the origin of body plans etc... Likewise, the section on "the Epigenetic Revolution."
Part three - "After Darwin, What?"
In this final section, Meyer takes on the post-Darwinian world - and theories of self-organisation, such as the work of Stuart Kauffman and Stuart Newman.
Cutting to the chase, Meyer pus it like this: "what needs to be explained in living systems is not mainly order in the sense of simple repetitive or geometric patterns. Instead, what requires explanation is the adaptive complexity and the information, genetic and epigenetic, necessary to build it." (pg. 305). He makes a strong case in justifying this statement!
In like manner, Meyer presents a robust summary of his issues with "evo-devo" and "Lamarckian mechanisms."
All of the foregoing builds a strong case to support his final four chapters:
"The Possibility of Intelligent Design", "Signs of Design in the Cambrian Explosion", "The Rules of Science" and finally "What's at Stake"....
Meyer spends some time telling "My Story", which explains his initial interest in intelligent design through to holding robust scientific reasons for his belief in "indicators that make intelligent design scientifically detectable from the evidence of the living world."
All in all, this book is far from some form of simplistic `biblical creationism', as suggested by other reviewers, but, in my view, a logically and soundly argued piece of scientific research, which draws conclusions toward an `inference to the best explanation.'
Coupled with his former book `Signature in the Cell', Meyer makes the strongest case yet for `intelligent design' - and places it squarely within the scientific domain. To reject it as pseudo-science would be blind prejudice - and damaging to science in the long term, simply because ID makes testable predictions. Examples of these are given in this section!
This is how Meyer concludes his book: "The theory of intelligent design is not based upon religious belief, nor does it provide a proof for the existence of God. But it does have faith-affirming implications precisely because it suggests the design we observe in the natural world is real, just as a traditional theistic view of the world would lead us to expect. Of course, that by itself is not a reason to accept the theory. But having accepted it for other reasons, it may be a reason to find it important."
In other respects, the book has been beautifully produced by HarperOne, is superbly illustrated and documented - with some nice colour plates of fossils to boot!
I heartily recommend this excellent book!!
on 9 May 2016
(First of all, a disclaimer: I only wanted to give this book 4 stars. It is excellent but I don’t give out 5 stars very easily. However, due to the number of 1 star reviews by people who have obviously not read this book but just want to attack it, I have given it the extra star.)
Onto the review…
This book is, as I said above, excellent. It is however, a heavy read for people like me who aren’t biologists. It just means this book took me longer to read than usual. Having said that, Meyer is very clear in his writing and even if you aren’t a ‘biology native’ you will still be able to follow what he writes and the flow of his arguments.
Some reviewers have variously claimed that the book is all ‘pseudoscience’, ID rubbish, does not contain any science at all, etc. Which shows that most of these reviewers haven’t even read the book – the vast majority of the book is spent dealing with peer reviewed, published, scientific papers and their implications. It is from these articles that the continuing doubt over evolution comes. I won’t go into the details of these as other reviews have already done that. Needless to say, the scientific literature in scientific journals explicitly acknowledge an issue with Darwinian evolution from a common ancestor. This isn’t pseudoscience – it is the actual science.
The most enlightening parts for me were the details around the probability of mutation and random chance being able to create just one functional protein fold, which are almost insurmountable – let alone a full working animal. The maths speaks for itself, and it is not speaking kindly towards the Darwin’s theory of evolution from common descent. The other thing that stuck out for me was the quote from Chinese palaeontologist J.Y. Chen, whose work calls into question some key assumptions in evolution: ‘In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government; in America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.’
All in all, this was an excellent read. It presents and summarises the scientific literature very clearly (although it is tough going for a non-biology person like me), and then asks the question – if not evolution, then what? Perhaps an Intelligent Designer is the correct answer after all.