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Intelligent designer of the gaps?
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!