A Review of “Darwin’s Doubt” by Stephen Meyer

Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, by Stephen C. Meyer, New York: Harper Collins, 2013, xii + 498 pages, hdbk.

Stephen Meyer has been a thorn in the side of dogmatic evolutionists for a good while now. He has worked as a geophysicist and has a PhD in the Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. His previous book of nearly 600 pages, Signature in the Cell, dealt with the criteria for determining information, especially in the formation and function of cells. It went into some detail about so-called ‘Shannon Information,’ which is most often the kind pointed out by evolutionists. Shannon calculated the mathematical relationship between information and probability, showing that the amount of information conveyed by an event is inversely related to its probability. The trouble with Shannon’s theory was that it could not distinguish meaningful information from gibberish. The solution to that problem forms another part of the book. Meyer demonstrates that complex specified information has both very high mathematical improbability, while also being goal-centered.

Then Signature included Meyer’s long interactions with the computer simulations of Kuppers, Dawkins, Schneider, Kauffman, Avida, showing that they all presuppose what they are claimed to disprove: the need for an intelligent agent. Additionally, none of them fulfill their promises. The DNA molecule came under investigation throughout Signature, and the vaunted “scientific method” was examined, and it was shown that along with it being a fluid concept, many scientists devoted to it actually utilize intelligent design in their work.

Now comes Darwin’s Doubt. Weighing in at almost 500 pages, it continues the discussion, this time focusing on the so-called Cambrian Explosion, where “representatives of about twenty of the roughly twenty-six total phyla present in the fossil record made their first appearance on earth.” (31).

Like its predecessor, the book makes it a point to interact with contemporary evolutionary thought. Meyer has been careful to be as cutting edge as possible. Here we get his patient explanations of Darwin’s Tree of Life and its modern counterparts. He examines the Burgess Shale Bestiary, where huge deposits of Cambrian fauna are present, and the even more impressive Chengjiang Explosion in China. If Darwin were right about what we ought to find, “diversity would precede disparity, the phyla-level differences in the body plan would emerge after the species-, genus-, family-, order-, and class level differences appeared…The actual pattern in the fossil record, however, contradicts this expectation.” (41).

Meyer’s personal acquaintance with two of the main experts working at Chengjiang, J. Y. Chen and Paul Chien, helps him relate their results compellingly. The dramatic finds of wonderfully preserved Cambrian fossil body-plans have only intensified the “problem” of the Cambrian Explosion. They have no ancestors in the underlying rock! He asks,

“Could there have been an animal form simple enough to serve as a viable ancestor common to all the animal phyla? Perhaps. But positing such a form only deepens the required depth of the divergence point and intensifies the already significant problem of Precambrian – Cambrian discontinuity.” (113).

To put it more simply, the best deposits the fossil record has to offer display a vastly diversified array of animal body plans, which just appear out of nowhere. Speculating about their ancestry drives the evolutionary dating further into the murky past, and forces the matter of the absence of ancestors in the Cambrian rock into sharper focus.

Chapter 6, on “The Animal Tree of Life” exposes the many disagreements among prominent evolutionists about what the phylogenetic “Tree” ought to look like, before examining the actual data of the fossil, the anatomical, and molecular evidence. Meyer concludes, “These three classes of evidence either provide no compelling evidence for Precambrian animal ancestors (in the case of the fossils), or they provide question-begging and conflicting evidence (in the case of genes and anatomy).” (135).

The matter of stasis, which is crystal clear in the fossil record, is also becoming more and more clearly a problem for evolution in the hoped-for field of phylogeny.

After a chapter on punctuated equilibrium, Meyer introduces the matter of the “information explosion” in the Cambrian fossil fauna. Here, just as in his previous book, he again distinguishes Shannon information from complex specified (or targeted) information. This is followed by an important chapter on “Combinatorial Inflation.” To put in layman’s terms, the amount of characters for arrangement increases exponentially the number of possible combinations available. As evolution’s big draw is that it can supposedly blindly ferret out and retain the right combinations to produce a properly functioning gene, minus any goal, the time it would take for that to happen randomly is obviously a key matter. Relying on the most recent work done in the field, Meyer shows that four plus billion years posited by neo-Darwinism, is way too brief for this to even begin to occur.

A chapter on the need for mutations to generate new protein folds relies on the work of Douglas Axe, who tested the probability involved in producing new protein folds after reading Richard Dawkins. The author tells us, “Axe realized that the ability to produce new protein folds represents a sine qua non of macroevolutionary innovation.” (191). After surveying Axe’s experiments, the author observes that Dawkins’ fancy of “Scaling Mount Improbable” incrementally is a non-starter. This is because “there is effectively no gradually sloping back side, since the smallest increment of structural innovation in the history of life – a new protein fold – itself presents a formidable Mount Improbable.” (207).

The ensuing chapter reviews the disingenuous and unsatisfactory responses of evolutionists (e.g. from M. Long, exon shuffling) to these results by Axe. Meyer is nothing if not thorough in describing these positions, and it took some effort from this reviewer not to skip this section.

A chapter on the Neo-Darwinian math highlights the fact that,

“In sum, calculations performed by both critics [Behe] and defenders [Durrett & Schmidt] of neo-Darwinian evolution now reinforce the same conclusion: if coordinated mutations are necessary to generate new genes and proteins, then the …math itself, as expressed in the principles of population genetics, establishes the implausibility of the neo-Darwinian mechanism.” (249, italics his).

Meyer then discusses “co-option” before focusing on the work of C. Nusslein-Volhard and E. Wieschaus on the origin of body plans, and Eric Davidson on gene regulatory networks or dGRN’s (ch.13). This chapter effectively sinks the standard evolutionary dogma. Davidson is cited as describing dGRN’s in “informational terms.” (268). Meyer adds,

“Engineers have long understood that the more functionally integrated a system is, the more difficult it is to change any part of it without damaging or destroying the system as a whole. Davidson’s work confirms that this principle applies to developing organisms in spades.” (269).

The fallout from this shouldn’t be missed. It is that in the vital early stages of development, when mutation and selection need to be driving evolution, that is precisely when their involvement would be fatal to gene development (see 270). This effectively dismantles classic neo-Darwinian theory.

But Meyer hasn’t finished yet. Next comes a survey of the necessary role taken by epigenetic information – that is to say, there is developmental information which is not in DNA but in the structure of the cell that determines to a large extent what the animal will look like. There are other varieties of epigenetic information, such as in the “sugar code” (280-281). This part of the book is most closely allied to Signature in the Cell, and advances the case made there.

As Meyer points out throughout the book, many evolutionists are trying to change the standard approach in light of these conclusions. Meyer runs through several proposed self-organizational models (e.g. Hox genes; M. Lynch’s ‘right time, right place’ theory; J. Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering view ) in Part Three, and finds them all wanting. Only after all this does he turn finally to the Intelligent Design alternative (the first mention of design I could find was on page 215). He returns to several of his previous topics and interprets them in line with information and design theory. Meyer urges his reader to stand back, take the evolutionary blinkers off, and look at what the data is telling him. He writes,

“Conscious and rational agents have, as part of their powers of purposive intelligence, the capacity to design information-rich parts and to organize those parts into functional information-rich hierarchies. We know of no other causal entity or process that has this capacity.” (366).

He goes on to deal with the hegemony of science as methodological naturalism, in the face of the fact that, as said above, scientists often use intelligent design in their work. He also demonstrates that the definition of science is and always has been an elastic concept. He believes that scientific progress is now actually being held up due to the naturalistic philosophy encouraged by evolutionism (which will alert readers of Thomas Kuhn), and plies a way forward which is both consonant with former scientific practices, and with what really happens in contemporary academia. Of course, Meyer is no fan of a young earth, not basing his science upon the biblical witness. The book is, of course, heavily furnished with endnotes.

Darwin’s Doubt is more hard-going than its predecessor. At least it was for me. But it is another step forward towards a new paradigm for doing science – tracking the work of the Designer.



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