Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Darwin's Doubt: A Pox on Both Houses!

(Not the people inside!)
Steven Meyer, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (*** first draft)
As you can see from reviews on Amazon so far, bias goes a long ways to determining how many stars reviews of this book will get.  If you hate ID, this book is one-star trash.  If you love ID, it's a 5-star masterpiece.  There doesn't seem to be much room in between, and the subject seems to make a lot of people testy. 

The best review for a reader who wants to get at the truth of the matter might be one from someone who is balanced between prejudices.  I'm kind of in that state.  On the one hand, I'm an historian (not scientist, some people even use the word "apologist") and a Christian who believes there is plenty of evidence that God works in history through things called miracles.  So it's no skin off my nose if He also monkeyed with prehistory.   On the other hand, this business of God tweaking genes and proteins and even sugars billions of times so some luckless also-ran in the Race of Life could wiggle across a Cambrian bed, die, and leave no descendants, seems like an odd theodicy, to put it mildly.  God is not obliged to explain Himself to me, but on the face of it, I would almost more expect Him to design laws by which matter creates than to do all this constant, dead-end fiddling on the micro-level. 

So those are my biases -- as in Warring States China, or the city-states of Greece, opposing forces might one hopes allow for occasional balance. 

This book is better than Meyer's last book, I think, because it is more cogent and to the point.  Rather than wasting hundreds of pages on remedial biology and personal anecdotes as he did in Signature in the Cell, this time Meyer gets mostly to the point, and stays focused almost all the way through.  It's a tougher scramble, therefore, with more elevation gain. 

His arguments, you will see explained elsewhere.   He argues from paleontology that the Cambrian critters appeared quite quickly, in numerous body forms, from few obvious predecessors, where there ought to be many, he claims.  Most of the rest of the book argues from cell biology, genetics, and related fields that life cannot really adapt, on ordinary evolutionary mechanisms, so quickly and creatively.  He rebuts contrary arguments, then explains why he finds Intelligent Design a viable option. 

You will have no trouble finding dismissive reviews.  The most prominent here is by Dr. Donald Prothero: you can also find rebuttals to Prothero's arguments from the Discovery Institute folks.  To my mind, Prothero's review is overly blustering, and he makes many sloppy errors, even getting Meyer's academic field wrong.  Nicholas Matzke's off-site review seems calmer and more reasonable, and also more substantive.  Casey Luskin shows that Matzke is extremely sloppy in many of his accusations against this book, getting quite a bit just wrong, but it seems to me Luskin focuses mostly on minor errors, rather than major criticisms.    

So are the critics right? 

Along with much chaff, it seems to me that some of their points may constitute harvestable grain:

(1) Meyer should have mentioned the "small shellies," creatures of various phyla that have been found in pre-Cambrian rocks, more prominently, and discussed them in more detail.  His failure to do so is a major, but by no means fatal lapse. (Yes, he does mention the worms.) 

(2) Clearer visual representations of the pre-Cambrian "tree of life" as depicted by Meyer's opponents should have been provided.  The graphics seem a little weak to me; but then again, so are my eyes. 

(3) More emphasis on the general tendency, in that tree, of life to increase in complexity, from pre-Cambrian to Cambrian, would not have been amiss.

(4) Nitzke's main complaint seems to be that Meyer has slighted many early forms that can and should be viewed as transitional.  I see little in Luskin or Berlinski so far to undermine that complaint. 

(5) I agree that "what exactly is supposed to have happened" is a weak point in the ID position -- more than a point, a whole continent of obscurity.  One of my favorite sayings, however, is Confucius' "To know what you know, and know what you don't know, this is knowledge."  So this, too, does not really wreck Meyer's argument for me.  

(6) Meyer seemed to pussy-foot around the issue of common ancestry, unless I missed a clear statement and argument, somehow.  I know this is a "wedge" issue for ID supporters, but really, there is a time for politics and a time for clarity, and this is the time for the latter. 

On the other hand:
(7) After reading Meyer's book, plus the back-and-forth, the Cambrian Explosion remains striking to me, and "explosion" seems to fit just fine. 

(8) For Meyer, paleontology seems primarily to act as a set-up to the really crucial issues he discusses later, such as the difficulty of either evolution by slow steps, or some sort of "hopeful monster" that will transform basic body types quickly and dramatically.  That's always seemed like a weak point in Neo-Darwinism to me (I wrote about it six years ago in The Truth Behind the New Atheism), and I think Meyer is effective in pounding that point home. 

(9) Another chapter deal with cellular information not carried by the genome: I didn't know much about this, and found it interesting.  (Though it is not clear to me yet that this precludes evolutionary mechanisms.) 

(10) The chapters on alternative quasi-Darwinian proposals seemed of less importance to me: Kaufman's approach seems obviously marginal.  Contrary to Prothero, Meyer does not at all deny that Steven Jay Gould was a firm believer in evolution. 

This is a bold and sweeping work.  It is definitely worth reading.  But let me encourage readers, whatever they think of ID, to do so skeptically about their own position as well as opposing views.  Have no patience for vitriol and social appeals that warp reason, or for "I don't know anything about science but Meyer really kicked Evolution into the next county" type commentary.  The fossils are what they are, the genome is what it is, and the more I read, the less I am sure that I know, or that any mortal really knows, quite what happened to bring about life in all its glory on this pale blue planet.  "It is the glory of God to hide a matter, and the glory of kings to seek it out," as Solomon said, a passage Francis Bacon quoted to help kick-start the scientific enterprise. 

Suggested reentry: read EO Wilson's Naturalist, and GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and relax a little.

1 comment:

David B Marshall said...

There are now 147 reviews on Amazon, of which only 2 are three-star. I guess that's the closest I'll ever get to being a 1 percenter.