Monthly Archives: January 2014

Review: Stephen Meyer’s “Darwin’s Doubt”

Overall Rating: 6/10

Stephen Meyer

I initially became interested in reading Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and The Case for Intelligent Design after listening to a podcast interview with its author, Stephen Meyer. I immediately found myself at philosophical odds with a variety of Meyers theses, but nonetheless reluctant to employ the reactionary Neo-Darwinian critiques of his project. Thus, I decided to take the time to work through his text before offering comments (as interviews and podcasts seldom permit a full account or nuance of a position).

Having now completed my reading, I must admit that the basic philosophical problems that I initially felt (to be explored below) still persist. Yet, the text also revealed itself to be clear, well organized, and in large sections quite compelling. I must partially exempt the final three chapters in which Meyer advocates for Intelligent Design from my praise. Of course, my distaste for these sections is unavoidably influenced by my broader distaste for Intelligent Design theories (for reasons, again that will be clarified below), but I also found the writing itself to deteriorate during these passages; Meyer’s tone became defensive, the considerable citations and references to experimental work disappeared, and the arguments lost the clarity exemplified by the earlier sections of the work. One must not take these criticisms too strongly though, as the first sixteen chapters of the work truly are well written and interesting. Meyer presents considerable evidence that Neo-Darwinian theories (evolution by mutation) are insufficient to account for the speed and variety of evolutionary development, particularly during the infamous “Cambrian explosion.” This argument is strengthened by his use of multiple independent strains of evidence, including: fossils, genetics, and mathematical/computational models (among others). While I am not myself experienced in the field in order to fully judge the accuracy of all of his claims, he does offer considerable reference and citation to fully accredited and peer-reviewed scientific work (avoiding the common ID trap of only citing ones supporters). That being said, I would like here to focus upon the final section of his text, his presentation of ID as a possible answer to the dilemma of the Cambrian explosion, and offer two critiques.

* * *

Thomas Kuhn

First, and speaking here of Intelligent Design more broadly, I believe that a Kuhn’esque (see: Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) critique of Meyer’s conception of science may be in order. Specifically, Meyer appears to insufficiently register the “paradigmatic” structure of evolutionary theory. For Meyer, the incapacity of evolutionary theory to account for “everything” constitutes a rebuttal of the very scientific validity of the paradigm as a whole. Yet, as Kuhn rightly recognizes, the value of a paradigm is not its capacity to answer questions (though it certainly must do this with regularity), but more importantly its capacity to open up a space for questioning. A paradigm, while it is correctly functioning, will necessarily include a variety of unanswered questions. But, rather than constituting a failure of the paradigm, it is these gaps that provide the impetus and possibility of growth and discovery. A theory that provided a total picture would be incapable of generating further scientific research.

That being said, it is also worth noting that Kuhn is keenly aware of the importance of the “crisis,” that moment when an unavoidable impasse disorients a paradigm to such an extent that a new paradigm is necessitated. Could Meyer be identifying a crisis in biology, a crisis stimulated by the Cambrian explosion? Perhaps. But, I would also suggest that the answer to this crisis can not be Intelligent Design, again for a Kuhn’ian reason. The fatal flaw of Intelligent Design, I would suggest, rather than a lack of evidence or its factual incorrectness (both of which may very well also be the case), is its incapacity to function as a viable paradigm. Intelligent Design, while it ostensibly provides answers, fails to open up a space of further inquiry. Intelligent Design does not problematize, but rather, stifles problematization. Thus, while I would be wary to unambiguously support the assertion that “Intelligent Design is NOT science” (as this position is largely ideologically driven, and depends upon a clear identification of “science” that is generally either unspoken or insufficient), I would suggest that Intelligent Design is an insufficient paradigm, a scientific dead-end.

* * *

My second critique concerns Meyer more specifically, but also has consequences that extend into biology as a whole. Meyer summarizes his Intelligent Design argument as follows:

“Thus, based upon our present experience of the causal powers of various entities and a careful assessment of the efficacy of various evolutionary mechanisms, we can infer intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of the hierarchically organized layers of information needed to build the animal forms that arose in the Cambrian periods.” (366)

Or, arranged as a syllogism, this argument might be restated:

  1. The natural world, in particular animal life, is structured by a variety of complex forms of information (DNA, RNA, epigenetic information, dGRNs, etc.).
  2. All know forms of information are the product of consciousness or intelligence.
  3. Therefore, animal life is most likely the product of intelligent design. 1

I would like to suggest, perhaps controversially that, given the presuppositions of modern evolutionary theory, that this syllogism may be completely justified. The common critique of Intelligent Design by evolutionary theorists generally involves an attack on the second premise. Natural selection, or some related mechanism, it is argued, permits the arrival of complexity, merely “apparent design.” Thus, it is said, the second premise’s claim that only conscious activity generates information is unjustified. Yet, I believe that Meyer is correct to clearly demarcate between mere complexity and information. Critics, he rightly argues, do not “seem to understand the importance of specified information, as opposed to ‘complicated things,’ as a key indicator of design” (393). Yet, by granting the connection between information and design, one does not therefore have to affirm the consequence of the total syllogism.

Rather, I would like to suggest, the key to dismantling the Intelligent Design argument is to challenge that premise that both Darwinians and ID’ers agree upon, the first premise. As Meyer illustrates throughout the entirety of Darwin’s Doubt, the notion that DNA and epigenetic data are best understood as “information,” is a presumption that saturates the entirety of biology. This appears nowhere more clearly than in computational models, but is also evident across the spectrum of academic biology. Perhaps, it might be suggested, that rather than constituting a radical break with the biological sciences, ID is merely the clearest manifestation of biology’s own flawed axiom.

Gilles Deleuze

In the work of Gilles Deleuze, this sort of misstep is understood as overcoding, the process by which the category of one “strata” of reality is extended across other “strata.” The clearest example of overcoding, for Deleuze, is the “linguistic turn” of 20th century philosophy. Here, the fact that language was able to describe or speak about all strata, was misunderstood as evidence that language constitutes all levels of reality. In 20th century philosophy, the linguistic strata overcoded all other strata.

Is it possible that the attribution of the category “information” (a definitively human, intelligent strata) to decidedly non-human, pre-intellectual strata is just such an overcoding? It is worth noting that while Deleuze’s “10,000 B.C.: A Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateus speaks at length of genetics, it resists throughout the notion of DNA as a language or as information. “That is why,” Deleuze insists:

“[Francois] Jacob is reluctant to compare the genetic code to a language; in fact, the genetic code has neither emitter, receiver, comprehension, nor translation, only redundancies and surplus values. […] This property of overcoding and superlinearity explains why, in language, not only is expression independent of content, but form of expression is independent of substance: translation is possible because the same form can pass from one substance to another, which is not the case for the genetic code, for example, between RNA and DNA chains.”

Perhaps, then, the moral of Darwin’s Doubt, and the Intelligent Design movement as a whole is the necessity of thinking genetics as such, no longer under the all-too-human categories of information, categories which cannot help but bear the baggage of intelligence and design. But the form that such an alternate conception of genetics might take is beyond this author, or at least beyond this post.

What are your thoughts, should genetics move beyond the language of information?

(Please, if you comment, avoid vitriolic anti-ID or anti-Evolution rants, I couldn’t be less interested in either)

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1. The use of “most likely” is intentional, as it is the distinguishing factor of “abduction” (as distinguished from deduction and induction in the work of Charles Pierce, who remains influential not only upon Meyer, but upon the scientific tradition as a whole) and allows its arguments to be distinguished from the fallacy of “affirming the consequent.”

Sauf Le Nom: A Postmodern Intervention for Heretics and Addicts of Orthodoxy (Part 1 of 3)

“I am following the traces of a well-known rogue, a famous outlaw who was turned into the Law itself by palace theologians, even though my guess is that he would have made them blush with shame, thrown them into rage, had they met him in the flesh, in his flesh. They say his flesh was assumed by an Über-Being come down to earth for a bit of heavenly business on earth, but I can imagine what they would have called him had they met him in the flesh—a ‘homosexual,’ out to destroy ‘family values,’ a flag-burner, a libertine, a ‘socialist,’ out to raise our taxes—in short, a ‘curse and an affliction upon the church.’ So I gladly take my stand with the outlaw and ask what theology would look like were it written by the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues.”
—John D. Caputo[1]

Theology has a dirty, dirty history, and no, it is not simply “justified by the blood of Jesus” in such a manner that we can just brush it off. Here, I am not only talking about the Crusades or the Holocaust; in addition, I am speaking of every instance of violence that the privileged nature of orthodoxy has inspired—Emperor Constantine’s mobilization of an army against the Donatists, Nicholas of Myra’s assault on Arius (despite his subsequent deposition, an action which the orthodox later justified), the massive killings between Protestants and Catholics circa the Reformation, the parental abandonment of LGBTQIA[2] kids and teens in America, and some Protestant tendencies to equate “the Gospel” to heresy-hunting.

In lieu of expounding ad infinitum upon these instances of violence and neglect, I think there is a more fundamental problem that has gone unnoticed except by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche who articulated the problem in writing “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers!”[3] But, contrary to mainstream understanding, this problem is not one of theism, exclusively; rather, it is a problem of privileged metaphysical claims, which even atheists[4] can make in their polemics. Read the rest of this entry

Saintseneca’s “James”

I’ve been thoroughly enraptured by this track off of Saintseneca’s Last entitled “James”: an account of Jesus’ incarnation by his brother James. Lyrically slim, this track is nonetheless remarkably dense, and is punctuated with some incredible imagery. Correlation between birth and resurrection (second birth), a gender-ambiguous deity, genetics metaphors, a remarkably obscure reference to the Crucifixion (“His hands, well  I’m not sure, how to get those”), this track has everything a theologian could ask for in less than two minutes. Listen to the track, love the track, then buy the track (or hell, why not buy the whole damn album?!).

My brother’s born on Christmas
My brother’s born on Easter
God was my half brother
and God, I’d like to meet her

Yeah our cheeks are similar
Yeah we’ve got the same nose
His hands, well I’m not sure
How’d he get those?

Some kind of divine hybrid
I wonder who’s recessive allelomorphs expressed
to make your neck so freckled?

The “Structure and Event” of the Death of God

In The Fragile Absolute (Chapter 9 The Structure and Its Event), Žižek writes:

Is not the status of this Event itself (the mythical narrative of the primordial violent founding gesture) ultimately fantasmatic; is it not a fantasy-construction destined to account for the unaccountable (the origins of the Order) by concealing, rendering invisible, the Real of the structural antagonism (deadlock, impossibility) that prevents the structural synchronous Order from achieving its balance? In short, is not the Event of the primordial crime secondary, a retroactive ‘projection’ destined to translate/transpose the synchronous antagonism/deadlock into the diachronous narrative succession? (92-93)

I wonder if this analysis of the projection of structural dissonance into a primordial diachronic narrative might be transposed onto radical theology of the Altizer-ian vein. For, is this not precisely how the transition from “Revealed Religion” to “Absolute Knowing” in Hegel’s phenomenology plays out? What appears, under the guise of revealed religion, as a mere mythical temporal sequence (the incarnation and death of God), becomes recognized, within Absolute knowing, as mere “picture-thinking” (Verstellung). This picture-think or diachronous narrative is revealed, at the end of the day, to be a transposition of the deep, one might even say “structural,” truth of Absolute Knowing; revealed religion becomes recognized as a narrative construction built upon the more essential truth of philosophical science–certainly valuable in its own right, but nonetheless derivative or secondary.

Should the more literal-minded interpretations of radical theology, therefore, be situated within the broader context of a structural death of God? Rather than constituting a historical/narrative account, should the movement of the death of God be understood as the diachronous presentation of a primordially synchronous reality, viz. the paradox of the transcendence/immanence of God, the paradox of the presence/absence of God? Perhaps, this account could be taken even further, for John Caputo’s critique of Altizer amounts, substantially, to an accusation that Altizer is too “modern” (insufficiently postmodern), that Altizer has merely substituted one metanarrative with yet another metanarrative, rather than challenging metanarrativity as such. It is possible that such an accusation might be framed in this Žižekian language. Perhaps, even, although Žižek firmly places himself in the Altizer-ian camp and against the postmodernism of Caputo (in The Monstrosity of Christ), that the two thinkers are more closely aligned on this question than either might wish to admit.

13 Books from 2013

My top 13 favorite reads of 2013…

13.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
12.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
11.) Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View
10.) Richard BauckaumJesus and the Eyewitnesses
09.) Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being
08.) Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics
07.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
06.) Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitute
05.) Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain
04.) Jacques Derrida, Given Time
03.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
02.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas I

And the grand finale…

01.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption