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)

______________

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.”

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About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on January 31, 2014, in Reviews, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I agree! Khun is extremely relevant in this and other areas of study. So to I suggest is the often overlooked comment by Marx on ideological methods of thinking;

    “..to the kind of consciousness..for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the act of production – which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside [Khun’s crisis! RR] – whose product is the world…The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts , is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of the world. The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before..” (Marx Grundrisse)

    Too often attempts are made to make the real world conform to our theories/ideas, when our ideas need to be changed/adjusted to conform to the real world – as our understanding develops. This is a problem which extends across so many areas of life – not just this – including that inhabited by many of the self-appointed ‘Marxists’ in my area of interest.

    Thanks for the review.

    Regards Roy (at http://www.critical-mass.net)

  2. dariush234@gmail.com

    Richard Dawkins says that ‘God’ is a hypothesis of science. One that in his view has been disproved.

    I’m not a fan of Dawkins but on this point I agree. Why not? We may not be able to ‘prove’ the existence of God directly but the evidences of of ‘super’ or higher Nature’s work lie all about us. It is we who decide to label somethings ‘super’ natural (like magnetism say) and then, when we understand their workings better we call them ‘ordinary’ (nothing special) natural – the process some call ‘naturalization’

    Reality and Nature are what they are, how we describe them is up to us, but that doesn’t change them. The real questions are is matter (or physical Nature) all there is? Or do both mind and matter exist (both ghost and machine) and can science help us to decide?

    My understanding of intelligent design is that it is, effectively, one of several possible ways of testing Dawkins’ hypothesis. He holds that there’s no intelligence or purpose in Nature. Which is also a hypothesis of science. Others disagree.

    Are there any empirical or quantitative ways to test these questions?To rule out intelligence or purpose as a cause in Nature and to deny our capacity to detect (using modern techniques) whether or not it may be operative in some features of Nature, if not all, just because we cannot scientifically trace it’s ultimate source, seems defeatist.

    If scientists can only ever focus on Aristotle’s first two causes alone, those of matter and mechanism but never on formal (ideas) and final (purposes) causes, then, of course, they will always have to assume that the materialist paradigm of unintelligent design can explain all.

    This is the methodologically materialist (or so-called naturalist) approach. ‘So-called naturalist’ because it pre-supposes we know the true nature of Nature and it’s material alone or explainable in material terms alone.

    But if, contra Dawkins, holistic Nature is not material alone but contains components of mind and or intelligence (no matter how scientifically mysterious their ultimate sources) is it wrong to test that hypothesis?

    Take the survival debate (life after death). Sadly, so many people simply refuse to look at what is now over 150 years of serious and credible research into this topic because (although it’s possibly the most interesting question of all) they’re afraid that it’s intellectually unfashionable. Materialists don’t like it because it conflicts with their belief system. Many christians (not all) don’t like it because they fear it for various reasons.

    I think it would do humanity enormous benefit to know that death really is not the end. It is not an intellectually fashionable topic but, like intelligent design, for me, it points to the fact that we really do live and move and have our being in a reality or Holistic Nature that is intelligently multi-dimensional rather than mindlessly mono-dimensional as materialists believe.

    A scientific paradigm that recognises intelligent multi-dimensionality would, I think, be a great gain for our culture.

    My hope is that ID can play its part in establishing the knowledge that ‘super’ or Higher Nature (ultimately God) may really be real after all. After all, Christians base their faith on evidence, both ancient and modern (as do those of other faiths). Science too.

    But if all evidence for intelligence and teleology is to be ruled out of science’s understanding of Nature forever (which is surely not what Francis Bacon intended when he urged scientists to focus on purely on the elucidation of matter and mechanism for the time being) would be a great pity.

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