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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.”

Micro-Reviews #9 Michel Henry’s “Barbarism”

Overall Rating: 7/10

This year has been a wonderful time for (English speaking) Michel Henry Fans.  Already we received Words of Christ and have now been blessed with Barbarism, a recent translation of Henry’s 1987 La Barbarie. Situated in the middle of his career, Barbarism predates his later explicitly religious/theological publications.  This work reads similarly to other contributions of the period, notably Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, avoiding the extensive technical vocabulary of his earlier work (The Essence of Manifestation, etc.). That is not to say that this work is fully lacking in Henry’s typical idiosyncratic concepts, “self-affectivity” and the like.  In this way, while familiarity with Henry’s corpus may be helpful for uncovering the nuances of his argument, the overarching moves are within the grasp of anyone who possesses basic philosophical training and rough knowledge of major 19th and 20th century figures (e.g. Heidegger).

Barbarism is primarily intended as a critique of scientism.  Concerning this, it must be emphasized, a critique of scientism is not a critique of science.  Simply put, Henry’s concern is the expansion of “scientific” thinking beyond the natural sciences and into realms of thought once occupied by psychology, religion, ethics, and art.  Nonetheless, as critics have often noted, this work does have a tendency to venture into the polemical, often posing terms in unnecessarily divisive categories.  One must therefore tread lightly, recognizing Henry’s most lucid presentations of his thesis, and sidelining his overly excited science-bashing.  For, even Henry often mistakes the critique of scientism for a critique of science.

Throughout Barbarism, Henry seeks to unify many diverse critiques of 20th century culture; critiques of technology, of capitalism, and of the modern university (to name a few).  What sets Henry’s analysis apart from similar accounts (e.g. Heidegger’s critique of technology), and forms the most noteworthy contribution of this work, is Henry’s conception of a “Galilean reduction.”  By this term, Henry intends the reduction of the subjective features of reality, those features which affect the human individual.  Let us take color as an example.  For the subjective individual, colors are always presented with an affective tonality:  a deep blue might resonate with sorrow, a yellow with ecstatic energy or motion.  Yet, for the Newtonian physicist, such tonalities are secondary epiphenomena, if they are are considered at all.  Within physics (the natural science par excellence) light is simply the vibration of photons.  In this way, color is stripped of its affective tonality, its meaning, and its value, and instead rendered as a quantifiable object.  Such an analysis is not intrinsically problematic, quite on the contrary, it is a necessary component of the natural science’s work.  The question put forward by Henry is, what are the consequences of this devaluation of reality once it is moved beyond the lab or the classroom, when science posits itself as the only valid form of knowledge?  As he writes:

“This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures.  But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science.  As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science.  Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”

Such an analysis remains invaluable in the 21st century, as positivism continues to gain influence in public consciousness, technology develops at an astounding rate, capitalism continues to establish itself as the principal human reality, and the university increasingly devalues the human sciences.  While certainly these may not be intrinsically negative events, it is imperative that they are critically engaged and that their consequences are seriously considered.  In this way, Barbarism is a text as comfortably situated in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.

Michel Henry on Scientism

“The flight from oneself is the heading under which one can classify almost everything that is happening right before our eyes.  This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures.  But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science.  As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science.  Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”

-Michel Henry, Barbarism

***100th Post!***