Monday, July 29, 2013

Clear, Rigorous Thinking in a Murky Public Debate

Like most people my age, my public school science education took the Darwinian story for granted and was
peppered with bumper sticker clich├ęs to help me understand how true the system was.  I was never really enamored by the whole thing because one of Darwin's basic principles contradicted one of the basic principles of reality that I accepted, but many around me took it all in as if it had already been proven true - by science.

Since then, it has fascinated me to watch as the public debate surrounding the Darwinian theory has transformed into something more sociological and political than scientific.  What claims to be a position buttressed by the current holy-grail of knowledge, science, is in fact largely supported by the same bumper stickers I was given over twenty years ago, a dash of political coercion, and a heap of scorn and sarcasm.   To listen to Darwin's defenders in the public square, you will come away with the distinct sense that you must believe their story or suffer the wrath of public scorn.  If you are 'one of us,' you will believe.

So, given the current atmosphere that we Darwin skeptics put up with, it is exciting and encouraging to find a work that is well-researched, well-documented, intensely aware of the latest advances in the relevant sciences, charitable to the opposing points of view, and shockingly enough, non-combative.  Dr. Stephen Meyer's book, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and The Case for Intelligent Design, is a well-argued book that handles the science and arguments behind everything from the fossil record, to information theory, to a flurry of Neo-Darwinian proposals, cellular biology, protein synthesis, and body plan engineering.  But it is more than an argument critical of the adequacy of Darwinian and materialistic proposals, it is a positive case for considering the science of Intelligent Design as a vera causa for the sudden origins of animal body types.

Dr. Meyer uses the geologically sudden appearance of hundreds of body plans in the Cambrian Explosion as the groundwork for his arguments and in a way, the book is a chronological assessment of Darwinian explanations.  Beginning with Darwin and his proposals about the fossil record and the power of natural selection as a mechanism, Dr. Meyer moves forward in time through several (if not all) major versions of the materialistic, macro-evolutionary story.  At each step in his book, I found the bumper stickers I have heard for years dealt with in relationship to the most current science.  For instance, in Darwin's day the fossil record was very much up for grabs, so it could have been easy to believe that his thousands of transitional body plans were still underground simply waiting discovery.  Modern research in statistical paleontology, however, shows that we are unlikely to find many other major body plans in the record.  (And the missing links are still, largely, missing.)  I had also been told that the multitude of soft body plans early in the Darwinian Tree of Life would never be found because soft bodied animals did not fossilize, thus they could be postulated but never discredited.  But now I know that paleontologists who work with fossilized sponge embryos would disagree.

 Some of the most incredible research he deals with concerns the connection between the engineering of new body plans and the probabilities of random protein synthesis, epigenetics, and embryology.  Each new body plan function requires new genetic, molecular, and epigenetic information that was not present before.  If the materialistic account is accurate that means an untold number of non-lethal, random mutations on several levels must occur simultaneously to change, say, one component of an eye in a beneficial direction.  Current research simply is not in favor of the standard story.  And on it goes.

Then, having worked through the major and the modern materialistic models, Dr. Meyer develops a case for considering Intelligent Design as the better alternative.  Here, as much as anywhere else in his book, his argument dovetails with his other major work, Signature in the Cell, and compounds an already compelling case.  If an individual is willing to look outside the a priori and ad hoc requirement that science must be metaphysically naturalistic, they can find themselves considering compelling arguments that cohere with the evidence compiled in the rest of the book.

If Dr. Meyer is successful, his argument may be summed up this way:

"In other words, standard materialistic evolutionary theories have failed to identify an adequate mechanism or cause for precisely those attributes of living forms that we know from experience only intelligence - conscious rational activity - is capable of producing. This suggests, in accord with the method of historical scientific reasoning...the possibility of making a strong historical inference to intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of these attributes." (pg. 358)

In addition to the content of the argument, a couple of other points are worth making.  The book is wonderfully written and edited.  It is easy to read, especially given its often technical subject matter, while never shying away from strenuous details.  And it is wonderfully illustrated.  I often find illustrations distracting from the content of a book, but here they are both a pleasure and a helpful supplement to the content.

Secondly, the reaction from this book's detractors generally serves as evidence for the under-developed form of engagement Darwin's supporters have with arguments critical of their views.  Dr. Meyer has no problem with views different than his.  He is able to disagree from an informed and reasoned stance, and if I am to take another point of view as seriously as I take his, I am looking for the same kind of intellectual honesty I find modeled in his book.

Darwin's Doubt may really be what some have claimed it to be - a major step forward in our understanding of our past and our origins.

[If you think my review is helpful, visit it at Amazon and say so.]

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