Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Darwin's Doubt

Stephen Meyer is a historian and philosopher of science. Several years ago he wrote Signature in the Cell (SIC), a book that shook the materialist assumptions of biological science because it raised the challenge of how the original information that programs the development of living things could have ever arisen through purposeless, mechanistic processes. The arguments he raised have yet to be satisfactorily refuted, and even as the Darwinian establishment is reeling from that blow Meyer has launched another roundhouse punch in a book titled Darwin's Doubt (DD).

Whereas SIC was a critique of mechanistic explanations of the origin of life DD is an examination of the problem of how living things, once they have appeared, could have diversified to produce the tremendous variety we see today.

The book is organized into three parts. The first section recounts the problem raised by the relatively sudden appearance of most of the animal phyla some 530 million years ago in the period known to scientists as the Cambrian era. Meyer includes in this section the fascinating story of the discovery of perhaps the most amazing fossils of the Cambrian, a formation called the Burgess Shale high in the Canadian Rockies.

The difficulty for any purely materialistic evolutionary explanation posed by these fossils cannot be overstated. Almost all the major animal body plans appear suddenly, in evolutionary terms, in the fossil record with no precursors in older strata. It's as if in the space of a few million years single-celled organisms suddenly proliferated into all the basic forms of multicellular animal life and left no trace of how they did it. Meyer considers all the current theoretical explanations of this phenomenon and explains why evolutionary scientists themselves find these accounts all inadequate.

In the second section he delves into the biology of the genome and the amazing hierarchy of information that exists in the cell. We all learned in high school that our DNA programs us to be what we are, but this is not quite true. DNA programs the production of proteins, but there's a higher level of information, the epigenome, which regulates the DNA. It tells the DNA when to produce a protein and when to remain quiescent. The epigenome is as complicated and complex as a circuit diagram in a computer and defies explanation in terms of the traditional neo-Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.

The DNA produces proteins, but the real problem is in elucidating what it is that tells those proteins where to go, how to get there, and what sort of tissues to form. This information appears to be encoded somehow in the very spatial and temporal architecture of the cell. It's a layer of information that not only cannot be explained in terms of the traditional neo-Darwinian mechanisms, but neither, Meyer makes clear, can it be explained by any of the more recent hypotheses that scientists have come up with to try to salvage their theory.

The third portion of the book is an argument that almost all of the difficulties raised by the Cambrian fossils and the cellular information hierarchy can be explained in terms of intelligent agency. Meyer addresses questions like whether such a hypothesis is science, whether it can be tested, whether it makes predictions, what mechanisms such an agent might have used, and other objections that are frequently raised against it. He also explains how the intelligent design hypothesis differs from both creationism and theistic evolution.

In my opinion, general readers would benefit greatly from the first and third parts of DD but may struggle, depending on their grasp of cell biology, with the second part. Even so, it's a book that, like its sister volume SIC, is destined to deeply affect the debate between Darwinian materialists and Intelligent Design advocates.

Those who are deeply committed to Darwinian materialism will not be persuaded, of course, because they hold an a priori conviction that there simply cannot be anything non-physical, non-material, or non-natural operating in the universe. Thus these individuals would be convinced that a book that makes the case that there actually is such an influence at work in the cosmos simply must be wrong even if the individual cannot say why it's wrong.

Those who are not so dogmatic, however, will find themselves challenged by Meyer's book to consider seriously the possibility that behind the physical aspects that comprise the world in which we live there is intelligent purpose. Darwin's Doubt will compel many readers to consider that there's powerful evidence, and excellent reason to believe, that beyond the material world perceived by our senses there is a transcendent Mind.