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By David Warren   
Saturday, 07 September 2013

Had the makers of it not sent me a copy, unsolicited, I doubt that I would have read Stephen C. Meyer’s latest anti-Darwinian screed, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. It is a product of “ID” and “DI”: the Intelligent Design movement associated, as the author is, with the Discovery Institute.

It is a controversial book, a fighting book. It was written, I should think, not for biologists or other scientists, but for the “intelligent general reader.” It is full of exactly sourced material – ammunition to hurl at the enemy trenches. An aficionado of the topic myself, I speed-read through its 500 pages, discovering little new, and nothing whatever surprising in the arguments. Instead I found myself checking the items off, like a regimental quartermaster.

The tone I found wearying. Partly this is the consequence of stalemate. I already knew how the neo-Darwinists would answer each point, given their control of Wikipedia and so forth; and how to expose their answers as tosh. So of course does Dr. Meyer, who by now has been trudging through the mud of this “Western Front” for years. One admires how he keeps up his spirits. One admires even more how they keep up their spirits on the other side.

There is a genre of broad-market controversial prose, aimed at the New York Times bestseller list, each puffy book marketed as yet another “game changer.” To my mind it reflects a certain triumph of scientism, more intractable than the evolutionary debate: all facts, figures, and clichéd little narratives ending in a tendentiously breathless anticipation of the next thrilling chapter, which promises to deliver an even better knockout blow. This is a journalistic, not literary style. It is the opposite of inspiring.

Yet reading semi-attentively, one may extract some news. Having closed the book, I felt slightly better informed about the early Cambrian world revealed in the fossil beds of Chengjiang in China’s Yunnan province; and the immediately preceding Ediacaran world revealed in the Doushantuo formation in neighboring Kweichow – both nested in phosphate beds that have preserved even soft-body tissue in extraordinary, nay microscopic detail.

On this story is hung a serviceable update of the larger controversy, in which the proponents of ID show that, on present neo-Darwinian theory, the development of life on this planet is impossible.

Dr. Meyer’s previous book, reflexively trashed by the neo-Darwinian establishment, showed the impossibility of unicellular life appearing in the first place. It was attacked with reductionist, straw-man arguments, which omitted his main point: that we cannot get something from nothing. From Darwin forward, it has been necessary to accept some initial life form or forms as a “given.” The hypothesis then builds on natural selection from gradually accumulating small “random” mutations.

This new book shows the impossibility of that “Cambrian explosion” – in which an astounding variety of incredibly sophisticated “body plans,” including apparent precursors of all we know today, emerged during a singularly quick snip of geological time, all over the planet, starting around 525 million years ago.

We have a stage of evolution that is currently unfathomable. The new creatures are obviously different in kind from any of their suggested, miniscule Ediacaran ancestors; they are built on a scale immensely larger and more involved. The earth's new inhabitants seem to come on a spaceship out of nowhere. And there are so many of them!

It is conventional to call these revolutionary creatures “primitive” – which they are, in the sense of being very old. But they are not primitive in the sense of “simple.” A glance at the fossils themselves shows them to have been not only tremendously complex, but very elegant in appearance, and like any “modern” animal, purposeful and brilliantly articulate in their movement.

And once formed as species they do not “genetically drift.” Each adds to the universe of “missing links,” in its radical particularity. Each survives as a clearly recognizable species for long periods – often millions of years – until for whatever reason it becomes extinct.

The title of the book refers to a doubt Darwin expressed about his own hypothesis. He was quite aware of this Cambrian explosion from fossil evidence in Wales. He assumed it was an artifact of an incomplete fossil record – that intermediates would emerge over time showing gradual evolution from plausible ancestors.

By now we can say with fair certainty that he assumed wrong, that the fossil evidence is not ridiculously incomplete, and that the more we learn about the Cambrian explosion, the more implausible it becomes. The time frames keep shortening; the break from the old microscopic to the new animal environment becomes ever more startling.

And beneath this highly visible surface, we learn more about the factor of “information.” By now we are beginning to understand that the genetic instructions for each of these diversely particular creatures require more than the transcription of DNA. At the most elementary level, where species “break out,” embryos have been seen to develop even when that transcription is blocked. There is far more going on in the “design” of creatures than we could have imagined.

The Darwinian gambit was to explain macroevolution as a tedious extension of microevolution, on the analogy of the breeding of animals. What the ID propagandists show is that this cannot possibly work. What they cannot do is explain it in any other way: for just as we begin to account for a new dimension of evolutionary “method,” yet another dimension yawns open before us. The whole business is miraculous, but “miracle” is not an accepted term of this art.

And it is pointless to fight the neo-Darwinian establishment. As men like Simon Conway Morris have shown (see his remarkable “Map of Life” website), the best Christian tactic is to ignore the secular-humanist enemy, with its atheist political agenda, and simply publish the discoveries. They speak for themselves. At heart, the enemy knows he is defeated, and it is time to move on.

 
David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: http://davidwarrenonline.com/
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 07, 2013
Biology will never develop into a true predictive science as long as it embraces the anthropomorphic notion of causality, something we read into the data, not take from it..

Newton did not ask himself what caused the apple to fall; he asked how fast it fell. This is something that is not only observable, but measurable. That measurement he was able to correlate with others: of force, mass, distance, time. By treating them as variables in differential equations, the constant relationship between them can be expressed. It should be stressed that “Force,” in this context, is not a causal term. Force is defined as the product of the mass and the acceleration. It is simply the label given to one of the variables used in the equations.

“Tthou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight” (Wis XI:21)
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written by ib, September 07, 2013
Sad to say, contemporary science, Big Science, has taken the road of ideology. Sometime after WWII, it discovered big money could be gotten from government sources as long as the rhetoric was right. Governments got more and more involved with the funding and hence the direction of science. And the major scientific societies reorganized themselves to maximize funding. New groups of scientists coalesced around funding sources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and jockeyed for influence. Within these professional-scientist societies, sub-groups competed at the level of rhetoric to get grant proposals past the government reviewers. That most of these proposals were virtually indistinguishable from one another meant that the rhetoric of ideology played a larger and larger role.

At this point, Big Science is only worried about finding out about nature IF a grant can be found to do it. So at the end of all these years, we have perfected the Big Governement + Big Science Complex. The only way this will change in the centuries ahead is if Big Government(s) collapse.

Hence, neo-Darwinism will continue to be around for a long time, as will Climate-Change, Standard Model particle research, etc. These are now locked into Big Government ideology and will not be moving until those Big Governments fall.

The one positive thing is that no government lasts forever. They too shall pass. And new things will then arise. Call it "evolution" if you have a sense of irony!
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written by ib, September 07, 2013
How very Humean of Michael P-S ... he has fallen quite far from the Anscombian tree he formerly described as his philosophical origins!

Anscombe quite correctly held that we do observe cause-and-effect. Empiricist philosophers have said that we cannot observe causation, because although we observe events, we do not observe the *necessity* with which we believe them to be connected. Recall it was Hume who made up the requirement that the cause of some effect must either necessitate it or else be connected to it by some law. No one before him saw causality in this way, but it became the dominant view until Anscombe called it out as a sheer fabrication. She gave a famous example of a bomb connected to a Geiger counter: if it explodes, it was caused by the Geiger counter, but there is no necessity involved at all. Hume's requirement was wrong.

Anscombe objected to it by showing that we do observe drinking, vocalizing, cutting, and breaking, and that these all appear to be kinds of causation. If a cat drinks some milk then the cat’s action caused the milk to leave the saucer. If a tailor cuts some cloth then it seems entirely possible to see the causing of the cloth’s being divided. Anyone who denies this, Anscombe suggests, does so on the basis of a prejudice or philosophical theory about observation and causality. They do not, as they might think, believe in the theory because unbiased reflection on experience tells us that this kind of theory is true. They believe in it for ideological reasons, reasons due to bias. See her "Causality and Determination: An Inaugural Lecture," to learn more.
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written by Rich in MN, September 07, 2013
"And it is pointless to fight the neo-Darwinian establishment."

I am not precisely sure how the word "fight" is being used here, but I think it is vital to continue addressing the specific arguments that the 'neo-Darwinian establishment' makes. So many debates are lost "by default" because one side is never heard. A classic example of this might be the marriage debate in which the SSM side may be on the verge of winning 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 not because they have the superior 'game,' but because they control the turnstiles to the stadium gates and have effectively barred their opponents from reaching center court. (Speaking of "barred," Stephen M Barr's book, "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" is another one of those interesting books that I think was important for him to write and important for us to read.)

Stephen Meyer's "Darwin's Doubts" may not have had much new to offer David Warren, but how many other people have even been exposed to these arguments? My guess is that the sole exposure most people have of ID is when the occasional biology teacher talks disparagingly about "creationist nutcases" whose response to "Origin of Species" is Genesis 1. To offer some resistance to that caricature, I think it is vital to continue to engage the culture. As for the success of such engagement, we will need to let our "Intelligent Designer" handle the rest. As Mother Teresa would say, "God does not ask us to be successful; God asks us to be faithful."
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written by Stanley Anderson, September 07, 2013
David Warren’s comments about Darwin’s Doubt are very reminiscent of my reaction to reading Meyer’s earlier book “Signature in the Cell.” I had been looking forward to Darwin’s Doubt to “get past” the irritations I had in reading the earlier work, but Warren’s review gives me pause now.

I do have some thoughts on the subject that I had hoped Signature (and Doubt) would address, and Signature does to some degree, but not as fully or concisely as I might have desired. Here is (partially) some thoughts I have along that line:

A scene in the movie “Poltergeist” uses what is called a dolly-zoom or “Vertigo” effect (after the famous tower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie) where the mother is at one end of a hallway trying to get to the other end, and with every step she takes, the end of the hallway seems to recede faster and further off into the distance so that her goal gets further away the more she tries to approach it.

I have collected (and continue to collect) a series of biological and genetic science articles that, for me, act as a sort of scientific example of that hallway scene. The articles will tout an “advance” in knowledge of how a certain aspect of cell biology or evolutionary progress occurs, while ignoring the fact that the amazing new complexities that the advance itself reveals seems to “push” the end goal of “explaining life” exponentially further away with each new discovery. It is as if the scientists are in that dolly-effect hallway looking down at the floor carefully measuring the two-foot step they have just taken “forward,” while ignoring the fact that taking that step has also just caused the door at the end of the hallway to be pushed a hundred miles further back from where they are currently standing.

This sort of observation is of course no sort of “proof” that evolution via natural selection, et al, cannot explain life as we see it around us. But it is very suggestive, I think. And contrary to a popular idea about how science “works,” scientist do not – indeed, simply cannot – work “blindly” to “see what develops” experimentally or observationally. The possible avenues to explore are far too vast, and so they must have a point of view or idea of the direction they want to head in exploring an idea. That direction may prove to be a dead end or it may lead to interesting new discoveries. But it is a choice to explore in that direction, made by the scientist based on intuitions and hints that seem to “point” in that direction.

And it seems to me that this “receding hallway” of biological and genetic research is a “pointing” that hard-core evolutionists are hell-bent on ignoring and avoiding any suggestion of exploration in that direction. Meyer’s earlier book, at least, seems to address this idea to a good degree, but again, not as “clearly” as I would like to see.

But here is my main point: I can imagine a possible approach not unlike many of the great “game changing” events in the history of scientific and mathematical history where purely mathematical or logical deductions “force” a conclusion that a contradicts a currently held view and renders it simply impossible without any explanation of what should replace it.

An ancient example is the Greek Pythagoreans who assumed all numbers could be represented by fractions. But a very simple proof (not to worry, I won’t reproduce it here) demonstrates conclusively that the square root of two CANNOT be a fraction. It uses the assumption that the square root of two is a fraction to show that this leads inexorably to a contradiction. The proof is very clear with no allowance for wiggle room. And yet it says absolutely nothing about what or where or how large or small that square root of two might be. The proof only says that it not a fraction.

The same sort of thing occurred with the development of non-Euclidean geometry about the curvature of space, Einstein’s Relativity about simultaneity and spatial relations, Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems about what can and cannot be proved, and Bell’s Inequality about the non-locality aspect of quantum physics (among many others that could be cited). In each of these cases, the insights really only tell us what cannot be without providing any hint of what “is there” instead.

I of course can’t say if it would eventually produce a useful result, but I can imagine investigation into whether the very assumptions of evolution and natural selection and such might lead to a similar “logical deduction” of impossibility for them to function the way evolutionists have hoped they will, having placed all their “origin chip” bets onto that evolutionary box. Like the other scientific and mathematical examples above, such a deductive proof wouldn’t therefore conclude “God did it” or whatever, only that the evolutionary explanation is not tenable for solid “scientific” reasons. It would deny evolution in the way, say, that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems essentially destroyed David Hilbert’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s and Bertrand Russell’s hope of finding a complete and consistent mathematics, without providing any explicit alternative in the denial.
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written by Howard Kainz, September 07, 2013
The two atheists, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, who wrote What Darwin Got Wrong, point to teleological patterns that are still missing neo-Darwinian explanations: Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the “one-quarter power law; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their “connection economies” are perfect; “cost versus speed” analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations. One challenge is that there is more perfection that one would expect from Darwinian randomness.
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written by DeGaulle, September 07, 2013
Stanley, that is a great post. I agree that the scientific establishment are unlikely to disprove current evolutionary theory through the proper research. There is no motivation since they already consider the matter closed and any brave soul who thinks otherwise is likely to find it very difficult to obtain funding. But, I do think if we 'unbelievers' keep banging away at asking the awkward questions, the day may dawn when the general populace begin to wonder why it is taking so long for Scientism to start explaining exactly how life began. Correct me if I'm losing my marbles, but wasn't there something about a prophecy hidden in the Vatican about people eventually losing their faith in science?
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 09, 2013
ib

I had in mind Newman's Grammar of Assent, where he says, "The assent which we give to the proposition, as a first principle, that nothing happens without a cause, is derived, in the first instance, from what we know of ourselves; and we argue analogically from what is within us to what is external to us. One of the first experiences of an infant is that of his willing and doing..." This is what I meant by the "anthropological" notion of causality.

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