Move On

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 in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: