Evaluation of Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer, Part 2

This is the second post in my series on Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. You can read my introductory post HERE.


A Cautionary Note on Internet “Reviews”

If you have investigated the book much at all, you will have noticed some nasty pseudo-reviews posted around the internet. As I mentioned in my introductory post, I have taken the time to read Darwin’s Doubt in its entirety. Because of this, I am able to offer some guidance for identifying credible reviews and weeding out the chaff.

  • If the writer of the review does not explicitly state that they have read the book in its entirety, proceed with great caution.
  • If the writer of the review attacks the author himself rather than the ideas the author sets forth, don’t trust the review. This is known as the ad hominem fallacy. This occurs when someone doesn’t directly address the author’s argument,  they simply hurl insults at the author in an effort to discredit the arguments. In the case of Meyer, I’ve seen lots of personal insults and the use of pejoratives (“nothing but a lying creationist,” “ignorant”). 
  • If the writer of the review says something about the author like, “His Ph.D. isn’t in such-and-such, therefore, he cannot be correct,” they are committing the genetic fallacy. Someone’s background does not determine whether or not their assertions are true or false. Furthermore, in the case of Meyer, accusations of “he’s not a scientist” are a bit ludicrous in light of how the discipline of the history and philosophy of science (Meyer’s Ph.D.) functions. This is like saying someone cannot be an expert on a specific genre of literature if they haven’t actually written a book that falls into that genre. See my point?
  • If the writer of the review makes the claim that the author has misrepresented the facts, they should back up their claim with direct citations, NOT by simply repeating what other reviewers have said.
  • If the writer of the review gives the book a terrible rating only because they disagree with the author’s final conclusion, their review is intellectually irresponsible. I’ve read many fantastic books that drew conclusions I didn’t agree with at all. That doesn’t mean that the scholarship is sloppy or that the book isn’t extremely well researched. A review should, of course, comment on how well the author supported his central thesis. That’s a different thing. Even opponents of intelligent design should judge the entire work carefully and with as much objectivity as possible. That is the consideration I always give to a book. For instance, I don’t agree with Ian Tattersall’s conclusions on the origin of the human species, but his book on human evolution, Masters of the Planet is superb!
  • If the writer of the review uses terms like “pseudoscience” in regard to Meyer’s book, they desperately need a lesson in philosophy of science. Dr. Bradley Monton (an atheist) wrote an excellent book that explains the scientific status of intelligent design theory. Dr. Thomas Nagel (atheist) of NYU did an essay a while back that demonstrates how intelligent design theory has scientific status IF Neo-Darwinism has scientific status, because they use the same methods of hypothesis/investigation/inference. You can download Nagel’s essay for free HERE.

A Brief Note on Style

Meyer’s prose is very readable and held my attention throughout. The text is laid out in a very logical manner, with nice subheadings to keep the reader oriented. The hand-drawn diagrams and tables are fantastic, as is the included science photography. The cover art and the color plates are gorgeous!  A+ for presentation and aesthetic appeal.

Section One of Darwin’s Doubt: The Mystery of the Missing Fossils

This section contains 7 chapters. The first, “Darwin’s Nemesis,” gives the reader a basic foundation in the history of scientific thought on the Cambrian fossil “explosion.” Meyer details Darwin’s concern about it (hence the title of the book) as well as assessments made by fossil experts during Darwin’s time. I found the discussion of Louis Agassiz’s work particularly interesting.  Meyer’s main point in this chapter is that some of the most brilliant minds of the time saw insurmountable problems for Darwin’s theory whenever fossil data was taken into account. He explains what the theory of common descent by way of natural selection would predict about the fossil record, and how the record falls far short of the prediction. Readers who are well versed in origins sciences and are familiar with the alleged “tree of life” will want to take note of Agassiz’s astute observation, as phrased by Meyer on page 24: “Why [Aggasiz] asked, does the fossil record always happen to be incomplete at the nodes connecting major branches of Darwin’s tree of life, but rarely–in the parlance of modern paleontology–at the ‘terminal branches’ representing the major already known groups of organisms?”

Chapter 2, “The Burgess Bestiary” is a fun, fun, fun chapter. I absolutely love reading about paleontology, and I am particularly intrigued by the Burgess Shale in Canada. (One of these days I’ll get to visit!) Meyer summarizes the history of the Shale, including the work of the main scientists involved with the retrieval of tens of thousands of fossil specimens from the site. The fossil photos and accompanying artistic renderings of the Cambrian creatures are awesome (sorry, no other word suffices here). For an animated rendering of these bizarre creatures, I encourage you to check out the Illustra Media film, Darwin’s Dilemma. The chapter finishes off by objectively summarizing some of the evolutionary hypotheses that emerged from the data that came out of the Burgess Shale.

Chapters 3 and 4 delve into the various hypotheses, examining their explanatory power. I like how careful Meyer is whenever he evaluates various explanations, such as the idea that soft body parts do not fossilize (not true) and that Cambrian animal ancestors lacked hard parts (a very problematic idea). Never does he accuse a scientist of poor work; he simply draws bold lines around what can be reasonably concluded from the available evidence. He outlines the features of the Chengjiang fossil record in China, where soft body parts are beautifully preserved. Seriously, I don’t see how anything in these chapters could be deemed so controversial. Meyer shows where cases have been overstated. Period. He backs up his assertions with referenced statements from respected experts such as Simon Conway Morris.

Chapter 5, “The Genes Tell the Story,” explains the deep divergence hypothesis and the molecular clock analysis that is used for determining the evolutionary history of life. The important points are that the different molecular studies have produced widely divergent conclusions. Meyer cites quite a bit of literature to demonstrate this. Perhaps more importantly, he shows how these types of studies are question-begging and often very inconsistent with the fossil evidence. His expertise in philosophy of science shines brightly here.

Chapter 6, “The Animal Tree of Life,” goes on to discuss the phylogenetic “family trees” that have been proposed for the evolutionary history of the Cambrian fauna. The stunning fact about these theoretical trees is that those drawn from molecular studies often differ drastically from those drawn based on similarities in morphology (animal body structure). This is a very key point, in my opinion. To reconcile this, scientists often invoke convergent evolution, the idea that similar structures have independently evolved in animals that have no close evolutionary connection. The problem is, as Meyer points out, “Invoking convergent evolution negates the very logic of the argument from homology, which affirms that similarity implies common ancestry, except–we now learn–in those many, many case when it does not.” (Hahahahaha.)

Chapter 7, “Punk Eek!,” is a very  nice treatment of Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium–the idea that species did not emerge in a slow, gradual, Darwinian manner, but rather evolution happened in dramatic bursts, as the Cambrian fossils demonstrate. Meyer lays out the history of the idea and what it does and does not explain concerning the Cambrian phenomenon–the mechanism for the proposed evolutionary dynamic. Now, I’ve read Gould myself, so I can attest to the fact that Meyer presents Gould accurately and fairly. I’ve seen some accusations to the contrary. Those are completely unfounded.

Stay tuned for my discussion of Part Two.

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