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Three (or Four) Reasons Everyone Should Read Darwin's Doubt

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There's already quite a bit of buzz around Stephen C. Meyer's forthcoming book, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Darwin's Doubt is going to be another landmark for the ID movement, and I hope that ENV readers will not just read it, but also recommend it to friends -- and to anyone else, whether favorable to ID or not, who cares about that ultimate question, how complex life arose and developed. That should cover pretty much everyone you know!

Having read myself it closely now, I see at least three (or four) major reasons why this book is important, and worth reading:

  1. Arguments for intelligent design in the Cambrian explosion have certainly been made before. But Darwin's Doubt will be by far the most in-depth and mature development of those arguments to date, addressing in detail many ideas and rebuttals and theories advanced by evolutionary scientists, and showing why the theory of intelligent design best explains the explosion of biodiversity in the Cambrian animals.
  2. When published, Darwin's Doubt will be the single most up-to-date rebuttal to neo-Darwinian theory from the ID-paradigm. In this regard, one exciting element of Darwin's Doubt is that Meyer reviews much of the peer-reviewed research that's been published by the ID research community over the last few years, and highlights how ID proponents are doing relevant research answering key questions that show Darwinian evolution isn't up to the task of generating new functional information.
  3. As many ENV readers already know, we now live in a "post-Darwinian" world, where more and more evolutionary biologists are realizing that neo-Darwinism is failing, so they scramble to propose new materialistic evolutionary models to replace the modern synthesis. (These models include, or have included, self-organization, evo-devo, punc eq, neo-Lamarckism, natural genetic engineering, neutral evolution, and others.) In this regard, Darwin's Doubt does something that's never been done before: it surveys the landscape of these "post-neo-Darwinian evolutionary models," and shows why they too fail as explanations for the origin of animal body plans and biological complexity.


There are a lot of other great things that could be said about the book. It's got beautiful color photographs of fossils and lots of high-quality diagrams to help explain the content. As a writer, Stephen Meyer has a style that's accessible to a wide audience, from informed lay readers to students to scientists. The descriptor "game changer" has been used in reference to Darwin's Doubt -- and I think that's accurate. It will be a very important book for the ID movement.

Reason #4: Reading the Book Will Help You Critique It

DD web ad v.1.3.jpgMeyer's previous major book, Signature in the Cell, also generated a lot of discussion -- but less in the way of substantive critique. The rebuttals to Signature were so generally poor that we put together a short e-book just to document the level of discourse coming from ID-critics.

Will the responses to Darwin's Doubt be much better? I'd like to hope they will, but William Dembski's recent article, "Before They've Even Seen Stephen Meyer's New Book, Darwinists Waste No Time in Criticizing Darwin's Doubt," shows that unfortunately things aren't getting off to a good start for ID-critics. Instead, what seems to be happening is people are speculating about what Dr. Meyer is going to say, and then they're critiquing arguments that they don't even know if he's going to make.

This leads to a fourth reason to read Darwin's Doubt: If you're an ID critic, you'll be in a much better position to critique the book if you actually read it! Turns out we already offered this advice in response to critics of Signature in the Cell. As I wrote in Signature of Controversy:

A second tip for critics of Signature in the Cell is to read the book before reviewing it. In December 2009, biology professor P.Z. Myers directed readers of his heavily trafficked blog to a call for negative reviews of Signature -- while simultaneously declaring, "I suppose I'll have to read that 600-page pile of slop sometime . . . maybe in January." (p. 78)
However, I do already see one important difference between the response to Signature in the Cell and the response to Darwin's Doubt -- and it's a telling one. It took the anti-ID lobby months to start mustering responses to Signature. As I explained in Signature of Controversy:
After debating Stephen Meyer on the Michael Medved radio program last November, science journalist Chris Mooney apparently felt he couldn't find sufficient ammo to rebut the Cambridge-trained philosopher of science. Thus, Mooney subsequently posted a piece on his Discover Magazine blog, titled "Time to Refute Stephen Meyer?", in which he lamented that "Meyer's book is clearly drawing a lot of attention and is scarcely being refuted so far as I can see."24

Mooney was correct that Meyer's book garnered much interest -- though not from critics. In November 2009, an endorsement from the leading political philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel led to its being named one of the "Books of the Year" by the prestigious Times Literary Supplement in London. The following month, Meyer was named "Daniel of the Year" by World Magazine for the "courage" and "perseverance" that led to Signature in the Cell. Around this time, the anti-ID community on Internet decided they could not afford to continue ignoring Meyer's book, and critical reviews began trickling in. (pp. 77-78)

So what are we to make of the fact that Panda's Thumb has already attempted to pounce on Darwin's Doubt, two months before the book is released, and just after it was publicly announced? I think it tells us that the Internet Darwin chorus is getting nervous. They realize they made a poor showing in responding to Signature in the Cell, and they're eager to do a better job with Darwin's Doubt. So eager that they're refuting arguments before they even know if he makes them.

For example, the very first commenter in the Panda's Thumb discussion would have done well to read Darwin's Doubt before making this comment:

Well my suggestion would be that he explain why the "explosion" happened hundreds of millions of years ago and why it took millions of years to happen. That should make the YECs very happy. I would also suggest that he explain why there were no vertebrates of any kind produced by the "explosion" until millions of years later. No fish, no amphibians, no reptiles, no birds, no mammals, such some basal chordates. Why is that?
If he'd read Darwin's Doubt, he would have learned that there were in fact vertebrate fish in the Cambrian explosion. Here's a nice photograph of one of these fascinating fossils, reported in Nature in 1999, in an aptly titled article, "Lower Cambrian Vertebrates from South China":

cambrianfish.jpg

(Reprinted by permission from Figure 4a, Macmillan Publishers Ltd.: Nature, Shu et al., "Lower Cambrian Vertebrates from South China," Nature, 402 (November 4, 1999): 42-46. Copyright 1999.)

As Nature reported at the time: "Most major animal groups appear suddenly in the fossil record 550 million years ago, but vertebrates have been absent from this 'Big Bang' of life. Two fish-like animals from Early Cambrian rocks now fill this gap."

And what are we to make of the PT commenter's argument that there are "No fish, no amphibians, no reptiles, no birds, no mammals, such some basal chordates" until "millions of years later"? Well, obviously he's wrong about fish, but is it a problem for intelligent design that major vertebrate classes like reptiles, birds, or mammals don't appear until later? Not at all.

Intelligent design has no problem with the fact that there is order to the fossil record, and that many animals alive today didn't exist in the past, or that many animals alive in the past don't exist today. Why should an ID-based view demand that all species come into being all at once? Technology designers certainly don't always introduce all designs at the same time -- and sometimes there are good reasons for that. Indeed, had the designer introduced humans and Velociraptors simultaneously, I'm sure some atheist would be cry (fallaciously) "bad design!" Perhaps we should be grateful that some species arose after others.

While the fact that life has a history doesn't bother ID, the fact that reptiles, birds, and mammals don't appear until after the Cambrian could be a major problem for neo-Darwinian evolution if, whenever these groups do appear, they do so in an abrupt, non-Darwinian fashion, that can't be explained in unguided evolutionary terms. In other words, do we see enough time in the fossil record to allow the information required for these new body plans to arise by natural selection and random mutation, one small Darwinian step at a time? The reality is that for many of these sub-groups of vertebrates, we see patterns of explosions related to their origins.

Regarding the origin of major fish groups, Columbia University geoscientist Arthur Strahler wrote that, "This is one count in the creationists' charge that can only evoke in unison from paleontologists a plea of nolo contendere [no contest]."1 A paper in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics explains that the origin of land plants "is the terrestrial equivalent of the much-debated Cambrian 'explosion' of marine faunas."2 Regarding the origin of angiosperms (flowering plants), paleontologists have discovered a "big bloom" type of explosion event. As one paper states:

In spite of much research and analyses of different sources of data (e.g., fossil record and phylogenetic analyses using molecular and morphological characters), the origin of the angiosperms remains unclear. Angiosperms appear rather suddenly in the fossil record... with no obvious ancestors for a period of 80-90 million years before their appearance.3
In a similar way, many orders of mammals appear in an explosive manner. Niles Eldredge explains that "there are all sorts of gaps: absence of gradationally intermediate 'transitional' forms between species, but also between larger groups -- between, say, families of carnivores, or the orders of mammals."4 There is also a bird explosion, with major bird groups appearing in a short time period. Frank Gill's 2007 textbook Ornithology observes the "explosive evolution" of major living bird groups,5 and a paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution titled "Evolutionary Explosions and the Phylogenetic Fuse" explains:
A literal reading of the fossil record indicates that the early Cambrian (c. 545 million years ago) and early Tertiary (c. 65 million years ago) were characterized by enormously accelerated periods of morphological evolution marking the appearance of the animal phyla, and modern bird and placental mammal orders, respectively.6
Now of course each of the authors quoted above are evolutionary scientists who don't question that fully unguided evolutionary mechanisms can explain the origin of these groups. So while they attempt to explain the history of life in unguided material terms, it nonetheless remains the case that "[a] literal reading of the fossil record" shows a suspiciously consistent non-Darwinian pattern of abrupt explosions of new types of organisms. Darwin's Doubt explains why this explosive pattern is not amenable to explanation by unguided evolutionary mechanisms, but is best explained by intelligent design.

The argument of the book goes into immense detail on these questions. But you won't know what Steve Meyer says -- nor will you be prepared to talk about it -- unless you read the book.

Conveniently, copies can be pre-ordered now, at a nice discount, at DarwinsDoubt.com.

References:

[1.] Arthur N. Strahler, Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy, pp. 408-409 (New York: Prometheus Books, 1987).

[2.] Richard M. Bateman, Peter R. Crane, William A. DiMichele, Paul R. Kenrick, Nick P. Rowe, Thomas Speck, and William E. Stein, "Early Evolution of Land Plants: Phylogeny, Physiology, and Ecology of the Primary Terrestrial Radiation," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 29: 263-292 (1998).

[3.] Stefanie De Bodt, Steven Maere, and Yves Van de Peer, "Genome duplication and the origin of angiosperms," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20: 591-597 (2005).

[4.] Niles Eldredge, The Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982), 65.

[5.] Frank B. Gill, Ornithology, 3rd ed. (New York: W.H. Freeman, 2007), 42.

[6.] Alan Cooper and Richard Fortey, "Evolutionary Explosions and the Phylogenetic Fuse," Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 13: 151-156 (April, 1998).