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About Those Amazon Reviews of Darwin's Doubt


Editor's Note: Ray Bohlin is a Fellow of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute. He received his PhD in molecular and cell biology from the University of Texas at Dallas.

DebatingDD.jpegWith the release of Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, the book's Amazon page has been filling up quickly with reviews, mostly positive but inevitably some negative ones as well. Even after reviews are completed and published, protracted skirmishes go on as partisans rate the reviews themselves as helpful or not helpful, realizing that a review popularly judged to be "helpful" will appear higher in the sorting.

Those negative reviews that actually review at least parts of the book, as opposed to those simply complaining about ID, focus repeatedly on Stephen Meyer's presumed error in claiming that the Cambrian event is in fact a problem. This is frequently communicated by putting "Cambrian explosion" in quotation marks, or just the word "explosion," implying that whatever happened in the Cambrian period, a "radiation" perhaps, it was not really an explosion. Some reviewers assure us that this is well known in the scientific literature and that numerous workable solutions have been offered. Thus the Cambrian "explosion" is not a "problem" at all.

Meanwhile, I just received a copy of the June 7, 2013, issue of Science magazine, the latest attempt by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) to get me to renew my subscription. What should I find on page 1170 but a review of a recent summary of Cambrian fossils and explanations authored by Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, two well-known experts on the Cambrian ("What Led to Metazoa's Big Bang?"). Steve Meyer only briefly refers to their work because it was released in January 2013, but Casey Luskin has reviewed it at length here ("Erwin and Valentine's The Cambrian Explosion Affirms Major Points in Darwin's Doubt: The Cambrian Enigma Is 'Unresolved'"). A point worth noting is right in the title: The Cambrian Explosion! Perhaps Erwin and Valentine ought to consult those experts in the ranks of Amazon reviewers and get their terminology in line with current thinking.

That said, I found interesting some statements by Christopher J. Lowe who reviews Erwin and Valentine in Science. In his opening paragraph, Lowe refers to "the grand puzzle of the Cambrian explosion," "one of the most important outstanding mysteries in evolutionary biology," in which "early representatives of all the major animal phyla appear abruptly." Later, he discusses the contributions of molecular biology "to solving the grand puzzle of the Cambrian explosion, which have been at odds with interpretations from the fossil data." That doesn't quite match up with the Amazon reviewers who just think Meyer got everything wrong and he's either stupid or a liar.

Instead, Lowe may agree with Erwin and Valentine and maybe even Meyer that the Cambrian explosion is still in need of an explanation. That would seem to follow from his twice referring to it as a "grand puzzle" and also as a "mystery."

Meyer himself, after reviewing the relevant data, offers one possible resolution of the enigma. Erwin and Valentine call for an interdisciplinary approach to solving the Cambrian mystery, as Lowe summarizes at the end of his review: "It is futile to hope to explain such a major evolutionary event without embracing an interdisciplinary approach." Admitting that a single line of reasoning is not going to get you there appears to imply that the problem to be solved is complex and mysterious. And indeed an interdisciplinary approach, reviewing the fossil, information, developmental, and genomic components of this unique event in Earth's history, is exactly what Meyer offers in Darwin's Doubt.

It is those lines of evidence, taken together, that suggest intelligent ordering as the best resolution of the mystery of the Cambrian explosion.