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From The New Yorker, Backhanded Compliments for Darwin's Doubt

DD-NYT-Cover.jpgSome of the most interesting, positive and indeed exciting coverage of Thomas Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False came from what you might have thought were unlikely sources, decidedly liberal, secular venues like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Atheist philosopher Dr. Nagel had, of course, aroused fury from the Darwinian materialist posse with his praise for theorists of intelligent design, notably Stephen Meyer.

But the welcoming, almost relieved counter-response seemed to a mark a turning point. It looked like a longstanding condition of intellectual sclerosis was breaking apart and freeing up: suddenly, new ideas were getting through, receiving intelligent discussion in some very surprising places.

The blood of unimpeded debate was flowing again. The vow of silence was over.

Here's a hopeful sign that, in observing this, we were not mistaken. The New Yorker's review of Darwin's Doubt is negative, yes, but it's full of backhanded compliments. Ignore the snarkiness, and read between the lines. Linking to our announcement of Meyer's debut at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Gareth Cook concludes:

[D]o not underestimate "Darwin's Doubt": it is a masterwork of pseudoscience. Meyer is a reasonably fluid writer who weaves anecdote and patient explanation. He skillfully deploys the trappings of science -- the journals, the conferences, the Latinate terminology. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. He appears serious and, above all, reasonable. The Cambrian argument has been a part of creationism and its inheritors for many years, but Meyer's project is to canonize it, a task he completes with great skill. Those who feel a hunger for material evidence of God or who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read. Which is to say, Meyer will find a large audience: he aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.

The book's best, most honest moments come in the concluding chapter, in which Meyer travels to see the famous Burgess Shale in person. His son goes ahead on the trail but then suddenly freezes, stricken with vertigo after peering down the mountainside. Meyer likens his son's paralysis to modernity's despair at materialism, its shock at the prospect that the universe is utterly indifferent. Meyer writes frankly, saying that his quest is to give people back their sense of meaning and purpose. Here, at last, Meyer is not pretending to be a scientist.

Sure, there are grounds to complain. Cook dismisses ID as "pseudoscience" in part because he lets grad student Nick Matzke's bogus response to Stephen Meyer's book, over at Panda's Thumb, carry much of the scientific burden of his own review for him. (See Casey Luskin's reply to Matzke.) Cook seems to have absorbed the National Center for Science Education's false narrative about the origins of ID, and I don't think he understands the argument that Meyer makes.

Cook says that with Darwinism having failed to explain the origin of the species (in Meyer's view), "The only alternative explanation, Meyer writes, is the involvement of an intelligent designer (read: God) who rushed along the story of life on Earth." For goodness sake. No, that's not the "only alternative explanation": a source of designing intelligence, not necessarily God at all, is the explanation that best fits the data, as Meyer painstakingly argues. There's a big difference.

Cook writes:

The problem for Meyer is that what has come to be called the Cambrian explosion was not, in fact, an explosion. It took place over tens of millions of years -- far more time than, for example, it took humans and chimpanzees to go their separate ways. Decades of fossil discovery around the world, combined with new computer-aided analytical techniques, have given scientists a far more complete portrait of the tree of life than Darwin and Walcott had available, making connections between species that they could not see.

The problem for Cook is that it's not the duration of the Cambrian event that's of interest. It's the fact that, whether in 5, 10, or "tens" of million years, it brought into existence a bewildering variety of complex creatures that have no evident ancestry. That is the enigma, in the resolution which "computer-aided analytical techniques" offer no aid since they point, unnervingly, to many conflicting Darwinian "trees of life."

Neither Cook nor Matzke reckons with Meyer's description and analysis of the competing post-Darwinian theories that are out there -- forget about intelligent design! The scientific community is in the process of shrugging off a failed theory. What will replace it? That is news!

But in perspective, these are minor grumbles about Cook's review. He seems to be a thoughtful guy -- it would be interesting to sit in on a conversation between him and a few ID scientists. He would learn something and I think enjoy the experience.

What's important is the way the logjam against intelligent discussion of intelligent design in the mainstream media is finally unjamming. Guys like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins (an increasingly eccentric figure) will continue to stonewall, refusing to evaluate or even acknowledge the arguments in Darwin's Doubt or other rigorous articulations of ID. Gentlemen like Nick Matzke will continue to search high and low for typographical errors in our work, while creating scientific distractions to confuse the willing and the naïve.

That's all a sideshow. Real scientists and thoughtful, open-minded laymen are paying attention right now to a genuine and fascinating disputation about biological origins. The endorsements from scientists in relevant fields that Darwin's Doubt has already received is itself confirmation of that. I've said already that I don't know how the debate will be resolved, if it ever will. But make no mistake: the debate is happening.