As you’ll know if you’ve been reading here regularly, Stephen Meyer, a fellow of the intelligent-design-touting Discovery Institute, has published a new book called Darwin’s Doubt. Its thesis is that the Cambrian explosion of animal life, which I mentioned yesterday, could not reflect natural evolutionary processes, and so must be the work of
God an Intelligent Designer.
It’s no use reading reviews by ID people, as they’re hardly objective, and don’t have the requisite knowledge about the Cambrian explosion anyway. I too lack that expertise, which is why I’m not reviewing the book. But, over at Panda’s Thumb, Nick Matzke, who’s finishing his Ph.D. in biology at Berkeley, has written a very long but excellent review, which he call’s “Meyer’s Hopeless Monster, Part II“. (“Part I” is a damning review Matzke wrote about a paper Meyer published in 2004.)
Matzke’s verdict: Darwin’s Doubt stinks. His overall opinion:
As I read through Meyer’s book, though, in case after case I see misunderstandings, superficial treatment of key issues which are devastating to his thesis once understood, and complete or near-complete omission of information that any non-expert reader would need to have to make an accurate assessment of Meyer’s arguments.
And he proffers this damning assessment of Meyer’s scientific explanations:
In the cases I have checked, Wikipedia does better at explaining the actual issues and methods than Meyer does.
Nick’s review is long and quite technical, so I’ll just summarize the main points of contention. I am not evaluating what Nick said, but summarizing his criticisms, and I hope I get this right!
All statement in quotes are from Matzke:
- Meyer doesn’t present the full story of the Cambrian “explosion,” and neglects the animal diversification that led up to it, making the explosion seem more explosive than it was. Moreover, the earliest representatives of modern “phyla” are quite different from those that appear even in the late Cambrian, so evolution continued throughout the 30-myr period. I quote Nick:
“All of this is pretty good evidence for the basic idea that the Cambrian “Explosion” is really the radiation of simple bilaterian worms into more complex worms, and that this took something like 30 million years just to get to the most primitive forms that are clearly related to one or another living crown “phyla”, and occurred in many stages, instead of all at once. But, the reader gets very little of the actual big picture from Meyer.”
- The notion of what a “new body plan” is turns out to be quite fuzzy, and in fact those “plans,” which comprise many characters, originated during the Cambrian in a step-by-step rather than instantaneous proces. Meyer’s failure to appreciate this comes from his apparent lack of understanding of modern systematics and cladistic methodology. Again I quote Nick:
“It is the step-by-step reconstruction of character changes that is the fundamentally important result that tells us about evolutionary history. This is the result that is closest to the data. The naming conventions are not of fundamental importance by comparison, even though creationists (including Meyer) usually distract themselves by focusing on names and taxonomic ranks rather than the distribution of characters. . . But Meyer never presents for his readers the point that cladistic analyses reveal the order in which the characters found in living groups were acquired, nor the fact that stem taxa are the transitional fossils the creationists are allegedly looking for. And he especially avoids giving his readers any real sense of the number of transitional forms we know about for some groups, and the detail known about their relationships and about the order in which the characters of modern groups originated. The most egregious example is with the Cambrian arthropods and arthropod relatives.
- Meyer’s ignorance of modern systematics leads him to many other mistake or muddles. He mischaracterizes animals like Anomalocarus as “arthropods, which isn’t kosher. Further, some of his “phyla” are actually subgroups of other “phyla”. Meyer mistakenly thinks that modern systematics can identify fossils that are direct ancestors of modern groups. It can’t: it can identify sister groups (groups that are each other’s closest relatives) and “ancestral grades and clades”—but not single fossils that are themselves ancestral. According to Matzke, this issue (one that even I’m aware of) leads Meyer into several “howlers.” Finally, Meyer notes that some phylogenetic analysis conflict, and on this basis rejects the entire enterprise of systematics as used to analyze the fossil data! Nick weighs in:
“Again, it is only by refusing to depict and specifically discuss of the inter-relationships of these sorts of taxa, and the data that supports them, and to mention the statistical support for the resulting relationships, that Meyer manages to pretend to his readers that these questions [what is the ancestry of a group] are not even partially answered, are unanswerable, and that “poof, God did it” is a better explanation.
. . .But to creationists/IDists, all phylogenetic conflicts of any sort are considered equally, crashingly devastating. It’s rather a lot like when the young-earth creationists argued if estimates of the age of the Earth varied between 4.5 and 4.6 billion years ago, this 100-my disagreement was huge, and therefore we should instead think the Earth is 6,000 years old.
. . . All of the major statistical phylogenetic issues I’ve raised above were put forward with much more patience and detail by Doug Theobald in his “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” FAQ at talk.origins. Meyer cites this once, near the beginning of his quote-mining tour about conflict between phylogenies, but then asserts that “In reality, however, the technical literature tells a different story.” This just ain’t so.”
- Most of Meyer’s book isn’t really about the Cambrian explosion, but about his pet theme, the notion that evolution cannot produce biological “information.” His rejection of the idea that new genes can evolve—genes that can do new things—has been roundly refuted by discoveries in the last decade, if not before. Yet Meyer still rejects this, desperately clinging to the idea that the origin of new information requires
Godan Intelligent Designer. Meyer seems to think, for example, that the genetic similarity of duplicate genes arises not from duplication itself (a well understood process) but from independent, convergent evolution. That level of ignorance is so profound that it must be willful.
Nick has a long section refuting the notion that evolution can’t create new biological information (something that’s refuted not only by new genetic data, but by the evolution of transitional forms with new characters in the fossil record), but I’ll leave you to read that yourself. I’ll finish with some excerpts from Nick’s conclusions. I quote at length because there’s a lot here, and his summary is good (the bolding is mine):
“Even without addressing all of these other issues in depth, I think the above shows that Meyer’s book is already holed beneath the waterline on the key issues of Cambrian paleontology, phylogenetics, and the information argument. I’m not sure it deserves much more of anyone’s time. Sadly, some vaguely respectable people seem to have ignored the crashingly obvious flaws and endorsed the book, although in at least some cases they are already known for promoting bizarre opinions in other contexts. Enthusiastic reviewers in the blogosphere, like Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian, seem to lack even Wikipedia-level research abilities in critically assessing Meyer’s claims.
“The one refreshing bit of the book is at the end, where Meyer basically admits that, yes, this really is all about bringing an interventionist God back into science, and thereby reconciling and harmonizing science and religion, and solving the problems of meaning in the culture and belonging in the Universe, or something. How exactly this could ever work, even if Meyer’s argument’s succeeded, is not explained. Meyer completely and explicitly punts on the question of providing any sorts of answers on what exactly is supposed to have happened at the Cambrian or anywhere else in geological history, on the ID view. All we get is ID did something, somewhere, somehow, for some reason, never mind extinction, the millions of years of twiddling around with arthropods, the billions of years of twiddling around with bacteria, the endless examples of apparent evidence for evolution, etc. If Meyer takes his own arguments at all seriously, he is invoking divine intervention not just for the origin of life and the Cambrian, for basically every new gene, ORFan, any adaptation of any significance, and some ill-specified level of morphological difference. This is, probably, billions of separate divine interventions. It essentially amounts to invoking divine intervention at every instance where Meyer personally doesn’t understand something, even in cases where scientists understand something quite well, and Meyer simply can’t be bothered to do the work necessary to understand what they are talking about.
“As I’ve said before, the real problem with creationists/IDists isn’t when they stick God into the gaps in current scientific knowledge. Such a thing is unwise, given history, but at least questions that all of humanity still wonders about are vaguely worthy of divine intervention. The real problem is when creationists/IDists insert God into the gaps in their own personal knowledge, gaps which have already been filled by scientists.”
This “God-of-my-own-gaps” argument is not new, of course, for creationists have used it repeatedly, as when they raise the “no transitional forms, ergo God” claim when we already have transitional forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and mammals, reptiles and birds, land mammals and whales, and so on. It’s about pretending that there are gaps when there are none. But of course they continue to use the conventional god-of-the-gaps arguments for scientific issues that are still unresolved, like where did human morality come from, how did life originate, and why the laws of physics are why they are (i.e. laws that are supposedly “fine tuned” to allow the appearance of humans).
Nick and I have had our differences in the past—we’ve crossed swords several times, for instance, on the issue of accommodationism (he favors comity with religion; I don’t)—but I have to give him credit here, as I have done for all his work fighting creationism in the past. He’s done a magnificent job refuting Meyer’s thesis, and anybody interested in the technicalities of why Darwin’s Doubt is a Dud must read Nick’s post.
We can expect other reviews by paleobiologists in the near future. I’d be surprised if they were any more laudatory than Nick’s.