Blogging through “Darwin’s Doubt”, by Stephen Meyer

I’ve started reading Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer – I’ve seen several articles about this book and, given its nature, thought it might at least help me to write some reflections on it as I go.  Usual disclaimer – I am trained as a physicist, which makes me good at “thinking science” but also means that, when it comes to biology, I might not know what relevant facts the author isn’t mentioning.  But, it’s a complicated world and we do what we can.

Thoughts on the Prologue

Mayer lays out the genesis of the book in the prologue.  We are living, now, through an “information revolution”, but biology has also had its information revolutions as seen in the information-bearing properties of DNA.  In 2009, Meyer wrote a book called Signature in the Cell in which he tried to make the case that the origin of the first-life itself was unlikely to be explained by purely physical processes.

No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information starting “from purely physical or chemical precursors”.

Apparently many of Meyer’s critics responded to that book by attacking a case he wasn’t actually trying to make, pointing to examples of more complex life forms evolving from simpler pre-existing life forms – again, because those other life forms were pre-existing, they weren’t really critiquing the case Meyer was trying to make in the previous book.  But those criticisms did eventually prompt Meyer to write this book, which essentially says, “there are other problems with the theory of evolution as usually presented as well – and academic biologists know this”.

Since 1980, when Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould declared that neo-Darwinism “is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy,” the weight of critical opinion in biology has grown steadily with each passing year.

Something I try to stress to students is that science is, by its very nature, tentative, and can often only speak in probabilities rather than certainties.  Science textbooks however, to their shame, will sometimes fail to mention those uncertainties (and the popular media, a hundred times more so).  So, while I don’t know for a fact that this is true, the idea that serious people in the field could be aware of many possible problems with the reigning paradigm that textbooks are ignoring is, at least, easy for me to believe.

Similarly, speaking of testimony he gave before the Texas State Board of Education,

…Eugenie Scott, spokeswoman for the National Center for Science Education, insisted in The Dallas Morning News, “There are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution.”

At the same time, I was preparing a binder of one hundred peer-reviewed scientific articles in which biologists described problems with the theory…

But anyway – what are those problems?  This book appears to focus on two – primarily, the Cambrian Explosion, an historical period in which large numbers of animal forms appear in the fossil record without any apparent evolutionary precursors, a problem of which Darwin was aware.  And, secondarily, the problem of the incredible complexity of microbiology, an issue Darwin knew nothing about because it hadn’t been discovered yet.

Specifically, the book is divided into three sections.

  1. The problem of the missing fossils
  2. The issue of information in living systems that makes the Cambrian Explosion even more remarkable
  3. Where do we go from here?

As an aside, just one other statement from the prologue worth commenting upon I thought:

Such episodes [the change in moth populations based on varying levels of pollution in England] are often presented as conclusive evidence for the power of evolution.  And indeed they are, depending on how one defines “evolution”.  The term has many meanings, and few biology textbooks distinguish between them.

I thought this was another good point – science also depends upon carefully defined terms.  Both “evolution” and, more commonly, “climate change” are big words that encompass many sub-ideas, and are often used without really considering those sub-ideas.  The phrase “climate change is happening” is indisputably true… and also tells you almost nothing important.  Everything that matters about the issue is down in the sub-ideas.

See you next chapter.