Darwin’s Doubt and Intelligent Design

TrilobitesA couple of years ago Stephen C. Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design as a continuation of the argument he began in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. I’ve read Signature in the Cell, and we discussed it in a series of posts in early 2010. I have not (yet) read Darwin’s Doubt – not out of any desire to ignore the Intelligent Design (ID) debate, but rather because the most important questions in my mind are not scientific (i.e. does science leave room for God?) but theological and biblical (i.e. who is God? how does he act? and how are we to read the bible?). This is where I’ve focused most of my reading. The closest I’ve gotten to digging into the specific argument in Darwin’s Doubt is listening to the radio show Unbelievable where Stephen Meyer and Charles Marshall, an Evolutionary Biologist from UC Berkeley, discussed the book. You can listen or download the episode through the link above – it is an interesting discussion.

Although I haven’t read the book yet, and thus won’t attempt to review it, BioLogos put up a series of reviews on the book, a post by Stephen Meyer where he was able to respond to the reviews: Clarifying Issues: My Response to the BioLogos Series reviewing “Darwin’s Doubt, followed by a wrap-up post Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt Conclusion. These posts suggest some interesting questions.

The basic argument of Darwin’s Doubt is that the explosion in the diversity of life forms and body plans in the Cambrian Period some 542 million years ago poses a problem for the general hypothesis of evolution by natural selection. The trilobite is a great example. In the Paleozoic era (542 mya to 251 mya) the sea crawled with these armored arthropods and their hard shells fossilized well. The image above is a photo I took at the Natural History Museum in Oxford last summer showing a portion of a 450 million year old slab of fossils from the Ordovician Period, about 90 million years after the beginning of the Cambrian. Trilobites galore! Trilobites first appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian as part of the Cambrian explosion. The mystery that surrounds the explosion of animal life in the Cambrian leads, in Meyer’s view, to the theory of Intelligent Design as the best explanation.

There are real challenges. Darrel Falk, who wrote one of the reviews, agrees with Meyer that there are real challenges here, and that there are big changes ahead for evolutionary biology. In fact, he doesn’t think that Meyer exaggerates the nature of rethinking that is going on in biology these days. From the perspective of a non-expert, I agree with him. By coincidence, an expert in evolutionary biology (HT BM) pointed me to a recent issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology devoted entirely to Epigenetics (v. 218(1) 2015), where several of the authors suggest that the Modern neo-Darwinist Synthesis will require extension or replacement. Denis Noble’s lead article Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: a new conceptual framework is available free of charge if anyone is interested. This is a mainstream scientific journal with neo-Darwinist roots. The changes afoot could be minor extensions, or major reorientations, something akin, perhaps, to the move from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics in physics. In fact my friend made just that analogy. The move underway in biology is from a reductionist/deterministic “Newtonian” way of thinking to a more diffuse systems and relationships oriented approach.

The developments happening in evolutionary biology represent the normal progress of science and scientific ideas. There may be a paradigm shift, but it is not a repudiation of everything that came before, any more than quantum mechanics repudiated classical mechanics. We still use Newton’s law, F=ma (force = mass ×acceleration) right alongside HΨ=EΨ. The revolution in biology builds on the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis and extends it in important new ways.

But do these mysteries and challenges mean that Intelligent Design is the best explanation? Meyer suggests that those who find Intelligent Design an unsatisfactory conclusions do so out of a philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism.

In particular, the reviews have revealed that the central issue dividing the BioLogos writers from intelligent design (ID) theorists concerns a principle known as methodological naturalism (MN). MN asserts that scientists must explain all events and phenomena by reference to strictly naturalistic or materialistic causes. The principle forbids postulating the actions of personal agency, mind, or intelligent causation in scientific explanations and thus limits the explanatory toolkit of science to strictly material processes or physical causes.

Now I find the Intelligent Design hypothesis unsatisfactory, and will place myself in the company of the BioLogos writers on this one. But this isn’t because of some commitment to methodological naturalism as defined by Meyer. Frankly, I don’t see the Intelligent Design hypothesis leading in any fruitful forward direction. The case for Intelligent Design is an argument from analogy and by inference. It seems a great leap to go from the current absence of explanation to the conclusion that Intelligent Design is the ‘scientific’ explanation for the Cambrian explosion. Once we’ve made the leap, what is the next step? Falk puts it well:

How will proponents of Intelligent Design take their biological studies from the level of the “best explanation on the basis of analogy” to a project which makes a set of positive predictions? How will they move forward by building a positive research program rather than a negative one based upon the critique of mainstream ideas? What are the biological predictions that will emerge from within their paradigm and how will they test them?

Critique of mainstream ideas can only go so far. This isn’t a logic game where pointing out a flaw undermines the whole. A valid critique leads us forward. Valid critiques of Newtonian physics led to general relativity and to quantum mechanics. Valid critiques of the modern neo-Darwinist synthesis in biology are leading us to a better and more sophisticated understanding of biology, a response that is evident today.

Where does Intelligent Design lead? It seems to me that the only way that Intelligent Design becomes the ultimate best explanation in the way that Meyer would like to conclude is if we reach an insurmountable dead end in terms of “natural” explanations. Therefore an intelligent designer is the best explanation. And we are not even close to this yet.

As a Christian I believe that God designed the world, and did so intelligently for a purpose. As a scientist I am investigating that world, the patterns, laws, and forces that guide it. There is an amazing beauty in the explanatory ability of a rather small set of postulates. But this is the world God made. The scientific explanations don’t take God out of the picture, as though we have a zero sum game, either God or nature. The hypothesis put forth by Meyer, that Intelligent Design is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life simply doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the discussion. But perhaps you disagree.

Is Intelligent Design a useful conclusion? Why?

Where do you think it leads? What purpose does it serve?

What approach do you think that Christians should take to the study of the development of the diversity of life?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Darwin’s Doubt and Intelligent Design at Jesus Creed.

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