The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
By Stephen C. Meyer. Harper One. Pp. 540. $19.99
Review by Daniel Muth
I am fairly certain that there are thoughtful and potentially influential intellectual movements that have been subjected to more shameful and inexcusable misrepresentation and ill treatment than Intelligent Design (ID), but the list is not long (Roman Catholic teaching on artificial birth control comes to mind). To be fair, ID theorists have invited critique in no small part by tending to hold theirs out as a valid area of scientific research while mainly publishing popular books rather than peer-reviewed articles. If their intention was not to be lumped in with creationists, it has not worked.
From the disastrous Dover School Board lawsuit to the propaganda screeds of the New Atheists, ID has managed in a short time to fix itself in the popular consciousness as little but another movement of bellicose anti-scientific crackpots. That is a shame, because the theorists are generally quite thoughtful and reputably credentialed. The stuff they have written is informative, challenging, and worthwhile.
In Darwin’s Doubt, Stephen Meyer supplies a creditable example of the genre. Meyer is a trained geophysicist and sports a Cambridge PhD in philosophy of science. Here he examines the Cambrian explosion, in which a plethora of phyla, many sporting distinct body plans, popped into being in a relatively short (in evolutionary terms) period of time.
Meyer begins with an exploration of sudden appearances in the fossil record as an issue for certain of Darwin’s critics (notably Harvard paleontologist Louis Agassiz) and for Darwin himself, claiming these not to have been settled so much as set aside awaiting fuller scientific explanation. He then recounts the 1917 discovery of the famed Burgess Shale in Canada, which contains a number of previously unknown phyla, constituting, along with the 1984 discoveries at Chengjiang in China, the best examples of preserved Cambrian fossils.
Per Meyer, the Cambrian explosion presents the Darwinian paradigm with four challenges, the first being the sudden appearance of so many novel animal forms. Meyer claims that prior to the Chengjiang discoveries, most paleontologists estimated a 20 million- to 40 million-year window for the novel Cambrian animal forms to develop. Since the early 1990s, this estimate has been revised down to less than ten million years, a relative blink of the geological eye and a direct challenge to the notion that random mutation and natural selection had sufficient time to do their thing.
A second challenge is the absence of transitional fossils connecting from the simpler pre-Cambrian forms. The most popular — and plausible — explanations for this are the various forms of the Artifact theory, that the pre-Cambrian missing links are missing due to size, softness (vertebrates are easier to fossilize than jellyfish), geological change, or what have you. Meyer counters that we have quite a few pre-Cambrian fossils and they are either simple and undifferentiated, and thus too distant from the Cambrian fauna, or complex and developed but taxonomically unconnected to the later Cambrian forms. He claims that attempts to reconstruct a tree of life and fill in the fossil record gaps through DNA studies have yielded results that conflict too much to be helpful.
The third challenge is with the sheer array of novel Cambrian animal forms, many with (Meyer is at pains to emphasize) completely novel body plans. After a quick historical jaunt from Darwin and Mendel through Watson and Crick, he lays out the problem of genetic information, the bread-and-butter concern of the ID movement. Constructing novel organisms requires developing new proteins, which in turn require genetic information provided via long strands of amino acids structured in varying and highly complex ways. These are analogous to sentences and paragraphs in a language in that only certain relatively rare structures actually convey usable information.
Meyer recounts detailed investigations by engineer Douglas Axe (a colleague of Meyer’s at the Discovery Institute, though this is not mentioned), who estimates that only one in 1074 possible 150-amino-acid-long gene sequences could fold into a stable new protein and of these only one in 1,000 could perform any sort of function. An estimated 1040 total gene sequences generated in the history of life, therefore, yields odds of one in 1037 that a single new functional protein fold could ever have been produced.
Per Meyer, neo-Darwinists who take up the challenge note the plausibility of the incorporation of functioning genetic strands into existing proteins and have built mathematical models based on known mutation rates, population sizes, and generation times, that predict the likelihood of the dissemination of new traits through a population. In response, Meyer cites experts who claim that genetic material cannot be swapped around like Legos and rejects population genetics as a gross underestimate of the complexity of the changes being made.
The last challenge to neo-Darwinism is a pattern in which radical differences in form appear earlier in the fossil record than more minor changes. Meyer starts with a discussion of body plans (the basic structure that differentiates vertebrates from invertebrates and various types of the latter from one another) as tightly integrated systems that develop in a complex, specific, and highly controlled fashion as an organism moves from embryo to adult. To change a body plan requires the introduction of a radical and beneficial mutation early in development that unfolds coherently as the individual develops and is heritable by offspring. The complex mechanisms that enable this to happen are not strictly tied to DNA and thus are much harder to affect by normal mutational means. Yet the Cambrian explosion involved the sudden appearance of multiple new body plans in a comparatively short time.
In the closing third of the book, Meyer lays out his alternative explanation: that at least some features (not all; evolution is not denied) are the result of actual (vs. merely apparent) design by an intelligent agent (the nature of which agent may or may not be available for further scientific investigation). The intent is to avoid God-of-the-gaps reasoning by providing a means for determining scientifically which biological phenomena were designed.
I leave to others the tiresome debate over whether this is a properly scientific endeavor. I am content that, so long as one is using the scientific method, one’s desired outcome (naturalism vs. its opposite) is immaterial. The more important question apropos of ID is whether it is true. If ID theorists in fact produce a falsifiable theory to explain, say, the Cambrian explosion, and then demonstrate its veracity (a couple of really big ifs), I cannot see how it matters whether ID is science.
Obviously, few if any mainstream biologists or paleontologists have signed on and even the most charitable scientist-reviewers of the book have claimed that Meyer does not accurately represent their field (though to be fair, most such complaints appear to concern marginalia). It is widely accepted that mysteries remain and Meyer has ably elucidated at least a few of them. His proposed answer of ID is generally strongly rejected by mainstream scientists, many of whom, alas, indulge in inexcusable rudeness.
Bigger question: suppose these latter turn out to be wrong and ID is proven true. Would this present any theological problems for the thinking Christian? One might worry that by leaving behind scientifically indisputable evidence of his activity, God has then undercut faith. Even worse, ID would establish God as so inept a creator as to have to make periodic adjustments.
The concerns are reasonable but not, I think, compelling. One thing proof of ID would obviously not do is establish the existence of a transcendent God. In their better moments, ID theorists claim only to seek proof of an intelligent designer, not something beyond that. The belief that God himself is responsible for these interventions would still require faith.
As to the question of divine competence, I should think the matter settled. Regardless of its origins, God has bequeathed to us a willful, dangerous, chaotic, unfinished world. If perfection is the measure of the Creator, then the verdict would be a decidedly negative one and proof of divine tweaking cannot affect the result. Then again, perhaps there’s a different yardstick to be applied. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture bears ample witness to God’s love of and relation to his entire creation. An incarnational faith should have no problem with the notion of God carrying on a long-term, hands-on labor of love in relation to his entire created order.
In the end, I doubt ID will amount to much, scientifically. Some of its opponents seem reasonable people and the challenge of positing a falsifiable theory will likely be too daunting. Its chief achievement to this point has been in helping more thoughtful philosophers mount a direct challenge to a fatuous materialism that has received more deference than it deserves. If it can also remind Christians to follow evidence regardless of where it leads and that some mysteries simply cannot be solved in this life, then its legacy would seem an honorable one, regardless of the final scientific verdict.
Daniel Muth is a manager of a nuclear utility in the Middle East and a member of the Living Church Foundation.