Thursday, 22 January 2015

Doubting "Darwin's Doubt" - BioLogos concludes its review series of Stephen Meyer's book

Since August 2014, the BioLogos Foundation has been carrying out a multidisciplinary review of the 2013 book Darwin’s Doubt by philosopher and intelligent design advocate Stephen Meyer. His earlier book Signature in the Cell had been poorly received by the scientific mainstream. Darwin’s Doubt, which claimed that the Cambrian Explosion could not be explained by the modern synthetic theory of evolution and was therefore evidence for intelligent design was likewise received negatively by evolutionary biologists and palaeontologists.

Typical of these reviews was that from University of California, Berkeley palaeontologist Charles Marshall who remarked that his disappointment with Meyer’s flawed book stemmed from more than Meyer’s admission that he was not a biologist (and therefore not arguing from the perspective of an informed insider. Rather:
[i]t stems from Meyer's systematic failure of scholarship. For instance, while I was flattered to find him quote one of my own review papers —although the quote is actually a chimera drawn from two very different parts of my review—he fails to even mention the review's (and many other papers') central point: that new genes did not drive the Cambrian explosion. His scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective.[1]
Selective is an understatement; Meyer has quote mined Marshall and failed to understand what Marshall was saying. This is poor scholarship, as Marshall explicitly states in his conclusion:
But when it comes to explaining the Cambrian explosion, Darwin's Doubt is compromised by Meyer's lack of scientific knowledge, his “god of the gaps” approach, and selective scholarship that appears driven by his deep belief in an explicit role of an intelligent designer in the history of life.[2]
Like Marshall, the BioLogos Foundation has taken an irenic approach in reviewing Meyer’s deeply flawed book, but have been no less rigorous in pointing out its problems:
  1. Philosopher / physicist Robert Bishop “[critiqued] the rhetoric and overall argument…investigated several papers in the primary scientific literature cited by Meyer [and argued] that the original context of these quotes does not support (or even contradicts) Meyer’s case.”
  2. Palaeontologist Ralph Stearley “[analysed] scientific errors in Darwin’s Doubt relating to the incorrect contraction of the Cambrian explosion interval into 6 million years, the neglect of important evidence from trace fossils, a lack of discussion of significant time depth for spongiomorph radiations, and in general a disinterest in the emerging picture of successive ecological transformations occurring as the backdrop to the Cambrian explosion.”
  3. Stearley, Bishop, and geneticist Darrel Falk agree that natural selection alone is not enough to explain the evolution of body plans, but pointed out that it was inaccurate to claim that the Cambrian explosion defied explanation. As BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma observes:
They all referred to the modern, extended neo-Darwinian synthesis, which includes multiple evolutionary mechanisms (e.g., symbiogenesis, developmental constraints, and epigenetics) acting alongside natural selection to generate and constrain novelty, as well as the exciting work being done to apply this synthesis to the Cambrian explosion. Falk sees bigger developments going on here than Bishop and Stearley, but they all see it as an extension of existing models and a promising area of research rather than, as Meyer characterizes it, a failed program. Bishop shows that one of the main problems with the design inference in Darwin’s Doubt is the failure to address the modern synthesis of multiple evolutionary mechanisms. Far from not responding to the science in Darwin’s Doubt, all three authors address the fundamental scientific argument in the book. These authors are not acting out of some philosophical bias, but giving their scientific assessment of the state of the field and current scientific evidence.[3]
Given the markedly poor levels of critical thinking skills and scientific literacy found in most special creationists in our community, it is hardly surprising that Meyer’s book have found a willing, uncritical audience. Reviews such as those from BioLogos, and other professionals in evolutionary biology and palaeontology such as Nick Matzke, Charles Marshall, and Donald Prothero deserve a wide audience in our community in order to show why Meyer’s arguments are poorly received by the experts in the field, and should not be used as 'evidence' against evolution.

[1] Marshall C.R. "When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship". Science (2013) 341:1344.  
[2] loc cit
[3] Haarsma D “Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt: ConclusionBioLogos Blog  Jan 19 2015