Saturday, September 7, 2013

Creationism 3.0: Meet Intelligent Design’s Huckster

There's a temptation to review each new book that makes the case for intelligent design by publishing a laundry list of every fact, experiment, subtheory, and interpretation that the author gets wrong. I'll spare you that exercise, partly because it's been done elsewhereby scientists, and partly because Stephen Meyer, the author of Darwin's Doubt, is not your typical creationist hack. 
Instead, Meyer, who holds a PhD in the philosophy of science from Cambridge, is that odd hybrid: the philosopher-huckster. His arguments are, for the most part, precise, his research is extensive, and many of his points echo those made by leading biologists. Like many other proponents of intelligent design, he's not committed to defending the details of Genesis. He accepts that the world is old, and that evolution does happen—at least in a limited way. As a result, he not only sounds like a scientist, but for much of the book he almost acts like one. 
All of which is to say that a laundry list of errors doesn't get to the meat of Darwin's Doubt. Meyer is the finest kind of huckster: he doesn't tell lies, he merely rearranges truths. Darwin's Doubt is a toxic blend of hasty conclusions, cracked arguments, and terminological confusions. It's also, for those who are keeping count, a New York Times bestseller. More plausible than the arguments of 6,000-year-old-earthers, and much slicker than the earlier, bumbling efforts of intelligent design-ers, creationism 3.0 has arrived. 
Two things about Darwin's Doubt are misleading from the start. The first is the book's billing as a study of the Cambrian explosion (which, for those who dozed off in paleontology class, is a period in geological history known for the rapid diversification of animal life). By the standards of the fossil record, things happen pretty quickly: from a soup of small, soft-bodied organisms arises an impressive array of marine animals, such as trilobites. Darwin himself recognized that this sudden emergence of animal diversity posed a problem for his idea of gradual evolution—thus Meyer's title. 
His book may have a photo of a trilobite on the cover, but Meyer's argument involves far more than the Cambrian period. As he begins to question the idea that natural selection can produce new proteins and new body plans, it becomes clear that Meyer is gunning for all of evolutionary theory. The book's initial Cambrian focus, it seems, is just a way to usher readers into a more expansive critique. It’s as if Karl Marx, worried about alienating potential followers, had called his most famous tract "Some Minor Problems with the Bourgeoisie."
Also misleading is that impression that Darwin's Doubt is unburdened by prior religious commitments. I'd be the last person to disqualify someone's scholarship based on personal religious convictions (I'll leave that to Lauren Green). But a deeper look at Meyer's affiliations suggest goals that aren't strictly academic. For Focus on the Family, Meyer has recorded two series of lectures, one demonstrating, in the organization's words, that the Bible "is a reliable historical document," and the other arguing "that our universe was created by an intelligent designer—and the most logical candidate is the God of the Bible." On the website of the Ligonier Ministries, who sell copies of these lectures, Meyer is described as having "spent 20 years researching cosmology, biology and metaphysics to determine the existence of a creator God." 
Meyer is also the co-founder and director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that powers so much of the anti-evolution movement today. The Discovery Institute claims to be a non-religious organization, particularly when it's taken to court over repeated attempts to revise public school science curricula.
In a fundraising document leaked to the press a few years ago, though, the Institute shows a keen awareness of their work's religious dimension. Outlining a strategic plan, the Institute's fundraisers write that "design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." Needless to say, our culture does have a term for a non-material entity endowed with extraordinary creative power, and that term is God.
Meyer studiously avoids mentioning God until the book's final chapter. Instead, the bulk of his argument revolves around fossils, mutations, and proteins, not the puzzles of metaphysics. As Meyer points out, Darwin thought that evolution happened gradually, with slow, steady changes eventually leading to life's diversification. But there are gaps in the fossil record, especially during the Cambrian explosion, that seem too big to have been hurdled by such gradual change. And, according to Meyer, because life is so unbelievably complex, it seems almost impossible, based on the rate and way in which mutations occur, that evolution alone could have gotten us to this point. Consequently, there must be a designer.
That's the argument. Here's the strategy: take a set of ideas that aren't actually all that controversial; lay them out in order to fit your theory; then jump to conclusions so gradually that no one notices (maybe not even the writer) that any jump has been made. 
Thing is, evolutionary biologists have been bickering over Darwin's concept of gradual evolution for decades. As is the case with all truly great ideas, Darwin's account of natural selection is supremely simple in its core principles, and almost unthinkably complex in its applications. Genes mutate, migrate, and replicate in ways and circumstances that scientists are only beginning to understand. And that's just studying living, breathing laboratory animals. The implications for events that happened 500 million years ago are even more unclear.
But where evolutionary biologists might see the slow, messy process by which theory is made, Meyer argues that "standard evolutionary theory has reached an impasse." Leaning heavily on the work of a few Discovery Institute researchers—to his credit, he's forthright about the connection—Meyer concludes that evolutionary theories based on "strictly material processes" will no longer suffice.   
Enter the designer. Meyer, eager to keep the tone of a scientific inquiry, phrases his case for the designer using the same methodological tool that's central to evolutionary biology: Uniformitarianism. Simpler than the eight-syllable name suggests, the idea is that what goes on in the world today must also have been happening in the past. Therefore, we can look at present patterns of cause and effect and apply them to past evidence. If we know, for example, that exposure to ultraviolet radiation triggers mutations today, then we can also assume it would have had a similar influence on creatures living hundreds of millions of years ago.
Meyer observes that, today, when we see something intricate and functional—such as a computer or a can opener—we assume that it's been designed by some intelligence. Consequently, extrapolating from present observations into the past, the design of an intricate and functional thing—say, a trilobite—must also be produced by an intelligence. This logic, he claims, is "tested against the cause-and-effect structure of the world" and is consistent with "uniformitarian principles." In short, “it's science.”
In the great tradition of hucksters, the flaw in Meyer's argument is difficult to spot because it is so blatantly obvious. Meyer assumes that intelligence as we see it today—the kind of intelligence that builds a car or reads a book review—can be equated with a non-materialistic intelligence that's capable of transforming the very material of the natural world. How does this intelligence operate? It's unclear. How could it be that human intelligence, which must make its mark on the world through straightforward, material means, is essentially the same as divine intelligence—in fact, so fundamentally similar that they could be considered part of the same uniformitarian continuum? Meyer doesn't really say. With all due respect to the power of personal religious experience, we don't have any scientific verification of disembodied intelligences. But we see the basic principles of natural selection acting all around us. 
Sure, an intelligent designer is one way to explain some of the evidence we see in the fossil record. You can make that case. It just won't be science. Science, after all, isn't a random game of accumulating evidence. It's a very particular method for organizing specific kinds of observations. And when it comes to history, science relies on patterns of cause and effect staying constant across time and space—and not the sudden interpolation of otherwise scientifically unobservable beings. To say otherwise is to ask science to be something it's not. 
At this point, Meyer could acknowledge that he has strayed beyond the boundaries of the field. Instead, he tries to stretch those boundaries in order to meet what must be, one can only conclude, personal or political needs. That desire to stretch is understandable. It's very, very difficult to use material causes to reason about transcendent things. Meyer's book, in its modest way, is just another step in that hoary, quixotic quest: to make a concrete case for that which faith alone can know. 
Meyer claims that his research "restores to Western thought the possibility that human life in particular may have a purpose beyond temporary material utility." What's unclear is why this possibility needs to be restored at all. Plenty of people—plenty of scientists—have no difficult reconciling the reality of evolution with the concept of God, and with belief in a human purpose that goes beyond our flesh and bone. One wishes, at the end of Darwin's Doubt, not that Meyer had more science on his side, but that he had more faith.

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