Saturday, September 7, 2013

How Nature Works: John Farrell's Review

Our contemporary debates about evolution are basically an extension of the argument Christians have been having with one another since the Middle Ages, about how much autonomy God granted to the natural world. Creationists claim that it was very little.

Stephen C. Meyer, a philosopher of science at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, is not a creationist in the standard definition of the term: He does not embrace the Genesis account of the world’s origins literally, nor does he argue that God made the world in six days. What he does is reject two bedrock principles of modern evolutionary biology: the common ancestry of all living things, and natural selection as the driving force of the evolution of new species. If you reject these two notions of evolutionary biology, then by default you’re left with only one alternative: the discrete interventions of an intelligent agent, a Designer, to explain the origin and diversification of life.

Read the full critique on the National Review.

Excerpts taken from the original text: 
Consider again the alleged absence of transitional intermediate fossils connecting the Cambrian animals to simpler Precambrian forms. Meyer argues that Darwinian scientists have no explanation for this; indeed, just as Darwin once did, they’ve tried to dismiss this challenge by falling back on the convenient hypothesis that the fossil record was poorly preserved and/or had been insufficiently sampled. Meyer:
Developmental biologist Eric Davidson, of California Institute of Technology, has suggested that the transitional forms leading to the Cambrian animals were “microscopic forms similar to modern marine larvae” and were thus too small to have been reliably fossilized. Other evolutionary scientists, such as Gregory Wray, Jeffrey Levinton, and Leo Shapiro, have suggested that the ancestors of the Cambrian animals were not preserved, because they lacked hard parts such as shells and exoskeletons. They argue that since soft-bodied animals are difficult to fossilize, we shouldn’t expect to find the remains of the supposedly soft-bodied ancestors of the Cambrian fauna in the Precambrian fossil records. University of California, Berkeley, paleontologist Charles R. Marshall summarizes these explanations …
Meyer then quotes Marshall:
It is important to remember that we see the Cambrian “explosion” through the windows permitted by the fossil and geological records. So when talking about the Cambrian “explosion,” we are typically referring to the appearance of large-body (can be seen by the naked eye) and preservable (and therefore largely skeletonized) forms. … If the stem lineages were both small and unskeletonized, then we would not expect to see them in the fossil record.
I went to Marshall’s paper and discovered that this passage had been lifted out of context, with the final statement – the part after Meyer’s ellipsis – tacked on from 15 pages later in the article, a section in which Marshall was commenting on a detailed diagram outlining the various factors scientists deem relevant to understanding the entire Cambrian explosion. The implication of the cut-and-paste quote in Meyer’s account is that a leading paleontologist is, like his colleagues, trying to explain away a significant challenge to evolution: the lack of intermediate forms in the Precambrian period. But in fact, Marshall was not doing that. Here are the key missing words from Marshall’s passage that would have appeared immediately before Meyer’s ellipsis:
Finally, I place the word “explosion” in quotation marks because, while the Cambrian radiation occurred quickly compared with the time between the Cambrian and the present, it still extended over some 20 million years of the earliest Cambrian, or longer if you add in the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran and the entire 55 million year duration of the Cambrian.

At no point in the book does Meyer ever actually discuss these issues with Marshall, or Davidson, or any of the scientists working deeply in the field. He simply lifts quotes from their papers as they seem convenient to his point.
This is the most disappointing aspect of Meyer’s book. It’s hard to read a book like Darwin’s Doubt in parallel, for example, with a book like New Yorker writer Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Holt spent months chasing down and interviewing a wide range of philosophers and scientists—simply to get their answer to the age-old question: Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s a delightful, thought-provoking read for all the reasons that Meyer’s is not. Holt lets none of his subjects off the hook—politely, but persistently, questioning their opinions and assertions.
In the last part of the book, Meyer criticizes what he believes to be scientists’ bias against ID, the predisposition never to entertain it as an explanation for the Cambrian Explosion: “They have accepted a self-imposed limitation on the hypotheses they are willing to consider. . . . If researchers refuse as a matter of principle to consider the design hypothesis, they will obviously miss any evidence that happens to support it.”
But the notion that scientists are not open to the possibility of agent action in the world is not accurate. In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a graduate student in astrophysics at Cambridge, discovered a radio signal coming from the Crab Nebula. It was a fantastically rapid pulse—too rapid to be natural, it was first believed. That it might be the work of an intelligence was seriously considered—until the lack of variation in the beacon-like pulses, accompanied soon by the discovery of other sources sending similar beams toward earth, persuaded scientists that there was likely a natural explanation. Ultra-dense stars called “pulsars” are now considered the culprits.
In the end, Darwin’s Doubt boils down to a fundamentally weak argument—the argument from personal incredulity about the origin and evolution of life on earth. As John Henry Newman wrote in 1872: “I have not insisted on the argument from design. . . . To tell the truth, though I should not wish to preach on the subject, for 40 years I have been unable to see the logical force of the argument myself. I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.”

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