For the second installment in our series interacting with Stephen Meyer’s significant book Darwin’s Doubt, we draw your attention to the work of Ralph Stearley. Stearley is a professor of geology and paleontology at Calvin College, having received a PhD in those disciplines from the University of Michigan in 1990. His research includes studies of rock-boring marine invertebrates in the intertidal zone of the Gulf of California, and studies of Neogene fossil fishes from western North America.
Last year Stearley published a review essay of three recent books that deal with the Cambrian explosion. Besides Darwin’s Doubt, his treatment includes The Rise of Animals: Evolution and Diversification of the Kingdom Animalia (Johns Hopkins UP, 2007) by Mikail Fedonkin, James Gehling, Kathleen Grey, Guy Narbonne, and Patricia Vickers-Rich; and The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity (Roberts and Company, 2013) by Douglas Erwin and James Valentine. In addition to reviewing these books, Stearley provides an intriguing history of the field in recent decades as views on the Cambrian explosion have developed in response to other fossil discoveries. In the process, the reader is equipped with a treasure trove of data about the Cambrian and Ediacaran periods, the time scales involved, and the species that were precursors to the explosion. This discussion provides the context for Stearley’s engagement with Darwin’s Doubt.
Stearley recognizes that Meyer has made a legitimate challenge to some interpretations of the Cambrian data, but ultimately he is not persuaded. In one section of the book, Meyer highlights the work of researchers who have discovered more and more complexity in the regulation of the developmental process. This creates problems for the standard neo-Darwinian explanations, but in Stearley’s estimation, Meyer makes more of this than it warrants:
“But, while it is true that Goodwin and others believe that their discoveries pose a major challenge to neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, this does not cause them to abandon their belief that the history of life can be explained as the outcome of biological processes! Indeed, many evolutionary biologists and paleontologists are looking to build the notions provided by morphogenetic fields and developmental constraints into a larger synthesis. Meanwhile, I suspect that the average (non-biologist) reader will come away from Chapter 14 with a mistaken impression that this previously innocuous or neglected topic has just-now been revealed to completely overturn our understanding of the history of life.” (p. 255)
We encourage you to read Stearley’s full review in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 65, Number 4, December 2013. The issue is available online here, and a pdf of Stearley’s review can be accessed here.