As the next installment of our Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt series, we present the last post of Robert Bishop’s four-part review of the book.
Over the course of this series of posts, we’ve seen how Meyer uses the biology literature to build his case that Intelligent Design (ID) is currently the best explanation for the origin of life. In this final post, I want to step back and consider this case as well as the place for God as Creator in the midst of the developing evolutionary synthesis that’s been taking place.
If we set aside the divide-and-conquer and question-shift strategies and take the biology literature that Meyer surveys on its own terms, then the argument for ID looks much weaker. The reader may perceive that there has been a bait and switch in Darwin’s Doubt. Charles Marshall’s review of Darwin’s Doubt in Science last year suggests that the problems in Meyer’s book are due to his “true belief” in an Intelligent Designer. And Meyer provides plenty of evidence for this conclusion.
He systematically paints the evolutionary biology literature as challenging neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, mistaking the normal process of theory development and modification for admissions of “weaknesses” in or “criticisms” of evolutionary theory. His case for “weaknesses” and “scientific criticism” is bolstered by selective quotations from the literature under the divide-and-conquer and question-shift strategies. An informed reader gets the impression that Meyer reads the literature hunting for support for his pre-conceived view rather than in search of insight into what evolutionary and developmental biologists are actually saying.
This hunting for ammunition can lead to claims such as “The technical literature in biology is now replete with world-class biologists routinely expressing doubts about various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory, and especially about its central tenant, namely, the alleged creative power of the natural selection and mutational mechanisms,” and that there is a “growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory” (p. x). Three remarks are in order regarding Meyer’s claim. First, as Gilbert et al. (1996) make clear, they are focusing on an extended synthesis with natural selection and mutations. Second, the world-class biologists Meyer references (e.g., Simon Conway Morris) roundly reject Meyer’s assessment of what they themselves are saying. For instance, Meyer has cited Gilbert and others to the effect that current evolutionary theory is inadequate to explain macroevolution before, but as they have pointed out, they make no such claims.
Third, to say that there is a “growing body of critical scientific opinion about the standing of the theory” is misleading. A fundamental problem is that Meyer mistakes the normal scientific processes of investigating, revising, and extending a theory for “raising doubts” about the theory. The work of historians and philosophers of science as diverse as Thomas Kuhn and Phillip Kitcher have helped us recognize the normal business of scientific theory development is complex and rather messy. However, it’s possible that when hunting for support for a pre-conceived view one might mistake this messy process for “raising doubts” about a theory.
Clearly the kind of mischaracterization in Darwin’s Doubt is rhetorically important: It makes mainstream evolutionary biology look much weaker and more confused than it actually is. So, when Cornelia Dean writes that “There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth” (quoted by Meyer, p. xi), she exhibits a much better grasp of the practices of biologists and the biology literature than Meyer does.
From a history and philosophy of science standpoint, Meyer’s way of framing things is disturbing. Every scientific paradigm is incomplete and always under development. Evolution is no different. It’s been well-known for decades among evolutionary biologists that macroevolution was a promissory note that was expected to be fulfilled as they continued to develop and extend the neo-Darwinian paradigm. More questions than solutions have been generated about the connections among genetic variations, natural selection, and the origin of higher taxa; but this is standard fare for any scientific theory (e.g., we have more questions about Einstein’s theory of general relativity than we did in previous decades as physicists continue to develop and extend the theory). The picture of evolutionary theory and developmental biology presented by Meyer doesn’t help us understand what scientists working in those areas actually do and what their debates actually are about. Nor does his framing help us understand whether evolutionary and developmental biology needs explicit reference to an observable intelligent cause.
The biology literature that Meyer surveys actually exhibits a remarkable self-critical sifting that makes theory development possible. Scientists test and correct one another’s ideas and continue to develop their theoretical frameworks. Gilbert et al. (1996) illustrates this beautifully, laying out a narrative of self-reflection, testing, and theory development in action as the story of the return of embryology and homology to evolutionary biology. This story is particularly relevant, because the discoveries we’ve made in evolutionary development the last thirty years provide eye-popping examples of why it’s important to recognize how even the most well supported theories in science can change and become stronger when evidence from seemingly unrelated fields provide unlooked-for contributions. (For instance, the discovery that deleting specific regulatory gene sequences leads to the production of a reptilian jaw in mice (Gilbert et al. 1996, p. 364)—exactly the sort of thing one would expect if regulatory networks played crucial roles in channeling embryological development.)
Where Is God in All This?
Finally, there is a theological issue to all of this. Many Christians are strongly supportive of ID, but should they be? ID eschews the Bible and theology, taking a thoroughgoing secularist approach to the quest for evidence for intelligent causes in nature. Such a secularist view obscures the status of nature as creation, an arena of Triune care and action (see my white paper). Moreover, ID focuses solely on scientific methods as the only viable means for detecting intelligent causes in nature. This cedes far too much to scientism, reflecting the dominant technocratic ethos of the times rather than a reflective Christian approach to understanding the Triune God’s relationship to creation.
Recall Meyer’s dichotomy highlighted in the third post of this series: “Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding or designing intelligence played a role. Advocates of Intelligent Design favor the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed” (p. 340). Our choice appears to be either intervention from outside, beyond natural processes, or natural processes with no intelligent influence whatsoever. Yet, this is a false choice. Those pursuing evolutionary creation approaches (e.g., B. B. Warfield) have been exploring theologically robust alternatives where God is active in creation through the very processes of evolution. Passages such as Genesis 1:24-25, Psalm 104, Job 38-42, among others, picture God and creation both at work. Indeed, Genesis 1 affirms that the Earth functions to originate life, not just reproduce it. All of this takes place under the superintendence of the Son and enablement of the Spirit.
Therefore, when biologists investigate evolution, development, and other biological processes, they are exploring the functionality of God’s creation and theorizing about God’s normal ways of working in the world (see my white paper). Many scientists don’t understand that this is what they’re doing, but there is no way to avoid it becausethey are studying a creation designed by our Triune Creator. This doesn’t mean that scientists always get things right; all scientific knowledge is provisional. But it does mean that Christians don’t face the false choice presented in Darwin’s Doubt between evolutionary science and God.
- Charles R. Marshall, “When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship,” Science 341:1344. [return to body text]
- Scott F. Gilbert, John M. Opitz, and Rudolf A. Raff, “Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology,”Developmental Biology 173 (1996): 357-372. [return to body text]
- Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011. [return to body text]