As the next installment of our Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt series, we present part three of Robert Bishop’s four-part review of the book.
All Christians agree that the universe is designed; otherwise, we would not be able to say that this is God’s creation. Where we may differ is on the nature of that design and the how as well as on expectations for detectability of design. As we’ve seen in the earlier posts, Meyer positions the evolution literature as inadequate to explain the origin of life so that Intelligent Design (ID) appears to be the best explanation for life on Earth. In the final two posts, I’ll examine this inference.
Meyer’s rhetorical strategies, discussed in the previous post, lead up to his punch line in chapter 18:
As I have described the many attempts to explain the scientific enigma motivating this book, the mystery has, in one sense, progressively deepened. As more and more attempts to explain the Cambrian explosion of animal life have failed, the evidence that these various competing theories fail to explain may be considered a set of negative clues–evidence that effectively precludes certain possible causes or explanations [note the divide-and-conquer strategy]. I’ve already explained why the received version of evolutionary theory, neo-Darwinism, fails to account for the explosion of information and form in the Cambrian period. I’ve also examined more recent evolutionary theories and shown why they too fail to explain key aspects of the evidence [the question-shift strategy]. To this point, then, much of the evidence has returned a negative verdict. It has told us a lot about what, in all probability, did not cause the Cambrian explosion. But...an accumulating body of evidence that makes one set of explanations less and less plausible may also begin to paint a picture of an alternative cause and the true explanation. (p. 354, comments in square brackets added)
The divide-and-conquer strategy Meyer pursues does significant work in his case for ID as the best explanation of the proliferation of body plans in the Cambrian period. First, this strategy masks the extended synthesis that has been taking place in the last three decades between population genetics, developmental biology, and epigenetics. Second, as a consequence, this strategy makes it significantly easier to argue that an intelligent cause is the best explanation relative to population genetics, developmental biology, or epigenetics as independent, rival explanations for the diversification of body plans in the Cambrian. Meanwhile, the extended synthesis, which has vastly more explanatory power and supporting evidence than the imagined separation and competition among its components, is left out of the argument. What looks like a compelling case for ID turns out to be mere appearance.
Meyer’s question-shift strategy is similarly significant for his inference that ID is the best explanation for the “Cambrian explosion.” He repeatedly redirects the reader away from the spectacular work on how variations in pre-existing genes lead to new genes within the forming extended synthesis towards the open questions in origin of life research (e.g., how did DNA or the first gene arise?). Meyer then concludes that “attempts to explain the Cambrian explosion of animal life have failed” because these attempts fail to answer origin of life questions.
Since none of the evolutionary mechanisms Meyer surveys supposedly can answer the latter origin question, the divide-and-conquer and question-shift strategies lead to Meyer’s conclusion: “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). By this point it’s clear to the reader that the diversification of body plans in the Cambrian never was Meyer’s target; the real target is the most challenging problem scientists face, the origin of life.
The door, then, appears to be open for the work of an intelligent agent as a more compelling explanation for the intricacies of living organisms. Here is a representative example:
Nevertheless, neither proponents of “evo-devo,” nor proponents of other recently proposed materialistic theories of evolution, have identified a mutational mechanism capable of generating a [developmental gene regulatory network] or anything even remotely resembling a complex integrated circuit. Yet, in our experience, complex integrated circuits–and the functional integration of parts in complex systems generally–are known to be produced by intelligent agents–specifically by engineers. Moreover, intelligence is the only known cause of such effects. Since developing animals employ a form of integrated circuitry, and certainly one manifesting a tightly and functionally integrated system of parts and subsystems, the necessary presence of these features in developing Cambrian animals would seem to indicate that intelligent agency played a role in their origin. (p. 364, square brackets added)
We can note several things about this comparison with engineering. First, the contrast is between materialist theories and intelligent agents. Here, we face an interpretive issue. On the one hand, Meyer might be using “materialist” to draw a contrast with an immaterial agency. But nowhere in Darwin’s Doubt (nor in Signature in the Cell) does he offer any defense for why the relevant intelligent agents must be immaterial. An inference to the best explanation that starts with everyday scientific activities and ends with an immaterial intelligence as the best explanation is a very large and startling inference indeed! On the other hand, by “materialist” Meyer might mean theories that draw only on unguided or naturalistic causes. If so, then there is a further issue as to whether such theories are metaphysically naturalistic (meaning they already presuppose that there are no spiritual beings or spiritual realm), or are only methodologically naturalistic (meaning they take the biological phenomena on their own terms to understand them as they actually are). Metaphysical naturalism goes far beyond any claims that could be licensed by scientific methods and should be opposed by all believers; methodological naturalism is the way scientific investigation has been done since before the time of the Scientific Revolution and is well-grounded theologically. Meyer certainly would be right to complain about metaphysical naturalism sneaking into scientific conclusions.
Second, the structure of the inference being suggested for the reader is that of a crime scene investigation (indeed, this is how chapter 18 is framed), or an anthropological or archeological investigation (Signature in the Cell draws explicitly on these, too). At first glance, these analogies with forms of human inquiry seem quite compelling given how Meyer has laid out his case. He argues that the complex integrated functionality of gene regulatory networks and other cellular machinery has a reasonable cause in an intelligent agent because such agents are known to be the causes of complex integrated functional systems in our experience (e.g., computers and cell phones).
Yet one problem with this line of inference is that it requires DNA, the genome, and so forth to literally be information-processing / integrated circuit systems operating based on programmed instructions; otherwise, the analogy with the complex integrated functional systems of our experience doesn’t hold. Certainly, it is true that such complex information-processing systems as computers have intelligent agents as their causes. However, language such as “information processing” and “integrated circuits” applied in the biology literature is ambiguous: Is it metaphorical or ontological? Biologists use such information-processing language in a variety of ways and often they use such language without specifying what they mean by it. What Meyer needs is an argument demonstrating that DNA, the genome, and so on ontologically are information processes systems. As metaphors, there is nothing about DNA implying that the context of the genome and the context of the complex integrated functional systems humans design and use are relevantly similar contexts. I see this as an area where there is further work to be done in making a compelling case for ID.
In the absence of that argument, what we have, here, is the fallacy of false analogy. The issue isn’t the level of complexity, though the genome is dazzlingly complex. Complex structures can develop over time through natural processes (e.g., a forested ecosystem developing on burned land over several decades). Rather, the issue is how strongly one can lean on terms that scientists use somewhat ambiguously to make ontological claims about the nature of DNA, the genome, and the like. Without a substantial argument for taking “information processing” and “integrated circuit” talk as ontological truths about the genome, there is no relevant similarity between the context of the genome and that of human-designed information processors.
Third, there are two basic problems with how Meyer compares crime scene investigation, anthropological, and archeological investigations with biological investigation. While it is the case that crime scene investigation offers some wonderful examples of scientific methods, it’s important to note that crime scene investigators already presuppose that a person is the cause of the crime. Similarly, anthropologists and archeologists already assume that human activity is involved. Human intelligence is a presupposition that is internal to such of forms of inquiry. In contrast, an intelligent agent is a presupposition external to cellular and evolutionary biology; intelligence has to be brought in from the outside. This means that when Meyer frames the inference for intelligent agency as a crime scene investigation (or as archeological investigation), the activity of an intelligent agent is now a presupposition for biological inquiry. This is a presupposition biologists rightly object to.
Moreover, Meyer ignores the differences in context between natural science inquiry in biology and chemistry, on the one hand, and human inquiry, on the other. Meyer’s inference that intelligent agency is the best explanation for the Cambrian explosion depends crucially on taking natural science and human inquiry to be the same. But this is to ignore important differences between these two forms of inquiry and their subjects of study. The most important distinction is that natural science inquiry objectifies its subjects of inquiry (e.g., electrons) deploying methods that treat every object of inquiry as related only via forces or other processes, where values and ideals are absent from those forces and processes. That is to say, natural science inquiry treats its objects of study as bundles of properties in a manner abstracted away from the richer contexts of human concerns. However, applying this form of objectification to agents is anything but value-free when applied to inquiry about persons. For instance, astronomers can study the physics of star formation without any judgments about whether it would have been morally better for the star to have formed in a different location. And molecular biologists can study a molecular pathway without any judgments about whether it would have been morally better for the pathway’s reaction to be faster than it is. Whenever we turn to the study of persons, however, we can never avoid some form of moral judgment. Even the act of objectifying persons doesn’t avoid moral judgments: To study persons the same way we study stars and molecular pathways is a whopper of a moral judgment! The objectification that Meyer assumes is particularly problematic when God is the object of inquiry, being treated as no different in kind from chemical molecules as an object of study (as I described in a 2011 post). Meyer’s appeal to crime scene and other forms of human inquiry is neither as innocent nor straightforward as it appears.
Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this series.
- Robert C. Bishop, “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65, no. 1 (2013): 10-23. [return to body text]
- One might object that an important task for crime scene investigators is to determine whether a death, say, happened by accident. Yet, human intelligence is an internal presupposition even in this form of investigation. Investigators depend on human intelligence to provide the appropriate contrast class for determining accidental death. [return to body text]
- Robert. C. Bishop, The Philosophy of the Social Sciences. London: Continuum Publishers (2007). [return to body text]
- This doesn’t mean, however, that natural science inquiry doesn’t serve the purposes of human concerns such as bettering human welfare through medical research, for instance. Rather, the natural scientist engages in abstraction and objectification for the purpose of understanding the properties and processes in question to produce effective medicines, say. [return to body text]