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Darwinism and Materialism

They Sink or Swim Together Published in American Spectator

Recently the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt, a book that raises many questions about the theory of evolution. As his title tells us, Darwin himself shared one of these doubts. The book has sold well, reaching #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, #4 on the Los Angeles Times list, and #10 on Publishers Weekly.

Organisms are intelligently designed, says Meyer, who has a PhD from Cambridge University in the philosophy of science. His book is an education, demanding attentive reading but no specialized knowledge. To a large extent it uses the facts and arguments of professional biologists, some bordering on open dissent from the orthodoxy.

Darwin’s Doubt has also been subjected to a barrage of what can only be called hate. “Mendacious intellectual pornography” is among the more inventive descriptions. Hundreds of negative comments appeared on Amazon review page within hours of the 498-page book’s publication.

Donald Prothero, a geologist and research associate at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, typified many when he said that Meyer is a “fool,” “incompetent,” guilty of “ignorance,” in “way over his head,” with a “completely false understanding of the subject.” Further, Meyer argues “dishonestly,” promotes a “fundamental lie,” promotes a “fairy tale,” and so on.

Would a scientist make his case that way if he had real arguments? Prothero did attempt a few substantive criticisms, but inadvertently demonstrated that he had not read Meyer’s chapters that had already addressed them. Prothero, in truth, hankers after creationism as his preferred target. But Meyer’s book is devoid of creationism or biblical references. It’s all science.

Along with the attacks, we find more and more biologists recognizing that intelligent design (ID) is a serious endeavor. Meyer’s book has been praised by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School; Scott Turner, a professor of biology at SUNY; Russell Carlson, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Georgia and a dozen others. George Gilder, most recently the author of Knowledge and Power, calls Darwin’s Doubt “the best science book ever written.”

So what is going on? A clue was provided by Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, published last year and the subject of a Weekly Standard cover story (“The Heretic”) by former American Spectator writer Andy Ferguson. But before discussing Nagel, who encountered his own shower of brickbats, I’ll say a little more about Darwin’s Doubt.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species claimed that organisms arose by random variation and natural selection, which must have been a slow business. But the fossil record shows that the major animal forms appeared without visible predecessors — an event known as the Cambrian Explosion. As the Darwinian rulebook regards such sudden changes as highly improbable, the evolutionists encounter two problems: insufficient time and missing fossils.

The Cambrian explosion occurred about 530 million years ago. More recent discoveries in China showed that the new phyla — for example arthropods, chordates, and brachiopods — appeared within a ten-million-year period. Others say the “explosive” period took only 5 to 6 million years. Compared with the reported three-billion year history of life on earth, the Cambrian explosion is the equivalent of just a few minutes in a 24-hour day. It happened in a geological blink.

The Chinese discoveries confirmed what had already been found at the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. No plausible ancestors have yet been found in lower strata, either in Canada or China. Some of the Cambrian creatures are highly complex. Among the earliest are well-preserved trilobites, with lens-focusing eyes and a 360-degree field of vision. “Not so primitive,” as Meyer writes.

Cambrian phyla were originally discovered in Wales. Darwin knew about them and realized that unless ancestors were found, his theory was in trouble. So the problem has been understood for over 150 years.

Meyer’s discussion of the problem is unrivaled in its detail and clarity. He covers the various escape routes that Darwinians have proposed. Maybe, for example, the antecedent forms lacked hard parts and so couldn’t fossilize? Awkward fact: Lots of soft-bodied organisms from the pre-Cambrian have been preserved, but they don’t get us closer to a solution.

Another chapter discusses what is known as punctuated equilibrium. The paleontologist Niles Eldredge became an expert on the ancient trilobites. At first it bothered him that they were all so similar. Then he concluded that “the absence of change” was itself significant. Stasis was “data,” not a mere artifact. With Stephen Jay Gould, he formulated “punctuated equilibrium,” which became well known. Long periods when animal forms are static, they theorized, are punctuated by periods in which new forms of animal life arise quickly — so quickly we can’t expect them to leave a record.

Years ago, speaking in a tone of subdued irony for my benefit, Donn Rosen, a curator of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, wryly summarized what is involved: “Darwin said that speciation occurred too slowly for us to see it. Gould and Eldredge said it occurred too quickly for us to see it. Either way we don’t see it.”

More formally, Meyer shows that “punk eek” doesn’t work out as hoped. Not only have those fleeting ancestors not appeared anywhere, the proponents of punctuated equilibrium never came up with a mechanism that could plausibly produce so much anatomical change so quickly.

Meyer also describes how work in statistical paleontology has undermined the idea that the missing ancestral fossils are merely an artifact of incomplete sampling. If you hunt in lots of different places and keep unearthing the same old specimens, it becomes ever harder to maintain that you still haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe the missing ones never were there to begin with.

A generation ago, Colin Patterson, the senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said in a public forum that he didn’t know of any evidence for evolution. There was some grumbling, but he knew that the crucial evidence was missing. And like Thomas Nagel today, he emphasized that he was an atheist — this was no creationist speaking.

In the second part of Meyer’s book, “How to Build an Animal,” the argument changes. Meyer shows that building new animal body plans requires the origin of new genetic information and “epigenetic” information (biological information stored in places outside of DNA). He shows the Cambrian explosion is not just an explosion of new forms of animal life, but an explosion of the information or instructions necessary to build them.

But to generate new information, neo-Darwinism relies on mutations — random changes in the arrangement of the chemical “bases” that function like alphabetic characters in the genetic text stored in DNA. And to build whole new animals, lots of major mutations are needed, but most are lethal.

The geneticist Hermann J. Muller, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1946, bombarded fruit flies with X-rays, which he thought would “speed up evolution.” But nothing came of it. Fruit flies not killed by the X-rays remained fruit flies. Also, mutations that occur early in embryonic development are always lethal — generating “dead animals incapable of further evolution,” as Meyer writes. Late-acting mutations may be viable, but these “do not affect global animal architectures.” Hence the Darwinian dilemma: “Major changes are not viable; viable changes are not major.”

Here Meyer also demonstrates the mathematical implausibility of the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origin of new genetic information. The speedy appearance of animals with new body plans creates a big statistical problem. Its key point is easily grasped. Guessing a one-digit number might be easy and won’t take that long. But guessing a ten or a one hundred digit number will likely take you a very long time. In biology, random mutations are equivalent to the “guesses” and the DNA and proteins are like numbers with hundreds or thousands of precisely arranged digits. The “right guess” corresponds to a DNA sequence that will produce a new protein with some heritable “adaptive” benefit for the offspring.

In all animals we find intricately folded proteins made of hundreds of precisely arranged sequences of amino acids. Meyer cites the work of molecular biologist Douglas Axe who has shown that generating even just one new protein by mutating DNA at random has a prohibitively small chance of ever occurring even on the scale of evolutionary deep time. The number of amino acid combinations that mutations much search vastly exceeds the time that is available to evolutionary history, let alone the brief period of the Cambrian explosion.

It gets worse. The improbability of a right guess, or sequence, must be multiplied over and over, because the next mutation could cancel the first. Imagine you are on a desert island with buried treasure, and X marks the spot. You hope to find the X by taking random steps. You may indeed soon step in the right direction. But you have no way of knowing which direction that is. So your second step may return you to square one. The standard Darwinian view takes no account of mutations that reverse the progress made.

In addition, proteins and genes cannot be randomly changed much at all without degrading their function. They are equivalent to small islands of function surrounded by huge seas of disorder. There is no way to “walk” from one island to another and still survive.

Yet, transitions from one body plan to another must be viable at every stage. Darwin once argued that bears may have been ancestral to whales. Consider the difficulty. A brilliant engineer might conceivably know how to assemble a whale out of molecules, amino acids, DNA, proteins, and all its other parts. No one remotely knows how to do this. But let’s posit an engineer of superhuman skill.

Then you give him the bad news. In making the bear-to-whale transition, the ever-modifying creature has to continue living, breathing, and reproducing even as those changes are taking place. That would be like telling a naval architect that he has to redesign an army tank into a submarine, but at every transition the vehicle has to function as a weapon of war. By the way, it must also be able to give birth to baby submarines.

In the third part of his book, Meyer outlines his positive case for intelligent design. Ironically, here he uses the same principle of scientific reasoning that Darwin used in the Origin. Darwin subscribed to a principle of scientific reasoning known as the Vera Causa principle. This asserts that scientists should seek to explain events in the remote past by causes “now in operation.” Meyer applies this to the question of the origin of the information necessary to produce new forms of animal life. He argues that the only known cause of the origin of the kind of digital information that arises in the Cambrian explosion is intelligent activity. He quotes the information theorist Henry Quastler who stated that “the creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” Thus, he concludes, using Darwin’s principle, that intelligent design provides the best explanation for the Cambrian information explosion.

If a correct scientific theory is pursued, we expect new knowledge to comport with the theory. Yet recent discoveries, especially in molecular biology, were not foreseen and have weakened Darwinism. For example, Darwin’s German contemporary and supporter Ernst Haeckel viewed the cell as a simple lump of “protoplasm.” Now we know that it is a hi-tech nano-factory complicated beyond comprehension. A cell can also reproduce itself, something no man-made machine has yet been able to do.

It is said that intelligent design makes no predictions, but it does, and one has been dramatically confirmed. William Dembski, the author of several ID books, predicted in 1998: “On an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If on the other hand organisms are designed, we expect DNA as much as possible to exhibit function.” The “junk DNA” theory has been supported by most leading biologists, including NIH Director Francis Collins.

But Dembski’s view was confirmed last year by prestigious science journals, including Nature. They published papers on the ENCODE project, challenging the view that DNA contains mostly a record of the “errors” in the Darwinian process. ENCODE reported last year that over 80% of DNA in the human genome “serves some purpose, biochemically speaking.” Earlier, 98% had been considered junk.

Meyer also reviews the “Rules of Science” decreeing what is permitted if an investigation is to be called scientific. “Methodological naturalism” is the main one today: Only material causes are permitted. That rule is the basis for Darwinian accusations that ID is creationism. ID does admit non-material causes, thereby flouting the (recently imposed) rule obliging scientists to adhere to naturalism all the way.

Yet science itself abounds with non-material entities. Information is non-material and if it is essential for building organisms, how is it transmitted to the three-dimensional world of matter? There’s an obvious parallel, Meyer points out. How are the decisions we make in our own conscious minds transmitted to the world of physical matter? We know every day that we can transform our mental decisions into physical acts. We choose to lift our arm, and it lifts.

Neuroscience hopes to explain this materially — to show how the brain’s nerve endings translate into consciousness, thence into acts. But one may predict that they will keep looking for a long time, because the gulf separating matter and consciousness is greater than that separating us from the remotest galaxy. That doesn’t mean that mind is too remote, unreal, or can be excluded from science. Mind is within us and nothing can be closer. Without it, the very ideas, theories, and arguments of science wouldn’t exist.

If our own minds can disturb matter in ways that cannot be explained by materialists, is it not possible that some larger or more encompassing Mind can impact the world of nature? No, say the materialists. Why not? Because, in their philosophy, matter is all that exists. That’s why they call themselves materialists. And that is why Thomas Nagel’s book is so significant. His book is subtitled “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” Incidentally, Nagel has also gone out of his way to praise Stephen Meyer.

Even though Nagel is a prominent philosopher with an endowed chair at New York University, his book was reviled by prominent evolutionists — so much so that the New Republic called them “Darwinian dittoheads.” In Britain, the Guardian newspaper called Mind and Cosmos “the most despised science book of 2012.” Maybe Meyer will win that honor in 2013.

Materialism, sometimes called naturalism, is the belief that matter — molecules in motion — is all that exists. Everything else: mind, consciousness, spirit — must somehow be reduced to the orchestrated firing of neurons. It was this bleak philosophy that Nagel challenged.

The point is that if matter is all that exists, then something like Darwinism must be true, because highly complex organisms are real; not just men but mice, and on down to bacteria. How did they get here, in a purely material world? They must have accumulated themselves, bit by accidental bit, over a very long period. Which is close to being a re-description of Darwin’s theory. Darwin wrote in a notebook that he was a materialist himself, but hardly dare say so openly. His theory of evolution by natural selection was his attempt to confine science to an exclusive reliance on material causes.

It follows that those Darwinists who are also materialists — most of them are — can take this philosophy as their backstop and relax. They don’t have to master or rebut ID arguments. They don’t even have to listen to them. Their science is already built into their philosophy. But if Nagel’s doubts about materialism hold up (and few laymen really accept materialism in the first place, because it denies free will and we know that consciousness is real), then the idea that there never was much to support Darwinism may one day be accepted. It was extrapolated from the observed facts of variation; it was assumed but has never been demonstrated.

This much is clear: The Darwinists cannot live with ID as their enemy. They can easily co-exist with creationism, but that came from the Bible, which can be dismissed in our secular age. They rage at ID, on the other hand, because it challenges them in what they have seen as their strong suit: Science.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.