The Leading Edge

Darwin's Doubt Still Mine

by Phillip E. Johnson

I decided to write a book about evolution in the autumn of 1987, following a lengthy walk among the famous colleges of Cambridge University in England. My walking companion was Stephen Meyer, who was then far along in his work toward obtaining a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science. Our meeting had been arranged by a mutual friend who, observing my strong and growing interest in evolution, thought that a good discussion between the two of us might be beneficial and encouraging to me. And so it was.

As we covered topic after topic, Steve and I discovered with joy that our opinions about the inadequacy of Darwinian theory were precisely congruent, as were our ideas about how to expose those inadequacies and correct them. We both saw that the crucial aspect of neo-Darwinism, the modern version of Darwin's original nineteenth-century theory, was the philosophical assumption of naturalism that allowed biologists to extrapolate from modest and temporary variations in existing species to a grand meta-theory that explained the origin of every species and its change over time into more complex species, and eventually to human beings. Nowadays, physicists speculate hopefully about a "theory of everything," but biologists have had their theory of everything since Darwin's time.

Back in the United States, we met from time to time with other people who had caught the vision. For the next several years, while I wrote books and lectured, defining the common purpose of the group, Steve concentrated on building the group into a professional scientific enterprise that would demonstrate that an excellent program of scientific research could be conducted by scientists who were not committed to materialist assumptions. He eventually became the director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

A Book About Doubts

In 2009, Steve published his first major scientific work, Signature in the Cell (which I reviewed for Touchstone in my November/December 2010 Leading Edge column). In that book, Steve demonstrated the case for intelligent design (ID) as manifested by DNA and the amazing irreducible complexity of the cell.

This past June, he published a new book, Darwin's Doubt. In the prologue to this work, he describes the current state of biology and the problems with Darwinian theory. On the one hand, he writes, "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 tenet, the alleged creative power of natural selection and the mutation mechanism." But at the same time, he notes, the public is presented with a very different picture. They are made to think that there are no problems with the neo-Darwinian theory.

The title of Steve's new book comes from the concern of Charles Darwin himself about the Cambrian explosion, when all the animal forms seem to have arisen suddenly and without precursors. Darwin's theory could not account for this, but he hoped that later fossil discoveries would provide an answer. The first part of Steve's book describes the fossils that so concerned Darwin (with wonderful photographs) and then "tells the story of the successive, but unsuccessful, attempts that biologists and paleontologists have made to resolve that

The second part of the book talks about "How to Build an Animal" and describes the amazing amount of information that is imbedded in all living things. The third and final section is titled "After Darwin, What?" and examines the way that science limits itself and the ramifications of those self-imposed limitations.

How to Miss Evidence

I found myself drawn to a chapter titled "Rules of Science," since my own thinking and writing have been so much in that area. As Steve points out, the first and most basic rule of science, especially in biology, is methodological naturalism, which disqualifies intelligent design from consideration at all. "Scientists have accepted a self-imposed limitation on the hypotheses they are willing to consider. Yet if researchers refuse as a matter of principle to consider the design hypothesis, they will obviously miss any evidence that happens to
support it."

In a section titled "Reasons to Regard Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory," Steve takes the opportunity to answer critics of his first book and to develop his understanding of the power of ID to explain the evidence. Another important section is titled "Why It Matters for Science," where he writes,

Any rule that prevents us from considering such an explanation [design] diminishes the rationality of science, because it prevents scientists from considering a possibly—and in this case obviously—true explanation. And the truth matters, not least in science. For this reason the "rules of science" should not commit us to reject possibly true theories before we even consider the evidence. But that is exactly what methodological naturalism does.

Serious Science for All

The final chapter is titled "What's at Stake?" It begins with a charming description of Meyer's trip with family and friends to the Burgess shale in the Canadian Rockies, where the Cambrian fossils are especially evident. After relating how their guide, steeped in evolution, was gradually nudged to consider other possibilities, Steve talks about the many scientists he has spoken with who secretly question the conclusions of evolution but who feel stuck.

He then describes the "new atheists" and the way they rely on Darwinism to buttress their arguments. Near the end, he writes, "The perspective of this book offers a potentially more coherent and satisfying way of addressing the big questions, of synthesizing science and metaphysics (or faith), than either of the currently popular views on offer."

This is a "serious science" book, with detailed information on fossils, genes, proteins, and much more. The reader who pays attention will come away with a great deal of valuable and important information. But it is not just for the science reader. It is so clearly and engagingly written that it can be enjoyed by the general reader as well. I just wish I had written it. 

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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