Doubting “Darwin’s Doubt”

Charles Darwin: Scientific Badass

Gareth Cook reviews Stephen Meyer’s upcoming New York Times bestselling book “Darwin’s Doubt”, which he calls “a masterwork of psuedoscience“:

Most absurd of all is the book’s stance on knowledge: if something cannot be fully explained by today’s science—and there is plenty about the Cambrian, and the universe, that cannot—then we should assume it is fundamentally beyond explanation, and therefore the work of a supreme deity.

But do not underestimate “Darwin’s Doubt”: it is a masterwork of pseudoscience. Meyer is a reasonably fluid writer who weaves anecdote and patient explanation. He skillfully deploys the trappings of science—the journals, the conferences, the Latinate terminology. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. He appears serious and, above all, reasonable. The Cambrian argument has been a part of creationism and its inheritors for many years, but Meyer’s project is to canonize it, a task he completes with great skill. Those who feel a hunger for material evidence of God or who sense that science is a conspiracy against spiritual meaning will find the book a thrilling read. Which is to say, Meyer will find a large audience: he aims to start a conversation, or to at least keep one going, and he seems likely to succeed.

The one thing that’s always bothered me about intelligent design has nothing to do with the ridiculousness of the claim, but rather with the un-falsifiability of the argument. Before Darwin, and indeed before science could teach us about molecular biology, fossil record and our kinship with other species, arguments from faith were made exclusively from the tenants of scripture, as one would rightly expect. Once it became clear to any thinking person that evolution is a fact, that the universe is not only expanding at a rate beyond comprehension but is actually speeding up, well then arguments from scripture began to seem more and more ridiculous over time. The more we learn about history, archeology, science and even philosophy, the more assured we are in the man-made origin of faith — the unalterable conclusion that the monotheistic religions are all plagiarisms of each other, predicated on plagiarisms of myths and legends long past and disregarded.

But intelligent design “theory” seeks to make up for that loss, and does a fair job of it. It does a fair job because it’s an unfalsifiable claim (a necessary element to any religious argument): if something cannot be totally explained by science (yet), it must necessarily be the work of a creator (God). But we know from our basic understanding of argument that the true mark of a weak, sorry position is whether or not that position can be falsified. As an atheist, I cannot disprove that intelligent design is true, but I can and do rightly point to examples of science and history to make the idea as unlikely as possible. The strangest part of the argument is that it really does seem like the last hurrah for the theological in their efforts to keep creationism alive in the conversation of our origin. Before intelligent design was considered valid (by those who do consider it valid), scientific discovery was brutally exorcised, persecuted and dismissed. Once something like evolution became too blatantly obvious to dismiss, the faithful threw up their arms and said, “ah well, yes, see how wonderful our God is to have come up with such a plan?”

Intelligent design is not a theory, but a mentality. There is no means of verification or falsity within it, and therefore it should not and cannot be considered in the same breath as those discoveries made through series of hypotheses and experiments. Discoveries that have taken us so very far away from the confusion, superstition and barbarism of our lowly species.

(Photo by C. G. P. Grey)

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