Darwin’s Doubt: Too Hot for Science To Handle?

by Tom Gilson*

Book Review

Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer.

Thirty or so years ago I smuggled some new Christian media into a closed Communist country. I remember the thrill vividly: the sense of risk, the satisfaction of completion. I’ve had a similar sensation lately reading Darwin’s Doubt. It’s the book the evolutionists won’t want you to read. It’s too hot to handle: it might cause you to question whether evolution happened the way they say it did.

This risky volume Stephen Meyer’s latest challenge to theories of undirected/unguided evolution. I have to admit, though, that it took a few hundred pages for me to warm up to the adventure of reading verboten material — and that’s because the first 80 percent or so of the book contains nothing but mainstream science. Sure, it raises serious doubts about unguided evolution’s explanatory power, but where do those doubts come from?

They come from Charles Darwin, to start with.

Darwin’s Doubt

The title of the book refers to the difficulty he had in explaining the “Cambrian Explosion,” the vast proliferation of new animal body plans (new “phyla” or major animal groupings) that appears in fossils in the Cambrian strata, deposited some 530 million years ago. These animals appear suddenly in the fossil record, without any plausible predecessor such as Darwin’s theory predicted. Darwin wrote,

The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the Silurian [i.e., Cambrian] epoch, is very great. I allude to the manner in which numbers of species of the same group suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks.

Darwin saw this accurately as a challenge to his theory. It remains one still. The animals appear too quickly in the record to be explained through his gradualistic theory.

Mainstream Science’s Continuing Questions

And it remains a challenge from the perspective of mainstream science. Various theories have been proposed in explanation of the suddenness with which these new phyla came on the scene. Perhaps selective fossilization caused their predecessors to disappear from paleontologists’ view. Mainstream science casts serious doubt on that view. Statistical paleontology renders it deeply improbable. The soft-body hypothesis appears unlikely to succeed, since the evidence shows soft-bodied organisms have been frequently fossilized.

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Or maybe the Cambrian animals’ precursors really are there in the record, in the form of exotic Ediacaran fossils. But these organisms are not clearly animals of any sort, and what they are is so in confusion that they could hardly be considered evidence for anything. Further,

As Nature recently noted, if the Ediacaran fauna “were animals, they bore little or no resemblance to any other creatures, either fossil or extant.” … This absence of clear affinities has led an increasing number of paleontologists to reject an ancestor/dependent relationship between the Ediacaran and Cambrian fauna.

Scientists have proposed genetic histories for these phyla, but as Meyer pointedly puts it, these scenarios all “assume a gene.” And a lot more besides. That is to say, they beg the question of evolution’s explanatory adequacy by assuming that it must be true. From there they suggest pathways according to which genes “must have” evolved. But there’s no evidence of it in the record.

I could go on summarizing chapter by chapter, but even in summary form it would lengthen this review beyond reason, and besides, the pattern remains the same: the hypotheses for explanations of the Cambrian explosion have been rejected — by mainstream science.

That’s the account Meyer gives of it. I’m no expert in the field, but I have to admit it’s convincing. The Cambrian Explosion remains unexplained on any standard terms…

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RC*Tom Gilson is the National Field Director for Ratio Christi, responsible for training and supporting the Regional and Chapter Directors. Tom was on staff with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) for over 30 years and has wide ranging experience as a ministry strategist, writer, teacher, HR leader, blogger, and apologist. He has a Masters degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of Central Florida. He has served as a ministry strategist and writer for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, also known as BreakPoint; and has done strategic and organizational consulting work for Josh McDowell Ministry, the JESUS Film Project, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and other ministries as well as local churches. His “Worldview and You” column appears monthly at BreakPoint Online, and his 100-plus published articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Discipleship Journal, Touchstone Magazine, Areopagus Journal, and Salvo magazine, among others.