A Review of "Darwin's Doubt"

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Stephen Meyer has been a thorn in the side of dogmatic evolutionists for a good while now. He has worked as a geophysicist and has a PhD in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge. His previous book of nearly 600 pages, Signature in the Cell, dealt with the criteria for determining information, especially in the formation and function of cells. It went into some detail about so-called “Shannon Information,” which is most often the kind pointed out by evolutionists. Shannon calculated the mathematical relationship between information and probability, showing that the amount of information conveyed by an event is inversely related to its probability (less probability, more information). The trouble with Shannon’s theory was that it could not distinguish meaningful information from gibberish. The solution to that problem forms another part of the book. Meyer demonstrates that complex specified information has both very high mathematical improbability, while also being goal-centered.

Then Signature included Meyer’s long interactions with the computer simulations of Kuppers, Dawkins, Schneider, Kauffman, and Avida, showing that they all presuppose what they claim to disprove: the need for an intelligent agent. Additionally, none of them fulfill their promises. The DNA molecule came under investigation throughout Signature, and the vaunted “scientific method” was examined, and it was shown that along with it being a fluid concept, many scientists devoted to it actually utilize intelligent design in their work.

Cambrian explosion

Now comes Darwin’s Doubt. Weighing in at almost 500 pages, it continues the discussion, this time focusing on the so-called Cambrian Explosion, where “representatives of about twenty of the roughly twenty-six total phyla present in the fossil record made their first appearance on earth” (31).

Like its predecessor, the book makes it a point to interact with contemporary evolutionary thought. Meyer has been careful to be as cutting edge as possible. Here we get his patient explanations of Darwin’s Tree of Life and its modern counterparts. He examines the Burgess Shale Bestiary, where huge deposits of Cambrian fauna are present, and the even more impressive Chengjiang Explosion in China. If Darwin were right about what we ought to find, “diversity would precede disparity, the phyla-level differences in the body plan would emerge after the species-, genus-, family-, order-, and class level differences appeared … . The actual pattern in the fossil record, however, contradicts this expectation” (41).

Meyer’s personal acquaintance with two of the main experts working at Chengjiang, J. Y. Chen and Paul Chien, helps him relate their results compellingly. The dramatic finds of wonderfully preserved Cambrian fossil body-plans have only intensified the “problem” of the Cambrian Explosion. They have no ancestors in the underlying rock! He asks, “Could there have been an animal form simple enough to serve as a viable ancestor common to all the animal phyla? Perhaps. But positing such a form only deepens the required depth of the divergence point and intensifies the already significant problem of Precambrian-Cambrian discontinuity” (113).

To put it more simply, the best deposits the fossil record has to offer display a vastly diversified array of animal body plans, which just appear out of nowhere. Speculating about their ancestry drives the evolutionary dating further into the murky past, and forces the matter of the absence of ancestors in the Cambrian rock into sharper focus.

Chapter 6, on “The Animal Tree of Life” exposes the many disagreements among prominent evolutionists about what the phylogenetic “Tree” ought to look like, before examining the actual data of the fossil, anatomical, and molecular evidence. Meyer concludes, “These three classes of evidence either provide no compelling evidence for Precambrian animal ancestors (in the case of the fossils), or they provide question-begging and conflicting evidence (in the case of genes and anatomy)” (135).


The matter of stasis, which is crystal clear in the fossil record, is also becoming more and more clearly a problem for evolution in the hoped-for field of phylogeny.

After a chapter on punctuated equilibrium, Meyer introduces the matter of the “information explosion” in the Cambrian fossil fauna. Here, just as in his previous book, he again distinguishes Shannon information from complex specified (or targeted) information. This is followed by an important chapter on “Combinatorial Inflation.” In layman’s terms, the amount of characters for arrangement increases exponentially the number of possible combinations available. Since evolution’s big draw is that it can supposedly blindly ferret out and retain the right combinations to produce a properly functioning gene, minus any goal, the time it would take for that to happen randomly is obviously a key matter. Relying on the most recent work done in the field, Meyer shows that four plus billion years posited by neo-Darwinism, is way too brief for this to even begin to occur.

A chapter on the need for mutations to generate new protein folds relies on the work of Douglas Axe, who tested the probability involved in producing new protein folds after reading Richard Dawkins. The author tells us, “Axe realized that the ability to produce new protein folds represents a sine qua non of macroevolutionary innovation” (191). After surveying Axe’s experiments, the author observes that Dawkins’ fancy of “Scaling Mount Improbable” incrementally is a non-starter. This is because “there is effectively no gradually sloping back side, since the smallest increment of structural innovation in the history of life—a new protein fold—itself presents a formidable Mount Improbable” (207).

The ensuing chapter reviews the disingenuous and unsatisfactory responses of evolutionists (e.g. from M. Long: exon shuffling) to these results by Axe. Meyer is nothing if not thorough in describing these positions, and it took me some effort not to skip this section.

A chapter on the Neo-Darwinian math highlights the fact that, 

In sum, calculations performed by both critics [Behe] and defenders [Durrett & Schmidt] of neo-Darwinian evolution now reinforce the same conclusion: if coordinated mutations are necessary to generate new genes and proteins, then the … math itself, as expressed in the principles of population genetics, establishes the implausibility of the neo-Darwinian mechanism. (249)

Meyer then discusses “co-option” before focusing on the work of C. Nusslein-Volhard and E. Wieschaus on the origin of body plans, and Eric Davidson on gene regulatory networks or dGRN’s (ch.13). This chapter effectively sinks the standard evolutionary dogma. Davidson is cited as describing dGRNs in “informational terms” (268). Meyer adds,

Engineers have long understood that the more functionally integrated a system is, the more difficult it is to change any part of it without damaging or destroying the system as a whole. Davidson’s work confirms that this principle applies to developing organisms in spades. (269)

The fallout from this shouldn’t be missed. It is that in the vital early stages of development, when mutation and selection need to be driving evolution, that is precisely when their involvement would be fatal to gene development (see 270). This effectively dismantles classic neo-Darwinian theory.

Epigenetic information

But Meyer hasn’t finished yet. Next comes a survey of the necessary role taken by epigenetic information—that is to say, there is developmental information which is not in DNA but in the structure of the cell that determines to a large extent what the animal will look like. There are other varieties of epigenetic information, such as in the “sugar code” (280-281). This part of the book is most closely allied to Signature in the Cell, and advances the case made there.

As Meyer points out throughout the book, many evolutionists are trying to change the standard approach in light of these conclusions. Meyer runs through several proposed self-organizational models (e.g. Hox genes; M. Lynch’s “right time, right place” theory; J. Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering view) in Part Three, and finds them all wanting. Only after all this does he turn finally to the Intelligent Design alternative (the first mention of design I could find was on page 215). He returns to several of his previous topics and interprets them in line with information and design theory. Meyer urges readers to stand back, take the evolutionary blinkers off, and look at what the data is telling them. He writes, “Conscious and rational agents have, as part of their powers of purposive intelligence, the capacity to design information-rich parts and to organize those parts into functional information-rich hierarchies. We know of no other causal entity or process that has this capacity” (366).

The hegemony of science

He goes on to deal with the hegemony of science as methodological naturalism, in the face of the fact that, as said above, scientists often use intelligent design in their work. He also demonstrates that the definition of science is and always has been an elastic concept. He believes that scientific progress is now actually being held up due to the naturalistic philosophy encouraged by evolutionism (which will alert readers of Thomas Kuhn). Meyer plies a way forward which is consonant both with former scientific practices, and with what really happens in contemporary academia. Of course, Meyer is no fan of a young earth, not basing his science upon the biblical witness.

The book is, of course, heavily furnished with endnotes.

Darwin’s Doubt is more hard-going than its predecessor. At least it was for me. But it is another step forward towards a new paradigm for doing science – tracking the work of the Designer.

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There are 8 Comments

Charlie's picture


Thanks for the review. Do you know how much speciation Meyer allows for? For example, my understanding is that Behe believes that evolution is responsible for much of life on earth, but not all of it, because of certain impassible bottlenecks of irreducible complexity. So, does Meyer absolutely reject evolution or only the idea that evolution as currently understood does not explain ALL of life?

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Paul Henebury's picture


"Speciation" is a bit of a slippery term because it too easily fits within a macro-evolutionary framework.  However, Meyer would be perfectly okay with variation within particular species in terms of so-called micro-evolution, dependent on the limits of information within the genome.  I'm not as up on Behe, although I believe he would be of the same opinion.  He is very skeptical of neo-Darwinism, but (as a Roman Catholic), is open to certain future scenarios.  See, for instance, his essay in the book Uncommon Descent, ed. W. Dembski.  

I think we must carefully observe the micro/macro terminology when discussing evolution so as to avoid equivocation.


God bless,


Paul H 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Charlie's picture

I ask because there is variation among ID proponents about how they view their critiques. Behe, for example, believes in the evolutionary descent of species, but he thinks that the neo-Darwinian account of it can't do the explanatory work that it purports to. Thus, ID functions for him as an alternative or supplementary explanatory paradigm for how evolution occurred.

"Evolution is a controversial topic, so it is necessary to address a few basic questions at the beginning of the book. Many people think that questioning Darwinian evolution must be equivalent to espousing creationism. As commonly understood, creationism involves belief in an earth formed only about ten thousand years ago, an interpretation of the Bible that is still very popular. For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old that physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. I greatly respect the work of my colleagues who study the development and behavior of organisms within an evolutionary framework, and I think that evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world. Although Darwin's mechanism – natural selection working on variation – might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life. I also do not think it surprising that the new science of the very small might change the way we view the less small." Darwin's Black Box, pp 5–6.

"For example, both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C. ... It's hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans. ... Despite some remaining puzzles, there’s no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives.” The Edge of Evolution, pp. 71–72

So I wonder how Meyer views his critique. Looking at the Cambrian, for instance, could be an attempt to discredit evolution entirely, or merely an argument that the current neo-Darwinian paradigm is insufficient for explaining certain evidences.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Paul Henebury's picture

Well, most, if not all ID proponents favor old-earth theories, and some would leave room for future explanations along evolutionary (though not Darwinian) lines.  Meyer leaves little room for evolutionism per se, but would probably have no problem in agreeing with Behe in attributing intentional design only at certain crucial points.  Theologically, ID is open to forms of natural theology and a divide between special revelation and the academy.

As a young-earth creationist I find help from such works as this without letting them decide how I am going to interpret the Bible.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

farmer Tom N's picture

In my opinion this is one of the great scams of current TENS proponents. (Theory of Evoulution by Natural Selection)

They point to the changes within the species of horses, dogs or fruit flies........which are clearly evident to the normal observer. Then trying to claim those changes happen on the macro scale between geckos and humans because they both walk on their back legs.

This kind of bait and switch is what modern science trades on.

As to Meyer and young earth. Please be careful not to be too critical. He is doing a great job of destroying the arguments and theories of the TENS crowd. Be patient. Sooner or later those same criticism will eventually be the downfall of any acceptance of even some of evolutionary theory.

So in the end if he continues to allow for some kind of evolution, he will be hoisted on his own petard.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Many are too critical of the ID movement. While evolution zealots tend to get all anxious about it because it's too religious, many young earth creationists are all over them for not being religious enough.

It'd be great to see them come all the way to a young earth position, sure, but I love what they are doing within the boundaries they've set for themselves.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Wayne Wilson's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Many are too critical of the ID movement. While evolution zealots tend to get all anxious about it because it's too religious, many young earth creationists are all over them for not being religious enough.

It'd be great to see them come all the way to a young earth position, sure, but I love what they are doing within the boundaries they've set for themselves.

I agree Aaron. I saw a great interview with Meyer on Socrates and the City and he was very respectful of Young Earth Creationists.  He's an old earth guy, but, as you say, the ID folks are doing something very different...using science alone to undermine evolution.  It's paying off in helpful ways. I believe we should regard them as allies.  


Paul Henebury's picture

Yes, I believe this is the wise way to go.  While I could not work with theistic evolutionists, the ID proponents are not telling us that the Bible needs to be viewed in this or that interpretive light.  Their works do not aim at Christian apologetics either.  We should be glad for what they do contribute, which is substantial contributions to the scientific literature, as well as promoting the third essential component of the cosmos: information.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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