Darwin’s Doubt claims to review research on the earliest forms of metazoan life. Part One presents a history of discovery and interpretation of the Cambrian animals through both paleontology and genetics; Part Two, research on protein evolution, evo-devo, and epigenetics; Part Three, ideas of “self-organization.” The final four chapters purport to demonstrate how Intelligent Design provides the ultimate explanation of all these phenomena.

Meyer, Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, emphasizes that our understanding of the Cambrian explosion remains incomplete. He recapitulates the arguments from his earlier book, Signature in the Cell, and from his Discovery Institute colleagues Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, and Douglas Axe, who all maintain that there have never been a sufficient number of cell divisions, nor a sufficient number of years in the history of the universe for unguided processes to bring about animal forms. Darwin’s Doubt thoroughly reviews the arguments of the Intelligent Design movement and, thus, could save a person the trouble of reading all their previous publications.

Reporting on the discovery that developmental gene regulatory networks are highly conserved and not tolerant of mutations, Meyer asserts that this must have always been the case, thereby preventing the development of varied animal body plans: “The system of gene regulation that controls animal-body-plan development is exquisitely integrated, so that significant alterations in these gene regulatory networks inevitably damage or destroy the developing animal. But given this, how could a new animal body plan, and the new dGRNs necessary to produce it, ever evolve gradually via mutation and selection from a preexisting body plan and set of dGRN’s?” (p. 269). The idea that in early metazoan populations such networks, and the interplay among them, might have evolved spectacular diversity before they became so highly integrated is dismissed, even though this idea is central to current research.

Meyer moves to the crux of his argument on page 337: “Neither neo-Darwinian nor a host of more recent proposals [he includes a list] have succeeded in explaining the origin of the novel animal forms that arose in the Cambrian period. Yet all these evolutionary theories have two things in common: they rely on strictly material processes, and they also have failed to identify a cause capable of generating the information necessary to produce new forms of life…. Is it possible that intelligent design – the purposeful action of a conscious and rational agent – might have played a role in the Cambrian explosion?”

The reliance on “strictly material processes” that Meyer finds limiting is the basis of modern (since the 17th century) science. His concern for “generating the information necessary” reflects the Intelligent Design movement’s premise that anything really complex requires a blueprint, despite the fact that modern biology has shown that this is not true: DNA is not a blueprint and organisms are not constructed like machines.

In addressing how a designer actually manipulated atoms and molecules to create brand-new life forms, all Meyer claims is that “intelligent agents can act suddenly or discretely in accord with their powers of rational choice or volition, even if they do not always do so…. If body plans arose as the result of an intelligent agent actualizing an immaterial plan or idea, then an extensive series of material precursors to the first animals need not exist in the fossil record…. Mental plans or concepts need not leave a material trace” (p. 375). To quote Nick Matzke, formerly of the National Center for Science Education, this explains the appearance of the first animals and their body plans by saying, in effect, “POOF!”

The author and his institute claim that Darwin’s Doubt is an important contribution to modern biological science. There are major clues that it isn’t. HarperCollins chose to publish this under their HarperOne imprint, and HarperOne describes itself thus: The most important books across the full spectrum of religion, spirituality, and personal growth…. A more important clue is found in the last chapter, entitled What’s at Stake. In science, what would be at stake would be a better understanding of the Cambrian fossil record and the processes of life and evolution. But Meyer instead tells us: “Modern life suspends many of us, so we feel, high over a chasm of despair. It provokes feelings of dizzying anxiety – in a word, vertigo. The evidence of a purposeful design behind life, on the other hand, offers the prospect of significance, wholeness, and hope.” A heavy burden for a trilobite to bear!

*

*for the confusion this book causes about the evidence and the science of studying the evidence. It rates four frogs as a review of the thinking of the Intelligent Design movement.