I’ve just finished reading Darwin’s Doubt, a newly released critique of mainstream (neo-Darwinian) evolutionary theory and a defense of intelligent design. The author is Stephen Meyer of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, an organization often considered to be the chief incubator of the intelligent design movement.
Here I offer no summary or review of the book, but only a single and (so I believe) decisive line of thought. I should say first, however, that, as an assessment of the challenges facing evolutionary theorists on several fronts today, the book seems to me at least as creditable as many productions by contemporary neo-Darwinian biologists. And, in his attempt to convince the reader through calm argument, the author rises above the shrill, apparently frightened, and scarcely scientific rhetoric we’ve been hearing for years from some of the more militant, self-identified atheists and anti-intelligent design types.
As most long-time readers will have recognized, I am no more an intelligent design type myself than I am a conventional Darwinian thinker. And in fact my aim now is to characterize the common ground upon which those two camps have taken up arms, and to suggest that they might achieve a healthy détente by simply abandoning their unproductive field of battle and turning toward the organism itself.
It is well to remember that, when using the word in most contexts, biologists are referring to the specific significance or meaning of an activity or structure. For example, they recognize the functionally effective organization of DNA and proteins as being meaningful for the organism, and so also the sophisticated molecular arrangements and patterns of activity found in, among other things, cell membranes, the cytoskeleton, and molecular gene regulatory networks. Change a molecule in one of those networks, or a “letter” of DNA — which is to say, change the form of certain elements — and you may alter a whole range of biological activities. As when reading a text, we find ourselves trying to interpret such changes, assessing their significance within their context.
For the organism, that significance always involves a certain goal-directedness. The influential Darwinian theorist Robert Trivers has remarked that “Even the humblest creature, say, a virus, appears organized to do something; it acts as if it is trying to achieve some purpose” (quoted in Arp 2007*). And no two species are the same. Every creature is organized in nearly infinite detail so that, by means of its significant form and living activity, it can assert its unique way of being in the world. It is a being of thoughtful design, of elegant idea, of functionally effective striving and intention.
Some of this language (“meaning”, “intention”, “idea”, “thoughtful”) will lie outside the comfort zone of most researchers. This is deliberate on my part. I am drawing attention to the fact that, comfortable or not, the language is at least implicitly sanctioned by all biologists today. Actually, more than sanctioned; such language delimits the entire professional life of the biologist. This fact is easy to overlook, if only because it conflicts with the unfortunate intrusion of philosophical dogmas about the necessity for reductionist thinking.
But organisms, caring for none of that, stick to their own paths. Different, finely calculated strategies for bulding nests, burrows, dams, and webs; for hunting prey or avoiding predators; for attracting mates; for migrating and hibernating, cooperating and competing, camouflaging and displaying, maintaining body heat or dissipating it — in all such activities the organism is, as Trivers noted, doing something. Even its resting is a doing, unlike the stone’s “resting”. The organism is not only constrained by the physical lawfulness of its existence, but is also always satisfying relations of reason and intention in a way lakes, mountains, and clouds do not.
And, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the same is just as true of the organism at the molecular level. The “messages” of molecular signaling pathways and the “letters” of the DNA sequence, are in a very real sense “saying” something, and are thereby caught up in a doing. They are informed by, and in turn support, an intention even as they elaborate an idea or pattern of meaning.
In one way or another biologists acknowledge design, thoughtfulness, directedness, intention, and meaningful communication as belonging to the organism. As discussed below, they may hurriedly add that they are talking only about an appearance of thoughtful design, intention, and all the rest. But, then, the appearances of nature — its immediately given, observable aspects — are, or ought to be, the primary data for every scientist.
In any case, readers who fear violating a taboo or crossing a forbidden boundary are free mentally to prepend the word “apparent” to every occurrence of the distasteful words in what follows. But I hope they will also keep in mind that a feeling of distaste is neither a helpful nor a scientific response to the world’s appearances.
In addition to this, both Meyer and the neo-Darwinist accept a machine-like understanding of the organism. This goes without saying for the conventional biologist. But Meyer, too, refers freely to “molecular machines” and “protein machines”; he talks about “instructions”, “switches”, and “circuits”; and he imagines “digital” elements of DNA functioning like “computer code”. Part Two of his book is entitled “How to Build an Animal”.
Where Meyer wants to differ from the neo-Darwinist is in his belief that this world of mindless stuff is by itself inadequate to explain the rise of complex, meaningful (“informational”) order over the course of evolution. In particular, he tells us, it cannot account for the Cambrian explosion — the unsettlingly rapid appearance of many elaborate and disparate animal forms some 530 million years ago. This collection of forms comprises the great majority of body plans in existence today. Due to their relatively sudden appearance and the dearth of transitional ancestral fossils leading up to them, they have provided fodder for several decades of controversy among paleontologists and evolutionary theorists.
Meyer’s argument, which I will not recapitulate here, is that the standard, neo-Darwinian causal factors such as random mutation and natural selection — deprived as they are of intelligence, intention, and direction — are impotent to produce the kind of order we see arising during the Cambrian explosion and throughout evolution in general:
The Cambrian animal forms and their manner of appearance contradict what we should expect to find in the fossil record and in the animal world given a purely materialistic ‘bottom-up’ process of evolution. (p. 379)
Meyer’s solution — since he assumes throughout that nature really is, in its own right, a strictly materialistic affair — is to posit a designing intelligence acting upon the evolutionary process somehow from without, rather as a human engineer contrives to build various devices with the materials at hand. In both cases the affected materials, in themselves, remain innocent of the designer’s ideas and intentions.
The theory of intelligent design, Meyer tells us, “identifies and detects activity of the designer of life, and does so at different points in the history of life, including the explosive show of creativity on display in the Cambrian event” (p. 412). What he doesn’t tell us is how the phenomena undergoing design at those special historical moments differed from all the natural processes that apparently escape the designer’s attention1. If we could have watched the chosen organisms as the designer imparted “new information” to them, would we have seen anything other than the kind of play of biological wisdom we now observe in every distinct organic activity? Would we see an influence we could recognize as uniquely originating from outside the organism (or the organism-environment unity)?
As for neo-Darwinists, they also believe that mindless stuff is inadequate to explain the rise of seemingly well-designed organisms — although, as we will see, they are not likely to ackowledge or even recognize the belief. However well they may camouflage the fact, they, too, propose an intelligent external designer, calling it “natural selection”. I will note below the close kinship between the two designers.
I had hoped that Meyer would avoid making machines out of his organisms, for two reasons. First, the usage simply doesn’t work. As I have tried to show elsewhere, the organism is not machine-like and it also is far from being, in any part, a computer. Second, and more important for present purposes: the machine metaphor invites — almost demands — that we inquire about the designer of the machine. By appealing to such an external agency, one ignores the living agency of the organism itself.
But in the end it doesn’t seem to be the world itself that Meyer finds breathed through with intelligence. If it were, why would he invoke an outside designer who must at particular moments prod an otherwise incompetent world into mindful behavior? The machine — running mindlessly by itself during normal operation, but requiring an engineer to account for updated versions — seems to dominate his thinking.
This does add to the ambiguity, since — even when the notion of a “dumb machine” is in the foreground — we can’t help taking for granted the idea or plan that went into its construction. It is not quite as mindless as materialistic thinking would like to make it. But its “mindfulness” remains the imprint of an external designer and is not a living, growing, organic power intrinsic to the materials of the machine itself. So far as I can see, Meyer never makes the organism’s own inwardness and capacity for directed performance fundamental to his argument about the misdirection of current evolutionary theory.
In what sense is intelligence active in the world? Is it there in the world, or always acting from without? And what could we possibly see to distinguish the two cases? Here is where — continuing to look as best I can through Meyer’s eyes — I would try to persuade him to change his tack. The essential question, it seems to me, concerns the severe constraints that immediately come into play as soon as an intelligent designer is introduced into one’s thinking about evolution.
To begin with, the human machine-maker serves poorly as a model for analyzing these constraints. To assemble already existent bits of matter into various devices, or bring into play existing laws of chemical and physical transformation, is a long way from participating in the primal genesis and sustenance of that matter and those laws. Surely our activity can but distantly echo whatever is expressed in the creative foundations of the universe.
I do not believe I am mistaken in taking Meyer’s intelligent designer to be, in his mind, a bearer of divine-like creative power. Crucially, it is impossible to conceive such a power as a transcendent designer/engineer who works upon things strictly from outside. What could the phrase “from outside” possibly mean? The creator could not stand side by side with elements of his creation in the way we think of two created things standing side by side, as if he himself were another created thing. He would in some sense or other transcend such relationships.
But — and here’s the decisive issue — this concept of transcendence cannot be absolutized; it can only coexist in polar relation with a notion of immanence. Anything that absolutely transcended this world would be wholly other, and therefore could not sensibly be said to transcend the world. Rather, it would simply have nothing to do with the world, and therefore would never enter into any relation with it — not even a relation of transcendence. Nor could we ever know of it. To transcend something meaningfully requires also participating in it. The moment a transcendent power had any effect upon the world, it would show itself to be working within the world. You might say: one of the things that makes it truly transcendent is its power of immanence — a power far transcending that of the human engineer.
Again, if I am not mistaken, the transcendence and immanence of the world’s creative source is very much part of the theological tradition out of which Meyer works. Of course, simply conjoining the two words doesn’t solve much by itself. And with or without the conjoining, inescapable mystery seems to be written on the very face of the word “transcendence”. But the inseparableness of the terms may be a fruitful starting place for reflection — that and a saying with which Meyer will be familiar: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.
This suggests to me that knowledge of what would otherwise be unapproachably transcendent can only come through its immanence — an immanence that cannot be equated with merely outward appearances. In perhaps an analogous way, we glimpse through the face of a friend an inwardness — a being — that is expressed by, but is not fully encompassed by and cannot be reduced to, such outward manifestations as skin color, muscle movements, the liveliness of an eye’s glance, and so on.
What all this means is that — still trying to speak from Meyer’s point of view — it can’t be right to argue from an assumption of pure transcendence, since transcendence already implies immanence, and this immanence would be the only basis we have for understanding. Further, such immanence makes the picture of mindless material processes an impossible one. If we are looking for design, we will have to find it as an active intelligence working in and through the organisms we are studying.
Which is what we do find — and, indeed, the only thing we find. This is why it’s hard to escape a surreal feeling when someone tells us how this or that evolutionary development is radically improbable without the intelligence of an external designer. We may, of course, believe what we wish about such a being, and we may have all sorts of doubts about the ability of current evolutionary theory to explain the available facts pertaining to evolution. But we will never make any progress in understanding while doubting (as does the material-minded biologist) the living intelligence that is right there — immanent and visible in the creature. One wants to shout at Meyer: “Look at the processes you’re describing! They give us nothing but a picture of the active wisdom — call it the logos if you wish — sustaining the organism.”
Everything we witness, biologically speaking, is a matter of embodied wisdom, coordinated intention, the sustained patterning of behavior. Things happen because they conform to the tapestry of meaning that is the organism itself. When billions of molecules combine within a vast, surging sea of intracellular complexity, somehow managing (despite all the other things they might do in a perfectly lawful way) to fit their own contribution to the never exactly repeated yet exquisitely organized movements of the dividing cell, they do so, not because their inherent physical lawfulness happens to force them into the particular, highly choreographed behavioral sequence of cell division. No, they do so because the choreography is the primary determining reality — the reason why things happen as they do The choreography is the organism itself as agent and living process, calling forth in all its parts the necessary lawful interactions2.
When biologists describe gene transcription or alternative splicing or the translation of a messenger RNA into a protein, they are trying to capture a directed activity that outstrips in its complexity and sureness of aim anything that ever goes on in modern industrial facilities of the most advanced design. To argue about the role of random, undirected processes in evolutionary change — an argument both Meyer and his conventional opponents are engaged in — is to ignore the fact that biology is centrally and overwhelmingly about directed processes. Molecules, cells, and organisms are doing things.
So my question to Meyer is this: why construct a rather abstract probabilistic argument — an argument based on the premise of mindless material processes — in order to bring some sort of external intelligence to bear upon the organism? Change your premise of mindlessness and you will already be where you were aiming at — only now that place will not be at the conclusion of a problematic argument leading to an unknowable designer, but rather you will stand before the organism itself, with all its observable wisdom.
You are, moreover, perfectly free — perhaps even well-advised — to find in this organism an image, however diminished, of a being or power or reality that extends beyond (transcends) it. After all, the ideas and relations that constitute the agency of the organism (about which all biologists incessantly speak) already transcend the immediate physical appearances. Whenever we see the relations between things, and whenever we see organization, we are not just seeing things. We are, you might say, seeing more than we actually see. This isn’t a particularly strange thought, as anyone will realize who understands that in hearing the sounds of our own language we are hearing more than just sounds.
The neo-Darwinist’s machine designer is not all that different from Meyer’s. The mathematical biologist and information theorist, Lila Gatlin, remarked a few decades ago that “the words ‘natural selection’ play a role in the vocabulary of the evolutionary biologist similar to the word ‘God’ in ordinary language” (quoted in Oyama 2000*). Richard Dawkins, who for mysterious reasons of his own revels in the most explicit evocations of the theologians’ designer, calls natural selection a “blind watchmaker”. He apparently intends to coopt and make unnecessary the designer of the theologians, failing to realize that he is only underscoring the faulty assumption of an external, god-like designer that he shares with his religious opponents.
I asked above whether Meyer’s intelligent designer manages to invest his intelligence in the world or not, pointing out that if he does (something Meyer must assume if his designer is not to be “transcendentalized” out of all relevance to evolution), then arguments founded upon the organism as a mindless concatenation of matter don’t make much sense. The same problem (“are the wisdom and goal-directed thoughtfulness of the organism really there or not”) plagues neo-Darwinists, who inevitably acknowledge the purpose-like intelligence at work in the organism, but who then back away, calling this intelligence the “mere appearance” or “illusion” of intelligence. This is their approach whether the intelligence in view is goal-directedness, purpose, intention, practical wisdom, or whatever. The stance is so universal and uncontroversial that a single illustration will do:
I have argued, in line with many evolutionary biologists, that there is no purpose in a fundamentally causative manner in evolution but that the processes of selection and adaptation give the illusion of purpose through the utter functionality and designed nature of the biological world3. (Foley 2008*)
I am not aware of anyone who lucidly spells out what distinguishes real purpose (or any other manifestation of inwardness) from the illusion of it. On its face, the distinction is puzzling. Purposiveness, thoughtfulness, and intention are in part a matter of the kinds of relation — reasoned relations — we see among organic processes. Are those relations there, in the organism, or not? How does the appearance of a thoughtful pattern differ from a truly thoughtful pattern? (How would the appearance of a meaningful text differ from a truly meaningful one?) What makes relations of thought illusory? Is the cell, as it musters all its resources and adapts to the ever-changing circumstances confronting it, really doing so in order to carry out, say, the complex act of DNA replication? Or does it only look as though it is?
I don’t know that the question ever gets asked. What we usually do hear (without being offered any explicit distinction between purposiveness and the illusion of it) is a straight-faced bluff: we are told that natural selection in the past conjures our present illusions. As a bluff, this could hardly be emptier. The idea is that, while natural selection presents us with organisms of wisdom capable of realizing their own goals, natural selection itself knows nothing of such thoughtfulness. Therefore the embodiment of thought we see in organisms, being the result of mindless processes, must not really be an embodiment of thought, but only the illusion of it.
When we discover something in the world — for example, when we notice our own powers of thinking, or the directed activity of the cell in DNA replication — what reason can we have for concluding that such activity does not belong to the respectable and non-illusory reality of the world? If we assume that because thought arrived later in the universe than other things, it can have no fundamental reality, how far back do we have to go in the history of the universe to arrive at the truly fundamental things? All the way to the Big Bang? Or earlier? In any case, if the question has to do with the thought-nature of the universe — has it been thoughtful from the beginning? — then the assumption that thought showed up only later simply begs the question. Further, it’s a question-begging that hardly goes over well at a time when the physics of “fundamental particles” gives us little apart from the most erudite mental constructs imaginable — especially mathematical ones. These reflect (part of) the conceptual structure of the world — or so, at least, the physicist hopes.
But leave all that aside. Even if there were some level of analysis where we find only mindless matter, the argument from natural selection makes no reference to it. Rather, it calls in aid all previous, “illusorily” thoughtful activities of myriad organisms (their feeding, mating, rearing of offspring, fighting, and so on) in order to explain how the illusion of thoughtfulness arises. The circularity of the argument is embarrassing. I can suggest nothing, or at least nothing respectable, about how going round and round in this particular circle might have become so popular among so many smart people.
The core logic of natural selection is usually given in three statements: organisms vary through random mutation; this variation is in part faithfully inherited; and therefore some organisms will be fitter for survival and will produce more offspring than others. The problem is that, even if we take these statements to be true, they tell us virtually nothing about what to expect of evolution. They inform us only that change may happen over time.
Will any such change among actual organisms tend strongly to be reversed, or instead tend strongly to be magnified? Will the change be toward less complex or more complex forms of life? Will there be any direction at all in the change? Will the most likely changes lead to a disastrous end? What pathways of change are open to any given species at a particular time, and what pathways are closed off by the character of the organisms themselves or of the surrounding world? In what ways will molecular and physiological processes be conserved in different organisms during evolution, and in what ways will they diverge? How much diversity of life should we expect, and how radically disparate are the possible forms of life? Will evolution in any meaningful sense occur at all? Is it more or less possible today than at various times in the past? Does it occur sporadically or continuously? What accounts for the uncanny qualitative unity of an organism — a unity leading one observer to say of the sloth, for example, that “every detail speaks ‘sloth’” (Holdrege 1999*).
We may be able to find good answers for many of these questions, but we must do so empirically. The “core logic of natural selection” will not suggest the answers, except by our reading additional assumptions into it. That logic is so ignorant of the intricate and well-directed complexity that shapes actual outcomes — there is such a perfect vagueness about it, a nearly absolute “transcending” of concrete reality — that it will never be of much use in answering specific questions about the history of life. Yet this empty abstraction has been raised in the biologist’s mind to a reliable causal mechanism (!) that now “explains” all the purposive activities we see in living creatures.
My suggestion to the conventional evolutionary theorist would be much the same as my suggestion to Meyer: accept what your designer supposedly accomplishes, but accept it where you actually see it happening — immanent in organisms themselves rather than in an abstract principle. Your appeal to a remote power or mechanism (natural selection) whose designing activity, supposedly targeting the fitness of organisms, you have never been able to trace in a clear, unambiguous way, only distracts you from all the real progress in our understanding of organisms. Approach them where they are, as they interact, without imposing upon your understanding the straightjacket of theory that can only interfere with the truth through its transcendent remoteness from the observable phenomena.
So there is difference. Taking up positions for or against meaning in the world — that sounds like an irreconcilable difference, if ever there was one. And certainly there are other differences as well.
But do not underestimate the common ground underlying these differences. Both Meyer and the conventional biologist see the natural world as mindlessly material. But since they also cannot help recognizing meaning in the world, and particularly in the organism, they both try to avoid contradiction by relocating that meaning as far from natural phenomena as possible — the materialist in the hope of being rid of it, and the intelligent design theorist in order to save it from the reigning mindlessness. And they both accentuate the ambiguity of their position by drawing heavily on the machine metaphor — a metaphor that pretends to speak of dumb mechanism while capitalizing on the hearer’s recognition of both the machine’s design and the designer behind it.
Given their shared view of natural process itself, their different approaches to the key question — do we see real thoughtfulness in the organism? — look very much like symptoms of a sectarian squabble. It is a quarrel among the brethren. Many of the greatest struggles in history occur because the antagonists live uncomfortably close to each other. Baptism by immersion or by sprinkling? Meaning smuggled back into the picture by an unapproachable designer or by an ungraspably abstract principle of natural selection? One suspects at least a degree of peace would be in sight if both parties were to realize that the thoughtfulness and design attributed to their designer are in fact endemic and fundamental to the entire web of life.
The organism, as we observe it, is there. It is not a fixed structure, but consistently asserts its unique way of being. It is, then, speaking verbally, a being. Biologists would make a great leap forward if they were brave enough to be explicit about this simple truth to which they testify, directly or indirectly, in all their scientific descriptions.
As for the nature of that being and our ability to observe it, bear in mind that we observe a great deal that doesn’t usually get acknowledged within biology — and a great deal that is not material. For example, we observe the interrelations among our own ideas, and also the ideas of others. In fact, I hope you are now puzzling over the relations between my ideas and your own, and are asking yourself which ideas are true to the organism — true to the thoughtfulness instantiated or embodied in it. We already know that computers and other machines can embody our own inventive ideas. The fact that the ideas we see at work in the organism are, by comparison, much more alive and dynamic, much more truly immanent, hardly diminishes their reality. It only means we must be more alive and dynamic within our own thinking in order to lay proper hold of the life of the organism (Holdrege 2013*).Notes
1. There is one point in his book where Meyer feels pressed to adduce “a known cause that not only generates information, but translates immaterial thought into material reality, impressing itself on and shaping the material world”. He points to how our thoughts affect our brains, nerves and muscles: “We can — as the result of events in our conscious minds called decisions or choices — ‘will into existence’ information-rich arrangements of matter or otherwise affect material states in the world” (p. 397). This resonates to a degree with the way I have been speaking about the thoughtfulness and inwardness of the world. But if this is his way of viewing the matter — if his view of the designing intelligence at work in the organic world is one of profound psychosomatic unity — one wonders why the overwhelming weight of his language testifies to an engineer-like designer acting on matter from outside, and why that activity occurs only at specific times. See the discussion of transcendence and immanence below.
2. You may ask, What sort of thing is this primary reality — this choreography, this “organism itself”? And I reply: It is the kind of thing I have been describing. Do you demand something more? Is it metaphysics you really want? If so, there are plenty of philosophers and theologians who will be happy to oblige you. I am simply using language consistent with what biologists universally observe and describe, which is unavoidably a language of agency, among other things. Here I say nothing for or against unseen “entities” behind that agency. And if you don’t want metaphysical claims appended to your scientific observations, then I suggest that you, too, say nothing for or against such “entities”, whatever they are claimed to be — not until you actually have experience of them.
There is, of course, more to say. In particular, note the last two paragraphs of this article.
3. By “causative” Foley apparently refers to efficient causation — paradigmatically, the kind of causation typically thought to be at work in physical lawfulness. He thereby overlooks the distinction between physical causes and formal causes, where the latter have a qualitative, thought-like, organizing, patterning, coordinating, and integrating character. Formal causes are inseparable from idea, intention, and, in general, inwardness. Whether acknowledged or not, they figure dominantly in all biological explanation. And, decisively, the notion of formal causation captures a kind of lawfulness (one could also say “reason” or “logos”) that governs and directs processes subject in their turn to physical causation. I discuss the relation between physical and formal causation — that is, between the because of physics and the because of reason — in From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning.
Sources: Arp, Robert (2007). “Evolution and Two Popular Proposals for the Definition of Function”, Journal for General Philosophy of Science vol. 38, pp. 19-30. doi:10.1007/s10838-006-9008-3
Foley, Robert A. (2008). “The Illusion of Purpose in Evolution”, in The Deep Structure of Biology: Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal?, edited by Simon Conway Morris. West Conshohocken PA: Templeton Press.
Holdrege, Craig(1999). “What Does It Mean To Be a Sloth?” NetFuture #97 (Nov. 3). Latest version is available at https://natureinstitute.org/nature/sloth.pdf.
Holdrege, Craig (2013). Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life. Great Barrington MA: Lindisfarne.
Meyer, Stephen C. (2013). “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design”. New York: HarperOne.
Oyama, Susan (2000). The Ontogeny of Information, 2nd edition, foreword by Richard C. Lewontin. Durham NC: Duke University Press. First edition published in 1985 by Cambridge University Press.
Further information: Regarding purposive language and the idea that the organism is a machine: The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings.
Regarding the thought-like aspect of organisms and the difference between physical and biological causation: From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning.
Regarding the supposed mindlessness and randomness of the organism’s contribution to evolutionary change: Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness.
Regarding the organism’s dynamic character and its relevance to evolution: Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory.
This document: http://BiologyWorthyofLife.org/org/comm/ar/2013/sectarian-quarrel_10.htm
Steve Talbott :: A Sectarian Quarrel: Intelligent Design and Neo-Darwinism