I start this review with an obligatory disclaimer: I am not one of those science-hating creationists. It’s a testament to the state of public discourse in this country that I have to include that preface. But admitting openly that I read a book with a title like Darwin’s Doubt carries certain risks. It’s the kind of publication that you have to wrap in a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover if you want to read it on the subway.

And yet, it’s not that bad. In fact, Darwin’s Doubt is a surprising book, one of those works that stirs in you those feelings and ideas that you had all along, but didn’t know how to articulate or even whether you should.

The book’s title comes from portions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species where he discusses possible problems and setbacks with his overall theory of descent from a common ancestor. Darwin was familiar with the Cambrian Explosion, a ten-million-year block of time approximately 540 million years ago that saw a rapid increase in the number and complexity of biological forms. The geologically sudden appearance of such diversity differed from Darwin’s view of gradual transition. In light of this apparent conflict, Darwin sought to assure his readers: “If my theory be true, it is indisputable that before the lowest Silurian [Cambrian] stratum was deposited, long periods elapsed, as long as, or probably far longer than, the whole interval from the Silurian age to the present day; and that during these vast, yet quite unknown, periods of time, the world swarmed with living creatures.”

Darwin, it turns out, was wrong. While the world did swarm with creatures before the Cambrian era, they weren’t that varied. More than a century of research has shown that the Cambrian Explosion is what it is: a blink of an eye that produced creatures at a rate that far exceeds Darwin’s estimates. How did life appear so rapidly? In the absence of a powerful deity, what would be needed to make this happen?

What is needed is information. According to Stephen C. Meyer, the book’s author, advancements in life are in reality advancements in digital information in the form of DNA and epigenetic content. “Building a fundamentally new form of life from a simpler form of life requires an immense amount of new information.” It’s as if a room full of monkeys started banging on typewriters and produced, not works of Shakespeare, but complex computer algorithms. Randomly generating this level of quality DNA seems unrealistic to Meyer. The heart of Darwin’s Doubt is an exploration of why an increase in functional DNA-based information could not come about through neo-Darwinian evolution alone.

Meyer addresses this possible impediment to materialistic evolution by looking at four key issues: (1) the likelihood of random processes generating beneficial and usable genetic material, (2) the time needed to generate this digital genetic information, (3) the window of time in a species’ development when DNA-generating mutations must occur, and (4) whether DNA alone is sufficient to build new life forms.

Darwin himself was not aware of DNA or of how genetics worked at the cellular level. In today’s neo-Darwinian world, it is well understood that genetic mutations must drive speciation. Cellular mutations are common, but generally deleterious; we call some of them “birth defects.” Even if a mutation could be considered neutral or beneficial, Meyer explains that there need to be enough coordinated mutations present to generate a new protein fold. “New protein folds represent the smallest unit of structural innovation that natural selection can select…. Therefore, mutations must generate new protein folds for natural selection to have an opportunity to preserve and accumulate structural innovations,” an action that is unlikely by Meyer’s calculations.

Meyer’s second point deals with the study of population genetics. Given the size of a population, its reproduction rate, its overall mutation rates, and the tendency for natural selection to weed out members with diminished genetic fitness, how much time is needed to generate new genetic information that would result in the transition to a new type of creature? Quite a lot, it turns out. “For the standard neo-Darwinian mechanism to generate just two coordinated mutations, it typically needed unreasonably long waiting times, times that exceeded the duration of life on earth, or it needed unreasonably large population sizes, populations exceeding the number of multicellular organisms that have ever lived.” Since the majority of genetic advancements would require more than two coordinated mutations, the numbers quickly become more severe.

Timing also plays a key role in genetic transmission. To have a development impact, Meyer notes that mutations must come early in the evolutionary lifetime of a species, when populations are still small and morphological changes have the best chance of taking hold. However, mutations at this stage also have the biggest probability of imparting damage, and similar changes in larger populations are more likely to be removed by natural selection.

Finally, Meyer discusses epigenetic information, the instructional content stored in cell structures but not in DNA sequences themselves. This information is essential in driving the overall body plan of an animal as it develops from a single cell to its full adult size. What is not clear is how it could be altered through genetic mutation, since specific epigenetic pressures are not coded directly by the DNA base pairs. There is also the issue of “junk DNA,” those coding blocks of the genome that were once thought to be useless castoffs of evolution, but are now understood to drive biological processes in living creatures.

In its more than 500 very accessible pages and its 100-plus pages of footnotes and bibliographical references, Darwin’s Doubt does at good job at expressing Meyer’s own doubts that “wholly blind and undirected” evolution could produce the variety of life we see on earth. As the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, Meyer is a strong advocate for Intelligent Design. “Our uniform experience of cause and effect shows that intelligent design is the only known cause of the origin of large amounts of functionally specified digital information. It follows that the great infusion of such information in the Cambrian explosion points decisively to an intelligent cause.” His book makes a strong case, although the appeal to non-materialistic explanations will always turn off some readers. As proof of the struggle, Meyer quotes Scott Todd, a biologist writing in Nature: “Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”

So here you have the conundrum. Despite what you read in the news, the science surrounding biological evolution is still somewhat fluid, in part due to the issues raised in Darwin’s Doubt. Yet for those who have reasonable struggles with the evolution-is-settled narrative, it’s hard to shake the baggage carried by those on the religious fringe who insist that any non-literal interpretation of the creation story is blasphemy. Another book on my reading list is Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel, an atheist who rejects the standard neo-Darwinian view for some the same reasons as expressed by Meyer. (Anthony Flew, once known as “the world’s most notorious atheist,” later came to believe in a deity because of similar issues surrounding evolution.) A book like Darwin’s Doubt requires vigorous analysis to confirm that it is scientifically sound. But if it is, then the neo-Darwinian evolution model itself might turn out to be little more than an intelligently designed idea.

This article was posted on September 17, 2014. Related articles: Biology, Other Books, , .

Footnotes for “Review: Darwin’s Doubt”

  1. Have you seen the Ben Stein documentary “Expelled?” Not to start a debate here (I honestly think both theories carry truth), but it’s probably the best example of everything that’s wrong with Creationism…mainly that it’s usually presented all wrong. I’d be curious to read a book that presents creationism with a little more…science…as it seems Meyer has done.

  2. I did see Expelled a while back. If I remember correctly, it’s not so much about the science behind intelligent design as it is about the difficulty intelligent design advocates feel they have in getting their message out. Stein can be both jocular and heavy-handed, perhaps dual tributes to his background both in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and as a speechwriter for Nixon.

    Meyer’s book is pretty much all science, all the time. There’s only passing references to religion, about the same as you might find in any general-audience science book that communicates the pro-evolution stance. I’m a layman when it comes to biology and chemistry, but his argument did have the feel of rigor and competency.

    More eye-opening than Meyer’s analysis was his content documenting various experts who openly discuss the scientific complexities and roadblocks present in origins-of-life research. High school textbooks give the basic common-descent narrative with finch-beak examples, and it all feels very settled and boring. But if you access the journal articles referenced by Meyer, there’s a whole world of scientific debate covering many aspects of the evolution story. It was quite fascinating to read peer-reviewed content from those who promote evolution, and yet still understand that they need to grapple with the problems evolution brings up.

  3. I’d like to see you challenge yourself to think critically about this work.

  4. In addition to his statement above, Carl sent me some links offline (here and here) that attempt to correct misconceptions held by those who reject evolution. He also warned me not to avoid challenging books that use myth and outdated research as their core forms of support.

    This is part of the difficulty in talking about books like Darwin’s Doubt. Those like Meyer who propose ideas that challenge the Darwinian model are assumed to be wacko religious knuckle-draggers. Often, that assumption is correct, but not always, and the assumption by itself is not proof that the ideas are faulty. Sites like the ones listed by Carl attempt to correct the religious nuts, but they seldom address those who earnestly and seriously grapple with the incomplete scientific and statistical detail offered by modern evolutionary research.

    Within the scientific community, there is near unanimous acceptance of neo-Darwinian evolution, even among scientists who express a belief in God. However, there is not unanimous agreement about specific components or processes associated with the evolution narrative. This should come as no surprise, since science is a constant battle to understand and expand gaps in theoretical knowledge. Yet I am regularly surprised that the public presentation of evolution brings with it the false statement that there are no known issues with the theory of evolution. There are real, complex issues, and it is these issues that Darwin’s Doubt addresses. Meyer’s conclusions are a valid target of debate. But anyone who claims that evolution is scientifically problem-free is avoiding their own need to challenge ideas.

    In response to another of Carl’s challenges, Darwin’s Doubt does not depend on myth–it doesn’t discuss religion at all beyond providing common responses to critics–and it generally sticks with research from the most recent two decades, except when it is specifically quoting content from Darwin’s era.

Leave a Footnote

 

A recent article in the The Independent documented racial angst over a tribute to Robin Williams at this year’s Emmy Awards. During Billy Crystal’s public eulogy for the late comedian, a video showed Williams donning a makeshift hijab and blurting out, “I would like to welcome you to Iran…Help me!” The Twittersphere quickly labeled the shtick as racist, but you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet.

Robin Williams’ poke at the situation in Iran might have offended some people, but it wasn’t racist. Iran is obviously not a race; it’s a country, a geopolitical region defined by sovereign states, not by DNA. Its religion is monolithic, but that too is immaterial, since it is the nation’s recent political history, and not its primary creed, that makes Williams’ humor so biting. The transformation of Iran from a somewhat open, liberal society to one where a joke about the status of women resonates with outsiders happened just a few decades ago, and was a political change, not a racial one.

“Racist” has become the go-to explanation for many of America’s current woes. From police shootings in the Midwest to conflicts in the Middle East and every gripe about President Obama’s policies in between, if there’s trouble in the news, there’s bound to be an accusation of racism soon after. It turns out that calling someone a racist is a great way to silence an opponent. But in the United States in the twenty-first century, such accusations are rarely accurate.

Racism in America is basically over. The country used to be a lot more racist, back in the Civil War and Jim Crow days, and even as recently as the wartime fiasco of Japanese internment. But it’s not like that anymore, not even close. Sure, the KKK and neo-Nazi groups still exist today, but we call them “fringe radicals” for a reason. Over the last 150 years, and especially since the Civil Rights Era of the mid-1960s, the United States has steadily distanced itself from its racist past.

That national evolution doesn’t mean that race is no longer an issue. As proved by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri several weeks ago, and by the riots that followed, race and racial sentiments still have an impact. Does the shooting of a black youth by a white officer substantiate a disturbing trend in race relations? The TV footage says “yes,” but the actual numbers related to police shootings say, “not really.” A post-Ferguson New York Times column looked at the conventional wisdom that says “the use of deadly force by police officers unfairly targets blacks. All that is needed are the numbers to prove it. But those numbers do not exist.”

Young black men are arrested and incarcerated at rates quite disproportionate to their overall population. Is that racist? Perhaps in some situations. But crime statistics by race always have titles like “Crimes by race” instead of “Crimes by race, age, sex, region, type of offense, weapon choice, family background, education level, financial situation, work history, music preference, and local political culture.” Such summary numbers always gloss over poverty and education variations, the distribution, frequency, and extenuating circumstances of different types of crimes, cultural differences between urban and rural environments, the variation in mandatory sentencing laws, the recidivism rates for different regions and demographic groups, changes in family makeup over recent decades, and the role of technology, music, and communications as they relate to criminal activities.

In other words, crime is a complicated and messy thing, and race is just one of many components. The temptation to shout “racist” whenever there is conflict between different ethnic groups ignores that messiness. The rush to stick the racist label on newsworthy events reflects America’s modern tendency to reach for simple explanations to complicated problems. Calling someone a racist is easy, and frees the accuser from doing the hard work of ferreting out the complexities of social interactions between the races, and between individual and situational nuances within a nation of over 300 million diverse citizens.

The current President, two Supreme Court justices, and a full fifty percent of all schoolchildren in America are classified as minorities. If the White Man has been trying to keep the other races down, he’s certainly done a lousy job at it. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson is troubling, but not because America is racist. The United States is, instead, one of the most ethnically diverse and non-racist places on earth, and a nation in which crying out for help from behind a veil would be a joke.

[Image Credits: Possibly the Associated Press]

This article was posted on September 3, 2014. Related articles: Commentary, , , .

Footnotes for “American Racism is Basically Over”

  1. I see: don’t ask, don’t prove, just tell. Tell the women that sexism doesn’t exist, tell the old or very young people that ageism doesn’t exist, tell a Muslim or a Jew that religious bias doesn’t exist, and try to tell the racist that Iranians and Iraqis aren’t Arabs (totally true, but racists hate with a wide brush). Tell everyone that there isn’t anything wrong with a 95% white police force in a town that’s 67% black.

  2. Of course there are still racists in America, just as there are racists in Canada and Mexico and Japan and Chile and Russia and Uganda. You can always find incidents of racism or similar -isms if you look. But that doesn’t excuse the modern confusion of perceived racism with non-racist causes of life’s difficulties.

    The police department in Ferguson might be a racist group. But the percentage of white officers when compared to the general population is by itself insufficient evidence to claim racism. Between the 2000 and 2010 Census counts, the white population in Ferguson dropped from about 75% to about 45%. That’s a sizable decrease in ten years, and it’s not surprising that a small police department didn’t change as quickly. Like I said, it may be a racist precinct, but that determination should be made on racist activities and not just on statistics alone. If the department was 95% black instead of white, that also would not be an automatic indication of racism.

Leave a Footnote

 

Earlier this month, President Obama authorized targeted airstrikes against the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq. While it appeared to be a reversal of his long-term policy of disengagement from that nation, the president made it clear that the operation was limited in scope, and that America was not returning to Iraq. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done…. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

In other words, the President’s plan is to provide the equivalent of an aspirin for a broken leg, hoping for a complete recovery. Minimum input, maximum output. It’s the policy of wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking has become the action of choice for modern American politicians on both sides of the aisle. It’s not hard to understand why: good news is good! Spinning Middle East drama into its best possible outcome sounds better than ordering up fresh military recruits. Liking and keeping your healthcare policy sells better than correcting decades of regulations and laws that act as enablers for high-charging medical firms.

Americans want the happy ending, the tidy solution that resolves all loose ends. They want wishful thinking. And since politicians are people-pleasers, they give the public what it wants. The declaration of the happy goal is paramount; the details on how to get there are downplayed or rejected completely.

Wishful thinking sounds nice, but it ignores reality. Iraq is a mess, and has been since long before its modern form came about in 1916. Thoughtful people can disagree about whether the United States should once again commit its military resources to that region of the world. But we delude ourselves if we think that Iraq will meander safely toward peace while more stable countries watch from afar. It didn’t work in Cambodia in the 1970s; it hasn’t worked in Sudan over the past decade; and it won’t work in Iraq.

Ethnic and denominational relations inside Iraq and with its neighbors have been tense for a long time. Tribal conflicts that include human rights violations crop up regularly, and in the absence of an external diplomatic or military force, there is little reason to expect much change in the near future. As commander-in-chief, President Obama is free to reposition American troops. But there is no military or historical justification for coupling a complete Iraqi withdrawal with assurances that “it will all work out somehow.” It’s not honest or accurate. It’s just wishing.

Politicians engage in wishful thinking whenever they offer rosy promises of simple solutions to complex problems. Americans partake of wishful thinking every time they clamor for a slick candidate who claims to hold to key to social difficulties, or believe that the next presidential election will right all wrongs. There are times when government may need to act (or step back from prior actions) to address some societal difficulty. In general, if these actions are to have a positive impact, they will be expensive, time-consuming, controversial, partly ineffective, and injurious to the private sector or some other national concern. Any politician who tells you otherwise is trying to get reelected.

In many ways, it’s our own fault. The wealth and safety we enjoy as Americans has allowed us to entertain ourselves rather than pursue civic education, to prefer a comfortable peace instead of troublesome truths. We desire sitcom solutions to the ugly problems of life. “We will eliminate poverty in our lifetimes” sounds so much better than the reality that some people will always be poor, no matter how much time and money we throw at the problem. Helping the poor is good; believing the help will succeed in all cases is delusional.

Wishful thinking is ignorance with a happy face. Thomas Jefferson warned against such political illiteracy: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Every time we allow a politician to lull us into apathy with wishful thinking, we move one step farther from civilization.

[Image Credits: whitehouse.gov and disneyclips.com]

This article was posted on August 18, 2014. Related articles: Commentary, .

Footnotes for “The Era of Wishful Thinking”

  1. I guess I missed the part where you actually propose an alternative approach and put that up for scrutiny.

    Or are you just wishful thinking for an ideal solution that no one has proposed yet?

  2. I’m not calling the current approaches right or wrong. My point is that a proclamation that things will work out is not enough to ensure that they will actually work out. There are no ideal or simple solutions to truly complex problems. Admitting this truth is an essential first step to addressing them.

Leave a Footnote

 

At a small private school in Seattle, a group of mothers scrounged up $3,000 to purchase computer equipment for the students. The school didn’t really have any computers before that, so the gift was a great opportunity for the kids, especially the young geeks who did what geeks tend to do when confronted with technology. It sounds like a heartfelt story you might hear anywhere in America. But this tale takes place at a school named Lakeside in 1968, and the geeks included future Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, uses the introduction of computers at Lakeside to demonstrate one of the key features of those who, like Gates and Allen, excel far beyond the bulk of humanity: opportunity. The countless hours that Allen and Gates devoted to their beloved mainframes (an example of the book’s “10,000-Hour Rule”) helped guide their careers. But Gladwell puts the focus instead on the mother’s who purchased the computer equipment, a chance opportunity that gave Microsoft’s pioneers a key advantage. For the outliers discussed in the book, “success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: where and when you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were.”

Gladwell is a gifted storyteller, and he is adept at finding just the right anecdote or statistic to move his points forward. But as I read the success stories fleshed out in his text, I found myself unsure if he was drawing the correct conclusions. Bill Gates is a perfect example. He was certainly provided with great advantages, growing up in a time when computing was about to make the transition from business to personal, and coming from a family with the intellectual and financial means to put him in places of opportunity. But he was also a genius of sorts, an aspect of outlier success that Gladwell downplays. To make the anti-genius theme clearer, Gladwell relates the woeful tale of a genius named Christopher Langan who experienced one opportunity setback after another, despite his high intelligence.

Outliers looks to the “web of advantages and inheritances” that great people experience. In the book, the forces that birth outliers are external rather than innate. It was this emphasis that I found lacking. Bill Gates wasn’t the only youth in 1968 to give his every waking hour to computing. But he was one among only a tiny handful of these students to become someone on the level of, well, of Bill Gates. There was something more than opportunity, something more than heritage, that made his success possible, and Gladwell discounts it.

Despite this oversight, the book is still a great read. I found the chapter that discusses the transformation of Korean Airlines from an accident-prone company to one that has one of the best safety records in the industry simply fascinating. Gladwell ends the book with a story of his own family life, hinting not so subtly that he himself is an outlier, and that you, dear reader, might be as well.

This article was posted on June 25, 2014. Related articles: Other Books, , .

Leave a Footnote

 

Following a recent exchange of five Guantanamo Bay detainees for one American Army soldier held for five years by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the United States has run dangerously low on enemy combatants available for barter purposes. In the years following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States found itself flush with nearly 800 ready prisoners amid a shortage of hostage situations. But the numbers have fallen in recent years. With last month’s transfer, the total now hovers at just 149 human bargaining chips.

Congressional Republicans took advantage of the ominous news to lambast President Obama, calling him out for his “frivolous attacks and spend policy” of dealing with captured insurgents. “We set up the Guantanamo Bay Prisoner Trust Fund for a reason,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “You can’t just hand out these terrorists five or six at a time. It’s typical left-wing wastefulness.”

The low prison camp numbers come at an especially dangerous time in American international relations. Just days after the release of Taliban prisoner Bowe Burgdahl, North Korea announced that it had arrested an American tourist for unspecified and likely sucky reasons. “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” said departing White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “But we can negotiate with the Qataris if Kim Jong-un wants go to through them.”

Evil and formerly evil nations like North Korea and Afghanistan may find it hard to trade in their hostages for increasingly valuable Guantanamo Bay ne’er-do-wells. With terrorist supplies at historic lows, the United States may be forced to dip into its National Domestic Prisoner Reserves for the first time since the 1970s. Fortunately, the flagging economy and a spate of high-profile GM vehicle accidents have reduced the need for license plates, “so the prisoners are available for release anytime,” said Secretary of Wardens Bill Westermont.

However, homegrown murderers and white-collar criminals might not be good enough for America’s enemies. The swap of five Taliban prisoners for one American citizen has set a de facto price, and even with an ample supply of American inmates, foreign terror organizations might not want them. Hamid Kahm-Jones, a Taliban mucky muck living on the run in eastern Afghanistan, explained the problem. “We very much appreciate the United States’ attempt to provide homegrown criminals in exchange for our kidnap victims. But let’s face it: American prisoners are soft, with their three square meals per day, their easy access to cable television—including the Food Network—and washing machines. It’s pathetic. Death to America, to Comcast, and to Maytag!”

[Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons]

Humorality

This article was posted on June 11, 2014. Related articles: Humor, , .

Footnotes for “Guantanamo Swappable Prisoner Supply Reaches Historic Low”

  1. Good news: we still have 149 detainees at GitMo, and they have NONE of ours.

    Bad news: (according to right-wing talking heads) the terrorists will now be kidnapping American soldiers to ransom for hostages. This assumes that they’ve been nice to American soldiers (or blowing them up with IEDs) and thus missing opportunities to capture and trade them.

Leave a Footnote