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Stephen Meyer is director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. He is one of the founders of the “intelligent design” movement and author of two books about biological origins, Signature in the Cell and the 2013 bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Arguments for design in nature come from planetary science, physics, and molecular machines within cells: Meyer has focused on the digital information encoded in DNA.
For folks who don’t know, would you explain intelligent design? Richard Dawkins has said biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed. That’s classic Darwinism: design without a designer. Intelligent design is the idea there are certain features and patterns in the living world—and the universe itself—best explained by reference to an actual intelligence rather than an unguided process like natural selection and random mutation.
Your most recent book is called Darwin’s Doubt. What exactly did Darwin doubt? It had to do with an event in the history of life known as the Cambrian explosion, in which the first major animal forms emerged in the fossil record very abruptly. This raised a real problem in Darwin’s mind, and it’s something he acknowledged in the Origin of Species itself. In the lower, Precambrian layers, the ancestral forms he expected to see based on his branching tree picture of the history of life just weren’t there. Instead of seeing life gradually morph from a very simple one-celled organism through lots of intermediate forms, what we see in the fossil record is the sudden appearance of these complex animal forms. Darwin said the absence of these ancestral intermediates was a “valid argument against the views here entertained,” as he put it in his Victorian English.
What’s an example of a complex animal? On the cover of my book I have a picture of a trilobite. As a kid I was fascinated with these things: They had this beautiful exoskeleton with three parts and all these articulated lobes, and they also had compound eyes. You have this intricate visual device from the very dawn of animal life, and it’s quite contrary to what Darwin expected for two reasons: First, he thought the fossil record should show intermediate forms. Second, his mechanism of natural selection and random variations by definition had to work very slowly and incrementally. He thought if there were big changes from one generation to the next then the organisms would surely die.
Yet the Cambrian rock layers show the sudden appearance of trilobites and other unique animal body plans. What you found in the Cambrian was 23 distinct body plans, and fully 20 of those first appeared in the Cambrian. There are only about 27 body plans that have been preserved in the fossil records, total. So you can see this is a big event in the history of life.
The impression I get from Darwinists is that a few mutations can produce a new body plan or organ. True? Every time you have a new body plan you need new types of tissues and new types of organs. New tissues and organs require new types of cells, and new cells require dedicated proteins for building those cells. For example, many of the Cambrian animals had guts, and guts require digestive enzymes—and other enzymes to regulate the way the digestive enzymes work. When you get a new animal you need new proteins, and new proteins are built from the instructions on the DNA molecule. So the Cambrian explosion is not just an explosion for new body plans, it’s actually an explosion of information: Where did that information come from?
Mutations over billions of years, I’ve heard. A mutation is a random mistake. If you start randomly changing the 0s and 1s in a piece of software, are you more likely to degrade the information that’s in that code or generate a new program? The mechanism Darwinists have credited with creativity is actually a mechanism of destruction of information.
And biological life needs not just random information, but “specified information”? If you have a series of digits—say 10 digits—but you dial them and they don’t cause a phone number to ring, there’s a mathematical definition of information that would say, “It’s information because it’s a series of digits that you sent through a communication channel.” This is what’s called Shannon information. But the kind of information we have in living systems—in the DNA molecule in particular—is “specified” or “functional” information. It’s not just a random arrangement of characters, but it’s an arrangement of chemical subunits that are functioning just like alphabetic characters in a written language.
Those chemical subunits—adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—must sit in the correct order to encode functional proteins. I’ve got an illustration that I used in Darwin’s Doubt of a bike lock. Imagine the person who owns the bike has taken great precautions against thievery and he’s got a 10-dial bike lock. There are 10 billion possible ways of arranging those digits. Is it likely a thief entering random combinations is going to succeed? In relation to all the possible ways of arranging the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s on the DNA molecule, the few that will give you a functional protein are like the combination that will open the lock. They are extremely rare.
Is 4 billion years not enough evolutionary time to find the winning combination? It’s a blink of an eye. And the Cambrian explosion isn’t 4 billion years. It’s dated on the standard geological time scale of about 10 million years, and the major pulse of the explosion is within the 5 to 6 million year window. In relation to how fast the Darwinian mechanism works, it’s not nearly enough time.
Sounds convincing to me, but is intelligent design gaining any acceptance at the university level? There is a lot of behind-the-scenes movement, especially in Europe, oddly. I had an email several years ago from a European scientist who said, “Please don’t email me back—call me, but not at the office. Can we talk at my home?” I get a lot of phone calls like that. His problem was he’d come to accept intelligent design, but he was quite prominent in the European evolutionary establishment.
How about among students? A couple of years ago some of the Discovery scientists were at a dinosaur dig in eastern Montana. In a restaurant a young waitress came back with the bill, looked left and right, lowered her voice, and said, “Can you tell me what the Discovery Institute is?” I answered and she said, “I thought so! Our professors hate you.” Then she motioned to three other young waiters and waitresses and said, “I’m a bio major at the university and so are they. I’m telling you, our professors hate you, but we go on your website and see those animations of all those little machines and we say, ‘No way did that evolve.’”