Robert Asher on Stephen Meyer's "uniformitarianism" argument in Darwin's Doubt

Robert Asher is a Cambridge mammal paleontologist, zoologist, phylogeneticist, author of Evolution and Belief, and generally really smart guy. He has just published a commentary at HuffPo on one aspect of Stephen Meyer’s arguments, namely, Meyer’s argument about “uniformitarianism.”

Meyer basically claims that inferring intelligent design is an application of uniformitarianism, because in everyday human experience the only known explanation of “information” is intelligence, therefore we should infer ID when new information arises billions of years ago in the origin of life, or hundreds of millions of years ago in the Cambrian Explosion. (Meyer really believes that intelligence is necessary for any nontrivial evolutionary adaptation or complexity increase, i.e. he thinks there were millions of miraculous interventions in the history of life, but he’s a bit coy about admitting this up front.)

Meyer uses this argument in Darwin’s Doubt, Signature in the Cell, and generally throughout his work. It actually traces back to the 1980s, at least to Charles Thaxton of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (as Meyer acknowledges, with a few tweaks, if I recall correctly), but also to Dallas Theological Seminary theologian Norman Geisler (who was also a creationist witness in the 1981 McLean vs. Arkansas trial). This latter fact is basically now deleted from IDist histories of the ID movement, but it’s completely clear if one reads Geisler & Anderson’s (1987) Origin Science: A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy. This work also contains a fascinating paragraph or two that try to reconcile the inference-of-creation-is-uniformitarian argument with the then-popular creationist view that uniformaritanism-is-materialist-dogma-that-unfairly-rules-out-creationism. This tension is still found throughout modern ID arguments, usually when IDists rant and rave about the evils of methodological naturalism, but then say that any questions about the IDer, his abilities, motives, etc., are questions outside of science.

Anyhow, there are numerous problems with the jump from information to inference of intelligence inference, such as (1) it’s absolutely not true that only intelligence can produce “information” in the sense of new functional DNA sequence or new organismal forms (see my reviews of Meyer: Meyer’s Hopeless Monster, Part II and Luskin’s Hopeless Monster; and Meyer on Medved: the blind leading the blind), and (2) it’s not at all clear that the “information” in biology is really the same stuff as the “information” that humans invent; a rigorous definition of “information” might solve this problem, but IDists don’t present a definition of something that is also beyond the reach of standard evolutionary mechanisms.

But, there are yet other problems with the inference, namely, how uniformitarian is Meyer, really? Robert Asher argues that Meyer is being selectively uniformitarian. Meyer basically uses the term as rhetoric, and then arbitrarily drops uniformitarianism whether it would lead to problems with his ID argument.

Here’s a preview:

If we really apply uniformitarianism to determine if intelligent agents influenced the course of our evolutionary history, we’d expect those agents to have left behind the same kinds of traces as other such agents. Humanity is the best example we’ve got so far, and we make an exponentially greater amount of garbage than we do functional designs. One of the most obvious kinds of material evidence that a human-like intelligence in Earth’s distant past would have left behind was spelled out with one of the most famous lines, indeed one of the most famous words, ever uttered in twentieth-century film: Plastics. Far from being persecuted for a discovery that raises the issue of design, anyone finding genuine “plastic spikes” in deep time, corresponding temporally to one or more evolutionary events, would be assured of a successful, mainstream academic career (to say the least). While such artifacts wouldn’t tell us how biodiversity actually came about, they would indicate that something out there served as an agent behind life on Earth. Maybe ID advocates will claim that their “intelligence” didn’t have to leave behind a plastic spike or other such material evidence. And when they do, they cease to qualify as scientifically uniformitarian.

Go to HuffPo for the rest!