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Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design and director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, has a new book being published June 18 by HarperOne: Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. 

(For the best discount and free shipping, you can pre-order the book here, and they’ll also send you four free eBooks on intelligent design.)

Dr. Meyer argues that the mysterious features of the Cambrian explosion are better explained by intelligent design than purely undirected evolutionary processes. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.

What is the “Cambrian Explosion”? 

The Cambrian explosion is an important event in the history of life where nearly all of the major animal body plans appear abruptly in the fossil record without any apparent evolutionary precursors.

Why is that significant?

What this means, in essence, is that virtually all of the major animal groups (called “phyla”)—vertebrates like fish, to arthropods (e.g., trilobites and shrimplike creatures), to various types of worms (e.g., earthworm-like annelid worms), to mollusks (e.g., shellfish), and many other types of animals—appear in a geological “blink of an eye,” without any direct ancestors in the fossil record. Even Richard Dawkins has observed that the Cambrian animals looked as if “they were just planted there without any evolutionary history.”

Do you believe it was a real event?

Yes, we take the Cambrian explosion to have been a real event. And we aren’t alone in taking that view. Most leading evolutionary paleontologists who are top authorities on the Cambrian period—people like Douglas Erwin, James Valentine, and Simon Conway Morris—agree that the evidence shows the Cambrian explosion was a real event, and is not merely an artifact of the fossil record.

Did Darwin know about the Cambrian explosion? Did he see problems with it?

Darwin himself knew that the abrupt appearance of animals in the ancient fossil record posed a problem for his theory. In his time, it was called the Silurian period, but later it was renamed the Cambrian.

Darwin knew that his theory of evolution by natural selection worked gradually, and required that structures and organs be built by “numerous, successive, slight modifications.”

But the Cambrian explosion contradicted that pattern, since it showed diverse and complex animal body plans appearing abruptly, without any fossil record of their evolution.

Darwin confessed that this was not something his theory could explain. He acknowledged that doubt in Origin of Species, and said it was a “valid argument against the views here entertained.”

Have the last century of fossil discoveries resolved or aggravated Darwin’s doubt?

Fossil discoveries since Darwin’s time have only made the Cambrian explosion problem worse for his theory.

Darwin believed that the fossil record was woefully incomplete, and he predicted that the problem of abrupt appearance of animals in the Cambrian would be alleviated by future discoveries.

But the opposite happened. Scientists have combed the Precambrian strata for the alleged precursors to the Cambrian animals, and they haven’t found the direct evolutionary ancestors that Darwinian theory predicts. Instead, they have made new discoveries which confirmed that the Cambrian explosion was real event—and a worldwide one—and that the animal phyla really did appear abruptly.

The first major Cambrian-era fossil discovery after Darwin’s time took place over a hundred years ago now, in 1909, when Charles Doolittle Walcott (then the head of the Smithsonian Institution) discovered the Burgess Shale Cambrian deposit in the Canadian Rockies. This deposit showed many diverse soft and hard-bodied organisms which were preserved in exquisite detail. They all appeared in the Cambrian, with no clear evolutionary ancestors.

The question remained, however, whether the Burgess Shale Cambrian animals were a lucky isolated event, or evidence of a worldwide pattern. Over the next decades, additional discoveries of Cambrian animals were made in other parts of the world, including Russia, Greenland, and Australia.

But the most spectacular find of all took place in 1984, with the discovery of Cambrian fossils in Chengjiang, China. This deposit confirmed that the Cambrian explosion was a worldwide event, with many of the same creatures found in Canada being present in beautiful detail.

So as more and more fossils have been discovered, we’ve found the same pattern over and over around the world: diverse types of animals appear abruptly in the Cambrian, without clear evolutionary precursors. This has accentuated the “dilemma” that Darwin faced.

How do you respond to the argument that humans can trace their evolutionary ancestry to the Cambrian fish since both share backbones and dorsal nerve cords?

Sure, humans and fish both share backbones and nerve codes. That’s no surprise to anyone. In fact, humans also share genes with bananas and bacteria. That organisms share genes or structural parts does not necessarily reflect common ancestry, because it could indicate that they were built upon a common body plan. After all, it’s a good design principle to re-use parts that work in different designs—this is exactly why mechanical engineers put wheels on both cars and airplanes, or why technology designers put keyboards on both computers and cell phones. That different organisms share some of the same parts could easily reflect common design rather than common descent.

In fact, when evolutionary biologists have tried to construct evolutionary trees (called “phylogenetic trees”) to show how the animal phyla are related, they have encountered great difficulties. An evolutionary tree based on one gene or body part, will sharply conflict with an evolutionary tree based upon another gene or body part. A paper just published in the journal Nature last week acknowledged that the genetic data has caused a lot of problems for those trying to construct a “tree of life.” One of the study’s co-authors, Antonis Rokas of Vanderbilt University, stated: “It has become common for top-notch studies to report genealogies that strongly contradict each other in where certain organisms sprang from, such as the place of sponges on the animal tree or of snails on the tree of mollusks.”

To see how Dr. Meyer connects all of this to intelligent design, check out the book: Darwin’s Doubt.

You can also watch below a trailer for an earlier documentary that began to explore these issues:

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45 thoughts on “Darwin’s Doubt: An Interview with Stephen C. Meyer”

  1. Luma Simms says:

    The distinction between common design and common descent is important to this discussion.

    Good stuff, thanks, Justin.

  2. Concerted Effort says:

    Stephen Meyer is biased, only Peter Enns is truly objective. And he’s a really smart guy. He says, based upon the testimony of Francis Collins and others, that there’s really no doubt about the “fact” of evolution.

    Therefore, stop the madness!

  3. andrew price says:

    And here am I thinking the fossils were laid down during the flood…

  4. AJG says:

    So by spotlighting this book, are you and Meyer indicating that the creation story in Genesis is false – i.e. that the Cambrian explosion occurred half a billion years ago? That kind of destroys the 10,000 year-old earth, six-day creation doesn’t it?

    In evangelicals’ zest to attack Neo-Darwinian evolution – unsuccessfully I might add – they destroy the edifice upon which their own creation myth is built. That’s not a recipe for success.

    1. Lou G. says:

      AJG: nothing in Meyer’s argument necessitates the billions of years scenario. That is a separate argument. The bottom line is that Cambrian explosion dismantles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and gradual processes over time. That’s why Darwinists try to “explain away” the Cambrian explosion by using the elixir of billions of years. There are other arguments, beyond the Cambrian Explosion, that remove the billions of years scenario and bring us back to the realm of thousands of years.

      Once I can get my pro-evolution friends to admit to the Cambrian Explosion, the stretch is not far to get them to admit an act of creation is scientifically supported. I find that the billions of years argument is almost non-essential once they get past Darwin’s macro-evolution through gradual change in the origin of species.

      1. TruthLover says:

        The latest scientific research demonstrates that gradual processes over hundreds of millions of years are not necessary for so-called “macroevolution” (Evo Devo is THE hot field in evolutionary biology right now), but creationists are insistent on fighting battles from the 19th century when it comes to evolution. You don’t even need fossils anymore to demonstrate that evolution is a fact; all you need to do is take a look at the human genome. Human chromosome #2 demonstratates clearly that apes and humans shared a common ancestor in the past.

        Anyway, I’m not really interested in getting into another debate about the facts that conclusively prove evolutionary theory. I just find it interesting that YECs carry the banner for ID when it really isn’t an ally in their case for a historical creation account.

        1. Lou G. says:

          truthLover, Remember, it wasn’t that many years ago that Darwinists argued humans actually came from apes. So, now that the original ape theory has been disproven, their onto common ancestry.

          The genetic sciences are in direct alignment with the tenants of intelligent design and have come to show that the ever-changing common ancestor hypothesis is little more than wishful thinking, and in the process of being relegated to the halls of fiction.

          Like I said, the whole issue of billions of years is not all that important, in light of the latest discoveries in microbiology, quantum physics and genetic sciences. I guess you’ll deny the Cambrian Explosion to, so you can cling to the bit about common ancestry?

          1. TruthLover says:

            Humans ARE apes, Lou. No one ever claimed that an ape became a person, but rather that humans and the great apes share a common ancestor. Heck humans and mushrooms share a common ancestor if you go far enough back in the biological record.

            I don’t deny the Cambrian explosion because a creationist with an agenda says it didn’t happen. BTW, many ID advocates (like Michael Behe) argue for common descent as well. Behe, in particular, just thinks that there are certain mechanisms in biological organisms that could not have come about via natural selection, hence his term “irreducible complexity”. Never mind that he, nor any ID advocate, have yet to put forth a workable theory to test their claims experimentally. When they do, their ideas can be picked and prodded at like real scientists. Until then, nothing they say should be taken seriously.

            1. Lou G. says:

              “No one ever claimed that an ape became a person” Guess you never read Darwin’s Desent of Man or Origin of the Species, or any of Huxley’s work. While Darwin’s work was taken to imply it (savages equated with “primative” forms, Huxley’s contributions were more explicit.

              ID advocates use the same scientific data as anyone else; they just refuse to suppress the knowledge of their creator which is written on our hearts. The difference is in the interpretation.

              1. TruthLover says:

                ID advocates use the same scientific data as anyone else; they just refuse to suppress the knowledge of their creator which is written on our hearts. The difference is in the interpretation.

                So you mean they just do what feels right based on prior beliefs without evidence to support that view? That’s the antithesis of scientific inquiry which is why ID is not science.

              2. Lou G. says:

                Sorry TL, but you have misread my sentence.

                Same data, different interpretations.

  5. Scott C says:

    The Cambrian explosion likely represents the oceans over-running the continents in the early stages of the global flood described in the book of Genesis. If one starts with Scripture many things in the observable world begin to make sense.

    Let us put the point this way. If we believe the testimony of Scripture is true concerning historical events, then it is possible to find corroborating evidence of that in the world (e.g. rise of early Christianity). Thus, if the Bible describes a worldwide flood that covered all the high mountains of the earth of that time, would it not be reasonable to suppose that we would find evidence of that in the observable geologic record of today?

    Instead, Christians tend to take the presuppositions of unbelieving scientists as a starting point and then read those back into the Biblical accounts. If the face value reading of Scripture doesn’t fit those accepted presuppositions (e.g. millions of years of earth history resulting from uniformitarian processes), rather than questioning the secular presupposition, we just adjust our interpretation of the plain reading of the text. This is just a sophisticated way of saying we don’t believe God’s Word or that somehow He had trouble communicating clearly what he wanted us to know about historical events.

    The current controversy over some interpreters’ rejection of a historical Adam and Eve started by the rejection of other plain readings of the Genesis account of history. We need to wake up to the fact that we have jettisoned the historical reliability and authority of Scripture for the more ‘trustworthy’ pronouncements of secular scientists who a priori reject Scripture. We’d rather be accepted in the eyes of academia than the eyes of God – I think because we don’t like the world to laugh at us and think we are backwater buffoons who don’t have the first clue about science, history and truth.

    Sad – very sad.

    1. Lou G. says:

      Amen, Scott!! “The Cambrian explosion likely represents the oceans over-running the continents in the early stages of the global flood described in the book of Genesis.” I have always felt that it represented the creation account, but I can also see the global flood described in Genesis. Thanks for pointing that out!

    2. I think your post illustrates one of the biggest problems with creationism: there’s no science involved in it. You say that our ability to interpret the evidence should depend on how we read scripture. That’s not science. Science is coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, and reporting the results. Science is revising our understanding of the world around us as new evidence comes forth. Your approach is purely theological. You have no means to test your flood hypothesis and no interest int figuring out how to test it.

      A thousand years from now the debate within creationism over how to interpret the Cambrian explosion will be exactly where it is today. New evidence will be dismissed even within the different creationist camps because they have staked out their Biblical interpretations and they aren’t going to budge from them. The creationist approach to science is completely passive: other people discover new findings, publish them, and creationists sit on the sidelines and filter the findings according to their theological positions.

      1. Lou G. says:

        Christian, data always has to be interpreted. If you are not interpreting through a pre-disposition that God is our Creator, then you are interpreting the data in a way that systematically rules out God as the ultimate explanation. No matter how far we push it back, what we believe about the First Cause will drive our interpretation of the data.

        1. TruthLover says:

          First prove god exists. Once you’ve done that, you can attribute all sorts of things to him.

          1. Lou G. says:

            I don’t have to.
            Everyone has the same problem: What is the First Cause?

            Like I said, How you answer that determines how you see everything else.

            1. You’re confusing evolution with abiogenesis.Abiogenesis is the study of how life began. Evolution focuses on what happened after life forms showed up.

              1. Lou G. says:

                Nope. That’s why Darwin called it Origin of the Species and why Moses called it Genesis. They both had greater understanding about the basis of it all, but each came to different conclusions.

          2. kpolo says:

            Do you really believe everything on the basis of proof? So then, before I prove God to you, kindly prove that the universe didn’t start 5 minutes ago with our memories and food in our body programmed in.

      2. Scott C says:

        Christian Vagabond,
        You obviously are unfamiliar with the rather vibrant field of Creation Science. Simply browse any of the oft-maligned websites like Answers in Genesis, Institute of Creation Research or Creation Ministries International to introduce yourself to the serious scientific work being done by numerous credentialed scientists who take the historical record of the Bible seriously.

        1. Caleb G. says:

          With all due respect, Creation Science is not science. It already has its conclusions decided ahead of time and any results that contradict those conclusions are dismissed. That is not the way science works. Just because these scientists have credentials, does not mean they are doing science. There are people with Ph.D.s in history who deny the Holocaust. I grew up on Answers in Genesis and Institute of Creation Research literature. I wanted to grow up, study science, and refute evolution. But the more I studied science, the more I realized that Answers in Genesis et. all are not doing science. Rather they are equating their interpretation of scripture with the Truth and leading many young people to reject Christianity all together. Any organization with money can produce slick-looking websites. The slickness of the website, says nothing about the truth content of the information contained therein. If you doubt me, just ask a biology professor at the local university about the claims made on these websites and they will show you how misleading creationists claims are.

          A vibrant field of science would be making significant advances. These creationists organizations have only advanced by accepting some of the results of science that previous generations of creationists would have been appalled by (e.g. accepting that speciation and continental drift occur). See Ronald Numbers’ book The Creationists for details. I studied under John Whitcomb, the author of the Genesis Flood, and Whitcomb himself said Numbers’ book is the best historical overview of the creationist movement.

          1. Scott C says:

            Sorry Caleb, I don’t buy into your whitewashed view of science. All science rests upon philosophical presuppositions that inform how data is perceived and fit into hypotheses and what data to even look for. I suggest reading Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Philosophical presuppositions are particularly important when dealing with questions of origins and explaining the past and perhaps less so with what we might call ‘operational science’ where secularists and Christians would be in much less disagreement.

            As a Christian I accept the innerancy, divine authority and perspicuity of Scripture which includes historical matters. Thus, if God has revealed what has taken place in terms of creation and history then yes those are absolute givens for me. I don’t need extra-Biblical evidence to know and believe that Christ rose from the dead, but the fact that he did rise from the dead (because God providentially and infallibly directed key witnesses to bear testimony to it in the Gospel accounts) will have implications that can be corroborated by extra-Biblical evidence that reinforces what I already know to be true. The same can be said for the creation and flood accounts in Genesis. Is this different than the way secularists examine origins? Absolutely, they have no divinely revealed witness to what actually happened at creation and we do. But that does not mean they don’t have pre-conceived philosophical suppositions that inform the way they interpret data and construct scientific theories.

            The bottom line is, Christians should NOT look at origins and history from a scientific perspective the same way secularists do. We have a greater source of truth then mere nature. We have divinely inspired special revelation.

            1. Caleb G. says:

              Yes I have have read Thomas Kuhn’s book. Yes our philosophical presuppositions influence how we interpret data. But a wholesale acceptance of Kuhn undermines our ability to say anything about the world. Some models fit the real world out there better than others. The heliocentric model fits reality out there better than the geocentric model. Even Kuhn would not go so far as to say those two models are equal. Likewise the model of natural selection and universal common ancestry fits the data better than fiat creation. Most Christian scientists accept the findings of modern science as providing an accurate view of the world. To say all these modern areas of science are wrong to their very core requires holding to a vast conspiracy theory, a conspiracy theory which involves a vast majority of scientists including Christians.

              Your argument based on the inerrancy, divine authority, and perspicuity of Scripture is exactly what caused Luther and Calvin to reject Heliocentrism. B.B. Warfield, the father of the modern understanding of inerrancy, himself accepted evolution. So did Asa Gray, the most famous botanist of his day and an orthodox Presbyterian who was a colleague of Darwin. Scripture clearly reveals that the earth does not move, that the earth is flat disk, resting on foundation pillars, underneath a solid dome which keeps the heavenly ocean from flooding the earth. Please let history serve as a warning to you, Scott. A hundred years from now, people will view your rejection of evolution the way you look at the Catholic Church’s rejection of Galileo.

              1. Scott C says:

                Don’t think so. YEC is as strong as ever today and has thousands of years behind it. Darwinian Evolution is less than 150 years old and is fighting for its life.

            2. Caleb G. says:

              YEC goes back to Ellen G. White, the founder of Adventism. Read Ronald Numbers’ book The Creationists. True, the idea of a young earth is not new, but the system of YEC only goes back to Ellen G. White, mediated through George McCready Price, and popularized by John Morris and John Whitcomb in their book The Genesis Flood.

              Ah yes, the old “Evolution is fighting for its life” argument. Opponents of modern biology have been saying that since the 1880s. In fact it was fighting for its life between 1900 and 1920 because no verifiable mechanism had emerged for natural selection. But then Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics was rediscovered and adapted to Darwin’s ideas. Some of Darwin’s ideas have proved wrong, but many have been overwhelmingly confirmed. This is how science works. The incorrect ideas are weeded out over time, while those that are correct stand the test of time. In the meantime, modern biology is a vibrant and exciting field. New discoveries are being made all the time. These discoveries change the details of our understanding of the past, but the central ideas of natural selection and universal common ancestry continued to be confirmed with each new discovery. This is not evidence of a dying field of inquiry. Perhaps one day a model will come along and replace natural selection and universal common ancestry. But if it does, it will likely expand these ideas rather than overturning them, much as Einsteinian relativity expanded rather than overturned Newtonian gravity.

              YEC has as much scientific credence as the flat earth society. No doubt Flat-Earthers would utter the same words about their movement that you utter about YEC. Again, none of these words are aimed at you personally. But you are holding onto a movement which deliberately distorts science and is leading many young people to abandon Christianity when they learn how wrong it is. I urge you not to tie yourself to that ship.

              1. Scott C says:

                When the Darwinian Apologists like Coyne, Dawkins, et. al. have to exert enormous energy defending their dogma against ID and Creationists you know the Emperor probably has no clothes. Otherwise, they would ignore us. Instead of leaning on Numbers, start reading Wise, Wood, Garner or Wile for a better perspective on modern YEC which has matured in tremendous ways in recent years. It is a vibrant and growing field.

              2. Caleb G. says:

                The reason Coyne, Dawkins, etc exert enormous energy defending evolutionary biology is the public rejection in the US of the tenents of modern biology. One could argue that they make a religion out of the evolutionay biology. I’m not defending that. But their denigration of religion says nothing about the truth or falsity of the science. Ken Miller and Francis Collins might be a better examples. They agrue against ID and Creationism because theses beliefs undermine science of biology.

                If YEC is indeed a vibrant and growing field, then point out some peer-reviewed journal articles written by creationists or IDers which dispute natural selection and universal common ancestry. Do a search of PubMed for example. I predict you will not find any. This indicates that YEC is an ingrown, stagnent field that does not qualify as science.

              3. To Caleb: in 1990 I was a biologist at a major university. At a tri Beta meeting our professors shut and locked the doors, then told us they would deny ever even having the meeting if we told what they told us. I’m breaking the silence: We were told that no magazine, The NSF or its equivalent would NOT publish our material if we did NOT line up with evolution. So much for peer review! It is itself a terrible example of groupthink: Only the archaeologists are brave enough to buck the system.

              4. Caleb G. says:

                What university was that and what meeting specifically? I ask because I need to know the context to evaluate your claim. This is important because in other contexts creationists and ID supporters have miscontrued a situtation to make it appear like a conspiracy of silence when it was no such thing (e.g. the movie Expelled).

                Would also you consider a historical journal which refused to publish an article denying the Holocaust to be an example of groupthink? Or how about a religion journal that refused to publish an article which argues that Jesus never existed?

                Also, in looking at your blog, please define the word “theory” for me within a scientific context. Your latest post gives me the impression that you do not understand how that word is used by scientists.

  6. Caleb G. says:

    I suggest you read Simon Conway Morris book The Crucible of Creation: The Burgress Shale and the Rise of Animals. Conway Morris is one of the world’s leading experts on these formations and is also a Christian. The “Cambrian Explosion” covers a geological time period between 5 and 40 millions years. In geological terms that is quick, but not what I would think of as explosion. It’s important to understand this term is a metaphor. The Cambrian explosion began around 530 million years ago. But there is direct evidence for celluar life going back to 3.4 billion years ago and indirect evidence going back to about 3.8 billion years ago. Thus, it is very misleading to say the Cambrian Explosion undermines natural selection or common ancestry.

    Also, the idea of common ancestry is based not just on shared genes and features, but also on pseudogenes and retroviruses. For example whales and humans possess olfactory genes that are no longer fuctional. These olfactory genes are still active in other species. Humans and the great apes share the same mutation in the same place in our genome that deactivated the enzyme that would allow our bodies to naturally produce Vitamin C. The monkeys still possess a functional copy of this enzyme. Other similar examples could be listed. If we do not share a common ancestor with apes and all other creatures, than God is trying to deceive us by placing evidence for common ancestry in our genome, evidence that does not reflect reality.

    1. TruthLover says:

      The greatest evidence for the idea of a universal common ancestor is chirality of amino acids. All 20 amino acids found in biological proteins are “left-handed” even though “right-handed” versions exist and perform the same functions. Once an organism is locked into the left or right hand versions though, there is no going back. In a completely random world, half of the biological proteins would use the right-handed versions of these amino acids. The only logical explanation is that the UCA of all present forms of life used the left-handed versions and all its descendents did as well.

      1. J. Clark says:

        When you go to family reunions, what do you and Uncle Amino talk about?

    2. Caleb G.,

      You were on a roll right up until you said “God is trying to deceive us.” There are other explanations for commonality of genomes than evolution. If YEC is correct, God has hardly deceived you. You have simply misinterpreted the evidence.

      I don’t mind people making their case for evolution, Old Earth, Young Earth, or whatever. But when either side says, “If it isn’t this way, God is deceiving us!” I find it a bit arrogant, and pretty much a conversation stopper.

      1. Caleb G. says:

        Let’s say I claimed that God created the whole world 5 minutes ago, and all your memories from before five minutes ago were implanted in your head by God. What does this tell you about the nature of God? If that doesn’t count as deception then what would?

  7. The first day is not recorded until verse 3 of Genesis 1. There was earth and water before time began. We, scientists and creationists have not included that in our hypotheses.

  8. The Dawkins quote mine is highly misleading. Meyer left out the rest of Dawkin’s statement:

    “Evolutionists of all stripes believe, however, that this really does represent a very large gap in the fossil record, a gap that is simply due to the fact that, for some reason, very few fossils have lasted from periods before about 600 million years ago. One good reason might be that many of these animals had only soft parts to their bodies: no shells or bones to fossilize. If you are a creationist you may think that this is special pleading. My point here is that, when we are talking about gaps of this magnitude, there is no difference whatever in the interpretations of ‘punctuationists’ and ‘gradualists’.

  9. LJB says:

    Evolution is a fact, and in most cases fossil records exist that trace evolutionary changes quite thoroughly. It is the exceptions that are intriguing, like the Cambrian fossil records that have one saying, “Yeah, but…”

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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