A few pages into chapter 1 of Darwin’s Doubt and I have little to complain about. It’s almost shocking how good Meyer’s description of Darwin’s actual work is. Of course, we now know that Darwin’s work was just the initial ideas that got a storm of data and concepts moving. Indeed, some scientists think we’ve already moved beyond the modern evolution synthesis (sometimes called neodarwinism).
As always, any direct discussion of Darwin himself is pretty much a waste of breath. Darwin dies over 130 years ago and The Origin of the Species was published over 150 years ago. To say that this work is out of date is an understatement. This is roughly equivalent to accusing Alan Turing of being wrong about computers because you can’t get Windows 8 to install correctly.
Here, I think, we get to Meyer’s big concern.
Despite the scope of his synthesis, there was one set of facts that troubled Darwin – something he conceded his theory couldn’t adequately explain, at least t present. Darwin was puzzled by a pattern in the fossil record that seemed to document the geologically sudden appearance of animal life in a remote period of geologic history, a period that was commonly called the Silurian, but later came to be known as the Cambrian.
First, a minor, but seemingly important quibble. The Silurian time period was did not become known as the Cambrian time period. Curiously, doing a search for this concept, I only find this concept in creationist sources. When using sources that I consider legitimate talk about the subject they describe it as Adam Sedgwick describing the Cambrian strata and Roderick Murchison describing the Silurian. Unfortunately, both described a section of (somewhat unusual strata) in Wales as being in their respective time period.
The end result was that the time period of overlap between Sedgwick’s Cambrian and Murchison’s’ Silurian was renamed “Ordovician”. There was never a time when the Silurian later became the Cambrian.
The “Cambrian Explosion” is generally listed as taking place 542 million years ago. This is the very earliest portion of the Cambrian and was never named the Silurian.
I find this uniquely disturbing in someone who claims to be a scientific historian. Like his earlier gaff with Rosalind Franklin and DNA (which, is correct in one book, but not in this one) it’s problematic.
Yes, it’s a very minor thing and I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’m making mountains out of molehills here. But it seems to me that this is a pattern. A pattern of sloppy research designed to mislead people who aren’t so familiar with a subject that they can spot these kinds of errors. I can spot these kinds of errors, indeed it’s part of my day job to do things like this.
Now, I must say that this is (I hope) historical context. Because if Meyer tries to make the argument that because Darwin didn’t know about all the fossils prior to the Cambrian, that evolution is therefore wrong… well… that’s just stupid. I’ll refer back to the Alan Turing/Windows 8 analogy.
Evolution has advanced far beyond what Darwin even dreamed was possible… and that includes Pre-Cambrian paleontology. Any discussion of evolutionary theory that is about science can effectively ignore Darwin. Yes, I said that. Darwin started the ball rolling and it was an awe inspiring contribution to science (that at least one other person had also figured out). But it was just the beginning, in the same way that ENIAC got the ball rolling with general purpose, electronic computers. But we can’t exactly run Crysis on ENIAC now can we?
So, I really hope that Meyer isn’t going there. As we get deeper into this thing, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunity for me to describe all the Pre-Cambrian (and Precambrian) fossils and explain why we don’t expect to have a lot of them. I am looking forward to Meyer explaining that to the readers of this book.
Our next installment will talk about Louis Agassiz (Harvard) and this supposed “insuperable difficulty for Darwin’s theory”.
As aside, at the point in history of which we are talking about, I would consider Darwin’s work a hypothesis at best. It’s not a scientific theory until there is a great deal of evidence to support it. Which is one problem that ID proponents have. There is so much supporting data and information for evolution that it’s essentially impossible for it to be fundamentally wrong in the way that ID proponents wish it to be. More than later.