Yale’s David Gelernter on Why “Darwin’s Doubt” Is One of the Most Important Books in a Generation

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David Gerlenter—professor of computer science at Yale University and chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies—has an excellent essay in the Spring 2019 issue of Claremont Review of Books explaining how Stephen Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt, helped him think about Darwin’s theory in a new way.

Here is the opening of his 5,300-word essay (which is also available in PDF):

Darwinian evolution is a brilliant and beautiful scientific theory.

Once it was a daring guess.

Today it is basic to the credo that defines the modern worldview. Accepting the theory as settled truth—no more subject to debate than the earth being round or the sky blue or force being mass times acceleration—certifies that you are devoutly orthodox in your scientific views; which in turn is an essential first step towards being taken seriously in any part of modern intellectual life.

But what if Darwin was wrong?

Like so many others, I grew up with Darwin’s theory, and had always believed it was true.

I had heard doubts over the years from well-informed, sometimes brilliant people, but I had my hands full cultivating my garden, and it was easier to let biology take care of itself.

But in recent years, reading and discussion have shut that road down for good.

This is sad. It is no victory of any sort for religion. It is a defeat for human ingenuity. It means one less beautiful idea in our world, and one more hugely difficult and important problem back on mankind’s to-do list. But we each need to make our peace with the facts, and not try to make life on earth simpler than it really is.

Gerlenter writes:

There’s no reason to doubt that Darwin successfully explained the small adjustments by which an organism adapts to local circumstances: changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape. Yet there are many reasons to doubt whether he can answer the hard questions and explain the big picture—not the fine-tuning of existing species but the emergence of new ones. The origin of species is exactly what Darwin cannot explain.

Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. He cannot answer the big question.

He continues:

Darwin’s Doubt is one of the most important books in a generation. Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact. . . . This is one of the most important intellectual issues of modern times, and every thinking person has the right and duty to judge for himself.

Gerlenter himself is Jewish and does not accept intelligent design. It is interesting that he makes this observation on intelligent design, religion, and the critics of ID:

The religion is all on the other side. Meyer and other proponents of I.D. are the dispassionate intellectuals making orderly scientific arguments.

Later in the essay Gerlenter notes:

Although Stephen Meyer’s book is a landmark in the intellectual history of Darwinism, the theory will be with us for a long time, exerting enormous cultural force. Darwin is no Newton. Newton’s physics survived Einstein and will always survive, because it explains the cases that dominate all of space-time except for the extreme ends of the spectrum, at the very smallest and largest scales. It’s just these most important cases, the ones we see all around us, that Darwin cannot explain. Yet his theory does explain cases of real significance. And Darwin’s intellectual daring will always be inspiring. The man will always be admired.

He now poses a final challenge. Whether biology will rise to this last one as well as it did to the first, when his theory upset every apple cart, remains to be seen.

How cleanly and quickly can the field get over Darwin, and move on?—with due allowance for every Darwinist’s having to study all the evidence for himself?

There is one of most important questions facing science in the 21st century.

Read the whole piece, which is a wonderfully clear overview of the issues.

You can find Meyer’s book here.

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