Jul 8, 2013

The triumph of Darwin's Doubt

One might think that getting a negative review of a recently released science book in a high-profile magazine would be a bad thing for that book. In the case of Darwin's Doubt, though, it's not. Getting trashed in the New Yorker is actually something of a triumph.

Gareth Cook writes in the New Yorker that this book, the latest big splash for Intelligent Design, has an "inspired-by-true events feel," and is a "masterwork of pseudoscience." For author Stephen C. Meyer, for the Discovery Institute where he works, and for advocates of Intelligent Design and criticisms of evolution more generally, this is a good thing.

The negative review is a positive sign.

As David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, wrote:
What's important is the way the logjam against intelligent discussion of intelligent design in the mainstream media is finally unjamming .... Real scientists and thoughtful, open-minded laymen are paying attention right now to a genuine and fascinating disputation about biological origins. The endorsements from scientists in relevant fields that Darwin's Doubt has already received is itself confirmation of that. I've said already that I don't know how the debate will be resolved, if it ever will. But make no mistake: the debate is happening.
Debate has long been the immediate goal of the Intelligent Design movement. The goal has been to legitimate the possibility of the Intelligent Design position by generating controversy. Meyer's book, which looks at the "Cambrian explosion," a relatively rapid diversification of organisms in the fossil record, where new and more complex forms of life appeared, will be seen as achieving that goal precisely to the extent that there's public pushback, take-downs and criticism.

Controversy -- such as claims the book is "holed beneath the waterline on the key issues of Cambrian paleontology, phylogenetics, and the information argument" -- are opportunities for Intelligent Design advocates. They're opportunities for rebuttal, but more, they serve as evidence that there's a controversy. And if there's a controversy, then there are sides to that controversy, and the rules of fairness dictate that both sides should be taken seriously. The case can be made for "teaching the controversy," which doesn't resolve it or end it in the way Intelligent Design proponents might want, but does give them a public hearing.

Meyer has long been a proponent of teach-the-controversy. This book isn't a break from that modus operandi

Since the late '90s, organizations such as Meyer's Discovery Institute have explicitly pushed the policy of "teach the controversy," a phrase Meyer apparently coined. Intelligent Design advocates have not mainly sought to debunk evolution and neo-Darwinian understandings of life, but to start a debate, and make the case there is a debate.

The strategy has been clearly outlined in Discovery Institute policy documents, including the "Wedge Document," a fund raising proposal that was leaked in 1999. In the "Wedge Document," the outlined ultimate goal is "To defeat scientific materialism and it's destructive moral, cultural and political legacies." The first objective, in accomplishing this, is to start a "major public debate between design theorists and Darwinists."

Meyer has been one of the very public advocates pushing for that objective, though he generally argues that he doesn't want to start a debate, put get some acknowledgement that a debate is happening.

In 2002, he wrote, "When two groups of experts disagree about a controversial subject that intersects the public school curriculum students should learn about both perspectives"

In 2003, he wrote, "Teaching both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory will engage student interest and teach them to weigh evidence -- a key skill in scientific reasoning. "

In 2005, he co-authored an opinion piece repeating the argument. It said,
We encourage teachers to present the case for Darwin's theory of evolution as Darwin himself did: as a credible, but contestable, argument. Rather than teaching evolution as an incontrovertible 'truth,' teachers should present the arguments for modern neo-Darwinism and encourage students to evaluate these arguments critically. In short, students should learn the scientific arguments for, and against, contemporary evolutionary theory.
The negative review of Meyer's book on Intelligent Design should be understood in this context. Victory, for Meyer and his compatriots, does not necessarily look like convincing people, though of course they're interested in that too. The main goal, the primary goal, is for there to be a debate.

Mostly, the advocates of Intelligent Design have pushed for this debate to happen in public schools. As the New York Times reported in 2005, they "mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin's defenders firmly on the defensive." That same strategy works in the public square -- and is possibly even more successful there, given the commercial possibilities of controversy.

This book is being promoted prominently at 300 Barnes & Nobel stores, where there are special displays of Darwin's Doubt. That's not inconsequential in getting on the bestseller lists and stirring up controversy. The book also, like Meyer's last one, was published by a mainstream commercial publisher, HarperCollins, through the imprint HarperOne. Jerry Coyne, an active opponent of Intelligent Design, has critiqued the publisher for its participation in this, asking "have they no shame"?, but the publisher, along with the booksellers, are obviously mostly interested in the question of profits. They stand to quite literally gain from the very same public debate that Meyer and those who agree with him wants to generate.

Negative and even hostile reviews will likely help that cause.

According to Klinghoffer, the generated controversy, and the fact that a mainstream publisher is happy to contribute to this specific controversy, may be the true triumph of Darwin's Doubt. He writes:
The publication of Meyer's book marks the moment when the theory of intelligent design -- love it or hate it -- has solidly joined the mainstream discussion about biological origins. We of course can't say how the debate will ultimately be resolved. No one can. But we take great satisfaction in knowing that it is definitively engaged. The hunt for a replacement theory for Darwin's noble but crippled idea is now unmistakably on -- not only in the professional, peer-reviewed scientific literature, as Stephen Meyer documents, but in the public square as well. 
Even if one agrees with the New Yorker that Meyer's work and Intelligent Design generally are matters of pseudoscience, it's hard to dispute that the debate over evolution has entered the mainstream of American culture. The Discovery Institute and others have been quite successful, perhaps not at changing minds, but at starting a debate than can then be pointed to as justification and legitimation for "hearing both sides."

As Rick Santorum, then a US senator, said in 2005, "My reading of the science is there's a legitimate debate. My feeling is let the debate be had." The debate, as it's happening, validates the debate happening.

With Darwin's Doubt, this long established strategy can be seen at work.

On Sunday, Darwin's Doubt made the New York Times bestseller list, coming in at number 7. It has also made Publisher Weekly's bestseller list, where it is ranked 10th in sales for the week, with more than 6,000 copies of the more than 400-page tome sold.