Robert Meyer has taken his swipe at evolution. To give him all due credit, he handles the subject about as well as most critics do. Which is to say, about as well as fish handle tap dancing.
It's not his fault, or at least not entirely. He's never been taught science.
He has almost certainly, to be sure, been taught about science. He knows that chemistry has produced any number of neat things. He knows that physicists and engineers have created any number of neat toys and marvelous gadgets. And he knows they use a lot of math. If you've gone to school anywhere in the western world, it's next to impossible to avoid picking up that much.
He's probably heard about some of the things scientists have come up with. He's probably heard about quantum mechanics and relativity, though I doubt he could explain either to any other person. I won't even ask about string theory.
Suppose you ran into a person who didn't know how to read. He knew printed pages mean something, and he knew something about letters spelling words. He could point to various documents and tell you what they said, but only because he'd been told what they mean. There is no way you would classify such a person as literate. He lacks a fundamental skill, and without that skill, the world of books is only hearsay.
Unfortunately, he demonstrates his inability to handle the tools of science very early on.
Let's draw an imperfect, but illustrative analogy to the position of the atheist above. Suppose I come home from work one day noticing that my neighbor's long grass has been cut. I say to my wife that my neighbor must have cut the grass with his lawnmower. My wife demurs, saying that the grass cut itself. Are these equivalently sufficient explanations as to how the lawn was cut? In one case we have a purposeful and intelligent agent, using a specific means to accomplish a goal. In the other case, you have an inanimate object acted upon itself without purpose. And notice that the explanation of the neighbor cutting the grass with his lawnmower is meaningful, without any discussion of where the neighbor, lawnmower or the grass came from. In like manner, saying that matter has always existed, is not an equivalent argument to saying that the universe was created by God.
Problem: The only reason we find the explanation of the neighbor cutting the lawn with a lawnmower overwhelmingly plausible is that we've seen any number of people cutting any number of lawns with any number of variations on the lawnmower theme. Suppose I come home from work one brisk autumn day noticing that my neighbor's tree no longer has any leaves on it....
Another canard employed in this debate, is that evolution s "scientific," whereas ID is religious mythology. But does evolution itself qualify as a scientific theory, or like Creationism, is it a metaphysical theory? Anyone who has taken an introductory class in the Philosophy of Science, knows a few basic tenets regarding scientific inquiry. First of all, only observational or naturalistic evidence is accepted. If the inquirer asks a how or why question, then develops a hypothesis, it must be testable, and thus subject to falsification before it can move beyond that point. In which respects can any evolutionary theory meet this test? The evolutionist who says that the "fact"of evolution proves the non-existence of God, must derive such information outside the parameters of empirical scientific methods — a realm that he claims contains no meaningful truth. Thus, such a claim is that of religious dogmatism. Any masonry regardless of its ornate design or quality composition cannot be stacked four feet in mid air without a solid foundation. Those who claim evolutionary theories can do away with the need for God are attempting to do just that philosophically speaking.
Here, Meyer conflates two different phenomena: what science reasonably infers about evolution, and what scientists infer from evolution. The first must be grounded in observable data; the second may be grounded in nothing more solid than the prejudices of the individual scientist.
The orthodox position of science is that God is outside the realm of science.
Science has found materialistic, naturalistic causes for any number of phenomena that were once ascribed to the will of God, of gods, or of spirits. Lightning, for example, is now reduced to a phenomenon involving the transport of charged particles in the atmosphere, and diseases to microbes, chemicals, and genetic damage, among other known or at least knowable causes.
Science makes the claim that the phenomena it studies can be reduced to sets of rules that can, at least in principle, be deduced.
Since God, by definition, is not bound by the rules, science cannot encompass such an entity. Indeed, I would imagine the last thing theists would want is to have God encompassed within science, as that would mean God is reduced to a set of naturalistic rules.
To the extent that we can validly anthromorphize the field, science is quite comfortable with the notion that some fields of study are outside the scope of science. For example, ethics and morality are outside the realm of science.
We can tell, through science, what will happen if we cut a person open with a knife. We can't tell, through science, whether cutting any particular person open is a good act. (Sometimes, to make that point, I will tell of the time a bunch of people had surrounded me and immobilized me, while one of them sliced my leg open clear to the bone. Science can tell what happens when you slice a leg open, but it can't tell you whether slicing my leg open that time was a good act.)
Meyer quite properly complains that scientists go from the notion that some process is explainable in terms of naturalistic rules to the conclusion that God does not exist. Of course, this does not follow. All we can conclude is that when a process is explainable in terms of naturalistic rules, there is no need for God, or any other entity, to step in and effect that process.
The counter-argument, offered by the anti-evolutionists, is equally invalid. To note that some process does not have a known naturalistic explanation does not imply that God is the only possible explanation. Anti-evolutionists argue that God is the default explanation for anything that lacks a naturalistic explanation. For example, the Intelligent Design / Intelligent Origin Theory argues as follows:
Some feature of biology looks so complicated it must have been designed by some intelligence. Therefore, it was designed.
Creationists add one more step:
Therefore, the intelligent designer was God.
It should be obvious there are steps missing.
There is also a question of evidence. No evidence is neutral in the sense that it requires no interpretations. Interpretations themselves depend on the assumptions of the interpreter.
At this point, I refer the reader to this file on the Talk Origins website: 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution. This is a file, available in, among other formats, a PDF file, which lists more than 29 observations that are entirely consistent with evolution.
As Meyer states, evidence does require interpretation, but some interpretations are more reasonable than others. In my little mind game above, where I state that someone once sliced my leg open to the bone, the point is to let people jump to a conclusion before I fill them in on the context. The context makes a big difference.
Any single one of the observations in the PDF file can have multiple explanations. That is, there are any number of mechanisms that would yield that particular observation. For example, the commonality of life on the chemical level can be explained as the result of descent from a single common ancestor, or of separate creation by an intelligent creator from a common template. The other bits of evidence similarly have multiple possible explanations.
The critical point, though, is that in many cases, some of the alternative explanations for one observation contradict the alternative explanations of other observations. For example, the "common template" argument is very hard to reconcile with the slight differences in the structure and composition of genes and proteins among different life forms.
I invite readers to read through this file and see how their favorite alternative explanation deals with all 29+ observed items.
This, at least in part, accounts for discrepancies of opinion in those who say there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, and those who claim there are many. It seems curious though, that some evolutionists and non-theists, such as Stephen J. Gould and Francis Crick, were not comfortable with the classical Darwinian paradigm of gradual changes via natural selection. Both came up with theories of origin, which made the need for intermediate types a non factor. Why would that be expedient if it were not essential?
You might be interested in this document on Punctuated Equilibria (PE), which addresses a number of misconceptions about the subject. Among other things, PE does not do away with gradualism. Indeed, Gould and Eldredge, who published the original paper on the subject, have pointed out numerous cases of evolution between high-level classifications of life, in pretty much the manner we'd expect.
Indeed, there has been a fair amount of argument over whether Gould and Eldredge actually came up with anything new, or simply pointed out the obvious – living things that are optimally adapted to a stable environment won't need to adapt any further! (Duh!)
To be sure, cases where new life forms seem to appear suddenly in the fossil record are potential challenges to evolution, but how does Intelligent Design Theory account for well-documented cases of smooth, gradual transitions between classes of living things? Why, for example, would a designer have crafted a whole series of creatures, now known as "Therapsids", which are intermediate between reptiles and mammals? Why are all these creatures showing up in the right place and time, and in about the right order, to represent steps in a transition between reptiles and mammals? Assuming there was a reason for these creatures to exist for some portion of Earth's history, why put them in those particular times and places, and not in any number of other imaginable places and times? And if they're individually created, why were they created in the order they were created in?
The only reason a designer would have created the therapsids in the time, place, and order they appear is ... the designer is the team of random variation and natural selection – in other words, evolution.
I don't believe ID is necessarily science, in the way science has been defined in this piece. ID simply asks the question of whether the data can be best understood according to the presumption that the universe was generated through spontaneous creation. We ought to conduct an investigation to find out. Both evolution and ID are metaphysical theories. If academic freedom is paramount, where one treads, the other should be allowed to follow.
It's one thing to believe ID may not "necessarily" be science, "in the way science has been defined in this piece". It's another to successfully make the case that ID might fit this definition.
Let's review said definition:
First of all, only observational or naturalistic evidence is accepted.
OK, what naturalistic evidence is there for a designer? The only evidence that's ever offered is, "it's too hard to figure out how it could happen without a designer." That's not evidence. Who or what is the designer, and where can we see it in operation?
If the inquirer asks a how or why question, then develops a hypothesis, it must be testable, and thus subject to falsification before it can move beyond that point.
This is an even bigger hurdle for ID. What conceivable evidence could prove ID false?
There isn't any.
The "designer" in ID is completely undefined and nebulous. There is no mechanism proposed by which the designer would implement any design, and no way to tell what a designer can and cannot do. There is no particular reason to rule out any possible observation.
People are designers, and in their imagination they have designed any number of bizarre creatures. Folklore is filled with dragons, unicorns, Pegasus, and chimeras of all kind. Fiction writers have dreamed up any number of creatures that have never drawn breath on this planet.
But evolution, operating under the mechanisms that have been outlined in science, can't produce a Pegasus. Centaurs, wemics, mermaids, and other mix-and-match creatures are also ruled out. The existence of such creatures would falsify a great deal of evolutionary theory.
The answer is, evolution does meet the requirements to be a scientific theory. The statements, by some evolutionary biologists, about the existence or non-existence of God, do not. A fair analysis would be careful to distinguish between them.
In order to do a fair job of criticizing anything, it's essential to understand it. Those who presume to criticize evolutionary theory really ought to know what it actually says. Otherwise, their arguments will be against something else.