A Rejoinder to Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala, Part I.
BioLogos has hosted a number of important posts in recent days. For example, Pete Enns’ essays on understanding the creation epic, and the videos on Genesis by distinguished scholars like N.T. Wright, are showing how there can be harmony between God’s World as seen through science, and God’s Word as seen through careful biblical study.
Besides Bible scholars, leaders in other fields have contributed significantly toward this goal. For example, we had a critique of issues raised in Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, and of the Intelligent Design movement in general, by Francisco Ayala, the former Dominican priest who went on to become one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. Meyer responded to Ayala in two parts, the first of which has just been posted. As a founder of the Intelligent Design movement and the Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, Meyer, may be regarded as the fountainhead of the Intelligent Design movement. We are honored to have cultural and scientific leaders of their renown engaging us on tough questions in science and faith.
Meyer and Ayala have very different views about what science has to say about the origin of genetic information. Meyer believes the scientific data clearly demonstrate that genetic information has arisen through the intervention of an intelligent agent. Ayala sees it differently. He wrote, “People of faith may find in the world many reasons that support their belief in God. But I don’t think that intelligent design is one of them.” The Intelligent Design movement, as Ayala sees it, is deeply flawed at both the theological and scientific level.
Meyer expresses considerable concern about some of the statements in Ayala’s post. For example, Ayala says that in Signature in the Cell, Meyer spent hundreds of pages trying to show that chance is not the best explanation for the origin of genetic information. Meyer says he only spent 55 pages on the question. By Meyer’s definition of chance on page 176, and by the fact that Meyer himself refers to the competing hypotheses as “chance theories” (see pages 195,196, and 227, for example), I happen to think that Ayala is right--it is much more than 55 pages. However, this is a side issue to what I think we should really discuss.
Meyer, by his own admission, did spend at least 55 pages addressing what he called the “chance hypothesis.” In his last post, he writes:
In the process of using the method of multiple competing hypotheses to develop my case for intelligent design in Signature in the Cell, I do examine the chance hypothesis for the origin of life, because it is one of the many competing hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the origin of the first life and the origin of biological information.
Meyer says he needed to discuss the chance hypothesis thoroughly because it had been one of the competing hypotheses for how genetic information had arisen and he needed to show why it was no longer tenable.
In essence the chance hypothesis is that the building blocks of DNA and/or proteins assembled by chance, all at once, to take on a particular function. Meyer seems to imply (pages 204-213) that scientists were really engaged by this hypothesis for some period of time beyond a meeting in 1966 when it was first raised. He cites work in the late 1980s and up to 2007. He seems to imply that the chance hypothesis (pure chance, from building blocks) had actually engaged origin-of-life researchers throughout this time period. I do not see this as being accurate.
I began my post-graduate career in genetics over four decades ago. I have taught courses such as genetics, cell biology and molecular biology for almost 35 years. I cannot recall any textbook in any course that ever seriously considered what Dr. Meyer called the “chance hypothesis.” No one ever needed to do calculations of the sort that Meyer does in his book. To my recollection it was never seriously considered. Everyone knew it couldn’t have worked that way.
I teach a course that focuses, in part, on the history of molecular biology in its early days leading up to the discovery of the genetic code in the early 1960s. In this literature as well, I do not recall seeing any serious discussion of the “chance hypothesis” as defined by Meyer (i.e. the spontaneous assembly of the building blocks—essentially all at once—to make functional proteins or DNA).
So, I am left wondering, why did Meyer spend 55 pages discussing an argument that I never saw seriously discussed over the past 40 years? Why would he present calculations which show the improbability of assembling a functional protein (1 in 1077 by one estimate) when few if any took this notion seriously during this time period? Is he really doing history of science? Is he really testing a scientific idea? We have to ask ourselves, who is Meyer writing for? I don’t think it is historians of science, nor do I think it is scientists. I wonder why he did that. I am concerned.
I also have a concern about this statement:
Signature in the Cell… also makes a positive case for intelligent design by showing that the activity of conscious and rational agents is the only known cause by which large amounts of new functional information arises, at least when starting from purely physical and chemical antecedents. (Note: emphasis is mine.)
In his book, Dr. Meyer, never specifically justifies this statement even though it is the keystone of his book. Virtually all biologists today consider it a fact that all multi-cellular organisms are derived from a single cell. Does not the information required to make the vast array of living organisms constitute Meyer’s definition of “huge?” Doesn’t the process of natural selection, group selection, genetic drift, and sexual selection fit his criteria of purely chemical and physical causes? There is nothing more foundational to biology than that huge amounts of information has arisen through physical and chemical antecedents.
I want to be quick to add that, as a Christian, I believe that it happened at God’s command and as the result of God’s presence (see Karl Giberson’s recent post for a great discussion of this). But it does seem to me that Meyer was mistaken to so quickly dismiss that which lies at the heart of biology—hundreds of millions of years of information-production on a very grand scale.
In future posts we will dig deeper into the specific evidence from cell and molecular biology, and genetics that counter Meyer’s claims.
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.