A Rejoinder to Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala, Part I.

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March 10, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Gordon J. Glover - #6525

March 11th 2010

Gregory,

You said, “Has he [Meyer] solved it? [mind/body problem] No. Have you? No. Yet you *both* ‘believe’ that OoL involves Mind/Creator, do you not? Why are you asking him to prove what you cannot? Coffee and bridges, friend.

It’s very simple.  If Meyer wants to make mind/matter interaction part of his OoL hypothesis, then he needs to support it—otherwise he is guilty of the same displacement problem that he accuses other OoL researchers of doing. 

I, on the other hand, can freely admit that I have no clue how God directs the course of material history, even though I agree with Meyer that he does.  And neither do I need a solution to the mind/matter problem because I am perfectly happy to treat the OoL as a question of biochemstry. 

“Does Meyer *actually* posit ‘supernatural intervention’ in SitC, Gordon?”—YES.  I can get you the exact page # when I return home (if somebody else doesn’t beat me to it).


pds - #6526

March 11th 2010

Gregory,

Not quantity.  Just quality, I think.

But ask Mike.  I am just responding to his question.


pds - #6531

March 11th 2010

Jay Richard has now put up a very good reply to this post:

Jay Richards’ Reply to Falk’s Rejoinder to Meyer’s Response to Ayala’s “Essay” on Meyer’s Book

This seems to be a battle between Those Who Have Read the Book v. Those Who Have Not.

Makes me wonder:  Has anyone at Biologos read Meyer’s book with any degree of care?


Gregory Arago - #6532

March 11th 2010

Thanks for your response, Gordon, in #6525. I appreciate your attention to the displacement problem and the way you highlight the mind/matter issue. We are pretty much in agreement in your first paragraph.

Later, you write: “And neither do I need a solution to the mind/matter problem because I am perfectly happy to treat the OoL as a question of biochemstry.”

2 things: 1) it would be great to have ‘a solution’ (which would open up still other problems) to mind/matter, even those aspects of it that do not relate to OoL. 2) Is it a bit reductionistic to say “OoL is a question of biochemistry” *only*? What I mean is, biophysics, astronomy, cosmology etc. could/should be involved as well, don’t you think?

Actually, I’m one who thinks that ‘origins stories’ rely heavily on philosophy & theology. The ‘real science’ of life’s origins is rather insignificant to most people. It is mainly an esoteric question for people to debate with many opinions, like we’re doing here. That’s why I’m interested if Meyer has actually moved the ‘OoL field’ forward in any way with his book.

A surprise to your YES! - Please give a quote (rather than just page no.) b/c I don’t have the book.

Thanks, Gregory


Gregory Arago - #6533

March 11th 2010

“apparently some (many?) scientists do not grasp the underlying logic of the ID arguments he presents” - pds

Not sure if I’ve asked this before or not, pds. Are you a scientist?

The reason I ask is that you seem to be (the only) one (of only a few) proponents of ‘intelligent design’ here posting on the BioLogos Blog. There are arguably even less ‘IDists in science’ than there are ‘creation scientists.’ This does not mean there is not potential in pattern recognition, specificationing or informatics, which are part of the ID paradigm.

I guess I just wonder if you’re part of the ‘action’ of ‘doing science’ or giving commentary from a more detached ‘culture of science’ observer perspective. It may be that Meyer’s logic is just not powerful enough (e.g. without speaking about the who, how, when, where of the ‘designing’) to reach non-philosophers and non-theologians, as are the vast majority of scientists.


Mike Gene - #6551

March 11th 2010

Hi pds,
“Designer D looks at mutations, notes they are random with regard to fitness, rolls up his sleeves, and figures out ways to exploit this process as part of a design strategy.  Designer D also uses other means to accomplish what he knows random mutations cannot do.  Which of these designers is more intelligent?”

What other means did you have in mind? 

“But you are talking about evolution after the first life appears, right?  Meyer is talking about origin of life.”

But are we talking about a one-time event or something that has happened numerous times?  For example, a creationist, who believes human beings were specially created, might argue that the origin of humans = the origin of human life = the origin of life.  But if that is the case, the distinction between the origin of life and evolution would disappear.

Now, if you (or Meyer) are talking about the first life, as a one-time event, what did it look like?


Gordon J. Glover - #6585

March 11th 2010

Gregory,

After a discussion about how various OoL experiements conducted to date actually proove that deliberate concious activity is a necessary preconditions by viture of how the expirements are “set up” to produce a predetermined outcome (which I thought was a great tactical argument), Meyer says the following:

“Thus, these experiments not only fail to simulate an undirected process of chemical evolution, they actually provde positive evidence for the power of a guiding hand; they simulate the power of, if not the need for, and intelligent agent to overcome the influences of natual chemical processes—processes that otherwise lead inexorably to biochemical dead ends.” (pg 335)

(cont…)


Gordon J. Glover - #6586

March 11th 2010

(...cont)

I don’t think I’m over-reaching here to say that Meyer has tipped his hand.  If natural chemical processes require a “guiding hand”—that smacks of supernatual intervention.  What else can it be?  Especially given what Meyer writes on pg 394: “A self-existent immaterial mind might well function as the ultimate cause of biological information…”  Yet, there is no thoughtful discussion of the mind/body problem, just as I said earlier. 

So we are left to simply take Meyer’s word for it that his hypothetical immaterial mind can maniuplate nucleic acids.  I believe Meyer’s argument is just another version of the displacement problem.


Gordon J. Glover - #6587

March 11th 2010

Gregory, speaking of the displacement problem… since you admitted to being entertained by my cartoons, click my name above for an episode that deals with this…


Gregory Arago - #6757

March 13th 2010

Which ‘displacement problem’ do you have in mind, Gordon? Can you please provide a link to somewhere it is addressed?

I don’t think its a necessary leap from ‘guiding hand’ to ‘supernatural intervention.’ You should not put words in Meyer’s mouth. He could have said ‘supernatural intervention,’ but didn’t.

Thus, the correct answer to my question: “Does Meyer *actually* posit ‘supernatural intervention’ in SitC, Gordon?” - NO.

The position you defend (TE), however, Gordon, also proposes a ‘guidance’ or ‘guiding hand,’ doesn’t it? The main difference is that you don’t accept ‘intervention’ of *any* kind that is ‘non-natural.’ What this means is that your position does less to address displacement than Meyer’s.

What does ‘supernatural’ mean, anyway? Supra-natural would be more accurate, don’t you think? In other words, we are not just talking about the divine as if it were nature-plus!


Gordon J. Glover - #6817

March 14th 2010

Gregory,

If Meyer says that natural mechanisms couldn’t have created life, and that he believe that an immaterial mind is the causal agent, then I’d say that is a belief in supernatural intervention.  I don’t see how you can say it is anything other.

As you correctly pointed out, all theists believe that God is the ultimate designer, but there is a huge difference between the ID and TE/EC understanding of the role of ordinary causality.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I would support the IDM if they could address the materialistic baggage of naturalism without the collateral damage done to sucessful scientific paradigms like common descent.


Gregory Arago - #6823

March 14th 2010

Gordon,

Thanks. It looks like we’re getting closer here. On the issue of causality, it is encouraging that you credit Aristotle’s four causes in how you understand causation/ality. My good friend the mechanical engineer couldn’t give a hoot about Aristotle’s four causes!

There have also been ‘four effects’ proposed, to mirror Aristotle’s causes, in case you hadn’t yet considered them.

Why don’t you admit that your position accepts ‘guidance’ Gordon?

I am not an apologist for Meyer. He and I diverge in several ways. But he doesn’t say ‘supernatural intervention’ and it is putting words in his mouth to say he does.

Wrt “the material baggage of naturalism” you and I are probably very close to holding the same opinion. I do not defend the combination ‘methodological naturalism’ b/c it is philosophically irresponsible to do so.

Not sure if ID does damage to ‘common descent’ or not. Still waiting for Nelson’s “On Common Descent” to be published by UChicagoPress or elsewhere. As for me, I leave open the notion of common descents, which is a possibility many don’t even consider. Difficult topic!


Gregory Arago - #6825

March 14th 2010

correction: “the materialistic baggage of naturalism”


glsi - #63433

July 19th 2011

Professor Falk,


I can’t say I  really appreciate the gravity of your concern about the lengths Dr. Meyers goes to on the subject of “chance hypothesis”.  I agree it is too long, as is the length of the entire book, but then I feel the same way about Dostoevski.  It seems very weak as one of the main issues of your rejoinder.

Despite its length, I think the book is written primarily for a general audience.   And I’m pretty sure the general public believes that the origin of life happened either by:
a.  some unexplained random/chance chemical process   
b.  an act of God
 and perhaps running a distant third,   
c.  spaceships

As such I think Dr. Meyer did very well to focus a great deal of attention on this important question.  I don’t know what you taught over your long career, but I know it wasn’t the facts of how living things came to be on Earth.   Was it rather unsupported theories of  unnamed natural laws or forces?  If so, what is your upper limit on number of pages that should be expended on those topics?   

glsi - #64036

August 14th 2011

Dr. Falk,

I just finished reading Evolution and Religious Creation Myths by Lurquin and Stone who are scientists and faculty at WSU.  Their book is an attempt to convince the reader of the validity of Darwinian evolution as well as try to show that religious creation myths are actually destructive to society.  Suffice it to say that throughout the book, and in their summary remarks, they claim that life appeared on Earth via random chemical reactions.

I would say this is a highly typical view of evolutionists.  That being the case, I am quite perplexed about the comments you make here in your rejoinder which claims Meyer wasted a lot of ink on the Chance Hypothesis.  Does your entire objection hinge on your words “..., all at once,...”?

“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.”

My assumption, then, is that you believe in a Chance Hypothesis which occurred gradually rather than all at once.  If so, then what were some of the gradual “random” steps in the process of constructing a protein, an RNA molecule or a living cell out of their chemical building blocks?

Of course, you cannot name a single step in a chemical pathway between an amino acid and a living cell because no one can. (Except as an unproven hypothesis.)  This is why you are so utterly unconvincing in your arguments on this issue and in your febile criticisms of Dr. Meyer.  You don’t appear to have anything to stand on.




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