On Deciphering the Signature
Steve Meyer has responded to Dennis Venema’s review1 of his book Signature in the Cell in the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF) (63:171-182). Although, Dennis has ably responded (63:183-192), I would like to address one specific aspect of Meyer’s response, especially since it relates to the final paragraph of my initial essay regarding the book and Dennis’s six part series on the BioLogos website.
BioLogos has dealt fairly extensively with what we thought was the basic premise of Signature in the Cell. I had read the book carefully and I know Dennis did as well before we responded. I sincerely thought that the heart of Meyer’s argument is summarized in the following three quotes from the book:
1. “So the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source. It follows that the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the specified, digitally encoded information in DNA is that it too had an intelligent source. Intelligent design best explains the DNA enigma” (p. 347, emphasis added).
2. “Since, as argued in Chapters 8 through 15, intelligence is the only known cause of large amounts of specified information, the presence of such information in the cell points decisively back to the action of a designing intelligence” (p. 382, emphasis added).
3. “Because we know intelligent agents can (and do) produce complex and functionally specified sequences of symbols and arrangements of matter, intelligent agency qualifies as an adequate causal explanation for the origin of this effect. Since, in addition, materialistic theories have proven universally inadequate for explaining the origin of such information, intelligent design now stands as the only entity with the causal power known to produce this feature of living systems.” (p. 386, emphasis added).
So we at BioLogos have always thought that if mainstream science demonstrated an increase in “complex specified information” (CSI) without needing to invoke supernatural intervention, Meyer’s assertion that “intelligence is the only known source of such information in the cell” will have been refuted at the scientific level. It sure seemed to me that this is what he said in the above quotes.
With that in mind, we’ve put a great deal of effort into showing a number of cases in the lab and in nature where scientific data have provided very strong evidence for increased CSI which is entirely consistent with how we scientists would define “natural explanations.” All this time, starting with my first essay almost two years ago, we sincerely thought we were engaging Meyer’s book on Meyer’s terms.
But now, in his PSCF article, Meyer states that arguments based on examples of increased CSI don’t count if they occur after life began on Earth.
“Signature in the Cell argues, first that no purely undirected physical or chemical process—whether those based upon chance, law-like necessity, or the combination of the two—has provided an adequate causal explanation for the ultimate origin of the functionally specified biological information. In making that claim, I specifically stipulate that I am talking about undirected physical and chemical processes, not processes (such as random genetic mutation and natural selection) that commence only once life has begun. Clearly material processes that only commence once life has begun cannot be invoked to explain the origin of information necessary to produce life in the first place) (pp. 173-174, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Sept. 2011, emphasis added).
Since I had read the book very carefully, and have gone over it many times since, I was amazed that I could have missed this stipulation. Again, he says: “I specifically stipulate that I am [not] talking about … processes (such as random genetic mutation and natural selection) that commence only once life has begun.”
Did he really specifically stipulate that? Have we been barking up the wrong tree all this time? While we knew the main focus of Meyer's book was the origin of life (not mechanisms of evolution), his argument clearly stated, we thought, that no large increase in CSI (Complex Specified Information) had ever been demonstrated without the need to invoke intelligence. Period.
I went back through my well-marked up copy of the book again, re-examining each section in which he wrote about increased CSI. Despite my best efforts, I could not find the stipulation he mentions in the
Actually I thought Meyer was pretty clear and highly specific in his book. Consider this scientific challenge on page 429:
If, for example, someone successfully demonstrated that "large amounts of functionally specified information do arise from purely chemical and physical antecedents," then my design hypothesis, with its strong claim to be the best (clearly superior) explanation of such phenomena, would fail.
Find a case where a large amount of CSI has accumulated without needing to invoke intelligence, and his argument, Meyer said, fails. This is a strong statement, clearly worded, and there is no hint of Meyer’s stipulation that it doesn’t count if life has already begun. In Dennis Venema's BioLogos blog series, he showed many cases where there were large increases in CSI (whole genome duplication, for example) without needing to invoke that supernatural intervention was necessary to create it. Chromosomes, the cell division machinery, and nucleotides are “purely chemical and physical antecedents.” The information content in the genome, Venema showed, quadrupled early in vertebrate history through material processes that we know and understand well. Did this not meet the scientific criteria that Meyer specifically called for?
I don’t know how misunderstandings like this happen. I believe that Stephen Meyer, who I consider to be a friend and colleague, thinks the stipulation exists in his book and that he worded it clearly. I assume he thinks it was implied in some overarching statement that I have not been able to find. I also think he believes he was clear. Unfortunately, clear he was not. I’ve looked thoroughly and I have not been able to find his stipulation.
In post after post, we have set out to demonstrate the scientific case we thought Meyer called for. Then in the end, it sure seems to us, that the rules changed, even though Steve feels they were written in his book all the way along.
Still, let’s move on. Let’s play by the new rule and let’s define it carefully.
So here’s the rule as I now understand it: If large increases in CSI can be demonstrated without the need to invoke an external intelligence, “then [Meyer’s] design hypothesis with its strong claim to be the best (clearly superior) explanation of such phenomena, would fail.”
Having stated the rule, we have to make two exceptions (Meyer himself made Exception #1 clear in Chapter 13; Exception #2 is the new stipulation we've been discussing):
Exception 1. We can’t count large increases in CSI which develop as a result of computer programs because minds designthe program parameters.
Exception 2. We can’t count large increases in CSI which develop in the history of life, because DNA was necessary to set those processes in motion.
So what can we count? Until he clarified the existence of Exception #2, I thought any general increases in CSI would count. However, it is now very hard for me to imagine any increase in information that would not be categorized within either Exception 1 or Exception 22. The only thing left that doesn’t fit into one of these two exceptions is the origin of life itself. The point of the book, I thought, was to bring other examples of increased CSI to bear on this very question.
With Meyer’s exceptions and the inability to bring general CSI increases to bear on the origin of life question, we also no longer have “positive3 experiments [which] provide causal adequacy of intelligent design” (p. 335, emphasis added).
So what are we left with? Are we not simply left with the question of whether the origin of life experiments show that information-rich molecules will arise in a test tube from chemicals off the shelf? Dr. Meyer, I think, says no, for reasons that are no longer clear to me other than that he’s given up on the science. I, on the other hand say, “Wait a while. Let the science play itself out before a scientifically based decision is made.” To be frank though, I am a little concerned that even if the right mix of materials is found to produce molecules that can spontaneously assemble in a manner that gives rise to complex specified information, Dr. Meyer or those who follow him will say, “Sorry, you can’t count that because it took a mind to create the conditions and it took a mind to mix them together in a test tube.” And with that we’ll have a new stipulation which most likely was in some manner implied in Signature in the Cell to begin with.4
The interesting thing about this is that Steve Meyer and I are probably really in almost the same exact position when it comes to our core beliefs. Obviously as fellow Christians, we both believe that there is a Mind behind the process. We both think that the history of life with its constant increase in complex specified information is a product of the activity of God. We both stand amazed at the majesty of creation and our love for the Creator who is personally involved not only in our own individual lives but those of our families and faith communities as well. We differ primarily in one regard. Steve thinks he has shown through scientific analysis that this Mind we both believe in must have been present and supernaturally active in the creation of information. I think the Mind (God) was present, but I can’t put the existence of God into a scientific experiment to demonstrate God's activity. Furthermore, unlike Steve, I have no pre-conceived ideas about whether God's,supernatural activity was necessary for creation of information. God, as I see it, may have chosen to create information bearing molecules indirectly through God’s natural activity in a manner that is analogous to the development of a baby or the growth of a tree from a seed.
In the end, our difference is simple, he thinks that the test tubes won’t ever deliver information rich molecules and I think it is too early to say. He has declared the matter more or less settled on the basis of scientific analysis. I consider the matter fully unsettled. But the most important thing of all has been settled and on this we both agree. This Mind we speak of is God’s Mind--God's Holy Spirit. That Spirit not only fills all of creation, but more specifically that Spirit fills us with his Presence and envelopes us in his love. This is cause for celebration and, with "sandals off," we each bow our heads in humble worship. Truly, we--all of us--are standing on holy ground.
1. Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith 62:276
2. Note to Steve: Does not the human brain count within Exception #2? After all, it arose in the history of life and its development depends upon DNA. If so, you might need an exception to the exception.
3. The term “positive” is used 21 times in the book. It is clearly important to the author that the evidence for intelligence associated with the origin of DNA be viewed not as absence of contrary evidence, but rather a piece of convincingly positive evidence that hinges upon the fact that CSI in general, can’t be built without a mind.
4. I’m really not trying to be facetious here. I really do think that’s what would happen. I can almost draft the stipulation now.
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.