On Not Reading the Signature: Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala, Part 1

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March 8, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by Stephen C. Meyer. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

On Not Reading the Signature: Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala, Part 1

Background Comments by Darrel Falk

At the end of last year, I posted my reflections on Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. Following this, I sent out copies of my essay to several leading origin-of-life scientists and asked them if they would like to respond. In addition, Francisco Ayala, who is one of the most respected evolutionary biologists alive today was asked to respond to my essay from his broader perspective as both a highly credentialed philosopher and biologist. (He is a member of departments in both disciplines at the University of California, Irvine.) He was not asked to write a book review, but to simply respond to the concerns I had raised. He did.

Stephen Meyer was offered an opportunity to respond to my reflections as well. Steve accepted, and expressed a desire to respond to Ayala also. I agreed to both, but since Steve’s expertise is philosophy, I asked him to restrict his Ayala response to Ayala’s philosophical and theological concerns. He agreed to do so.

Steve’s response to my essay was posted some time ago, but we just recently received his response to Ayala’s. I was quite concerned when I read the latter because Steve seemed to think that Ayala had been asked to write a review of Signature in the Cell. He hadn’t. Rather, he had been simply asked to respond to my reflections in the same way as Steve himself. Ayala had a copy of the book and referred to it, but he was not asked to review it. I apologized to Steve if I had misled him or our readers about what Ayala had been asked to do.

Steve and I talked on the phone recently, and I asked him to revise his essay for three reasons:
 

  1. I felt his tone was insufficiently respectful of one of Biology’s living legends.

  2. He was criticizing Ayala for doing a terrible job of something Ayala was never asked to do. He was not asked to review Signature in the Cell.

  3. Steve had not done what we agreed he would do, which was to engage Ayala’s philosophical and theological arguments.

Steve and I talked for almost 45 minutes and he pushed hard. We gave each other three days to think about it, but in the end Steve made it clear that he would post it elsewhere unless BioLogos posted it “as submitted.” I did not want it to go up anywhere unless I could make it clear that Dr. Ayala had not been asked to do a book review. So we’re posting it along with this introduction. His submission was long, so we have broken it into two parts. Today we post Part 1. A BioLogos response to Part 1 will follow soon, and that will be followed thereafter by Meyer’s Part 2.

No doubt it happens all the time. There must be many book reviews written by reviewers who have scarcely cracked the pages of the books they purport to review. But those who decide to write such blind reviews typically make at least some effort to acquire information about the book in question so they can describe its content accurately—if, for no other reason, than to avoid embarrassing themselves. Unfortunately, in his review of my book Signature in the Cell (titled ironically, “On Reading the Cell’s Signature”), eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala does not appear to have even made a search for the crib notes online. Indeed, from reading his review it appears that he did little more than crack the title page and table of contents—if that. As a result, his review misrepresents the thesis and topic of the book and even misstates its title.

The title of my book is not Signature of the Cell as Ayala repeatedly refers to it, but Signature in the Cell.

The thesis of the book is not that “chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms” as he claims, but instead that intelligent design can explain, and does provide the best explanation for (among many contenders, not just chance) the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.

Further, the topic that the book addresses is not the origin of the genomes of organisms or the human genome as the balance of Professor Ayala’s critique seems to imply, but instead the origin of the first life and the mystery surrounding the origin of the information necessary to produce it.

Ayala begins his review by attempting to trivialize the argument of Signature in the Cell. But he does so by misrepresenting its thesis. According to Ayala, “The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell [sic] is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms.” He notes—as I do in the book—that all evolutionary biologists already accept that conclusion. He asks: “Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point?” But, of course, the book does not spend hundreds of pages arguing that point. In fact, it spends only 55 pages out of 613 explaining why origin-of-life researchers have—since the 1960s—almost universally come to reject the chance hypothesis. It does so, not because the central purpose of the book is to refute the chance hypothesis per se, but for several other reasons intrinsic to the actual thesis of the book.

Signature in the Cell makes a case for the design hypothesis as the best explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the first living organism. In so doing, it self-consciously employs a standard method of historical scientific reasoning, one that Darwin himself affirmed and partly pioneered in the Origin of Species. The method, variously described as the method of multiple competing hypotheses or the method of inferring to the best explanation, necessarily requires an examination of the main competing hypotheses that scientists have proposed to explain a given event in the remote past. Following Darwin and his scientific mentor Lyell, historical scientists have understood that best explanations typically cite causes that are known from present experience to be capable, indeed uniquely capable, of producing the effect in question.

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. Naturally, since chance was one of the first hypotheses proposed to explain the origin of life in the wake of the discovery of the information-bearing properties of DNA, I critique it first. Nevertheless, I go on to examine many more recent models for the origin of biological information including those that rely on physical-chemical necessity (such as current self-organizational models), and those that rely on the interplay between chance and necessity (such as the currently popular RNA world scenario). My discussion of these models takes over 90 pages and four chapters. Did Ayala just miss these chapters?

I should add that my critique of the chance hypothesis provides a foundation for assessing some of these more recent chemical evolutionary theories—theories that Ayala would presumably recognize as contenders among contemporary evolutionary biologists and which rely on chance in combination with other processes. For example, in the currently popular RNA world scenario, self-replicating RNA catalysts are posited to have first arisen as the result of random interactions between the chemical building blocks or subunits of RNA. According to advocates of this view, once such self-replicating RNA molecules had come into existence, then natural selection would have become a factor in the subsequent process of molecular evolution necessary to produce the first cell. In Signature in the Cell, however, I show that the amount of sequence-specific information necessary to produce even a supposedly simple self-replicating RNA molecule far exceeds what can be reasonably assumed to have arisen by chance alone. Indeed, my analysis of the probabilities of producing various information-rich bio-molecules is not only relevant to showing that “chance, by itself, cannot account for” the origin of genetic information, but also to showing why theories that invoke chance in combination with pre-biotic natural selection also fail

In any case, Signature in the Cell does not just make a case against materialistic theories for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life, it 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.


Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and a founder both of the intelligent design movement and of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, intelligent design’s primary intellectual and scientific headquarters. He is author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne 2009).

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Gregory Arago - #6168

March 8th 2010

Thanks for the Introduction, Darrel, which provides context to better understand the exchanges regarding “Signature in the Cell.”

On Dr. Meyer’s language.
He wrote: “Signature in the Cell makes a case for the design hypothesis as the best explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the first living organism.”

If there is a single entity called ‘the design hypothesis,’ then why do ‘design proponents’ differ considerably in their approaches? Could be aliens, etc. It would be safer to write “a design hypothesis.”

Later, Meyer writes of “the activity of conscious and rational agents” as “the only known cause” of ‘new information’. Does anyone think he is *not* referring to human beings as those “conscious and rational agents”?! The strength or weakness of Meyer’s hypothesis thus weighs heavily on *analogy*; “Welcome to Victoria” is not a biological argument.

Let’s not forget, however, what Oxford mathematician John Lennox wrote: “I don’t see how information can be produced from non-information without intelligence.”

I look forward to Meyer’s Part 2, on philosophy *and* theology.


Glen Davidson - #6169

March 8th 2010

Cross-posting from “Jesus Creed,” starting with a Meyer quote:

Undirected materialistic causes have not demonstrated the capacity to generate significant amounts of specified information. At the same time, conscious intelligence has repeatedly shown itself capable of producing that information. (p. 341)

Let’s say that intelligent agents (obviously I mean something like us, notably, capable of rationally determining cause and effect) coming from another dimension, universe, and causal regime came to earth and were able to understand causes here, 10 million years ago.

How true would Meyer’s second sentence in that quote be?

It wouldn’t be true at all, since intelligence was not capable of producing such information, at least not in artifacts, manuscripts, computer codes and files, and in various kinds of designs.

And so how appropriate is it to use an “argument” that works at one point in history, and not at another time? Intelligence is a good inference now for life’s origin, but was not 10 million years ago? That sort of situation totally destroys intelligent argumentation altogether.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #6170

March 8th 2010

Continuing the cross-post from #6169:

In one sense I’m saying that he’s clearly begging the question of how life, and then eventually intelligence, arose. And in a contingent manner, he’s resorting to the genetic fallacy, because it’s impossible that we could even have these discussions if we were not intelligent enough to make integrated systems of “specified information,” yet he uses this necessary capability as if it applied generally to the origin of such a capability.

Of course Meyer also ignores the fact that life’s information is in many ways very different from what humans produce, unless they are trying to mimic evolutionary processes, and that life’s information exists in an evolvable form that humans do not typically make (again, we do if we’re trying to make systems evolvable, following evolutionary observations).

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #6171

March 8th 2010

Continuing the cross-post from #6170:

Another disanalogous factor is that, while it is not beyond our imagination that aliens might make life (although almost certainly via mimicry), there is no reason to believe that it would be done without a whole lot of attendant machines and environmental manipulations, while their Designer is supposed to have acted to make life and not left behind any other kinds of artifacts at all.

These further issues highlight how unlike science Meyer’s approach is. He just assumes a “cause” without establishing its plausibility 4 billion years ago or so on earth, and he takes the late development of intelligence capable of producing informational systems somewhat similar to those found in life as if it were itself the answer to life’s development. The whole enterprise fails to truly explain anything, from the rather significant (evolutionarily facilitating) differences between the DNA code and those we most naturally produce (when not trying to mimic evolution, that is), to the existence of intelligence.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Glen Davidson - #6172

March 8th 2010

Continuing the cross-post from #6171:

But I do think that the worst misuse of intellection is assuming that the contingent and late existence of an intelligence capable of putting together the process of evolution is an indication that such an intelligence must itself be the cause of intelligence. It begs all of the questions that evolution actually answers.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Paul - #6175

March 8th 2010

I must say I don’t care at all for Mr. Meyer’s tone. Why does he think his book is even worthy of a review? Meyer is not a scientist; he has made no contribution to any area of biological sciences. He compares his line of reasoning to that of Darwin and says that Darwin also did no experiments. This is undeniably false; it appears that not only does Meyer have no understanding of science, he has no understanding of the history of science, the very area in which he claims expertise. Darwin in fact did numerous experiments; from his work on phototropism in plants, to that on earthworms,  barnacles, the list goes on. His contributions to various areas of science were by no means limited to what Mr. Meyer refers to as “historical sciences.” He outlined many theories on coral reef formation, and much more.

Mr Meyer’s work relies on a bogus interpretation of information theory, as well as picking and choosing various bits on scientific data he thinks he can cobble together to support his pre-determined conclusion. His ‘work’ is an embarrassment to scientific discourse and he should be thankful he received as much attention from Ayala as it did.


Gregory Arago - #6179

March 8th 2010

Paul,

If you’ll excuse my request for tolerance, even with someone who proposes a view you don’t accept. I don’t find your tone helpful either. Respect of opponents is suitable at BioLogos.

Meyer’s has a degree in “physics and earth science.” He doesn’t have a biology degree. True. But he is more an expert on ‘origins of life’ than anyone at BioLogos & his PhD from Cambridge in HPS isn’t worthless.

Where does Meyer say “Darwin did no experiments”? I think you’re misreading here.

Wrt what Meyer says about Darwin’s use of “a standard method of historical scientific reasoning,” do you disagree that Darwin used this?

I wouldn’t write, as Meyer did, that Lyell & Darwin were ‘historical scientists,’ since this can confuse with ‘scientific historians’. But otherwise his message is clear about reasoning based on “causes that are known from present experience.” Unfortunately, wrt ‘origins of life’ we don’t “know from present experience.”

I’d ask your patience with ‘information theory.’ Shannon is not the only game in town! Unless, are you an information theorist, Paul?


pds - #6180

March 8th 2010

Darrel,

You may call it “not a review,” but that is not the impression most people got.  Also, you said then “We sent him a copy of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. The essay below is his response.”  Thus it was put forth as a response to the book, not your reflections, as you claim here.

In one sense, what you call it is not important.  Ayala said:

The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.

He gets the keystone argument of Signature in the Cell wrong, and then ridicules Meyer for spending “chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages” for arguing it.  He gives the impression that he knows what is in the book, and attacks Meyer unfairly based on that.

(cont.)


pds - #6181

March 8th 2010

(cont.)

Shouldn’t we expect better from such a prominent scientist?

I posted all my comments on Ayala’s “response” here:

My Comments on Francisco Ayala’s “Review” of “Signature in the Cell”


Darrel Falk - #6187

March 8th 2010

#6181"Thus it was put forth as a response to the book, not your reflections, as you claim here.”

Pds,

Please note that in my background comments I have indicated I may not have been sufficiently clear that Dr. Ayala had not been asked to do a formal review.  But that is why I asked Dr. Meyer to change what he wrote.  It doesn’t seem fair to criticize someone for not doing a good job of that which he was never asked to do. 

Darrel


Mike Gene - #6188

March 8th 2010

Unfortunately, most book reviews are either expressions of confirmation bias or disconfirmation bias.  Thus, I would predict ID proponents give Meyer’s book a net positive review and skeptics/critics of ID give the book a negative review.  Both sides will tend to cherry pick elements that support either their confirmation bias or disconfirmation bias.  Elements of the book that work against those biases will either be ignored or misrepresented.  It’s just human nature.


Gordon J. Glover - #6189

March 8th 2010

I did read SitC—cover to cover.  I enjoyed it—not because I found it persuasive, but because I find the topic fascinating, and I like to read things that are well-written. 

However, I still don’t understand how “design” by itself is a causally adequate explanation for a material effect (assuming that material effects have material causes).  For example, an archeaologist can confidently declare that Stonehenge was designed and built by intelligent and rational beings.  This reasoning is valid, even though archeaologists still haven’t figured out exactly how Stonehenge was built, because there is enough corroborating evidence suggesting intelligent and rational beings were active in the appropriate time/place to make the design hypothesis plausible.  Presumably, material effects that result from intelligent causes require material beings with the material means necessary to manipulate the peices / parts involved. 

(cont…)


Gordon J. Glover - #6190

March 8th 2010

(...cont)

That being said, how can “design” be a causally adequate explaination for the origin of life—ie: the origin of intelligent rational beings?  Does the philsopher in Meyer not see the circularity in this reasoning?  Intelligent life is invoked to explain intellignet life?  It would seem as though “intelligent design” should be disqualified right out of the gate—unless, of course, Meyer’s designers are non-material beings that have no material origins of their own.  And last I checked, Meyer (or anybody else for that matter) hasn’t solved the age-old mind-body problem.  In fact, I saw nothing in SitC that explains how a disembodied non-material being (pure mind) mediates his/her creative action in the material realm.  All I saw were claims that, “the identity of and mechanisms used by the designer are separate issues.”  Huh?

(cont…)


Gordon J. Glover - #6191

March 8th 2010

(...cont)

It seems entirely premature to declare “intellgent causes” a causally adequate explanation for the origin of life without a mechanism by which pure mind can manipulate DNA base pairs or string together amino acids.  Of course, the reason Meyer glosses over the nature and identidy of the designer is because a deity is the only entity that fits the bill.  But hey, that’s cool with me.  We’re all Christians here, right?  Who are we kidding? 

Of course, the obvious problem with this “answer” is that it blows the cover-story that Intelligent Design is trying so desparately to uphold.  To claim that a deity must intervene to acheive something that can’t be done “naturally” puts questions about the origin of life in the same category as the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other miracles—that is, something not investigated using the tools of science, but rather something accepted by faith.


pds - #6193

March 8th 2010

Darrel at #6187,

I understand that, which is why I focus on what Ayala himself wrote.

My hope is that we all address each other’s arguments in their strongest form.


Gregory Arago - #6198

March 8th 2010

Gordon,

You wrote: “I saw nothing in SitC that explains how a disembodied non-material being (pure mind) mediates his/her creative action in the material realm.”

and

“Presumably, material effects that result from intelligent causes require material beings with the material means necessary to manipulate the peices / parts involved.”

Do you see anything in ‘theistic evolutionism’ or ‘evolutionary creationism’ that explains this?

If not, maybe this is where BioLogos can step in…

Gregory


Mike Gene - #6200

March 8th 2010

Gordon,

Are you familiar with Howard Van Till’s distinction between the mind-like and hand-like actions involved in design?

See: http://designmatrix.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/detecting-design-mind-and-hands-2/


Enezio E. de Almeida Filho - #6201

March 8th 2010

Francisco Ayala sez, and that settles the science in evolutionary biology? I thought that evidence is what settles scientific issues. Poor science that depends on who sez.


Gordon J. Glover - #6203

March 8th 2010

Hi Gregory,

“Do you see anything in ‘theistic evolutionism’ or ‘evolutionary creationism’ that explains this?”

The closest I’ve seen is what Polkinghorne has done, as well as some of the “emergence” philosophers (ie: Peacocke, Murphy, Clayton, etc…).  This is one of the areas I’ve set aside some personal time for study and reflection.  I agree with you that I’d like to see some of the heavy hitters at BioLogos engage the subject.

However, my personal interest in a physical model of divine action has more to do with informing my prayer life than with origin of life questions.

GJG


Gordon J. Glover - #6207

March 8th 2010

Mike,

Thanks for the reference - I had not seen that before.  However, I used a similar line of reasoning in my book to argue that mind-like (telelogical) design is wholly compatible with the hand-like assembly of these concepts.  And the fact that their assembly appears to be dominated by natural processes (ie: evolution) does not negate the possibility of telelogical design.

I’ve also found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be a helpful guide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes

My problem with the IDM is that they completely ignore the “efficient” cause—as if the means by which design manifsts itself in the material world are unimportant.  This idea of willfully glossing over the “efficient” or “proximate” causes is what spawned my latest cartoon project, “The Design Detective”.  (click my name above to see episode 1).


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