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

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March 8, 2010 Tags: Design
On Not Reading the Signature: Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala, Part 1

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

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 directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Wa. He received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2013) and Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009) a Times (of London) Literary Supplement book of the year.

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Mike Gene - #6211

March 8th 2010

Hi Gordon,

I enjoyed your cartoon – very clever.  Also like the second one.  Are you going to make a third?

Here’s how I see it.  If the first life forms were designed and used to seed the planet, then short of having access to a time machine or discovering the designers’ lab notes, there is no way to detect/describe the efficient cause.  So in this sense, I am sympathetic to the IDM.  The problem is that science itself is built around explanations rooted in efficient causes and the IDM demands those rules be suspended.  So the solution would be to take the “design detection” outside the realm of science (and let science be science) and investigate using the mind-like criteria that I have outlined.  It’s a solution that upsets just about everyone.  The IDM will never agree that design detection is not part of science.  And the non-teleologists don’t think anyone should investigate outside the realm of science, because teleology is supposed to remain purely subjective.

Mike Gene - #6212

March 8th 2010

BTW, Gordon, do you do the art on those cartoons?

Gordon J. Glover - #6216

March 8th 2010

Mike, there will indeed be a 3rd episode (working on it this week), as well as a 4th.  After that, I can’t say.  Ironically, the next 2 episodes are about SitC.  I do the writing and the editing myself, but others make the music and do the art (credits at the end). 

Since I don’t have degrees in either science, theology, or philosophy (and my spelling is terrible), I have to compensate by being entertaining.

Have your ideas about front loading engaged some of the peculiarities of QM?  When Meyer says in SitC that there is nothing in nature that suggests a forward-looking capability, I found myself screaming “what about Young’s Double-Slit Experiement”—where photons “know” in advance that a detector is present before “choosing” which path to take from a beam splitter.  It seems there is at least one instance where nature seems to demonstrate both “foreknowledge” and “agency”—although the various quantum interpretations do not use that vocabulary.

Mike Gene - #6227

March 8th 2010

Hi Gordon,

I like to stick with material that I am solid with, and since QM is beyond that level, I don’t seriously incorporate it.  I knew a guy who seems awfully comfortable with QM who insisted my views would better fit that context.  I simply said, “More power to ya.”

As for the cartoons, a future series might include the New Atheists swiping the detection gun, modifying it, and then using it measure churches and pray meetings to find God does not exist. 

Gordon J. Glover - #6233

March 8th 2010


Ha, ha.  I’ve often said that Intelligent Design is bad for theology as it gives the natural sciences authority over matters of personal faith.  So you might be on to something there.  Or our DD can shoot the famous “face on Mars” with his cause cause detector only to have it give a false result.  Whoops, must be appearence of design.  Perhaps they are not so easy to tell apart after all?

Gregory Arago - #6235

March 8th 2010

Enjoying the humo(u)r here in recent posts. These conversations seem to get all too serious and even controversial sometimes.

Will try to stick with the topics I’m solid on as well.

You said, Gordon, that you “don’t have degrees in either science, theology, or philosophy.” But I’ll admit, yes, you are entertaining (like South Park).

Further, “The closest I’ve seen is what Polkinghorne has done, as well as some of the “emergence” philosophers”.

Two of the three you mention are not philosophers. Clayton’s an interesting character. He is not, however, in a position to decipher this problem b/c he neglects anthropology. With you, I have great respect for J.P. too!

It seems we’re stuck here until we can get beyond ‘creation, evolution & ID’. Lamoureux just merges them, but doesn’t actually get ‘beyond.’ This is obvious. So where do we go next?

Teleology undeniably exists in some sciences, if not in others. BioLogos accepts this. Meyer is near with ‘information’. Yet the puzzle of mind requires more.

MJS - #6365

March 10th 2010

I just read the below over at Evolution News and completely agree with it. 


John VanZwieten - #6401

March 10th 2010

The tone of the above link is rather nasty and uncalled-for.  I.e. “What is wrong with these people?”

It seems some of the coffee is getting spilled.  Too bad.

pds - #6420

March 10th 2010

John #6401,

The misrepresentations by Ayala were also uncalled for.  His ridicule of Meyer based on the misrepresentations was also uncalled for.  See #6180.

Both sides could benefit from improved civil discourse skills.

Here is the link:

When a Book Review Is Not a “Book Review”

gingoro - #6432

March 10th 2010

Frankly Ayala seems to me to be loosing credibility as he should have read the book to deliver the kind of comment he made.  While I like Ayala’s book (Darwin’s Gift) I do not find comments, like he made here, helpful.  As science I do not think Meyer or Dembski make their case although I have a great deal of doubt that we will find a natural solution to OOL.  The combinatorial explosion seems to rule out a natural solution but we will see as science moves along in the future.

Some seem to be invoking the multi-verse to deal with the problem that there seems to be a low priority of the first cell occurring in just one universe.

Gregory Arago - #6484

March 11th 2010

I might only add that F. Ayala, whether or not Dr. Falk considers him a ‘living legend’ in evolutionary biology, is *not* considered ‘on-side’ with BioLogos in terms of his orientation.


Ayala is considered a ‘liberal Christian’: “Some in this category attach little to no significance to belief in the authority of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, or the reality of miracles.”

It might also be worth noting that the category ‘Intelligent Design’ was changed not that long ago from ‘Anti-Science’. Thus, ID folks should be pleased that they’ve in a sense been upgraded at BioLogos to a level of greater respect. Or at least they are not labelled as anti-science anymore.

I agree with gingoro’s #6432 and find provocative words therein.

Ayala doesn’t carry much weight with me; I don’t consider him an expert to critique Meyer on OoL. And frankly, BioLogos should not have published Ayala’s ‘response’ n the Blog if Ayala didn’t even *open* the book! Or is it just stoking fires among its opposition/competitors (above and below on its list)?

gangesa - #6493

March 11th 2010

[...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.]

In other words Meyer says

...it also makes…the actions of animals, including humans, is the only known cause by which things we see around us that are quite obviously made by animals, including humans, have come to be, at least when…

No wonder a biologist like Ayala wouldn’t want to waste his time with such a pathetic argument

Ben - #6523

March 11th 2010

Why is it that we are being told Ayala wasn’t asked to do a book review? 

The answer is simple.  Because Ayala wrote his piece as if he had read the book.  He wrote it like it was a book review.  Ayala’s “response” or whatever you want to call it is located here:


Some relevant quotes:

“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.”

Really?  Well how would you know the keystone argument unless you had read the book?

“Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point?”

Indeed, why do that when distinguished, reknowned, “living legends” of biology aren’t going to bother reading those hundreds of pages?

“Christians and other people of faith should be troubled about Signature of the Cell for several reasons. “

How would Ayala know what is “troubling” about the book?  And why would he mention what’s in the book since this is a “response” and not a “book review”?  I could go on, but you have a character limit on comments.

Ben - #6524

March 11th 2010

Strange that Ayala’s “response” wasn’t linked to in this post while every other relevant link was posted.  Strange that we are hearing apologetics now and semantic arguments about what Ayala was asked to do, when it’s clear from what Ayala wrote he was criticizing Meyer’s book. 

These tactics are going to come back to haunt people who use them.  The piper will be paid.

Harry - #6542

March 11th 2010

Ayala’s response was linked to at the end of the first paragraph under ‘Background Comments by Darrel Falk’. It is highlighted in blue, “He did.”

John VanZwieten - #6549

March 11th 2010


Ayala did clearly criticize Meyer’s book, but he also clearly did not set out to write a review of it.  He wrote an essay about why he disagrees with the IDM, and particularly with Meyer’s approach in SitC.

If he didn’t catch Meyer’s argument correctly (because he skimmed the book or for whatever reason), it seems the charitable response is to correct the error—not to slam him for doing a poor book review or make snide titles like: When a Book Review Is Not a “Book Review”.

Ben - #6577

March 11th 2010

Meyer’s essay title is “On Not Reading Signature in the Cell”, not “When a Book Review Is Not a Book Review”.  Notice that Ayala even got the title of Meyer’s book wrong, and he clearly is claiming to address the arguments in the book though he most certainly did not. 

Meyer does correct him, or did you fail to read Meyer’s response as well?  I’m sensing a pattern here.

Thanks Harry I missed the link.  It is in fact linked there and I would encourage everyone to read it and Meyer’s response AFTER reading Meyer’s book. 

By the way Meyer’s full response including part two is available as a pdf here:

http://www.stephencmeyer.org/news/Meyer response to Ayala.pdf

anair - #6591

March 12th 2010

I think we have to give Meyer’s attitude a lot of leeway here. He continually makes logical arguments that are fairly solid and continually is faced by others trying to directed people away from his actual arguments. He may have been somewhat snide, but not as snide as Ayala saying Meyer’s book is tantamount to writing a book about New York not being in Europe. Ayala, even if he is one of “Biology’s living legends” should be respectful too.

Peter - #7179

March 19th 2010

Gordon J. Glover asked, “Does the philsopher in Meyer not see the circularity in this reasoning?  Intelligent life is invoked to explain intellignet life?”

Answer:  It would be circularity if Meyer argued that the intelligent life that needs to be explained is also the cause of intelligent life.  He never makes this argument.  Related to this, he argues that there cannot be an evolutionary explanation for DNA because evolution requires DNA as a unit of heredity in order to take place.  Those who argue for an evolutionary explanation for DNA are reasoning circularly.

Gordon J Glover stated, “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.”

Response: Intelligence is the mechanism by which mind manipulates DNA.  When the neurons are activated and deactivated in your brain every time you make an argument against ID, isn’t it intelligence that is determining which ones are fired, and in what pattern?

Peter - #7180

March 19th 2010

Gordon stated, “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.”

Response: Intelligence is not something that “intervenes” in the world.  There is nothing supernatural about intelligence.  There is nothing miraculous about the influence of intelligence in the world.

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