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On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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January 29, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

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

On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

Dr. Meyer is a philosopher, not a scientist. He is eminently qualified as a philosopher. He has studied at one of the world’s greatest universities and has earned its highest degree. Dr. Meyer is also an expert in communication. Like a number of his colleagues—Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski and, dare I say, Ben Stein—he is a master at communicating with his audiences. His book, Signature in the Cell, is a communicative masterpiece. It is because of his skill as a communicator that he and his colleagues have been able to move mountains.

I do not believe, as Dr. Meyer asserts, that he is unqualified—quite the opposite. He is likely more qualified as a philosopher than I am as a scientist. Furthermore, I guarantee you that if I was venturing into his discipline, I would have little of value to say. Dr. Meyer has ventured into my discipline, biology. He is not highly qualified as a biologist, but he’s ventured in anyway. Fair enough. Since he is a great communicator, we should be able to analyze the quality of his arguments.

This brings me to my next point. I believe that Dr. Meyer and his colleagues are sincere. P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, and John Kwok notwithstanding, these people are not out to deceive, they sincerely believe that the mountain they are trying to knock down is a figment of our imagination. The evolutionary paradigm has come about, they believe, through methodological naturalism. When scientists investigate natural processes assuming there is nothing else at work, Meyer and his colleagues believe the scientists get an incomplete picture of how the natural world works. Again, fair enough. Let us be fair too. Let’s keep an open mind.

Are you ready for my next point? Dr. Meyer and his colleagues have a view of reality which is very similar to my own. I assume, for example, that the following Scripture is as central to their existence as it is to mine:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38, 39

So even if I disagree profoundly with what Stephen Meyer and his colleagues conclude, I must be careful. If this Scripture is true for them too, and if they really are never separated from the love of God, then I must not separate myself from them. If I did, if I pulled away, I would be separating myself from that which matters most of all in life, staying close to God’s love. Dr. Meyer and his colleagues are smart, they are sincere, and we are all bound together within the love of God.

All of this just brings me to my next point: You can be smart, sincere, and loved, but you can also be very wrong about the interpretation of scientific data. Even smart people are sometimes wrong, especially when they venture into a new discipline, such as would happen if I, heaven forbid, tried to venture into philosophy. On page 107 of Signature in the Cell, Meyer describes “specified complexity.” DNA, he says on page 109, contains “specified complexity” because

it contains “alternative sequences or arrangements of something that produce a specific effect.” Although DNA does not convey information that is received, understood, or used by a conscious mind, it does have information that is received and used by the cell’s machinery to build the structures critical to the maintenance of life.

In Meyer’s response to my review, he made a very strong statement. I am amazed that someone who is really smart and equally sincere could make it, but here it is

First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information (especially in a digital form). Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power. Hence, intelligent design provides the best—most causally adequate—explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals. In other words, intelligent design is the only explanation that cites a cause known to have the capacity to produce the key effect in question. (Emphasis added)

What is he saying here? First of all he says that intelligent agents are known to produce specified complexity. Of course. But look at what he says next: “no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.” Surely he doesn’t mean this. Consider the generation of antibody diversity for example. When a bacterium invades the body, a process results in a whole lot of random rearrangements of DNA sequence, and this eventually produces trillions of highly specific antibodies which specifically recognize and bind to the invading bacterial cells. The antibodies are highly specified. They bind only to that one type of bacteria. We go from a state of lower complexity to higher complexity—higher specified complexity! The process that generates this specified complexity is pure chemistry. A set of random processes have generated the highly specified information required to fight the bacterial infection. Surely none of us would believe there is a little “intelligent being” in the body directing the body step-by-step to make the correct antibody. We know it doesn’t work that way. The universe of biology is full of examples of random processes giving rise to specified information. Interested readers are referred to the outstanding book, Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell for a marvelous discussion of how complexity, including specified complexity in living and non-living systems can emerge without the specific design-input of an intelligence.

Now at this point, Dr. Meyer might step in and remind me of our common belief that there is a Mind who established life’s processes, a Mind whose presence is necessary to sustain the laws of the universe. Sure. We both accept that. But that’s beside the point. There are “undirected chemical processes” that produce functionally specified information. If he wants to beg the question by saying that there is a Mind that created the DNA which would ultimately cause the random processes—fine. But, if he does this, I would go back further and argue that if he is going to beg the question this way, he needs to be willing to beg the question all the way back—there could also have simply been a Mind who established the system so that DNA arose through natural undirected processes. We just don’t know how it worked. And that’s my point. The data is simply not in yet. I emphasize again, all that Dr. Meyer has done is identified an area of science that still has many unanswered questions. For sure, it is simply far too early to jump in and say: “Stop the game. You’ve lost. We’ve won. Game’s over!” This, in my opinion, is silly. Let’s just wait and see.

Just because I believe Steve Meyer and his colleagues are really smart, really sincere, and really have integrity does not mean that they cannot also be really wrong. My one hope and prayer—given that they have the first three qualities—is that the day will come when they admit the fourth holds true as well. In the meantime, I will hold them up in prayer and I know they’ll do the same for us.

I would like to thank my colleagues, Kathryn Applegate at The Scripps Research Institute, and John Oakes of Grossmont Community College for helpful comments in my preparation of this response.

We will soon publish a second response from Stephen Meyer. This one will be a follow-up to Francisco Ayala’s post of several weeks ago.


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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Gregory Arago - #3630

January 29th 2010

Jesse,

I still mean to respond to your post in another thread. But let’s be crystal clear. Knowledge ‘produced’ in philosophy of science absolutely ‘proves’ there is no such entity called ‘the scientific method.’ This is a fanciful myth! There are multiple scientific methods practiced in various sciences. Do you dare say that anthropology is not a science?

Thus, what is inherent in ‘science’ is a debatable claim and not something ‘provable’ simply by asking ‘natural-physical scientists’ the question: ‘what is science?’

Philosophers are ‘scientists of totality’ & are much more qualified to discern what ‘is’ science than are scientists themselves.

Falsifiability is one criterion. Probably you know this comes primarily from Popper in the English literature on ‘demarcation.’

A key question here is: can methods that focus on non-natural things be considered ‘scientific’? The problem of reductionism comes in immediately. Is ‘science’ reducible to a ‘nature-only’ scenario? Is the only alternative to ‘natural’ possible ‘the supernatural’? Personally, I don’t think so. I think ‘science’ can study ‘non-natural’ & also ‘non-supernatural’ things. But what does that mean?


Jesse - #3632

January 29th 2010

Hi Gregory,

I think you have a point. Perhaps I should have specified “natural sciences”? Does what I said make sense then?
I don’t really know anything about anthropologists. Do they do science too? *joke*

Still, is the origin of life something that can be investigated by anything OTHER than natural sciences?


Mike Gene - #3634

January 30th 2010

Hi hmm,

You write, “Meyer didn’t claim in the quoted sentence that there couldn’t be any examples of specified complexity /information that do not originate from a mind or personal agent.”  But that is how I would interpret “Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source – from a mind or a personal agent.”  If specified complexity *invariably* originates from mind, then it would seem to me there couldn’t be any examples of specified complexity /information that do not originate from a mind.

As for antibodies being produced by a biological source, we can get to that in due time.  But let’s pause and take this in.  Doesn’t antibody production give us reason to think that the origin of specified complexity/information does not require a mind?


Mike Gene - #3635

January 30th 2010

Hi G,

You write, “The information in the genetic code that Meyer is referring to is almost entirely responsible for the complexity seen in the antibody example, yet the antibodies don’t carry information in terms of Meyer’s interpretation.”

I’m not following this.  The genetic code simply maps nucleotide sequence to amino acid sequence using 64 three-base codons.  It is used in the production of *every* protein.  Why do you think it is “almost entirely responsible for the complexity seen in the antibody example?”  Antibodies are produced because of controlled recombination and mutations.


Mike Gene - #3636

January 30th 2010

Hi Jonathan,

You write, “In the lab I can put a random mixture of nucleoside phosphoramidites in a vial, and chemically synthesize DNA of a random sequence.  Then I carry out a selection - for example, which of my compounds can bind to a given protein?  All of the sequences that bind are amplified (by PCR) and then I do the selection step again.  After several rounds of selection, I can do sequencing and one or several motifs emerge that specifically bind my protein (under whatever conditions I do the selection).  So I have new specified information generated from a random sequence… it is the “survival” of the chemical species that caused the specified sequence to be separated from all of the other sequences.”

Indeed.  A truly clever designer would take this process and embed it into life itself.  The trick would be to take the act of selection, which is guided by mind, and structure the architecture of life to serve as a proxy for the mind.  Of course, this would mean there was a significant intrinsic dimension to evolution.


Jonathan McLatchie - #3645

January 30th 2010

Unfortunately, Dr. Falk succeeds in making a category mistake with regard to antibody specificity and its purported relevance to the issue of specified complexity and the origin of life. There is absolutely no parallel between the two scenarios. Antibody specificity results from the decoding of information of the pathogenic invaders and reacting in a pre-programmed way. It maintains a database of previously-seen pathogenic agents. The immune system is programmed to use a search/trial-and-error technique in order to devise antibodies to pathogens. This is in stark contrast to origin-of-life scenarios with which Meyer’s book is concerned.


pds - #3655

January 30th 2010

Mike #3634,

I am kind of surprised you keep flogging this horse.  I think Meyer would say that the immune system shows signs of coming from a mind.  He would likely say that a mind can pre-program a system that can produce antibodies and some degree of new information like the immune system can.  But the immune system already has lots of the same kind of specified information stored in it.  Inorganic chemicals do not.

You seem to be reading Meyer uncharitably and trying to force his words into another context that he did not intend.  Having read your posts and comments at Telic Thoughts, this does not seem like you.

Are you still defending Falk or trying to make some other point? About front-loading perhaps?


Mike Gene - #3657

January 30th 2010

Hi pds,

Falk is correct in pointing out that antibodies show that mind is not directly required for the production of specified complexity and information.  The main objection is that Meyer is exclusively focused on the OOL.  Very good.  So we would posit that the original cells were designed, but they were designed in such a way that biological processes (mutations and selection) could generate specified complexity and new information.  In other words, the original cells were designed, and then subsequently evolved.  That is, if a mind “can pre-program a system that can produce antibodies and some degree of new information like the immune system can,” it can, to some degree, “pre-program” evolution in a similar fashion. 

In other words, while arguments from specified complexity and information may apply to the origin of life, they fail as arguments against evolution.


Vincent Torley - #3658

January 30th 2010

Dr. Meyer writes:

“First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information… Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.”

Note that Dr. Meyer says “large amounts.” But how large is “large”? On page 294, Dr. Meyer writes:

“[T]he probabilistic resources of the entire universe equal 10^139 trials, which, in turn, corresponds to an informational measure of less than 500 bits. This represents the maximum information increase that could reasonably be expected to occur by chance from the big bang singularity to the present - without assistance from an intelligent agent.”

How much specified information is created by the generation of antibody diversity?

According to the 1997 paper, “Deriving Shape Space Parameters from Immunological Data” by D. J. Smith et al. (which can be viewed online), the shape space for antibody diversity is no larger than 10^16. That equates to about 50 bits, which is far short of 500.

Dr. Falk has failed to offer a genuine counterexample to Dr. Meyer’s claim about the very limited power of unintelligent processes to generate specified complexity.


Gregory Arago - #3659

January 30th 2010

Mike Gene contends: “Mind is *not* directly required for the producing of SC and information.”

His view is simply a mess it seems, in terms of philosophy of science! Let it be noted that Mike Gene is on record a few years ago as saying that ‘intelligent design’ has *nothing* to do with philosophy or with theology. Oh, how the tables have turned!

“the original cells were designed, and then subsequently evolved.” - Mike Gene

O.k., so then ‘mind’ was required for ‘designing,’ and then ‘no mind’ was required for ‘evolving.’ Is this correct? TIME is irrelevant. ‘Design’ without ‘mind’ is non-sensical, is this right, Mike?

Mike Gene wants to be a front-loaded, intelligent design, evolutionist who believes in Creation…&  everyone likes their own (rabbit) flavour of ice cream!

How does Mike Gene ‘measure’ the supposed ‘intelligence’ that he believes is ‘pre-programmed in/by evolution/ID/creation’ to give it some kind of ‘intrinsic teleology’ in the biotic sphere?


Nick Matzke - #3668

January 30th 2010

Mike Gene and Falk are right about this.  Meyer’s argument depends on the absolute generalization that only mind can produce specified complexity, i.e. specific functional sequences.  He makes this assertion again and again in his book and elsewhere.  He says it’s our uniform experience, and thus all we need is the existence of specified complexity to infer the action of a Mind, even with absolutely no other evidence.  I.e. Meyer specifically says ID is the only explanation with Causal Adequacy, and because it’s the only explanation, ID also meets the “Causal Existence” criterion for Inference to the Best Explanation.

However, there actually are numerous known cases of unintelligent natural processes generating new functionally specified sequence.  Antibodies are one, but the evolution of new genes with new functions, which is supported by masses of literature and observation, is another—one which Meyer completely ignores, and which the ID movement almost completely ignores.


Nick Matzke - #3669

January 30th 2010

[pt 2]

In the library stacks we have the evolution of new venoms with different specificities, the evolution of metabolic pathways to break down human-invented compounds never seen before in nature, the evolution of camouflage that eerily matches the background environment, the evolution of proteins that specifically bind invaders or invadees, or specifically dodge such binding, etc.

Meyer knows about this at some level, so inconsistently, at some places in his book, he hedges, and asserts that he is only talking about the origin of specified complexity/information from non-biological sources.  But if he concedes that natural processes can produce information at all, then his universal generalization that information = intelligence, upon which his whole argument depends, is totaly shot.


Nick Matzke - #3670

January 30th 2010

[pt3 ]

(A second exception to “natural processes can’t create information” is Meyer’s own admission that random processes can generate a small amount of information.  So much for his Law of Conservation of Information.  Instead what he has to argue is that, yes, natural processes can build up a small amount of information, but that this process always has strict limits.  This directly implies that a system with information level X has **memory** such that the system remembers that it has reached its information limit, and there is no way another random event can add any more information.  Otherwise, information could gradually build up with no obvious limit, e.g. via a selective process.  But the idea that a system, e.g. a sequence, has this kind of memory of where its intrinsic limit is, is ridiculous on its face.)


Nick Matzke - #3671

January 30th 2010

[pt4/4]

Meyer didn’t really do the following, but one could re-frame his argument to say “no natural processes are known to produce self-replicating systems” and then argue that only intelligence can produce self-replicating systems.  But do we have uniform, habitual experience that intelligence goes around producing self-replicating systems?  Oops: nope, not really.  I’m pretty sure it is true that no human intelligence has ever produced a nontrivial, wholly self-replicating system from scratch, i.e. on the level of a cell, or even on the level of an RNA ribozyme that can replicate itself and other arbitrary sequences.

These are fatal, crashing problems with Meyer’s argument, they are obvious to most biologists, and they are the primary reason Meyer’s work ain’t gettin’ no respect from the scientific community.  It’s the same old half-baked creationist “information” argument that creationists have been spinning since literally the 1960s.  It’s not even new pseudoscience.


Jonathan Bartlett - #3673

January 30th 2010

Dr. Faulk -

I take issue with your description of the processes of antibody diversity generation.  While there is some statistical randomness at play, I would say that the specificity in the process is huge.  The parts of the antibody gene are segregated into matchable parts (V, D, J, and C), which are rearranged in specified ways, whose rearrangments are managed by the RSS signal between each part.  In addition, after recombination, the cell can generate DNA which are needed to make the final protein fold better (Sanz and Capra PNAS 84(4)).

During the mutation afterwards, the mutations are focused on that gene only, and, for that gene, it focuses on the complementary-determining region and skip the C region (which attaches to the B cell, and thus would be counterproductive to mutate) (Papavasiliou and Schatz Cell 109(2 supplement 1)).


Jonathan Bartlett - #3674

January 30th 2010

[continuing…]

To call this orchestration “random” just because it isn’t 100% deterministic is an abuse of the term.  It has never been the position of ID that nothing can find a solution within a search space which _utilizes_ randomness.  But rather that this only works when the search space has already been narrowed by information.  This process works only because, rather than mutations happening at random throughout the cell’s DNA, they only happen within a well-defined scope - a scope that _matches_ the environment problem that it is trying to solve.

This is the focus of Dembski’s work on Active Information, started with his No Free Lunch book and continuing in the papers he has done with Dr. Marks.

If the process were not so constrained, it would not work.  This is the results of not only the work on the immune system, but also those of bacteria - when you mess up the genes in the SOS pathway, evolution does not occur.  The evolutionary definition of randomness is that “one of the central tenets of Darwinian evolution is that mutations are random with respect to the needs of the organism in coping with its environment” (Templeton, “Population Genetics and Microevolutionary Theory”, 2006, pg 3).


Mike Gene - #3675

January 30th 2010

Hi Vincent,

You write, “According to the 1997 paper, “Deriving Shape Space Parameters from Immunological Data” by D. J. Smith et al. (which can be viewed online), the shape space for antibody diversity is no larger than 10^16. That equates to about 50 bits, which is far short of 500.”

Then what does this say about the shape space for antigen diversity?  Keep in mind that a rabbit can make an antibody that will specifically react with any protein from any species on this planet.


Jonathan Bartlett - #3676

January 30th 2010

[in summary…]

Your example is actually one that contradicts the evolutionary definition of randomness - the gene which is modified is not random with respect to the needs of the organism, and neither is the are of the gene which is mutated.  This is excluded well over 99.99% of the genome.  How a mutation directed to the correct 0.01% of the genome is considered “random with respect to the needs of the organism” just because, within that 0.01% there is some variability, is completely beyond me.


Mike Gene - #3677

January 30th 2010

Hi Gregory,

You write, “His view is simply a mess it seems, in terms of philosophy of science! Let it be noted that Mike Gene is on record a few years ago as saying that ‘intelligent design’ has *nothing* to do with philosophy or with theology. Oh, how the tables have turned!”

What I have long maintained is that my views about ‘‘intelligent design’ are not some repackaged, previously held theological or philosophical position. 

“O.k., so then ‘mind’ was required for ‘designing,’ and then ‘no mind’ was required for ‘evolving.’ Is this correct?”

Nope.  I never used the word ‘required.’ I’m simply reacting to the many claims here that Meyer was focused exclusively on the origin of life. 

“‘Design’ without ‘mind’ is non-sensical, is this right, Mike?”

Yes, design without mind is nonsensical.


Mike Gene - #3678

January 30th 2010

cont…..

“Mike Gene wants to be a front-loaded, intelligent design, evolutionist who believes in Creation…&  everyone likes their own (rabbit) flavour of ice cream!”

Indeed.  And the four flavors do not contradict each other and make for ice cream that is much more tasty than any other brand. 

“How does Mike Gene ‘measure’ the supposed ‘intelligence’ that he believes is ‘pre-programmed in/by evolution/ID/creation’ to give it some kind of ‘intrinsic teleology’ in the biotic sphere?”

I never claimed the ability to measure the supposed intelligence.


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