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On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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January 29, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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

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 BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Gregory Arago - #3719

January 31st 2010

This is indeed the question for Dr. Falk if he would dare to answer it. What’s or Who’s directing the information? Is it *just* nature alone?

Nick Matzke - #3720

January 31st 2010

Personally I’m unconvinced by N. Matzke’s pejorative label ‘fundamentalist.’ In my view and experience one can be a ‘fundamentalist’ and also ‘pro-science.

I agree that many fundamentalists *think* they are pro-science.  But if someone thinks the earth is e.g. 6000 years old, and persist in that belief in the face of the available evidence, then they are not really pro-science.  At the very least, I hope you can see that many scientists would find it annoying to be confronted by such people, and that repeated encounters with this degree of religiously-motivated antiscience could sometimes push them towards being skeptical of religion in general, particularly if they don’t know much about the complex, internecine theological distinctions among e.g. Christians of various sorts.

If anyone is wondering where the emotion in the New Atheist movement comes from, I think it is indisputable that a good chunk of it, although obviously not all of it, comes from the numerous intellectual travesties committed by creationists.

Bradford - #3725

January 31st 2010

A response to Dr. Falk’s response:


Jonathan Bartlett - #3730

January 31st 2010

Nick -

“What’s the directing information in the case of a new gene evolving by mutation and natural selection acting on a gene duplicate?”

As an example, Nylon-eating bacteria are an example of evolution-by-information.  First, note _which_ gene duplicated - it was one similar to what was needed.  Second, there were 140 point mutations.  If the mutation rate was that high in the rest of the genome, it would have killed the bacteria.  In other words, the sequence space was restricted to the likely area where it would do good.  Finally, location of the frameshift was interesting.  It is extremely unlikely, from a chance perspective, for an antisense strand to have no stop codons of the length found here.  According to Yomo et al (PNAS 89:3780-3784) “...the location of the NSF just coincides with the ORF for EIII, and the reading frame for the NSF shares the same triplet as that for the ORF.  These results imply that there may be some unknown mechanism behind the evolution of these genes…”

So, again, also in the case of gene duplication, it appears to be evolution by information.  Natural selection probably had *something* to do with it, but it is comparatively minor role, compared with the action of existing information.

Jonathan Bartlett - #3731

January 31st 2010

“Nowhere is there an explanation of why, or how, an information-building process has a memory, such that adding up to 150 bits is possible, but adding 1 more bit (or 100, or 1000, etc.) later on is impossible, because the system “remembers” that it already hit the limit of 150 bits.” [note it’s actually 500 bits, but 10^150]

I think you’ve misunderstood the problem.  It *is not* the case that 150 bits is easy.  I think a search space which is searchable by the world’s best machines in a reasonable amount of time is somewhere on the order of 40 bits.  However, what you seem to be missing is that the reason these are specified in bits is that they are *orders of magnitude*.  They are log2 of the probability.  Therefore, if you have two searches, each with 40 bits, that’s 41 bits.  If you do three searches, that’s 41.5 bits.  If you do four searches, that’s 42 bits.  If you do 100 searches, that’s 46.6 bits.

The problem is that 500 bits is Dembski’s estimate for the probability of the universe, meaning that no search or combination of searches could add up to 500 bits.  The measurement is essentailly orders-of-magnitude measurements, so they don’t just “add up”.

Darrel Falk - #3735

February 1st 2010

3719 “This is indeed the question for Dr. Falk if he would dare to answer it. What’s or Who’s directing the information? Is it *just* nature alone?”

Dear Gregory,
All that happens, occurs within the context of fulfilling the creation command.  John 1:3 makes this wonderfully clear in a manner that is consistent with the entire body of Scripture: “Through him all things were made…”  Colossians 1:17 emphasizes this further—“in him all things hold together.”  So there is no such thing as “just nature,” not if you believe in the God of the Bible.  With the Psalmist we say ” Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me…”

Darrel Falk - #3737

February 1st 2010


The question, as I see it Gregory,  is not, (as you pose it), who is directing the information.  Rather the question is two fold:
1. Is God directly manipulating the formation of information as we would do if we were building a robot or a computer?  Or is God, because He is God, allowing it to build itself to some extent in a manner analogous to the way we experience God’s Spirit in our lives?
2.  Can we use scientific tools and reasoning to demonstrate that what has happened would not have happened without God?
I don’t know the answer to either question and that’s okay.  There is no scriptural or scientific reason to favor a particular answer.  I can wait.

Steve Meyer, on the other hand,  thinks he knows the answer to both.  I’m with Habakkuk, I"ll stand at my watchpost.

Blessings my friend,

Nick Matzke - #3751

February 1st 2010

I think you’ve misunderstood the problem.  It *is not* the case that 150 bits is easy.  I think a search space which is searchable by the world’s best machines in a reasonable amount of time is somewhere on the order of 40 bits.

It doesn’t matter what increment you use.  Let’s say you think the gene duplication + mutation + selection process can only add 10 bits of information to a genome.  Well then, just repeat that 50 times and you’ve beaten Dembski’s limit of 500 bits.

However, what you seem to be missing is that the reason these are specified in bits is that they are *orders of magnitude*.  They are log2 of the probability.  Therefore, if you have two searches, each with 40 bits, that’s 41 bits.  If you do three searches, that’s 41.5 bits.  If you do four searches, that’s 42 bits.  If you do 100 searches, that’s 46.6 bits.

Evolution isn’t really a search so this is a weird way to phrase it.

Nick Matzke - #3752

February 1st 2010

You seem to be using one of the Dembskian infuriating, question-begging definitions of “information” where you have to know the probability of something before you can decide how much information it has.  But in this thread, we are talking about Meyer’s definition of information, which is simply functionally specified sequence.  On this definition, the new amount of functionally specified sequence would scale linearly with the number of bits required to store that new sequence.  If you like, you can say that any sequence which is already represented in the parent gene is not new information.  It doesn’t matter.  The new chunks of functional sequence are new information, and thus a natural process, mutation and seleciton, can produce new information, and there is no reason to think there is a limit to this process, because some new mutation/selection event can always occur and add a “bit” more. 

All this is through completely prosaic, well-understood, boring natural processes.  It is the ID guys who are trying to insert weird, mysterious, unsupported limits to this process.

Nick Matzke - #3753

February 1st 2010

Re: NS having a “minor role”—doesn’t matter.  Even if NS can only add 1 bit of information at a time to a genome, just repeat for millions of years and you’ve generated lots of new information.  This doesn’t prove that natural processes could cause the origin of life, but it dang well disproves Meyer’s contention that intelligence is required to produce new information/“specified complexity”, which is the key plank of his argument.  And this fatal problem, not nasty mean bias, is why Meyer and ID will not get taken seriously by scientists, and rightly so.

Re: nylonase—I vaguely recall the frame-shift thing was a mistake and actually it’s just a case of the more standard gene duplication-mutation mechanism.  E.g. if you BLAST nylonase you get lots of non-nylonase relatives.  But then I also recall there are several different nylonases so I might be confused…

Gregory Arago - #3764

February 1st 2010

Hi Dr. Falk,

I value that you can offer ‘more than just science’ in your approach to the world and beyond!

It is one thing to do science, and another to promote scientism.

It is one thing to study nature, another to promote naturalism.

You write: “there is no such thing as “just nature,” not if you believe in the God of the Bible.”

Well stated! But how far do you go with this?

Can one ‘do science’ and keep an eye or ear out for what is ‘more than natural’?

As a non-natural scientist, I do this all of the time.

What if your 1) instead asked if ‘God can create information’ and if 2) included ‘intuition’ (i.e. “reason in a hurry”) and ‘myth’? Would it be bad for demarcating?

Meyer’s philosophy is in *some* ways more powerful than your science. Which ways are those? Or is it impossible that philosophy can answer what science can’t? I doubt he feels as certain as you suggest.

Watchful, G.

Mark Winslow - #3796

February 2nd 2010

I’ll go with Lamaitre on this one in the same vein as Falk: “He [the Christian researcher] knows that not one thing in all creation has been done without God…. [However,] Omnipresent divine activity is everywhere essentially hidden.”  Science simply tells us (those who believe in a Creator) how God did it.  Regardless of probabilities, surely God can let natural processes run their course in the creative process.

Jonathan Bartlett - #3800

February 2nd 2010

Nick -

“Re: NS having a “minor role”—doesn’t matter.”

Actually, it does.  Precisely what experiments are supposed to produce are an increase in knowledge.  If all of the interesting mutations that we can experiment with are primarily information, then that removes any epistemic reason why we should believe that they operated differently in the past.  Certainly someone *could* belive that, but they would have less scientific justification than someone who did not, based on our present experience of information.  This means that it is more scientific to call it “evolution by information” because “evolution by information” is the process that we know about through experimentation.  “evolution by natural selection” may have happened, but it is not revealed in any present experiments about interesting mutations.

Jonathan Bartlett - #3802

February 2nd 2010

“Even if NS can only add 1 bit of information at a time to a genome, just repeat for millions of years and you’ve generated lots of new information. “

Again, you need to actually take a look at the math.  If natural selection adds 1 bit of information at a time to a genome, and does so each day for 20 billion years, at the end of it you will have 42.7 bits of information (because it is an order-of-magnitude measurement).

Evolutionists often appeal to the vast age of the universe as justification for their improbable claims.  But the nice thing about mathematics is that you can use it to evaluate claims that would otherwise be incomprehensible.  While it might seem that adding 1 bit of information each day for 20 billion years would certainly add up to something past Dembski’s 500 bits, my trusty calculator calculates it to be 42.7 bits (the calculation is log2(365 * 20000000000) if you want to try it on your calculator). 

If you want to put your faith in vast eons of time, that’s your business.  But if you want it to be science you had better pull out your calculator and start looking at the numbers.

Jonathan Bartlett - #3831

February 2nd 2010

Gregory -

“You speak of ‘evolution by information,’ in contrast to ‘evolution by natural selection.’ Has there been a published article in a natural scientific or philosophy of biology journal on this topic?”

Not with that wording, but there are several making that point.  Some of the ones I’m familiar with are Wright’s “A Biochemical Mechanism for Nonrandom Mutations and Evolution”, Caporale has several.  Her book, The Implicit Genome, is fantastic.  A great paper is “Mutation is Modulated: Implications for Evolution” (reviewed here.  Shapiro has made similar claims in his conception of “natural genetic engineering” (see “Mobile DNA and Evolution in the 21st Century”). 

The problem, as I see it, is that most biologists have little knowledge of information theory, and most information theorists who want to apply information theory to biology are IDists, and are not let in the door.  (note that most bioinformatics does not quite qualify in this manner, because it is only using information resources to examine biology, rather than examining biology _as_ an information resource).

Gregory Arago - #3837

February 2nd 2010

Interesting. Thanks for that, Jonathan!)

Something to follow-up on, even as a non-biologist…

cist - #3844

February 2nd 2010

Fine, micro-evolution. These are simply adaptive sub-sequences of non-adaptive sequences. Its as simple as that, and its computer engineering 101. Its stuff we know intuitively that biologists brag about before they even brag about it.

Question is, what exactly has been refuted here? Please point it out to me!

Douglas - #3849

February 2nd 2010

“most information theorists who want to apply information theory to biology are IDists”

Such as who? Are you claiming that Dembski is an ‘information theorist’? His contribution to this area of mathematics is as close to zero as makes no difference. Meyer? His contribution to information theory is precisely zero. Who exactly are you referring to? Information theorists who are actually involved in the field recognise that information theory poses no problems to evolution, only misuses of it by people who aren’t actually working in the field do.


Jonathan Bartlett - #3858

February 3rd 2010

Douglas -

The problem with your web link is that there is a difference between syntactic and semantic information.  Dembski was attempting to quantify semantic information.  Quantifying syntactic information is beside the point - who care if a quantity of information increases if that quantity is meaningless?  The quantities you are dealing with have to do with channel capacity, not functionality.  Semantics requires syntax, but goes beyond it.

Dembski and Meyer’s primary contribution is not _in_ information theory (though Dembski’s active information is a contribution), their primary contribution has been in applying information theory to other avenues.  As science gets more expansive, one of the key jobs is going to be bridging disciplines, and taking insights from one to the other.  The problem is that people in nearly every discipline are entrenched with certain ways of thinking, and it is difficult for people from other disciplines to accept criticism from outside.  Nonetheless, this is a critical part of science in this day and age.

Moshe Averick - #3860

February 3rd 2010

“Consider the generation of antibody diversity….a set of random processes have generated the highly specified information required to fight the bacterial infection”

A human being is a DNA based organism. The entire construction and direction of the human body -including of course the immune system- is ultimately controlled by instructions in the DNA.  Meyer’s entire point is that the most reasonable conclusion as to the origin of the digital code in DNA is an intelligent designer. Once you have genetic instructions you can have an immune system that will fight all types of bacterial invaders. When Falk calls this “a set of random processes” he seems to have entirely missed the point.

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