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Response to Darrel Falk’s Review of “Signature in the Cell”

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January 28, 2010 Tags: Design
Response to Darrel Falk’s Review of “Signature in the Cell”

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 December 28, Darrel Falk reviewed Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell (2009). On January 7, we also posted Dr. Francisco Ayala’s response to Meyer’s work.

One of the things Falk said in his initial assessment of Meyer’s book was the following:

In Chapter 14, as Stephen Meyer brings his discussion about the feasibility of RNA’s role as the early storehouse for cellular information to a conclusion, he recalls a twenty year old conversation with a philosophy professor about origin-of-life-research: “The field is becoming increasingly populated by cranks. Everyone knows everybody else’s theory doesn’t work, but no one is willing to admit it about his own.” Following this statement, Meyer fast-forwards into the present, and writes of his own assessment of the field twenty years later: “I found no reason to amend these assessments.”

The work Meyer had been discussing that led up to the final statement on page 322 was that of Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostak.

Falk sent a copy of his overview of Signature in the Cell to Meyer, Joyce, and Szostak and asked for a response that would be posted on this site. On January 12, we posted a follow-up to Falk’s review containing responses from both Joyce and Szostak.

Today, we are happy to post Dr. Meyer’s unedited response.

In 1985, I attended a conference that brought a fascinating problem in origin-of-life biology to my attention—the problem of explaining how the information necessary to produce the first living cell arose. At the time, I was working as a geophysicist doing digital signal processing, a form of information analysis and technology. A year later, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Cambridge, where I eventually completed a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science after doing interdisciplinary research on the scientific and methodological issues in origin-of-life biology. In the ensuing years, I continued to study the problem of the origin of life and have authored peer-reviewed and peer-edited scientific articles on the topic of biological origins, as well as co-authoring a peer-reviewed biology textbook. Last year, after having researched the subject for more than two decades, I published Signature in the Cell, which provides an extensive evaluation of the principal competing theories of the origin of biological information and the related question of the origin of life. Since its completion, the book has been endorsed by prominent scientists including Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences; Scott Turner, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York; and Professor Norman Nevin, one of Britain’s leading geneticists.

Nevertheless, in his recent review on the Biologos website, Prof. Darrel Falk characterizes me as merely a well-meaning, but ultimately unqualified, philosopher and religious believer who lacks the scientific expertise to evaluate origin-of-life research and who, in any case, has overlooked the promise of recent pre-biotic simulation experiments. On the basis of two such experiments, Falk suggests I have jumped prematurely to the conclusion that pre-biotic chemistry cannot account for the origin of life. Yet neither of the scientific experiments he cites provides evidence that refutes the argument of my book or solves the central mystery that it addresses. Indeed, both experiments actually reinforce—if inadvertently—the main argument of Signature in the Cell.

The central argument of my book is that intelligent design—the activity of a conscious and rational deliberative agent—best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I argue this because of two things that we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which following Charles Darwin I take to be the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past. 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.

Nowhere in his review does Falk refute this claim or provide another explanation for the origin of biological information. In order to do so Falk would need to show that some undirected material cause has demonstrated the power to produce functional biological information apart from the guidance or activity a designing mind. Neither Falk, nor anyone working in origin-of-life biology, has succeeded in doing this. Thus, Falk opts instead to make a mainly personal and procedural argument against my book by dismissing me as unqualified and insisting that it is “premature” to draw any negative conclusions about the adequacy of undirected chemical processes.

To support his claim that I rushed to judgment, Falk first cites a scientific study published last spring after my book was in press. The paper, authored by University of Manchester chemist John Sutherland and two colleagues, does partially address one of the many outstanding difficulties associated the RNA world, the most popular current theory about the origin of the first life.

Starting with a 3-carbon sugar (D-gylceraldehyde), and another molecule called 2-aminooxazole, Sutherland successfully synthesized a 5-carbon sugar in association with a base and a phosphate group. In other words, he produced a ribonucleotide. The scientific press justifiably heralded this as a breakthrough in pre-biotic chemistry because previously chemists had thought (as I noted in my book) that the conditions under which ribose and bases could be synthesized were starkly incompatible with each other.

Nevertheless, Sutherland’s work does not refute the central argument of my book, nor does it support the claim that it is premature to conclude that only intelligent agents have demonstrated the power to produce functionally-specified information. If anything, it illustrates the reverse.

In Chapter 14 of my book I describe and critique the RNA world scenario. There I describe five major problems associated with the theory. Sutherland’s work only partially addresses the first and least severe of these difficulties: the problem of generating the constituent building blocks or monomers in plausible pre-biotic conditions. It does not address the more severe problem of explaining how the bases in nucleic acids (either DNA or RNA) acquired their specific information-rich arrangements. In other words, Sutherland’s experiment helps explain the origin of the “letters” in the genetic text, but not their specific arrangement into functional “words” or “sentences.”

Even so, Sutherland’s work lacks pre-biotic plausibility and does so in three ways that actually underscore my argument.

First, Sutherland chose to begin his reaction with only the right-handed isomer of the 3-carbon sugars he needed to initiate his reaction sequence. Why? Because he knew that otherwise the likely result would have had little biologically-significance. Had Sutherland chosen to use a far more plausible racemic mixture of both right and left-handed sugar isomers, his reaction would have generated undesirable mixtures of stereoisomers—mixtures that would seriously complicate any subsequent biologically-relevant polymerization. Thus, he himself solved the so-called chirality problem in origin-of-life chemistry by intelligently selecting a single enantiomer, i.e., only the right-handed sugars that life itself requires. Yet there is no demonstrated source for such non-racemic mixture of sugars in any plausible pre-biotic environment.

Second, the reaction that Sutherland used to produce ribonucleotides involved numerous separate chemical steps. At each intermediate stage in his multi-step reaction sequence, Sutherland himself intervened to purify the chemical by-products of the previous step by removing undesirable side products. In so doing, he prevented—by his own will, intellect and experimental technique—the occurrence of interfering cross-reactions, the scourge of the pre-biotic chemist.

Third, in order to produce the desired chemical product—ribonucleotides—Sutherland followed a very precise “recipe” or procedure in which he carefully selected the reagents and choreographed the order in which they were introduced into the reaction series, just as he also selected which side products to be removed and when. Such recipes, and the actions of chemists who follow them, represent what the late Hungarian physical chemist Michael Polanyi called “profoundly informative intervention[s].” Information is being added to the chemical system as the result of the deliberative actions—the intelligent design—of the chemist himself.

In sum, not only did Sutherland’s experiment not address the more fundamental problem of getting the nucleotide bases to arrange themselves into functionally-specified sequences, the extent to which it did succeed in producing more life-friendly chemical constituents actually illustrates the indispensable role of intelligence in generating such chemistry.

The second experiment that Falk cites to refute my book illustrates this problem even more acutely. This experiment is reported in a scientific paper by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce ostensibly establishing the capacity of RNA to self-replicate, thereby rendering plausible one of the key steps in the RNA world hypothesis. Falk incorrectly intimates that I did not discuss this experiment in my book. In fact, I do on page 537.

In any case, it is Falk who draws exactly the wrong conclusion from this paper. The central problem facing origin-of-life researchers is neither the synthesis of pre-biotic building blocks (which Sutherland’s work addresses) or even the synthesis of a self-replicating RNA molecule (the plausibility of which Joyce and Tracey’s work seeks to establish, albeit unsuccessfully: see below). Instead, the fundamental problem is getting the chemical building blocks to arrange themselves into the large information-bearing molecules (whether DNA or RNA). As I show in Signature in the Cell, even the extremely limited capacity for RNA self-replication that has been demonstrated depends critically on the specificity of the arrangement of nucleotide bases—that is, upon pre-existing sequence-specific information.

The Lincoln and Joyce experiment that Falk describes approvingly does not solve this problem, at least not apart from the intelligence of Lincoln and Joyce. In the first place, the “self-replicating” RNA molecules that they construct are not capable of copying a template of genetic information from free-standing chemical subunits as the polymerase machinery does in actual cells. Instead, in Lincoln and Joyce’s experiment, a pre-synthesized specifically sequenced RNA molecule merely catalyzes the formation of a single chemical bond, thus fusing two other pre-synthesized partial RNA chains. In other words, their version of ‘self-replication’ amounts to nothing more than joining two sequence specific pre-made halves together. More significantly, Lincoln and Joyce themselves intelligently arranged the matching base sequences in these RNA chains. They did the work of replication. They generated the functionally-specific information that made even this limited form of replication possible.

The Lincoln and Joyce experiment actually confirms three related claims that I make in Signature in the Cell. First, it demonstrates that even the capacity for modest partial self-replication in RNA itself depends upon sequence specific (i.e., information-rich) base sequences in these molecules. Second, it shows that even the capacity for partial replication of genetic information in RNA molecules results from the activity of chemists, that is, from the intelligence of the “ribozyme engineers” who design and select the features of these (partial) RNA replicators. Third, pre-biotic simulation experiments themselves confirm what we know from ordinary experience, namely, that intelligent design is the only known means by which functionally specified information arises.

For nearly sixty years origin-of-life researchers have attempted to use pre-biotic simulation experiments to find a plausible pathway by which life might have arisen from simpler non-living chemicals, thereby providing support for chemical evolutionary theory. While these experiments have occasionally yielded interesting insights about the conditions under which certain reactions will or won’t produce the various small molecule constituents of larger bio-macromolecules, they have shed no light on how the information in these larger macromolecules (particularly in DNA and RNA) could have arisen. Nor should this be surprising in light of what we have long known about the chemical structure of DNA and RNA. As I show in Signature in the Cell, the chemical structures of DNA and RNA allow them to store information precisely because chemical affinities between their smaller molecular subunits do not determine the specific arrangements of the bases in the DNA and RNA molecules. Instead, the same type of chemical bond (an N-glycosidic bond) forms between the backbone and each one of the four bases, allowing any one of the bases to attach at any site along the backbone, in turn allowing an innumerable variety of different sequences. This chemical indeterminacy is precisely what permits DNA and RNA to function as information carriers. It also dooms attempts to account for the origin of the information—the precise sequencing of the bases—in these molecules as the result of deterministic chemical interactions.

Nevertheless, for Professor Falk, drawing any negative conclusions about the adequacy of purely undirected chemical processes—or worse—making an inference to intelligent design, is inherently premature. Indeed, for him such thinking constitutes giving up on science or making “an argument from ignorance.” But this betrays a misunderstanding of both science and the basis of the design argument that I am making. Scientific investigations not only tell us what nature does, they also frequently tell us what nature doesn’t do. The conservation laws in thermodynamics, for example, proscribe certain outcomes. The first law tells us that energy is never created or destroyed. The second tells us that the entropy of a closed system will never decrease over time. Moreover, because these laws are based upon our uniform and repeated experience, we have great confidence in them. That is why physicists don’t, for example, still consider research on perpetual motion machines to be worth investigating or funding.

In the same way, we now have a wealth of experience showing that what I call specified or functional information (especially if encoded in digital form) does not arise from purely physical or chemical antecedents. Indeed, the ribozyme engineering and pre-biotic simulation experiments that Professor Falk commends to my attention actually lend additional inductive support to this generalization. On the other hand, we do know of a cause—a type of cause—that has demonstrated the power to produce functionally-specified information. That cause is intelligence or conscious rational deliberation. As the pioneering information theorist Henry Quastler once observed, “the creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” And, of course, he was right. Whenever we find information—whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, written in a book or etched on a magnetic disc—and we trace it back to its source, invariably we come to mind, not merely a material process. Thus, the discovery of functionally specified, digitally encoded information along the spine of DNA, provides compelling positive evidence of the activity of a prior designing intelligence. This conclusion is not based upon what we don’t know. It is based upon what we do know from our uniform experience about the cause and effect structure of the world—specifically, what we know about what does, and does not, have the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

That Professor Falk rejects this knowledge as knowledge, and the case for design based on it, reflects his own commitment to finding a solution to the origin of life problem within a strictly materialistic framework. Indeed, he and his colleagues at BioLogos have made clear that they accept the principle of methodological naturalism, the idea that scientists, to be scientists, must limit themselves to positing only materialistic explanations for all phenomena. Of course, it is their right to accept this intellectual limitation on theorizing if they wish. But it needs to be noted that the principle of methodological naturalism is an arbitrary philosophical assumption, not a principle that can be established or justified by scientific observation itself. Others of us, having long ago seen the pattern in pre-biotic simulation experiments, to say nothing of the clear testimony of thousands of years of human experience, have decided to move on. We see in the information-rich structure of life a clear indicator of intelligent activity and have begun to investigate living systems accordingly. If, by Professor Falk’s definition, that makes us philosophers rather than scientists, then so be it. But I suspect that the shoe is now, instead, firmly on the other foot.

Editor's Note: Darrel Falk will post his response to Dr. Meyer's entry tomorrow. For another discussion of Meyer's book, be sure to visit Jesus Creed. Today they are talking about the RNA world hypothesis.

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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halo - #3666

January 30th 2010

I second Atom: kudos for engaging the debate and asking for Dr Meyer to respond and posting it on your site.

Jesse - #3733

February 1st 2010


What I said is no more a contradiction than the statement, “chocolate chip cookies are not made entirely of chocolate.”

Gregory Arago - #3743

February 1st 2010

The content of the language is not at issue here. CCC’s are artefacts of human-making. So are languages. To suggest absence of mind in their origin/creation is ridiculous. But this is not what you are saying, Jesse.

“The language and grammar probably developed over time with many people contributing, sometimes without even consciously contributing.” - Jesse

Language has of course changed over time. You use the term ‘develop’ and I agree it is a better term than ‘evolution’ in this case.

‘Develop’ implies intentionality and directedness that ‘evolution’ lacks with its focus on ‘random mutations’. ‘Develop’ involves ‘human selection’ and cannot be reduced to merely ‘natural causes.’ ‘Unconscious’ human selection is still selection.

Gradual or rapid change is possible. Eureka - something new!

It seems to me the main point at issue here, is that Meyer is speaking of ‘origins’ of information. The ‘process’ of information/language change is not his key argument.

beaglelady - #3747

February 1st 2010

A word about languages:

Human languages arise and change more or less spontaneously.  The exceptions are the artificial languages such as EsperantoKlingon (yes, Klingon), or Tolkien’s invented languages.  These artificial languages were deliberate invented by people who set out to create a language, with vocabulary, syntax, etc. 

An interesting language that arose spontaneously not long ago is Nicaraguan Sign Language. You can learn more about it here. (This video was taken from the Mind’s Big Bang episode of the PBS evolution series.)

Glen Davidson - #3748

February 1st 2010

The analogy between language evolution and biological evolution that properly deals with scientific methods is that both depend upon known mechanisms and their predicted effects.  As such, they differ substantially in both cause and effect (for instance, lateral transfer is far easier in languages, especially compared with vertebrate genes), yet both depend upon matching up specific causes to specific effects.

ID relies upon “matching up” extremely non-specific causes (intelligence, not even specific to known examples) to extremely non-specific effects.  That’s why they have no entailed predictions, and it is not science.

Glen Davidson

Gregory Arago - #3754

February 1st 2010

Thanks beaglelady, for your examples and the link.

You wrote: “Human languages arise and change more or less spontaneously.”

Do they do this ‘arise and change’ with or without intelligence and mind?

I am not arguing for ‘intelligent design in biology.’ But to say ‘language arose by intelligence’ or as a result of intelligence seems uncontroversial.

In the video, Liam Neeson says the following:

Language: “The turning point that led to the explosion of human creativity.”

Not a ‘gradual’ process, then, but a creative ‘explosion’? A turning point.

“Today, we still don’t know exactly when language evolved; when it opened the door to our phenomenal success as a species.”

Here there is a confusion about ‘origins’. Used like this, the signifier ‘evolution’ means ‘originated.’ It does not refer to a process of change, but rather an origin of something new.

The ‘origins’ of language, as artefacts of human-making, involved mind, intelligence.

beaglelady - #3756

February 1st 2010

Languages arise and change spontaneously, without planning or foresight.  There are certainly influences on the direction language will take, e.g. occupation, migration, enslavement, etc.  Occasionally new words are minted for a purpose such as “pentium”  but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Language did evolve, by using pre-existing structures and finding new uses for them. A gene that among other things helps us speak is FOXP2, which also helps the finches construct their songs.

Gregory Arago - #3765

February 1st 2010

Do you mean by ‘without planning or foresight’ that (human-made) ‘languages arise and change’ without intelligence and mind?

It is a really simple question, beaglelady!

beaglelady - #3778

February 1st 2010

I mean there is no special intervention from God required for natural languages to arise and evolve.  Is God what you mean when you speak of “intelligence and mind”?

Gregory Arago - #3780

February 1st 2010

No, it isn’t what I mean. We were talking about ‘human languages’ (from #3539). Human languages don’t ‘evolve’ because they are artefacts of human-making. I expressed myself on this in #3551, #3558, #3559 and later.

Do you consider ‘human-made languages’ to be the same thing as ‘natural languages’?

If so, I wonder what ‘artificial’ means to you.

I am asking for ‘reasonable’ limitations to be placed on the concept/theory/paradigm ‘evolution,’ beaglelady. Please don’t be antagonistic unless you believe that evolution has no limits in application.

beaglelady - #3797

February 2nd 2010

I really have no idea of what you are talking about. One thing is for sure; you really have a thing about the e-word, don’t you?

Do you see the difference between an artificial, invented language such as Klingon or Esperanto, and a natural language such as Spanish? I mean, did some person, mind or intelligence actually decide one day that “saber” (“to know” in Spanish) would be an irregular verb?

Jim - #3810

February 2nd 2010

Some have claimed we don’t need to jump to supernatural intervention since we have not fully understood methodological naturalism.  Two responses: it’s unlikely we will ever fully understand all of any area in science, and two, the materialists are already proclaiming God dead based on methodological naturalism.  Nietzsche pronounced God as dead and Darwin provided the murder weapon, so they claim.  Many have lost their faith over the belief evolution does not require an intelligent designer, so what does God have to do with our existence?  This is being taught in our science classes as fact, and Meyer’s correctly points out that this fact has not only not been established, but the best evidence available to us today points the opposite way, to an intelligent designer.

Richard J. Van Seters - #3811

February 2nd 2010

One has to read the entire text of Dr. Meyers book “Signature In The Cell” to fully appreciate his argument for Intelligent Design since he book deals with many aspects that are not covered by his response to Falk. I would urge serious, open-minded investigators who really want to tackle this subject intelligently and honestly, to examine the full body of work that Dr. Meyer has diligently researched and articulated presented in a way that both the specialist and non-specialist can grasp and appreciate. If nothing more, you will end up learning a great more than you knew before you first started reading the book. Whether you agree or not, it is MUST reading for those wishing to keep current on the issues it discusses!

Gregory Arago - #3817

February 2nd 2010

Yes, beaglelady, I ‘have a thing’ for the e-word! : ) I find the topic of evolution, along with creation & now in recent years ‘intelligent design’ to be fascinating in the realm of science, philosophy & religion discourse.

Spanish was ‘invented,’ ‘created,’ ‘designed’ or ‘made’ by human beings. In this sense, as an artefact of human-making it is ‘artificial’ & not ‘natural.’ It would be to confuse the levels of discussion to reduce the higher linguistic to biotic or below.

The issue is not about ‘saber’ becoming an irregular verb (perhaps) ‘unintentionally’. The issue is that human beings are by character purposeful & goal-oriented and they/we ‘make’ things by reason. ‘Change’ in human-made things does not make sense in a grand evolutionary paradigm.

To repeat: ‘change’ is the master category, ‘evolution’ is the minor one.

Shall I gather you cannot or will not dare name ‘things that don’t evolve,’ beaglelady? The stigma of the label ‘anti-evolution’ in America nowadays is huge!

Harold Holloway - #4483

February 14th 2010

To Richard #3811
I am still not finished with Steven Meyer’s book but as you have suggested i am much better informed for the effort. I have seen many of the debates he has had with opponents to ID and i am amazed that the same arguments keep coming up….Christianity in a cheap tuxedo.. It isn’t science….who created the creator….science just hasn’t progressed enough to prove the natural source of life…. etc. Steven defiantly has done his homework from what i have seen of his rebuttal. I wonder at his perseverance!
An issue which interests me and i haven’t seen thus far in Dr. Meyer’s book is the idea that a simple organism would naturally evolve into a more complex one. Doesn’t that seem contrary to the natural laws of entropy? For a simple organism to go upstream so to speak you would think it would need some advancing information pumping it.

Wen - #6601

March 12th 2010

Wow, I would just like to say that this is the best (and by that I mean well-informed, informing, and respectful) comment section I think I have ever seen on the internet.  Kudos to biologos for establishing this kind of intellectual culture.

Charlie - #11848

April 30th 2010

Scenario A: Imagine an wooden ‘Bingo’ box, the type that spins, filled with letter tiles. After a few blindfolded revolutions of the box, we stop the spins, and out comes a letter, then another, then another, and the phrase “Origin of Life” is spelled out. 

Scenario B: Same box, but transparent. We spin it, looking at the tiles, stop when we see an ‘O’, nudge it to and fro, reach in and pull out a few letters that are in the way, nudge it again, then the “o” pops out. We repeat this process until “Origin of Life” is spelled out.
I think Meyer is asserting that the Sutherland experiment was closer to Scenario B than A. I doubt that Meyer is implying that no scientific experiment (which is inherently designed) is immediately invalidated simply because there is a designer of the experiment. I think he is saying that if the experiment is supposed to prove that random processes could have been responsible for O of L, then the experiment should simulate some degree of randomness. The fact (if it is indeed a fact) that the results could not have been obtained without ‘nudging’ from a designer suggests that a designer doing some nudging was involved the last time nature got these results those billions of years ago.

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