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Signature in the Cell

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December 28, 2009 Tags: Design

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

Signature in the Cell

I believe there is a Mind who was before all things and through whom all things are held together (Colossians 1:17): I believe that Mind is the intelligence behind all that exists in the universe. Hence, I believe in intelligent design. Does that by definition then, place me in the Intelligent Design (ID) movement?


The recent book, Signature in the Cell , by ID movement leader Stephen C. Meyer, illustrates why.

Meyer holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Cambridge and is an expert in the philosophy of science. Admittedly, I am only an amateur in his area of expertise, but there were times as I was reading his book, when I was enthralled by the highly articulate explanation of how the tools of scientific logic enable us to become quite certain about the cause of natural events in the distant past. Similarly, his discussion of attempts to meaningfully define science was outstanding. He showed how the term has taken on new meaning based on practice. Today, as it is carried out by almost all practitioners, science has become synonymous with methodological naturalism. Meyer may have been overly optimistic when he wrote, “recently however, this [definition] has begun to change as more scientists are becoming interested in the evidence for intelligent design” (p. 437). Still, I enjoyed his discussion of the political and philosophical maneuvers of those with a vested interest in how this term ought to be defined. This is Stephen Meyer at his best. He is very effective in communicating philosophical issues to a general audience. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that a world-class philosopher, Thomas Nagel of New York University, recommended Signature in the Cell to The Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2009.

It is important to emphasize, however, that the Intelligent Design movement is not purported to be philosophical or religious in nature. The leaders, including Stephen Meyer, emphatically declare this is a scientific movement and it needs to be judged on the quality of its science, not its philosophy or theology. So Meyer has expanded his extensive reading list to include numerous journal articles and books within the field of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics. His purpose has been to assess the quality of the scientific interpretations of the data as it relates to the origin of the information inside of cells. He has reached the conclusion that the sciences of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics have come to a dead end and that the only reasonable scientific explanation now is that the information inside of a cell is the product of an external mind.

Many scientists think that as life began, its source of information was found in RNA molecules. There are specialized reasons for this, which are not germane to the point I want to make. Suffice it to say, however, that Meyer suggests that the two different conditions for making two of the key building blocks that characterize an RNA molecule are incompatible (p. 303). In other words, the conditions under which one building block could have been synthesized on the early earth would have resulted in the destruction of the second building block, and vice versa. Since there is no way that both could have been produced simultaneously on a primitive earth, Meyer declares that RNA could not arise without the input of a mind. As he was writing these words, however, some elegant experiments were taking place at the University of Manchester that showed there is a way, a very feasible way that both building blocks could have been produced through natural processes.1

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” (p. 322). As a geneticist, I am taken aback by this assessment. The work he had just been discussing is the work of Jack Szostak who was awarded the Nobel Prize a few weeks ago. I’ve heard Dr Szostak speak a number of times. He is no crank. He is widely regarded as a brilliant mind. Read his Scientific American article for yourself (seefootnote, below), you’ll see he is also very frank about the strengths and weaknesses of his current thoughts about life’s origins. Also, his work is by no means at a standstill. Only a philosopher, I suppose, or someone else quite naïve about how science proceeds at a lab bench would be able to make such an assessment.

Immediately prior to Meyer’s assessment about cranks in the field of origin-of-life-research, he had also been discussing the work of Gerald Joyce of The Scripps Research Institute. I have also been privileged to hear Dr. Joyce speak on at least three occasions. He, like Szostak, is widely regarded by biochemists and molecular biologists as brilliant. Like Szostak, I find that his discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the RNA world model is cautious. He knows there are many unanswered questions, but he has made great strides at answering some of them. At the time of writing Signature of the Cell, Dr. Meyer correctly concluded that no RNA molecule had ever been evolved in a test tube which could do more than join two building blocks together. However, while the book was in press, Gerald Joyce and Tracey Lincoln published an article in Science in which they demonstrated that evolved-RNA can take on a second function, the all-important replication activity. In just 30 hours their collection of RNA molecules had grown 100 million times bigger through a replication process carried out exclusively by evolved RNA molecules. So another dead-end pronouncement by Meyer was breached even while the book was in press.

I want to give one more example which demonstrates Meyer’s disappointing tendency to reach premature conclusions based on his unsuccessful attempt to move from philosophy into genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology. Dr. Meyer evaluates the work of the population geneticist, Michael Lynch of Indiana University. He points out the Lynch has proposed that “the structure of the genome can be explained by a neutralist theory of evolution based mainly on genetic drift” (p. 470). Meyer concludes in just a sentence or two that Lynch is wrong and that genetic drift is less likely than natural selection. Again, I am very puzzled by this conclusion in what is purported to be a science book which is examining scientific data. Lynch is one of the finest population geneticists in the world. What experiment or calculation has Stephen Meyer done to put himself in a position to tell Michael Lynch which of two possible scenarios is more likely? Yet he does this in a single sentence.

Signature in the Cell is by most accounts considered to be a highly successful book. From a philosophy perspective, it is considered by at least one leading philosopher to be one of the best books of 2009. From a religious perspective, Meyer, on the basis of this book, has just been declared “Daniel of the Year” by the widely read evangelical periodical World Magazine. From the public persona perspective it has sold very well—Amazon.com had it on one of its top ten lists for the 2009 best sellers.

However, the book is supposed to be a science book and the ID movement is purported to be primarily a scientific movement—not primarily a philosophical, religious, or even popular movement. Meyer argues throughout the book that his theory about the origin of information is scientific, not religious. He makes it clear that he wants it to be considered on its scientific merits alone. I am comfortable with this. Let it be evaluated on the basis of its science. Like him, I believe in intelligent design. However, I am also a scientist. So I need to evaluate this book in the way that he calls all of us to do, as a work of science. I must consider whether this philosopher, this Christian brother, this best-selling author, and this leading debater has been successful at analyzing the data of the world’s leading scientists—people who have given their careers full time for many years to asking (and answering) very sophisticated questions about whether material causes have created information.

There is no question that large amounts information have been created by materialistic forces over the past several hundred million years. Meyer dismisses this without discussing it. What about at the very beginning, 3.5 billion years ago? Everyone doing the science, Meyer notwithstanding, would say the jury is still out. There are some very elegant feasibility experiments going on at the present time. However, it is far too early for a philosopher to jump into the fray and declare no further progress will be made and that this science is now dead. If the object of the book is to show that the Intelligent Design movement is a scientific movement, it has not succeeded. In fact, what it has succeeded in showing is that it is a popular movement grounded primarily in the hopes and dreams of those in philosophy, in religion, and especially those in the general public. With all due respect for the very fine people associated with the ID movement, many of whom I have met personally and whose sincerity I greatly appreciate, our hopes and dreams need to be much bigger than this. The science of origins is not the failure it is purported to be. It is just science moving along as science does—one step at a time. Let it be.

1. See this Scientific American article for an outstanding description of this and other recent developments, which show that what Stephen Meyer declared to be a dead end is still an extremely active and exciting area of scientific research. Even as he was declaring that no further progress would be made, the problem had been solved.

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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cist - #2151

January 9th 2010

“You seem to have a problem with reading comprehension. It is Kitcher, not yours truly, who has acknowledged that while Intelligent Design was important from the 16th through 18th Centuries in influencing some then groundbreaking scientific research, it ceased its usefulness around the time William Paley wrote his grand exposition supporting it (which, I might add, was an early intellectual influence on the young Charles Darwin prior to the HMS Beagle voyage).”

How much did William Paley and Charles Darwin know about cellular automata? Not much Kwok. Paleys watch idea was false in his day, but true in ours.

cist - #2152

January 9th 2010

” ...ot yet solved.  What has ID got to show for itself in the way of scientific knowledge and understanding?  Nada.”

Once again, will appending “supernaturalism” to ID expose its true roots or pull it up by its boot straps into creationism state, where we begin by reading genesis 1:1? Scientists are reverse engineers by definition. Engineers borrow bits and pieces of this knowledge and put it back into a state of usefulness, rendering a feedback effect. The primary question to ask is have scientists reverse engineered evolution and all its counterparts? If you were trying to explain how a skyscraper came into being would you not start by investigating how it works by examining all the little details before you assumed how it unfolded? Darwin, for example, seemed to have started with how these skyscrapers unfolded, and while up till not too long ago we have started investigating how it all works. This is the flawed approach with evolutionary biologists that distinguish them from many other scientific disciplines, especially the engineering side.

cist - #2185

January 10th 2010

“As for the Pandas Thumb it is rare for someone to be totally banned from the site. If someone is vile and keeps hijacking threads he is usually confined to the “Bathroom Wall.” “

I’m not sure of this “Pandas Thumb”, there seems to be a lack of science there.

John Kwok - #2391

January 12th 2010

@ Pastor Burnett -

I am a Deist and a registered Republican who regards himself as a Conservative with very pronounced Libertarian biases. I am not a fan of Harris and Dawkins’s “evangelizing” on behalf of New Atheism. But I agree with their harsh condemnation of creationism - including Intelligent Design - and, in fact, have observed that all forms of creationism should be viewed as mendacious intelellectual pornography.

Respectfully yours,

John Kwok

John Kwok - #2450

January 12th 2010

@ Pastor Burnett -

As a man of the “cloth”, how can you defend the acts of fellow “Christians” who believe that it is well within their right to lie, to cheat, to steal, and to deceive otherwise, so long as it is done in the name of Christ ( which, sadly, is what we see all too often from the Discovery Institute and other creationists). Shouldn’t this disturb your conscience? While I am not a Christian, I am a Deist, and such acts do disturb mine.

Respectfully yours,

John Kwok

P. S. Webmaster - if this comment is deleted, it will be so noted and reported over at Panda’s Thumb. Do I make myself perfectly clear?

Dave Wisker - #2715

January 15th 2010

Dr Falk,

I greatly enjoyed your review. I also share your dismay at Meyer’s dismissal of Micheal Lynch’s work, with which I am very familiar. One of the most irritating features of the IDM, for me, is this tendency to disparage or downplay the work of first-class scientists like Lynch, without, as you pointed out, not even offering up one paper or study to refute it.

As a graduate student in Molecular Ecology, antics like that make me seethe, because laypeople and biology students just starting out are often swayed by them, and it falls on us to spend precious class and seminar exposing their scienbtific bankruptcy.

Jim - #3685

January 30th 2010

I don’t believe Meyer’s ever says science is at a dead end on any point.  He says the best inference from the facts as we understand them today point to a certain direction.  It seems like the materialists such as Richard Dawkins are guilty of saying the science has already proven beyond discussion something that it has clearly not.

AJF - #6221

March 8th 2010

“There is no question that large amounts information have been created by materialistic forces over the past several hundred million years.”

Excuse me, what kind of information?  The specified variety detailed in SITC?  Please provide empirical evidence of specified information (as defined in SITC) created by materialistic forces in the last billion years.

You criticize Meyer for dismissing Michael Lynch in one sentence (which is not true actually, I checked, and you mischaracterized his comments on Lynch), yet you dismiss 500 pages of argument articulating the case for “specified information” in one sentence.  That’s the cornerstone of the entire book!

Sorry, not so easy.  You’ll have to do better than that.

Ide Trotter, Ph.D., RIA - #12204

May 3rd 2010

I find myself in substantial agreement with AJF but would like to add this thought to the discussion.  Faulk dismisses the discussion of the origin of information rather abruptly it seems me when he says, “Many scientists think that as life began, its source of information was found in RNA molecules. There are specialized reasons for this, which are not germane to the point I want to make. ”

I find this statement most surprising. If the point Faulk seeks to make is that Meyer’s arguments are not well founded it would appear that the source of the first specified information is not just germane but is actually central to any discussion of the merits of Meyer’s fundamental argument.

I’ve made attempts to get this issue clearly addressed elsewhere both on BioLogos and on ASA blogs to no effect so far.  I’m not prepared to argue that there will be eventual agreement that the information source problem will drive naturalism from it’s central position in science quite yet.  But what I would like to see more clearly and convincingly explained is why some otherwise very rational minds are prepared to dismiss the issue so cavalierly.

Ide Trotter, Ph.D., RIA - #12205

May 3rd 2010

Further to the above. 

I don’t see origin as a TE/EC vs. ID issue at all.  To my way of thinking TE/EC considerations don’t come into play until after the first replicator is somehow established.  However this is not to say that information source questions do not come into play as the TE/EC mechanism, whatever it may be, progresses to higher levels of complexity. Therein may lie the resolution of the question I can’t get out of my head. On what a priori basis can one differentiate between common descent and common design?”

Charles Austerberry - #15644

May 30th 2010

Ide, perhaps one example that might be helpful in differentiating between common descent and common design would be human chromosome #2 compared to chromosomes in great apes.  Francis Collins and others have told that story in various books and articles. Certainly one could hold (not on a scientific basis, but from a faith perspective) that the fusion which created human chromosome #2 was designed. In any case, the human chromosome #2 structure provides powerful evidence for common ancestry, regardless of whether one views the history of human evolution to have been designed or not.



Bogz - #22377

July 19th 2010

Kwok, you claim to be a deist. Tell me on what basis do you opt for deism? 1) Because classic theism [orthodox Christianity] is indefensible? Have you carefully weighed the historical, and philosophical-theological evidence advanced by the best apolgists on the issue? (e.g. NT Wright, WL Craig, Os Guinness etc) If not then why are you so sure that it’s just a bunch of lies (i get this “feeling” from your comments)? ( 2) Or are you a deist because it’s the “safest” (cowardly!) position? You know for a fact that pure naturalism is completely bankrupt to answer the questions of the origin of the cosmos and abiogenesis so you don’t call yourself an atheist to escape the responsibility of having to explain both (an impossibility!) on the grounds of materialism. It’s a convenient excuse. Yet you side with the “new atheists” in their wrongheaded agenda to rid the world of all this stupid superstition (deism included). You seem to want your cake and eat it too. Practical atheism is an indefensible position when discussing such matters. C’mmon Kwok show us your true colors.

Blake - #23856

July 29th 2010

You: “However, while the book was in press, Gerald Joyce and Tracey Lincoln published an article [...] So another dead-end pronouncement by Meyer was breached even while the book was in press.”

Meyers (in the book!, p.537): Lincoln and Joyce claim to have produced a fully self-replicating RNA molecule. [...] their claim [...] constitutes little more than a gimmick. True template-directed polymerases can copy any template using free-floating bases from their surroundings. Polymerases do the work of copying a template by sequestering, aligning, and linking bases on a template strand. For a polymerase to function as a true replicase, it would likewise have to do the work of replicating a template, in this case the template provided by itself. The RNA molecules that Lincoln and Joyce devise do not [...]. Instead, they simply joined together via a single bond two presynthesized, specifically sequenced RNA chains to form a longer chain. After the formation of a single phosphate bond, these linked chains resulted in a copy of the original RNA molecule, but only because Lincoln and Joyce first designed the original RNA molecule and then directed the synthesis of two specifically sequenced, complementary partial strands to match it.

Glenda Smith - #25482

August 12th 2010

You know, God did not intend to be found out, or discovered, or prooved.  Therefore, science, so-called, will continue to come to dead ends and the one step at a time approach will end in a final step of faith or step into the abyss of time and eternity never knowing what they belived or why.

Richard Ball - #36021

October 23rd 2010

We should probably pray for John Kwok and his apparent obsession with pornography.

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