Signature in the Cell: A Follow-Up
Two weeks ago we posted an overview of “Signature in the Cell,” a book by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. One of the things I said in my assessment of the 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 that final dismissive statement about “cranks” on page 322, was that of Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostak. Joyce is dean of the faculty at one of our nation’s most prestigious research organizations, The Scripps Research Institute. Szostak is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was awarded the Nobel Prize this year.
I sent a copy of my overview to all three of them and asked for a response that I would post on this site. Meyer has not responded. Here are the responses of Joyce and Szostak:
…What you have written is extremely well done, and what you say about RNA is spot-on. It stands on its own without the need for endorsement or commentary from me….
Dear Dr. Falk,
I'm not sure that I can be all that helpful to you. You have already pointed out in your article that considerable progress is being made on the problem of the origin of life. Speaking as a scientist, the origin of life is one of the most interesting questions in all of science. It certainly is a very difficult problem, and that is part of what makes it an attractive challenge to me. There have been incredible technical advances in physics, chemistry and biology in the past decade, and these advances encourage me in my judgment that this highly interesting problem can and will be solved.
The fact is that there are many steps on the pathway from chemistry to life that we do not currently understand. To me, and I suppose to you, these are the steps that are scientific questions to be addressed by the methods of science. To use gaps in our understanding as the basis for or as support for any kind of religious belief is hard for me to understand. As these gaps are gradually filled, the basis of that religious belief disappears. Why would someone base their religious beliefs on such a sandy foundation?
As science advances and our understanding grows, religions must either accommodate the change or enter a phase of denial, as the 'young earth' and anti-evolution ID movements have done. I agree with you that this kind of denial is a dangerous thing; denial of reality is extremely bad for the future of our country (and our world). The fact that large numbers of people take their moral guidance from leaders who are in willful denial of reality is quite frightening. I therefore wish you success in your efforts to fight this pernicious trend in American religion.
However, I suspect I must part company with you in that I believe that science and religion actually are irreconcilable. In my view a scientific world view is one based on continuous questioning and therefore a search for more and better evidence and theories; faith in the unknowable plays no role. I think that belief systems based on faith are inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.
I am especially interested in Dr. Szostak’s final paragraph. He is correct that we part company at this point, which saddens me deeply. I have written before, and I will write again: there are very sound reasons for entering the life of faith. I embarked upon a search for a source of ultimate reality and my personal search was based on evidence, too. The journey of faith is by no means blind, and there many fine scientists who—guided by faith, evidence, and reason—choose to follow the same journey I am on. Scientific pathways and faith journeys need not lead to different locations in life. In fact, I am convinced they point in the very same direction and lead to the very same place. However, that’s another blog for another day.
I also want to cite to two new postings at other sites which are successfully addressing two other perspectives of this issue right now. Dr. Randy Isaac is the Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and a former Vice-President at IBM. The ASA is the leading organization of evangelical scientists in this country. Isaac puts on his “information-scientist hat” to examine Meyer’s statements about the origin of the information content of DNA. Tom Oord, a leading Wesleyan theologian, explores the theological implications of the Intelligent Design movement.
Finally, I would like, once more, to offer Stephen Meyer an opportunity to post a 1000 word response to all of this on our site. He is a Christian brother. I know he means well.
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.