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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?

No.

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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Gordon J. Glover - #1258

December 28th 2009

I’m currently in Chapter 12.  Like Karl, I’m really enjoying the book.  It’s entertaining, very well written, and attempts to address the arguments against ID.  While I too feel that the book falls short of making a scientific case for ID, I can still recommend it to others as the best argument that the ID movement has put forth to date.

I am preparing a chapter-by-chapter video review of SitC to post on my YouTube channel after the new year.  I’ll be dealing specifically with the following topics:

1.)  The argument that there is no such thing as “apparent design”—ie: all design is directed by an intelligent agency.

2.)  That ID is inherently a scientific argument and does not depend on ones’ theistic commitments.

3.)  The “Chicken and the egg” arguement as it applies to DNA and the machinery that accompanies it.

4.)  That ID is “causally sufficient” in and of itself without a material mechanism (efficient cause) to accomplish it.

5.)  Arguements from probability (specifically, how they undercut both the distinctives of the Christian faith and the argument that ID is nonreligious).

http://www.youtube.com/glovergj


beaglelady - #1260

December 28th 2009

This is an excellent review, and it brings to mind Behe’s arguments about the supposed lack of evidence for the evolution of the immune system.  ID is truly a science stopper!  Would you please post this review on Amazon.com?


Darrel Falk - #1265

December 28th 2009

Hi Gordon,

“Enjoyed” is not the word, I would use to describe my experience.  I think maybe I need to go back and rewrite this review

Blessings,
Darrel


Girdon J. Glover - #1266

December 28th 2009

Whops!  Sorry Darrel - For some reason I was thinking Karl wrote the review. 

I found the book difficult to put down.  Meyer is telling a facinating story and he has the ability to keep you on the edge of your seat.

But at the of the day, wishful thinking is no substitute for patience - science can indeed be slow.

GJG


steve martin - #1268

December 28th 2009

Hi Darrel,

Thanks for the thoughtful and respectful critique of Meyer’s book.  That was helpful.  Too often the ID and EC (or TE) debate / dialogue degenerates into little more than hurled insults.  When our Christian relationships are so publicly nasty, non-Christians can hardly find our faith attractive.  I’m consistently impressed with you tone in these matters.  Thanks.

Question: As one who has had a lot of dialogue with ID supporters, do you believe there is reason to be hopeful for an ID / EC rapprochement of sorts?  To me, there seems to be more support for common descent within the IDM.  As well, there seem to be forums of real dialogue rather than just debate.  I’m thinking, for eg., of the Loren Haarsma / Bruce Gordon session at the ASA meeting this year (audio at: http://www.asa3.org/ASAradio/ASA2009Haarsma.mp3) - unfortunately Meyer was supposed to be there but couldn’t because of a family emergency. 

PS: For those on both sides of this dialogue, I highly recommend Haarsma’s Four Myths about ID and TE paper that he based his part of the talk on.


Darrel Falk - #1269

December 28th 2009

Response to Steve Martin:

HI Steve,

Your question is key, of course.  Since the ID movement includes people of each of the three major views of creation (YEC, OE and TE/EC) the discussion boils down to pure science.  Steve Meyer makes the point (quite strongly I think) that theology and philosophy are incidental to the ID movement.  Furthermore, many in the ID movement are not Christians. 

What this means then is that we ought to be able to move the discussion into the purely scientific realm.  It can be a secular discussion.  Leading non-ID scientists talking with leading ID scientists.  I wonder if we could set up something like that and have it availble for all to watch? 

The problem, of course, is that secular scientists are so busy with things they find so much more interesting.  Perhaps, though, if they were assured of a large internet audience., and perhaps, since the ID movement is fooling (strong word, but that’s how I feel) millions of people…they might see significance in engaging the ID scientists for a public forum.

Blessings,
Darrel


John Kwok - #1270

December 28th 2009

Darrel,

I stumbled upon your review by accident, after receiving a tip from someone else who comments often over at Panda’s Thumb. Yours may be the best written and most thoughtful critique of Meyer’s book that I have encountered anywhere online. However, I don’t share your desire that there should be some kind of rapproachment between ID supporters and those who are professional scientists working within the mainstream scientific community

Sincerely,

John

P. S. I have posted a much longer, more extensive reply over at Panda’s Thumb here:

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/12/creationists-sa.html#comment-202376


VMartin - #1271

December 28th 2009

PART1.
I read also the recommended article by Mr. Darrel Falk in SciAm. Darrel wrote in his last sentence:

“Even as he was declaring that no further progress would be made, the problem had been solved.”

I don’t see how it has been solved. In the SciAm we are reading among many far-fetched and unproven hypothesis also this enchanting story:

“A crucial feature of this small, stable molecule is that it is very volatile. Perhaps small amounts of 2-aminooxazole formed together with a mixture of other chemicals in a pond on the early earth; once the water evaporated, the 2-amino­oxazole vaporized, only to condense elsewhere, in a purified form. There it would accumulate as a reservoir of material, ready for further chemical reactions that would form a full sugar and nucleobase attached to each other.

Sorry but these “perhaps” is too unbelievable to be presented as a real science. The whole article in SciAm sounds more like some alchemical speculation. Alchemists tried to make gold from
quicksilber, nowadays mentioned scientists are trying to make living proto-cells from aminoacids, pieces of RNA, enzymes which mysteriously “vaporize” and “condense” in “purified form” !


VMartin - #1273

December 28th 2009

PART2.

Obviously all of experimentalists do not pay any attention to the basic fact, that complex molecules outside living systems tend to break down in accordance with the second thermodynamic law. From this point of view their experiments are condemned to the failure from the very beginning.
It was also opinion of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the father of General System Theory.

Let me use irony: Life is such an epiphenomenon of unliving matter as human memory if epiphenomenon of brain.  Only darwinists like late Gould could belive it.

What we are here witnessing is no doubt the touch of supranatural.

More on Bertalanffy in my blog.


Mark - #1274

December 28th 2009

One senses in this review a sort of passive aggressive indifference towards ID. The perfunctory first paragraph tosses the pitch and the last paragraph proceeds to smash it out of the park.  It is the same signature indifference the careful observer detects in Mr. Collin’s book—although Mr. Collins is notably less implicit.

Even though I am a proponent of Theistic Evolution and consider myself a patron of the BioLogos Foundation, I think Mr. Meyer’s work is a very important contribution to the continuing discussion, and quite frankly it would be nice to see it acknowledged as such.


John Kwok - #1275

December 28th 2009

Darrel,

I might add here too that I endorse beaglelady’s recommendation that this review be posted over at Amazon.com, merely to demonstrate to the Discovery institute and its sychophants that there are thoughtful, devout Christians like yourself who reject Meyer’s claims on both scientific and religious grounds. One aspect of Meyer’s book which you do not really dwell on is whether Intelligent Design can be a credible scientific theory in the sense that it is capable of generating testable hypotheses. I find Meyer’s efforts towards this end, at the very end of his book, to be quite insincere and disingenuous, demonstrating his willful scientific ignorance as to what science can and can’t accomplish. Regrettably, his book merely demonstrates that, contrary to Gordon’s original comment here, it is not the best work that the Intelligent Design movement has produced (a claim that I regard as utterly absurd on the very merits of it, not as a means of criticizing Gordon’s sincerity).

Sincerely yours,

John

P. S. I do address Meyer’s contention that Intelligent Design is a viable scientific theory in my harsh, but accurate, review of “Signature” over at Amazon.


Girdon J. Glover - #1276

December 28th 2009

John, In my opinion, SitC is one of the best literary efforts from the IDM because it takes all of the arguments to date and weaves a narrative out of them.  This type of storytelling makes it very readable. 

In the end, the slick packaging is no substitute for scientific merit, but it does make the book enjoyable.

GJG


Brian - #1281

December 28th 2009

One of the most common criticisms of ID is that it is not scientific because it is not testable. Read the referenced SciAm article and ask yourself which of the following statements (I provided only two because of space restrictions) are scientifically testable—and remember, if its not testable, its not science.  Given this definition, what % of the piece is actual science? 

A couple representative examples: 

“Fortuitous mutations, appearing at random in the copying process, would then propel evolution, enabling these early cells to adapt to their environment, to compete with one another, and eventually to turn into the life-forms we know.”

“As soon as the environment nudged protocells to start reproducing, evolution kicked in. In particular, at some point some of the RNA sequences mutated, becoming ribozymes that sped up the copying of RNA—thus adding a competitive advantage. Eventually ribozymes began to copy RNA without external help.”


John Kwok - #1282

December 28th 2009

Girdon,

Meyer was at his best in discussing some of the history of science related to the discovery of DNA. Otherwise, my eyes began to glaze each and every time I read how “scientific” Intelligent Design is. You’ll have to forgive me, but I would prefer watching a bad “Star Trek” episode or a mediocre “Star Trek” novel than wasting my time any further with Meyer’s “literary” effort (BTW I think Michael Behe’s “The Edge of Evolution” is a better book, but that’s not really saying much from me with regards to either of them, whom I regard as dishonest mendacious intellectual pornographers.).

Sincerely,

John


steve martin - #1284

December 28th 2009

Hi Darrel,

I’d be very interested in how Meyer backs up his claim that “that theology and philosophy are incidental to the ID movement”.  Haarsma makes the point in his paper (which I believe he shared with Meyer prior to the ASA conference) that

“ID, as a whole package, is partly scientific, partly philosophical, and partly religious.”

and then goes on to categorize the various claims.  So contrary to the common claim of many detractors (and I admit I used to be one) that “ID just isn’t science”, I would agree that ID is partly about science & does make some scientific claims (claims that I hasten to add, I am not convinced are backed up by the evidence – at least not yet).


steve martin - #1285

December 28th 2009

(continued from above ...)

But the salient point here is that, just as ID-detractors are not quite right when then say “ID just isn’t science”, I think it is almost self-evident from a practical perspective that “ID is NOT just about science”.  Why else do we have so many apologetics organizations where ID (or maybe “anti-Darwinism”) is a central plank?  And maybe even more to your point that ID spans the entire creationist spectrum (YEC, OEC, EC), how can an organization that is “just about science” disagree on such basic & easily describable scientific facts like the age of the earth and common descent but then agree on such a nebulous (although intuitively understandable) idea like design? 

John K:
The “rapprochement” was suggested by myself, not Darrel.  Maybe it was the wrong word – maybe I should have used “common ground”.  My view is that there is probably some merit for orthodox Christian believers that are EC discussing these issues with orthodox Christian believers who are ID but accept common descent (a part of evolutionary theory that probably has the strongest evidential support)


VMartin - #1286

December 28th 2009

Brian.

I agree. The article in SciAm as very little convincing. I mentioned it in my previous post as well, all those enzymes that “vaporize” and “condense in purified form” . Sounds like alchemy.

I also do not see how there can be any agreement between theology and (neo)darwinism. The fault is not on the side of religion. The whole concept of (neo)darwinism is unproven. The main concept next random mutation - the so called natural selection - has nothing to do with evolution. Natural selection is purely conservative anti-evolutionary force that only maintains status-quo and removes extremities. I have devoted much effort to summarize arguments on my blog about
the role of Natural selection in once beloved child of selectionists: mimicry. Arguments from prominent scientists of the past that are simply ignored.

One should be very prudent in assessing (neo)darwinian concepts like “natural selection” as “scientific”.


Dan - #1287

December 28th 2009

VMartin claims

“Obviously all of experimentalists do not pay any attention to the basic fact, that complex molecules outside living systems tend to break down in accordance with the second thermodynamic law. From this point of view their experiments are condemned to the failure from the very beginning.”

This ancient misconception has long ago been shown to be false.

http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CF/CF001.html

VMartin’s position seems to be that it’s okay for complex molecules to build up inside living systems, but that the second law forces them to break down outside of living systems.  This makes no sense, because the second law holds both inside and outside of living systems.

It is commonplace to see complex, organized systems build up outside of living things: snowflakes, dustbunnies, geyser plumes, dendrites, hurricanes.  It’s been three decades since I studied organic chemistry, but I remember in that class learning how complex, organized molecules were built up outside of living things.


beaglelady - #1288

December 28th 2009

John Kwok,

Greetings!  You can post your entire, original post here (which was very good) by breaking it up and posting it in chunks.


Jordan - #1290

December 28th 2009

@steve martin:

I couldn’t agree with you more. I enjoy reading BioLogos quite a bit but I’ve become quite disappointed by the commentary here and how people (some of whom seem to be Christians) seem to enjoy bashing others about with personal attacks and such rather than providing positive arguments for their positions.

I would have thought the imminent issues here would be the Gospel and showing a good defense of our faith, showing scientists that Christians can think, and importantly showing Christians that it’s OK to think. We don’t need to tear each other down to do that.

As a scientist I’ve been taught that I don’t need to tear down the work of others, rather I need to show my results, my interpretation, my evidence, and let the reader decide. I think that can be a good strategy in general. Sure you can compare and contrast, point out strengths and weaknesses of various theories and hypotheses, but do we really need to constantly bash each other?


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