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 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.

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RJS - #1291

December 28th 2009

Jordan,

Beautifully said - the imminent issues are the gospel and a fair approach to the issues.  We don’t need to tear each other down to do that. Not only that but the approach that tears down and ridicules convinces no one and helps no one move ahead.


DKDK - #1292

December 29th 2009

Jordan - (#1290) said:

“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.”

Curious that you argue in defense of your faith, whereas this review (Falk’s) is whether or not Meyer’s books is really about science, philosophy, or religion.  Your intent, then, is to strip all pretences of science from Meyer’s book and declare it in support of your religion (which is it’s actual intent btw, it just masquerades as science).  Meyer is no scientist, he is merely trying to redefine (round) science to accommodate in his (square) ID “theory.”


Jordan - #1293

December 29th 2009

@DKDK:

You misunderstand what I was saying. Nowhere did I say anything about Meyer’s book (which I guess is not in keeping with the BioLogos comment policy but I’ll endeavor to make up for it) but was rather commenting on the larger issue of how the discussions are going on this blog. I didn’t say I was a proponent of ID either and I wasn’t making a defense of my faith so I’m not sure where you are coming from.

I didn’t take Darrel’s review to be, as you say, whether or not Meyer’s book is really about science, philosophy, or religion. His main critique, as I read it, was that Meyer’s science is not very robust because he makes scientific predictions that are then later shown to be weak or perhaps even plain untrue. Additionally, I think Falk is suggesting that since Meyer and other ID people indicate that ID should be judged on it’s scientific merits alone, this constitutes a significant blow to ID.

(cont.)


Jordan - #1294

December 29th 2009

@DKDK:

(cont.)

Because “we” (BioLogos, Meyer, Dawkins, most people commenting on this blog, etc.) are looking at the intersection, interface, and/or interaction of faith and science, I don’t really see why we’d want to strip all religious implications from science or all scientific implications from religion. It’s precisely where they meet and interact that all the “good stuff” happens. So I don’t know what exactly you thought my intent was, but I don’t think it’s what you think it is.


Richard - #1295

December 29th 2009

The review nicely points out how Meyer and ilk merely keep trying to bite at the ankles of real scientists (and failing miserably) in order to keep proffering their preconceived ideological, religiously motivated, political dogma. It’s anti-science masquerading as science.

It’s certainly classy that one religiously motivated organization has the guts to debunk the nonsense of another, instead of leaving it up to “the usual suspects”.


John Kwok - #1296

December 29th 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


John Kwok - #1297

December 29th 2009

First, Intelligent Design isn’t valid science, period. While I understand and appreciate philosopher Philip Kitcher’s observation that Intelligent Design is “dead science” - merely since it was once an important philosophical construct that guided scientific research from the 16th through 18th centuries - it was rejected a long time ago by science. That Meyer and his Discovery Institute “colleagues” insistance that it deserves a place at the scientific “round table” is not one borne of sincerity, but instead, out of duplicity, which they have demonstrated countlessly ever since Intelligent Design was proclaimed by Philip Johnson and William Dembski, among others, to be an important “challenge” to evolution; a challenge that has no merit whatsoever simply because Dembski, Meyer et al. have refused to subject it to scientific peer review or even try to do any scientific research that could demonstrate that Intelligent Design is valid science.


Steve Cherry - #1302

December 29th 2009

Mr Kwok - Thank you for the amusing diatribe.  You and beaglelady should take a cruise or something…really get to know the sound of your voices.  I was scanning here to see if anyone had actually read, and had some useful comments on SitC.  Sadly, it appears the most prolific commenters have run amock and forgot to mention in detail (hopefully a page, a paragraph from SitC—something) whether they agree with Mr Falk or no?

Mr Kwok?  Page and paragraph, please.


VMartin - #1303

December 29th 2009

Dan.

Just see the development of the embryo from zygote. Obviously the energy that flow
into the embryo is channeled into structures that are mostly improbable from
the second law. Considering the Earth for “Open system” is only avoiding and distracting
reasoning. That sunlight is radiated from the Earth (btw. isn’t light also radiation?) doesn’t
mean that life is obeying the law of entropy.

Let me rewrite darwinian newspeak from the talk-origin. Original:

“the earth is not a closed system; sunlight (with low entropy) shines on it and heat (with higher entropy) radiates off. This flow of energy, and the change in entropy that accompanies it, can and will power local decreases in entropy on earth.”

rewritten:

“the moon is not a closed system; radiation from the sun (with low entropy) radiates on it and heat (with higher entropy) shines off. This flow of energy, and the change in entropy that accompanies it, can and will power local decreases in entropy on moon.”


nd - #1306

December 29th 2009

VMartin,

You are completely correct about the Moon. Because of the temperature difference between the Sun and the rest of the sky, the Moon is not in thermodynamic equilibrium. One sign of this is that different parts of it are at different temperatures. Maybe there are other signs too - I don’t know. However, although life requires a departure from equilibrium, a departure from equilibrium does not mean life. You seem to be arguing that the lack of life on the Moon (to the best of our current knowledge) means ... well, I’m not sure what, but something negative for conventional science. This is simply not true.

I’m writing as a physicist. Of course living systems obey the second law - no law of physics excludes living or intelligent systems! “No process is possible whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a colder to a warmer body”, or “No process is possible whose sole result is the complete conversion of heat into work” are two (equivalent) statements of the second law. There is no reference to living systems here, and neither can I (as a living system) see any way in which I could violate either. Can you?


Darrel Falk - #1307

December 29th 2009

Hi Everyone:

The comments are flowing quite freely and in many ways that is healthy.  However, I think it is important that we not let this evolve into personal attacks, or even judgments.  As a scientist, my read of “Signature of the Cell,” is that it has declared the science of early life to be bankrupt.  The book is clearly and articulately written.  My colleague Gordon Glover is correct—this is a thoroughly engaging book.  With the possible exception of Michael Behe’s two books (which are also engagingly incorrect) never have the arguments been laid out more succinctly.  Dr. Meyer says with near certainty that the science has now reached a dead end and since there is nothing else left, he says, the only other possibility is that there is a mind behind the code of life.

So there is one simple question to be addressed.  Is the science at a dead end?  Has Dr. Meyer demonstrated this or not?

Dr. Meyer has chosen to take this question to a general audience, but it is purely a scientific question.  I have asked Dr. Meyer to respond with an answer on our site.  We’ll see if he does.  I also have a response from the Nobel laureate, Jack Szostak, which I will post soon.  I expect responses from other scientists as well.


Darrel Falk - #1308

December 29th 2009

Cont.
A couple of commenters have read Dr. Szostak’s Scientific American article.  That is a wonderful start.  They have declared, however, that Dr. Szostak’s work is not testable and thereby is not scientific.  It is important to emphasize that an article in Scientific American is not where the science is done; this is where the science is summarized.  To know whether it is science, one needs to go back to the original articles themselves.  Let me assure you, please trust me, the science is still proceeding and some of the best minds on the planet are working on this problem.  It is a fascinating scientific problem; they are thoroughly engaged.

Some commenters have become personal.  Nothing is to be gained by this.  I have said it before and I will say it again, my experience is that these people are sincere.  They make mistakes like we all do.  However, I find I love these people, even though I have deep concerns about the quality of their science.  Please try your best not question their integrity.  If you were to sit down with each of them over coffee, you would find they are not out to deceive.


Darrel Falk - #1309

December 29th 2009

Cont. even further

All of that, however, is beside the point.  We can just focus on the science.  Dr. Meyer makes a simple proposition.  Is he right or is he wrong?  It is my opinion that he has been so engagingly clear, everyone with a four year degree in biology should be able to see that there is no dead end.  Those of you don’t have such a degree will just have to trust the rest of us; the science is not dead. 

We who believe in a Mind that is above all and through all still have very good reasons to believe.  We need not base our belief on what happens in culture dishes and test tubes.  I have written in other places why I choose to believe.  My reasons are very strong and yours can be too.  We can still kneel in reverence and awe as we read John 1 and as reflect on the majesty of the Creator.  We can wait with “baited breath” as truly great scientists like Jack Szostak, Gerald Joyce and Mike Lynch work through the details of how the creation command came to be realized.  But in the famous words of one my great boyhood heroes, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”


Darrel Falk - #1310

December 29th 2009

continuation #4 (whose idea was this to limit the number of characters anyway?)

The last twenty years of biology have been characterized by the filling in of one gap in our knowledge after another.  Meyer has focused on the biggest gap of all and declared that no one will fill in this one!  In the words of that same boyhood hero “this feels like déjà vu all over again.”  Trust me.  It ain’t over.

Blessings,
Darrel


cist - #1311

December 29th 2009

As an ID proponent I believe Stephen Meyers main argument for DNA and information is weak compared to mine.

Taking this from a background in computer engineering standpoint, I argue that DNA could not have evolved because of the fact its a base 4 system. Lets ask a few questions, why was the binary system based off Boolean logic principles implemented as the sole building blocks of digital circuits? The answer to this question is that a base 2 system is the minimal you need to go from simple to complex, using 1 and 0 representations of electrical signals. Occams Razor tells us that the simplest explanation is the best one. The simplest explanation one can say for DNA base 4 system is that it arose from a base 2 system. The problem with this is that you cannot evolve base systems, as in go from one base system to another. It doesn’t work like that, in fact, you would have to completely re-engineer all of computer hardware and software to upscale to a base 4 system, requiring an extraordinary leap of effort to reproduce the same effects of a base 2. The underlying problem here is that a base 4 system was chosen from the preset. Intelligent Design was required from the preset based on the fact it defies and overrides Occams Razor.


VMartin - #1312

December 29th 2009

Professor Darrel Falk.

If something is at the end can be a matter of discussion. I hope no one doubts that Mendelejev Periodic Table is closed and no one will ever find another element between H and Fe. No one will
ever find a new prime number less than 1 million.

According Robert Broom - and Huxley seemed to agree with him - the potentiality of evolution is over. Or in other words - evolution is finished. This point is elucidated in the work by professor John Davison, who informed on his blog that he cannot participate here anymore btw. 

Great scientists and scholars are not immune towards “Zeitgeist”. Many brilliant minds of the past like Newton, Kopernik, Bruno devoted lot of their energy to astrology and alchemy and art of memory. So if someone is trying nowadays so to say to create a homunkulus in a reagent tube
he may be a scientist par excellence nevertheless.


RJS - #1313

December 29th 2009

VMartin,

No one will find a new element between H and Fe because we have defined elements by the number of protons and these come in integer units.  To compare this kind of “end” to the end of discussion of a complex theory such as evolution is misleading (the same for prime numbers—1 million integers is a finite testable set).

Evolution is not finished - as a process, or as a scientific theory.  There are many questions remaining all of which need creative thinking to solve the puzzles.  Even quantum theory and the interaction of light with matter (my area of research and interest) is not at an end - there are (many) puzzles and questions remaining to be answered.  This is why it science is fun.

Darrel, a character limit is wise - but this is too few.


VMartin - #1314

December 29th 2009

nd - #1306

I hope no one will claim that the Earth is an open system, but the moon is a close system. So the
arguments on talkorigin are of no value.

On the other hand I can theoretically live on water and bread. I do not doubt that I am an open system but I doubt that the entropy of bread I am eating is greatwer than the entropy of me. Also I can eat bread that is colder than me, but my temperature will be still greater than bread I am eating. In a way I am a sofisticated device that take energy from cooler matter. If there are any such examples of homeostatic natural devices outside from living organisms let me know. 


cist - #1311

You might be right but numbers on IBM Mainframes are held and processed in HEX representation. Its quicker than in bites.  In this case information is held in 4 bites as a whole.


Dan - #1315

December 29th 2009

In my thirty years as a scientist I have seen branches of science blossom and I have seen branches of science shrink, but I have never seen a branch of science die.

VMartin points out that we will never find a new element between H and Fe.  True.  But we have recently found new arrangements such as neutron-rich nuclei of He and Li.

If, as VMartin claims, “evolution is finished,” then there’s no need for any new flu vaccines, and swine flu cannot infect humans.

VMartin has already demonstrated that he doesn’t understand elementary thermodynamics.  Now he demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the very character of science.


VMartin - #1316

December 29th 2009

Abusive and arrogant presentation of flawed opinions doesn’t make look them more plausible.

Elents are defined by number of protons.Different numbers of neutrons define isotopes - every student of secondary school should know it.

Almost all mammalian order have arisen in Eocene and are clearly defined there by paleontology. Practically no new mamallian order has arisen last 30 mil. years.  Those who claim that evolution
is still in progress like in the distant past had better study a little more.


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