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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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KBryan - #1363

December 29th 2009

@Dan: “I see that VMartin holds many misconceptions about thermodynamics.  I recommend Jearl Walker’s “Fundamentals of Physics”.  This is the text I use when teaching introductory thermodynamics.”

I always recommend _Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat_. It’s a fantastic popular level introduction to Thermodynamics, light on the math. It places special emphasis on the second law.

http://www.amazon.com/Warmth-Disperses-Time-Passes-Paperbacks/dp/0375753729


Steve Cherry - #1364

December 29th 2009

Might I suggest a keyword filter for this site which limits a user to one or two max uses of the word “mendacious” ?  From the intensity of the name calling, I think I must buy this book and see what all the hubbub is over.

I do seem to detect quite a strong theme in this review which attempts to paint Mr Meyer as nothing more than a “philosopher.”

Is there any chance that we in San Diego might get to see a really good live (and civil) exchange between Mr Falk and Mr Meyer?  Or, maybe even Mr Dembski?


Steve Cherry - #1365

December 29th 2009

Mr Falk, you have also suggested in the past that men such as Meyer and Behe and Dembski are “bordering on the heretical” for promoting irreducible complexity.  Is there any chance you might be engaged live at PLNU to talk about these claims?  (hopefully w/out mention of the word “mendacious”).  Also - Mr Falk, thank you very much for your kind discourse and calls for polite discussion - it is refreshing.

http://preview.tinyurl.com/y9nyuzo  From the article:

“However, the notion that irreducibly complex structures are built and put in place by a meticulous detail-driven intelligent designer is not consistent with Christian theology and should not have been embraced by Christians. With all due respect to my friends who hold this view, I would venture to say it borders on the heretical—certainly it is scientifically heretical, but I wonder if it is not theologically so as well.”


Dan - #1367

December 30th 2009

KBryan said

“@Dan: “I see that VMartin holds many misconceptions about thermodynamics.  I recommend Jearl Walker’s “Fundamentals of Physics”.  This is the text I use when teaching introductory thermodynamics.”

I always recommend _Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat_. It’s a fantastic popular level introduction to Thermodynamics, light on the math. It places special emphasis on the second law.”

Thanks!  I’ll have a look at it.  I always admire those who take on the very tough task of teaching a technical subject, like thermodynamics, without using the technical tools, like calculus, that were used to discover it.

In this regard I wish to disrecommend Peter Atkins’s book “The Second Law”.  Atkins makes a number of subtle errors.


DKDK - #1378

December 30th 2009

cist - #1311 (December 29th 2009) said:

“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. “

What is the requirement that a base 4 system be used?  That DNA happens to use 4 nucleotides is not evidence of any intelligent design.  Six could just as well have been used, or eight, unique nucleotides, assuming each had to be paired.  Two might not have given great diversity, but starting with two, two others could just as well have evolved as mutations from the first two, thus your base 2 evolving into a base 4.  Nonetheless, there is no requirement that only 4 nucleotides define a DNA molecule.

Indeed, the whole argument of DNA corresponding to a computer program is nonsense, unless one considers that every program written has flaws in it, just like every DNA molecule, pointing to the fact that the “Great Designer” was not very good to begin with.


VMartin - #1380

December 30th 2009

Whatever you say, the basic fact is this one - living organisms keep themselves in a highly
improbable state despite of all irreversible processes which take place in them.

And in evolution organisms evolve to even higher unprobable states towards greater differentiation and greater organization of matter.

Those facts means only one for me - the law of entropy desn’t help understand the process at all.
I didn’t say it is thermodynamicaly impossible as such.


Mike from Ottawa - #1382

December 30th 2009

“... they might see significance in engaging the ID scientists for a public forum.”

You took issue with Meyer’s characterization of origins researchers as cranks.  You pointed out how Meyer repeatedly says things are at a dead end even as significant advances were being made in moving beyond that supposed dead end.

While ID proponents have been claiming for 200 years (vide Paley) that various things can’t have arisen naturally, scientists basing their work in methodological naturalism have made huge strides in actually figuring out how organisms have evolved and recently in figuring out how life itself may have arisin (despite the difficulty of working on an event 3,500,000,000 years ago.  The ID proponents on the other hand have busied themselves with things like the vile and mendacious ‘Expelled’.

As you yourself pointed out of Meyer’s book “If the object of the book is to show that the Intelligent Design movement is a scientific movement, it has not succeeded.” and yet its proponents laud the book as the best the ID movement has.

With all the above in mind, why would scientists see significance in engaging “ID scientists” in a public forum?


cist - #1387

December 30th 2009

DKDK:

“your base 2 evolving into a base 4.”

Here you don’t know what you are talking about, Biologists don’t seem to understand the engineering requirements. Simple fact is you can’t evolve bases.

“Indeed, the whole argument of DNA corresponding to a computer program is nonsense”

DNA does not correspond to a computer program, it corresponds to the hardware running the program.

Fail.


John Kwok - #1396

December 30th 2009

@ Mike from Ottawa -

Thanks for chiming in. I know several prominent critics of Intelligent Design creationism who think it’s a waste of time trying to “discuss” issues with so-called ID “scientists”. I concur. It is absolutely pointless to discuss anything with those who seek only to respond to their critics by means most foul and reprehensible, and who have never demonstrated any willingness to subject their ideas to rigorous scientific examinations via their own well-established research programs and to subject the results of such research to rigorous scientific peer review. Instead we see countless instances of deceit, ranging from blatant lies to bearing false witness against their critics, and even outright theft. Dialogue with the likes of these? What an absurd notion indeed.


Lutheran - #1397

December 30th 2009

John Kwak wrote:

“Given the most un-Christian behavior exhibited by Meyer and his colleagues, do you still think that one should seek any reasonable dialogue with Intelligent Design advocates (most of whom are Fundamentalist Protestant “Christians”.)? I sincerely hope that you will agree with me that the answer must be most certainly, “No!”.”

Ad hominem arguments are not my favourite. Especially, when someone is arguing, that because someone (Dembski) has done something, one should seek any reasonable dialogue with Meyer (another person). And calling protestants “Christians” (in quotes) is ... hmm.. something I don’t favor.

I enjoid mostly Falk’s review. The point about Joyce was something I didn’t understand.  If Meyer concluded that no RNA molecule had ever been evolved in a test tube, and then Joyce and Lincoln have produced cross-replicating RNA enzymes (which is far from producing RNA molecule), what followes then?


Dan - #1408

December 30th 2009

VMartin says “Those facts [of evolution] means only one for me - the law of entropy desn’t help understand the process at all.
I didn’t say it is thermodynamicaly impossible as such.”

You’re absolutely correct that the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t help understand the process of evolution at all.  Just as it doesn’t help understand the process of golf at all, or the process of plumbing at all.

So why did you bring it up?


Elf M. Sternberg - #1423

December 30th 2009

I am someone who is firmly convinced that the Discovery Institute constitutes a deliberately crafted campaign to, by hook or by crook, displace methodological naturalism, and thereby wreck the most successful investigative paradigm yet for extending our control over nature. 

I was especially disappointed that Meyer, in public, wants more discussion of the weakness of evolution while resting a huge weight of his own work on Dembski’s, while not noting the overwhelming weakness and poor reception of Dembski’s work.

Toward the end, Meyer makes a strange plea to distinguish ID as a “historical science” rather than one that leads to a robust and reliable research program.  His analogy was poor, using historical events about which we can be reasonably certain, while failing to look into those about which we are only vaguely aware.  Meyer makes ID look like the latter, and his closing excuse of it reads more like a late-night drunken dorm room bull session than an actual investigation, scientific or philosophical, into the nature of our origins.


Bilbo - #1434

December 30th 2009

We are reasonably certain that the cell as we know existed about 3.5 billion years ago.  Historical science is concerned with explaining how it came into existence.  The RNA world scenario is scientifically implausible, but clung to by people desperate not to admit that the cell was designed.


John Kwok - #1435

December 30th 2009

@ Elf -

Thanks for your link to the Wedge Document, which ought to be read by anyone who is interested in the Discovery Institute’s motives.

As for Meyer’s “distinction” between experimental and historical sciences, it is exceedingly poor and hopelessly naive, which are both surprising in light of Meyer’s graduate school training. If there is anythine he excels in that particular chapter, then it is doing a fantatic job quoting Stephen Jay Gould. Unfortunately for Meyer his observations are not consistent with what Gould himself believed in.


John Kwok - #1436

December 30th 2009

More typos, now corrected -

As for Meyer’s “distinction” between experimental and historical sciences, it is exceedingly poor and hopelessly naive, which are both surprising in light of Meyer’s graduate school training. If there is anything he excels in that particular chapter, then it is doing a fantastic job quoting Stephen Jay Gould. Unfortunately for Meyer his observations are not consistent with what Gould himself believed in.
.


Mike from Ottawa - #1443

December 30th 2009

I would note that cist’s comments are based on the apparent belief that Occam’s razor is a law of the physical universe.  That is not the case.  Occam’s razor is an essentially aesthetic principle for provisionally choosing between competing explanations for a phenomenon.


Mike from Ottawa - #1444

December 30th 2009

“Especially, when someone is arguing, that because someone (Dembski) has done something, one should seek any reasonable dialogue with Meyer (another person).”

Indeed, however, Meyer is in bed with the folk behind ‘Expelled’, as Meyer supports the claim that ID proponents are oppressed and shut out of science unfairly.  His involvement with Sternberg’s sleight of hand, parthian shot publication of one of his review articles in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington itself speaks volumes about whether Meyer is acting in good faith.

Dress it up how you like it, but you can’t expect reasonable dialogue between scientists and someone who relies on 20 year old quotes about origins researchers being cranks.

When ID proponents come up with some actual, useful science that gives some insight newer than Paley’s ‘it’s too complicated to be natural’, then it will be time for some dialogue.


Jean - #1453

December 30th 2009

Is this thread moderated or what? Please someone shut up Kwok, he is stiffling interesting discussion with ad hominems and unpleasant fallacious rhetoric. In short, he stinks up this thread.


cist - #1454

December 30th 2009

John Kwok,

Claiming ID is anti-evolution is not going to help your agenda. ID’ers make very specific claims which aren’t discussed in the public openly (tv, media etc…) because they aren’t yet fully developed, science is an ongoing process as you may know.Front-loading for example, makes very specific claims which are rarely discussed in the public sphere, not many understand the concept. How many people know about prokaryotes and stromatolites, and how this supports the panspermia hypothesis (not that I lean in that direction, but its a possibility)? ISCID and a few pro-ID sites have gone into the details of many proposed hypothesis mostly mathematically and/or based on current and past evidence (the evidence that Darwinians shove into the corner) , alot has been discussed, and its true that very little has been tested in the laboratory. If ID is wrong about everything as you say, then surely testing these ideas unbiasedly will have little to no effect on current thinking. Thinking outside the box doesn’t hurt, challenging ideas will only improve upon our current understanding.


William N. Kerney - #1455

December 30th 2009

Dan:

Instead, we hold these ideas tentatively, and on the basis of evidence.

Ernest Mayr’s point was that people believe in evolution by finding fault with every other possibility as opposed to believing in it based on evidence.

Richard Lenski has prefomed a test for natural selection and it turns out that the rate at which ‘key innovations’ are created is too low for evolution to be real )about 10^20 population size).  It took something like 50 billion mutations to create a feature that already existed in other E. coli (the ability to metabolize citrate).


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