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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beaglelady - #1458

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.

This isn’t www.uncommondescent.com, where so many have been banned for disagreeing with them.


John Kwok - #1462

December 30th 2009

@ cist -

The problem with your analysis is that Intelligent Design advocates like Meyer have yet to subject any of their ideas to rigorous scientific tests, followed by scientific peer review. They’ve had more than twenty years to present their case before the scientific community but instead of playing by the rules of science, they insist that they are being “persecuted” as they commit lies, theft and other forms of deceit against their critics.

As eminent philosopher of science Philip Kitcher has pointed out recently, Intelligent Design was once an important concept which inspired scientific research from the 16th through 18th centuries. It no longer serves the purpose since it was rejected as valid science by genuine “scientific” creationists nearly two centuries ago. For this reason, Kitcher regards Intelligent Design as “dead science”. In light of the morally reprehensible conduct of its proponents, including Meyer, I believe it should be regarded too as mendacious intellectual pornography.


John Kwok - #1464

December 30th 2009

@ William N. Kerney -

You are selectively reading and misinterpreting what Mayer wrote and what Lenski and his team have accomplished. If evolution isn’t true, then may I suggest you forget getting a flu shot, since flu vaccine development is based on applied evolutionary biology (epidemiology).


John Kwok - #1465

December 30th 2009

Correction to previous comment -

I meant Ernst Mayr, not Mayer.


Steve Cherry - #1473

December 31st 2009

beaglelady:

You could not be more wrong about UD - I also spend time there and you only get tossed at UD for mass posting “DoS attacks” (as demonstrated here by a certain user who has used up about 25% of this discussion space).  You also have to stay on topic, and lastly, you need to avoid ad hominem.  I see much civil discourse there as well from detractors who choose to stay on topic and debate the actual post content.  They have no issues, so I think your complaint is actually user error.  Also - if you think for a minute that dissent is tolerated at PThumb or Pharyngula, you obviously have not tasted “discourse” there from the other side. 


“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  - Inigo Montoya


VMartin - #1475

December 31st 2009

@Jean 1453

asked if this thread is moderated.

As far as I know it is. Professor John Davison has been banned from instance.
He informed and commented about this fact on his blog.

Ad hominem attacks are maybe ok as long as you are a darwinist. I have been denigrated
here as well here. Such attacks are common in neodarwinian pits like EvC forum, Antievolution.org and RichardDawkins.net.

What is enchanting is the fact that in those forums also admins denigrate and abuse
critics of neodarwinian fallacy. Of course their arguments are weak. The main argument is always this one: “Darwinists are publishing in peer-reviewed journals, they must be doing real science!”

No one makes so much fuss about “science” as darwinists.


cist - #1478

December 31st 2009

John Kwok,

The problem with your ramblings is that there is always a flip side to them. While Darwinists such as you see ID proponents (so few that they are) as liars, crooks etc…we ID’ers see so many Darwinists as the same; liars and crooks who use the mass media to their advantage and who steal tax money for their broken science and logic. I wouldn’t care less if Dembski stole an apple here and there, he’s at an overall disadvantage, its expected of him.

Please leave religion out of the discussion Kwok, you don’t believe in Jesus Christ yet you tell us what Jesus Christ would do to someone you don’t believe in either.


cist - #1479

December 31st 2009

“As eminent philosopher of science Philip Kitcher has pointed out recently, Intelligent Design was once an important concept which inspired scientific research from the 16th through 18th centuries. It no longer serves the purpose since it was rejected as valid science by genuine “scientific” creationists nearly two centuries ago. For this reason, Kitcher regards Intelligent Design as “dead science”. In light of the morally reprehensible conduct of its proponents, including Meyer, I believe it should be regarded too as mendacious intellectual pornography.”

Excuse me Kwok but 16th century science is dead, how can 16th century science decide what is taught in the 21st century? Science changes, don’t blame the DI, blame advances in technology that directly and indirectly support it.We are simply adapting to the evidence.


beaglelady - #1495

December 31st 2009

You could not be more wrong about UD - I also spend time there and you only get tossed at UD for mass posting “DoS attacks” (as demonstrated here by a certain user who has used up about 25% of this discussion space).  You also have to stay on topic, and lastly, you need to avoid ad hominem.  I see much civil discourse there as well from detractors who choose to stay on topic and debate the actual post content.  They have no issues, so I think your complaint is actually user error.  Also - if you think for a minute that dissent is tolerated at PThumb or Pharyngula, you obviously have not tasted “discourse” there from the other side.

UD is more tolerant now, but when DaveScot was moderator people were banned left and right.  “X is no longer with us”  was his way of saying that X had been banned.


John Kwok - #1497

December 31st 2009

@ cist -

Ask Philip Kitcher yourself. He merely states that ID was once useful to science. Its usefulness ceased nearly two centuries ago, which is why he regards it as “dead science”.


Jean - #1501

December 31st 2009

“I recommend you read Paul R. Gross and Barbara Forrest’s “Creationism’s Trojan Horse”

Read it quite a while ago, not impressed. Spare me the secular humanism.  Sorry John Kwok, but most atheists do not impress me, especially when they ramble on about “ID creationism”.

Again, is this thread moderated? Why are numerous ad hominem remarks tolerated? I seriously doubt this site wants to devolve to the gutter level of PT or PZ Meyers’ blog.


Bilbo - #1503

December 31st 2009

John wrote: As for Meyer’s “distinction” between experimental and historical sciences, it is exceedingly poor and hopelessly naive,

Not at all.


Bilbo - #1504

December 31st 2009

John Kwok wrote that Meyer’s distinction between experimental and historical science was exceedingly poor and naive.  But the atheist philosopher of science, Bradley Mondon agrees that ID is an historical science, also.  Kwok needs to substantiate his claim to be taken seriously.


Mike from Ottawa - #1510

December 31st 2009

Sorry, cist, but despite your wishes, the evidence that has piled up over the last several hundred years of science weighs in favour of methodological naturalism and not the supernaturalism of ID.  ID has been barren and even today does no more than Meyer does with it and pronounce that some field of inquiry is dead.  Unfortunately for ID, those dead fields are still alive and scientists, as opposed to philosophers of science and computer engineers, are making new inroads into problems that we’ve not yet solved.  What has ID got to show for itself in the way of scientific knowledge and understanding?  Nada.

It is notable that it is only outsiders who’ve never dirtied themselves actually trying to solve the problems of the origins of life who pronounce it impossible.


beaglelady - #1511

December 31st 2009

You could not be more wrong about UD - I also spend time there and you only get tossed at UD for mass posting “DoS attacks” (as demonstrated here by a certain user who has used up about 25% of this discussion space).  You also have to stay on topic, and lastly, you need to avoid ad hominem.  I see much civil discourse there as well from detractors who choose to stay on topic and debate the actual post content.  They have no issues, so I think your complaint is actually user error.  Also - if you think for a minute that dissent is tolerated at PThumb or Pharyngula, you obviously have not tasted “discourse” there from the other side.

Then I guess you weren’t participating when DaveScot was running the show at UD. “X is no longer with us” was his usual refrain, meaning that X had been banned. It happened often.

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.” 

It is true that the Pandas Thumb folks will criticize creationism in all its forms, but it is a science blog.


John Kwok - #1515

December 31st 2009

cist -

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).


John Kwok - #1516

December 31st 2009

cist -

Eminent biologists like Ken Miller, Niles Eldredge and Paul Gross (in collaboration with philosopher Barbara Forrest) have stressed the dangers posed by the Discovery Institute’s “revolutionary” - and it is indeed revolutionary - advocacy of Intelligent Design creationism (If you want the most succinct, best stated case, then read Ken’s “Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul” in which Ken clearly states the dire threat to America’s economic, cultural and educational future posed by the Discovery Institute and its fanatical advocacy of Intelligent Design creationism.).


Mere_Christian - #1624

January 4th 2010

Using math, even evolution is intelligent design. Unless of course “science” can show us something creating itself in a a lab built spontaneously out of nothing too.

But putting that reality aside, what is the “mission” of BioLogos again? It appears to be an anti ID networking site. Albeit, a polite attack group, but none the less, what’s going on here?

Evolutionarians versus Idites?

Now I thought when it comes to science, the minority opinion is always trumpeted as being so worthwhile, while the wagging heads of intolerance to change were the bad guys.

I know, I know, I’m “just a layperson,” but B-L sure looks like a Dawkins and Harris fan club to me. I mean “scientists” sure seem to be able to role in the mud like any other tough guy. And it hardly seems like B-L misses a chance to denigrate Christians that do not kowtow to darwinism.

Just an observation.


Pastor Harvey Burnett - #2044

January 8th 2010

Mere_Christian said, “I know, I know, I’m “just a layperson,” but B-L sure looks like a Dawkins and Harris fan club to me.”

AMEN! Totally agree as I read the info and rebuttals.

Laypersons can understand this stuff too. If they can write it in a book, we can learn it and from what I’ve learned statements like this: “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”

Statements like these are highly deceptive if not boarderline irresponsible. First of all it’s talking about “evolved RNA” Secondly this is a type of intelligent design as conditions are manipulated to produuce the results.

BioLogos, I don’t see the value of your arguments and you’re further hard pressed to provide any type of biblical exeget of how “God breathed” the breath of life into man or communicated his attributes to him.  I’m not a fundamentalist, but your alternate approach is void and one of the worst compromises and equivocations on the issue that I’ve seen.


cist - #2149

January 9th 2010

“Eminent biologists like Ken Miller, Niles Eldredge and Paul Gross (in collaboration with philosopher Barbara Forrest) have stressed the dangers posed by the Discovery Institute’s “revolutionary” - and it is indeed revolutionary - advoca…”

I’m sorry Kwok, but this type of “he says she says” isn’t going to cut it. I’m not sure what appending “creationism” is meant for, you seem to use it almost like an action verb where its supposed to pull ID up by the boot straps, which is nonsense. Even if all ID proponents were Christian (and that is of course a big false) it does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that the case for ID has been decoded from Christianity - it has only correlation. Ken Millers book title is self-refuting if America has a soul which derived from Darwinian mechanisms.Obviously, Darwinian mechanism’s cannot produce a soul, only maybe a belief in a soul. This is going back to religion-talk Kwok.


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