A Guide to the Stephen Meyer Podcast Episode
Stephen Meyer appeared on our podcast, but much of his argument continues to rely on current scientific theories being incorrect. While the podcast episode was not a debate, we’ve pulled out a few excerpts from the episode and point to where we’ve discussed these topics before.
Different Meanings of Evolution
Meyer: If we think of the term evolution, in fact, I’ve written an article with an historian of science, Michael Keas about the different meanings of evolution, but there are at least three, and those three can be helpfully distinguished from one another. The first would be the concept of change over time. In the biological realm, that typically refers to things like the peppered moths or changing their coloration over time, it can refer to small scale micro evolutionary variation. Or the simple fact that life on the planet today is different than it was quite a long time ago. So that’s evolution, number one—change over time. No one in the Intelligent Design network of folks rejects that that’s a pretty standard understanding. (17:32)
It is true that words are not always used the same way by different people in different contexts, and it is helpful to distinguish the scientific aspects of these meanings. And it is true that groups sometimes attempt to influence people to mean something more specific by a term or phrase than those words have in more common usage. BioLogos has done this with “evolutionary creation” preferring it to the more widely used “theistic evolution.” But within the context of origins discussions and what biologists mean by “evolution,” it isn’t quite fair to give the impression that intelligent design is OK with evolution because they accept change over time (as they have recently claimed). In the interview, Meyer is open about his rejection of the standard biological definitions of evolution as universal common descent and evolutionary mechanisms (see our Common Question, What is evolution?).
Science and Methodological Naturalism
Meyer: I think the theory of intelligent design is a properly scientific hypothesis. It is developed. And I developed it self-consciously using the same method of scientific reasoning that Darwin used in the Origin of Species, that is to say, I employ a method known as multiple competing hypotheses or inference to the best explanation. And it’s a standard method of reasoning used in a number of disciplines, but especially in historical scientific disciplines that are concerned to establish a causal explanation for events in the remote past. And so when we’re dealing with origins questions, there are two basic possibilities either undirected material processes produced the events, or structures that we want to explain, or the creative intelligence played a role. And I think a fully rational scientific discourse should be open to hypotheses of both types. And what has happened is that since Darwin, the rule of methodological naturalism has come to predominate or to ascend to the established as normative. And that has limited the intellectual freedom of scientists to consider the possibility that what they’re looking at is actually the product of a designing intelligence. (42:04)
This is an issue that comes up several times throughout the conversation. Methodological naturalism is what philosophers call the heuristic principle that science should appeal only to natural entities and causes. Christians can coherently hold to this methodological principle while at the same time accepting that there are entities and causes outside of the purely natural (for example, God performing miracles), by saying that those supernatural events are not part of science. This can get pretty complicated pretty quickly as subtle philosophical distinctions are made. And BioLogos does not have an organizational stance on methodological naturalism (President Deb Haarsma discusses this in an exchange we had with Steve Meyer about his previous book).
I myself think some people have too strongly advocated for methodological naturalism as the only way science has ever been done. That shows some ignorance about the history of science, which changes over time in terms of what are legitimate objects of scientific inquiry (for example, astrology used to be accepted as a properly scientific area of study while the mind was not; that situation is reversed today). I tried to compare science and its governing bodies to soccer a few years ago when a controversy had broken out about an article being retracted from a scientific journal because it used the word “design.” I think it applies to what Meyer said here too.
Meyer: I wrote a whole book, as you know, about the Cambrian Explosion, which is an event in the history of life in which most of the major animal body plans emerge abruptly in the fossil record, within windows of time that are far too short for the mutation selection mechanism or any other evolutionary mechanism on offer to to account for the amount of innovation morphological innovation that arises. (21:00)
When this book came out in 2014, we did a series reviewing the book and responding to the major arguments, acknowledging the scientific questions, but not at all accepting that science was at a dead end here. Research has suggested there are more scientific explanations for the proliferation of body forms during this time period. The main points can be found in our Common Question, Does the Cambrian Explosion pose a challenge to evolution?
Meyer: I see profound evidence of discontinuity particularly in what are called orphan genes, genes that have no known sequence similarity to any other organism in the phylogenetic landscape, and in, especially at higher taxonomic categories. Orphan genes are turning out to be quite prevalent across the landscape. (22:49)
This is pretty technical stuff, and we have not published articles on our main website discussing it. But on our discussion board, The BioLogos Forum, there was a substantial thread by professional biologists discussing the ID claims that orphan genes are a problem for evolution.
Developmental Gene Regulatory Networks
Meyer: For example, when we look at the Cambrian Explosion, one of the deep puzzles, one which our mutual colleague, Darrell Falk, acknowledged in his review of my last book, is the role of what are called gene regulatory networks—development, developmental gene regulatory networks. These are essentially networks that are– they’re functioning like integrated circuits that control the flow of information and the and the differentiation of cells and cell types during animal development. And what we’ve learned in studying these in the laboratory in model systems in developmental biology, is that they cannot be altered or altered very much at all without deleterious and indeed lethal effects to the organisms that possess them. And yet to build a new form of animal life you need an absolutely new developmental gene regulatory network. It’s not one size fits all. So it raises this deep puzzle in evolutionary developmental biology. How do you generate innovation in the form of new body plans, when what is needed are new developmental gene regulatory networks, when pre-existing developmental gene regulatory networks cannot be altered, without lethal consequences. And so this, this, to me suggests the need for a novel innovation for a separate origin for these animals, they do not look to be capable of arising by a series of gradual steps from something simpler. (24:23)
Meyer is correct that in 2014 our colleague Darrel Falk agreed that the development of new body plans was a puzzle. But he said it was a puzzle under active investigation, and “unlike Stephen, not only do I think this research is not at a dead-end, I think it will turn out to be among the most exciting frontiers in biological research over the next couple of decades.” Now just seven years later, Falk has written about Meyer’s new book, Return of the God Hypothesis: A Biologist’s Reflections, and cited very recent examples from the literature of how scientists are beginning to solve this puzzle.
Photosynthesis and Secondary Causes
Meyer: I think there’s a very strong design argument to be made about the origin of the photosynthetic process. It’s an irreducibly complex system with multiple interacting components. Setting that up in the beginning, would be very difficult to accomplish by any known natural process. (58:14)
I had proposed photosynthesis as a scientific process we understand very well now, but didn’t previously, and suggested that it may be parallel to ID arguments now about processes we don’t fully understand. Our article, Where is God in Nature? does not specifically address the origin of photosynthesis, but its claim “God is within every part of photosynthesis” applies to its origin as well. And the question I’d want to continue to put to Meyer is whether it is legitimate to ascribe actions to God for something for which there are scientific explanations. I gave the example of the volcano adding landmass to Iceland. I asked whether the scientific explanation competes with (that is, only one can be correct) the theological commitment that God is the creator of Iceland.
Meyer’s Response: I think God created the universe, I think he had something very specific to do with setting up our planetary system with all the fine tuning localized fine tuning parameters. But but one of the parts of, I think, an appropriate natural, a biblical natural theology, one that I would subscribe to, and one that I think most intelligent design advocates subscribe to is the idea that there are intelligent causes. There can be evidence of discrete activity of intelligent agency. But there are also what are what used to be called secondary causes that natural natural entities have causal powers and properties associated with them that can be studied and learned. And so explaining our world may require only an appeal to secondary causes, or might appeal require an appeal to intelligent causes and might require an appeal to both depending on the types of signatures or the types of effects that we’re looking at. And I hold the latter position. (50:26)
Here it is not clear whether the secondary causes he appeals to are competing with the intelligent cause. And not everyone at BioLogos would describe this situation the same way. I myself think it is best to understand the natural causes and the intelligent/supernatural causes as operating at the same time, but at different levels of explanation. I gave a short defense of this in an article responding to a previous book Meyer edited, Does God Guide Evolution?
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