Return of the God Hypothesis: A Biologist’s Reflections
Darrel Falk discusses Stephen Meyer's book "Return of the God Hypothesis" and how it reinforces the divergence between Evolutionary Creation and Intelligent Design proponents.
I have read all three of Stephen Meyer’s books, a total of 1,995 pages including his most recent: Return of the God Hypothesis (HarperOne, 2021). I think I understand his perspective on the role of God in creation fairly well. The fact is, that in general terms, I’m not sure it is much different than my own.
Like him, I believe that God’s Spirit has been at work throughout the entire course of creation through what we call the natural laws, but I also think there are times when God has worked differently. Like him (I think), I don’t use the word “intervention” to describe what God is doing in those times when God chooses to work differently: it makes no sense to say that God “intervenes” in what God has already been doing. Like him, I don’t believe that natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, or luck are sufficient to explain our existence on this planet.
I think the evidence for common descent is overwhelming and, in Darwin’s Doubt (loc. 7655), Meyer indicates that the Intelligent Design movement is not opposed to this either. I am certainly in complete agreement with Meyer that the scientistic views of scientists like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Weinberg, and Sean Carroll are deeply flawed; they are grounded in their own philosophical worldview—not science. So I think we largely agree on the fundamentals, and yet I am very uncomfortable with his latest book—Here’s why.
I am only a biologist so I will restrict my comments here to biology alone. Meyer’s critique of the origin of life and evolutionary biology has significant inaccuracies. For example, in discussing the hypothetical RNA world and the origin of life, Meyer writes, “To date, scientists have been able to design RNA catalysts that will copy only about 10% of themselves” (p. 280). He then references a paper from 2001. However, the field has progressed quite well in the past twenty years. For example, in 2014, Robertson and Joyce reported a similar system with a tweak which resulted in 100 percent effectiveness. They summarized their results with these words: “Each parental enzyme can give rise to thousands of copies per hour, and each of these copies in turn can do the same, all the while transmitting molecular information across the generations.”1
Although they changed the enzymatic reaction a bit, this comes very close to being what Meyer tells the reader has not been done. He goes on from there to approvingly quote Christian de Duve as he discussed the biochemical challenges in the study of life’s origin: “Hitching the components together in the right manner raises additional problems of such magnitude that no one has yet attempted to do so in a pre-biotic context.” The footnote shows that this quote is from a book published in 1996. Perhaps, no one was carrying out such studies in the mid-1990’s but that is not true today.
In a 2017 review of such work, Nobel laureate Jack Szostak wrote, “The prebiotic chemistry leading to nucleotide synthesis is an active area of study in several laboratories, and great progress has been made.”2 In order to learn more about what has been happening since 2017, I recommend an analysis of two fairly detailed papers in Nature journals3 each published within the last year. The omission of just how active this field is, is noteworthy because the supposed lack of progress is fundamental to his argument that origin of life research is at an impasse. It is not.
Meyer goes on to describe a meeting entitled New Trends in Evolutionary Biology which he attended in 2016. The meeting, he states was about “perceived inadequacies in the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.” I was at the meeting also, and in one sense I think he is right. The theme of the meeting was that classic gene-based studies of how evolution works were giving a far-too-narrow picture of how the process of evolution has taken place. There is simply much more to the story than that—which emerges when the focus is on genes; a more holistic approach is required.
Meyer summarized the opening talk this way: “In short, neo-Darwinism fails to explain the origin of the most important defining features of living organisms, indeed, the very features that evolutionary theory has, since Darwin, claimed to explain.” (p. 303). Meyer’s summary of this opening talk can easily be misunderstood. I’ve gone back to the paper since his understanding is different than mine. The point of that talk was not to suggest that the theory of evolution is in crisis, as I think he implies. On the contrary, the speaker was calling for an approach to evolutionary biology which is less gene-centric.
To really understand how evolution works, investigators need to carefully consider the processes at work in modifying embryonic development in animal evolution, the role that organisms themselves play in shaping the environment to which they become adapted, the importance of the plasticity of phenotype (the characteristics of an organism) in shaping evolutionary trajectory, and how the biology of the body’s interacting parts shape the process of evolutionary change through time. No speaker at the meeting implied there was a hole in evolutionary theory that might require “intelligent input.” Quite the opposite actually—there was a concern that the meeting’s intent might be misunderstood or misrepresented. The intent was methodological: here’s how evolutionary biologists can develop a more thorough picture of how evolution works.
Meyer believes that the Cambrian explosion creates a major crisis for the theory of evolution; he thinks there was a significant unexplained increase in genetic information that entered the biological world at that time. I think any evolutionary biologist would, upon reading his work, say that Meyer does not fully appreciate the power of gene duplication and mutation in generating new proteins and changing the way that gene regulatory networks function. One of the mysteries that, according to Meyer, “Neo-Darwinism fails to explain” is the evolutionary transition from the fins of fish to the limbs of land animals (p. 303). This, and other challenges like it, is simply no longer the mystery he thinks it is. In fact, Gerd Muller, that first speaker at the 2016 meeting, wrote:
“When natural selection affects such kinds of systems, the resulting phenotype variation does not need to be gradual and continuous. In fact, simulations of the dynamical behaviours of gene regulatory networks in evolution demonstrate that bistable changes are more likely to occur than gradual transitions.”4
This is wonderfully illustrated by a paper that came out two months ago in the journal, Cell. The authors showed how two mutations changed the bones in the fin of a zebrafish into tiny bones which are likely the equivalent of the radius and ulna, two of the main bones in the limb of a land animal. With just those two mutations, not only were the bones produced, but they became attached to muscles—the beginning of functionality. Furthermore, their formation was influenced by a latent pattern of gene expression already present in fish. We know that this pattern is likely the same one used in the development of limbs in mice. It is not wise scientifically to declare that an active research program won’t be able to explain something, while the experiments are still going full bore.
As the book winds down, Meyer puts the onus on solving all of the mysteries he describes back on science:
“To make their case for the adequacy of a strictly materialistic approach to explanation in science and philosophy, defenders of this approach must first show that “gaps” in our knowledge of the materialistic causes of key events in the history of life and the universe can be filled with knowledge of an actual materialistic process capable of producing the events in question. (p. 613).”
This is an intriguing statement since this is the very thing the scientists always try to do—seek to fill in a knowledge-gap without simply declaring it miraculous. As Christians we all agree that these are God’s processes, but Meyer thinks he has shown that the knowledge-gap related to the origin of the universe, life, and complex body forms require supernatural activity. This could conceivably be the case for one or all of these phenomena, but the problem with his conclusion (at least in biology), is that he has not accurately described the state of the science. It has progressed much further than he seems to realize, and it is most certainly too early to declare that the biology gaps cannot be explained through natural mechanisms and the best thing to do is to plug the miraculous activity of God into the gap.
This saddens me deeply because I share his view that natural laws describe the ongoing sustaining activity of God. And like him, I think that God sometimes works in other ways to accomplish God’s purpose. Our primary difference it seems to me is that he thinks he can identify where God’s regular law-like activity ends and where God’s not-so-law-like activity begins. It is here we part company.
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