Part II – Further Thoughts on Darwin’s Doubt after Reading Bishop’s Review
In Part I of this series, I introduced some of my own personal reflections upon readingDarwin’s Doubt. Soon after sending along my reflections of the book to BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma, I had the privilege of reading Robert Bishop’s essay and passed along my comments to Robert and her. Since, as a biologist, I didn’t see the book through the same lens as Robert (an expert in the history and philosophy of science) I’ve been asked to post those thoughts to accompany his. So herewith is a summary of four places where Robert and I may see things through somewhat different lenses.
1. Does Stephen Meyer exaggerate the nature of the rethinking going on in mainstream evolutionary developmental biology?
I don’t think so. Many evolutionary developmental biologists think that we are on the verge of a significant re-organization in our thinking about the mechanics of macro-evolution. The much respected developmental biologist Scott Gilbert states: “If the population genetics model of evolutionary biology isn’t revised by developmental genetics, it will be as relevant to biology as Newtonian physics is to current physics.”
That and many other similar statements that I’ve seen in the literature1 really do suggest that we are on the cusp of some major rethinking about the forces at work in macro-evolution. Those studies will focus more on how biological information is generated, changed, and used, and less on the natural selection filter. Clearly, the evolutionary process itself has been evolving through time and we are seeing that more poignantly than ever before. Although Stephen himself thinks that the tenets of evolutionary biology are essentially bankrupt, I do not think he misrepresents what others think about it. For example he states: “Biologists, Scott Gilbert, John Opitz, and Rudolf Raff have attempted to supplement classical Neo-Darwinism, which they argue, cannot adequately explain large-scale macro-evolutionary change” (emphasis, added). Biologists, he says, are seeking asupplement. Stephen himself thinks they need to start over, but he acknowledges that they do not see it as desperately as he does.
2. The timing of the perceived information problem
Stephen puts considerable effort into showing why he thinks that the well-accepted methods of generating new genes and proteins are ill-conceived. I agree with Robert Bishop that this matter is somewhat beside the point for this particular book. The book, after all, is focused on the Cambrian explosion, which occurred after much of the gene/ protein “tool box” had already been put together through a process spanning 2 billion years or so. However, I do think most of us understand why Stephen did this. He is building a story and he wants the reader to see why he and other leaders of the ID movement think the very core of evolutionary thinking (the method of generating new information) has failed. If, as he sees it, biology can’t explain how new genes were generated in the preceding two billion years, it certainly can’t explain that which results in the generation of a plethora of new body plans in a time interval that is only one to two percent of the time utilized to put the entire cellular tool box together. He has chosen to highlight the effort of Michael Behe in Edge of Evolution and Doug Axe on protein folding. This work has not drawn the applause of mainstream scientists (and for good reason), but that’s not the point. Meyer is trying to build a case for his view that the derivation of information needed to build bodies in any way other than external intelligence is seriously flawed. He’s making his case as strongly as he can and working hard on communicating that clearly to a general audience. I remain amazed at the breadth of his knowledge and communicative skill, even though as I dig into the depths of the scientific papers, I see matters much differently than he does.
3. Generation of new body plans de novo
The big mystery associated with the Cambrian explosion is the rapid generation of body plans de novo. There was never a time like it before, nor has there ever been a time like it again since. Stephen is right about that. Also, as he points out, the big question in exploring the generation of new body plans in that era is how this squares with the resistance of today’s gene regulatory networks to mutational perturbation (i.e. they seem to be almost impossible to change through genetic mutation because virtually all such alterations are lethal). We really have little idea at this point how things would have worked to generate body plans de novo back then given the sensitivity of the networks to perturbation today. As Douglas Erwin elegantly argues in his 2011 paper, there must have been something different taking place as the system was being put in place 550 million or so years ago. I think figuring that out will turn out to be one of the most fascinating pieces of puzzle-solving that molecular biology has ever done. However, 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. The work, as most developmental biologists see it, has only just begun, and it is the kind of thing that happens at this cutting edge stage, which makes science so much fun. I’m with Ralph Stearley [pdf] on this: to study the diversity of life and the mechanisms which characterize it is to be enraptured in joy.
4. Living cells as information systems
I agree with Robert that it is quite a stretch to jump from the “failure” of materialistic explanations of the Cambrian explosion (so far) to a scientifically based conclusion that life is intelligently designed. The only case that Stephen makes—so far as I can see—is given that the cell can be considered an information system (and I agree with Stephen that it can), and given that all other known information systems require an intelligence to design them, so the cellular systems that constitute life must be intelligently designed. In building his scientific case, he examines each of the other possibilities that have emerged from biological research and declares, one-by-one, that each has failed. With that only one is left that doesn’t fail his examination—intelligent design. I hope I’m not being facetious, but the main reason that it can pass his test as I see it, is that with one exception it makes essentially no predictions. The one exception of course is that all other information systems will turn out to be designed by outside intelligence. So far that has indeed turned out to be the case; we humans have used our intelligence to design them all.
Stephen is right, that none of the other models fit the bill in a fully satisfactory manner yet, but it’s pretty early to declare one to be the winner on the basis of an analogy to human-designed information systems. But more perplexing to me is trying to fathom how this investigation can continue as a scientific project. How will proponents of Intelligent Design take their biological studies from the level of the “best explanation on the basis of analogy” to a project which makes a set of positive predictions? How will they move forward by building a positive research program rather than a negative one based upon the critique of mainstream ideas? What are the biological predictions that will emerge from within their paradigm and how will they test them? I sense the topic for another biology book coming on. If so, and as they proceed, I wish them…joy!