I’ve followed the back and forth between Francisco Ayala and Steve Meyer with interest. I happened to have just read Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell when I first saw Ayala’s commentary/review on it at the Biologos Foundation website. My initial response was that Ayala obviously hadn’t read the book, and, as a result, made some embarrassing mistakes that any reader of the book would recognize.
Darrell Falk at the Biologos Foundation was apparently responsible for inviting Ayala to comment on Meyer’s book, and has been drawn into the debate.
He published the first part of Meyer’s response to Ayala, but not without first offering his “background comments” about the debate. (I think David Klinghoffer has said what needs to be said about that.) The Biologos Foundation is committed to the “science-and-religion dialogue.” In my opinion, however, they have a peculiar way of fostering dialogue.
Biologos has also “updated” their introduction to Ayala’s “essay”–which is what they call it–to explain that Ayala wasn’t invited to write a “formal review” of the book. Fair enough. But whether it’s a “review,” an “essay,” a “response,” a “commentary,” or just “random thoughts,” Ayala’s is clearly critiquing Steve Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. But his critique is clearly based on an almost complete ignorance of the book. For instance, Ayala’s claims: “The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point?”
No one who even skimmed the book would say something this inaccurate. The inaccuracy is so blatant that I would think that Falk would be hoping that the embarrassing incident would soon be forgotten. But instead, he keeps re-opening the wound with another scratch. Now he’s offered another longish commentary on Ayala’s “essay” on Meyer’s book, “A Rejoinder to Stephen C. Meyer’s Response to Francisco Ayala.” And he promises that there are more to come.
Although he wisely doesn’t claim that Ayala actually read Meyer’s book, Falk starts by defending Ayala’s claim about “hundreds of pages”:
Meyer says he only spent 55 pages on the question. By Meyer’s definition of chance on page 176, and by the fact that Meyer himself refers to the competing hypotheses as “chance theories” (see pages 195,196, and 227, for example), I happen to think that Ayala is right–it is much more than 55 pages. However, this is a side issue to what I think we should really discuss.
Hmm. So the existence of three references to chance theories in a 508-page book confirms Ayala point? Hardly. In his statement, Ayala completely misrepresents Meyer’s thesis. The bit about hundreds of pages merely adds the patina of precise quantification to his misrepresentation.
Falk then raises two “concerns. The first, apparently, is that Meyer treats chance at all:
I began my post-graduate career in genetics over four decades ago. I have taught courses such as genetics, cell biology and molecular biology for almost 35 years. I cannot recall any textbook in any course that ever seriously considered what Dr. Meyer called the “chance hypothesis.” No one ever needed to do calculations of the sort that Meyer does in his book. To my recollection it was never seriously considered. Everyone knew it couldn’t have worked that way.
He then goes on to say that Meyer suggests that theorists have continued to entertain the chance hypothesis for the origin of life up to the present:
Meyer seems to imply (pages 204-213) that scientists were really engaged by this hypothesis for some period of time beyond a meeting in 1966 when it was first raised. He cites work in the late 1980s and up to 2007. He seems to imply that the chance hypothesis (pure chance, from building blocks) had actually engaged origin-of-life researchers throughout this time period.
Because of this alleged dismissal of chance on the part of origin of life researchers for the last four decades, Falk can’t imagine whom Meyer has in mind as readers for his book.
A few responses to these charges:
(1) Prominent figures like Francis Crick and George Wald did entertain chance theories in the 1950s and 1960s. Here’s Wald (quoted in one of those pesky pages in Signature in the Cell where Meyer talks about chance): “Time is in fact the hero of the plot. . . . Given so much time, the impossible becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain.” And that’s exactly what Meyer points out in the book.
(2) Pure chance ceased to be a serious contender in the 1960s as Meyer points out for the reasons that he explains in the book. He is a clear-thinking philosopher of science, interested in explaining things for the general reader who lacks detailed background knowledge, and so he lays out the arguments, the reasons, the probabilities, and the evidence painstakingly.
(3) Meyer simply does not claim that pure chance hypotheses have been leading contenders in recent decades. In fact, he quite clearly says just the opposite. On p. 204, which Falk references, Meyer is talking about a conference in the 1960s. Later he talks about experimental evidence demonstrating the extreme rarity of functional sequences of amino acids–evidence that didn’t exist in the 1960s–but which, as he explains, has confirmed the earlier intuitions and judgments scientists about the insufficiency of chance by scientists in the 1960s who lacked this information.
(4) Chance nevertheless remains an important category of explanation because it continues to be a component in current theories such as the RNA world scenario. In fact, many current origin-of-life scenarios combine both chance and a selective mechanism as recommended by Jacques Monod’s famous book Chance and Necessity. Thus, Meyer’s analysis of the limits of chance as a plausible explanation (or aspect of an explanation) is highly relevant to assessing many current theories of the origin of life.
(5) To make a clear and complete argument, chance needs to be treated as one of the logical possibilities. That’s what Meyer does in his book. Why doesn’t Falk get this simple point? Falk seems to think that because the community he’s been swimming in hasn’t bothered to reflect carefully on the full range of logically possible options, that’s it’s problematic that Meyer would do so.
(6) I’m guessing that Meyer’s ideal reader is the open-minded, logical person who can follow a good, clear argument, based on public evidence, and isn’t intimated into mental fogginess because of the social pressures not to discuss the topic of his book. Moreover, since his is a trade-press book, Meyer doesn’t have the luxury of assuming that every reader will know–as apparently does Falk–why chance is so extraordinarily implausible as a complete explanation for the origin of life. So he assumes his reader will need to have that information provided in the text.
(7) That said, I’m still glad that Falk (and apparently Ayala) agree with Meyer that pure chance is not, these days, a live alternative. Unfortunately, Falk doesn’t seem to realize that he is agreeing with Meyer on this point.
Falk’s second concern is with Meyer’s central positive claim. He argues that Meyer never justifies his central claim that “the activity of conscious and rational agents is the only known cause by which large amounts of new functional information arises, at least when starting from purely physical and chemical antecedents.”
He attempts to refute Meyer’s claim by asserting that the fact of biological evolution disproves Meyer’s contention. As he explains:
Virtually all biologists today consider it a fact that all multi-cellular organisms are derived from a single cell. Does not the information required to make the vast array of living organisms constitute Meyer’s definition of “huge?” Doesn’t the process of natural selection, group selection, genetic drift, and sexual selection fit his criteria of purely chemical and physical causes? There is nothing more foundational to biology than that huge amounts of information has arisen through physical and chemical antecedents.
Falk cites belief in biological evolution as a counterexample of Meyer’s claim. But Meyer, in the quote and in his book, is quite obviously talking about chemical evolution and the origin of life, not the evolution of life after the first reproducing cell. That’s why he says: “at least when starting from purely physical and chemical antecedents.” In other words, Meyer, without conceding the point about biological evolution, is arguing here only about the origin of biological information from physics and chemistry–about chemical evolution–and not about what happens once you have life. And contrary to what Falk says, Meyer extensively substantiates his claim about the power of, and the need for, intelligence in producing functional information (at least, if you are starting from physical and chemical, rather than living, antecedents). The only way to fully appreciate that, however, is to read the book (especially Chapters 15 and 16 where he develops his positive case in detail).
That said, even if Meyer’s book were about biological evolution, Falk’s argument would fall short. Falk is confusing sociology with biology. That most biologists assume that universal common ancestry is a fact isn’t evidence for said fact. It’s a fact about prominent beliefs within a community. And even if universal common ancestry is a fact, it’s not evidence that all the organisms that evolved from said ancestor did so purely by a process of chance and (merely physical) necessity without the contributions of intelligence. (Oddly, Falk wants to have it both ways, since he says: “I want to be quick to add that, as a Christian, I believe that it happened at God’s command and as the result of God’s presence. . . .”)
In any case, that many biologists believe that selection and random mutation can generate large amounts of new biological information is a sociological, not a biological, fact. And frankly, it’s not even a sociological fact. There are many biologists who doubt it, and get on quite well nonetheless.