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Intelligent Design and the Origin of Biological Information: A Response to Dennis Venema

Casey Luskin
Intelligent Design and the Origin of Information: A Response to Dennis Venema

In this article, Part 1, we:
• Define ID, seeing that it’s a positive argument that doesn’t deny natural selection can do some things
• Summarize the problems with Venema’s critiques: he mis-defines ID and fails to acknowledge responses from ID proponents to the evidence he raises
• Emphasize that this is simply a substantive response and I have no reason to doubt that Dr. Venema is a nice guy and highly competent scientist

Other Installments:
Part 1 (This Article): Intelligent Design and the Origin of Biological Information: A Response to Dennis Venema
Part 2: Why Did One Theistic Evolutionist Part Ways with BioLogos?
Part 3: What Is a Proper Test of Intelligent Design?
Part 4: The False Dichotomy Between Intelligent Design and Natural Causes
Part 5: Richard Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiments with E. coli and the Origin of New Biological Information
Part 6: Another Bogus Claim of “Novel Function Arising Through Mutation and Selection”
Part 7: Confusing Evidence for Common Ancestry with Evidence for Random Mutation and Natural Selection
Part 8: Critically Analyzing the Argument from Human/Chimpanzee Genetic Similarity

What does intelligent design (ID) say about the origin of biological information? Simply put, ID claims that we can find in nature the type of information that, in our experience, comes from intelligence.

To make this positive scientific inference to design, ID begins with observations about the types of information that are generated by intelligent agents. ID theorists observe that in our experience, high levels of complex and specified information come from intelligence. As Stephen C. Meyer writes:

[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents — in particular ourselves — generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. … Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent.”

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Thus, the form of information that reliably indicates design is high levels of “specified complexity” or “complex and specified information.” So what exactly is the technical-term “complex specified information” or “CSI”? Something is complex if it is unlikely, and it is specified if it matches a pre-existing pattern.

It’s important to note that ID is thus not a purely negative argument against Darwinian evolution. Again, it’s a positive argument based upon finding nature the type of information which in our experience comes from intelligence.

In that regard, ID doesn’t say that neo-Darwinian evolution cannot do anything. ID doesn’t claim that neo-Darwinism mechanisms cannot cause small-scale changes in organisms that might represent small changes in specified complexity.

But the observation that neo-Darwinism can do some things does not imply that neo-Darwinism can do all things. Thus, the leading pro-ID biochemist Michael Behe argues that there is an “edge” to evolution — i.e., there are limits to what Darwinian mechanisms can accomplish.

As a result, the proper way to test neo-Darwinism against intelligent design is not to say “intelligent design says that neo-Darwinism can do nothing, so if neo-Darwinism can do anything then ID is refuted.” Rather, we should say: “Let’s study the causes of neo-Darwinism and intelligent design and seek to understand their respective information-generative powers. If some biological structures are within the ‘edge of evolution,’ let’s not then assume that all biological structures are within the edge of evolution. Rather, let’s test natural objects to determine which explanation is warranted in each case.”

Over the course of about 8 articles, I will be discussing how we test intelligent design while responding to a recent series of articles on the BioLogos website, “Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information,” by theistic Darwinian evolutionist biologist Dennis Venema. Unfortunately, in his series, Venema makes some common mistakes in defining ID, and dramatically misstates the nature of intelligent design.

Before getting into that, let me first say that I’ve had some private correspondence with Dr. Venema and I’ve found him to be nothing but cordial. This is in no way an attack on Dr. Venema personally but simply a respectful reply to his scientific critiques of intelligent design. Academic debate allows for this — in fact it encourages the respectful exchange of views.

Misunderstanding Meyer’s Argument
Venema framed his series as a response to Stephen Meyer’s arguments in Signature in the Cell, as well as those of the entire “Intelligent Design Movement,” which Venema calls the “IDM.” According to Venema: “The obvious problem for Meyer’s case is that biologists are well aware of a natural mechanism that does add functional, specified information to DNA sequences (and in some cases, creates new genes de novo): natural selection acting on genetic variation produced through random mutation.” While discussing intelligent design and the origin of new biological information, I will analyze Dr. Venema’s arguments, showing that he:

  • Misstates Stephen Meyer’s thesis as being a “denial of random mutation and natural selection” which “ignores the possibility of natural mechanisms that allow ‘information’ to accumulate in an additive fashion.” Since Meyer’s thesis pertains to the origin of information in the first life, before natural selection could have operated, Venema’s discussion of random mutation and natural selection does not respond to Meyer’s basic thesis.
  • Misstates ID’s scientific arguments, implying ID denies natural selection can do anything, and then sets up a straw man test of ID which effectively says that if natural selection can do anything, then ID is falsified.
  • Misunderstands ID as a purely negative argument against evolution where he mistakenly believes “The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were ‘designed.'”
  • Misunderstands ID’s theological implications, setting up a false dichotomy by wrongly implying that ID denies God can use material “natural” processes.
  • Offers two long-rebutted empirical examples which purportedly back his claim that natural selection can produce high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). In both cases, ID proponents have extensively discussed and rebutted these specific examples for years. Though Venema does not mention these rebuttals, ID proponents have observed the examples Venema raises likely entail “loss of function” changes, and do not show an increase in complex and specified information. To be more specific:
  • Venema’s first example of how natural selection can allegedly increase biological information cites Richard Lenski’s Long Term Evolution Experiments (“LTEE”) with E. coli. According to Venema, “One of the defining features of E. Coli is that it is unable to use citrate as a food source,” but after a series of mutations in the LTEE, “bacteria that use citrate dominate the population.” Venema claims these experiments show “Complex, specified information can indeed arise through natural mechanisms.” But Venema fails to recognize that ID’s leading biochemist, Michael Behe, has published an extensive critique regarding this experiment, including lengthy commentary in a peer-reviewed paper Behe published in Quarterly Review of Biology (QRB) in 2010, as well as critiques in 2008 when the citrate claims were first published. As Behe explains in both rebuttals, normal E. coli have the machinery to uptake and metabolize citrate, and thus Venema’s unqualified claims that they evolved the ability to “use citrate as a food source” are overstated. Moreover, in his QRB article, Behe points out that the ability of E. coli to uptake citrate under oxic conditions in the LTEE was not a new finding, and likely resulted from loss-of-function mutations that did not increase CSI. Oddly, Venema focuses on attacking Stephen Meyer’s arguments which are not even rebutted by the findings of the LTEE, making no mention of Behe’s extensive responses or these important qualifications to his claims about this experiment.
  • Venema also cites the research of University of Oregon biochemist Joe Thornton, claiming it shows natural selection and random mutation can produce “CSI on steroids.” Again, Venema fails to note that when Thornton’s research was first published in 2006, multiple leading ID proponents (including Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, and Stephen Meyer) wrote responses, pointing out that the research merely showed that a couple mutations could cause an allegedly ancestral protein to lose function. In this case too, Venema ignores Michael Behe’s extensive responses to his evidence — responses that stated: “The bottom line of the study is this: the authors started with a protein which already had the ability to strongly interact with three kinds of steroid hormones (aldosterone, cortisol, and ‘DOC’ [11-deoxycorticosterone]). After introducing several simple mutations the protein interacted much more weakly with all of those steroids. In other words, a pre-existing ability was decreased. That’s it! The fact that this extremely modest and substantially irrelevant study is ballyhooed with press releases, a commentary in Science by Christoph Adami, and forthcoming stories in the mainstream media, demonstrates the great anxiety some folks feel about intelligent design.”
  • Venema’s latter posts in the series discuss evidence that could count as weak, or circumstantial, evidence for common descent — evidence such as high levels of human / ape genetic similarities. At most, however, this evidence shows circumstantial evidence for common ancestry. It says nothing about the information-generative abilities of random mutation and natural selection. Venema would have done well to heed Behe’s advice in The Edge of Evolution that “modern Darwinists point to evidence of common descent and erroneously assume it to be evidence of the power of random mutation.” In fact, if we factor into the analysis the possibility of common design of functional genetic programs, Venema’s evidence doesn’t even strongly point to common descent. But Venema ignores the possibility of common design.
  • In sum, Venema’s series, “Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information,” badly misstates the nature of the theory of intelligent design, and the arguments of specific ID proponents, and fails to note the many rebuttals which ID proponents have written to his primary examples purporting to show how Darwinian evolution can increase CSI.Again, I want to reiterate that my purpose here is to help bring clarity to how we test intelligent design and to show what ID proponents have said about these examples which Venema claims show Darwinian causes increasing biological information. And let me again say that although Venema makes some mistakes, I have no intent to attack him personally during this series. I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Venema is anything but a highly competent and intelligent professional biologist. But Dr. Venema’s mistakes and misunderstandings are common ones among ID critics. I hope this series of responses will help readers — including critics — better understand what intelligent design claims.

Approximately seven more articles will follow in this series, so stay tuned.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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