|Intelligent Design and the Origin of Information: A Response to Dennis Venema
In this article, Part 2, we:
A couple months ago, self-described theistic evolutionist Jon Garvey became disillusioned with BioLogos’s tone and approach. Specifically, the British physician and blogger was concerned about cited BioLogos’s treatment of Stephen Meyer and his award–winning book Signature in the Cell. In explaining his reasons for leaving the BioLogos camp, Dr. Garvey wrote:
What struck me in all this was that every single contribution contained at least some degree of ad hominem attack, and most included dire warnings about the damage the book threatened to science, religion, society or all three. That, combined with the protests of many that the BioLogos articles were misrepresenting Meyer’s arguments, made a good case for assessing it carefully, my reading informed by 18 months of confutation rather than vice versa.
Biologist Dennis Venema was one of the authors who responded to Signature in the Cell on the BioLogos website. In his series on “Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information,” Dr. Venema quotes a passage from Signature in the Cell that refers to information and the “origin of DNA.” Meyer is clearly talking about the birth of information at the origin of life, not during the subsequent diversification of life by Darwinian or other processes. Yet Venema’s entire series deals with how Darwinian processes can purportedly create new information. Framed as a response to Meyer, it really isn’t that at all. The former BioLogos supporter critiqued Venema’s response as follows:
A later response was Dennis Venema’s five-part series, “Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information.” Not only the title, but the introduction, made it clear that this was a response to Meyer. But as several posters pointed out, whatever its merits the first article was about claimed examples of information-gain in current evolution. It was pointed out that SITC is actually about the Origin of Life, and hopes were expressed that Venema would cover this later in the series. He never did, basing his whole critique on an appendix about predictions that ID might make in the future. In this appendix Meyer not only stresses that his book is only concerned with OoL, but that many ID supporters believe that normal evolutionary processes can account for all subsequent increases in information, though he personally doubts this. In his own comments, Venema cannot resist the temptation to describe what he calls his “Behe moment,” in which he realised that Meyer lacks even an elementary grasp of basic biology (a neat way of dismissing two writers in one go by ad hominem attacks).
What exactly did Venema say that so badly misrepresented Meyer’s thesis? Well, here’s one example from Venema’s first post in his series. He writes:
When I reviewed Signature for the American Scientific Affiliation journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) what struck me, repeatedly, was that Meyer made no mention of the evidence for natural selection as a mechanism to increase biological information.
Venema further states: “Meyer ignores the possibility of natural mechanisms that allow ‘information’ to accumulate in an additive fashion … Natural selection acting on a population of imperfectly replicating variants is exactly this sort of mechanism.”
Stephen Meyer has a compelling rebuttal to Dr. Venema that will be published shortly in a forthcoming issue of PSCF. Until it is published, however, let’s begin with some analysis and evaluation of Venema’s claims: Did Meyer really “ignore the possibility” of natural selection and make “no mention” of it?
No, not at all.
Rather, Meyer observes that since the subject of Signature in the Cell is how information arose in the first life, natural selection is not relevant to his discussion. Natural selection presupposes replication, but prior to the first life there was no replication, and thus natural selection could not have been at work.
Nonetheless, it’s not the case that Meyer makes “no mention” of natural selection. In fact, there are over 45 pages in the index of Signature in the Cell which discuss natural selection. In one of those passages, Meyer explains why natural selection can’t explain how information arose in the first life:
[M]any scientists recognized that Oparin’s concept of prebiotic natural selection begged the question. Natural selection occurs only in organisms capable of reproducing or replicating themselves. Yet, in all extant cells, self-replication depends on functional and, therefore, sequence-specific DNA and protein molecules. As theoretical biologist Howard Pattee explains, “There is no evidence that hereditary evolution [natural selection] occurs except in cells which already have … the DNA, the replicating and translating enzymes, and all the control systems and structures necessary to reproduce themselves.” But this fact of molecular biology posed an obvious difficulty for Oparin’s theory of prebiotic natural selection. In order to explain the origin of specified information in DNA, Oparin invoked a process that depends on preexisting sequence-specific (i.e. information-rich) DNA molecules. Yet the origin of these molecules is precisely what his theory needed to explain. As Christian de Duve explains, theories of prebiotic natural selection necessarily fail because they “need information which implies they have to presuppose what is to be explained in the first place.”
(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 274-275 (HarperOne, 2009) (emphasis in original).)
So notwithstanding Venema’s claim, Meyer indeed makes “mention” of the evidence regarding natural selection. As is evident in the passage above, Meyer’s primary point is that whatever evidence there may (or may not) be that natural selection can produce information is not relevant to the origin of information in the first life.
Venema again misstates Meyer’s thesis when he accuses Meyer of “denial of random mutation and natural selection as an information generator.” But as we’ve seen, there is no “denial” of natural selection. Rather, Meyer cites leading experts who explain why natural selection is not relevant to the question explored in Meyer’s book.
Thus, a general point we can take away from this consideration of Venema’s critique is that when testing whether unguided mechanisms can produce new genetic information, it’s important to understand which causes could be at work. Venema’s arguments focus on the origin of information via Darwinian processes — after the origin of life. The arguments he makes, while missing the point of Meyer’s book, are relevant to many other ID claims. They are, for that reason, worth investigating.