After David Klinghoffer invited responses to a recent article in our series responding to BioLogos scientist Dennis Venema, “Richard Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiments (LTEE) with E. coli and the Origin of New Biological Information,” a lively online conversation ensued. Former National Center for Science Education (NCSE) spokesperson Nick Matzke joined in and I thought readers might find a recap of our exchange illuminating.
Matzke offered a striking comment: he admitted that Darwinian evolution’s most “detailed explanation” for the origin of a gene (“Sdic,” found in male fruit flies) is a case where we don’t even know the exact function of the gene, and thus don’t know just what function it was that natural selection was supposedly selecting for. Despite these deficiencies, Matzke stated, “No one has produced a better, more detailed explanation.”
That’s interesting, considering that the investigators admitted they don’t know the precise function of Sdic: “We do not yet know how Sdic contributes to the function of the sperm axoneme, or even whether it is essential for male fertility.” They offered further undetailed (and unlikely) explanations such as:
[A]lthough a testes-specific promoter was essential for Sdic, this unusual regulatory region did not really “evolve.” Instead it was aboriginal, created de novo by the fortuitous juxtaposition of suitable sequences.
(Nurminsky et al., “Selective sweep of a newly evolved sperm-specic gene in Drosophila,” Nature, 396:572-575 (12-10-98).)
And yet according to Matzke, “No one has produced a better, more detailed explanation”?
Matzke tried to deflect attention from this lack of detail by mischaracterizing my position: “So your position is that if we don’t know everything, we know nothing, I guess, and can safely infer that no such thing could have ever possibly occurred?” I then responded to Matzke correcting his misstatements:
My position is not “if we don’t know everything, we know nothing.” Rather, my position is the far more reasonable: “If we don’t know anything, we know nothing.” If you claim that natural selection was at work, and you don’t even know exactly what function was being selected, then you don’t know very much, and you certainly haven’t demonstrated natural selection was at work.
…You just admitted that the most “detailed explanation” for the evolution of a gene represents a case where:
- they don’t even know the precise function of the gene,
- and thus don’t know what exactly what function was being selected,
- and thus don’t know if there are steps that require multiple mutations to produce an advantage,
- and thus haven’t even begun to show that the gene can evolve in a step-by-step fashion,
- and thus don’t know that there are sufficient probabilistic resources to produce the gene by gene duplication+mutation+selection.
In effect, you have just admitted that Darwinian explanations for the origin of genes are incredibly detail-poor.
Citation Bluffs on Pre-Biotic Natural Selection
Another interesting point came when Matzke cited a paper claiming it showed Stephen Meyer was wrong to argue that prebiotic natural selection is an impossibility. Matzke wrote:
[I]f you’re going to rule out the biological case of the increase of information, because natural selection didn’t exist at the origin of life and thus can’t explain it, then you can just as well rule out intelligence as a cause of the origin of life, because it didn’t exist then either, as far as we know. Fair is fair. “But maybe intelligence existed then even though it wasn’t humans!”, you say. Well, maybe — but maybe natural selection existed then also. It is clear that the quote Meyer uses over and over and over, entirely uncritically, to the effect that “prebiotic natural selection is a contradiction in terms,” is a decades-old oversimplification at best. Modern research does not conclude this — see for example this prominent paper which Meyer somehow, mystifyingly, missed:
Martin A. Nowak and Hisashi Ohtsuki (2008). “Prevolutionary dynamics and the origin of evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2008 Sep 30;105(39):14924-7. Epub 2008 Sep 12.
In reply I noted that we have principled reasons for thinking natural selection could not operate prior to the origin of life: natural selection requires replication, and prior to the origin of life, there was no replication (because the origin of life is typically defined as the origin of replication). As Meyer notes in Signature, Nobel laureates like Christian de Duve agree with that reasoning. However, there are no comparable reasons for excluding intelligent agency. As I wrote to Matzke:
You appear to be using a contrived definition of “fair,” because you’ve offered no principled reason for excluding ID. Your exclusion of ID appears to be arbitrary, based upon a distaste for the ID conclusion. In fact, I can offer a justification for why we can suspect that intelligent agency existed prior to the origin of life.
The fine-tuning of the universe shows powerful evidence of design. That fine-tuning was in place when the universe first came to exist, some 13 billion years ago. That’s some 8-9 billion years prior to the origin of life on earth. So we have pretty good reasons to believe that intelligent agency existed, and was influencing the universe, prior to the origin of life on earth.
I then responded to the PNAS paper Matzke cited, noting that it acknowledges that Stephen Meyer’s thinking is justified, stating: “Evolution needs mutation and selection. Normally, one thinks of these properties as being derivative of replication…”
The paper then claims that mutation and selection are possible without replication, but it doesn’t completely eliminate replication, it just redefines the term. The paper’s argument might be summarized like this:
If (for no apparent reason other than the fact that they just happen) some unspecified chemical reactions happen to generate some unspecified sequences of monomers more than others, then we can have selection in the absence of replication. Next, if we “assume that some sequences can act as a templates [sic] for replication,” then those that can replicate will make even more copies of themselves, leading to a transition from “prelife” to “life.”This argument has many problems, not the least of which is the fact that it’s 100% hypothetical, and makes no references to the real world of chemistry or real-world conditions on the prebiotic earth. In other words, there’s no evidence that this paper’s speculation has any bearing upon things that happen in the real world.
Moreover, without a goal-directed process, there’s no reason why these accumulating strings of monomers should stumble upon the trait of self-replication. As Meyer notes in Signature, this problem is common in prebiotic chemistry: there is no reason to generate complex and specified information (CSI). It’s just assumed that CSI arises by chance, thanks to sheer dumb luck.
The paper thus confuses Shannon information with functional CSI. Under its theoretical scheme, long sequences of 0s and 1s accumulate (again, for no apparent reason) but there’s no reason to think they will be arranged in a pattern that carries any meaning. This scheme might generate Shannon information, but not CSI, the kind of information of interest to those seeking to understand the origin of life’s functional complexity.
I suppose it’s easy to assert that prebiotic natural selection is possible — where unspecified chemical reactions occur for no apparent reason generating strings of monomers capable of self-replication — when you don’t have to conform your arguments to anything in the real world. Perhaps there are good reasons that Stephen Meyer didn’t mention this paper.
Framing and Misframing the Issues
I closed my response to Matzke noting his prevalence for misframing the issues:
You’re welcome to frame the issues as you like. But I think that fair-minded readers will see that your framing of the issues doesn’t address ID arguments, and is suspiciously suited to favor Darwinian evolution, not fairness and the objective search for scientific truth. Here’s what I think is really going on:
- You are trying to exclude ID arbitrarily from science.
- You have provided a citation bluff to claim that information can arise by mutation and selection in a pre-biological context.
- You have mischaracterized my reasonable request for minimal detail in Darwinian explanations as a demand for “infinitely detailed explanations.”
And at the same time, you’ve admitted that the most “detailed explanation” of the Darwinian origin of a gene entails a case where we don’t even know what function is being selected for, and evolutionists were forced to appeal to its promoter region having been “created de novo by the fortuitous juxtaposition of suitable sequences.” That’s quite a weighty admission…
As a telling indicator of the strength of Darwinian explanations, Matzke’s comments should worry his fellow activists in the evolution lobby.