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From the Darwinist Blogosphere, Stephen Meyer’s Trip to London Elicits a Typical Reaction

Jonathan McLatchie

As we have already reported, Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer recently paid a visit to London to present and defend the thesis of Signature in the Cell at a dinner party attended by scientists, philosophers, politicians and other men and women of influence. His visit included a radio debate against theistic evolutionist Keith Fox, which you can download and listen to here. Fox presented nothing fundamentally novel, and more or less all of the objections raised by him had already been thoroughly addressed in Meyer’s book. Keith Fox is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Southampton, and is also the chairman of Christians in Science — in essence, the UK equivalent of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).

Unfortunately, I was not present at the event in London. But I have heard positive reports from those who were. One person wrote to me after the event, saying,

Steve Meyer was very well received and perhaps the most striking thing for me was the number of people afterwards who commented that they hadn’t really thought about it before. This from professors and scientists!

How encouraging! I think one of the main reasons that ID does not enjoy a broader base of acceptance in the academic world is the sheer lack of understanding of what the theory actually says and what the arguments for it are. It’s good to see the effect that exposure to these ideas is having, even on biologists and other academics. See here for the Centre for Intelligent Design’s report on the event.

Meyer’s London visit is already causing a stir on the blogosphere. At the Christians in Science website Internet forum, “Simon” writes,

Meyer’s lecture was truly awful. […] To be fair I was expecting something much better from so senior an ID person and was disappointed. He started with a brief overview of natural selection followed by a more detailed (but stumbly) description of the cellular transcription/translation machinery. He then showed all the usual calculations of why a functional protein sequence can’t have evolved by chance, followed by a really confused attempt to explain how the information content cannot have evolved by necessity (i.e. physical laws). This was the worst bit of his lecture by a long way — something about bonds between base-pairs in DNA not being able to self assemble. He really did not spend enough time explaining his reasoning on this point and sort of jumped quickly to his conclusion (he was running late at this point) by saying since the cellular machinery was so complex, it must have been intelligent design.

I was hoping for a much better talk from so well known a speaker, but basically it boiled down to the incredulity argument coupled with a God of the gaps conclusion. The event reminded me of why I no longer bother to read any of the ID literature, and generally consider anyone who takes ID seriously as either being na�ve about science or alternatively a bit stupid.

I was not at this lecture. But if Meyer’s presentation was anything like his usual, this comment would appear to demonstrate a complete failure on the part of its author to understand the argument that Steve Meyer actually presents. For one thing, the point that Meyer makes about the bonding in DNA is that “there are no chemical bonds between the bases along the longitudinal axis in the center of the helix. Yet it is precisely along this axis of the DNA molecule that the genetic information is stored” (SITC, p. 242). It is this fundamental property of DNA that allows DNA to carry the information it does. The bases of DNA do not align in the sequential arrangement they do because of physical necessity or chemical affinity. The arrangement, on the contrary, is arbitrary — any arrangement is possible, but only some arrangements convey functional specificity.

Meyer’s argument also does not say that “x is complex; therefore, x is designed,” nor does Meyer commit the “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy. On the contrary, Meyer argues — based on the standard historical (abductive) scientific method — that there is only one known cause, one category of explanation, that is known by virtue of our uniform and repeated experience to be able to produce large volumes of highly complex (improbable) and functionally specific information. Thus, in the absence of viable competing explanations, it follows that the most likely explanation for this phenomenon is that it too arose by virtue of an intelligent cause.
Most of the other thread comments continue in a similar vein, with much the same tone and level of argumentation.

“Simon” wrote later on in the thread,

Regarding the biochemistry, the whole argument about probabilities is a complete red herring. The reason why natural selection is a powerful theory is because it short-circuits the vanishingly small probabilities required to generate complex life through just chance by adding a “necessity” selection filter. Granted this is the “chance & necessity” argument, however Meyer did a really poor job in saying why chance & necessity cannot lead to specified information increase. For instance polyploidy is a well known biological phenomenon which leads to an increase in “specified complexity” as Meyer would call it, however he seemed to suggest that such systems couldn’t occur!

Oh my. “Simon” really hasn’t read any ID papers on this topic, has he? I suggest he start with Douglas Axe’s thorough treatment of the topic in his 2010 paper in Bio-Complexity, which one can read here. The whole point of the argument about protein folds is that:

  1. Natural selection is blind to non-functional sequences of amino acids.
  2. Functional sequences of amino acids are astronomically rare and isolated in combinatorial sequence space.

Given these two facts, natural selection cannot navigate through combinatorial sequence space in search of the bases of those functional peaks. Sure, natural selection can optimize a function once the bases of those peaks have already been found. But finding them in the first place is like searching for a tiny needle in an enormous haystack. And this problem is only accentuated by the functional interdependency of macromolecules in even the simplest and most basic of subcellular systems.

“Simon” also cites polyploidy as a means by which specified complexity can arise. But Signature in the Cell is concerned with the origin of such specified complexity in the first life, and polyploidy concerns genome duplication in eukaryotes. Moreover, even in eukaryotes, polyploidy only appears to have a major effect within plants — so its relevance to the origin of the first life is dubious.

One of the thread’s contributors is a molecular genetics professor by the name of Robert Saunders. Saunders is a member of the BCSE (British equivalent of the National Center for Science Education) and often weighs in on intelligent design on their blog and on his own. Saunders was sent an invitation which he accepted, though he didn’t turn up for the event. However he decided to blog about it anyway. Saunders writes,

The Centre for Intelligent Design makes much of the supposition that only intelligence can bring about “information.” Unfortunately from their point of view, increase (and decrease) in gene number and genome size are clearly observable, not only by comparative genomics studies of a wide variety of taxa, but by direct observation of within species genome variation. What’s more, those of us engaged in laboratory genetics are well aware of the kinds of genome changes that can occur even within the timescale of laboratory work.

Clearly, Saunders is unfamiliar with what ID proponents mean when they speak of “information.” An increase in “genome size” can hardly be construed as an increase in CSI (Complex Specified Information), though it may well qualify as an increase in “Shannon information.” He continues,

In contrast to the ongoing efforts of science, one of the hallmarks of Intelligent Design creationism is that they don’t conduct novel research aimed at proving the existence of design. How can they? — ID isn’t science and makes no testable predictions. What ID creationists do is to focus on individual cases where they assert evolutionary biology cannot explain how some feature arose (usually by claiming “irreducible complexity” or some such tosh) and claim that if evolution wasn’t responsible, intelligent design is the only alternative — a pretty dubious way of claiming evidence for ID. Unfortunately for the likes of Michael Behe, each time one of these assertions is made, those pesky scientists come along and knock it down. Examples include the bacterial flagellum and the vertebrate immune system. The rather wonderful Nova TV documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District I linked to the other day (US TV Documentary — Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial) demolishes those two canards of intelligent design creationism in a very accessible fashion.

This paragraph contains nearly as many errors as there are sentences. For one thing, ID does make testable predictions. For example, it predicts the presence of complex and functionally specific information in the cell; it predicts the already-alluded-to rarity of functional protein folds in amino acid sequence space; it predicts certain patterns in the history of life (e.g., the saltationist nature of the fossil record; morphological disparity preceding diversity, etc.); it predicts that design purposes will be discovered for systems that are currently thought to be functionless (such as the discoveries of the past decade or two which have uncovered a myriad of functions for so-called “junk DNA“). In astronomy, it predicts that, as science progresses, the number of instances of fine tuning in the laws and constants of physics will increase and not decrease over time. And it makes many other predictions as well.

Furthermore, ID proponents are of course doing novel research. For a listing of such research, see the following links:

  1. Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated)
  2. Evolutionary Informatics Lab — Publications
  3. Biologic Institute — Research
  4. Bio-Complexity Publication Archive

Nor is it the case that we “focus on individual cases where [we] assert evolutionary biology cannot explain how some feature arose…and claim that if evolution wasn’t responsible, intelligent design is the only alternative.” Rather, we argue that, based on our knowledge of the causal powers of various competing explanations, ID is the only candidate that fits the bill. Intelligent agents possess the unique ability to visualize complexity and bring everything together that is needed to actualize a complex endpoint. In all our experience, there is a uniform causal relation between information — of the type we find in the cell — and intelligence. Therefore, based on the historical (abductive) method of scientific enquiry, ID is the most causally adequate explanation for this information. Perhaps the confusion stems from Saunders’ own confession that not only did he not attend the speech, “I haven’t read Meyer’s book.”

Saunders brings up the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum and the vertebrate immune system, claiming that these cases of irreducible complexity have been refuted. But this is not the case. For a discussion of why the attempted explanations of the bacterial flagellum by Ken Miller and others fundamentally trivialize the complexity and organization of the system, see my article here. For a discussion of how the critics have failed to refute Behe on the vertebrate immune system, see Casey Luskin’s article here.

Saunders also mentions the Dover Trial, with specific reference to the PBS film Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial“. For a thorough expos� of the errors and misrepresentations of this film, check out this website. For those who want the highlights, there is also this excellent article by ENV’s Casey Luskin. For further background information on the Dover Trial, check out Traipsing Into Evolution.

Saunders concludes his reflections by asking why it is the case that the UK Centre for Intelligent Design requested that the names of the attendees at the Meyer event remain undisclosed. In this, Saunders demonstrates his sheer lack of familiarity with the dynamics of the ID debate. There is tremendous academic pressure on scientists today to conform to the scientific consensus regarding the materialistic basis of life’s origins and evolution. For many, being “outed” as a proponent of (or sympathizer with) ID would be detrimental to one’s career prospects. For a thorough discussion of this unfortunate fact, see Expelled.

Saunders notes that the policy was later changed to allow guests to “report, formally or informally, on the content of the lecture, the nature of the issues raised at question time, and the identities of the host, lecturer and representatives of the Centre for Intelligent Design.” Saunders speculates, “Quite what significance (if any) this holds I don’t know. But one interpretation might be that attendance from individuals outside the obvious ID creationism circles was looking low, and the organisers felt this statement might encourage them to come along.” No, Bob, this rule was implemented at the request of some attendees, and in the interests of fostering frank, healthy discourse.

In summary, a survey of the various responses to Stephen Meyer reveals the lack of substantive rebuttal to the arguments he raises. If this is the best the critics of ID have to offer, they are in deep trouble. As the C4ID’s director Dr. Alastair Noble said to Saunders in a blog comment, “I suppose the value of a critique of a book you didn’t read and a lecture you didn’t attend is that you achieve a much higher caliber of fiction!”

Jonathan McLatchie

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Jonathan McLatchie holds a Bachelor's degree in Forensic Biology from the University of Strathclyde, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, a second Master's degree in Medical and Molecular Bioscience from Newcastle University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Newcastle University. Currently, Jonathan is an assistant professor of biology at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. Jonathan has been interviewed on podcasts and radio shows including "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio, and many others. Jonathan has spoken internationally in Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia promoting the evidence of design in nature.



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