In a post for the theistic evolutionary group BioLogos, Canadian biology professor Dennis Venema writes affectionately, with only a mild touch of disdain, about the intelligent design movement. Their (meaning our) hearts are in the right place, he tells readers. Like him, advocates of ID want to build an “apologetic” against materialism. They’re just going about it in the wrong way. And their science is wrong.
Venema readily concedes that living cells use “highly intricate” processes to manage genetic information. However, is it really “information”? And is the genetic code really a “code”? The quote marks in both cases are Venema’s. He uses them in the evident hope of weakening the commonly held intuition that both must be designed. If there is a natural pathway to the genetic code, he argues, then it only looks like a code in hindsight. It only looks like information after evolution improved it.
Venema’s argument rests on two premises, one empirical and one philosophical. The empirical premise is that a natural pathway to the genetic code is known, though admittedly many questions remain. The philosophical premise is that finding a “natural” explanation is superior to “interventionism” (the approach of looking for “supernatural” acts of God requiring “miracles”). We should learn from history, he says, and prefer the natural pathway:
As an aside, as a Christian biologist I would be perfectly fine with the answer being either “natural” or “supernatural”. Both natural and supernatural means are part of the providence of God, and the distinction is not a biblical one in any case. Perhaps God set up the cosmos in a way to allow for abiogenesis to take place. Perhaps he created the first life directly — though, as we will see, there are lines of evidence that I think are suggestive of the former rather than the latter. Similarly, I would have been fine with God supernaturally sustaining the flames of the sun for our benefit, as English apologist John Edwards claimed long ago. I do happen to think that solar fusion is an elegant way to “solve” this problem, and as a person of faith I think it evinces a deeper, more satisfying design than some sort of miraculous interventionist approach for keeping the sun going. I recognize, however, that seeing design in the natural process of solar fusion — or abiogenesis — is not the sort of argument that some Christian apologists are looking for. [Emphasis added.]
What’s notable is the language of faith. Who is making a religious argument here? In this one paragraph, Venema uses the words God, supernatural, providence, biblical, faith, miraculous, and Christian. Such language is tellingly absent from most intelligent design literature, which as a matter of science and of principle avoids questions about the identity of the designer, instead ascribing effects to causes that can be demonstrated scientifically to be necessary and sufficient. The design argument is a purely scientific one, as Michael Behe states in Unlocking the Mystery of Life: “It might have religious implications, but it does not depend on religious premises.”
Indeed, ID emphatically isn’t an “apologetic” strategy. It is a scientific theory of origins, which may be right or wrong, yet must be judged as science and only as science.
From there, Venema addresses biological matters. In particular, he attempts to refute Stephen Meyer’s contention that the genetic code is arbitrary, therefore designed. Well before Stephen Meyer wrote Signature in the Cell (2009), Venema argues, Meyer should have known of the work of Michael Yarus, who as far back as the 1980s was showing that chemical affinities between RNA and amino acids could have led to the genetic code naturally. From simple beginnings — entirely natural — today’s complex interactions between messenger RNA (mRNA) and transfer RNA (tRNA) could have evolved by a process of “Direct RNA Templating,” or DRT:
I recall reading Meyer’s argument for an arbitrary code when Signature first came out in 2009, and being surprised by it. The reason for my surprise was simple: in 2009 there was already a detailed body of scientific work that demonstrated exactly what Meyer claimed had never been shown. Though Meyer claimed that “molecular biologists have failed to find any significant chemical interaction between the codons on mRNA (or the anticodons on tRNA) and the amino acids on the acceptor arm of tRNA to which the codons correspond” this was simply not the case.
Overall, Venema’s tone is respectful and non-confrontational. That’s good. But now it is our turn to be surprised, because another “detailed body of scientific work” has already rebutted his argument. In fact, Dr. Meyer, along with Paul Nelson, addressed DRT in a paper in BIO-Complexity in August 2011, responding specifically to the claims of Michael Yarus (see Ann Gauger’s summary here at Evolution News). Not only that, Meyer responded to Venema directly when he brought up the same argument in his critical view of Signature in December 2010 (PDF here; see Meyer’s rebuttal and Venema’s response).
Other authors have responded to DRT in our pages: Jonathan M. (August 2011), Evolution News (September 2011), and Casey Luskin (December 2011). That’s at least six who have replied to Venema’s sole empirical support for his argument. In each case, they did so with scientific evidence, not religious arguments or appeals to “apologetic” concerns. Why, then, is Dr. Venema resurrecting DRT as if it is something new? In his article there is not a single reference to any of our post-Signature writings, including the direct dialogue he had with Meyer in 2011 on this very point. How curious. That seems a missed opportunity for engagement.
His omission is doubly regrettable when you consider that the DRT argument fails to address the very issue Venema claims it does: the origin of the genetic code. Chemical affinity is the wrong kind of process to explain biological information. Real information (without the scare quotes) is characterized by aperiodic sequences of building blocks, not the regular, repetitive sequences produced by chemical attraction. That’s clear from this sentence, as from Venema’s own writing. It’s clear from DNA itself. His sole empirical support, therefore, falls away.
The fact that several amino acids do in fact bind their codons or anticodons is strong evidence that at least part of the code was formed through chemical interactions — and, contra Meyer, is not an arbitrary code. The code we have — or at least for those amino acids for which direct binding was possible — was indeed a chemically favored code. And if it was chemically favored, then it is quite likely that it had a chemical origin, even if we do not yet understand all the details of how it came to be.
The reader can decide what is “strong evidence” or “quite likely.” Are we to conclude that the English language emerged by unguided natural processes because “crisps” and “chips” can refer to the same thing, as he argues? In DNA, the sequence AUG leads to adding methionine to a protein, not because of any chemical attraction, but because it has meaning in a code. It refers to a separate entity that a programmed system knows how to decode. Some amino acids can be coded by multiple DNA triplets (serine has six), but this is another design feature (see Casey Luskin’s article here).
What motivates this desire to prefer natural causes? Certainly a fear of “God-of-the-gaps” looms large. Venema adduces “what science will learn some day”:
As such, building an apologetic on the presumed future failings of abiogenesis research, when current research already undercuts one’s thesis, seems to me as problematic for Meyer in 2009 as it did for Edwards in 1696. Do unanswered questions remain? Of course. Should we bank on them never being answered? Or would it be more wise to frame our apologetics on what we know, rather than what we don’t know?
But that’s the point. ID argues that we should infer intelligent causes — when justified through the Design Filter — because of what we do know, not what we don’t know. We do know of a cause that can build information-rich structures with meaning and reference. We do know of a cause that can encode, decode, and translate things into functional hierarchies. That cause is intelligence. We never see natural processes building such things.
Is this “interventionist” thinking? The real appeal to miracles is hoping for unguided natural processes to accomplish, at some unspecified future date, what is demonstrably physically impossible (see Douglas Axe’s book Undeniable for the math on that). John Edwards did not use the Design Filter. He speculated, and used theological arguments in so doing. There is no comparison. The real “gaps” argument lies in hoping that science will someday find a natural chemical affinity leading to the genetic code. That is like expecting that someday scientists will find that the molecules in a DVD can organize themselves into a movie that will play in a DVD player. The best explanation appeals to causes known to be in operation that can account for the phenomenon under study: for DVDs and for the genetic code that far surpasses DVDs in functional information. In our universal experience, intelligence is not only the best explanation; it is the only explanation.
Venema promises more posts in a series rebutting Meyer’s claim that “evolution is incapable of generating significant amounts of new information.” Of course, he is welcome to his own opinion, but not to his own science. To ignore a large body of past dialogue on the very issue under consideration does a disservice to his readers and misinforms them about our position, as if we were the ones unaware of the science. Dr. Venema is warmly encouraged to try again: start with a literature search, provide references, and address an opponent’s position as it is, not a caricature of it.
Photo credit: © Marquis Washington — stock.adobe.com.