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Munchausen Syndrome: Perry Marshall Debates Stephen Meyer on the “Third Way” of Evolution


Justin Brierly of the radio program Unbelievable? out of the U.K. is a gem of an interviewer, regularly bringing together advocates of competing views on biological origins for startlingly rich, serious, and civil discussion.

He’s done that again now with a program featuring our colleague Stephen Meyer and Perry Marshall, author of the book Evolution 2.0. Meyer and Marshall were both present for November’s Royal Society meeting and they debate whether the Third Way of Evolution folks, who organized the meeting, are hot on the trail of a replacement theory for failed neo-Darwinism.

Dr. Meyer, while respecting Third Way critiques of orthodox evolutionary thinking, argues that a more fundamental paradigm shift is called for by the scientific evidence — namely an inference to intelligent design. Marshall promotes the Third Way view, and his slogan is “Darwinists underestimate nature, and Creationists underestimate God.” (He puts ID “in that same camp,” the “creationist” one, but we’re not going to argue with him about that right now.) An electrical engineer with a background in marketing and sales, he explains his approach in terms of “market share.”

I take the position I take, because if I take the old school Neo-Darwinist position I will lose market share every year as more and more things turn out to be orderly instead of random.

If I take the creationist or Intelligent Design/Discovery Institute position, I will lose ground every year as they explain more and more evolutionary steps with observable processes.

But if I take the Third Way view, my market share will grow and grow because the explanatory power of an integrationist, non-reductionist paradigm which also considers consciousness.

That may sound a bit crass. Meyer counters that science is about getting at the truth, not pursuing a “market.”

I think a lot of what’s driving Perry is what he was talking about with “market share.” How do you position a more theistically oriented way of looking at the natural world to get people who are atheist or agnostic to take you seriously?

I think at the end of the day you have to set those things aside and say what is nature telling us, and then develop an understanding of both the origin and development of life that is consistent with the evidence.

The issue comes down to whether the information at the heart of biology can be accounted for without reference to a designing agent operating in the course of life’s long history. As Marshal prefers to say, was this information required for biological innovation front-loaded in the first bacterial cells so that it comes from within the animal, not from a source without? Talking about the research of leading Third Way figure James Shapiro at the University of Chicago, Meyer identifies two key issues:

I also think Shapiro’s work is extremely interesting, and it’s certainly cutting some new ground in biology. What Shapiro is talking about — and I discuss Shapiro’s work and five of the other Third Way mechanisms that have been proposed, these non-neo-Darwinian mechanisms of evolutionary change — in Darwin’s Doubt in two of the key chapters of the book.

What I show there is invariably what is going on is these new mechanisms either presuppose unexplained sources of information, or they simply don’t explain the origin of necessary information to get real anatomical novelty. In other words, there are limits on what these mechanisms can produce.

Take Shapiro’s work. He’s describing ways in which organisms respond in real time to environmental stresses. Then they produce a response in the way that either they express pre-existing genetic information, or the way they ramp up the mutation rate in very specific parts of the genome to explore possibilities that are already latent in the genetic information.

So what he’s talking about is a kind of pre-programmed adaptive capacity which he says is under “algorithmic control.”

That’s all extremely cool. It is very elegant the way organisms can do that, but the question that Shapiro doesn’t address is: where does the pre-programming come from? Where does that algorithm come from? There’s a higher level of informational programming at work that’s presupposed in this whole process that he doesn’t attempt to explain.

My concern about using this as an explanation for the whole of what we see in biological evolution is two-fold. First, you can’t really propose that all this information is already in all these different organisms, and every organism has its own preprogramming to respond in different ways according to its organismal needs.

I don’t think it’s plausible to say that all this information could have been front-loaded in the circular chromosome of the bacterial cell at the point of the origin of life. Clearly you’re going to need additional information at discrete points along the biological timeline.

Just getting from prokaryotes to eukaryotes requires an extensive reworking of the whole system of storage of genetic information. But secondly, and I think this is really a key thing, this is one of the key problems, it is the problem of epigenetic information.

Not all the information to build a body plan is in DNA. DNA codes for building proteins, but proteins have to be organized into bio-synthetic pathways that would characterize different kinds of cells and cell types.

Different cell types have to be organized into different tissues. Different tissues have to reorganize into different organs.

And organs and tissues have to be organized into whole body plans. The information for doing that is not solely in the DNA. Higher levels of information stored elsewhere are required to organize all those different levels of the biological hierarchy.

Shapiro is focusing on Natural Genetic Engineering, and has said he might get novel proteins out of this, but he’s not going to explain the origin of a body plan. And that’s the really crucial question biologically. Where did that higher-level innovation come from?

Both the Third Way crowd and their advocate Mr. Marshall position themselves as offering an alternative to Darwinism and ID. Marshall thinks Darwinists and ID theorists alike are missing what he plainly can see — that evolution is real and a beautiful thing because it comes from within the organism, within the universe, itself.

On his website, Marshall has helpfully transcribed the whole program, adding annotations of his own. He writes:

It’s the biggest untold story in the history of science and the Neo-Darwinists have completely missed it. The creationists and the Discovery Institute have completely missed it as well. You would never know from reading a Richard Dawkins book or a Stephen Meyer book that you can get a completely new species in two years, and maybe even two days, from symbiogenesis or hybridization. Or that you can witness a radical innovation from a single cell in just 12 hours.

Neo-Darwinism is about miracles of randomness which can never be quantified or demonstrated. It’s the biggest mistake in the history of science. And despite Meyer’s insistence to the contrary, Intelligent Design is still God of the gaps. The two are symmetrical. Neither offers you a mechanism that qualifies as empirical science. Neither helps the scientist do his real job, which is to explain every evolutionary step in reproducible detail.

And neither is telling you the REAL story — that organisms possess tools of Natural Genetic Engineering and freedom to evolve on their own. It’s the purpose of my book Evolution 2.0 to tell that story.

He refers to symbiogenesis and hybridization. But how much of those processes are an organism simply activating pre-programmed information? This is not macroevolution in action. Where does that pre-programmed information come from? It cannot be from the organism itself, as Marshall suggests.

Why? On the issue of pre-programming or front-loading information, our new colleague, the paleontologist and now Center for Science & Culture Senior Fellow Günter Bechly, notes three problems. He writes:

One of the problems with Marshall’s approach is that we have brains: according to Marshall the intelligent design in the genome is not to be explained with the infusion of information from outside the system, but with the organisms (including bacterial cells!) themselves being the intelligent agents of their own design. Given the lack of any physical basis for such intelligence on the level of simple organisms like bacteria, this intelligence must be based on an immaterial mind.

This is clearly documented by Marshall’s explicit endorsement of Robert Lanza’s “Biocentrism,” which is one of the many popular varieties of “monistic idealism meets quantum mysticism.” However, if even bacteria can achieve incredible intelligence and information processing abilities without a material brain, why is intelligent behavior in animals positively correlated with the complexity of their neural system? Why do we need brains at all?

A second problem is that it is not the organism that is said to evolve but populations, which would even imply a kind of hive mind to make sense of Marshall’s approach.

Finally, there is the Munchausen problem that intelligent agents cannot be their own designers, because they have to come into existence before they can design anything.

In the end the crucial question is: What makes more sense when you already have come to the conclusion that biological design is caused by immaterial intelligent agency: that bacteria and worms are intelligent minds and brilliant genetic engineers, or that the intelligent designer is the omniscient and omnipotent immaterial mind (God), in which Marshall believes anyway for different reasons?

That Munchausen reference is to the satirical story of Baron Munchausen lifting and thus rescuing himself and his horse, stuck in a mire, by pulling upward on his own hair. That’s not going to work. It’s an apt image for what’s wrong not only with Marshall’s argument but with the Third Way approach in general.

Image: Baron Munchausen rescues himself and his horse from a mire, by Oskar Herrfurth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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"Third Way" of EvolutionStephen Meyer