Seeking a Signature

by Dennis Venema

Essay Review of SIGNATURE IN THE CELL: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent
Design
by Stephen C. Meyer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009.
viii + 613 pages. Hardcover; $28.99. ISBN: 9780061472787.

Stephen C. Meyer’s recent tome Signature in the Cell (hereafter, Signature) represents the “state of the art” for the intelligent design (ID) movement with respect to the origin of biological information. With Signature, Meyer claims to have established ID as the best scientific explanation for information in DNA, and thus, to have established the presence of a designing intelligence at the origin of life. The book is a landmark for the ID movement, and, in light of its claims, is of significant interest to Christians in the sciences. If Meyer’s claims indeed are found to have scientific support, they would represent perhaps the most significant scientific advance in the last several hundred years, and at the same time, provide no less than “a blueprint for twenty-first-century biological science.”

——Read the full review——-

Concluding Thoughts
In some ways, the disappointment for me in reading Signature was its too obvious weaknesses. An ID argument with some scientific teeth to it would be intellectually invigorating, and I expected Signature would deliver more than it did. It has no theory of design, and no vigorous hypotheses to advance the movement. As Randy Isaac noted in an ASA blog, Meyer’s predictions do not distinguish between ID and other hypotheses:
It is laudable that Meyer takes the step to explore predictions that ID would make. Predictions that are testable are a vital part of the scientific process. But just making a prediction isn’t sufficient to indicate viable science. Astrologers and tasseologists can also make predictions and sometimes they may be right. Predictions must also be based on causal factors that are understood independently to exist and whose adequacy can be independently verified. The predictions must clearly differentiate between competing hypotheses. It is unfortunate that this set of dozen predictions is very weak on all counts.37
Effectively, Meyer requests that we trade pursuing an ongoing area of productive research for his pronouncement that it will never succeed. Not so. Biologists know full well that natural mechanisms can add functional information to DNA sequences, and it thus makes good sense to look for pathways that exploit these mechanisms at the origin of life. True, research in this field has not solved the origin-of-life problem, and there are several competing hypotheses on the table, all with some experimental support. Quite a lot has been accomplished in this area in the last few decades, and it is a reasonable expectation that further research will continue to pay dividends. To halt research in this field and to label it “design” (and therefore unsolvable) accomplishes nothing scientifically, especially when there is no workable theory of design to guide future work.
While popular-level books written by nonspecialists can be very helpful to a lay audience if they are carefully reviewed by experts and adhere to consensus science, Signature is not such a book. Like Edge of Evolution before it, Signature in the Cell represents a layman’s attempt to overturn an entire field of research based on a surface-level understanding (and, at times, significant misunderstanding or ignorance) of the relevant science, published in a form that by-passes review by qualified peers, and that is marketed directly to a nonspecialist audience. This is not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense. If ID is going to advance as an intellectual framework, it simply must do better. I, for one, would be fascinated by a scientifically plausible design argument. It would demonstrate that something is fundamentally wrong with the interpretation of very wide swaths of data across numerous disciplines. That would not be a scientific problem, but rather a monumental scientific opportunity that would reshape research for decades to come. Such times are the occasions of scientific legend—careers to be made, Nobel prizes to be won. Alas, Signature is not that argument. I do recommend it for those who follow the ID literature, for it represents the current state-of-the-art in ID thought for an important area of biology. However, for those of us waiting for the science behind ID, it looks as if the wait goes on.

7 comments to Seeking a Signature

  • Fredric Nelson

    Venema’s (PSCF 62, no. 4 [2010]: 276–83) “scientific ­critique” of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell, fails to come to grips with Meyer’s main thesis, which is that an unplanned nature is impotent in the generation of the information contained within the first cell. Certainly, random mutation linked to a selector such as natural selection can produce functional information, but is such information sufficient? Since God may superintend nature, the scientific question is this: Does an unplanned nature have the potential to generate the information contained within the first cell?
    Random mutation plus natural selection is not “a candidate for the origin of biological information from nonliving precursors.”(1) Natural selection occurs between living cells. No comparable selective activity exists within the abiogenic world. While an RNA world might catalyze amino acid polymerization, it would not generate information any more than stringing letters together would produce prose. Such polymerization might include nonbiological amino acids and R-isomers, which would further obstruct the generation of information. An RNA catalyst may preferentially select some amino acids over others, generating uniformity rather than complexity. A functional RNA molecule is not a template for a functional protein, and it does not explain any information contained within genetic RNA or DNA.
    Fewer than 10^46 carbon atoms exist in the upper 10 kilometers of Earth’s crust, and fewer than 10^44 polymers of 100 amino acids would exist at any moment in time. If each polymer reshuffled its amino acid residues once per second for 3 billion years, fewer than 10^61 polymer variations would be available to explore sequence space.
    Cytochrome c, an enzyme composed of 101 to 104 amino acid residues, has 27 necessary and specific amino acids, each located at a specific site along the protein chain. The probability of sequencing the appropriate codons for these amino acids is 1 chance in 10^35 per try.(2) By extrapolation, an average-sized protein with about 400 amino acid residuals would contain somewhere between 81 and 108 specific amino acids located at specific sites. The probability of ordering the codons for such amino acids ranges between 1 chance in 10^105 per try and 1 chance in 10^140 per try.(3) Fewer than 10^61 protein variations exploring sequence space falls short in the generation of an average-sized protein-folding motif by a factor greater than 10^44 to 10^79.(4)
    An unplanned evolution has produced fewer than 10^50 proteins to explore sequence space(5) and is impotent in the generation of one average-sized protein-folding motif. Hundreds of such protein-folding motifs, and those larger,(6) had to be present among the “immortal” genes. The probability of assembling the more than 810 specific amino acids in the generation of only 10 of these protein-folding motifs(7) would be less than 1 chance in 10^1,050 per try.(8) A multiverse containing 10^500 universes and producing fewer than 10^586 proteins exploring sequence space(9) is totally impotent to the task.
    Sean Carroll wrote, “(I)t is probably 50 to 100 times ‘easier’ (i.e., more likely) to disrupt a gene than it is to make a precise specific single mutation.”(10) Assume that 50 of the 500 “immortal” genes are assembled. The 50 genes are identical to fossil genes. For every beneficial mutation in the building of the 51st gene, the intact genes, as a group, are disrupted at 50 to 100 sites. No evolutionary progress occurs when 50 functional genes are lost as one functional gene is assembled.
    An unplanned nature is impotent in the generation of the information required by the first cell. This is not a scientific conclusion but a logical conclusion based on probability. No “… thorough search through all proposed mechanisms …”(11) need be made. The average layman is fully capable of arriving at this conclusion. Even though Stephen Meyer committed several rookie errors, his main thesis is correct. The generation of the information contained within the first cell requires intelligent oversight, superintendence, and/or design.
    Finally, a planned evolution is fully compatible with common ancestry, descent with modification, orthogenic proteins, stratification, and the fossil evidence supporting evolution, for what could an unplanned evolution do that a planned evolution could not do?
     
    Notes
    (1)Dennis R. Venema, “Seeking A Signature,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 4 (2010): 280.
    (2)Of the 27 specific amino acids in cytochrome c, Arg. occurs twice (2) and has six [6] codons; Asn (2), [2]; Cys (1), [2]; Gly (7), [4]; His (1), [2]; Leu (2), [6]; Lys (3), [2]; Met (1), [1]; Phe (2), [2]; Pro (3), [4]; Thr (1), [4]; Trp (1), [4]; Tyr (1), [2]. Calculate the probability of the natural assembly of these 27 specific amino acids: A probability of (1/64)^2 x (2/64)^10 x (4/64)^11 x (6/64)^4 per try = 1/10^35 per try or 1 chance in 10^35 per try.
    (3)27 a.a.x3 = 81 amino acids and 27 a.a.x4 = 108 amino acids; (10^35)3 = 10^105 and (10^35)4 = 10^140
    (4)10^105/10^61 = 10^44 and 10^140/10^61 = 10^79
    (5)Fredric Nelson, MD, “Tossing Darwin out of Science,” as found at  evolutionneedsanadjective.com.
    (6)F. S. Collins and K. G. Jegalian, “Deciphering the Code of Life,” as found in Understanding the Genome (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 29.
    (7)>81 specific amino acids located at specific sites/average- sized protein x 10 average-sized proteins = >810 specific amino acids located at specific sites.
    (8)810/27 = 30; (10^35)30 = 10^1,050
    (9)<10^61 proteins/planet x <10 planets/star x <10^24 stars/ universe x 10^500 universes = <10^586 proteins exploring sequence space.
    (10)Sean B. Carroll, The Making of the Fittest (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 159.
    (11)Venema, “Seeking A Signature,” 281.

  • Steve Van Der Weele

    I was deeply disappointed in the review by Dennis R. Venema of Stephen C. Meyer’s recent book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (PSCF vol. 62, no. 4 [2010]: 276–83). Venema does not need to be impressed by the lively endorsements the book has received, or the prominence the author of the book has attained, but he could have done what book reviewers ordinarily do—give a fair and balanced approach to the book before him.
    His patronizing tone is annoying. Collegiality deserves better, especially when the colleagues are working for a common cause. Does it not seem strange that what praise he has for the book he will leave unsaid, “not out of disrespect, but rather out of respect”?
    Venema comes to the book with a mindset which assumes that in due time scientists will solve the origin- of-life problem—and will do so at a naturalistic level. With such a mindset, no study which advances intention, purpose, design, a miraculous bestowal on biological processes, will persuade him of alternatives. He says that “it is a reasonable expectation that further research will continue to pay dividends.” With such a mindset one can predict the results. Venema ignores the forensic con- tribution to the discussion which Meyer’s book makes. And then he finds what he regards as flaws in Meyer’s argument that would militate against the notion that information can arise in the cell through natural causes. He skirts Meyer’s observation that scientists have called off the debate about “What is science?” since there are at least thirty ways of doing science. Venema has bought into the model of philosophic naturalism—whatever his personal beliefs may be. Meyer has earned the right to say that “Intelligent design is an inference from scientific evidence, not a deduction from religious authority.” And he has the backing of Philip Skell, who says about Meyer’s book that “it demonstrates what I as a chemist have long suspected: undirected chemical processes cannot produce the exquisite complexity of the living cell.”
    Marilyn Robinson and others have recently observed that science for the last 150 years, for all the undeniable practical benefits and insights into nature which science has given us, has also left us with philosophies that lead to despair and nihilism. George Gaylord Simpson is one spokesman for this more recent approach: “Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.” Is Venema really comfortable with the implications of his naturalistic approach?
    And have we really gone beyond Sir Isaac Newton, who asks,
    How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art, and for what ends were their several parts? Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? … And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent …? (Meyer, p. 11)
    One might add, does common sense not explain the existence of pyramids, the space shuttle, the Aswan Dam—rational minds intending to bring about a desired result? Or how explain the bacterial flagellar motor that inhabits the cell, with what resembles a thirty-part rotary engine, or the 500 bits of information present in a cell and necessary to synthesize protein? Or the tiny apparent “turbine” with nine tilted blades that inhabit a centriole? (Meyer’s examples.)
    Given his commitment and his position, shouldn’t Venema be placing his shoulder behind a different wheel?

  • Charles Austerberry

    Fredric Nelson wrote:  “Natural selection occurs between living cells. No comparable selective activity exists within the abiogenic world. While an RNA world might catalyze amino acid polymerization, it would not generate information any more than stringing letters together would produce prose.”
    Steve Van Der Weele wrote: “Or how explain the bacterial flagellar motor that inhabits the cell, with what resembles a thirty-part rotary engine, or the 500 bits of information present in a cell and necessary to synthesize protein? Or the tiny apparent “turbine” with nine tilted blades that inhabit a centriole?”
    I know both letter writers genuinely mean well, and some of their questions are interesting.  But Meyer’s misunderstandings (e.g. of DNA information as thoroughly analogous to digital information, of centrioles as apparent turbines, and many, many more) are so far from the truth, it’s hard to know where to begin when responding.  It’s hard (but necessary) to first explain fundamental biology, chemistry, and information theory before proceeding to correct, in a manner accessible to laypersons, the mistakes in works by scholars like Meyer who write far outside of their areas of expertise.  The patience, time, and effort required is substantial and I greatly appreciate Venema’s efforts.
    Venema and others have responded to many of the claims repeated in the above letters.
    I recommend the many items on BioLogos (http://biologos.org/) regarding Meyer’s book, as well as the ASA blog discussion of the book at
    http://www.asa3online.org/Book/
    I would also recommend Randy Isaac’s analysis of information theory issues at
    http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/isaac_scholarly_essay.pdf
     
     


     

  • William Powers

    At issue here is the question of physical necessity.  Sodium and Chlorine ions form into salt crystals as a matter of necessity, meaning we can offer physical principals that would account for the formation of the crystal.  However, this is not possible for the lion’s share of events and physical organization that we observe in our world.  This would be true in the case of the cell.  There is, as far as we can tell (and not everyone agrees with this) no physical necessity to account for the existence of cellular organization.  Naturalistic biology accounts for its existence on the basis of what is called chance.  The cell exhibits a high degree of functional organization and integration of those functions.  Perhaps something like this is meant by Meyer’s (and Randy’s) use of the term functional specificity.  I can imagine quantitative measures of such functional organization.  So I’m certain they exist.  However, the issue of relevance here is not that the cell has a high measure of functional specificity.  It is how to account for the existence of that functional specificity.  Randy says in his BioLogos piece referenced above, “in living systems the ability to reproduce is a type of complex functionality that has a physical, but not symbolic, function.  If a living cell reproduces, it functions — otherwise it dies.  There is no necessity for an intelligent agent to be involved at any level.”  We can all agree with this, but it is irrelevant to the issue at hand (perhaps Randy already knows this and I am inappropriately applying what he said).  The issue is not whether something is functionally complex.  The issue is how that complexity arose.
    What is required are instances where physical processes (if we know what exactly they are) are responsible for the creation of highly functionally complex organization.  Elsewhere on this site I have argued that antibody formation (Story) fails as a demonstration.  Let’s briefly consider something like genetic recombination.  Is this an example of the creation of functional specificity?  In question is the matter of resources.  To take the well used example of a pile of junk creating an airplane.  I or the wind could simply start throwing pieces together.  We could provide even a kind of potential well or some sort of gradient test of “success.”  Is there enough time or resources to generate the plane?  Laying aside the existence of such a “physical” gradient (and therefore suggesting problems with our notion of chance), would it be sensibly possible?  It seems possible to me that, e.g., this is possible in anti-body formation and in cellular recombination.  But it is only possible because of an already existent, highly structure system that limits those recombinations to a regime where some kind of “success” is possible, something that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist for the creation of planes from junk.  Because of this extant organization and it’s rules of permitted restructuring, it is unclear to me that “information” (no one really can define it) is being increased or not.  It may not even be that functional complexity is being increased inasmuch as  potential functional expression is to some extent limited, even while functional physical realization might increase.  Such a notion is perhaps analogous to employing a fixed medium for the expression of functional complexity.  Such a medium possesses untold potential for expression.  Each realization explores and employs that medium.  The collection of physical processes and constituents possesses the potential of vast degrees of functional complexity, most of which science has found unrealized.  Even in speaking of a cosmos we speak of one form of that organization.  Science has rejected the organismic organization of the Greeks.  Today some speak in a similar almost pantheistic vein.  For living organisms there is already existing a limitation upon the space of exploration of that vast physical space.  How is that limitation imposed?  What accounts for it?  No cell simply disintegrates into its elemental constituents and reforms by chance into a new cell.
    So it is not obvious to me that the examples that Randy provides are instances where functional complexity is being created.  I have the same problem with anti-body formation.  Chance appears to be involved, but it is a well orchestrated chance.  It is the extant, well-organized chance that needs to be accounted for.  I have just finished planting soy beans.  The lines are by no means straight.  The exact nature of those rows of crop might be accounted for by chance, a rock in my path, the sudden turning of my head, etc.  But no one would suggest that the arrangement of the rows of soy beans could be accounted for totally, or even significantly, by chance.  It is clearly a designed and intentional organization.  Such might be said of the cell, despite elements of chance employed and evident in its operation and development.
    bill powers

  • Randy Isaac

    Bill, as usual you make many insightful comments. I agree with most of what you say but I do have some caveats.
    First, assembling an airplane is not a relevant analogy. It requires conformity to an abstract engineering design which is created by engineers in a form which is not accessible or verifiable by nature.
    Secondly, I do maintain that the antibody example is a valid example of the creation of new functional complexity. Information lies in the sequence of the base pairs in the DNA of the B cell lymphocyte. Each B cell has a brand new sequence that exists nowhere else. It was created. Certainly, it was created within a set of controlled constraints. Certain regions change in limited ways. But the remaining scope of freedom for the sequnce of base pairs is still enormous. Each B cell is new and it generates a new shape for binding to antigens. It is complex and the functionality lies in the affinity with the antigen.
    Thirdly, yes, absolutely that information set is generated from a similar, prior set. Each reproduction event, whether it be cell mitosis or an organism reproducing itself, leads to a new creation that is very similar to its parents. Keeping what works and allowing some changes is what evolution is all about. Stuart Kauffman described it as living systems reaching for the “adjacent possible.” That is, the progeny is transformed from the parent by what is reachable through constrained changes. It is a potent process indeed.
    Finally, the “design verification” part for a living organism or any part thereof is whether or not the organism survives to reproduce. For an airplane or any humanly constructed communication system, the verification involves comparison to an abstract design. That’s a fundamental difference.
    Oh, and as for your soy beans, you are quite right. Well orchestrated chance is what it’s all about. Since we know quite a bit about how soy beans come to be planted, we have a good idea of what parts are chance and what is orchestrated. In living cells, we are rapidly learning that there are many aspects that are well-orchestrated and others that are chance. New information is continually being created at every reproduction event. The crucial question is how such a wondrous system got started. We’re all stumped on that one. The best evidence we can muster from observation is that there was likely a continuous chain of a set of reproducing components. No one knows what that might have been.
    Randy

  • William Powers

    Because no space has been provided for the Author Exchange printed in the September, 2011 PSCF journal, I include a comment here as being of closest relevance.
    It seems to me that there may be a way to cohere Meyer’s and Venema’s views.  Venema maintains that new information can arise “naturally” in biological evolution.  Meyer maintains that the biological information originated in living cells cannot be accounted for on the basis of “natural” mechanisms.  It seems that these two assertions can be made to cohere by the principle that information can “naturally” beget information, but information cannot come naturally form non-information.
    I am aware that both author’s might want to claim more than the two assertions offered above.  Venema might want to assert that information can arise from non-information, as in the origin of life.  Meyer might want to assert that information cannot ever increase by natural processes, and not just in the case of the origin of life.  Nonetheless, I believe that these two assertions covers the scope of what each author claims to be restricting their comments.
    Much more could be said in analyzing the principle I suggest.  In particular, the notion of information is vague.  But that will not be done here at this time.

  • Randy Isaac

    Bill, it’s not clear to me that “non-information” is a valid concept. The only context in which I have heard people advocate that information can be generated in a thermodynamic sense is the idea of quantum fluctuations in vacuum that can be resolved in a way that generates new information. Otherwise no one I know is talking of generating information from non-information, whatever that might be.

    In their replies, Meyer and Venema left much confusion, in my opinion. Here is my perspective. Meyer and the ID community has tended to convey the idea that complex specified information is habitually associated with intelligent agents. Note that claims of universality are carefully avoided by using terms like “habitually” or “in our experience” etc. Venema wondered in his review why Meyer hadn’t addressed common ancestry, presumably because that shows the generation of new biological information (read that as both capacity and syntax, which has new semantic interpretation) without intelligent agents. Meyer’s response that Venema set up a straw man is interesting. Private conversations with him, as well as selected quotes in his book,  reveal that he and ID leaders acknowledge that in biological systems, CSI is generated without intelligent agents. It is just in non-biological systems that information cannot be generated.
    My personal view is that once it is acknowledged that biological systems can generate CSi without intelligence, the game is over for ID. There is no longer any basis for claiming the origin of life could not occur without an intelligent agent. Non-biological systems certainly increase information everywhere around us. It’s just that these systems are not very complex. But if complex biological systems generate CSI, then complexity isn’t the differentiator. There is no more argument for claiming that non-biological systems cannot give rise to DNA information, at least from an information perspective.

    Randy

 

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