29 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Discover is what science must do
, August 20, 2010
Stephen Meyer states that only intelligent design explains systems like codes, writing that "...forces of chemical attraction between amino acids and these groups of bases [RNA codons] do not explain the correspondences that constitute the genetic code." P. 247
Yet two researchers report evidence to the contrary:
"We show here that anticodons are selectively enriched near their respective amino acids in the ribosome, and that such enrichment is significantly correlated with the canonical code over random codes.... The ribosome thus serves as a molecular fossil, preserving biological evidence that anticodon-amino acid interactions shaped the evolution of the genetic code." From the abstract by David B. F. Johnson and Lei Wang, "Imprints of the genetic code in the ribosome," PNAS May 4, 2010 vol. 107 no. 18 8298-8303
What Meyer fails to consider in his book is how there may have been such probable evolutionary intermediates bridging many of the difficulties that he brings up. Certainly the findings above do not clear up the remaining considerable problems in the origin of life, yet Meyer presupposes (without adequate support) that all codes including DNA's are evidence of design, and this evidence for a transitional evolutionary stage undercuts such claims with actual evidence.
One might protest that this came out after the book was published. Exactly, evolutionary science keeps making discoveries, where ID would simply declare design while so much remains yet to be learned, and would do so without any sort of objective evidence. I do not fault Meyer for not reporting what was not known. I fault his inadequate and premature assumptions/conclusions that not only lead to no discoveries, but would impede them if widely adopted.
Now, suppose that astronauts returned from Mars with microbes having a clearly different hereditary code from RNA or DNA, and they said, well, we just decided to make life out of the elements we found in Mars' atmosphere and "dirt." Meyer claims that "intelligent agents" make just such specified information, which constitutes his "argument" that an "intelligent agent" created the DNA code. But would he believe that the astronauts actually made life?
Surely not. The trouble is that not only does he have no rigorous science of intelligent design, he uses terms equivocally rather than rigorously. He knows that humans are the only intelligent agents of whom we are aware, and that they do not "design" life. The fact that they use languages and codes does not mean that they can create life de novo. Furthermore, if we assumed another intelligence that we never see has intervened "materially" in this world, how would we know that ancient human artifacts and art were in fact created by humans, rather than by the "intelligence" that made life?
Still, even if we could create life without first observing it, what would that demonstrate with respect to an "intelligent agent" designing first life? Nothing, because one has to demonstrate the existence of a cause in science at the time and place where it was supposed to operate, and humans did not exist when life arose. Meyer thinks that he can get around the requirement for evidence of the existence of his "cause" by merely asserting that codes only come from intelligent agents, so thereby it's the only cause possible. Aside from the fact that we know very little about the specific chemical reactions occurring on earth and that research into the origin of life is hardly funded like, say, cancer research is, it is relatively simple to come up with a scenario that is at least as good, and I think better, a cause than his that I could then assert is "necessary" and that would thereby (using his statements) need no evidence of its existence.
Using Meyer's reasoning, I could more properly say that in our "uniform experience" (his phrase) the DNA code comes only from life reproducing than he could ever support the idea that it comes only from intelligence. This is our "uniform experience," while intelligence designing life is not our experience at all. This being the case, I say for the sake of illustration that either cells or relatively complete cell components (the latter of which could "randomly" come together to produce cells with a good probability of producing a living cell) must necessarily have rained down from the heavens early in earth's history. This is "necessary" because DNA code is really only produced by life (or our mimicry of life--but we can't make life from just the elements even by copying), Meyer supposes that he can well enough rule out life originating on the earth, so it simply must have rained down from the heavens. A few scientists actually believe something like this.
Then I hear all of the protests, not only from scientists but also from IDCreationists like Meyer. Why? Because what have I really explained? I have not matched up specific cause and specific effect any more than Meyer ever has with his hypothesis, I just asserted that it was "necessary" like he did (and it was inadequately argued, similar to his book). I have a kind of "mechanism" (life falling), but there is nothing beyond that in my "theory," nothing saying how life was actually assembled from small molecules. Neither, of course, does Meyer, he just writes as though the abstractions of "codes" or "information" must come from intelligence, when life is neither "apparently designed" (if we are unbiased) nor the kind of thing that any other than the most confused humans ever really thought was produced much like we make our creations.
The upshot of that really is that Meyer simply cannot say with any credibility that "intelligence" is the "necessary cause" of life at all, since I can make up a half-billion year rainfall of rather complete cellular components (or living cells) which "explains" every bit as well and poorly as his "designer" does. Neither "cause" is rigorous or specific to the effect, and both are thus essentially meaningless "explanations."
Meyer not infrequently implies or states that evolution cannot produce what he calls "specified information" in any real quantity, either. Unfortunately for him, we have the have the evidence that it did in the previously mentioned evidence for evolution of the genetic code, in the genetic similarities, and in the fossil record--and this includes the progression of life from the simplest forms that occasionally fossilize--the prokaryotes--then the much more complex eukaryotes, and from them on to multicellular life, and then to the incredible evolution of vertebrates (and other organisms, of course).
But evolution by itself makes no prediction that first life in the fossil record must be the simplest that we could discover, rather that is a prediction of abiogenesis (which could not produce any modern cell in one shot) plus evolution. One wonders why anyone would think that Meyer's "designer god" (he is far more forthcoming about God being the Designer in materials directed solely at religious audience--see Meyer's Does God Exist? (on Amazon) apologetics targeted at believers) would begin with such simple life, as abiogenesis plus evolution predicts, instead of, for example, Eden. Multicellular life at the beginning would falsify evolution (science puts its claims on the line, Meyer's apologetics does not), while creationism/intelligent design simply tries to sneak God in anywhere it can.
I did give the book two stars, despite finding it to be highly inadequate. Why? Because it is one of the few books out there that discusses the considerable problems in abiogenesis. However, it should have been much better even there. The problems are great enough that he would not need to leave out important information as he does, nor put in information that is misleading.
As to important information left out, he writes (pp. 224-225) as though the early earth's environment would be hostile to forming even amino acids, when at the very least purines, pyrimidines, amino acids, and fatty acids would come onto earth via meteorites. We know this because the Murchison meteorite had these chemicals in it. Likewise, he calculates the odds of a protein made of "left-handed" amino acids forming by assuming that left-handed (L) and right-handed (R) would necessarily exist in equal amounts in a pre-biotic setting, when left-handed amino acids (which life uses) were in fact more common in the Murchison meteorite. Certain processes that likely would have existed to some degree on earth could change the "excess" of L forms of all of the amino acids in a body of water into only L forms. These possibilities (they are not all certainties) at least deserve to be acknowledged, but he simply does not mention them.
Misleading information includes this statement: "Moreover, a number of geochemical studies showed that significant amounts of free oxygen were also present even before the advent of plant life..." (p. 224). This has nothing to do with the origin of life--which would be seriously impeded by free oxygen--because plants only appear late on earth, at the earliest 700 million years ago (many researchers believe it was much later). We have good evidence for cyanobacteria existing around three billion years ago.
Meyer's overall method of argumentation deserves mention, because it is not proper by any intellectual standards, and he himself violates it where it saves his apologetics. First off, he claims Lyell's uniformitarianism as his method, when science long ago abandoned it. Meyer states that historical scientists should invoke only "presently acting causes" (p. 160), while today's geology speaks of events like oxygenation of the earth in the past which have no counterpart today, and the Big Bang (especially "inflation") clearly involves causes not acting presently.
Nevertheless, there is no question that activities of his "designer" by no means are a cause presently acting today at all. We recognize cave paintings as due to humans because they are akin to what humans produce today, while we never mistake life for being a human creation. I am partly repeating myself here, because it is important to emphasize that he does not follow his own guidelines.
As IDCreationists are wont to do, he both complains that "intelligence" is excluded as a cause in science, and then turns around and points to the fact that "intelligent activity" is considered a cause in science (p. 436), such as in archaeology. This simply makes no sense, except in the world of ID, which wishes to claim that they are just looking for signs of intelligence. Except that they are not, they are trying to claim that life with all of its marks of unintelligent evolution was made by an intelligence that not only does not do the things that we do, but cannot be shown to exist by the evidence (except it can wrongly be done when one illegitimately insists with equal lack of evidence that coded information comes only from intelligence).
I should note that one reason the activities of the Designer (clearly God) are considered by Meyer to be properly extrapolated from human activity is evidently that Meyer simply considers mind and material to be separate phenomena (p. 393). If our magical immaterial minds can do things, why won't science consider that a magical immaterial mind that we don't know might have made life? Meyer claims that there is "no free lunch," then turns around and invokes the "free lunch" from the Designer--yet to him this makes sense, because he writes as though "mind" has none of the constraints that science uses (which is another reason his ideas are not at all science, but from the realm of religion). By contrast, all of the evidence that we have is that "mind" is simply the result of the activity of a brain that is "material" and that is also the result of evolution. Neuroscience is another part of science that IDCreationists like Meyer deny, and even need to deny for the sake of their "design" assumptions.
For these reasons Meyer considers the exclusion of his unknown "cause" to be illegitimate (even though science never could work with unevidenced "causes"). Yet he does not seem to think that he should not pass judgment upon research into the origin of life--which actually has had some successes, even though we are far from a full explanation--as having revealed "material causes" to be inadequate. He writes that "...without proscriptive generalization, without knowledge of what various possible causes cannot or do not produce, historical sciences could not determine things about the past." That is true, which is why we rule out his "Designer" as the cause of the cave paintings and the pyramids, let alone something much less like what we have ever seen designers produce--life. Above all, this is because we have no knowledge of his "Designer" in science.
Meyer likes to claim that "foresight" is evident in things like the genetic code, and in the rest of life as well. But he does not try to explain the many breaks and reshufflings of chromosomes. For instance, four inversions (at least) are identified in the y-chromosome, which almost certainly had a great deal to do with its present existence separately from the x-chromosome from which it evolved (due to no more crossing-over). These "errors" (they would errors be in any actual design) are important for understanding evolution, and are marks of a lack of design.
Likewise, the "poor design" of an early transitional bird like Archaeopteryx are predictions of evolution, not what a super-intelligent designer would create.
These are just examples of the huge numbers of problems that "intelligent design" has yet to explain, and which it typically ignores because it has no real explanation at all. Meyer's book has not broken from ID tradition in that way at all.
Another traditional expectation from IDCreationism is poor scholarship, and quotes taken out of context, and this characterizes Meyer's work as well, beyond what I have already mentioned.
Meyer claims that "dual-coding"--common in prokaryotes, not common in eukaryotes (such as ourselves)--is a kind of "encryption" (it is not, it is usually a means of data compaction) and, yes, he writes that it is something that only intelligence does. Yet we have good evidence that certain aspects of such "dual-coding" in prokaryotes are what would be expected to occur as the result of evolution. See the abstract at [...] So his claim about its origins looks at best to be unlikely.
W.-Y. Chung and some colleagues studied some of the few cases of "dual-coding" in humans, and Meyer quoted their paper as stating that the origin of these instances "...is `virtually impossible by chance'" (Chung, et al., "A First Look at the ARFome."). Meyer's next sentence, which starts a paragraph, provides context which shows his confusion of chance with natural selection: "Nor does natural selection acting on random mutations help explain the efficient information-storage density of the genome" (p. 464).
But Chung was clearly stating that the maintenance of "dual-coding" was naturally selected, which is the opposite of "chance." The relevant paper states: "Maintenance of dual-coding regions is evolutionarily costly and their occurrence by chance is statistically improbable. Therefore, an ARF that is conserved in multiple species is highly likely to be functional" (Chung, et al.). Natural selection "pays the cost" because keeping the dual-coding is (by inference) actually functional.
Another misused source is Michael Lynch. Meyer writes (p. 470) that "...evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch has argued using standard population genetics, the size of breeding populations of multicellular organisms are simply not large enough to have afforded natural selection sufficient opportunity to shape genomes into structures with the kind of hierarchically organized systems of information storage that they exhibit." Lynch did not do that at all. There is organization in eukaryotic genomes, but not nearly so much as Meyer claims, which is why Lynch writes:
"The most profound changes [in eukaryotic genomes] include introns that must be spliced out of precursor mRNAs, transcribed but untranslated leader and trailer sequences (untranslated regions), modular regulatory elements that drive patterns of gene expression, and expansive intergenic regions that harbor additional diffuse control mechanisms. Explaining the origins of these features is difficult because they each impose an intrinsic disadvantage by increasing the genic mutation rate to defective alleles." [...]
It is the putative lack of the efficient organization of the eukaryotic genomes, compared with those of prokaryotes, that Michael Lynch addresses there.
In still another case, Meyer claims that "on the basis of orthodox evolutionary theory" evolutionary biologists had assumed that "homologous genes should, therefore, produce homologous organisms and structures" (p. 471). Yet text in the chapter note that he uses for reference states the exact opposite: "Comparative and evolutionary biologists had long assumed that different groups of animals, separated by vast amounts of evolutionary time, were constructed and had evolved by entirely different means" (p. 558, note 28), and, "...Ernst Mayr remarked: `Much that has been learned about gene physiology makes it evident that the search for homologous genes is quite futile except in very close relatives...'" (Ibid.). Mayr was incorrect, but Meyer credits Mayr and others of the same position with a stance 180 degrees from the one that they were taking.
I have focused on problems with Signature in the Cell, certainly, and I would have to say that he does much better in, for instance, telling of the discovery of DNA's form and function. The trouble is that Meyer wrote a book that is superficially plausible to those who neither know what rigorous science is, nor how many mistakes are made in his presentation of his hypothesis.
I do think that one should be aware of the problems that origin of life research has encountered, however his obvious desire to conclude that God made life, and that nothing else could, has led him to make many errors of method and of fact.
Especially when he is claiming faults in evolutionary theory and in the approach taken by evolutionary scientists his statements ought to be subjected to serious skepticism, and ideally one would always consult Meyer's original sources--because in a number of cases he has taken them out of context and implied that they show the opposite of what the authors actually did write.
***** This is a much later addition (9/25/10). I wanted to point out some more of what is wrong with Stephen Meyer's simple resort to "intelligence" as the source of codes. The fact of the matter is that "making codes" as a known act of known intelligence is reducible to a more fundamental trait of human intelligence, our ability to symbolize and to manipulate our symbols. And there is no indication whatsoever that the DNA code has anything to do with symbolization and manipulation of symbols. Indeed, the work by Johnson and Wang (insert joke) mentioned at the beginning of my review suggests that the DNA code (probably at first it was the RNA code) arose by quite a different process than via known intelligence.
As an example of what I mean by known intelligence--as well as how this can be detected--consider the case of the Indus script (or, "Indus script"). There is controversy among linguists about whether or not it actually constitutes a written language at all, or if what is called the "Indus script" is just a string of symbols that may not involve any kind of "code" as such. What is not in question is whether or not intelligence is behind the "Indus script," because the processes of symbolization and abstraction belong to our known intelligence, and, indeed, symbolization and abstraction are generally considered to characterize intelligence, and, depending on definitions, the products of intelligence.
In other words, all humans are capable of symbolic representation and manipulation. Not all humans are capable of making codes (if language is considered to be a code, all human groups use such code, but it is not clear that languages were truly made by humans in any "design sense"), and our code making is simply an extension of our more basic ability for symbolic representation and manipulation.
IF one thus were able to show that the DNA code were the result of symbolization and/or abstraction, THEN one would have evidence of intelligence. Codes, considered broadly, are just necessary for storing data in strings or molecules. Life, if it were to exist at the level of complexity which in fact is recognized on earth, would almost certainly contain encoded data, regardless of how the code and coded information first appeared upon earth. This means that codes are important for life, and nothing about how such codes arose.
And because there is no indication at all that the DNA code and information in general arose due to known human capacities for symbolic representation, abstraction, and manipulation of symbols, the existence of the DNA code and encoded information tells us nothing about how it arose, only about how the information of life necessarily is stored via code. Abstraction and symbolic representation characterize intelligence. Codes are simply what allow a molecule like DNA to store the information that life needs to exist.
Author of Inducing Consciousness on the Way to Cognition