Jonathan M who seems to have become a regular blogger for the Discovery Institute has noticed this blog once again (From the Darwinist Blogosphere, Stephen Meyer’s Trip to London Elicits a Typical Reaction) in a posting at the bizarrely named Evolution News website – no comments permitted there, it would seem. The BCSE believes Jonathan M to be Jonathan MacLatchie (sometimes his name is given as McLatchie), an undergraduate student in forensic science [UPDATE: Jonathan is now taking a Masters degree in Evolutionary Biology & Systematics at the University of Glasgow (!) ] who appears to have absorbed a typical strategy beloved of Intelligent Design creationists: of devising neologisms that don’t correspond to normally used science terminology, and combined this with ignorance of biology. P. Z. Myers was exposed to some of his ‘thinking’ while visiting Glasgow.

Jonathan begins with a quite mind-bending outline of DNA structure in regard to its genetic role.

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.

This paragraph just baffles me. I presume this quotation is referring to adjacent bases along each DNA strand, rather that the base pairs themselves. I’m not clear why this ‘fundamental property’ bothers Jonathan M – he seems to have a major comprehension failure at this point.

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.

Oh, for goodness’ sake, this ( “x is complex; therefore, x is designed,”) is exactly what Meyer is saying. He cannot envisage a mechanism giving rise to the genetic code, so he invokes a supernatural entity. And, yes, we have clearly demonstrable mechanisms by which genetic information can grow in both quantity and complexity. I even see this happening in the lab in experimental timescales.  Jonathan is ignorantly regurgitating ID creationist neologisms, to invoke a supernatural entity.

Jonathan takes a contributor to the CIS forum, Simon, to task, accusing him of not reading the ID creationist literature (I suspect that Simon, or “Simon” as Jonathan rather disparagingly refers to him, is somewhat better qualified to understand the science than he is, judging from his profile at the CIS forum):

“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.

This is Jonathan wiffly-waffling around a subject he doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp of. It’s often stated in ID creationist circles (such as the C4ID) that there is no known source of ‘information’ other than from an intelligent mind. This is clearly nonsense, as Simon knows: gene and genome duplication provides the raw material for whole families of diverged genes to arise. What is ‘specified complexity”? Is it the genetic code itself? The mere existence of heritable material? Is this the same as Meyer’s undefined “specified information”?

Jonathan – your statement on polyploidy is naive. Genes duplicate. Sections of chromosome duplicate. Chromosomes can fuse and duplicate, genomes can duplicate. It’s not all about polyploidy. But once there is genetic redundancy due to duplication, novel gene functions can evolve. There are good examples of this in the scientific literature.

On Intelligent Design creationism’s testable predictions, as presented by Jonathan:

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.

OK, here is why I think this is just so much nonsense:

“it predicts the presence of complex and functionally specific information in the cell” – This is a quite bizarre claim. The Intelligent Design variant of creationism arose in the 1990s. At that time, the presence of large amounts of genetic ‘information’ in cells was well-known. In what way is the presence of information a sensible prediction? And as far as I can tell, this whole ‘complex and functionally specific information’ remains remarkably ill-defined (see for example this demolition by Myers), and in particular is inconsistent with conventional information theory. If we’re now going to think of the origins of life and the genetic systems we see around us today, all ID creationists are saying is that they cannot understand how it happened, and in their religiously motivated world-view prefer to fall back on supernatural intervention rather than taking a genuinely scientific approach to the problem. How is complex and functionally specific information defined?

“it predicts the already-alluded-to rarity of functional protein folds in amino acid sequence space”. This is quite interesting, particularly given Axe’s background as a post-doc in Alan Fersht’s lab in Cambridge. But as far as I can see, this boils down to the usual incredulity argument. For Axe, with a pedigree of working in a prestigious lab in Cambridge, I would have thought a more prestigious outlet for this review might have been possible. As it is, he’s reduced to publishing in the Biologic Institute house journal, with the not-so-impressive archive of 7 papers over its two years of existence, all authored by members of the editorial board (all of whom appear to be creationists of one variety or another).

“it predicts certain patterns in the history of life (e.g., the saltationist nature of the fossil record”; morphological disparity preceding diversity, etc.). This sounds almost as though Jonathan is proposing a rather more interventionist kind of creationism than I normally understand is represented by Intelligent Design creationism: that intervention by a Designer (who, let’s face it, for the Discovery Institute is really the Judeo-Christian god, not Zeus, or Odin, or any other mythological entity) has been repeatedly intervening in the appearance of life-forms on Earth.  Of course, the links between Intelligent Design creationism (which publicly denies that the designer/creator is God) and other forms of creationism, notably those of the Young Earth persuasion have been pretty clearly documented.  Indeed the main figures in C4ID have clear links to biblical literalism and young earth creationism.

“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”)” OK, so here Jonathan says that a prediction from Intelligent Design creationism is that design purposes will be found. This is frankly astonishing. How can purpose be ascribed to an unidentified ‘Designer’? How can we divine purpose? What purpose would Jonathan ascribe to his Designer/god’s intent to create the so-called Junk DNA? Where in his Bible does he see the culturally primitive scribes mention DNA when they are transcribing the word of the Designer/god?. This supposed prediction also invokes visions of the stultifying effect of dogma. It may well be that at church/temple/mosque/synagogue pronouncements can be made in the expectation that the word of the deity (as relayed by the priesthood) will be unchanging, but in a world of science, evidence counts. Not the ID creationist kind of negative evidence (“it seems improbable to me; I can’t understand why this is so”), but real, experimentally derived, evidence. Accordingly, the collective understanding of genome structure and function changes as evidence accumulates. As an undergraduate in genetics, one of the great mysteries was the so-called ‘c-value paradox’ – why did genomes vary so greatly in size, even between apparently closely related species?  As techniques and technologies advanced, a clearer and clearer picture of genome composition has been revealed. And, yes, some DNA has been referred to as ‘junk’. But as evidence is uncovered, some of this stuff does have a function. Not always a genetic function. And a lot of this is semantics. DNA sequences could have a ‘function’ related to their propagation (I’m thinking here of P-elements in Drosophila), but not a function that has a role in the biology of the organism.

“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.” The fine-tuning argument has always seemed to me to be somewhat tautologous. Had the constants been different, we would not be here to look at the Universe and its physical constants. We have a sample size of 1. Exactly 1. Who knows if physical constants could have been different. I certainly don’t (I’m not a physicist). I doubt that Jonathan does either, except it’s another of those claims that creationists parrot.

I would have thought the stand-out prediction of Intelligent Design creationism would be the unequivocal demonstration of the existence of that Designer/creator.

On the subject of Meyer’s book, I am at least displaying honesty when, as Jonathan observes, I say I didn’t read his book. Which is why I didn’t review the book, and I didn’t review the talk. Actually, one reason for thinking of attending the lecture would have been to get a copy of Signature in the Cell. But balancing the cost (not value) of the book (£8.99 at Amazon) with the travel costs to and from the venue (several times more than the cost of the book) I decided that wasn’t a good deal. I suppose the cost of travel may explain why Jonathan didn’t attend Meyer’s lecture either, and has chosen as I have done to make comment on Meyer’s other outputs. Besides, science isn’t usually advanced through popular science publications (which for example tend not to appear in University libraries). Usually, the popsci books follow genuine scientific advances published in bona fide science journals. Peer-reviewed journals. Genuinely peer-reviewed publications from Meyer are quite thin on the ground.

Jonathan refers to a list of supposedly peer-reviewed ID publications. I note the prominence of BIO-Complexity, the Biologic Institute’s house journal. With its seven papers in two years, it is hardly prolific and might be best regarded as vanity publishing. I have looked at two sevenths of its published output, and neither is a research paper.

Finally, I’m not a Professor, at least in the British sense of academia.

And finally, finally, I expressly did not review Meyer’s book, even though Alastair Noble claims I did in a comment in this blog.