‘Seeking a Signature’

Here’s a review of Meyer’s ‘Signature in the Cell’, published back in 2010 in the American Science Affiliation*’s journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith: Seeking a Signature, by Dennis Venema (2010, Vol 62, pp 276-283). It’s rather a nice review of ‘Signature in the Cell’, and makes some good points – it’s well worth reading. I particularly noted this paragraph towards the end of the review:

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.

I think that passage quite neatly encapsulates a major problem with Meyer’s argument that we have reached a conclusion to science’s efforts to figure out how life originated, and that science has failed to do so, leaving open only the possibility of supernatural intervention. Quite frankly, such a view does a significant disservice to science.

Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith seems to specialise in letting authors and critics exchange views in print.  Venema’s review was followed in the the June 2011 issue by a couple of small response articles, and in the September 2011 issue by a lengthy rebuttal from Meyer (Of Molecules and (Straw) Men: A Response to Dennis Venema’s Review of Signature in the Cell), and a response to Meyer’s rebuttal by Venema (Intelligent Design, Abiogenesis, and Learning from History: A Reply to Meyer).  Hopefully this will draw the to-and-fro of opinions to a close, though I note the final issue of 2011 does have a couple of articles on information and the origins of life.

Meyer’s response seeks to shift the discussion of biological information origins away from a more generic discussion (where Meyer is clearly wrong that no natural processes can give rise to biological information) to one focussed on the origins of biological information.  He’s irked, for example, that Venema thinks that he gave short shrift to considering the possibility that the relationship between codon and amino acid are not random (see for example work by Yarus).  This is something I’d picked up on while ploughing through Signature. He returns to the woolly concept of functional specified information. [Actually, I think that a major problem with this functionality is that our picture of the functions of nucleic acids shifts continually as scientific discoveries are made, hypotheses formulated and tested.  Only a decade or so ago short functional mRNA sequences were pretty much unheard of – now miRs are known to be not only widespread but a highly important component of gene regulation; function in DNA sequence need not relate to encoding RNA or protein sequences, etc, making definitive statements around functional information problematic.]  In the end, however, Meyer’s argument that the most likely explanation for the origin of biological information is a supernatural one rests on his belief that (a) scientific explanations (for Meyer, these are materialistic explanations) of the origin of  life have failed to explain how genetic systems arose, but more importantly that (b) they will not do so, and that scientific investigation into the origins of biological information are now unsuccessfully concluded.  How else, then, can he assert the best explanation for the origins of biological information requires a supernatural entity (for which there is no evidence), and the use of unknown technology to accomplish the design?  It still seems to me to be a classic ‘God of the Gaps’ explanation.

Venema’s reply to Meyer has a lengthy argument that such strategies are doomed to fail where reliance is made on a perceived explanatory failure of science – scientific investigation is usually an ongoing endeavour. This is returning to the passage I quote above from his review of ‘Signature in the Cell’, but in his reply he very effectively illustrates the problem an Intelligent Design creationist faces in making use of such a strategy.

It struck me while reading ‘Signature in the Cell’ that Meyer’s so-called argument from best explanation was remarkably poor, and it’s rather helpful to see Venema’a deconstruction in print. So, my version of the argument from best explanation would be a choice between two alternatives.

1. That a supernatural entity (for which there is not a jot of evidence) used unknown techniques (for which, obviously, there is not a jot of evidence) to initiate life using the genetic code which is extant today.


2. That natural processes gave rise to life as we know it. At present no definitive conclusions have been reached as the the chemical basis of this process, but it is an active research area that has over the years advanced numerous hypotheses, many of which offer testable predictions.

I know which alternative I prefer.

*The ASA, incidentally, is an international network of christians in the sciences, as stated at their website:

The American Scientific Affiliation, or ASA, was founded in 1941 as an international network of Christians in the sciences.

One thought on “‘Seeking a Signature’

  1. There is a meme circulating in the skeptics of global warming blogosphere – "no error bars, no science" which is meant as a criticism of papers they disagree with. A laudable concern in general, but what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Apply the same idea to ID, friends. What is the error bar on "Goddidit"?

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