Of Molecules and (Straw) Men: Stephen Meyer Responds to Dennis Venema’s Review of Signature in the Cell

As a longtime [American Scientific Affiliation] member, I was obviously pleased to see Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF) devote a review essay in its December 2010 issue to an assessment of my recent book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne 2009). I also welcomed the general approach of PSCF’s designated reviewer, Dennis Venema. Unlike some critics, Venema at least attempted to assess the issues raised in Signature in the Cell by appealing to scientific evidence rather than merely dismissing the idea of intelligent design with pejorative labels (such as “scientific creationism”) or a priori philosophical judgments (such as “intelligent design is not science”).1

Nevertheless, Venema argued that the scientific evidence does not support my argument for intelligent design, and he offered several lines of evidence in an attempt to refute it. And, of course, I disagree with his arguments. In this response, I will show why. I will demonstrate that Venema did not refute the argument of Signature in the Cell and that he failed to do so for two main reasons…

>> see full response here

Playing God? 

A biologist in California has summoned headlines around the world, some distressed and some celebratory, by supposedly doing in reality what Dr. Frankenstein did in fiction: giving life to lifeless matter.

The Vatican worries that, by swapping artificial DNA for the real thing in a simple bacterial cell, Dr. Craig Venter is “playing God.” But most voices from the media welcome his success. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan applauds the end of the myth that life is “sacred, special, ineffable.” According to Caplan, Venter has shown that life can be readily produced from its material parts, thus refuting “the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist.” Others have called Venter’s achievement “a complete victory for materialism,” predicting that many atheists will cite it as evidence that life can arise without a divine creator.But are these assessments correct? Did Venter create life artificially? Did he show that life can arise without help from an external agent?

In fact, he did neither.

Not so fast… 

First, Craig Venter has not actually produce artificial life. He and his colleagues read the gene sequence of one bug, copied it onto another strand of DNA, and inserted the copy into another bacterium from which its DNA had been removed. They then found that the second bacterium was able to use the instructions on the second strand of DNA. Nevertheless, both bacterial cells came, like all life we know of, from other life.

Dr. Venter’s accomplishment is akin to something computer users do all the time. Let’s say you have a file on your machine that you want to share. You copy the file onto a disk and place the disk in your friend’s computer. He then opens and reads the file on the second computer. You have not synthesized a computer or even written software. Instead, you have copied pre-existing file of information, which a computer was able to use.

Second, Dr. Venter has not established that life could arise without the assistance of a designing intelligence. Instead, if anything, he has—perhaps inadvertently—strengthened the case for the intelligent design of life.

The importance of information 

Since 1953, when Watson and Crick elucidated the structure of the DNA molecule, biologists have come to recognize the importance of information to living cells. The structure of DNA allows it to store information in the form of a four-character digital code, similar to a computer code. As Venter himself has noted, “Life is basically the result of an information process—a software process.”

This is a very suggestive observation. We know from repeated experience— the basis of all scientific reasoning—that information always arises from an intelligent source—from minds, not material processes. Software programs come from programmers. Information generally—whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in radio signals—always comes from a designing intelligence. So the discovery of digital code in DNA would seem to point back to an intelligent cause as the ultimate source of the information in living cells.

Does Venter’s work refute this argument? Not at all. Indeed, if anything it underscores the indispensable role that intelligence must play in generating even artificial life-like processes.
Venter, of course, did not produce a new gene, a truly novel genetic message. He merely copied one that already existed. Nevertheless, even copying and substituting DNA required his genius. Indeed, to the extent that Venter succeeded in simulating a process involved in living systems—copying pre-existing genetic information—he did so as a result of his own ingenuity and creativity. Craig Venter himself was the crucial actor in this technological achievement.

A modern Prometheus? 

That Dr. Venter’s experiment would trouble some in the religious community is nevertheless understandable. In the Western tradition, the creation of life from dust is an act attributed to God alone. The Greeks told of the titan Prometheus who angered the gods by forming the first humans from clay. Mary Shelley alluded to the myth in the subtitle of her famous horror novel, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

Mrs. Shelley wrote her book in 1818 after hearing stories that Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, had “galvanized” or animated a wormlike mass of flour and water—bestowing the gift of life on spaghetti. But she had misunderstood.

Many in the media, and many materialistic-minded scientists, have also misunderstood, not only what Venter accomplished but also its true significance. The Promethean dream has not been realized. Nor has the dehumanizing materialistic vision of 19th century science been confirmed. As Venter himself has noted, life is more than just matter and energy, merely particles in motion. Life also depends upon information.

If information comes from mind, from the conscious activity of creative agents – whether Craig Venter or the inventor of life in the first place – then clearly 19th century science, with its Frankenstein visions, has left something out. And that is good news not only because it suggests the horrors that Shelley anticipated may not be possible, but also because 21st century science may soon present us with a less impoverished view of reality and a more ennobling view of man.
Human beings after all have minds, and with them the capacity for reflection, ingenuity and creativity—the very capacities that make science, and great scientific breakthroughs, possible.

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Dr. Meyer is a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science and the author most recently of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (available in paperback June 22 from HarperOne) which was named by the Times Literary Supplement as one of their books of the year for 2009.

Originally published at The Colson Center

Ever since Thomas Nagel selected Signature in the Cell as one of 2009’s best books, the Times Literary Supplement has had a vigorous back and forth in its letters section. The last salvo published was by Loughborough University chemistry professor Stephen Fletcher. The response below was submitted by Stephen Meyer to TLS, but they opted not to publish it.

To the Editor

The Times Literary Supplement
Sir—I see that the Professor Stephen Fletcher has written yet another letter (TLS Letters, 3 February, 2010) attempting to refute the thesis of my book Signature in the Cell. This time he cites two recent experiments in an attempt to show the plausibility of the RNA world hypothesis as an explanation for the origin of the first life. He claims these experiments have rendered the case I make for the theory of intelligent design obsolete. If anything, they have done just the reverse. 

To support his claim that scientific developments have “overtaken Meyer’s book,” Fletcher cites, first, a scientific study by chemists Matthew Powner, Béatrice Gerland and John Sutherland of the University of Manchester (Nature, Vol. 459, pp. 239–42). This study does partially address one, though only one, of the many outstanding difficulties associated with the RNA world scenario, the most popular current theory of the undirected chemical evolution of life. Starting with several simple chemical compounds, Powner and colleagues successfully synthesized a pyrimidine ribonucleotide, one of the building blocks of the RNA molecule. 

Nevertheless, this work does nothing to address the much more acute problem of explaining how the nucleotide bases in DNA or RNA acquired their specific information-rich arrangements, which is the central topic of my book. In effect, the Powner study helps explain the origin of the “letters” in the genetic text, but not their specific arrangement into functional “words” or “sentences.” 
Moreover, Powner and colleagues only partially addressed the problem of generating the constituent building blocks of RNA under plausible pre-biotic conditions. The problem, ironically, is their own skillful intervention. To ensure a biologically-relevant outcome, they had to intervene—repeatedly and intelligently—in their experiment: first, by selecting only the right-handed isomers of sugar that life requires; second, by purifying their reaction products at each step to prevent interfering cross-reactions; and third, by following a very precise procedure in which they carefully selected the reagents and choreographed the order in which they were introduced into the reaction series. 
Thus, not only does this study not address the problem of getting nucleotide bases to arrange themselves into functionally-specified sequences, but the extent to which it does succeed in producing biologically-relevant chemical constituents of RNA actually illustrates the indispensable role of intelligence in generating such chemistry. 
The second study that Fletcher cites illustrates this problem even more acutely. 

This work, conducted by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce (Science, Vol. 323, pp.1, 229–32), ostensibly establishes the capacity of RNA to self-replicate, thereby rendering plausible one of the key steps in the RNA world scenario. Nevertheless, the “self-replicating” RNA molecules that Lincoln and Joyce construct are not capable of copying a template of genetic information from free standing nucleotides as the protein (polymerase) machinery does in actual cells. Instead, in Lincoln and Joyce’s experiment, a pre-synthesized specifically sequenced RNA molecule merely catalyzes the formation of a single chemical bond, thus fusing two other pre-synthesized partial RNA chains. Their version of ‘self-replication’ amounts to nothing more than joining two sequence specific pre-made halves together. 

More significantly, Lincoln and Joyce themselves intelligently arranged the base sequences in these RNA chains. They generated the functionally-specific information that made even this limited form of replication possible. Thus, as I argue in Signature in the Cell, Lincoln and Joyce’s experiment not only demonstrates that even limited capacity for RNA self-replication depends upon information-rich RNA molecules, it also lends additional support to the hypothesis that intelligent design is the only known means by which functional information arises.

Author, Signature in the Cell
Senior Research Fellow, Discovery Institute
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. 

Dr. Francisco Ayala, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reviewed (or merely commented on at length, without reading?) Signature in the Cell for The Biologos Foundation’s blog, “Science & the Sacred.” Below is Dr. Meyer’s response.

No doubt it happens all the time. There must be many book reviews written by reviewers who have scarcely cracked the pages of the books they purport to review. But those who decide to write such blind reviews typically make at least some effort to acquire information about the book in question so they can describe its content accurately—if, for no other reason, than to avoid embarrassing themselves. Unfortunately, in his review of my book Signature in the Cell (titled ironically, “On Reading the Cell’s Signature”), eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala does not appear to have even made a search for the crib notes online. Indeed, from reading his review it appears that he did little more than crack the title page and table of contents—if that. As a result, his review misrepresents the thesis and topic of the book and even misstates its title.

>> see full response here

Dr. Darrel Falk, biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, reviewed Signature in the Cell for The Biologos Foundation’s blog, “Science & the Sacred.” Below is Dr. Meyer’s response.

In 1985, I attended a conference that brought a fascinating problem in origin-of-life biology to my attention—the problem of explaining how the information necessary to produce the first living cell arose.  At the time, I was working as a geophysicist doing digital signal processing, a form of information analysis and technology. A year later, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Cambridge, where I eventually completed a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science after doing interdisciplinary research on the scientific and methodological issues in origin-of-life biology. In the ensuing years, I continued to study the problem of the origin of life and have authored peer-reviewed and peer-edited scientific articles on the topic of biological origins, as well as co-authoring a peer-reviewed biology textbook.  Last year, after having researched the subject for more than two decades, I published Signature in the Cellwhich provides an extensive evaluation of the principal competing theories of the origin of biological information and the related question of the origin of life. Since its completion, the book has been endorsed by prominent scientists including Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences; Scott Turner, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York; and Professor Norman Nevin, one of Britain’s leading geneticists. 

Nevertheless, in his recent review on the Biologos website, Prof. Darrel Falk characterizes me as merely a well-meaning, but ultimately unqualified, philosopher and religious believer who lacks the scientific expertise to evaluate origin-of-life research and who, in any case, has overlooked the promise of recent pre-biotic simulation experiments. On the basis of two such experiments, Falk suggests I have jumped prematurely to the conclusion that pre-biotic chemistry cannot account for the origin of life. Yet neither of the scientific experiments he cites provides evidence that refutes the argument of my book or solves the central mystery that it addresses. Indeed, both experiments actually reinforce—if inadvertently—the main argument of Signature in the Cell

The central argument of my book is that intelligent design—the activity of a conscious and rational deliberative agent—best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.  I argue this because of two things that we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which following Charles Darwin I take to be the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past. First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information (especially in a digital form).  Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.  Hence, intelligent design provides the best—most causally adequate—explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals.  In other words, intelligent design is the only explanation that cites a cause known to have the capacity to produce the key effect in question.

Nowhere in his review does Falk refute this claim or provide another explanation for the origin of biological information.  In order to do so Falk would need to show that some undirected material cause has demonstrated the power to produce functional biological information apart from the guidance or activity a designing mind. Neither Falk, nor anyone working in origin-of-life biology, has succeeded in doing this. Thus, Falk opts instead to make a mainly personal and procedural argument against my book by dismissing me as unqualified and insisting that it is “premature” to draw any negative conclusions about the adequacy of undirected chemical processes.

To support his claim that I rushed to judgment, Falk first cites a scientific study published last spring after my book was in press.  The paper, authored by University of Manchester chemist John Sutherland and two colleagues, does partially address one of the many outstanding difficulties associated the RNA world, the most popular current theory about the origin of the first life. 

Starting with a 3-carbon sugar (D-gylceraldehyde), and another molecule called 2-aminooxazole, Sutherland successfully synthesized a 5-carbon sugar in association with a base and a phosphate group.  In other words, he produced a ribonucleotide.  The scientific press justifiably heralded this as a breakthrough in pre-biotic chemistry because previously chemists had thought (as I noted in my book) that the conditions under which ribose and bases could be synthesized were starkly incompatible with each other.

Nevertheless, Sutherland’s work does not refute the central argument of my book, nor does it support the claim that it is premature to conclude that only intelligent agents have demonstrated the power to produce functionally-specified information.  If anything, it illustrates the reverse. 

In Chapter 14 of my book I describe and critique the RNA world scenario.  There I describe five major problems associated with the theory.  Sutherland’s work only partially addresses the first and least severe of these difficulties: the problem of generating the constituent building blocks or monomers in plausible pre-biotic conditions. It does not address the more severe problem of explaining how the bases in nucleic acids (either DNA or RNA) acquired their specific information-rich arrangements. In other words, Sutherland’s experiment helps explain the origin of the “letters” in the genetic text, but not their specific arrangement into functional “words” or “sentences.”

Even so, Sutherland’s work lacks pre-biotic plausibility and does so in three ways that actually underscore my argument.

First, Sutherland chose to begin his reaction with only the right-handed isomer of the 3-carbon sugars he needed to initiate his reaction sequence.  Why?  Because he knew that otherwise the likely result would have had little biologically-significance. Had Sutherland chosen to use a far more plausible racemic mixture of both right and left-handed sugar isomers, his reaction would have generated undesirable mixtures of stereoisomers—mixtures that would seriously complicate any subsequent biologically-relevant polymerization. Thus, he himself solved the so-called chirality problem in origin-of-life chemistry by intelligently selecting a single enantiomer, i.e., only the right-handed sugars that life itself requires. Yet there is no demonstrated source for such non-racemic mixture of sugars in any plausible pre-biotic environment. 

Second, the reaction that Sutherland used to produce ribonucleotides involved numerous separate chemical steps.  At each intermediate stage in his multi-step reaction sequence, Sutherland himself intervened to purify the chemical by-products of the previous step by removing undesirable side products.  In so doing, he prevented—by his own will, intellect and experimental technique—the occurrence of interfering cross-reactions, the scourge of the pre-biotic chemist.  

Third, in order to produce the desired chemical product—ribonucleotides—Sutherland followed a very precise “recipe” or procedure in which he carefully selected the reagents and choreographed the order in which they were introduced into the reaction series, just as he also selected which side products to be removed and when.  Such recipes, and the actions of chemists who follow them, represent what the late Hungarian physical chemist Michael Polanyi called “profoundly informative intervention[s].” Information is being added to the chemical system as the result of the deliberative actions—the intelligent design—of the chemist himself. 

In sum, not only did Sutherland’s experiment not address the more fundamental problem of getting the nucleotide bases to arrange themselves into functionally-specified sequences, the extent to which it did succeed in producing more life-friendly chemical constituents actually illustrates the indispensable role of intelligence in generating such chemistry.  

The second experiment that Falk cites to refute my book illustrates this problem even more acutely. This experiment is reported in a scientific paper by Tracey Lincoln and Gerald Joyce ostensibly establishing the capacity of RNA to self-replicate, thereby rendering plausible one of the key steps in the RNA world hypothesis. Falk incorrectly intimates that I did not discuss this experiment in my book.  In fact, I do on page 537.

In any case, it is Falk who draws exactly the wrong conclusion from this paper.  The central problem facing origin-of-life researchers is neither the synthesis of pre-biotic building blocks (which Sutherland’s work addresses) or even the synthesis of a self-replicating RNA molecule (the plausibility of which Joyce and Tracey’s work seeks to establish, albeit unsuccessfully: see below). Instead, the fundamental problem is getting the chemical building blocks to arrange themselves into the large information-bearing molecules (whether DNA or RNA). As I show in Signature in the Cell, even the extremely limited capacity for RNA self-replication that has been demonstrated depends critically on the specificity of the arrangement of nucleotide bases—that is, upon pre-existing sequence-specific information. 

The Lincoln and Joyce experiment that Falk describes approvingly does not solve this problem, at least not apart from the intelligence of Lincoln and Joyce. In the first place, the “self-replicating” RNA molecules that they construct are not capable of copying a template of genetic information from free-standing chemical subunits as the polymerase machinery does in actual cells. Instead, in Lincoln and Joyce’s experiment, a pre-synthesized specifically sequenced RNA molecule merely catalyzes the formation of a single chemical bond, thus fusing two other pre-synthesized partial RNA chains. In other words, their version of ‘self-replication’ amounts to nothing more than joining two sequence specific pre-made halves together.  More significantly, Lincoln and Joyce themselves intelligently arrangedthe matching base sequences in these RNA chains. They did the work of replication.  They generated the functionally-specific information that made even this limited form of replication possible. 

The Lincoln and Joyce experiment actually confirms three related claims that I make in Signature in the Cell.  First, it demonstrates that even the capacity for modest partial self-replication in RNA itself depends upon sequence specific (i.e., information-rich) base sequences in these molecules. Second, it shows that even the capacity for partial replication of genetic information in RNA molecules results from the activity of chemists, that is, from the intelligence of the “ribozyme engineers” who design and select the features of these (partial) RNA replicators. Third, pre-biotic simulation experiments themselves confirm what we know from ordinary experience, namely, that intelligent design is the only known means by which functionally specified information arises.

For nearly sixty years origin-of-life researchers have attempted to use pre-biotic simulation experiments to find a plausible pathway by which life might have arisen from simpler non-living chemicals, thereby providing support for chemical evolutionary theory.  While these experiments have occasionally yielded interesting insights about the conditions under which certain reactions will or won’t produce the various small molecule constituents of larger bio-macromolecules, they have shed no light on how the information in these larger macromolecules (particularly in DNA and RNA) could have arisen.  Nor should this be surprising in light of what we have long known about the chemical structure of DNA and RNA.  As I show in Signature in the Cell, the chemical structures of DNA and RNA allow them to store information precisely because chemical affinities between their smaller molecular subunits do not determine the specific arrangements of the bases in the DNA and RNA molecules.  Instead, the same type of chemical bond (an N-glycosidic bond) forms between the backbone and each one of the four bases, allowing any one of the bases to attach at any site along the backbone, in turn allowing an innumerable variety of different sequences.  This chemical indeterminacy is precisely what permits DNA and RNA to function as information carriers.  It also dooms attempts to account for the origin of the information—the precise sequencing of the bases—in these molecules as the result of deterministic chemical interactions.  

Nevertheless, for Professor Falk, drawing any negative conclusions about the adequacy of purely undirected chemical processes—or worse—making an inference to intelligent design, is inherently premature.  Indeed, for him such thinking constitutes giving up on science or making “an argument from ignorance.”  But this betrays a misunderstanding of both science and the basis of the design argument that I am making.  

Scientific investigations not only tell us what nature does, they also frequently tell us what nature doesn’t do. The conservation laws in thermodynamics, for example, proscribe certain outcomes. The first law tells us that energy is never created or destroyed.  The second tells us that the entropy of a closed system will neverdecrease over time.  Moreover, because these laws are based upon our uniform and repeated experience, we have great confidence in them.  That is why physicists don’t, for example, still consider research on perpetual motion machines to be worth investigating or funding.    

In the same way, we now have a wealth of experience showing that what I call specified or functional information (especially if encoded in digital form) does not arise from purely physical or chemical antecedents.  Indeed, the ribozyme engineering and pre-biotic simulation experiments that Professor Falk commends to my attention actually lend additional inductive support to this generalization.  On the other hand, we do know of a cause—a type of cause—that has demonstrated the power to produce functionally-specified information.  That cause is intelligence or conscious rational deliberation.  As the pioneering information theorist Henry Quastler once observed, “the creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” And, of course, he was right. Whenever we find information—whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, written in a book or etched on a magnetic disc—and we trace it back to its source, invariably we come to mind, not merely a material process.  Thus, the discovery of functionally specified, digitally encoded information along the spine of DNA, provides compelling positive evidence of the activity of a prior designing intelligence.  This conclusion is not based upon what we don’t know.  It is based upon what we doknow from our uniform experience about the cause and effect structure of the world—specifically, what we know about what does, and does not, have the power to produce large amounts of specified information.That Professor Falk rejects this knowledge as knowledge, and the case for design based on it, reflects his own commitment to finding a solution to the origin of life problem within a strictly materialistic framework. Indeed, he and his colleagues at BioLogos have made clear that they accept the principle of methodological naturalism, the idea that scientists, to be scientists, must limit themselves to positing only materialistic explanations for all phenomena. Of course, it is their right to accept this intellectual limitation on theorizing if they wish. But it needs to be noted that the principle of methodological naturalism is an arbitrary philosophical assumption, not a principle that can be established or justified by scientific observation itself.  Others of us, having long ago seen the pattern in pre-biotic simulation experiments, to say nothing of the clear testimony of thousands of years of human experience, have decided to move on.  We see in the information-rich structure of life a clear indicator of intelligent activity and have begun to investigate living systems accordingly. If, by Professor Falk’s definition, that makes us philosophers rather than scientists, then so be it.  But I suspect that the shoe is now, instead, firmly on the other foot.