Stephen Meyer was next up. Strobel and Richards played their parts well, but, let’s face it, the conference thus far had mostly been amateur hour. Strobel stepped in it every time he mentioned something vaguely scientific, but he’s not exactly thrust forward as one of the major intellects of the ID movement. Richards presented his goofy argument with sufficient eloquence, but there was too little of substance in his presentation to make him worth too much emotional energy.
But with Meyer we hit the ID big time. Meyer, you will recall, is the one who managed to get this paper, about alleged flaws in evolutionary theory, published in The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with the aid of a sympathetic editor. Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry gave that paper a proper reaming here.
Anyway, the fuss surrounding this paper launched Meyer into the upper echelons of ID, where he sits right alongside scamps like William Dembski and Michael Behe. He boasts a PhD in philosophy and is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. Let’s consider his remarks.
Meyer’s subject was the origin of life. He started with the familiar Dawkins quote about life only appearing to be designed, and used that as a starting point to explain the idea of common descent. He went on to explain that Darwin left the origin of life unexplained, but that this did not stop people from using his work to conclude that everything in biology could be explained without recourse to design. This was possible in the nineteenth century, because people had naive ideas about the cell. They tended to think it was just a simple ball of goo. Today we know better.
The parade of talking points continued with some discussion of the Oparin hypothesis regarding the origin of life and the Miller-Urey experiment. Meyer repeated the standard distortions about the Miller-Urey experiment having been discredited as the result of further research into the nature of the atmosphere of the early Earth. I addressed these errors in Part One.
Moving on. Meyer then gushed about the complexities of biochemistry. The cell is an information processing system! Proteins have to fold just right in order to function! (Those beknighted scientists from days of yore were expecting proteins to have a very simple structure. Poor sots.) Proteins have sequence specificity! DNA! There’s a code, just like a computer program!
This is where things started getting interesting.
This is the point where Meyer started discoursing about the nature of information. According to Meyer, there are two different notions of information. First, there is the mathematical version, as elucidated by Claude Shannon. In this version “information” is construed as inversely proportional to probability. High information content is correlated with a low probability of occurrence. In this notion, Meyer argued, any lengthy string of symbols can be viewed as containing a large amount of information, since it is only one of a very large collection of possible strings of symbols.
But in biology we have a different sort of information. We don’t just have complexity. We have specified complexity! Meyer repeated several times that this is a richer sort of information than what Shannon considered. He drew a distinction between a meaningless string of symbols, and the phrase “Time and tide wait for no man.” The latter phrase is clearly different since it conveys a meaning.
Standard ID fare. What is interesting here is that Meyer drew an explicit distinction between the Shannon notion of information on the one hand, and this notion of specified complexity on the other. ID folks draw this distinction routinely, apparently oblivious to the logical hole they dig themselves by doing so. The nice thing about Shannon’s theory is that it gives us a precise method for measuring the information content of a message (technically, the “entropy” of a message is a somewhat more accurate way of putting it.) As long as you can embed a particular message within a meaningful probability space you can talk about the amount of information it contains. This makes it possible to answer questions like, “Does physical process X lead to an increase or decrease in information?”
But the ID folks distance themselves from Shannon’s notion. This leaves them with the problem of quantifying the information they find in DNA. They assert that DNA possesses specified complexity and then challenge scientists to explain how this quantity of information can increase over time via natural processes. The question is meaningless unless they can tell us precisely how to measure the quantity of specified complexity. Otherwise, how would we know an increase when we saw one?
This sort of facile simple-mindedness is ubiquitous in ID and creationist writing. They routinely point to this or that mutation and say that information has been lost because the organism in question can no longer perform some function that its unmutated brethren can perform. Indeed, but the mutation might very well also lead to some new functionality that the nonmutants lack. Sure, we lost one ability, but perhaps we gained another. Does that add up to a net gain or net loss in information?
I have raised this objection to ID folks before. The answer I usually get (when I get any answer at all) is that when it comes time to measure information, they are still using Shannon’s conception. But if that is the case, then their little challenge turns out to be no difficulty at all. There are a vairety of familiar genetic mechanisms that can account for increases in genetic information. Gene duplication followed by subsequent divergence is an especially important one. Any decent genetics textbook will tell you about many others. So it is either trivial to explain the growth of genetic information in time (if you mean Shannon’s version of information) or the question is meaningless (if addle-brained creationist argle-bargle about “specified complexity” is what you mean).
This is hardly the only problem with the notion of specificity used in this way. There is also the problem of knowing a genuine specification (that is, a pattern that rightly makes us think that some intelligent agency has been monkeying around) as opposed to the patterns we impose on nature. This is one of the fatal flaws in William Dembski’s work, but that’s a different post.
Okay. Back to Meyer. Quotes from people talking about information in the context of the origin of life. Comparisons of genes to computer code. Monod on “Chance and Necessity.” Blah blah blah.
Inspired by Monod, Meyer now went on to ask whether the specificity of DNA can be explained either by chance alone, natrual laws alone, or by some combination of the two. And this is where he carried off a rather startling bait and switch.
For the next fifteen minutes Meyer gushed about the absurdity of attributing to chance alone the complexity of protein sequences. There was lots more probability talk, most of it worthless since it was based on the standard combinatorial arguments that view proteins as a string of amino acids so many items long, with twenty ways of filling each item. But the basic point is trivial enough, which is why no one explains these things by chance alone.
The most interesting portion of this section of the talk was Meyer’s shameless use of work by molecular biologist Douglas Axe. For those who follow this subject, the way ID folks tell it Axe showed that functional proteins represent tiny islands in vast oceans of nonfunctional proteins. The idea is that this would make gradual evolution by natural selection impossible, since only large scale changes could possibly lead to new functionalities.
Of course, Axe showed no such thing, as explained by Arthur Hunt in this post for The Panda’s Thumb.
Anyway, after fifteen minutes of belaboring the obvious, Meyer finally got around to considering the possibility that a combination of chance and natural laws led to the complexity we see in modern DNA. This is more promising, after all, since evolution is based on the idea that chance variations get passed through the sieve of natural selection. How would Meyer get around that possibility?
This is where the switch came in. You see, when he wanted to persuade us that chance alone was an inadequate explanation for the complexity of DNA, he talked about modern DNA and modern proteins and things we find in modern organisms. But when he wanted to refute the idea that the great complexity we see around us is the result of eons of gradual natural selection, he reverted to the origin of life. Out came the usual quotes about how prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms. How absurd to explain the origin of genetic information via a mechanism that presupposes the existence of such information!
That’s why no one uses natural selection, in Darwin’s sense, to explain the origin of life. There are various ideas sometimes referred to as “chemical selection” that are similar to natural selection and do come up in such discussions, but that is a different matter.
The bigger point, however, is that the quantity of information in the first bona fide living organism was vastly smaller than what we find today. Furthermore, the earliest self-replicating molecules were doubtless much simpler than the sort we see in modern organisms. So all of his bloviations about the hurdles faced by chance go out the window.
Sure, unaided chance can’t be the sole explanation for modern complexity. But a combination of chance and physical laws could certainly explain the formation of the earliest self-replicating molecules. And from there, familiar evolutionary mechanisms are up to the task. The bait was the complexity of modern organisms. The switch came when those findings were viewed as relevant for origin of life studies.
I was starting to fade at this point, as Meyer shot right on through the one hour mark without showing any intention of stopping. But I perked up again when I heard this:
Is there anything that we know about that does explain the origin of information? Now we get into the positive case for a new approach….We looked at three different approaches that have not been able to describe a cause that is adequate to produce the effect in question. The effect in question is biological information. But here’s a person who says in an offhanded way that we actually do know a cause that is sufficient to produce information. …What is that cause? Conscious and rational deliberation. Intelligence.
This is standard fare but it does provide a concrete example of something I’ve blogged about quite a bit here. For ID proponents the inference to design is a straightforward extrapolation from the things known intelligent designers do. The relationship of their designer to biological information is that of a human architect to the building he designs. It was this idea that Richard Dawkins was attacking with his “Ultimate 747” argument. He was pointing out, rather effectively, that whatever else it is the design inference can not be a straightforward extrapolation from known intelligent agents. Rather, it represents the invention of an intelligent agent utterly unlike any other intelligent agent we know about. In fact, if we are just extrapolating from known causes acting today, we would have to conclude that intelligent agency is flatly incapable of doing what ID folks says it did.
Many of Dawkins’ critics went after him on the grounds that God could be simple, or that he exists outside of space and time, or by hypothesizing other kluges. You can go this route, of course, but then you lose all of the intuitive appeal of the design hypothesis. In other words, you can’t say on the one hand that the inference to design is a straightforward extrapolation from known causes, but on the other hand involves conjuring into existence something utterly unlike anything we know about today.
Meyer, incredibly, closed by framing his argument as an application of Charles Lyell’s maxim that we should explain the past using causes that are known to be acting today. Then he basked in the adoration of the audience.
Mercifully, lunch was next. A few hundred people barreled out of the convention center and walked to the one little shopping center within walking distance that had a handful of restaurants. Subway struck me as the most attractive option (which tells you something about dining in Knoxville), and I got in a very long line waiting for my sandwich. There was precisely one person behind the counter (I guess the Doscivery Institute folks didn’t think to warn the local restaurateurs that Saturday lunch might be a busy time). It was while I was waiiting on line that I had my most interesting moment at the conference. Stay tuned!
Coming Up: Showdown at Subway. Behe spins like a top.