British Geneticist Robert Saunders Weighs in on <em>Signature in the Cell</em> - Evolution News & Views

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British Geneticist Robert Saunders Weighs in on Signature in the Cell

Readers may recall my exchange with British geneticist Robert Saunders (here and here) following Stephen Meyer's lecture at the Lord McKay dinner in London (which you can now watch here). At the time, Saunders admitted that he had not read Signature in the Cell, nor had he attended the lecture. It was, therefore, not entirely unexpected that Saunders failed to understand Meyer's core arguments.

Saunders now claims to have read Signature in the Cell, and has posted a "review" on his website. I place "review" in quote marks because very little of the article actually engages with the substantive scientific content of Meyer's book. Instead, much of it is taken up with attempting to identify Meyer's religious motivations and challenging Meyer's scientific credentials. Since this has been addressed at length before on ENV and elsewhere, I will not dwell too long on it. However I will make the following points:

  1. For a detailed discussion of the "Wedge document," see here.

  2. For a detailed discussion of the background and context of the flawed Dover ruling, see the articles linked to on the "Traipsing into Evolution" website.

  3. Regarding the Sternberg affair, you can find the record set straight on Sternberg's own website.

  4. Saunders himself is not without religious bias. Indeed, his blog tagline reads "...biology and atheism in an overly religious world." If the religious beliefs and biases of ID proponents disqualify them from rational dialogue in the scientific arena, surely Saunders's atheism and anti-religious biases also disqualify him.

  5. Claiming that being able to show how a viewpoint originated is tantamount to falsification of the reasons given for holding that belief commits what philosophers call the "genetic fallacy."

Saunders quotes Meyer's point that,

...there are neither bonds nor bonding affinities -- differing in strength or otherwise -- that can explain the origin of the base sequencing that constitutes the information in the DNA molecule. A force has to exist before it can cause something. And the relevant kind of force in this case (differing chemical attractions between nucleotide bases) does not exist within the DNA molecule.
He responds to this by saying,
Well, I'm not so sure I find this an astonishing insight. In the context of present-day DNA and RNA synthesis, the phosphate moeities are crucial in the formation of linkage between successive nucleotides.
As readers of this blog -- and those who have read SITC -- will be well aware, this completely misses the point. Meyer's point does not concern the bonding between the bases and the phosphate backbone. Rather, he is highlighting the fact that there are no chemical forces of attraction between the bases themselves that are causing the bases to align in a certain way. It is particularly curious that Saunders makes this point, given that I addressed a similar misunderstanding in my previous two blog entries responding to Saunders -- and I know he read those articles.

Saunders continues,

[Meyer's discussion of the origin of life] is a genuinely interesting overview of how theories of the origins of life have arisen and been modified in light of increasing understanding of cellular molecular biology. Unfortunately Meyer is clearly presenting a thesis that there are no successful hypotheses. It's here that the deeply unscientific nature of ID creationism becomes visible: "Science" is not some completed enterprise: indeed new hypotheses and findings are continually made -- not least in the fields associated with the origins of life. This is the more intellectually satisfying aspects in origins of life research: that novel hypotheses are continually framed and modified -- and tested. But hey, when you're religiously motivated, why not cut and run and invoke a supernatural designer?
Meyer spends a large portion of the book detailing the positive scientific argument, and inferential basis, for intelligent design as an alternative hypothesis to those offered by the processes of chance, necessity and the combination thereof. The historical scientific method of inferring to the best explanation from multiple competing hypotheses requires evaluation of the explanatory value of other contenders. It is possible that, at some point in the future, a better explanation will come to light that will displace ID as the most causally adequate hypothesis. In light of the present state of research, however, I think it is quite justified to claim that ID is currently the best of the competing explanations.

Saunders continues,

There are two significant areas where Meyer draws on the work of colleagues, and in particular William Dembski, a mathematician who claims to have devised probability based methods for the detection of design. Meyer relies heavily on William Dembski's approach to detecting design. I have several problems: essentially this becomes an exercise in probability, where the probability of events cannot really be calculated.

Yes, it may seem that the probability of life beginning was quite low, but Signature exaggerates this by seeming to insist on features of molecular replication being established all at once. It's as if Meyer is really keen to place obstacles in front of non-supernatural explanations.

I would disagree that the calculation of probabilities in an evolution context is non-feasible. At the very least it should be possible to place a ball-park estimate on the probability of many of life's features having evolved -- even though it may not be possible to pinpoint a precise probability. Indeed, the discipline of population genetics (which asks questions such as "What kinds of population sizes, time-scales and generation turnover times are needed to attain certain kinds of adaptations and innovations?") is highly dependent on the calculation of probabilities. Ironically most of the arguments for common ancestry are based on calculation of probabilities.

Saunders complains that Meyer "insist[s] on features of molecular replication being established all at once." I would be curious to learn what origin-of-life model Saunders has in mind here.

He continues,

Meyer's use of information theory in Signature is difficult. As far as I can tell, Meyer doesn't really have the background to adequately discuss this (and neither do I). Meyer uses neither Shannon nor Kolomogorov [sic] information as the basis of his discussions, but a strange hybrid form in which not only the information is considered, but the message/meaning that is in the information. I find this completely uncompelling. Meyer's arguments require an understanding of which stretches of DNA sequence ultimately have functional significance, and he tends to avoid anything other than protein coding sequences. He doesn't consider, for example, the latitude there may be in protein sequence before a protein's function is compromised. I got the sense that for Meyer, the world is a rather binary place: stuff works or it doesn't work.
I don't think complex specified information (CSI) can really be described as a "hybrid form" between Shannon and Kolmogorov information. Neither the Shannon nor Kolmogorov description of information accounts for functional specificity (the former relates to reduction in uncertainty; the latter relates to the computational resources needed to specify an object). Saunders goes on to reference Jeffrey Shallit's criticisms of the concept of CSI. Shallit's misguided criticisms are addressed quite thoroughly in Signature of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell, and I refer readers to that free E-book for a rebuttal to his arguments. Moreover, Meyer spends many pages explaining the different conceptions of information and highlighting the inadequacies of Shannon information (which does not account for the functional significance of the sequence) as applied to this context.

Contrary to what Saunders and Shallit allege, the notion of CSI is not unique to proponents of ID. For example, have a read of this article by Hazen et al. on "Functional Information and the Emergence of Biocomplexity." Another good peer-reviewed publication on the topic is this paper by Durston et al. (2007) on "Measuring the functional sequence complexity of proteins." For further documentation of other mainstream theorists who have said that we need a definition of information which considers the functional significance of a message, I refer readers to Casey Luskin's article here.

Saunders goes on:

Finally, Meyer gets off the fence. He believes that life originated as an act of Design. Unfortunately, Meyer refuses to come clean that he believes that God was that designer, at which is what I would be led to believe from his co-authorship of the Wedge Document ("To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God"). Frankly, this is a hugely dishonest approach, but one in keeping with the strategy of Intelligent Design creationism proponents.
For years, ID proponents have been saying -- till we're blue in the face -- that the reason we do not identify the designer as part of our scientific inference is because the answer to that question is not discernible from the empirical data. Atheists remind us often that the case for ID does not provide evidence for the specifically Christian deity, but when we try to be clear about this limitation we are charged with dishonesty. This seems like something of a double standard. Many proponents of ID -- including myself -- believe the designer to be the God revealed in Judeo-Christian Scripture. Others take a different view. This is, however, not a conclusion from the scientific data, but a metaphysical judgment based on other considerations.

Saunders proceeds to present a critique of Meyer's inference to the best explanation. In syllogistic form, Meyer's argument is as follows:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

Saunders has the following issues with Premise One:
(1) There are plenty of chemical and biological mechanisms which can and do increase the quantity of biological information. (2) 'Specified Information' is a bogus concept, and one which Meyer never actually defines. (3) A number of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins of biological information, and it's only the straw man versions set up as easy targets by Meyer which fail. (4) And finally, science will ultimately continue to generate origin of life hypotheses, some completely undreamt of as yet.
Regarding (1), even if we grant for the purposes of argument that evolutionary mechanisms are adequate to account for innovations in information content that have occurred throughout the history of life, this has no relevance to the origin-of-life since these mechanisms only operate by definition after the origin of the first self-replicating system. Thus they are of no relevance to the central thesis of Meyer's book. Regarding (2), "Specified Information" is defined, and not just by Meyer. Regarding (3), Which hypotheses does Saunders have in mind? Regarding (4), I have no doubt that it will, but the point Saunders is making is not clear.

Saunders makes the following complaints with respect to Premise Two:

(1) Specified Information continues to evade definition by Meyer. (2) The only intelligent cause that Meyer can demonstrate is human cause, and (3) the complex information devised and generated by humans does not in fact correspond to biological information.
Saunders's point two is mistaken -- other animals can produce some forms of specified complexity as well. And what is the basis of the SETI project if CSI is not a reliable indicator of agency? Moreover, in what sense does "the complex information devised and generated by humans [fail to] correspond to biological information"?

Saunders further asserts that,

ID creationism fails. Even were one to suppose intelligent design, for this form of creationism to gain traction, one would need at the very least to identify who or what this designer is (or was), and the means by which this intelligent designer undertook this major design effort (which actually exceeds the human ability at present).
Those are indeed interesting second-order questions. But adequately addressing them is not a necessary condition for justifying a design inference. We make design inferences on a daily basis without always knowing the answers to those questions.

Saunders proceeds to reassert his position that Meyer's argument is a "god-of-the-gaps" argument, a claim that is so thoroughly blown out of the water in SITC (and also here at ENV) that there is no need to address it again here.

He finishes by bringing up the old "junk DNA" canard, citing an article by PZ Myers entitled "junk DNA is still junk." There are two main problems with this article:


  1. While conservation of sequence often implies functional constraint, lack of conservation does not necessarily imply non-function. For example, a paper published in Nature in 2007 by the ENCODE Project Consortium reported that they had "encountered a remarkable excess of experimentally identified functional elements lacking evolutionary constraint."

  2. Myers cites a paper by Bakel et al. which contains a deep methodological flaw -- as Jonathan Wells discusses in The Myth of Junk DNA and which I have mentioned more than once in my writings here (see my comments on it in this article).

To conclude, Robert Saunders's review of Signature in the Cell presents nothing fundamentally new or that hasn't been thoroughly addressed before. The objections raised by Saunders are not even injurious -- much less deadly. If the detractors had any substantive or stronger criticisms to make of the book, it's safe to bet that we would have heard them by now.