Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Series: The Pensmore Dialog on Science & Faith - Session 2

This post is part of a series discussing the Pensmore Dialog on Science & Faith from College of the Ozarks. 


Plenary Session 2
Topic:  Signature in the Cell
Speaker:  Stephen Meyer


The second session was led by Dr. Stephen Meyer. Meyer is a geophysicist who earned his PhD from Cambridge in the History and Philosophy of Science. He has spent most of his career as a proponent of Intelligent Design.

Opening Remarks

Meyer opened with a bit of his background and then got into the heart of his argument: evolutionary biology has a problem with origin science...and no one really wants to talk about it. As a student for his PhD, he became interested in what seemed to be a ton of work on how to classify the theory of evolution but very few if any were worried about how to answer what he found the most interesting question: "What is the thing/entity/process from which everything came?"

He said the standard view of scientists and the media in our society today is this: matter and energy was the primary reality; this led to life; this led to man; this led to the idea of God. The idea of God is therefore simply a byproduct of a group who were an output of a random process. However, he says that the other view is that some supernatural creator (call Him "God") pre-existed; He caused matter and energy; which led to life; which led to man; who perceived of this God.

The first view--the primary common view of most scientists today--became mainstream with Charles Darwin. The basic concept that "like begets like" had been understood from breeders forever. If you have shepherds who want sheep with thicker wool, then they will allow thick-wooled males and thick-wooled females to breed while keeping all others separate. A few generations of repeating this process and you have very thick-wooled sheep. This selective breeding is something that has been known for millennia by humans.

And it stood to reason from the men around the world to say that, since all these animals were so well adapted to their environments, then they must have arrived there through a similar process--an intelligent Designer placed them in the appropriate places.

Darwin's insight was to say--what if this appearance of design could be explained without a designer? What if a natural process could simply mimic the appearance of design? For example, what if a very bad winter came and killed off all sheep that didn't have very thick wool? Then the thick wooled sheep would be the only ones to survive, and thus a few generations of repeated cold winters would give the same result as a selective breeder, even without human intervention.

This is a clever idea that Darwin had, and if true it does indeed take away one evidence that led people to accept the idea of a Designer. Now that is not to say that Darwin's findings are a death-blow: we must answer (a) if this idea is enough to explain all variety of life, (b) is there any other evidence of design, and (c) how did the starting life forms get into place to begin with? (As he quoted one evolutionist saying, "Natural selection explains the survival of the fittest but has nothing to say about the arrival of the fittest."

That arrival, Meyer claimed, was a major issue that was really kind of ignored by everyone at the time. Why? Why was no one interested in chemical evolution--how to get from dead chemicals to the first cell? Why only the interest in biological evolution--how to get from the first cells to the variety of life we see today?

The answer lies in the history of their assumptions at the time. Darwin and other biologists and chemists of his day thought that cells were a simple, homogenous, chemical globule. Basically like a pudding without a lot of complexity to it. Since cells were simple, it seemed like a small issue and so they didn't worry about it.

The Complexity of the Cell

But that belief would fall apart in the 1950s and beyond. Crick and Watson discovered DNA as the primary means of passing genetic information from one generation to the other.

Crick (who formerly served as a code-breaker in WWII) had the breakthrough idea that maybe DNA wasn't passing along information simply by chemical reactions but actually was itself a code--a language of information. As we now know, it turns out he was correct.

This led to major breakthroughs and today we have a much different view of the cell than Darwin and his contemporaries had--which was beautifully illustrated in an animation he shared. The basics I jotted down were this:
  • DNA is a four-letter language which can be arranged in three letters per word, creating 4^3=64 possible "words" for coding.
  • These words are combined in a particular way to create the shape of proteins
  • The DNA tells which order to assemble them into amino acids, the proteins linking end-to-end in a chain
  • The amino acids therefore each have a particular order to the building blocks, which exert forces on each other in a certain way, therefore bending the amino acid into a particular 3D shape
  • These 3D shapes are particularly required in order to do a particular job like a machine tool
  • The cell is basically then a a 3D printer connected to a CAD program like engineers use--it takes digital code and uses this to automatically "print" 3D amino acids, which are used to build everything in the body.
(Note:  a slight correction here. Many times, Meyer compares DNA to a digital code like a computer. It's actually more complex than that. Computers work on binary code--1s and 0s, "on" or "off". Thus each three-character string of computer code can produce 2^3 = 8 possible combinations. DNA is not binary code but quadrary code, able to produce 700% more combinations per 3-character word. So DNA is actually much more powerful for coding purposes than binary computer code.)

DNA explained so much for biological evolution, but it caused a massive problem for chemical evolution or origins science. It made sense for this to be ignored back in Darwin's day, but no longer: now this "DNA Enigma" is overwhelming. Where did it come from? How can this have happened randomly? How can a code that is literally 700% more compact and elegant than computers have just happened? It is far more likely that computer programming would have invented itself than that DNA would have.

And yet, Meyer stated, biology classes don't even touch on this topic. Why?

He says that he thinks it is a worldview issue. We all intuitively know where study of this would lead us, don't we? Does anyone actually think that we would ever achieve any breakthrough where an undirected chemical process would create a computer code? Isn't it far more likely--like drawing letters out of a Scrabble bag--that this would create jumbled nonsense than that it would produce meaningful information? 

Models of Explanation

As Meyer said, not much effort is placed on this most fascinating of evolutionary questions, so there aren't a lot of models trying to explain them. Briefly he covered the historical models.

1. Blind Chance

First, he spoke about the Chance Model. Imagine a thief trying to break into a bike lock. If he has to guess only one ten-digit number, he has a 10% chance of success. If he has to break into a bike lock requiring four, ten-digit numbers, then he has only one chance in 10,000 (10*10*10*10). Blind chance is going to take a LONG time to have any luck--in this example, the thief would need over 15 hours uninterrupted to have even a 50-50 chance of success.

Combinatorial systems like this become exponentially more difficult to occur by random chance. But the problem with amino acids is far, far worse than a bike lock! To form a 150 site amino chain from 20 available acids is about 1 chance per 1x10^195...a 1 with 195 zeroes after it! The entire history of the universe is not enough time to randomly form just one amino acid.

(NOTE:  Meyer makes a statistical error here. His argument is only valid if we are trying to form one specific acid chain. But we don't need one specific one, we need any valid chain. That said, this is a minor error which doesn't change the overall point at all. It is as if we are calculating the odds of being dealt a Flush randomly in poker, and he calculated a Royal Flush--that is, one specific flush--rather than any possible Flush. Even though his calculation is too restrictive, the odds are still overwhelmingly against this occurring, even if he'd done it properly.)

As a result of these facts, chemical evolutionists have soured on Chance alone as a model since about the 1960s.

2. Prebiotic Natural Selection

This led to prebiotic natural selection. Maybe it isn't only blind chance, but maybe there was natural selection in place. This might have confused some who heard it, but I think we can continue the bike lock analogy to help. Imagine you still have that bike lock with 10,000 possible combinations. But imagine that every time you guess one of the numbers correctly, it "locks" into place and is always there. Now the odds get FAR better that it can succeed. That is basically what this model is arguing--what if there is some natural selection in place so that when an amino acid forms a part properly, it "sticks" and is good forever.

But...this also failed now that we know what DNA is. Because natural selection can only work if you have life which is self-replicating and passing along genetic information...which we now know requires DNA. But therefore it cannot be used to explain how DNA itself was formed, because DNA must pre-exist. It is begging the question--you can't say both that DNA causes natural selection AND that natural selection causes DNA.

So this method too failed.

3.  Self-Organization Scenarios

The modern approach is self-organization: maybe the amino acids self-organized in a way similar to crystallization? For example, Na and Cl are shaped in such a way that they naturally and spontaneously crystallize easily in nature, forming salt. We see crystallization in many places in nature. So maybe that is happening here as well?

There are two issues with this approach, which seem to Meyer to be fatal. (1) Experimentally, the forces in question simply don't seem to exist, or at least not in any form close to powerful enough. The actual molecules simply don't have these forces. (2) Theoretically this is flawed, because in DNA the same bond is used to connect to any DNA letter, so it cannot be the mechanism which determines which sequence the DNA is in.

Imagine a marker board with magnetic letters attached. The magnetic force attaches the letters--but you can't invent a magnetic force which requires the letters to arrange in a particular pattern to spell a particular word. The magnetic force works the same regardless of the letter attached, so something else must be determining the order.


The complexity of the cell and in particular DNA code information leads to Meyer's conclusion.

Historical science (recall the post from yesterday, when Lennox defined the term) typically works by answering this question:  since we cannot repeat the event via experimentation, is there a cause currently in operation in the world which can be used to create a similar result?

For example, we cannot "re-run" the experiment which forms the Grand Canyon. However, we can see in operation today forces (wind and water erosion) which can create a similar result, and therefore we can logically assume that erosion caused the formation of the Grand Canyon. Likewise, we cannot through experiment show what happened to the dinosaurs--but there is today in operation a force (asteroid impacts) which produce similar results on other planets that could explain what we see in the fossil record.

This question--what currently-operating cause could produce a similar result?--is the basis of all historical science reasoning.

What Meyer does is simply apply that question to the DNA enigma:  is there a cause now in operation which creates information and code similar to DNA?

The answer, of course, is "yes"--intelligence. Intelligence creates code.

No one looks at the Rosetta Stone and says it happened by erosion--if you see information you assume it comes from an intelligence. When we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, no one spent even one academic paper arguing that they were just random markings on a page.

Every time we see language or codes or information, we always--always--presume intelligence was the source.

So...why is DNA different? Isn't the most consistent approach, Meyer said, to apply the same logic here? If so, then we see that by far the most probable explanation for the chemical evolution of DNA and the cell is interference by some intelligent Agency.

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