Signature in the Cell 3 – More on Historical Questions

Stephen C. Meyer has published a (very long, but readable) book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, outlining his argument in favor of intelligent design. This book essentially argues that life is very complex, the origin of life is a puzzle, and the information content in DNA cannot be explained by natural means.

In his book Meyer takes a chapter to discuss historical reasoning – and the clues to causes. The basic questions are simple … How do scientists reason and make inferences about the past? Are these inferences testable? If so, how?

Meyer discusses the ideas of  inference to best explanation (IBE) and how to evaluate causes. This is groundwork for his argument that chance and necessity, happenstance and law, the “twin pillars” of evolutionary thinking, fail to explain the origin of the information content of the cell. He finds what he concludes is strong evidence for an intelligent designer.

Before considering more of Meyer’s ideas, we will take another brief digression – but a digression related to these ideas of historical reasoning. There are two, or at least two, facets to the intelligent design movement. In broad brush strokes – one face is, or seems, intent on undermining the theories of evolutionary biology pretty much lock, stock, and barrel. Evidence for macro evolution and common descent is fought and argued against – vehemently at times.  The other face argues that there is empirical evidence for design and that natural mechanisms of evolution alone (chance and necessity) are not enough to explain the origin of life and perhaps not enough to explain the appearance of some complex structures or systems.

Here is a question worth considering.

Do these two facets – the attempt to undermine all of evolutionary biology and the attempt to find evidence, scientific evidence, for an intelligent designer – really belong together?

Are they different faces of the same thing – or should they be considered separately?

On the “history” of evolution and the evidence for the broad brush theory.

There was an interesting post on Science and the Sacred by Gordon J. Glover last week – Evolution, Design, and History. In this post he gives an example of the changes on a city block and the remnants left behind as an analogy for the kind of pervasive evidence found in biology for both evolution and common descent. His illustration is really designed to get to the ideas of historical reasoning in much of evolutionary biology. The lines of evidence are persuasive. Comparative anatomy and the vestigial structures found throughout the animal kingdom provide strong evidence for common descent – features that make absolutely no sense under the assumption of special creation are well explained by the evolutionary theory.

Another body of evidence for the general evolutionary theory in biology is found in the genomes – the information codes, the DNA – for different species, including humans. The range of evidence is vast and growing. Francis Collins in his book, The Language of God, outlines a small fraction  of this evidence. Darrel Falk in Coming to Peace With Science, outlines more. I posted on some of this a while ago (At Peace With Science). The genetic evidence also shows that evolution is not simply mutation and natural selection … it is much more complex. There was an interesting article in the NY Times this week Borna Virus Discovered in Human Genome illustrating one aspect of the complexity.

There is a third line of evidence found in the fossil record – we discussed Tiktaalik roseae on this blog a while back. But there is a fascinating discovery reported in the January 7th issue of Nature that puts new information into play – placing the appearance of tetrapods, through the indirect evidence of footprints – some 18 million years earlier than previously thought. This changes some aspects of the, still poorly understood, evolution of land animals. I am sure there are more surprises to come as the investigation of the fossil record continues. New discoveries are constantly refining the understanding of the evolutionary tree.

These three lines of evidence, and perhaps there are others, make the general theory of evolution clearly the inference to best explanation. There is no real doubt left.  While we do not yet understand the whole process, the general scenario is as close to proven as anything ever is or can be in history or biology. Arguments against the broad brush history of evolution fall into the same general category as arguments that Napoleon never existed (an example Meyer uses in his book when discussing IBE), that Jesus was married, or that the holocaust never happened.

But what about Intelligent Design?

Nothing I’ve said above about evolution and the evidence for evolution addresses the central questions of Intelligent Design. In Signature in the Cell Meyer does not make an argument against evolution. His argument is much more sophisticated, and worth a much closer look. He argues that the inference to best explanation leads to a designer. Natural mechanism alone cannot explain the information content and complexity of even the most rudimentary forms of life. This is where we will turn in the next posts … to Meyer’s argument for design and a designer.

And a final word. I think that the ID movement damages its credibility (destroys might be a better word) by fighting a battle against the general evolutionary theory. This battle may generate support in the trenches of the church, but prevents any real hearing for the positive proposals of intelligent design. The arguments against evolution are generally illogical and full of more heat than light. The distortion and rhetoric may comfort the faithful, but convinces no one and drives many away. Darrel Falk had an excellent post dealing with some of these issues on Monday: Footprints in the Sand. Read it – and comment there or here (keeping in mind that we converse as friends over coffee to understand and persuade – not to score points).

Responses? What do you think? Do anti-evolution and pro-design arguments really belong together?

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