Signature in the Cell 7

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. In Ch. 15 he summarized his argument for design.  In Ch. 16 he summarizes Dembski’s argument based on complex specified information and pattern recognition.  The hypothesis is again that the complex specified information in the DNA (or RNA or whatever) of the “first” self-replicating organism is evidence for design.

Meyer gives an illustration (one of his favorites) as he begins the chapter.  To demonstrate to a class that chance is not a good explanation for the origin of the information present in the DNA he would pass a combination lock around the room and have students guess the combination.

As I passed the lock around the class, and as student after student failed to find the combination in three random trials, I acted increasingly smug as the demonstration was, apparently, proving my point. Then, as if on cue and just as I was becoming insufferable, a student (say “John”) nonchalantly turned the dial three times – right, left, right – and popped the lock open. (p. 348)

While the class, at first considers the occurrence simply chance, they are soon asking if the demonstration was “rigged” – it seems too improbable to be true.  Sure enough Meyer had passed John the combination.  This demonstration is supposed to illustrate how we recognize intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of specified information. The combination is the specified information. Every sequence of 3 numbers between 0 and 39 has equal probability – therefore each guess has a probability of 1 in 64000 of being the correct combination – the specified information capable of opening the lock. The odds against chance are so great, we immediately suspect design.

Another example discussed by Meyer (p. 361):

Consider these two strings of characters:


“Time and tide wait for no man.”

Both are equally “improbable” but only the second is not considered to arise by chance because it matches an independent external target.  It meets a functional requirement and conveys information to the reader.

Meyer and Dembski argue that the information content in DNA, because it meets a functional external requirement, must be designed.

Does this argument convince you? Why or why not?

The first thing to recognize in both of these examples is that the specified information is not in the specific set of numbers or characters. The specified functional information is in the lock or in the meaning human minds have assigned to the arrangement of characters in an English sentence.

Consider Meyer’s classroom demonstration. He could just as easily have given “John” an unset lock, a box containing 40,000 slips of paper – 1000 copies each of the 40 possible numbers, 0-39, told him to go into a closet, choose three pieces at random, set the lock, close the lock, put the paper back, and return to the classroom. After the demonstration, when Meyer, with the class suspecting trickery, “walked over to the student who had opened the lock and asked him to tell the truth. “Did I tell you the combination before class started?”(p. 350)” the student would have answered no. When asked if he chose the combination randomly he would have answered yes. Of course he didn’t choose it randomly after the lock was set. He chose it randomly before the lock was set. He did not use chance to open the lock.

What does this have to do with biology, the cell, and DNA? First, Meyer’s argument, in three parts:

Because the base sequences in the coding region of DNA do exemplify such independent functional requirements (and produce outcomes that hit independent functional targets in combinatorial space), they are specified in the sense required by Dembski’s theory.

(Meyer then gives a brief recap of cell complexity)

For this reason, any nucleotide base sequence that directs the production of proteins hits a functional target within an abstract space of possibilities. As discussed in Chapters 4, 9, and 11, the chemical properties of DNA allow a vast ensemble of possible arrangements of nucleotide bases. Yet within that set of combinatorial possibilities relatively few will – given the way the molecular machinery of the gene-expression system works – actually produce functional proteins. … This smaller set of functional sequences, therefore delimits a domain (or target or pattern) within a larger set of possibilities. Moreover, this smaller domain constitutes an independent pattern or target, since it distinguishes functional from nonfunctional sequences, and the functionality of nucleotide base sequences depends on the independent requirements of protein function.

… Accordingly the nucleotide bases are not only complex, but also specified. Therefore, according to Dembski’s theory, the specified arrangements of bases in DNA point to prior intelligent activity,  (p. 365-367)

Second: The penultimate section of the chapter (pp. 367-369) presents an argument by analogy – the way cells process information is similar to the way computers process information. The functional logic is similar, it is complex and specified. “Thus, according to Dembski’s theory, digitally encoded information and information-processing system in the cell points to intelligent design. (p. 369)”

And to close the loop:

Since DNA, RNA, and proteins do have large amounts of functionally specified information, and since even the first simple self-replicating organisms would have required large amounts of it, Dembski’s theory also implies that the origin of specified information necessary to build the first living cell is best explained by intelligent design. (p. 372)

How does this argument fare?

1. Meyer’s first point about DNA only establishes that the lock is set. The DNA code has been set for the last 2.5 to 3.5 billion years. Any design is not in the code, but in realm of chemical possibilities – the functional significance that set the lock in the first place.

2. The argument by analogy to the way computers process and store information is weak. There are not many ways to process and store information.

3. The final statement – closing the loop to include the first simple self-replicating organism assumes the conclusion (the lock is set). It does not address the way the lock was set in the first place. My friend quoted in Tuesday’s post considers it possible that setting the lock (esp. development of the original evolvable self replicating molecules) involved design, we don’t know enough to rule it out. But as he said – if origin of life researchers find good evidence for spontaneous origin of life, … I wouldn’t see this as being in conflict with my faith, since God can choose to create life through the laws of Chemistry, if He wishes. Once there is an evolvable self-replicating molecule it is possible to start to set the lock, but the design isn’t in the code, the combination. The design is in the initiation process and in the chemical and physical landscape of the universe, the realm of chemical possibility.

Finally, this does not address the issue of evolution. There is nothing whatever in this discussion that undermines the theory of evolution once we have the first simple self-replicating organism. There is no controversy to teach. Evolution gets us from the first cell to the diversity of life we see today.

Now it is your turn.

What do you think – does the origin of life, the complexity of the cell, or the specified information content of DNA demonstrate intelligent design in biology? Why or why not?

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