Intelligent design proponent and Discovery Institute Fellow Stephen Meyer spoke at the University of Oklahoma last night. And hilarity ensued. Meyer is best known for his role in the Sternberg peer review controversy; a paper by Meyer was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a real-life peer-reviewed journal. The journal later withdrew the paper due to the improper way in which the peer review process was handled by Richard Sternberg. While Meyer’s talk was considerably better than Dembski’s talk two years ago, it still boiled down to the old ID canard – “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”
Meyer was in town to hawk his new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. Based on his talk, Meyer is attempting to revive the magic of Darwin’s Black Box; in 1996 Michael Behe argued that there were too many ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of molecular biology, and that these gaps were too big to fill. Behe’s arguments have not aged well; undaunted by his doubts, science has filled many of his gaps, and left his broad generalisations looking rather silly. Nonetheless, Behe’s book provided a very fruitful model – it created the illusion that there was something to the ID argument. Behe’s model was much more successful that the one that Jonathan Wells used in Icons of Evolution (rehash old, debunked ideas and hope no-one notices) or Dembski used in his books (be utterly incomprehensible so that it’s almost impossible to debunk you). Although he seems to have gone for the Behe model, Meyer’s selection lacked Behe’s originality – while Behe blazed new ground for creationists when he addressed molecular biology, Meyer went with an old creationist favourite, the origin of life.
The origin of life is a difficult problem. Unlike evolution, which goes on all around us, the origin of life lies in the distant past. It occurred under conditions that are very different to those that are present in the world today. And, most probably, it was an improbable event. It is, at all levels, a very difficult problem. This means that Meyer’s attempt will probably have a longer shelf-life than Behe’s.
Abbie’s account of Meyer’s talk captures the key details of his argument, I think. There really wasn’t much substance. For another take, check out the IDEA Club’s liveblog. The essence of Meyer’s argument appears to be the old assertion that the origin of life is too improbable to have happened by chance. And if you dispense with the chance argument, what’s left is design.** But if the underlying construct was bad, the supporting “evidence” was not apparent. Granted, Meyer referred to Douglas Axe’s work, and mentioned various chapters in his book, but if this had been a presentation of science, I would have expected to see the evidence presented and discussed.
The IDEA Club’s liveblog captures a sense of the beginning of Meyer’s argument. Lots of stuff about Darwin, Lyell, Huxley, Watson and Crick, Ayala, Dobzhansky, A.G. Cairns-Smith and Jacques Monod, in which he seemed to be trying to make a case against “blind chance” in the origin of life. Lots of talk about probability, lots of talk about “information”. And therein lies much of the problem with both the presentation and ID as a whole. Much of that discussion feels like a more sophisticated version of the “tornado through a junkyard assembling a 747″ argument. He used a six-sided dinosaur toy to illustrate the improbability of “information” (protein sequences) assembling by chance. The toy is a puzzle of a sort, divided into four segments – head, upper torso, lower torso and tail (or something like that – I couldn’t actually see what it looked like, only that it had four parts). Meyer talked about the difficulty of getting it right by chance – if you wanted a velociraptor you’d have a 1 in 6 chance of getting the head right, a 1 in 6 chance of getting the upper torso, 1 in 6 for the lower torso, and 1 in 6 for the tail. Multiply the probabilities and you have a 1 in 1296 chance of getting it right “by chance”.
The problem with that analogy is the problem that seems to underlie all of these improbability claims. You don’t need a specific dinosaur, you need any dinosaur. You don’t need one specific protein, you need one that works. Why does that matter? Well, to begin with, whichever head you pick will be fine.*** So that cuts your chance down to 1 in 216. The second point is that you aren’t interested in probability, you’re interested in expected outcomes. When someone tells you that you’re “one in a million” they mean that there are 300 people just like you in the United States, 6500 people like you in the world. So “improbability” isn’t as important as “expectation”.
More to come…
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*this gave Sternberg great martyr cred with the anti-science crowd, claiming that he was fired from his job at the Smithsonian…despite the fact that he was neither an employee, nor was his appointment as an unpaid associate terminated.
**OK, he actually talked about chance, necessity and chance + necessity. But the problem with that argument is that it assumes an “if not A, then B” construct, instead of a “if not A, then notA”.
***Of course, this only works if you believe that life isn’t teleological. If you believe that evolution must end up with us, with humans “made in the image of God”, then it gets more difficult. But that isn’t a claim that evolutionary biology is making.
Taken as a scientific talk, Meyer’s presentation fell pretty flat. But if you look at it as part of a book promotion tour, it’s not such a bad deal. You get your potential audience interested, you add a little spice through controversy. It’s probably smart marketing.