Signature in the Cell: Meyer responds in the TLS

by Matthew Cobb

The letters page of the Times Literary  Supplement continues the debate over Signature in the Cell, with letters from author Stephen Meyer, defending his thesis, and from Thomas Nagel, who originally reviewed the book (more or less favourably). I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. I would simply point out that Meyer’s use of the fact that scientists have been unable to fabricate RNA replicators “capable of copying more than about 10 per cent of their nucleotide base sequences” as some kind of argument against pre-biotic evolution (and therefore in favour of supernatural intervention in the evolution of life) misses out the key point that explains so much of evolution: time. If 10% efficiency is all we’ve managed in a few years in the lab, I reckon that’s pretty damn good, and indicates what could easily happen in the tens of millions of years that evolution has to play with.

Sir, – I’ve been honoured by the recent attention my book Signature in the Cell has received on your Letters page following Thomas Nagel’s selection of it as one of his Books of the Year for 2009 (November 27). Unfortunately, the letters from Stephen Fletcher criticizing Professor Nagel for his choice give no evidence of Dr Fletcher having read the book, or of his comprehending the severity of the central problem facing theories of the origin of life that invoke undirected chemical evolution. In Signature in the Cell, I show that, in the era of modern molecular genetics, explaining the origin of life requires – first and foremost – explaining the origin of the information or digital code present in DNA and RNA. In his letters to the TLS (December 2 and 16, 2009), Stephen Fletcher rebukes Nagel (and by implication my book) for failing to acknowledge that “natural selection is a chemical as well as a biological process”. Fletcher further asserts that this process accounts for the origin of DNA and the genetic information it contains. Not only does my book address this very proposal at length, but it also demonstrates why theories of prebiotic natural selection involving self-replicating RNA catalysts – the version of the idea that Fletcher affirms – fail to account for the origin of the genetic information necessary to produce the first selfreplicating organism.

“Ribozyme engineering” experiments have failed to produce RNA replicators capable of copying more than about 10 per cent of their nucleotide base sequences. (Wendy K. Johnston et al, “RNA-Catalyzed RNA Polymerization”, Science 292 (2001): 1319–25.) Yet, for natural selection to operate in an RNA World (in the strictly chemical rather than biological environment that Fletcher envisions), RNA molecules capable of fully replicating themselves must exist. Everything we know about RNA catalysts, including those with partial selfcopying capacity, shows that the function of these molecules depends on the precise arrangement of their information-carrying constituents (ie, their nucleotide bases). Functional RNA catalysts arise only once RNA bases are specifically arranged into information-rich sequences – that is, function arises after, not before, the information problem has been solved. For this reason, invoking prebiotic natural selection in an RNA World does not solve the problem of the origin of genetic information; it merely presupposes a solution in the form of a hypothetical, information-rich RNA molecule capable of copying itself. As the Nobel laureate Christian de Duve has noted, postulations of prebiotic natural selection typically fail because they “need information which implies they have to presuppose what is to be explained in the first place”.

STEPHEN C. MEYER

Discovery Institute, 208 Columbia Street, Seattle, Washington 98104.

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher is surprised that I would recommend a book (Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell) whose conclusions I disagree with. I’m afraid I do that frequently; but let me explain this case. I believe that neither theism, nor atheism, nor agnosticism is clearly ruled out either by empirical evidence or by a priori argument: all are rationally possible positions. If one is a theist, the question arises, what belief about God’s relation to the natural order is compatible with the scientific evidence? Deism, the view that God is responsible for the existence of the universe and its laws, but that He never intervenes, is one possible answer. Defenders of intelligent design claim that the appearance of life as a result only of chemical processes would require accidents so improbable that an interventionist answer is more likely. I am interested particularly in the negative part of this argument – scepticism about the reducibility of biology to chemistry. Though I do not share the motives of intelligent design’s defenders to identify problems with the reductive programme, the problems seem real. Atheists, too, face the question of what conception of the natural order is compatible with their beliefs.

Fletcher says I have been duped, and his reference to Uri Geller suggests that Meyer’s book is a deliberate hoax – that he has offered evidence and arguments that he knows to be false. Like any layman who reads books on science for the general reader, I have to take the presentation of the data largely on trust, and try to evaluate more speculative arguments as best I can. Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith. If he misrepresents contemporary research on the origin of life, I will be grateful to have it pointed out to me. But the RNA world hypothesis Fletcher offers as a refutation is carefully described by Meyer, who argues that while it might help solve some problems (in virtue of the catalytic properties of RNA), it simply pushes back to a different molecule the basic question of how such an extremely complex replicator came into existence, thus allowing natural selection to begin.

Fletcher’s remarks don’t address this problem. He should really hold his nose and have a look at the book. It also should be properly reviewed, since it can’t be adequately assessed in the Letters column. I recommended it in one paragraph, speaking as a grateful reader, but the book deserves a review from someone with the relevant scientific credentials.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

26 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    This will continue and get nastier.

  2. Just Plain Cliff
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    The book “also should be properly reviewed, since it can’t be adequately assessed in the Letters column. I recommended it in one paragraph, speaking as a grateful reader, but the book deserves a review from someone with the relevant scientific credentials.”

    And therein lies at least pert of the problem…a book reviewed by a reader whose knowledge of the subject matter is close to nonexistent.

  3. Posted January 13, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Did Nagel actually review the book or did he just provide a blurb? I thought it was the latter.

  4. hempenstein
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Exactly, Time is the key (cue the Chambers Brothers). And add to that, that the size of the experimental vessel is the Earth, vs. some number of test tubes or other laboratory vessels.

    Based on the 10% efficiency cited, I have far more confidence that, like that tag line on Candid Camera, “Sometime, somewhere, when you least expect(ed) it…”

  5. ennui
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Jeffrey Shallit over at Recursivity blog has a most excellent and brutal take-down of Stephen Meyer’s bogus information theory in Signature.

  6. Dan L.
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    @ennui (#5):

    Thanks for the link! I wish philosophers were required to spend a little more time on mathematics. I feel that if Nagel actually understood what the term “information” means in Shannon’s formulation of information theory, he would have been a little more circumspect about recommending Meyer’s book.

  7. Posted January 13, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    “Fletcher’s remarks don’t address this problem. He should really hold his nose and have a look at the book. It also should be properly reviewed, since it can’t be adequately assessed in the Letters column. I recommended it in one paragraph, speaking as a grateful reader, but the book deserves a review from someone with the relevant scientific credentials.”

    H Allen Orr for yet another legendary review!

  8. M. C. Escherichia
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    “If 10% efficiency is all we’ve managed in a few years in the lab, I reckon that’s pretty damn good, and indicates what could easily happen in the tens of millions of years that evolution has to play with.”

    Is that a valid response? The thrust of Meyer’s position seems to be that evolution can’t get going without a replicator with near-100% copying fidelity.

    I prefer to invoke space rather than time: the universe is very big, such that even locally-unlikely events are bound to happen somewhere.

    • Posted January 13, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      “Is that a valid response? The thrust of Meyer’s position seems to be that evolution can’t get going without a replicator with near-100% copying fidelity.”

      It is imo. This whole ID gamble is that if nature isn’t simple then it must need a designer. So if scientists haven’t figured out how a complex process works, they take that as an opportunity to condemn the entire enterprise. It’s a basic god of the gaps argument, pretending that the lack of scientific explanation now must mean that divine intervention is necessary. It’s the same way we know that the planets and sun must have been formed by God, how else could the stars and planets organise themselves into such harmonious orbits?

      ID proponents / Creationists seem to have it set in their minds that agency begets structure, so unless complex structure can be explained wholly without agency, that positing agency is the default. And that agency is God of course, because space aliens? That’s just silly. The universe was made for man!

      It seems that until scientists have an perfect explanation for how it could happen without God, there will always be those who are going to worship the gaps. Until such time, it’ll be Goddidit until proven otherwise.

    • Ewan R
      Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      If, over the course of a handful of years you have produced something which can replicate 10% of itself, it seem to be reasonable to assume that given 100 million years, and an experimental vessel millions of times larger than the 10% result was performed in (thus invoking both a space and time arguement) something could have spontaneously been generated with enough copying fidelity to start an evolutionary lineage.

      I remain unconvinced that the initial copying fidelity would have to be close to 100%, it would be possible to lose structure and maintain function – also with the timeframes involved are we totally sure that the speed of replication is something that one would observe over the course of a lab experiment? Depending on the stability of various RNA molecules in their environment it would be completely plausible for a molecule with a generation time of months or years to be the precursor to all life.

    • Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      It’s worse. Meyer says it should be able to fully replicate itself:

      Yet, for natural selection to operate in an RNA World (in the strictly chemical rather than biological environment that Fletcher envisions), RNA molecules capable of fully replicating themselves must exist.

      But of course, if all copies are complete and exact copies, you don’t get evolution. You need imperfect copying to get evolution started. Without it, you won’t get any mutations, and without mutations, no new variation for selection to act on.

  9. Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Does Nagel know of any intelligent cause that might have intervened at the time when life arose?

    If not, of what value is such a meaningless conjecture?

    IOW, there is no belief about God’s relation to the natural order that is compatible with the scientific evidence. Of course theism isn’t ruled out by the empirical evidence, it has no justification at all, hence is not even a candidate for “ruling it out.”

    Nagel buys right into the DI’s constant drumbeat that magic is a reasonable alternative to actual discovery. That is an entirely illegitimate philosophical and scientific stance.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  10. Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and if Meyer’s book is honest, why doesn’t it deal honestly with philosophical and scientific criticisms of ID?

    Why the apparently dishonest avoidance of real cause and effect analysis upon which classical science relies, and an attempt to revive (and distort) outmoded concepts like Lyell’s uniformitarianism and Darwin’s reasoning before adequate genetic causes were known?

    Meyer may be personally honest in doing so, but he’s clearly intellectually dishonest in avoiding honest criticisms of ID (he’s repeating what he and others have said years ago), and in trying to manipulate science into something that will accept what is virtually the loose religious analogies that science wisely abandoned in favor of rigor.

    It’s about as intellectually dishonest as any pseudoscience can be.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

      Specifically, what could be intellectually honest about using Dembski’s work as the basis for his conclusions?

      Does Nagel have no concept of how it is impossible for Meyer to come up with proper conclusions when Meyer begins with the philosophically and scientifically vacuous claims of Dembski?

      Glen Davidson
      http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  11. Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Relevant? Maybe:

    “An RNA enzyme that catalyzes the RNA-templated joining of RNA was converted to a format whereby two enzymes catalyze each other’s synthesis from a total of four oligonucleotide substrates. These cross-replicating RNA enzymes undergo self-sustained exponential amplification in the absence of proteins or other biological materials. Amplification occurs with a doubling time of about 1 hour and can be continued indefinitely. Populations of various cross-replicating enzymes were constructed and allowed to compete for a common pool of substrates, during which recombinant replicators arose and grew to dominate the population. These replicating RNA enzymes can serve as an experimental model of a genetic system. Many such model systems could be constructed, allowing different selective outcomes to be related to the underlying properties of the genetic system.”

    Tracey A. Lincoln and Gerald F. Joyce, “Self-Sustained Replication of an RNA Enzyme” Science 27 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5918, pp. 1229–32. DOI: 10.1126/science.1167856.

    • Sigmund
      Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      RNA evolution is a hot topic in the research world and a lot of papers have been published since 2001. It is a typical ploy of creationists to cite out of date research to back their claims. Such tactics are immediately obvious to scientists but appear plausible to the public (and in particular to a religious audience looking for some kind of scientific confirmation of their faith). This is the sort of thing Kent Hovind used to do with carbon dating studies – cite one historical paper showing a problem in one set of circumstances and then claim that this disproves the whole subject (while carefully neglecting to mention that numerous subsequent studies and validated the principle).
      The current RNA hypothesis is not that RNA was the initial self replicating molecule – rather that it was something similar to RNA, some sort of self replicating polynucleotide that gave rise to the more complex (although more chemically unstable) RNA replicators.

    • Sigmund
      Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:58 am | Permalink

      I should also point out that Nagels statement about RNA replication: “it simply pushes back to a different molecule the basic question of how such an extremely complex replicator came into existence, thus allowing natural selection to begin” completely misses the point. The RNA replicator hypothesis doesn’t simply push the process back one stage, it demonstrates that a much simpler replicating molecule is possible, one that can arise through chance chemical processes of a reasonably high probability.

      • Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Or through known chemical processes.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Nagel’s response is weak and whiny. No doubt he’s being oppressed by one of those nasty New Atheists.

    Ah, here we go again with the “digital code in the DNA” nonsense. I’ll train myself to think of that image of Jesus in a toilet bowl each time someone brings up “digital code in DNA”.

    Nagel says “If one is a theist, the question arises, what belief about God’s relation to the natural order is compatible with the scientific evidence?” – the answer is absolutely none. The deist relegates a god to the position of starting everything then going away – something like in the Hindu mythology. Now of the vast body of Hindu mythology – is there only one claim which is compatible with science? Isn’t it just bizarre that one would reject thousands of claims but hold this one? It’s even worse with the christian mythology because such a god is not the god of the bible. Karen Armstrong makes an even funnier claim: “god is my powerless security blanket and therefore he exists”.

    Getting back to the deist position: that god obviously doesn’t care about anything, so what’s the point of thinking about it again? Of course there is the other obvious problem for the deist: who created this creator? If it wasn’t created, then wouldn’t it be simpler to simply cut out that god and say the universe existed without being created? We have much evidence for the existence of the universe, and absolutely no evidence for the existence of a god.

    In past ages people looked with wonder upon the natural world: “that’s so awesome, it must have been created by a really awesome superman”. However, as we’ve looked closely at the natural world (which never fails to awe) we see that many things were mere accidents – the extremely unlikely actually occuring over incomprehensible periods of time. There is no need for a god – a god only robs nature of its grandeur.

    Meyer is still an idiot – some things never change. I’m tired of his “we don’t know everything yet, therefore there must be a god” arguments.

    • Steve P.
      Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      Hey Mad,

      Do you have any empirical evidence to back up your claim that ‘many things were mere accidents’resulting from events occurring over ‘incomprehensible’ amounts of time?

      Should I pull up a chair and grab a coffee as well?

      Madscientist: “However, as we’ve looked closely at the natural world (which never fails to awe) we see that many things were mere accidents – the extremely unlikely actually occuring over incomprehensible periods of time.”

    • Clear Thinker
      Posted February 14, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      “If it wasn’t created, then wouldn’t it be simpler to simply cut out that god and say the universe existed without being created?”

      We have evidence of a universe that came into existence (e.g. “big bang”). Are you implying the universe has existed eternally?

  13. Sigmund
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I always find it strange that so many public intellectuals see fit to pass judgment on “problems of evolution” in a way they would never do with a subject like holocaust denial. Take the following statement:
    “Like any layman who reads books on science for the general reader, I have to take the presentation of the data largely on trust, and try to evaluate more speculative arguments as best I can. Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith.”
    You could write a very similar argument about David Irvings books – I guess its possible to write a holocaust denial book without telling an outright lie so long as you exclude a lot of the evidence and use the remainder to “raise questions” about the consensus views.
    Except respectable authors don’t question the consensus views of the holocaust, despite the fact that they may have as little insight into the actual evidence as they have in the evidence for evolution. What they have, however, is both trust in the expertise of historians and witnesses, and the knowledge that the holocaust deniers have ulterior (generally anti-semetic) motives behind their arguments. Do people like Nagel and McWhorter have no knowledge of the tactics and motives of the Discovery Institute? Why on earth do you take on “good faith” the writings on a group that time and time again has been shown to be intellectually dishonest?
    My own opinion is that few outside the field of biology consider it to be particularly important as a subject – the idea of getting basic parts of the theory of evolution wrong is the equivalent of not knowing which football team a particular player plays in.
    I think the only available option for the rest of us is to point out their ineptitude and laziness regarding this topic any time they expose themselves in this way.

    • slpage
      Posted March 20, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Excellent point. I find it frustrating that not only do those lacking ‘appropriate credentials’ see no problem with providing not only reviews of books or articles on which they have little useful knowledge or experience, but in fact feel justified in passing judgement on them.
      I am reminded of a creeationist I encountered some years ago on a discussion b oard who declared that because his brother had written a paper for his high school english class on creationism and received an A on it that therefore there had to be merit in his points on creationism. This is the same sort of ‘logic’ I see employed by IDcreationists who will point to reviews like Nagel’s and declare Meyer’s book sound.

  14. Posted February 8, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Fastidious answer back in return of this issue with firm arguments and explaining all on the topic of that.


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  1. [...] world” which Meyer has argued is implausible.  A fine letter! For previous installments see here, here and here. Good the see that the TLS is not a victim of “the two cultures” (UK [...]

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