Guest post: the conflicted relationship between Intelligent Design and BioLogos

Two of our readers have contributed guest posts today, which is serendipitous as I’m jammed up for the nonce.

As we know, Stephen Meyer is a Discovery Institute flak who’s garnered more than his share of attention with his pro-intelligent design book, Signature in the Cell. Today, reader Sigmund, who keeps a weather eye on the accommodationist organization BioLogos, discusses its conflicted relationship with Meyer’s book.

BioLogos versus Stephen Meyer

by Sigmund

The slow descent into irrelevancy of BioLogos continues apace. From its inception by Francis Collins in 2007, the BioLogos Foundation’s original emphasis on increasing the acceptance of science amongst evangelical Christians has been gradually replaced by a more traditional focus on ‘worship’ and an increasing defense of Christianity from the challenges of secular reason.

This shift in strategy necessitates an “us-and-them” approach whereby BioLogos demonstrates its Christian credentials by doing its utmost to view fellow believers in a good light. Unfortunately for BioLogos, some of their fellow Christians have rather different objectives when it comes to the public acceptance of the scientific consensus.

A prime example of the problem is illustrated in a recent post by Darrel Falk, the current president of the BioLogos foundation. Falk’s post deals with the work of Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute, in particular his 2009 book ‘Signature in the Cell’. Meyer had recently taken issue with a review of his book in the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith, a review written by Dennis Venema, a molecular biologist and member of BioLogos.

Meyer’s book is based on the premise that “intelligent design can explain, and does provide the best explanation for (among many contenders, not just chance) the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.” Meyers argues that many of the features of living cells, for example the complexity of proteins or genomic DNA sequences, demonstrate evidence that chance is insufficient to explain their origin.

Venema’s approach to this claim had been to emphasize the use, by evolution, of biological processes such as genomic duplication and mutation in the generation of novel information within the cell. Venema pointed out that Meyers book was, essentially, an argument from ignorance, and that evolution provides an elegant solution to the generation of complexity from less complex precursors.

Meyer’s answer to the destruction of his argument was to promptly shift the goalposts.

Venema was wrong, Meyer claimed, because he had talked about the generation of novel information after biological evolution had begun. Meyer’s argument in ‘Signature in the Cell’ was about the information needed to kick-start biological evolution in the first place. In other words Meyer’s central point was about abiogenesis (the origin of life), not biological evolution. (As a short aside I think it is worth noting that this argument in of itself destroys his thesis. The first self-replicating entity was unlikely to be similar to anything currently living – particularly anything present within existing cells. As such, there is nothing in the ‘signature in the cell’ that could provide evidence for the first replicator requiring an external designer.)

It was at this point that the real problems with the new BioLogos strategy become apparent. Falk, needing to see the best in every Christian, comes across as the theological equivalent of Woody Allen in the aftermath of the nymphomaniac scene in ‘Play it again Sam’. Falk spends almost the entire article wondering “How did I misread those signs?” and getting sidetracked into talking about “complex specified information” an imprecise term regarding complexity, only used by ‘Intelligent Design’ supporters.

While it is clearly a case of the usual dishonest creationist tactics of trying to be vague and then shifting the goalposts when caught out, Falk doesn’t seem to be able to state the obvious.

Needing to maintain a facade of Christian fellowship with Meyer, Falk cannot say Meyer is disingenuous.  Indeed he almost apologizes for missing Meyer’s new line of argument in the original book!

“I don’t know how misunderstandings like this happen. I believe that Stephen Meyer, who I consider to be a friend and colleague, thinks the stipulation exists in his book and that he worded it clearly. I assume he thinks it was implied in some overarching statement that I have not been able to find. I also think he believes he was clear. Unfortunately, clear he was not. I’ve looked thoroughly and I have not been able to find his stipulation.”

He even ends the piece with a prayer!:

“But the most important thing of all has been settled and on this we both agree. This Mind we speak of is God’s Mind–God’s Holy Spirit. That Spirit not only fills all of creation, but more specifically that Spirit fills us with his Presence and envelopes us in his love. This is cause for celebration and, with “sandals off,” we each bow our heads in humble worship. Truly, we–all of us–are standing on holy ground.”

In refusing to forcefully engage the sort of tactics that creationists habitually employ, BioLogos comes across as looking confused and unclear, particularly when faced with the likes of Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells, who, unlike their ‘evolutionary creationist’ adversaries, show no hesitancy whatsoever in spreading their message.

28 Comments

  1. agentwhim
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Strangely enough, “nonce” means “sex offender” in the UK. It took me a while to make sense of your first sentence.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      Your usage is modern prison slang from the early 70s – Shakespeare and his contemporaries used the word like this, ‘for the time being, for the particular purpose’ etc, for example George Gascoigne (16thc):
      “Thus did my mistress once
      Amaze my mind with doubt
      And popped a question for the nonce
      To beat my brains about”.

      • agentwhim
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

        Shakespeare probably didn’t see a lot of 70s crime dramas on TV.

      • Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        That’s still the meaning it has in IT; “nonce values” are often used in security protocols.

        /@

      • Marella
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        I think it must have had currency before the 1970s in Australia at least, because my father used this term at that time (for any kind of sleazy sex-offender type) and I got the impression he got it from his childhood in Sydney in the 30s. I could be wrong however.

  2. Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Venema was wrong, Meyer claimed, because he had talked about the generation of novel information after biological evolution had begun. Meyer’s argument in ‘Signature in the Cell’ was about the information needed to kick-start biological evolution in the first place.

    I wonder if he also says that when he’s outside of hearing distance of people who do understand biology.

    Also, nobody claims that biological evolution was started by chance – it was started by chemistry.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      +1.

  3. Tulse
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    If Meyer is just talking about abiogenesis, that is a huge shift in the position of the Discotute, and makes them damn near Deists. If the only intervention by an Intelligent Designer is in booting up RNA World (or its equivalent) and then letting things run, how can we all be the special flowers lovingly tended by the Hand of God?

    And, more pointedly, what happens to the argument about the flagellum and blood clotting? Those were continually trotted out as the best evidence for ID — if it now only deals with abiogenesis, that seems to undercut all their previous evidence.

    • Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      For that matter, I think they’d be wise to stop insisting that a god is necessary for abiogenesis in the first place. The more we learn, the more obvious it is that abiogenesis is just barely more “sophisticated” than simple crystal formation. That is, let salt water evaporate and you’ll automatically get crystals; mix the right cocktail (which “just happens” to be the same as you’d expect to find all over the place on the early Earth) at the right temperature (again, common a few hundred million years after the Earth’s formation) and let it stew for long enough, and you’ve got life.

      Sure ain’t anywhere near a spectacular a miracle for a god to perform as, say, a mass zombie invasion, now, does it? Kinda hard to be impressed with a god who “created” life by just standing by and watching what was going to happen anyway.

      Were I stupid enough to be a theologian, I’d be devoting my energies to trying to figure out what significance there is of a god-of-the-gaps once all the gaps have been sealed. Yes, the gaps have long since been slammed shut, but the caulking is so tight now that there aren’t even very many pinholes left to see light through (and remember that these are supposed to be Titan-sized gaps). A couple more dabs of caulk and they won’t even have room to pretend any more.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

        Grr…most poorfeed betr….

        b&

    • eric
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      As Deen pointed out, this is not a ‘shift in position’ so much as it is saying different things to different audiences. When scientists ask, SotC is not about cells at all but the precursers to cellular life. When anyone else asks, SotC is (again) about cellular life.

      What a retreat on Falk’s part. One of his guys did exactly what they are supposed to do and provided a critical assessment of the problems of ID (for a Christian audience). And he can’t even defend that.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        As Deen pointed out, this is not a ‘shift in position’ so much as it is saying different things to different audiences.

        But in the age of the internet, that approach is not a long-term winner (as Sigmund has just demonstrated).

      • Ichthyic
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        actually, it is exactly what Sigmund noted it as.

        Nothing more than moving goalposts.

        It’s the Gish Gallop, utilized because it has proven effective for decades.

  4. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Does anybody still subscribe to the inorganic crystal replicator hypothesis of Graham Cairns-Smith, or was it a 1980s idea that never caught on?

    • Sigmund
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      He has extended his ideas into something a little closer to the current consensus. He published a paper in ‘Chemistry’ in 2008 that suggested an inorganic catalytic scenario as a precursor to the RNA World. Basically this suggestion is a way to explain where all the ribonucleotides came from in the first place.

  5. vel
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    this seems to be the typical circling of the wagons of theists. They cannot come out directly and say one of their own is wrong and/or outright lying. If they did, that would put all of their claims of moral superiority and having some “truth” at risk.

  6. Posted September 15, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    The slow descent into irrelevancy of BioLogos continues apace.

    It was probably irrelevant from the beginning. That irrelevancy is becoming more apparent.

    From its inception by Francis Collins in 1997, the BioLogos Foundation’s original emphasis on increasing the acceptance of science amongst evangelical Christians has been gradually replaced by a more traditional focus on ‘worship’ and an increasing defense of Christianity from the challenges of secular reason.

    That sort of contradiction has been there from the start. You cannot hope to influence evangelical Christians if you are seen as antagonistic to their theology. To carry out its mission, BioLogos had no choice but to attempt to remain friendly to the evangelical community.

    Those involved in the founding of BioLogos were probably naive as to how much influence they could have on evangelicals if they also remained true to their science.

    • Dragan Glas
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Greetings,

      At least the Templeton Foundation had the integrity to pull funding of the Discovery Institute, following the latter’s attempt to falsify its findings.

      If BioLogos had taken the hint, it should have stood behind Venema.

      It would be interesting if Venema decides to go and work for the Templeton Foundation instead, or even – if he really puts scientific truth first – the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

      Kindest regards,

      James

  7. Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    From its inception by Francis Collins in 1997,

    1997? I first heard about it in 2007.

  8. Doc Bill
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Let me see if I’ve got this straight.

    The DI and Biobogus are in an abusive relationship in which the DI routinely beats up Biobogus.

    And all Biobogus can do is whimper, “I know he loves me. It must be something I’m doing wrong.”

    Excellent role model, Falk, keep up the good work.

    • Doc Bill
      Posted September 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Well, as if reading my mind the DI has unleashed its favorite slime ball, Klinghopper, the Pustule of Puget, the Farragut Fistula, to dump a load of pus on Falk, who deserves it, by the way.

      However, let the fun continue. I will not link to the DI site because even I have limits but in summary, Klingers paints Falk as an illiterate fool and Darwinist tool. And that’s before the nightly beating.

      Hey, Falkie, I know you’re not listening but, hey, babe, he’s not good for you. Ya know? You can do better.

  9. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    If you mix BioLogos and ID, you get BLoody IDiotism!?

    intelligent design … provide the best explanation for … the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.

    As any student of natural systems knows, it provides the worst prediction for information processes. Since it claims any predecessor system must have more information than its successor systems, you run up against infinite regress and into an informational black hole of any god.

    “Is it dark in here or is it the hole place of Anu’s?”

    As a short aside I think it is worth noting that this argument in of itself destroys his thesis. The first self-replicating entity was unlikely to be similar to anything currently living – particularly anything present within existing cells.

    I think it is enough to consider that it is entirely possible that a previous reproducing system would not need to look like cells.

    Luckily, since it is entirely likely that they actually looked like our cells in many ways.

    DNA-protein cell machinery, RNA biosynthesis before the first membranes, the first enzymes are examples of (not fully exclusive) common evolutionary chicken-and-egg problems. Luckily such problems conveniently bottleneck possible pathways to a smaller set.

    Bottom up, chemical network enzymes are a natural outcome in newer scenarios. High-temperature reactions seems to be much faster than orthodox theory predicted from scant data. This temperature dependence gives a self-selection for enthalpic pre-proteinous enzymes. [“Impact of temperature on the time required for the establishment of primordial biochemistry, and for the evolution of enzymes”, Stockbridge et al, PNAS, 2010.]

    Now looking top down, we see that pathways meet. The first modern metabolic networks originated with purine metabolism, and specifically with the gene family of the P-loop-containing ATP hydrolase fold. [“The origin of modern metabolic networks inferred from phylogenomic analysis of protein architecture”, Caetano-Anollés et al. PNAS, 2007; “Rapid evolutionary innovation during an Archaean genetic expansion”, David et al, Nature, 2010.]

    That is, ATP sits at the intersection between a cooling and/or hydrothermal vent active Earth prometabolism and nucleotide protometabolism. (Which compound seems to later have been exaptated by modern proteinous metabolic genes as coenzyme/energy currency.) Minimum change of traits picks ATP use before RNA evolution.

    Note that this is an (informal) test of a phylogenetic pathway. If you put similar parsimony constraints on the implied metabolic networks and later RNA evolution, you end up with something like Szostak’s protocells with metabolic content.

    If abiogenesis was quasistationary as in the above scenario (chemistry independent pathways to a bottleneck system; only a temperature dependence in a globally cooling system), such preservation of metabolic structures would not be surprising IMO.

  10. Kevin
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I thought the DI specifically espoused the “fish with fins, birds with feathers” type of intelligent designer.

    Doesn’t this throw a cocked hat into that enterprise?

    Whence goeth “Of Pandas and People”?

  11. Dan
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Good article, but I’m almost positive BioLogos was founded in 2007, not 1997.

    I used to really like BioLogos (it probably kept me in evangelical Christianity for an extra year or two before I became an atheist). I still enjoyed a lot of what they did after my deconversion, but things were getting more touchy-feely and postmodern right around the time Karl Giberson left, and have been getting progressively worse since. Faulk has always annoyed me though; he accepts most real science, but still sticks up for out and out liars like Ken Ham and the DI because they are his “brothers in Christ.” He’s kind of a Christian version of Chis Mooney.

    • Sigmund
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 2:08 am | Permalink

      Ooops, you’re correct, my mistake. I knew it was 2007 but failed to initially spot the error in the port. I’ll ask Jerry to correct it in the article.

  12. Posted September 15, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Checked the BL website – 2007 it is.

  13. Diane G.
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  14. Posted September 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    The slow descent […] continues apace

    The slow descent continues … quickly? O.o


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Dr. Coyne at Why Evolution is True has an excellent guest post up, which illustrates the dangers of fellowship as it pertains to healthy truth-seeking.  It is well worth reading.  The author does a nice job of showing the emotional flim-flam that accompanies Christian charity in examining dialogue between fellows at the pro-Evolution Christian Evangelical organization known as BioLogos and the pro-Creationist Christian organization known as The Discovery Institute.   […]

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  3. […] fun reading the gnus and the creationists attack Darrel Falk. Kind of reminds me of this. […]

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