One of a continuing series
I have acquired a copy of Stephen C. Meyer’s most recent book, Darwin’s Doubt. Meyer is Program Director for the Center for Science Culture, the Intelligent Design arm of Seattle-based Discovery Institute. I previously reviewed Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, and I will be reviewing his new book shortly. In the meantime there is a lot of discussion going on related to the book on the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News. Here’s an excerpt, also posted on the North Texas Skeptics site:
Denying the Signature: Functional Information Is the Fact to Be Explained
Editor’s note: Readers of Evolution News likely know the central thesis of Stephen Meyer’s bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Meyer argues that the functional biological information necessary to build the Cambrian animals is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence, rather than an undirected, materialistic evolutionary process. Most reviews of Darwin’s Doubt curiously omitted to address or even to accurately report this central claim. However, a review by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor in Books & Culture was a welcome exception. In this series, adapted from Debating Darwin’s Doubt, edited by ENV‘s David Klinghoffer, Dr. Meyer responds to their critiques. This is Part 2 of the series. Look here for Part 1.
Philosophers of science analyzing scientific arguments make a clear distinction between what needs to be explained (the relevant facts in question) and the competing explanations of those facts. They call the former the explanandum and the latter theexplanans. Bishop and O’Connor do not offer a competing explanation (another explanans) for the origin of biological information. Instead, they dispute my characterization of what needs to be explained (theexplanandum). They do so in several ways, which I will discuss in the next two articles in this series.
First, they question my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules rich in functional digital information and my characterization of the gene expression system as an “information processing system” — in so doing, presumably raising questions about the need to explain the origin of these features of living systems. Specifically, Bishop and O’Connor assert that “talk of ‘genetic codes’ and ‘information processing’ with respect to the origin of life… can be very limited if not misleading.”
They argue that “abstracted notions of programs and processing seem inadequate to capture the exquisite precision and reliability of these processes.” In order to describe the process of protein synthesis more accurately, they argue that I should abandon an “information processing metaphor.”
Bishop and O’Connor are correct that, if not carefully defined, the term information can be misleading and lead to equivocation. But in both of my books I not only acknowledge this, but take great pains to avoid such confusion. I carefully define the type of information that reliably indicates the activity of an intelligent agent (functional or specified information, also known asspecified complexity) and distinguish it from a type of information that does not, namely, Shannon information (or mere complexity) — in the latter case, information that may not perform a function. I also distinguish functional information generally from a special type of functional information (semantic information) in which meaning is conveyed to, and perceived by, conscious agents. (See Signature in the Cell, Chapter 4, and Darwin’s Doubt, Chapter 8, for definitions.)
In so doing, I make clear that DNA contains functional information but definitely not semantic information. Bishop and O’Connor completely ignore this crucial discussion in their review and, consequently, express unfounded worries about the use of the term information as a “metaphor” in biology. Indeed, had I implied that the information in DNA conveyed semantic meaning, my description would have been inaccurate — and, at best, metaphorical. Nevertheless, both books clearly state that DNA contains functional or specified information and argue (based upon our uniform and repeated experience) that such information, as opposed to Shannon information, reliably indicates the activity of a designing intelligence.
As my colleague Casey Luskin has established, no serious biologist post-Watson and Crick has denied that DNA and RNA contain functional information expressed in a digital form — information that directs the construction of functional proteins (and editing of RNA molecules). Thus, contra Bishop and O’Connor, my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules that store functional or specified information is not even remotely controversial within mainstream biology.
Nor is my judgment controversial that the gene expression system (the system by which proteins are synthesized in accord with the information stored on the DNA molecule) constitutes an information processing system. That is what the network of proteins and RNA molecules involved in the gene-expression system do: They process (that is copy, translate, and express) the information stored within the DNA molecule. The information processing systems present in the cell may well be much more precise than those that human computer engineers have designed, but that does not mean that describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is inaccurate. Describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is not to employ a metaphor. It is to describe what the system does — again, to process (or express) genetic information.
As I mentioned in the Skeptical News post:
I’m not going to quote the remainder of Meyer’s argument, but I will summarize the substance. Creationist Stephen C. Meyer is Program Director of the Center for Science and Culture, the arm of the Discovery Institute that manages Intelligent Design. I have previously reviewed his book, Signature in the Cell. His most recent book is Darwin’s Doubt, with the subtitle The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. That’s what this Evolution News post is all about.
Read it. Comments, please. And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.