Every couple of years, some author with the Discovery Institute (DI) releases a big new book, to help keep the Intelligent Design (ID) story alive. These books place the scientific community in a dilemma regarding how to respond. If scientists don’t produce a reply, the ID folks can say, “They don’t respond, because they can’t respond, because we are right.”
On the other hand, if scientists do respond, the DI will say, “See, this response by scientists proves what we have been saying, that there is a serious ‘controversy’ here, which merits more public discussion.” Furthermore, the typical scientific response to these books is in the form of editorials or short articles, which cannot possibly address every issue in full depth. Such necessarily incomplete critiques give ID proponents grounds to claim that they have been misunderstood or misrepresented, and become the occasion for ID proponents to publish article after article in response. This all serves to create its own story which mainly benefits the DI.
Such was the case when paleontologist Charles Marshall penned an editorial in Science, criticizing Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt (2013), which was about the so-called Cambrian Explosion of new life-forms around 500 million years ago. ID supporters crowed about the implied recognition of their case (e.g. “…This review unwittingly demonstrates that Meyer’s book raises questions that the evolutionary establishment can’t simply ignore…”) , and the DI published a string of articles in its house organ, Evolution News and Views, elaborating on issues that Marshall’s review simply didn’t have space to address in depth. Naturally, this whole exchange would only cement the opinion of the readers of Evolution News and Views that Meyers was right and his opponents are wrong.
In 2019, another critical review was published in Science regarding another DI book, Michael Behe’s Darwin Devolves. As we discussed last week, this critical review became the occasion for over 17 new articles published by the DI, for its faithful readers. In that case, Joshua Swamidass and his allies at the Peaceful Science site were able to offer a running commentary, which refuted each new DI article as it was published. I think that’s great, and I’m sure that was a help for the public in general and for open-minded seekers, though I wonder how many subscribers to Evolution News and Views found their way over to Peaceful Science, and had the tenacity to work their way through all the technical exchanges there.
This brings us to Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Return of the God Hypothesis, published in April, 2021. Unlike the other two books mentioned, this doesn’t seem to present much in the way of new information, or even a new synthesis of old information. It is pretty much a rehash of traditional ID talking points. It has received positive mention from various ID-friendly sources , but no editorial attention in a major scientific journal as far as I know.
The first part of the book deals with cosmological issues such as the Big Bang origin of our universe, and the apparent fine-tuning of various physical constants which make it possible to have matter and the other conditions that seem essential to allow for intelligent life forms to exist. These issues are probably more metaphysical than physical; most science-oriented critiques of Return of the God Hypothesis push past these cosmological claims and instead focus on the book’s claims on the origin of life (abiogenesis) and its ongoing evolution.
“Puck_Mendelssohn” put up a detailed critical review on Amazon. That review packs a lot of information, and I have reproduced much of it below as an Endnote . There have also been a couple of discussion threads at Peaceful Science, e.g. here and here.
On the Biologos site, Darrel Falk wrote a graciously-toned review of this book, devoting the first paragraph to list the many points on which he and Meyer agree. Then he gets down to some significant disagreements on biology, starting with the state of the art in abiogenesis studies. Falk had only space to mention a few specific issues, but he does a good job at citing specific studies to back up each of his points (in the excerpts below I reproduce his footnote numbers):
Meyer’s critique of the origin of life and evolutionary biology has significant inaccuracies. For example, in discussing the hypothetical RNA world and the origin of life, Meyer writes, “To date, scientists have been able to design RNA catalysts that will copy only about 10% of themselves” (p. 280). He then references a paper from 2001. However, the field has progressed quite well in the past twenty years. For example, in 2014, Robertson and Joyce reported a similar system with a tweak which resulted in 100 percent effectiveness. They summarized their results with these words: “Each parental enzyme can give rise to thousands of copies per hour, and each of these copies in turn can do the same, all the while transmitting molecular information across the generations.”1
Although they changed the enzymatic reaction a bit, this comes very close to being what Meyer tells the reader has not been done. He goes on from there to approvingly quote Christian de Duve as he discussed the biochemical challenges in the study of life’s origin: “Hitching the components together in the right manner raises additional problems of such magnitude that no one has yet attempted to do so in a pre-biotic context.” The footnote shows that this quote is from a book published in 1996. Perhaps, no one was carrying out such studies in the mid-1990’s but that is not true today. In a 2017 review of such work, Nobel laureate Jack Szostak wrote, “The prebiotic chemistry leading to nucleotide synthesis is an active area of study in several laboratories, and great progress has been made.”2 In order to learn more about what has been happening since 2017, I recommend an analysis of two fairly detailed papers in Nature journals3 each published within the last year. The omission of just how active this field is, is noteworthy because the supposed lack of progress is fundamental to his argument that origin of life research is at an impasse. It is not.
Falk then moves to some issues with biological evolution proper:
One of the mysteries that, according to Meyer, “Neo-Darwinism fails to explain” is the evolutionary transition from the fins of fish to the limbs of land animals (p. 303). This, and other challenges like it, is simply no longer the mystery he thinks it is. In fact, Gerd Muller, that first speaker at the 2016 meeting, wrote:
“When natural selection affects such kinds of systems, the resulting phenotype variation does not need to be gradual and continuous. In fact, simulations of the dynamical behaviours of gene regulatory networks in evolution demonstrate that bistable changes are more likely to occur than gradual transitions.”4
This is wonderfully illustrated by a paper that came out two months ago in the journal, Cell. The authors showed how two mutations changed the bones in the fin of a zebrafish into tiny bones which are likely the equivalent of the radius and ulna, two of the main bones in the limb of a land animal. With just those two mutations, not only were the bones produced, but they became attached to muscles—the beginning of functionality. Furthermore, their formation was influenced by a latent pattern of gene expression already present in fish. We know that this pattern is likely the same one used in the development of limbs in mice. It is not wise scientifically to declare that an active research program won’t be able to explain something, while the experiments are still going full bore.
Since its inception in the early 1990’s a centerpiece of the ID movement’s strategy has been to distance itself from religion. They claim to be simply detecting the impact of some unnamed, powerful and highly intelligent agent or designer (maybe aliens???). Nobody outside the movement was fooled; the motivation of nearly all the key ID actors has always been to promote theism. The initial hope was that disguising the religious connection would allow ID into public school curricula. With that secular gambit having hopelessly failed due to legal setbacks and public opposition, ID seems to be taking a very different tack, and is now openly tying itself to theism, in a bid to shore up its support among its evangelical Christian base. This religious turn broke into the open with the 2017 publication of Theistic Evolution, co-edited by Meyer. The title of the present volume (“Return of the God Hypothesis”) says it all.
A long-running dispute between supporters and opponents of ID has been whether its claims are or are not simply God-of-the-gaps arguments, which run something like this: “Scientists cannot yet furnish a step-by-step explanation of phenomenon X, and so they will never be able to explain it naturalistically, and so a supernatural intervention is required for X”. ID proponents maintain they are not doing that; instead, they are building a positive case for “detecting design”. Falk, however, notes that in this book Meyer seems to be falling back on God-of-the-gaps after all.
As the book winds down, Meyer puts the onus on solving all of the mysteries he describes back on science:
“To make their case for the adequacy of a strictly materialistic approach to explanation in science and philosophy, defenders of this approach must first show that “gaps” in our knowledge of the materialistic causes of key events in the history of life and the universe can be filled with knowledge of an actual materialistic process capable of producing the events in question. (p. 613).”
This is an intriguing statement since this is the very thing the scientists always try to do—seek to fill in a knowledge-gap without simply declaring it miraculous. As Christians we all agree that these are God’s processes, but Meyer thinks he has shown that the knowledge-gap related to the origin of the universe, life, and complex body forms require supernatural activity. This could conceivably be the case for one or all of these phenomena, but the problem with his conclusion (at least in biology), is that he has not accurately described the state of the science. It has progressed much further than he seems to realize, and it is most certainly too early to declare that the biology gaps cannot be explained through natural mechanisms and the best thing to do is to plug the miraculous activity of God into the gap.
While Biologos and Meyer disagree on the extent to which science can explain what is known of the physical world, and on how the remaining gaps in our knowledge should be used as evidence for God, they agree on a great many fundamental issues. Jim Stump of Biologos invited Meyer on a recent Language of God podcast for a civil exchange. Naturally, Meyer reiterated many of the points he made in his recent book. Since this was an interview rather than a debate, Stump did not challenge all of Meyer’s statements with which he disagreed.
However, in a subsequent article, A Guide to the Stephen Meyer Podcast Episode, Stump took the opportunity to respond to a number of Meyer’s assertions. In that article, Stump was able to draw on a number of existing articles and discussions from Biologos’ vast archives. In this manner, Stump was able to make pointed responses, but let his references do much of the heavy lifting. As a technical guy, I just took his word for it on the definitional and philosophical questions, but I did follow some of the links for the science. The linked discussion on “orphan”(ORFan) genes, which are specific to a single species or lineage, was informative (e.g., “…Meyer thinks they come out of nowhere – completely missing the point that they arise from nearly-identical sequences that remain as non-genes in related organisms.”) The linked article on the Cambrian Explosion hits key points in a few pages. Dr. Stump’s economical approach kept his main article tractable, and avoided lengthy rehashing of issues that have already been dealt with.
I appreciate all the work that Biologos and Peaceful Science do to correct the misinformation promulgated by ID proponents. Many individual bloggers, including me, also do their part to address specific issues in both science and theology/philosophy. Authors like Francis Collins and Ken Miller and Denis Lamoreaux have published books which make the scientific case for evolution in more detail, and also explain why evolution is not antithetical to Christian belief. I have writers like these to thank for my own turning from ID to evolutionary creationism.
All that said, I suspect that these efforts can only impact a fairly small slice of Americans who are skeptical of evolution. Once humans reach adulthood and are locked into some worldview position, it is generally very difficult to get them to engage with arguments for the other side. It is mentally so much easier to just go to sources that confirm what you already believe. How many readers of the DI’s Evolution News and Views newsletter hop over to Biologos to check out the other side? Also, it takes a certain amount of scientific knowledge and self-confidence to engage the technical issues that are the battlegrounds in the creation/evolution dispute, and decide against the opinion of your current “tribe”. My “conversion” was facilitated by having PhD level training in chemical sciences as well as a habitually skeptical disposition, but that would not be true of most folks.
In the end, I think this issue will need to be addressed on two other fronts beside science blogs. First, I think that high school biology coursework could do a better job addressing the challenges for evolution. After introducing the basic concepts of evolution (and a bit of paleontology), I’d suggest using the Cambrian Explosion and/or whale evolution as test cases for evolution. The teacher would not have to say explicitly, “Here are the claims of ID and young earth creationism, and here is why they fail.” It would be enough to simply pose the seemingly surprising appearance of many phyla around 500 million years ago, and/or note the many physical changes needed to get to fully aquatic whales around 40-50 million years ago, and then show how the physical evidence indeed supports evolution of the Cambrian fauna and of whales. This should help arm the students against anti-evolution teachings they may be getting at home or in church youth groups; these groups often use the Cambrian Explosion and whale evolution as examples where evolution fails. Discussion of information concepts would also be helpful, since many ID claims revolve around “information”.
The other front I have in mind is theological or philosophical. As long as evangelicals fear that evolution threatens fundamentals of their faith, they will have a hard time really engaging the science. Biologos and like-minded evolutionary creationists are making strong contributions here. There may be further, novel media approaches here that might be pursued, which would celebrate the long and intricate process by which God formed our present world. The faculty at evangelical seminaries and colleges are key players here. Perhaps we Protestants have something to learn here from our Catholic brethren, whose Thomistic outlook enables them to affirm all of modern science without fear that it displaces God’s creative or sustaining activity.
 For instance, from the Evolutionary News and Views article “The God Hypothesis Versus Atheist Science Denial”:
Dr. Meyer points out that a large percentage of young atheists today cite science as a reason for their disbelief in God, and that is because many atheist scientists have publicly misused modern scientific findings to discredit belief in God. …The third scientific discovery of the past century that unequivocally points to God is the discovery of the enormous information encoded in DNA. The genetic code is quite analogous to a computer code and even to a language — it has punctuation, for example. It is a blueprint for life, and every blueprint presupposes a designer.
To understand the stranglehold that blind recalcitrant atheism has on many modern scientists, consider that with the discovery of the genetic code in DNA scientists didn’t immediately acknowledge the evidence for intelligent design. In any other scientific discovery — in the discovery of artifacts in space or meaningful linguistic signals or codes from other galaxies — the inference to design would be immediately acknowledged and universally accepted. It is ironic that intelligent design denier Carl Sagan wrote a novel named Contact in which scientists inferred the existence of an extraterrestrial intelligent civilization based on the discovery of a blueprint in a signal received by a radio telescope. Sagan didn’t understand that this amazing discovery had already happened in real life — the blueprint wasn’t discovered in space but rather it was discovered in 1953 in the DNA inside living cells. The DNA blueprint is exactly the kind of evidence for intelligent design that Sagan affirmed in his novel. His atheism blinded him to this reality.
 Extended excerpt from Puck_Mendelssohn’s 1-star review of Return of the God Hypothesis on Amazon:
…do the findings of modern science reawaken the “God hypothesis?” Meyer’s arguments take aim at a few areas where he thinks he can make this case: (1) the origin of the universe, (2) the characteristics of that universe, (3) the origin of living things, and (4) the causes of diversity among living things…Rather than attempt to address all of these in depth, I will visit each area briefly and then give a somewhat longer treatment to (4), biological evolution as the cause of living diversity.
On (1) and (2), the failure of Meyer’s thesis is pretty obvious. He supposes that our universe having a definite beginning point is somehow supportive of the existence of his god, but it’s hard to see how. He supposes that the fact that we observe a universe that has the characteristics to produce us is likewise supportive of the existence of his god, but it’s simply not; it’s as surprising as the fact that our legs are exactly the length required to reach the ground. While physicists toil to explain why the attributes of the universe are what they are, and whether those attributes are capable or incapable of being otherwise, there simply isn’t any way of drilling down behind those events and attributes and establishing the existence of some intent behind them – certainly none which Meyer suggests. What would the research program be? That one can make philosophical arguments for there being some “first cause” (hazardous ground, given the way that the counterintuitive nature of theoretical physics tends to up‐end our very notions of time and causality) doesn’t imply that such a first cause must be a god and doesn’t convert philosophy into science.
When it comes to (3), the origin of life, Meyer’s treatment of the topic is mostly a rehash of his book Signature in the Cell. Here, he simply resorts to a long‐time favorite tactic of creationists: asserting that the fact that abiogenesis is a difficult nut to crack means that it is impossible to crack. Never mind the progress that is being made; it is always easy to pooh‐pooh scientific progress especially when there are unresolved questions remaining.
The measure of the strength of Meyer’s argument is in the scientific community’s reaction to Signature in the Cell and Meyer’s followups thereto. Have Meyer’s views, in more than a decade since publication, attained any acceptability in scientific circles? Has he contributed insights to the abiogenesis problem that have inspired researchers to rethink even a single issue? Have Meyer’s insights yielded testable and promising paths for research into his claimed theistic causes for the origin of life? Will anyone be surprised that the answers to these questions are all in the negative?
And then it comes to (4), Meyer’s quarrels with evolution. Here, he shifts from rehashing Signature in the Cell to rehashing his later book, Darwin’s Doubt, a profound misrepresentation of paleontological and genetic evidence in relation to the Cambrian explosion (see my review on Amazon for more on this). But while the Cambrian explosion was the greatest adaptive radiation in the history of life on our planet, and does indeed present some interesting questions, Meyer overstates both its speed and the difficulty of explaining it. The excellent book by Doug Erwin and James Valentine on the Cambrian, though a bit technical for most readers, is a treasure trove of information about both the well‐understood and the poorly‐understood aspects of that marvelous period. Darwin’s Doubt, like Signature in the Cell, caused no ripple in the scientific community beyond a few devastating reviews by practicing scientists which Meyer is still trying to relitigate here (he does not seem to understand, or be able to productively respond to, Charles Marshall, for example). But though DD is a failure, instead of backing down Meyer is doubling down.
“Although the Cambrian explosion of animals is especially striking, it is far from the only ‘explosion’ of new living forms. The first winged insects, birds, flowering plants, mammals, and many other groups also appear abruptly in the fossil record, with no apparent connection to putative ancestors in the lower, older layers of fossil‐bearing sedimentary rock.”
The only people who benefit from a statement like that are keyboard manufacturers: every time Meyer says something like this, coffee shoots from a thousand noses onto a thousand keyboards, ruining them forever. One has to marvel at the spectacular degree of ignorance Meyer expects of his readers.
Take just one example from Meyer’s list: the mammals. The divergence of the line leading to mammals from its sister lineage, the sauropsids (represented today by reptiles and birds), is seen in the fossil record back in the Carboniferous, over 300 million years ago. The synapsids begin with curious reptile-like creatures called pelycosaurs, similar to their basal amniote ancestors. These give rise to a number of lineages which approach the mammalian condition, and by 250 million years ago these groups, including the dicynodonts, were diverse and thriving. The end‐Permian mass extinction causes quite a hiccup in the whole affair (and a marvelous but, alas, brief heyday for Lystrosaurus), but the fossil story continues, leading gradually to the cynodonts, from whom the mammals descended. Multiple early lineages of true mammals arise, a few of which survive today and others of which, e.g., the multituberculates, do not. Along the way, there is rich fossil evidence of crucial transitions which account for the characters of mammals, such as the extreme modification and relocation of the jaw joint. A marvelous book on this subject is Thomas Kemp’s The Origin and Evolution of Mammals. One can always ask for “more” fossils, of course; but the notion that “the first…mammals…appear abruptly in the fossil record, with no apparent connection to putative ancestors” as Meyer claims is completely bizarre. If Meyer is being honest, he is incompetent; if he is competent, he is dishonest.
Meyer doesn’t spend a lot of time on this fossil record issue itself; he just plants this absurd flag, hopes nobody will notice the fib, and moves on to conquer new lands. It becomes a jumping‐off point for a basic ID Creationist fallacy: the purported need for novel, separate, and ultimately, impossible explanations for the evolution of the “information” in living things.
The ID Creationist argument, made previously by Meyer and others, runs something like this: biologists spent the pre‐genetic age examining the outer forms of animals, and developed a theory of phenotypic evolution which appeared, in those dark and primitive days, to make sense. But then it became evident, with the discovery of DNA’s role in the synthesis of the proteins, that all of these phenotypic changes which biologists were looking at were only part of the problem. In addition to explaining how novel forms could evolve in phenotypic terms, it now was necessary to explain how genes could evolve to contain the information to make the proteins that account for those phenotypes. But, alas and alack! It turned out that the “information” aspect of the problem was unsolvable, because there simply is no way for this “information” to evolve and the only possible source of information in genomes, it turns out, is an intelligent mind. But this ID Creationist account is simply false.
The first thing to realize about this approach is this: there is no substantial difference between the evolution of form and the evolution of the genes which produce that form. While it is true that changes to form will ordinarily correspond to genetic changes, these are simply two ways of looking at the SAME event. That we now can examine genomes gives us new insight into the particular causal mechanisms, but it does not introduce new explanatory hurdles to leap.
In order to make this case that the “information” in living things constitutes a bar to evolution, Meyer relies upon some spectacularly false claims about the difficulty of genetic evolution made by Douglas Axe, a chemical engineer. Axe published a paper in 2004 which, by way of a worthless extrapolation, purports to show that the probability of functional mutations to DNA sequences which code for proteins is so low that no random mutation is likely ever to find one. This absurd view is rejected by every last scientist working in the field and has gained no traction in the decades since. To be clear about just how extreme the claim here is, this is what Meyer says:
“It is therefore overwhelmingly more likely than not that a random mutational search would have failed to produce even one new functional (information‐rich) DNA sequence capable of coding for one new protein fold in the entire history of life on earth.”
This claim is known to be objectively false. How false, one might ask? The very same enzyme activity that Axe extrapolated could only occur in one in 10^77 sequences has been found twice by screening only 10^8 sequences (Shahsavarian et al., FEBS Journal 2/2017, p. 634-653). Sixty-nine orders of magnitude. That’s not a small error.
Note that this ill‐founded claim isn’t a denial of the power of evolution merely to create significant novel forms or body plans or some such thing. This is a denial of the power of natural evolution to do anything, ever, at all. No new functions, structures, anything; not even, say, an incremental improvement in the metabolism of food in some nematode’s gut somewhere. By this claim, for example, as the virus that causes COVID‐19 mutates, it cannot produce any functional novel variant; the virus, sadly, hasn’t read Axe or Meyer. Even ID Creationism’s lone biologist, Michael Behe, says evolution can do vastly more than this.
The difficulty, of course, is that we actually witness these things happening in real time, as well as having the genetic evidence for them happening throughout the entire reach of the past. Novel genes have even been seen to arise de novo from non‐coding sequence – far MORE improbable than one functional gene evolving by mutation from another.
That being the case, the scientific community, rather than rushing to solve this imaginary problem, has yawned. And so while the DI has spent an immense amount of ink attempting to defend the bizarre contentions of Douglas Axe, as channeled here through the spirit‐medium of Stephen Meyer’s long‐dead credibility, that fact is that while the layman may find the questions technically difficult, the conclusion can only be that this calculation of the impossibility of productive mutation is not only wrong, but spectacularly so, and that Meyer’s reliance on it is another case of rank dishonesty.