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The Problem Of Intelligent Design

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Posted by Richard Ruquist on September 9, 2004 13:45:36 UTC

A rather interesting paper can be found online at

Its title and author are:
The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories
Stephen C. Meyer

and it was published in a peer reviewed journal:
117(2):213-239. 2004

Stephen makes the claim that a valid theory of microevolution exists on the basis of genetic variation and natural selection, but that this theory cannot be extended to macroevolution where entirely new species supposedly arise from accumulations of micro changes. He focusses on the Cambrian explosion of new species, and says:

"The following information-based analysis of the Cambrian explosion will support the claim of recent authors such as Muller and Newman that the mechanism of selection and genetic mutation does not constitute an adequate causal explanation of the origination of biological form in the higher taxonomic groups. It will also suggest the need to explore other possible causal factors for the origin of form and information during the evolution of life and will examine some other possibilities that have been proposed."

"The “Cambrian explosion” refers to the geologically sudden appearance of many new animal body plans about 530 million years ago. At this time, at least nineteen, and perhaps as many as thirty-five phyla of forty total (Meyer et al. 2003), made their first appearance on earth within a narrow five- to ten-million-year window of geologic time "

Meyer uses Information theory to determine if these forms could arise on the basis of mutation and selection alone. Towit:

"Since the 1960s, mathematical biologists have realized that Shannon's theory could be applied to the analysis of DNA and proteins to measure the information-carrying capacity of these macromolecules. Since DNA contains the assembly instructions for building proteins, the information-processing system in the cell represents a kind of communication channel (Yockey 1992:110). Further, DNA conveys information via specifically arranged sequences of nucleotide bases. Since each of the four bases has a roughly equal chance of occurring at each site along the spine of the DNA molecule, biologists can calculate the probability, and thus the information-carrying capacity, of any particular sequence n bases long."

This is a very long paper. But in short, he first suggests that the mechanism of mutation/selection could not possibly explain the origin of new forms of life in so short a time.

He then examines Kaufmann's self organizing theory of evolution. In this theory, biomolecular systems produce new forms of life at critical levels of complexity. I do not think that Meyer can dismiss Kauffman's theory. He said it best himself:

"Even so, Kauffman suggests that his self-organizational models can specifically elucidate aspects of the Cambrian explosion. According to Kauffman (1995:199-201), new Cambrian animals emerged as the result of “long jump” mutations that established new body plans in a discrete rather than gradual fashion. He also recognizes that mutations affecting early development are almost inevitably harmful. Thus, he concludes that body plans, once established, will not change, and that any subsequent evolution must occur within an established body plan (Kauffman 1995:201). And indeed, the fossil record does show a curious (from a neo-Darwinian point of view) top-down pattern of appearance, in which higher taxa (and the body plans they represent) appear first, only later to be followed by the multiplication of lower taxa representing variations within those original body designs (Erwin et al. 1987, Lewin 1988, Valentine & Jablonski 2003:518). Further, as Kauffman expects, body plans appear suddenly and persist without significant modification over time."

Yet Meyer rejects Kauffman's theory. Here is the key statement by Meyer in that rejection:

"Yet developmental biologists know that these are the only kind of mutations that have a realistic chance of producing large-scale evolutionary change--i.e., the big jumps that Kauffman invokes. "

I believe that Meyer totally misses the point here. The big jumps come from rearrangements, not from mutations according to Kauffman. Self-organization is a mechanism for producing new information. Meyer seems to miss that point as he goes on to examine many other proposals for understanding the evolution of life, and dismisses them all primarily on the basis that their is no way to create new information so fast, E.G.:

"And how does the information necessary to produce new characters originate? "

It seems that he cannot conceive of self-organization as producing new information. Indeed he goes on to explain how design can solve this problem, and he naturally assumes the design must be intelligent. Yet the entirety of his argument for intelligent works, in my opinion, for self-organizing design.

Here he is specific about self-organization:

"Self-organization theorists argue that natural selection acting on self organizing order can explain the complexity of living things--again, without any appeal to design. "

Self-organization produces new designs according to Kauffman. It seems that Meyer has blinders on. But then he needs to eliminate all materialistic sources of design, so that he can invoke other worldly intelligent sources of information and design. But he has not done so.

Bottomline, I agree that design is required and that mutation/selection alone is insufficient. But it seems to me that Kauffman's theory of self-organization is the most likely source of such new designs. Most important it includes the mechanism by which design happens.

The problem with intelligent design is that no mechanism by which an external intelligence could influence biological life is offered. The only external source of information or design that I could accept is life being introduced to earth from outer space by way of meteorites. But I find the idea of a nature that is self-organizing much more appealing. Perhaps you could say that nature herself is intelligent. But there is no need for a God, even if one does exist.

Finally, Meyer is not a creationist. He is supporting the theory of evolution, but just claiming that some mechanism of top down design is required to explain the Cambrian info exp-losion. To be a creationist, you have to believe that creation is instantaneous, or at least took 6 days. However, Meyer's paper is fatally flawed just because he cannot believe that design comes from natural self-organization

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