Signature in the BioLogos

I’ve finally got round to reading Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. This is the second ID text I have read, having tackled Darwin’s Black Box  in 1998. In the view of some people on the BioLogos forum, that makes me an addict of “mendacious intellectual pornography.” Indeed, it was BioLogos that persuaded me to read Meyer. The site has been a great help to me in an exchange of ideas that has helped shaped my own reconciliation of faith with science. But I couldn’t help but be impressed by the importance accorded to SiTC there, since it published several reviews, responses to reviews, responses to the responses and more than one series of articles purporting to refute the book’s scientific and theological errors.

What struck me in all this was that every single contribution contained at least some degree of ad hominem attack, and most included dire warnings about the damage the book threatened to science, religion, society or all three. That, combined with the protests of many that the BioLogos articles were misrepresenting Meyer’s arguments, made a good case for assessing it carefully, my reading informed by 18 months of confutation rather than  vice versa.

Briefly, reading the book made it absolutely clear to me that indeed Meyer had been misrepresented, and without any real excuse since Meyer is a good writer and makes his case clearly (and it has to be said, a lot more even-handedly than his opponents).

Darrel Falk’s original review begins with a kindly dismissal of his scientific credentials, neglecting to mention that Meyer’s PhD was in origin of life theories (and similarly much of his subsequent response, such as gathering a cluster of celebrated opponents, including atheists, to reply, is an appeal from academic authority). He misrepresents the main thrust of Meyer’s case, which is that ID should be considered as a strong possible factor in the development of biological information at the Origin of Life in view of its explanatory power and the weaknesses of the other views he discusses in some detail. Falk recasts this as “the only reasonable scientific explanation now is that the information inside of a cell is the product of an external mind.”

 Glossing over problems with RNA-world theory, Falk then focuses on just one of the several problems that Meyer points out, and cites two “new” studies showing that he rushed into print prematurely (after fifty years of inconclusive science!). One of these Meyer had already covered in the text, and the other suffered the same shortcomings as those he did discuss. Falk ends with a general call to seek a “bigger” vision than that of ID – I’ll return to that later.

Francisco Ayala’s review became notorious because it was quickly evident that he had not read the book, or if, as he later claimed, he had read it, that he had very poor powers of comprehension. He wrongly quotes the title, he wrongly represents its argument as ID being just an alternative to chance, he wrongly applies it to evolution rather than Origin of Life and he ends with a theologically naive criticism of ID generally on the grounds that God could not be responsible for so many bad things in nature. Meyer is unqualified to write on science, but Ayala is, it seems, qualified to write on theology. When these observations were made by Meyer in his response, Ayala had recourse to the index of the book to justify his (quite clearly erroneous) assessment.

A later response was Dennis Venema’s five-part series, Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information. Not only the title, but the introduction, made it clear that this was a response to Meyer. But as several posters pointed out, whatever its merits the first article was about claimed examples of information-gain in current evolution. It was pointed out that SiTC is actually about the Origin of Life, and hopes were expressed that Venema would cover this later in the series. He never did, basing his whole critique on an appendix about predictions that ID might make in the future. In this appendix Meyer not only stresses that his book is only concerned with OoL, but that many ID supporters believe that normal evolutionary processes can account for all subsequent increases in information, though he personally doubts this. In his own comments, Venema cannot resist the temptation to describe what he calls his “Behe moment”, in which he realised that Meyer lacks even an elementary grasp of basic biology (a neat way of dismissing two writers in one go by ad hominem attacks).

I have got used to the vituperative and often incoherent level of discussion about faith and evolution in the last year or so. Generally speaking, as one would now expect, Gnus attempting to savage anything they can identify as a theist are the greatest offenders. But on BioLogos, a frighteningly similar kind of abuse, if usually expressed with more gentility, is directed not back at non-theists, nor even YECs, but at ID sympathisers. After reading through all the relevant threads again in the light of my reading of SiTC, I think I can draw two tentative conclusions about the reasons for this degree of passion, which is clearly far more than an opinion that ID arguments are wrong. In my opinion, although BioLogos is quite a diverse forum, its “ruling spirit” is fundamentally committed to (a) methodological naturalism and (b) theological naturalism.

The first, methodological naturalism, is held in the same “strong” form as by the atheist scientists. That is although it pretends to be about the practical utility of continuing to ask questions about causes rather than explaining every mystery in terms of God, it actually seeks to exclude God from nature in principle. But Meyer is absolutely right in saying that this is an arbitraty, and recent, limitation on science. Also, when used to render “unscientific” his own case about detecting signs of intelligence, it is applied inconsistently, since the SETI project is not generally so excluded from the field of science, though using pretty much the same tools as Meyer does.

The second, theological naturalism, explains why Christian scientists would hold so closely to a basically atheist approach to methodological naturalism. Although seldom stated explicitly, key BioLogos people hold to a theology that actually disallows God’s direct intervention in natural events as not only unnecessary, but even “blasphemous”, though the miracles of Jesus appear to be “acceptable” because of the uniqueness of Jesus’ ministry and person. Much less is said about other Biblical miracles.

As it happens, I also believe that Scripture treats miracles as being primarily signs regarding salvation, not tools for creation. But ID is not talking about miracles in any case, and there is nothing in Scripture that limits God’s activity to purely natural providence, especially at key points in creative history. It may not be coincidental that the “natural” areas where science, if we are honest, has no real insights are the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the origin of human consciousness.

This theological commitment to naturalism goes beyond science, but it also goes beyond classic theology. Reformed theology, to which I largely hold, has no problem bridging the gulf between “natural” and “supernatural”. God is seen as creator and sustainer, ruling even over events explicable by natural causation. Even “chance” is in God’s hands, so that full-blown Neodarwinian evolution is fully compatible with its beliefs about God. But BioLogos tends to go further. Darrel Falk speaks of God’s being behind nature and sustaining it, but qualifies that by a concpt of God’s allowing creation “freedom” to evolve as it will. What that means is seen by his approbation of Ayala’s piece (in contradistinction to his polite anathemas on Meyer’s), which places the natural world quite apart from God’s providential rule as much as it does from his direct intervention. God is not responsible for the way this world is – he is a Deistic Creator.

My personal conclusion from all this is that, since I regard strong methodological naturalism to be rationally and philosophically untenable, and since I hold strong theological naturalism to be theologically naive as well as unbiblical, I cannot commit myself to the BioLogos viewpoint, even as a theistic evolutionist. Darwin is not that sacred to me.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Signature in the BioLogos

  1. I avoid BioLogos, my own review of SiTC is on Amazon and my own blog, Invisible Hand (dvunkannon.blogspot.com). I think you seriously overestimate Meyer’s material on the RNA World. I’m not going to defend anybody’s ad hominem, they are unnecessary and distract from the issues.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi David. I’m not sure I voiced an opinion on Meyer’s treatment of RNA world in the article, only on people’s reaction to it. Certainly I’m not qualified to judge, and my point was that nothing in the treatment on BioLogos actually gave me more tools to do so.

    I totally agree that ad hominems are unhelpful, but they’re as prevalent as junk DNA in this whole field. And depending on your viewpoint on the latter, even more useless.

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