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Culture Q&A

Stephen Meyer

Darwin on the rocks

DNA and Cambrian fossils, says Stephen Meyer, make macroevolutionary theory increasingly untenable

Darwin on the rocks

Stephen Meyer (John Keatley/Genesis )

Stephen Meyer is director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. He is one of the founders of the “intelligent design” movement and author of two books about biological origins, Signature in the Cell and the 2013 bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Arguments for design in nature come from planetary science, physics, and molecular machines within cells: Meyer has focused on the digital information encoded in DNA.

For folks who don’t know, would you explain intelligent design? Richard Dawkins has said biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed. That’s classic Darwinism: design without a designer. Intelligent design is the idea there are certain features and patterns in the living world—and the universe itself—best explained by reference to an actual intelligence rather than an unguided process like natural selection and random mutation.

Your most recent book is called Darwin’s Doubt. What exactly did Darwin doubt? It had to do with an event in the history of life known as the Cambrian explosion, in which the first major animal forms emerged in the fossil record very abruptly. This raised a real problem in Darwin’s mind, and it’s something he acknowledged in the Origin of Species itself. In the lower, Precambrian layers, the ancestral forms he expected to see based on his branching tree picture of the history of life just weren’t there. Instead of seeing life gradually morph from a very simple one-celled organism through lots of intermediate forms, what we see in the fossil record is the sudden appearance of these complex animal forms. Darwin said the absence of these ancestral intermediates was a “valid argument against the views here entertained,” as he put it in his Victorian English.

What’s an example of a complex animal? On the cover of my book I have a picture of a trilobite. As a kid I was fascinated with these things: They had this beautiful exoskeleton with three parts and all these articulated lobes, and they also had compound eyes. You have this intricate visual device from the very dawn of animal life, and it’s quite contrary to what Darwin expected for two reasons: First, he thought the fossil record should show intermediate forms. Second, his mechanism of natural selection and random variations by definition had to work very slowly and incrementally. He thought if there were big changes from one generation to the next then the organisms would surely die.

Yet the Cambrian rock layers show the sudden appearance of trilobites and other unique animal body plans. What you found in the Cambrian was 23 distinct body plans, and fully 20 of those first appeared in the Cambrian. There are only about 27 body plans that have been preserved in the fossil records, total. So you can see this is a big event in the history of life.

The impression I get from Darwinists is that a few mutations can produce a new body plan or organ. True? Every time you have a new body plan you need new types of tissues and new types of organs. New tissues and organs require new types of cells, and new cells require dedicated proteins for building those cells. For example, many of the Cambrian animals had guts, and guts require digestive enzymes—and other enzymes to regulate the way the digestive enzymes work. When you get a new animal you need new proteins, and new proteins are built from the instructions on the DNA molecule. So the Cambrian explosion is not just an explosion for new body plans, it’s actually an explosion of information: Where did that information come from?

Mutations over billions of years, I’ve heard. A mutation is a random mistake. If you start randomly changing the 0s and 1s in a piece of software, are you more likely to degrade the information that’s in that code or generate a new program? The mechanism Darwinists have credited with creativity is actually a mechanism of destruction of information.

And biological life needs not just random information, but “specified information”? If you have a series of digits—say 10 digits—but you dial them and they don’t cause a phone number to ring, there’s a mathematical definition of information that would say, “It’s information because it’s a series of digits that you sent through a communication channel.” This is what’s called Shannon information. But the kind of information we have in living systems—in the DNA molecule in particular—is “specified” or “functional” information. It’s not just a random arrangement of characters, but it’s an arrangement of chemical subunits that are functioning just like alphabetic characters in a written language.

Those chemical subunits—adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—must sit in the correct order to encode functional proteins. I’ve got an illustration that I used in Darwin’s Doubt of a bike lock. Imagine the person who owns the bike has taken great precautions against thievery and he’s got a 10-dial bike lock. There are 10 billion possible ways of arranging those digits. Is it likely a thief entering random combinations is going to succeed? In relation to all the possible ways of arranging the A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s on the DNA molecule, the few that will give you a functional protein are like the combination that will open the lock. They are extremely rare.

Is 4 billion years not enough evolutionary time to find the winning combination? It’s a blink of an eye. And the Cambrian explosion isn’t 4 billion years. It’s dated on the standard geological time scale of about 10 million years, and the major pulse of the explosion is within the 5 to 6 million year window. In relation to how fast the Darwinian mechanism works, it’s not nearly enough time.

Sounds convincing to me, but is intelligent design gaining any acceptance at the university level? There is a lot of behind-the-scenes movement, especially in Europe, oddly. I had an email several years ago from a European scientist who said, “Please don’t email me back—call me, but not at the office. Can we talk at my home?” I get a lot of phone calls like that. His problem was he’d come to accept intelligent design, but he was quite prominent in the European evolutionary establishment.

How about among students? A couple of years ago some of the Discovery scientists were at a dinosaur dig in eastern Montana. In a restaurant a young waitress came back with the bill, looked left and right, lowered her voice, and said, “Can you tell me what the Discovery Institute is?” I answered and she said, “I thought so! Our professors hate you.” Then she motioned to three other young waiters and waitresses and said, “I’m a bio major at the university and so are they. I’m telling you, our professors hate you, but we go on your website and see those animations of all those little machines and we say, ‘No way did that evolve.’”

Comments

  • Char's picture
    Char
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    Regarding committed evolutionists, I always wonder - do they have no intuition?  

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    An echo Ü: are you referencing an article you wrote, Scott? If so, I find that somewhat disingenuous. 

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    New article: "Gene Architecture Illuminates the Brilliance of Life's Molecular Logic",http://www.reasons.org/articles/gene-architecture-illuminates-the-brilliance-of-life%92s-molecular-l... 

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    Hi, Scott, The massiveness of plate tectonics and the slowness of its movement don't make it a compelling analogy for evolution. (At 2" per year, it would take less than 800 million years to completely circumscribe the earth at the equator.) Just the mere data encoded in the DNA for every life form, past and present, are massive, too, but that does not consider the design and function of the vast variety of proteins, organs, systems and structures that the data encode for, let alone the cool design of the cellular equipment involved in energy and transport, transcription and translation, error checking and editing in replication. Even the simplest theoretical life form has a sizable genome. And then there's homochirality.As I've said elsewhere, I think it very cool that modern cosmology and astrophysics have shown that space and time had a beginning, corresponding to the Bible's very first verse. It makes sense to me to believe the rest of the chapter as recorded: God directly intervenes in discrete increments, and the creation of life is not a continuous string of random mutations chosen for their efficacy by impersonal natural selection.Occam's Razor is a factor, too. Ü  

  • Scott B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    DaleCutler,Interesting links to RTB site on how why mainstream scientists see new information developing by natural means.re:microevolution vs. macro evolution: Who would think that crustal plate movement of 2 inches a year would amount to anything? Trivial, hardly measurable. But over 150 million years it was enough to split part of Pangea apart into Africa and South America, and put the Atlantic Ocean between then.re transitional fossils: Is the number of intermediate forms  prodigious? Yes. Does that mean we should expect to find fossils of all these ? No. The odds of fossilization of any given corpse are vanishingly small, and for transitional forms it is even smaller.We know from modern observations that nearly all plants and animals that die rot or get eaten. And elementary population genetics calculations show that new species will tend to develop in small, isolated populations, which are even less likely to get fossilized and then discovered by humans. All this is covered in the link I gave above, https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/realistic-expectations-for-transitional-fossi...

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    I'm not in a place or time where I can devote as much as I would like to here, but for now I would commend some browsing at https://www.google.com/search?q=site:reasons.org%20%22Theistic%20evolution%22&gws_rd=ssl, a site search at Reasons to Believe (which espouses old earth creationism, as do I) on theistic evolution, to which it most definitely does not subscribe.Fazale ("Fuz" Ü) Rana, RTB's resident scholar in biochemistry (http://www.reasons.org/about/who-we-are/fazale-rana), replying to a Facebook posting I made (https://www.facebook.com/fuzrana?fref=tl_fr_box, if you do any Facebook) linking to this World page, has some thoughts differentiating old earth creationism from Dr. Meyer and ID, and disagreeing with my comment above. He says,"I think bio-information can be used to make a powerful case for intelligent design (and creation). Unfortunately, I don't agree with Steve Meyer on this. I can cite hundreds of papers in which scientist use Darwinian mechanisms to generate information. These types of statements make for great sound bites. Church audiences love them, but they are patently false. When we make these types of statements to people who understand the science, we destroy our witness..."He also links several articles:http://www.reasons.org/articles/intelligent-design-the-right-conclusion-but-the-wrong-reasons (note especially the last section, Right Conclusions and Right Reasons),http://www.reasons.org/articles/too-good-to-be-true-evolution-and-the-origin-of-bioinformationandhttp://www.reasons.org/articles/does-new-approach-solve-origin-of-life-problem The microevolution involved in developing a new strain of yeast is not a compelling argument for the validity of the fantastic extrapolation to macroevolution and the vast complexity and numbers of creatures, alive and extinct, that we see and find around us.A couple of extraneous but not unrelated points...The number of transitional forms (née "missing links") that must be expected from a Darwinistic perspective, even if theistic, is more than prodigious. Q: What happens when you discover a transitional form? A: You've created two more that need to be discovered. Ad infinitum. And if you follow science news at all, it seems that most every discovery of a new critter, alive or extinct, doesn't fit well into an existing taxonomical branch.I know the Creator and he interacts in my life and gives me gifts of special providential timing -- hypernatural miracles, if you will, to use a fairly new term that I've learned. The world would call them "coincidences", but they are not chance occurrences.And I love it that he has a sense of humor. The anatomical visual pun of the duckbilled platypus is one example. Another recent favorite is pill bug, aka roly poly, woodlouse, armadillidium, et al. This little creature, which can be so amazingly spherical, delivers amazingly square excrement! Ü 

  • Scott B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    HI Midwest Preacher,I appreciate your calm open-mindedness - - that seems to be a rare and precious commodity these days. I hold to the second viewpoint you mention, that God guided an orderly process of physical development over billions of years. I agree, the details are not essential to our faith, and I typically do not bring up this subject in person when I am with my fellow evangelicals.     But it does have ramifications as we interact with the outside world -- as Augustine famously noted, it can drive a seeker away from Christianity if he hears Christians insisting on an interpretation of the Bible that entails some claims about the physical world that the seeker knows to be false.   All too many Christian young people are told at home and in church, "If evolution is true, the Bible is false." Then they engage in depth study of rocks or genomes, and find that evolution is true, which shipwrecks their faith.  I would like to do what I can to reduce that sort of needless tragedy.  I hope that by, as a friend, presenting the evidence for an old earth and for evolution to my fellow Christians that they can emulate your open-mindedness and let go of their insistence that only one interpretation of Genesis can be accepted.  Blessings...

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    So Scott:, by the way I defer to your knowledge of science and fossils, but reading between the lines (sorry) it seems your argument is that there is no designer or that He is not intelligent.  I have chosen my bias and I must admit:  I believe God did it and how He did it is interesting but not essential to my faith.  Did He create things in a few days? He could have.  Did He guide a process that lasted billions of years?  He could have done that too.  That's my bias and the facts might point to different methods and the jury may be out on some things but I have seen Him work and I trust Him.   

  • Scott B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    The hallmark of Intelligent Design
    proponents is the misleading partial truth. For instance, here Meyer states:   " In
    the lower, Precambrian layers, the ancestral forms he expected to see based on his branching tree picture of the history of life just weren't there. Instead
    of seeing life gradually morph from a very simple one-celled organism through lots of intermediate forms, what we see in the fossil record is the sudden
     appearance of these complex animal forms. Darwin said the absence of these
    ancestral intermediates was a "valid argument against the views here
     entertained," as he put it in his Victorian English. "
    The rest of the story: Darwin published
    Origin of Species in 1859. At that time it seemed like the pre-Cambrian rock
    layers were barren of life, which was indeed a "valid argument against the
    views here entertained."     However, a lot
    has been discovered since then. We now know that multicellular animals existed for millions years before the Cambrian period. The pre-Cambrian fauna included "bilaterians",
    i.e. animals with defined front and back ends, and side-to-side symmetry, which
    has become the dominant animal body plan in the Cambrian and thereafter.  
    And within the Cambrian period itself,
    there is evidence of ongoing development, not instantaneous creation. In the
    first 10 million years of the Cambrian, fossilized burrows show increasing
    complexity and depth of burrowing, indicating the development of more robust bodies. The "small shelly fauna" start small and simple at the start of the
    Cambrian, and become larger and more complex over the next 20 million years.
    The new phyla of the Cambrian do not appear all at once, but are spread across
    the 50 million years encompassed by this period.  A 
    clump of these phyla first appear in a relatively narrow window of time
    about 520-530 million years ago, but that is largely because there happened to
    be a couple of deposits (especially the Maotianshan or Chengjiang shales) in
    that timeframe which allowed unusual preservation of relatively soft tissue
    impressions.  No other such depositional
    environment (called a "lagerstatte") has yet been found for the first 20
    million years of the Cambrian, so we just don't have a good fix on what all the
    lifeforms were in that window. In any event, the further back in time we go
    (and 500 million years is a long time) the more likely it is that whatever
    fossil deposits were formed would get destroyed or deeply buried by the actions
    of erosion or plate tectonics. So it is not surprising that the fossil record
    in the pre-Cambrian and early Cambrian is scanty.
    It is also important to note that the
    earliest representatives of these phyla were typically way different than they
    appear in today's world. The first "chordates" appear in the Cambrian, but
     modern vertebrates such as ray-finned fish, frogs, lizards, birds and mammals
    don't show up for tens or hundreds of millions of years afterward.
    And when these later forms do show up, it is not out of the blue -- while the fossil record is not complete enough to show species-by-species transitions, the intermediate forms (e.g. between fish and amphibians, and between reptiles and mammals) do appear in the fossil record just at the times we would expect to find them. [see here for more on transitional fossils: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/realistic-expectations-for-transitional-fossi...Another distortion by Meyer: "A mutation is a random mistake. If you start randomly changing the 0s and
    1s in a piece of software, are you more likely to degrade the information
    that's in that code or generate a new program? The mechanism Darwinists have
    credited with creativity is actually a mechanism of destruction of information."

    Not really. A mutation is
    simply a change in the genome. It could make things better, worse, or the same.
    All three effects have been observed. Natural selection tends to preserve
    beneficial mutations, and eliminate deleterious mutations. Mutations can increase
    or decrease the size and diversity of the genome. Both effects have been
    observed.
    For instance, Brown et
    al. [Molecular Biology and Evolution, Vol 15, 931-942 (1998)] let baker's yeast
    (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) evolve for 450 generations under glucose-limited
    conditions. They observed that a new strain of yeast developed, which was
    better able to grow under these conditions, yet remained competitive at the
    original conditions. The genetic basis of this improvement was not "destruction
    of information". Rather, several genes were duplicated, with
    modifications.  This gave more functioning
    genes than before, with additional diversity among them. Anti-evolutionists
    will doubtless move the goalposts to avoid admitting this, but to any
    reasonable person this would constitute an increase in genetic information.The misrepresentations in Meyer's book Darwin's Doubt are discussed in detail, with graphics, by an evangelical Christian writer here: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/darwins_doubt/         [Sorry about all the extra blank lines here - I tried but was unable to edit them all away]

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    One of  "those animations of all those little machines and we say, 'No way did that evolve.'" --https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gbycQf1TbM0 

  • DaleCutler's picture
    DaleCutler
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 02:25 pm

    "The mechanism Darwinists have credited with creativity is actually a mechanism of destruction of information." Nicely put. Is that anything like saying Darwinism promotes disinformation? Ü