More about Stephen Meyer’s lecture on Intelligent Design

[BPSDB]Rather late, this is my comment on the lecture given in Shrewsbury (Darwin’s birthplace) in late February 2009 by Dr Stephen Meyer from the Discovery Institute. This was billed as reviewing “Darwin’s life and theories from a new perspective – an assessment of the evidence for design which has emerged through the advances in science since publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859” . It was also advertised as Dr Meyer’s first public lecture on the theme of his new book, “Signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design”.

The book has not yet been published, so I can’t yet compare it with the lecture. However, it did seem to me that there was very little in the lecture that was actually new – I have been following the debate between biologists and ID proponents for some years now. It wasn’t possible for me to take notes fast enough to give a point-by-point analysis of the lecture.

The lecture was divided into two halves, with a short break of five minutes. The crucial argument was presented early in the second part. I’d almost call it a “climax”, because Dr Meyer is a showman: he knows how to ramp up the excitement and carry the audience with him. Of course, in this case the audience was largely sympathetic to his aim and uncritical towards his arguments.

There was, in reality, very little mention of evolution in the lecture – mostly quotations from Darwin and other scientists – although the whole thing was carried off so that I suspect that most in the audience really believed that they were witnessing a powerful critique of evolution.

The lecture began with a few comments about Darwin and evolution, there was some talk about “chemical evolution” and the work of Oparin and Miller, and then much of the first part was given over to explaining the basics – what seemed to me to be perfectly acceptable explanations of the shapes of DNA and proteins, and how the functions of proteins depend on their shapes. Then he went on to more contentious matters, including the ID proponents’ favoured idea of “specified complexity”.

The climax came after the break. Dr Meyer took the audience through the calculation of the probability of a protein (of 150 amino acids) assembling itself from its units – vanishingly small, of course. I could feel the excitement of the audience close to me as he approached the result and there was laughter as he calculated the final result. They must have felt that Dr Meyer had delivered the coup de grace to evolution by natural selection.

This was really the core of the lecture. The rest consisted largely of unsupported assertions of ID dogma, for example, that undirected natural processes do not produce large amounts of “specified complexity”, that creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity, that the functional integration of proteins, DNA and ATP is evidence for design, and that ID has been justified by predicting that so-called ‘junk DNA’ would be found to be functional (I’m not a biologist, but my understanding is that some noncoding DNA is known to have important functions, but that there is good evidence that much DNA has no function).

The lecture depended largely on what might be compared with a David Copperfield illusion: Dr Meyer did not demonstrate what the audience were no doubt expected to think he had demonstrated, and the whole effect depended on the audience seeing what it wanted to see and not questioning what they believed they had seen and heard.

The calculation of the improbability of a protein is irrelevant, because it entirely omits the very process that ID-ists claim to question – evolution by natural selection. The evolutionary process is what made it possible to observe the proteins we see today carrying out the functions that they do. No evolutionary biologist imagines that any functional protein somehow had to be assembled all at once out of its individual amino acids. Proteins evolved in organisms, through relatively small changes in the genetic material (changes that accorded with the laws of chemistry and physics), and were selected for or against by the environments prevailing at the time. No step required any probability that was unreasonably small in the available time frame.

What’s more, to look at the protein and its function the way Dr Meyer did is to get the whole thing backwards. The protein and its function were not “specified” first and the evolutionary process tailored to creating it. Both the protein and its function are as they are because they are the outcome of a whole series of changes that were possible at each step. They may not be the best possible way to carrry out the function, but they exist both because they are the result of a series of physically and chemically possible changes and they enable the organism to function in its current environment – specifically, to reproduce successfully. In many cases, it is now possible to trace the steps by which the current system and its function came about – see, for example, the debate between biologists and ID-ists over the biochemistry of blood clotting.

Not quite so honest to Darwin (or anyone else)

I attended the final session of the Shrewsbury “Honest to Darwin” series of events, which was a lecture by Stephen C Meyer of the Discovery Institute. I hope later to write more fully about the apparent purpose of these events and Dr Meyer’s lecture. In the meantime, here are a few comments.

This event was promoted by the organisers (the Shrewsbury Deep Waters Trust) as an “Intelligent Design event“, and to “look honestly at Darwin’s original views and their relationship to contemporary neo-Darwinism”. However, the person who introduced Dr Meyer and closed the whole programme (apparently Martin Charlesworth, Pastor of Barnabas Community Church, Shrewsbury), in his closing remarks, made it clear that the purpose of the week was against evolution and to promote theistic views and Christianity.

The lecture was attended by a capacity audience I estimated as approaching 200, and I got a sense that there were few sceptics there. The books on sale at the bookstall consisted of Christian and creationist books and some of the ‘answers to Dawkins’ genre. I did not see any titles devoted to explaining evolutionary theory! This is a shame, as the person who wrote the press release advertising the series of events clearly had no real idea of what evolution is about.

I missed the previous speaker, who was Andy McIntosh. Prof. McIntosh has in the past claimed that evolution is contrary to the second law of thermodynamics – this is not only false, but a real howler. Whether he made this claim to the gathering in Shrewsbury I do not know.

Dr Meyer’s lecture didn’t seem to contain much new (even though it was supposed to be based on his as-yet unpublished book) and heavily emphasised “specified complexity”. At the end of the lecture, one of the audience asked when the ideas in Dr Meyer’s lecture would reach “the schools”. Dr Meyer gave a glowing account of the research into Intelligent Design that the Discovery Institute claims is being carried out by many scientists, and how ID is supposedly gaining ground in science.

So I took the opportunity to ask what names I should look out for in order to follow this research. Dr Meyer named one name only: Douglas Axe, who was in the audience and is apparently the director of the Biologic Institute set up by the Discovery Institute itself. Perhaps the new book will contain an account of some of this research.

The unanswered questions of evolutionary theory are the sign of a live and vigorous research programme that brings together disparate parts of biology and geology, and is extending knowledge all the time. Intelligent Design is a backwater in which the same few people say the same few things over and over again. Even though the audience was uncritical and most of its members were probably desperate to believe Dr Meyer’s assertions, I still find it dishonest to try to represent ID to them as being some body of research comparable to mainstream biology, when in fact it is miniscule and primarily concerned with politics, not science. [bpsdb]

Creationism in Darwin’s birthplace

The creationists are in town this week in Darwin’s birthplace. I have been out of town myself so could not attend any of the weekday sessions, but I do hope to get to the Saturday lecture, which stars Stephen C. Meyer, one of the founders of the Discovery Insitute, the begetters of the “Intelligent Design” (ID) idea. If I can get there, I’ll report back to the local humanists and comment here.

Interestingly, although the Disco people like to promote ID as a “scientific” theory, without actually doing any science,  the inspiration behind the programme in Shrewsbury appears to be religious, and specifically Christian. The event information (not on line, as far as I can find) says: “We believe there is not one debate but two: one debate about interpretations of the scientific evidence – what has come to be known as Intelligent Design versus random processes – and another between two faith positions: an originally good world which has been in decline as a consequence of human wrongdoing, or an originally simple and amoral world which has been evolving into something more complex and better.” No room allowed here for any other interpretations, apparently, particularly the possibility that you can have a view on evolution that is not a “faith position”.

There is the common straw man version of evolution: “Evolution involves progress “up” the evolutionary tree, each step requiring the addition of information to the genetic code. Random processes do not produce meaningful information.”

If anyone has any information about the weekday presentations, I’d be interested to hear about them.  [bpsdb]

Ben Goldacre on teachers and Brain Gym

Although I usually admire Ben Goldacre’s treatment of bad science in the Guardian, I was dismayed at his use of words like ‘stupid’ and ‘morons’ to describe teachers using Brain Gym. If the results described in the Weisberg paper that he cites are valid, then it seems probable that teachers are no more likely than the general public to fall for this kind of thing. After all, most teachers are not science teachers, let alone trained in either neuroscience or the interpretation of scientific evidence.

What’s more, most fads in schools, whether on or off the curriculum, are these days foisted on teachers by politicians, senior management remote from the classroom, administrators, ‘advisors’ and management consultants. Classroom teachers nowadays have very little discretion about what they do, and they spend a lot of time just trying to keep order of some kind. I understand that where Brain Gym is used, it is often appreciated because it provides a welcome opportunity for some physical activity (which I think even Ben has previously pointed out is a Good Thing), and is popular with the students. If you place yourself in the position of a classroom teacher, you too may welcome the opportunity for a short break doing something which has the wholehearted involvement of the class. Even if the supposed theory behind it is bunk.

Addressing teachers in this way is likely to put backs up when Ben should be recruiting the classroom teachers, especially the hard-pressed science staff, as allies in the war on pseudoscience and management-bollocks that is taking over school education as much as any other part of our intellectual life.