The host of the Cross Examined radio show Dr. Frank Turek talks with Stephen C. Meyer and Doug Axe about a recent conference of Royal Society scientists discussing the problems with the theory of macro-evolution.
the main topic was whether naturalistic mechanisms can produce new body plans and new organ types
no one disputes micro-evolution: beaks changing size, antibiotic resistance
many of the naturalistic scientists admitted the problems with current naturalistic theories, but they don’t want to embrace the need for a designer
none of the proposals that were debated solved the real problems with macro-evolution
Problem #1: the sudden origin of body plans in the fossil record
Problem #2: the origin of information (e.g. – in protein molecule)
Problem #3: need for favorable early mutations (for body plans)
Problem #4: the problem of epigenetics
Problem #5: the universality of the design intuition
Some of these problems have actually gotten worse for naturalistic evolution as our scientific knowledge has grown.
If you want the two best books on intelligent design, get Dr. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt”. I should note that Dr. Meyer is not a young Earth creationist, and has defended the Big Bang cosmology as a solid evidence for a Creator of the universe. Being in favor of an old universe and an old Earth is compatible with being opposed to evolution – because of scientific reasons.
Evolution News reported on a 27-minute debate featuring Dr. Stephen C. Meyer – probably the best proponent of intelligent design there is.
We often say that Darwinists are reluctant to debate advocates of intelligent design, but here are two who deserve a tip of the hat. Keith Pannell is a chemist at the University of Texas at El Paso who hosts a program, Science Studio, on the NPR station there. He invited Stephen Meyer on to talk about the science of ID, pegged to the Dover anniversary.
Clearly Pannell is an ID critic so he gets kudos for being willing to have a civil and informative conversation. Perhaps feeling insecure about facing the author of Darwin’s Doubt by himself, Dr. Pannell invited a biologist colleague, Ricardo Bernal, to serve as “co-host.”
So it was two against one, but no worries. Meyer is, as always, superb, and the discussion sounds like it was an education for the two Texas scientists. Listen and enjoy.
Critic: but we used the scientific method to disprove the Darwinian predictions, you don’t like the scientific method
intelligent design proponents love science, and the scientific method, and they do work in labs to confirm their hypotheses, (WK:for example, the probability of generating a protein by chance)
Critic: what about the Dover court case that you lost?
the Discovery Institute objected to actions taken by the Dover school board
Critic: what about the molecular machines, how are they related to intelligent design?
even in the simplest living organisms, there are tiny machines that are tightly integrated, and cannot be built up in a stepwise fashion
Critic: I’ve worked with the ATP-synthase and other molecular machines, but “you can kind of begin to tease how some of these molecular machines have come about” – pieces have multiple functions, and they are co-opted into larger systems
the problem with the co-option argument breaks down when you look at the specific details of different machines
for example – the type III secretory system cannot be an precursor to the bacterial flagellum, it is younger, not older than the bacterial flagellum
Critic: what would it take for your view to be falsified?
demonstrable undirected processes that are capable of creating functional information in DNA, or processes that can build up an irreducibly complex molecular machine within the time available with a decent probability
If you like this debate, check out Stephen C. Meyer’s two books: “Signature in the Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt”. They are now out as audio books, too.
I have read and listened and watched a lot of material on intelligent design, but I have never seen so much value packed into such a short lecture. I really hope you’ll watch this and that it’s helpful to you.
the big question when discussing the origin of life: where did the information in living systems come from?
Until 530 million years ago, the oceans were largely devoid of life
In a 10 million year period, many new forms of animal life emerged
New biological forms of life require new information
the discovery of DNA shows that living systems work because cells have information that allows them to build the components of molecular machines: cell types, proteins, etc.
can random mutation and natural selection create new functional information?
normally, random mutations tend to degrade the functionality of information, e.g. – randomly changing symbols in an applications code does not usually introduce useful new functions, it usually renders what is there non-functional
the majority of possible sequences will NOT have functions, so random mutations will more likely give you non-functional code, rather than functional code
example: a bicycle lock with 4 numbers has many possible sequences for the 4 numbers, and only one of them has unlock functionality, the rest have no functionality
if you have lots of time, then you might be able to guess the combination, but if the lock as has 10 billion numbers, and only one combination that unlocks, you can spend your whole life trying to unlock it and won’t succeed
how likely is it to arrive at a functional protein or gene by chance? Is it more like the 4-dial lock (can be done with lots of time) or the 10 billion dial lock (amount of time required exceeds the time available)?
the probability is LOW because there is only one sequence of numbers that has unlock function
consider a short protein of 150 amino acids has 10 to the 195th power possible sequences
if many of these sequences of amino acides had biological function, then it might be easier to get to one by random mutation and selection than it is with a lock that only unlocks for ONE sequence
how many of the possible sequences have biological function?
Thanks to research done by Douglas Axe, we now know that the number of functional amino acid sequences for even a short protein is incredibly small…
Axe found that the odds of getting a functional sequence of amino acids that will fold and have biological function is 1 in 10 to the 77th power
Is that number too improbable to reach by chance? well, there are 10 to 65th atoms in the entire Milky Way galaxy… so yes, this is a very improbable outcome
can random genetic mutations search through all the sequences in order to find the one in 10 to the 77th power one that has biological function? It depends on how much guessers we have and how many guesses we get in the time available
even with the entire 3.5 billion year history of life on Earth, only about 10 to the 40th organisms have ever lived, which far smaller fraction of the 10 to the 77th total sequences
even with a very fast mutation rate, you would not be able to reach a functional protein even with all that time, and even with all those organisms
I was once having a discussion with a woman about the research that Axe did at the Cambridge University lab. He published four articles in the Journal of Molecular Biology. I held out one of the papers to her and showed her the numbers. She said over and over “I hate the Discovery Institute! I hate the Discovery Institute!” Well, yeah, but you can’t make the Journal of Molecular Biology go away with hating the Discovery Institute. JMB is peer-reviewed, and this was experimental evidence – not a theory, not a hypothesis.
We have been blessed by the Creator and Designer of the universe in this time and place with overwhelming evidence – an abundance of riches. For those who have an open mind, this is what you’ve been waiting for to make your decision. For the naturalists who struggle so mightily to block out the progress of experimental science, they’ll need to shout louder and shut their eyes tighter and push harder to block their ears. Maybe if they keep screaming “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” over and over to themselves, they will be able to ignore the real science a little longer.
It’s often argued that when two or more organisms share viral genes in the same place, it is evidence those organisms evolved from a common ancestor. Wikipedia’s Evidence for Common Descent page frames it as follows:
Endogenous retroviruses (or ERVs) are remnant sequences in the genome left from ancient viral infections in an organism. The retroviruses (or virogenes) are always passed on to the next generation of that organism that received the infection. This leaves the virogene left in the genome. Because this event is rare and random, finding identical chromosomal positions of a virogene in two different species suggests common ancestry.
This argument presupposes that the viruses inserted themselves into genomes randomly and stick around as junk DNA baggage, rather than genomes originally being designed with viral-like genes that perform useful functions. However this argument has unraveled as we’ve discovered useful functions for many viral-like genes, including functions that specifically require a viral-like sequence. Some examples among many:
ERV sequences protect against viral infection through interference–a matching-but-opposite strand of RNA is created to bind to and disable RNA from a virus.
Likewise, ERV’s seem to function “during embryo implantation to help prevent immune recognition by the mother’s immune system”
In worms, an ERV has been observed to create actual viruses that transfer DNA from somatic cells (skin/brain/heart/etc.) to germline (sperm/egg) cells whenever the worm is exposed to too much heat, allowing them to rewrite their own DNA for future generations.
Viral envelopes from ERV transcripts attach to cell membranes in the placenta and causes them to fuse as a normal part of development: “The HERV-W [a human ERV] envelope glycoprotein named syncytin 1 is expressed in all trophoblastic [part of the placenta] cells and directly involved in human trophoblast fusion and differentiation [cells taking on specialized roles]”
These aren’t isolated cases of function. Phys.org interviewed one researcher: “When we investigated public data from embryonic cells, we found that many RNAs originated from regions in the human genome that are ERVs. We did not only observe isolated events, but systematic activation of these ERVs. Every cell type showed transcription of specific classes, something that is very unlikely to occur by chance”.
Those cases all involve RNA viruses and that’s old news. But two weeks ago, a single-celled eukaryote called Cafeteria roenbergensis was found to harbor maviruses within its own DNA that remain dormant until it is attacked by a large virus known as CroV. When this happens the maviruses activate to form an attack fleet, as NewScientist reports:
A voracious marine predator plagued by a giant virus has a defence system we’ve never seen before – it fights back by making its very own virus… Rather than waiting for maviruses to arrive by chance when CroVs attack, it actually carries the genes that code for mavirus inside its own genome. These genes are usually dormant, but they get turned on when Cafeteria is invaded by CroV. “It acts as an inducible antiviral defence system,” write Fischer and his colleague Thomas Hackl in a new preprint paper.
This process kills the Cafeteria roenbergensis cell, but is useful in defending other members of its own species. In this experiment maviruses were deliberately inserted into the Cafeteria roenbergensis genome (see the original paper), but more interestingly, sequences similar to the Cafeteria roenbergensis viral genes have been found in a wide range of animals:
A wide range of animals, from sea anemones to crocodiles, harbour genetic elements called Maverick transposons that closely resemble the mavirus genes. It’s possible that some of these organisms can also unleash viruses that attack giant viruses.
In spite of this, New Scientist still argues “our genomes are littered with the mutant remains of viruses and genetic parasites.” But these discoveries reveal this as a rapidly-shrinking argument of the gaps.
Save this for the next time someone insists that viral genes are useless junk DNA and therefore evidence of common descent.
You might remember Peter Millican from the debate he had with William Lane Craig. I ranked that debate as one of the 3 best I have ever seen, along with the first Craig vs Dacey debate and the second Craig vs Sinnott-Armstrong debate.
Science has revealed that the fundamental constants and forces of the cosmos appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to allow a universe in which life can develop. Is God the best explanation of the incredibly improbable odds of the universe we live in being a life-permitting one?
Robin Collins is a Christian philosopher and a leading advocate of the argument for God from cosmic design. Peter Millican is an atheist philosopher at Oxford University. They debate the issues.
From ‘Unbelievable?’ on ‘Premier Christian Radio’, Saturday 19th March 2016.
As usual when the atheist is an expert, there is no snark or paraphrasing in the summary.
Brierley: What is the fine-tuning argument?
Collins: the fine-tuning is structure of the universe is extremely precisely set to allow the existing of conscious, embodied agents who are capable of moral behavior. There are 3 kinds of fine-tuning: 1) the laws of nature (mathematical formulas), 2) the constants of physics (numbers that are plugged into the equations), 3) the initial conditions of the universe. The fine-tuning exists not just because there are lots of possibilities, but there is something special about the actual state of affairs that we see. Every set of laws, parameters and initial conditions is equally improbable, but the vast majority of permutations do not permit life. The possible explanations: theism or the multiverse.
Brierley: How improbable are the numbers?
Collins: Once case is the cosmological constant (dark energy density), with is 1 part in (10 raised to 120th power). If larger, the universe expands too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form after the Big Bang. If smaller, the universe collapses in on itself before life could form. Another case is the initial distribution of mass energy to give us the low entropy we have that is necessary for life. The fine-tuning there is 1 part in (10 raised to the 10th power raised to the 123rd power).
Brierley: What do you think of the argument?
Millican: The argument is worth taking very seriously. I am a fan of the argument. The other arguments for God’s existence such as the ontological and cosmological arguments are very weak. But the fine-tuning argument has the right structure to deliver the conclusion that theists want. And it is different from the traditional design argument tended to focus on biological nature, which is not a strong argument. But the fine-tuning argument is strong because it precedes any sort of biological evolution. Although the design is present at the beginning of the universe, it is not visible until much later. The argument points to at least deism, and possibly theism. The argument is not based on ignorance, it is rooted in “the latest results from the frontiers of science” (his phrase).
Brierley: Is this the best argument from natural theology?
Collins: The cosmological argument makes theism viable intuitively, but there are some things that are puzzling, like the concept of the necessary being. But the fine-tuning argument is decisive.
Brierley: What’s are some objections to the fine-tuning argument?
Millican: The argument is based on recent physics, so we should be cautious because we maybe we will discover a natural explanation.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: The cosmological constant has been around since 1980. But the direction that physics is moving in is that there are more constants and quantities being discovered that need to be fine-tuned, not less. Even if you had a grand unified theory, that would have to be have the fine-tuning pushed into it.
Millican: Since we have no experience of other laws and values from other universes, we don’t know whether these values can be other than they are. Psychologically, humans are prone to seeing purpose and patterns where there is none, so maybe that’s happening here.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: It is possible to determine probabilities on a single universe case, for example using multiple ways of calculating Avogadro’s number all converging on the same number makes it more probable.
Millican: Yes, I willing to accept that these constants can take on other values, (“principle of indifference”). But maybe this principle be applied if the improbability were pushed up into the theory?
Collins: Even if you had a grand theory, selecting the grand theory from others would retain the improbability.
Brierley: What about the multiverse?
Millican: What if there are many, many different universes, and we happen to be in the one that is finely-tuned, then we should not be surprised to observe fine-tuning. Maybe a multiverse theory will be discovered in the future that would allow us to have these many universes with randomized constants and quantities. “I do think that it is a little bit of a promissary note”. I don’t think physics is pointing to this right now.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Collins: I agree it’s a promissary note. This is the strongest objection to the fine-tuning argument. But there are objections to the multiverse: 1) the fine-tuning is kicked back up to the multiverse generator has to be set just right to produce universes with different constants, 2) the multiverse is more likely to produce a small universe with Boltzmann brains that pop into existence and then out again, rather than a universe that contains conscious, embodied intelligent agents. I am working on a third response now that would show that the same constants that allow complex, embodied life ALSO allow the universe to be discoverable. This would negate the observer-selection effect required by the multiverse objection.
Brierley: Respond to that.
Millican: I don’t see why the multiverse generator has to be fine-tuned, since we don’t know what the multiverse generator is. I’m not impressed by the Boltzmann brains, but won’t discuss. We should be cautious about inferring design because maybe this is a case where we are seeing purpose and design where there is none.
Brierley: Can you negate the discoverability of the universe by saying that it might be psychological?
Collins: These things are not psychological. The selected value for the cosmic microwave background radiation is fine-tuned for life and for discoverability. It’s not merely a discoverability selection effect, it’s optimal for discoverability. If baryon-photon value were much smaller, we would have known that it was not optimal. So that judgment cannot be explained by
Millican: That’s a very interesting new twist.
Brierley: Give us your best objection.
Millican: I have two. 1) Even if you admit to the fine-tuning, this doesn’t show a being who is omnipotent and omnisicient. What the fine-tuning shows is that the designer is doing the best it can given the constraints from nature. If I were God, I would not have made the universe so big, and I wouldn’t have made it last 14 billion years, just to make one small area that supports life. An all-powerful God would have made the universe much smaller, and much younger. 2) The fine-tuning allows life to exist in other solar systems in other galaxies. What does this alien life elsewhere mean for traditional Christian theology? The existence of other alien civilizations argues against the truth of any one religion.
Brierley: Respond to those.
Collins: First objection: with a finite Creator, you run into the problem of having to push the design of that creature up one level, so you don’t really solve the fine-tuning problem. An unlimited being (non-material, not composed of parts) does not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than atheism. Second objection: I actually do think that it is likely that are other universes, and life in other galaxies and stars, and the doctrine of the Incarnation is easily adaptable to that, because God can take on multiple natures to appear to different alien civilizations.