Expanded Critique of Meyer 2004

by Nick Matzke, Alan Gishlick, and Wesley R. Elsberry

These views are our own and not necessarily NCSE's or its supporters.

Work in progress. Check in often to see new material.

"Intelligent design" (ID) advocate Stephen C. Meyer has produced a "review article" that folds the various lines of "intelligent design" antievolutionary argumentation into one lump. The article is published in the journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. We congratulate ID on finally getting an article in a peer-reviewed biology journal, a mere fifteen years after the publication of the ID textbook Of Pandas and People (1989). It is gratifying to see the ID movement finally attempt to make their case to the only scientifically relevant group, professional biologists. This is therefore the beginning (not the end) of the review process for ID. Perhaps one day the scientific community will be convinced that ID is worthwhile. Only through this route, taken by plate tectonics, endosymbiosis, and other revolutionary scientific ideas, will ID earned a legitimate place in textbooks.

Unfortunately, the ID movement will likely ignore the above considerations about how scientific review actually works, and instead trumpet the paper from coast to coast as proving the legitimacy of ID. Therefore, we would like to do our part in the review process by providing a preliminary evaluation of the claims made in Meyer's paper. Given the scientific stakes, we can be sure that Meyer, Director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, the major organization promoting ID, has put forward the best case that ID has to offer. Discouragingly, it appears that ID's best case is not very good. We intend to gather here every item of critical comment to be made concerning this paper. These include errors in facts and reasoning, but most seriously, Meyer's omissions of discussion or citation of vast amounts of directly relevant work available in the scientific literature.

Summary of the paper

Meyer's paper predictably follows the same pattern that has characterized "intelligent design" since its inception as a political movement: deny the sufficiency of evolutionary processes to account for life's history and diversity, then assert that an "intelligent designer" provides a better explanation. Although ID is discussed in the concluding section of the paper, there is no positive account of "intelligent design" presented in this paper, just as such an account has been absent from all previous work on "intelligent design". Just as a detective doesn't have a case against someone without motive, means, and opportunity, ID doesn't stand a scientific chance without some kind of model of what happened and why. Only a reasonably detailed model provides empirical expectations that can be tested. "ID did something, somewhere, somehow, for no apparent reason" is not a model.

Meyer's paper, therefore, is almost entirely an argument against evolution. He focuses upon the Cambrian explosion as an event he feels evolutionary biology is unable to account for. Meyer asserts that the Cambrian explosion represented an actual sudden origin of higher taxa; that these taxa (such as phyla) are "real" and not an artifact of human retrospective classification; and that morphological disparity coincides with phyletic categories. Meyer then argues that the origin of these phyla would require dramatic increases in biological "information," namely new proteins and new genes (and some vaguer forms of "information" at higher levels of biological organization). He argues that genes/proteins are highly "complex" and "specified," and that therefore the evolutionary origin of new genes is so improbable as to be effectively impossible. Meyer briefly considers and rejects several theories proposed within evolutionary biology that deal with macroevolutionary phenomena. Having rejected these, Meyer argues that ID is a better alternative explanation for the emergence of new taxa in the Cambrian explosion, based solely upon an analogy between "designs" in biology and the designs of human designers observed in everyday experience.

The mistakes and omissions in Meyer's work are many and varied, and often layered on top of each other. Among these, we will take up the Cambrian explosion and its relation to paleontology and systematics. We will examine Meyer's negative arguments concerning evolutionary theories and the origin of biological "information" in the form of genes. And we will examine Meyer's argument for his preferred alternative of "intelligent design". In Meyer's closing paragraph, he mentions "experience-based analysis". Throughout this critique, we will remind the reader that experience clearly favors evolutionary biology as a source of explanation of biological phenomena.

This paper certainly puts paid to the notion recently heard in the blogosphere that no paper openly arguing for "intelligent design" could appear in the peer-reviewed literature (therefore they might as well not try).

1. 'The Problem of Origination of Body Forms'

2. "The Cambrian Explosion"

3. "Defining Biological Form and Information"

4. "The Cambrian Information Explosion"

5. "Novel Genes and Proteins"

6. "Novel Body Plans"

7. "Self-Organizational Models"

8. "Punctuated Equilibrium"

As there are no ID publications on punctuated equilibria, this section is unusual for having to rely entirely on the legitimate biological literature.

1. No indication that PE proponents proposed species selection to account for "large morphological jumps".
2. False claim that PE was supposed to address the problem of the origin of biological information or form. As Gould and Eldredge 1977 noted, PE was a theory about speciation.
3. False claim that PE was supposed to address the origin of taxa higher than species. This class of error was specifically addressed in Gould and Eldredge 1977.

A further omission by Meyer is that he fails to note that PE, because it is based on studies of extant populations and species, has an excellent track record so far as being an "experience-based analysis" is concerned.

9. "Structuralism"

10. "Cladism: An Artifact of Classification?"

11. "Convergence and Teleological Evolution"

Meyer's argument for acceptance of "intelligent design" for explaining the phenomena of the Cambrian explosion has nothing to do with the evidence of the Cambrian explosion. It is, instead, entirely about human designers in the present day. An "intelligent designer" which is in no way known to exist at the time of the Cambrian explosion is in no way "causally adequate" to explain anything occurring at that time. Meyer likes to use the phrase "experience-based analysis", and yet our experience is that no "intelligent designers" of the requisite capabilities are known to inhabit the Cambrian period.

Meyer's error here is one that John Wilkins and I elaborated upon in a paper, "The Advantages of Theft over Toil", published in 2001. "Intelligent designs" advocates utilize our knowledge and experience of design in the present day, or "ordinary design", and illegitimately claim that design inferred in the absence of any knowledge of the putative designers from hundreds of millions of years in the past (or "rarefied design") is in some way analogous.

  1. False claim that genetic algorithms must have a "target sequence" to work.
    Demonstration of this requirement has come from an unlikely quarter: genetic algorithms. Genetic algorithms are programs that allegedly simulate the creative power of mutation and selection. Dawkins and Kuppers, for example, have developed computer programs that putatively simulate the production of genetic information by mutation and natural selection (Dawkins 1986:47-49, Kuppers 1987:355-369). Nevertheless, as shown elsewhere (Meyer 1998: 127-128, 2003:247-248), these programs only succeed by the illicit expedient of providing the computer with a "target sequence" and then treating relatively greater proximity to future function (i.e., the target sequence), not actual present function, as a selection criterion. As Berlinski (2000) has argued, genetic algorithms need something akin to a "forward looking memory" in order to succeed. Yet such foresighted selection has no analogue in nature. In biology, where differential survival depends upon maintaining function, selection cannot occur before new functional sequences arise. Natural selection lacks foresight.
    Meyer makes the false claim that genetic algorithms require a "target sequence" to work. Meyer cites himself as the relevant authority in this matter, with two citations. However, when one examines these sources ([Meyer 1998],[Meyer 2003]), one finds that what is cited in both of these earlier essays is a block of three paragraphs, the content of which is almost identical across the two essays. It is disingenuous of Meyer to use two citations that deliver the same content. Meyer bases his denunciation of genetic algorithms as a field upon a superficial examination of two cases. (It should be noted that every citation made by Meyer touching on this refers to non-peer-reviewed sources. The Berlinksi citation is to a speech at an ID pep rally.) While some genetic algorithm simulations for pedagogy do incorporate a "target sequence", it is utterly false to say that all genetic algorithms do so. Meyer was in attendance at the NTSE in 1997 when one of us [WRE] brought up a genetic algorithm to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem, which was an example where no "target sequence" was available. Other examples abound in the evolutionary computation literature, such as GAs based on co-evolution. Whole fields of evolutionary computation are completely overlooked by Meyer. Meyer's continuing delusions about what GAs cannot do are either based on extremely shoddy scholarship or deliberate deception.

  2. Begging the question: "Repeated experience affirms that intelligent agents (minds) uniquely possess such causal powers."

12. "Conclusion"

No citations here.

  1. An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate -- and perhaps the most causally adequate -- explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent. For this reason, recent scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate as biologists continue to wrestle with the problem of the origination of biological form and the higher taxa.

    There are several problems with the above. An "experience-based analysis" corresponds to what the statisticians call a "frequentist" analysis, a position sometimes advocated by Meyer's colleague William Dembski. The essential feature of "intelligent design" argumentation is that the ID advocates dwell upon systems and events for which we have little available evidence, and thus small experience. This is certainly true for the subject of the current paper. Beyond that, Meyer conflates the sort of "design" that we are familiar with by our experience ("ordinary design" in the terminology that Wilkins and I used in our 2001 paper, "The Advantages of Theft Over Toil") with the sort of "design" that is inferred in ignorance of any knowledge of the putative designer (or "rarefied design" in our terminology). The final sentence is distinctly odd, for it doesn't speculate upon how well "intelligent design" will explain the available evidence, but rather what the level of "interest" it will have in the future, a clearly socio-political rather than scientific prognosis.