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April 4, 2012 10:45 am

British Geneticist Robert Saunders Leaves a Highly Prejudiced Signature in His Review of “Signature in the Cell”

avatar by Moshe Averick

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Dr. Robert Saunders of the Open University, UK

Saunders refuses to come clean about his own ideological prejudices

From the opening paragraphs of Robert Saunders’ review of Signature in the Cell, which is Dr. Stephen Meyer’s magnum opus on Intelligent Design theory, it was clear to me that Saunders was a man with a cause. His cause is Scientific Materalism, an ideology whose central dogma is that every phenomenon we observe in the universe must have a purely naturalistic explanation which can be attributed to the impersonal and immutable laws of chemistry and physics. I have no problem with ideological agendas as long as said ideologue is open and honest about their beliefs. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Dr. Robert Saunders, an accomplished scientist who is a faculty member at the Open University, UK.

Saunders spends the first several paragraphs of his review explaining to the reader that the Discovery Institute, of which Meyer is a senior fellow, has “an overall agenda in pushing a set of religiously motivated objectives.” A glance at the Discovery.org home page doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what their objectives are and it’s hard to understand why it is necessary to devote so much space to “exposing” the sinister motives behind Meyer’s book. Dr. Meyer puts forth a well crafted scientific theory in a book that has been endorsed by, among others, Dr. Phillip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Edward Peltzer, of the renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and was designated as “one of the most important books of 2010″ by (non-believing) Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at New York University, Dr. Thomas Nagel. It is rather obvious that Dr. Meyer’s work should be judged on its own merits. If in Saunders’ opinion it fails, then why not just expose its failings rather than begin by launching an ad hominem and ideological attack? Saunders himself is clearly not without religious bias; his blog tagline reads “biology and atheism in an overly religious world.”  The answer, of course, is that Saunders – like many atheistic/materialistic scientists – is blind to his own prejudices; he is certain that his antipathy to belief in God and religion is the very proof of his own untainted objectivity in approaching the subject. Spare us, Dr. Saunders.

Dr. Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell

If commitment to a particular worldview disqualifies an individual from proposing scientific theories what does that say for Richard Dawkins, featured speaker at the recent “Reason Rally” in Washington, D.C., which was billed as a “celebration of secular values…to unify, energize, and embolden secular people nationwide.” Our distinguished geneticist would do well to remember what Stephen J. Gould wrote in an article entitled “In the Mind of the Beholder”:

Our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective “scientific method” with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots is self-serving mythology.

More to the point are the words of Dr. John Lennox, a religious Christian who is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University: “Admitting our biases is the best way towards rational discussion…” In others words Dr. Saunders, let’s all put our biases and prejudices on the table openly and honestly and then make the utmost effort to seek the truth.

Saunders does not seem to understand the core thesis of Signature in the Cell

Even when Saunders finally begins to address the substantive issues contained in the book, he can’t seem to resist attacking Meyer personally instead of offering us a coherent critique:

I think the biggest failing here is that Meyer’s background is insufficient to truly express how biological systems are systems in which “information” can degrade, change, and also expand in and contract in quantity.

Other than this pompous declaration, Saunders offers no elaboration at all on what it is about Meyer’s background that disqualifies him; neither does he offer any of his own insights into how the “information” in biological systems functions. Oddly enough, he follows up this attack on Meyer with a complete non sequitur:

And what is not made clear [by Meyer] is that all the molecular processes that are required for evolutionary change are pretty well characterized and understood.

What Saunders seems to have missed is that Meyer is not talking about “evolutionary change” at all. He is talking about the origin of information in the very first living organism. This is such an egregious error that it casts serious doubt as to whether Saunders understood the essential thesis of the book. Even Dr. Eugenie Scott of the NCSE understands the fundamental and conceptual difference between the process of evolution and origin of life: “Although some people confuse the origin of life with evolution the two are conceptually separate.”  I guess when Dr. Scott said that “some people” confuse the two, she was referring to Robert Saunders.

Saunders misunderstands some of the basic science upon which the argument in Signature in the Cell is based

DNA molecule, the winding outer strands are sugar-phosphates, the inner bridges between the strands are the nucleobases

Saunders  confusion about Meyer’s discussion of the origin of life and his discussion of the importance of biological information on that question, becomes even more apparent in the next paragraph. A brief explanation of how information is stored in the DNA molecule is necessary before we continue. The double-helix structure of DNA is composed of two parallel “backbones” winding one around the other consisting of identical sugar and phosphate molecules. In between the sugar-phosphate backbones are the four nucleobases: (A) Adenine, (T) Thymine, (C) Cytosine, and (G) Guanine. On the inner edges of the backbones one of these four bases are linked to the respective sugar-phosphate molecules by a chemical bond called an “N-glycosidic” bond.

Spanning the gap between the two strands, (A) always bonds with a (T) on the other side and (C) always bonds with (G). Horizontally then, the DNA molecule consists of a phosphate + sugar + N-glycosidic bond + (A) (T) or (C) (G) + N-glycosidic bond + sugar + phosphate. The information used for protein construction, however, resides in the vertical or longitudinal order of the nucleobases. The order in which the hundreds of thousands of nucleobases are arranged vertically code for particular sequences of amino acids which if arranged correctly, will produce functional proteins  that are used by the cell.

Meyer points out a rather astonishing fact – about which there is no scientific controversy – regarding the arrangements of the nucleobases in DNA. There are absolutely no chemical affinities or preferences for which nucleobases bond with any particular phosphate and sugar molecule. The N-glycosidic bond works equally well with (A), (T), (G), or (C). And secondly, there are also no chemical bonds in the vertical axis between the nucleobases. What this means is that there are no forces of physical/chemical attraction and no chemical or physical law that dictates the order of the nucleobases; they can be arranged in a nearly infinite amount of different sequences.

Meyer gives an easy to understand illustration: Imagine a series of magnetic letters on the metal door of a refrigerator. All the letters are attached to the door by the same bond, namely a magnetic attraction. However, while the magnetic attraction is identical, there is nothing at all about the structure of any particular letter, or the magnetic bond, that would determine a preference for the order in which the letters are arranged on the door. If the letter G must always follow L which must always follow C, etc, then all you would get would be an endlessly repeating pattern of C, L, G etc., and no information could be conveyed. In fact, it is this very indeterminate nature of the arrangements of letters  which allows them to convey functional information. Similarly, the arrangement of letters on a printed page has nothing at all to do with the chemical composition of the ink or paper. Meyer shows that the same applies to the arrangement of the letters of the genetic text. What allows the storage of encyclopedic amounts of information in DNA is the very indeterminate nature of the arrangements of the nucleobases, which are the “letters” of the genetic text.

Meyer makes this point in critique of what are called “self-organizational scenarios,” one of the main naturalisitc approaches to explaining the origin of life and the ultimate origin of biological information. These theories attempt precisely to explain the ultimate origin of biological information by refernce to chemical bonding affinities or some physical or chemical law. Meyer demonstrates decisively why these theories cannot work; they fail to explain the basic facts of DNA chemistry and they fail to appreciate the non-redundant, non-repeating nature of functionally specified information. As he explains, laws by definition describe repeating patterns of redundant order. They do not describe aperiodic information-rich complex sequences. Yet, as he notes, the base sequences in functional sections of DNA are not highly repetitive. DNA contains a set of functional biochemical instructions, not an endlessly repeating mantra. A law might generate the latter, but can’t accurately describe or explain the former.

Francis Crick and James Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA

Francis Crick and James Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA

Yet Saunders fails to grasp even the most rudimentary aspect of Meyer’s argument. Here is Saunders very strange reaction to Meyer’s discussion of the facts of DNA chemistry:

Well, I’m not so sure I find this an astonishing insight. In the context of present day DNA and RNA synthesis, the phosphate moieties [i.e., the particular structure of the phosphate molecule] are crucial in the formation of linkage between successive nucleotides.

This citation shows that Saunders has either completely missed or completely ignored the point. Meyer is not talking about the particular features of the phosphates that allow them to form linkages with the nucleobases. He is pointing out the fact that the phosphates can link equally well with any of the four nucleobases. The phosphate moieties have nothing at all to do with which nucleobase links at any particular point on the double-helix, and therefore have nothing at all to do with the arrangement of bases and specified information encoded into the DNA molecule. Thus, Meyer’s point stands: The chemical features of the phosphate do not explain the ultimate origin of information in DNA or the origin of life itself.

If Saunders thinks otherwise, that phosphate moieties do explain the ultimate origin of biological information, I challenge him to publish a scientific paper explaining how they do so, since no one in origin-of-life research has yet proposed this novel idea. Prediction: He will not publish this idea since it obviously has no scientific merit.

There is nothing about these magnetic letters that would cause them to be arranged in any particular order on a refrigerator door. Therefore, when we see them arranged into coherent sentences the best, and most obvious, explanation is intelligent intervention.

Saunders attempts to point out the flaws in Meyer’s premises

Saunders writes: “Meyer’s attempts to infer the existence of intelligent design are somewhat naïve. He summarizes his strategy as Inference to the Best Explanation.“

He then lists Meyer’s “premises” one by one and explains why he thinks they are flawed:

  • Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
  • Saunders reply: (1) There are plenty of chemical and biological mechanisms which can and do increase the quantity of biological information.

This is simply false and Saunders does not mention any mechanisms which create or increase biological information starting from a purely chemical pre-biotic (pre-life) state of affairs. The only thing he could possibly be referring to is the process of Darwinian evolution which, as I pointed out earlier, has nothing to do with what Meyer is talking about. Meyer is talking about the ultimate origin of biological information.

  • Saunders: (2) “Specified Information” is a bogus concept, and one which Meyer never actually defines…This quite clearly illustrates the flaw in Meyer’s reasoning. I don’t believe that linguistic information or computer code are directly analogous to biological information.

It is amazing how transparently self-contradictory this is. In his objection (1) Saunders claims that there are plenty of chemical and biological mechanisms which increase biological information and then in (2) he claims that the concept of “specified biological information” is a non-existent concept! In fact, Meyer spends many pages in the book explaining in detail the nature of “information” and the concept of “specified information.” (Take a look at the index under “specified information.”) It is even more amazing in light of the fact that other Origin of Life researchers understand quite clearly what “specified information” is while Saunders claims to be totally baffled by the concept. Dawkins, in River Out of Eden: “Genes themselves…are living strings of pure digital information…the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like…DNA messages are pure digital code.”  Dr. Paul Davies: “In a living organism we see the power of software, or information processing, refined to an incredible degree…the problem of origin of life reduces to one of understanding how encoded software emerged spontaneously from hardware…how did nature go digital?”  Bill Gates: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”  Biophysicist Manfred Eigen: “Our task is to find an algorithm, a natural law that leads to the origin of information.”  Dr. Hubert Yockey: “Genetic code is constructed to confront and solve the problems of communication and recording by the same principles found…in modern communication and computer codes.”  In short, all Origin of Life researchers understand that the simplest living cell is packed with enormous amounts of specified information and science is at present clueless as to how it originated.

Dr. George Wald, Nobel Prize winning biologist. "I do not want to believe in God" (at least he's honest about it!)

  • Saunders: (3) And finally, science will ultimately continue to generate origin of life hypotheses, some completely undreamt of as yet…even if one were to suppose intelligent design…one would need to identify who or what this designer is, and the means by which this intelligent designer undertook this major design effort.

This, by far, is the most ridiculous of all the assertions made by Saunders. He is, in effect, admitting that Science has no explanation for the origin of life and the huge amounts of information necessary for life to exist, but asks us to have faith that Science will yet discover a purely naturalistic answer to the question. Here Saunders makes it clear that he has shut off his mind from even considering the possibility of Intelligent Design, which is, of course, a theory that is proposed to explain the origin of life.  In the nearly 600 pages of  Signature in the Cell, Dr. Meyer rigorously, meticulously, and painstakingly explains why it is – by any reasonable standard – a valid scientific hypotheses.

It is also crucial to point out that Scientists clearly understand that “unknown” intelligence can be detected. It is not necessary at all “to identify who or what  the designer is”  or “the means” by which the designer performed his task in order to identify intelligent causation. If this were not true what would have been  the point to spending millions of dollars on the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Project? These scientists were looking for patterns of radio-signals from distant galaxies that would indicate some form of intelligent causation. If Morse Code messages were detected originating from a galaxy a million light years away, only someone who had completely lost touch with reality would deny that this was proof of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. If such signals were detected, scientists would not know anything at all about the nature of these intelligent beings. They wouldn’t know who they were,  what they looked like,  how they lived, nor would they necessarily know what means were used to generate the message; in fact, they would not even know if they were physical beings. The only conclusions they could draw would be that they possessed intelligence, consciousness, and creativity.

From all of the above it is clear that the underlying principle which drives Saunders critique is the “leap of faith” dogma which was articulated by Nobel Prize winning biologist George Wald:

When it comes to the origin of life, we have only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God…I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. – Scientific American, August, 1954.

Dr. Saunders, please have the decency to cover your embarrassingly exposed “emperor’s clothing”, your prejudices are showing…but at least you are in good – albeit narrow-minded – company.

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a  regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. Rabbi Averick’s next column will not appear until after the Passover Holidays.

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