It’s a closely-guarded secret that can now be revealed – on Friday, May 14, Steve Matheson and I served as the critics for an event at Biola University the focus of which Stephen Meyer and his book “Signature in the Cell”. (Well, actually, this was the lead-in to some big hoopla about the release of a new Illustra DVD entitled “Darwin’s Dilemma”. But that will have to be the subject of someone else’s writing, since I didn’t go to the screening, nor did I bother to scarf up a DVD.)
It was probably against my better judgment to do this, but I folded this event in with some other, more professorial activities and managed to have a productive and agreeable visit to Biola.
But this blog entry is about the Signature in the Cell event. The format for this was a bit different from your usual debate – thus, after the glitzy Meyer presentation, a panel of hand-selected critics (chosen by the event organizers) would be given opportunities to grill Meyer. In other words, there would be no tit-for-tat here, but rather a one-way exchange of Q&A. This is roughly what transpired, but in a shorter period of time than I expected.
What follows is a recap (from memory – I didn’t bother trying to scribble down notes while everyone was talking) of the proceedings. This is intended as much as anything to convey my own impressions, and should not be mistaken for advice or instructions on how to approach things like this.
Steve Matheson and I found out earlier in the day that the audience would be largely members of the surrounding community (as opposed to mostly Biola students). Although we perhaps didn’t deliberately plan along these lines, I think we were both (well, I sure was) anxious to establish a level of comfort on the stage. Those of you who know me know how I do this – I represent, for the Kentucky Wildcats, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, Boston Bruins, and occasionally my kids’ school teams (Go Scots this week!). Moreover, Steve Matheson and I share the obsession for the Red Sox. So a few introductory remarks and a prominently-displayed logo on Steve’s slides helped to break the ice with the crowd. (Mention of the Celtics really gets a reaction in southern CA.) And it gave the following proceedings a rather friendly, if still adversarial, tone.
It turned out that we had only about an hour for questions – from myself, Steve Matheson, and a few selected ones from the audience or from Twitter. I had prepared six questions for this event, and only got to squeeze in three. My approach to these questions was to focus on specifics in his book, and to raise issues that Meyer likely had not prepared for (and thus would not be able filibuster away in a flurry of philosophical rhetoric, or to give a canned answer). In retrospect, this made for a somewhat confusing conversation, since Meyer often referred to my examples in ways that may have reflected my overly-concise (many would claim cryptic, I suspect) summations of the specific examples I wished to discuss. On the other hand, he was in no position to quibble with the facts. This was especially true for the first and third questions.
The first one was another ice-breaker of sorts – I mentioned my research interest (polyadenylation), my habit of going to the pages in books that deal with gene expression, and finding out what the text says about polyadenylation. Well, Meyer (and the audience!) understood where this was going – there is no mention of the most important process in gene expression in his book! This got some chuckles from the audience (to my surprise and delight) and served as a lead-in to the real question – one that flows from the disconnect between the possible information content of a poly(A) tail (as defined in Meyer’s book) and the multiplicity and significance of the functions of the poly(A) tail. (See footnote 1 for some pertinent links.) Meyer’s response was that the informational aspects of his ideas (which I will kindly call his theory from here on out) related to the digital code in DNA. The function-rich, information-poor poly(A) tail might be explained by some other level of organization or design in the cell. (The latter is a loose paraphrase, and may need correcting if and when a transcript comes out; to be honest, Meyer’s answer was fairly confusing and didn’t seem to me to connect the poly(A) tail with any cellular or design mechanism.)
My second question focused on another omission from the book, and an accompanying disconnect. Followers of the old ARN and ISCID boards know that a favorite subject of mine is the “garbage disposal”; it is a favorite because ID proponents choke on the notion that degradation, in essence throwing perfectly good proteins and nucleic acids away, is a deep-seated and fundamental foundation of life. I posed this for Meyer (and the audience) by explaining that cells throw switches by in essence ripping out the switch (as opposed to flipping it over and over); this is a fair and accessible description of how E3 ubiquitin ligases control gene expression (and many other processes). My “target” for this analogy were the several places in Meyer’s book that claim (or predict) that the machinery and circuitry in cells look like intelligently-designed machinery and circuits, and the subsequent “appeal to the best explanation” for the origins of these things. (Basically, the argument is that we only know of one means by which such complex objects can arise, and that is by design.) I suspect (although I do not know for a fact) that Meyer did not know the systems to which I referred, since his answer was pretty generic. He basically suggested that the analogy that I was attacking indeed may not be a perfect one for making the case for design, but that this wasn’t important because the central subject for the “appeal to the best explanation” was the digital code in DNA. (Meyer danced around this issue, to be honest, but this is what I got to be the gist of his response. It’s possible that his dancing hid a different intended answer.) Given that Meyer actually brings up the machine/circuitry/engineering analogy more than once in his book, I consider this to be a significant concession.
My third question returned to a subject that was raised first by Matheson and then repeated a few times by Meyer – the notion that functional proteins have lots of specified information. I returned to my comfort zone, the polyadenylation apparatus, and pointed out that several aspect of this complex (that I deliberately called irreducibly complex, but without drawing a response) completely contradict the notion that protein function is accompanied by large quantities of specified information. (See footnote 2 for more elaboration of this point.) This may be perceived by some as being a bit unfair – Meyer almost certainly would not know the details of the polyadenylation apparatus, and could not possibly argue about the specifics with someone who is an active researcher in the field. Nonetheless, it was a surprise (to me, at least) that he granted my assertions and intimated that, indeed, it was possible that protein function need not required lots of specified information. (IIRC, he actually stated this in the context of self-assembling systems; I don’t know why he did this, but I am willing to assume that he meant the same complex that I was talking about.) But he argued that some proteins and functions indeed would require lots of information. This seems to me to be another significant concession – if some protein functions do not require lots of specified information, then these should be quite accessible to what ID proponents would call “Darwinian mechanisms”. This concession has lots of ramifications – it renders Doug Axe’s suggestions about the isolation of functional proteins in sequence space somewhat less relevant, and it weakens the case (I suspect an important aspect of “Darwin’s Dilemma”) that a supposed requirement for new proteins during evolution (such as occurred in the Cambrian Explosion) makes such evolution improbable or impossible, at least without intelligent design. More generally, while it may be that absolute statements are not made by ID proponents, I think it important to have ID advocates backing down from claims or even hints that all (or even most) proteins have high specified information contents.
That’s the recap. I haven’t tried to sum up Steve Matheson’s questions or impressions. But I must say that I very much enjoyed meeting Steve Matheson, and that we managed to squeeze in a lot of interesting, non-ID-related professorial and scientific discussions in this short stay.
Footnote 2: There are a number of studies and results that show that aspects of the polyadenylation complex contradict the “function requires lots of specified information” dictum. This essay discusses the involvement of an unstructured protein in the process of polyadenylation. This paper reveals that two functions of another polyadenylation factor subunit can be traced to relatively modest domains; the structure of the mammalian counterparts indicate that one of these (for sure) and likely both are small self-contained structures. (Sequence comparisons reveal significant dissimilarity in these domains and thus are indicative of a relatively low information content; I am helpjng to write a paper that will have this data, and readers will have to accept “in preparation” as the source for this assertion.) Finally, this paper (sorry about the paywall, email me and I will send a reprint) shows that one particular protein-protein contact involves a very small patch of amino acids, far too small to be possessed with lots of specified information.
I mentioned some “professorial” activities that ended up making this trip quite rewarding. One of these was something I volunteered to do once I accepted Biola’s invitation to be on the panel of critics. I knew almost nothing about Biola, and I decided that one thing that would take some of the edge off of this experience would be to offer to give a seminar or lecture to the Biola scientific community. I decided that a lecture would be a better way to interact with students and Biola faculty outside of the adversarial, “us vs. them” atmosphere of the Meyer event. To my great and good fortune, the head of the Apologetics Program (that was organizing the event) forwarded my offer to the science faculty, and I was able to give a lecture to a large and diverse class. The lecture itself was a challenge, and I am not sure how well I pulled it off – the class was a collection of upper-level students who had a lot of biology course background, and younger science majors who had yet to take many (if any) biology classes. I chose to talk about some of the behind-the-scenes developments in plant biology that contributed to the unfolding of the small RNA story. This allowed me to talk about plant biotechnology (something that might interest a first-year student) and small RNAs.
Needless to say, the class reacted very well to my lecture, and I got several excellent and insightful questions throughout the talk. The following interactions I had with my two faculty hosts for the afternoon were also splendid. I was impressed, and I must ashamedly admit pleasantly surprised, by the students and my two hosts. I can only hope that this effort on my behalf allowed the students and their professors to see a “critic” in a different and more complimentary light.