Review of Meyer, Stephen C. 2004. The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117(2):213-239.
by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R. Elsberry
[The views and statements expressed here are our own and not necessarily those of NCSE or its supporters.]
“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 1989 ID textbook Of Pandas and People, a textbook aimed at inserting ID into public schools. 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 – convincing the scientific community, a route already taken by plate tectonics, endosymbiosis, and other revolutionary scientific ideas – can ID earn 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 scientific 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 may assume that Meyer, Program 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 cannot review every problem with Meyer’s article in this initial post, but we would like to highlight some of the most serious mistakes. These include errors in facts and reasoning. Even more seriously, Meyer’s paper omits discussion or even 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: 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, just as in 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, how, and why. Only a reasonably detailed model could provide explanatory hypotheses that can be empirically tested. “An unknown intelligent designer did something, somewhere, somehow, for no apparent reason” is not a model.
Meyer’s paper, therefore, is almost entirely based on negative argument. He focuses upon the Cambrian explosion as an event he thinks that 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. Not every aspect of Meyer’s work can be addressed in this initial review, so we have chosen several of Meyer’s major claims to assess. 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.
An expanded critique of this paper is in preparation.
Playing with Dynamite: The Cambrian Explosion
The Cambrian explosion is a standard topic for antievolutionists. There are several reasons for this: many taxa make their first appearance in the Cambrian explosion; the amount of time within the period of the Cambrian explosion is geologically brief; and we have limited evidence from both within and before the Cambrian explosion on which to base analysis. The first two factors form the basis of an antievolutionary argument that evolutionary processes are insufficient to generate the observed range of diversity within the limited time available. The last factor is a general feature of the sorts of phenomena that antievolutionists prefer: not enough evidence has yet accrued to single out a definitive scientific account, so it is rhetorically easy for a pseudoscientific “alternative” to be offered as a competitor. In Meyer’s closing paragraph, he mentions “experience-based analysis.” The consistent experience of biologists is that when we have sufficient evidence bearing upon some aspect of biological origins, evolutionary theories form the basis of explanation of those phenomena (an example where much evidence has become available recently is the origin of birds and bird flight; see Gishlick 2004).
Problems with Meyer’s discussion of the Cambrian Explosion:
Meyer tries to evaluate morphological evolution by counting taxa, a totally meaningless endeavor for investigating the evolution of morphology. Most paleontologists gave up taxa-counting long ago and moved on to more useful realms of research regarding the Cambrian (see Budd and Jensen 2000). This is perhaps why most of Meyer’s citations for this section are to his own articles (themselves not in relevant scientific journals).
Meyer repeats the claim that there are no transitional fossils for the Cambrian phyla. This is a standard ploy of the Young-Earth Creationists (see Padian and Angielczyk 1999 for extended discussion of this tactic and its problems). Meyer shows a complete lack of understanding of both the fossil record and the transitional morphologies it exhibits (even during the Cambrian explosion; for a recent example of transitional forms in the Cambrian explosion see Shu et al. 2004) as well as the literature he himself cites. (This topic has been dealt with before, as with DI Fellow Jonathan Wells. See Gishlick 2002 at http://www.ncseweb.org/icons/icon2tol.html.)
Meyer attempts to argue that the “gaps” in the fossil record reflect an actual lack of ancestors for Cambrian phyla and subphyla. To support this, Meyer cites some papers by University of Chicago reasearcher Mike Foote. However, of the two papers by Foote cited by Meyer, neither deals with the Cambrian/Precambrian records (one concerns the Middle and Late Paleozoic records of crinoids and brachiopods, the other the Mesozoic record of mammal clade divergence), or even transitional fossils. Foote’s papers deal with issues of taxonomic sampling: How well does a fossil record sample for a given time period reflect the biodiversity of that period? How well does a given fossil record pinpoint divergence times? Foote’s conclusions are that we have a good handle on past biodiversity, and that divergence times probably match appearance in the fossil record relatively closely. But Foote’s work utilizes organisms that are readily preserved. It doesn’t deal with organisms that aren’t readily preserved, a trait that almost certainly applies to the near-microscopic, soft-bodied ancestors of the Cambrian animals. According to Meyer’s argument, which doesn’t take into account preservation potential, microscopic metazoans such as rotifers must have arisen recently because they entirely lack a fossil record. Neither of Foote’s papers supports Meyer’s contention that the lack of transitional fossils prior to the Cambrian indicates a lack of ancestors. Lastly, it appears that fossils of the long-hypothesized small, soft-bodied precambrian worms have recently been discovered (Chen et al. 2004).
Information and Misinformation
For some, “information theory” is simply another source of bafflegab. And that appears to be the only role Meyer sees for “information theory”. After brief nods to Shannon and algorithmic information theory, Meyer leaves the realm of established and accepted information theoretic work entirely.
Meyer invokes Dembski’s “specified complexity”/”complex specified information” (SC/CSI) as somehow relevant to the Cambrian explosion. However, under Dembski’s technical definition, CSI is not just the conjoint use of the nontechnical words “specified” (as in “functional”) and “complexity”, as Meyer erroneously asserts. According to Dembski’s technical definition, improbability of appearance under natural causes is part of the *definition* of CSI. Only after one has determined that something is wildly improbable under natural causes can one conclude that something has CSI. You can’t just say, “boy, that sure is specific and complicated, it must have lots of CSI” and conclude that evolution is impossible. Therefore, Meyer’s waving about of the term “CSI” as evidence against evolution is both useless for his argument, and an incorrect usage of Dembski (although Dembski himself is very inconsistent, conflating popular and technical uses of his “CSI,” which is almost certainly why Meyer made this mistake. See here for examples of definitional inconsistency.).
Meyer relies on Dembski’s “specified complexity,” but even if he used it correctly (by rigorously applying Dembski’s filter, criteria, and probability calculations), Dembski’s filter has never been demonstrated to be able to distinguish anything in the biological realm – it has never been successfully applied by anyone to any biological phenomena (Elsberry and Shallit, 2003).
Meyer claims, “The Cambrian explosion represents a remarkable jump in the specified complexity or ‘complex specified information’ (CSI) of the biological world.” Yet to substantiate this, Meyer would have to yield up the details of the application of Dembski’s “generic chance elimination argument” to this event, which he does not do. There’s small wonder in that, for the total number of attempted uses of Dembski’s CSI in any even partially rigorous way number a meager four (Elsberry and Shallit, 2003).
Meyer claims, “One way to estimate the amount of new CSI that appeared with the Cambrian animals is to count the number of new cell types that emerged with them (Valentine 1995:91-93)” (p.217). This may be an estimate of something, and at least signals some sort of quantitative approach, but we may be certain that the quantity found has nothing to do with Dembski’s CSI. The quantitative element of Dembski’s CSI is an estimate of the probability of appearance (under natural processes or random assembly, as Dembski shifts background assumptions opportunistically), and has nothing to do with counting numbers of cell types.
Of Text and Peptides
Meyer argues that “many scientists and mathematicians have questioned the ability of mutation and selection to generate information in the form of novel genes and proteins” (p. 218). He makes statements to this effect throughout the paper. Meyer does not say who these scientists are, and in particular does not say whether or not any of them are biologists. The origin of new genes and proteins is actually a common, fairly trivial event, well-known to anyone who spends a modicum of effort investigating the scientific literature. The evolution of new genes has been observed in the lab, in the wild, inferred in great detail between closely-related modern species, and reconstructed in hundreds of cases by comparing the genomes from organisms sequenced in genome projects over the last decade (see Long 2001 and related articles, and below).
Meyer compares DNA sequences to human language. In this he follows Denton’s (1986) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Denton (1986) argued that meaningful sentences are isolated from each other: it is usually impossible to convert one sentence to another via a series of random letter changes, where each intermediate sentence has meaning. Like Denton (1986), Meyer applies the same argument to gene and protein sequences, concluding that they, like meaningful sentences, must have been produced by intelligent agents. The analogy between language and biological sequence is poor for many reasons; starting with the most obvious point of disanalogy, proteins can lose 80% or more of their sequence similarity and retain the same structure and function (a random example is here). Let’s examine an English phrase where four out of five characters have been replaced with a randomly generated text string. See if you can determine the original meaning of this text string:
Tnbpursutd euckilecuitn tiioismdeetneia niophvlgorciizooltccilhseema er 
Eighty percent loss of sequence identity is fatal to English sentences. Clearly proteins are much less specified than language.
Meyer cites Denton (1986) unhesitatingly. This is surprising because, while Denton advocated in 1986 that biology adopt a typological view of life, he has abandoned this view (Denton 1998). Among other things, Denton wrote, “One of the most surprising discoveries which has arisen from DNA sequencing has been the remarkable finding that the genomes of all organisms are clustered very close together in a tiny region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be interconverted via a series of tiny incremental natural steps.” (p. 276) Denton now accepts common descent and disagrees with the “intelligent design” advocates who conjecture the special creation of biological groups, regularly criticizing them for ignoring the overwhelming evidence (Denton 1999).
Meyer’s case that the evolution of new genes and proteins is essentially impossible relies on just a few references from the scientific literature. For example, Meyer references Taylor et al. 2001, a paper entitled “Searching sequence space for protein catalysts” and available online at the PNAS website. But Taylor et al.’s recommendation for intelligent protein design is actually that it should mimic natural evolution: “[A]s in natural evolution, the design of new enzymes will require incremental strategies…”.
There is a large mass of evidence supporting the view that proteins are far less “specified” than Meyer asserts. Fully reviewing this would require an article in itself, and would be somewhat beside the point since Meyer’s claim is categorically disproven by the recent origin of novel genes by natural processes. (Another way in which “experience-based analysis” leads one to conclusions other than those Meyer asserts.) However, some idea of the diversity of protein solutions to any given enzymatic “problem” is given at the NCBI’s Analogous Enzymes webpage, which includes hundreds of examples. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there are many more ways to evolve a solution to any given functional “problem” in biology.
The origin of novel genes/proteins
Meyer makes his case that evolution can’t produce new genes in complete neglect of the relevant scientific literature documenting the origin of new genes.
- A central claim of Meyer’s is that novel genes have too much “CSI” to be produced by evolution. The first problem with this is that Meyer does not demonstrate that genes have CSI under Dembski’s definition (see above). The second problem is that Meyer cites absolutely none of the literature documenting the origin of new genes. For example, Meyer missed the recent paper in Current Opinion in Genetics and Development with the unambiguous title, “Evolution of novel genes.” The paper and 183 related papers can be found here. Many other references can be found linked from here.
It is worth listing a few in-text to make crystal-clear the kinds of references that Meyer missed:
Copley, S. D. (2000). “Evolution of a metabolic pathway for degradation of a toxic xenobiotic: the patchwork approach.” Trends Biochem Sci 25(6): 261-265. PubMed
Harding, M. M., Anderberg, P. I. and Haymet, A. D. (2003). “‘Antifreeze’ glycoproteins from polar fish.” Eur J Biochem 270(7): 1381-1392. PubMed
Johnson, G. R., Jain, R. K. and Spain, J. C. (2002). “Origins of the 2,4-dinitrotoluene pathway.” J Bacteriol 184(15): 4219-4232. PubMed
Long, M., Betran, E., Thornton, K. and Wang, W. (2003). “The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and old.” Nat Rev Genet 4(11): 865-875. PubMed
Nurminsky, D., Aguiar, D. D., Bustamante, C. D. and Hartl, D. L. (2001). “Chromosomal effects of rapid gene evolution in Drosophila melanogaster.” Science 291(5501): 128-130. PubMed
Patthy, L. (2003). “Modular assembly of genes and the evolution of new functions.” Genetica 118(2-3): 217-231. PubMed
Prijambada I. D., Negoro S., Yomo T., Urabe I. (1995). “Emergence of nylon oligomer degradation enzymes in Pseudomonas aeruginosa PAO through experimental evolution.” Appl Environ Microbiol. 61(5):2020-2. PubMed
Ranz, J. M., Ponce, A. R., Hartl, D. L. and Nurminsky, D. (2003). “Origin and evolution of a new gene expressed in the Drosophila sperm axoneme.” Genetica 118(2-3): 233-244. PubMed
Seffernick, J. L. and Wackett, L. P. (2001). “Rapid evolution of bacterial catabolic enzymes: a case study with atrazine chlorohydrolase.” Biochemistry 40(43): 12747-12753. PubMed
Meyer cites Axe (2000) as a counter to the evolutionary scenario of successive modifications of genes leading to new protein products. But Axe (2000) is not in any sense about “successive modifications”; Axe modified proteins in several locations at a time. ID advocates love to cite certain Axe papers that indicate that functional proteins are rare in sequence space, but not others that indicate the opposite (Axe et al., 1996). Axe apparently said in 1999 that his work had no relevance to intelligent design.
Meyer portrays protein function as all-or-nothing. But protein function is not all-or-nothing. Recent research highlights several evolutionary mechanisms “tinkering” with existing genes to arrive at new genes (Prijambada et al. 1995; Long 2001). But you won’t learn about that from Meyer.
As far as we can tell, Meyer uses the word “duplication” or something similar only twice in the entire 26-page article. One of these usages is in the references, in the title of an article referring to centriole duplication. The other is on p. 217, where Meyer introduces the genes-from-unnecessary DNA scenario. However, he subsequently ignores duplicated functional genes in this section and focuses on the origin of genes from noncoding DNA. Duplication really belongs with Meyer’s section on the second evolutionary scenario, the origin of genes from coding DNA. There, Meyer argued that the origin of new genes from old genes was impossible because such a process would mess up the function of the old genes. If he had put it there, he would have revealed the existence of the extremely simple, and already well-known, solution to the problem that he posed, namely, gene duplication (Lynch and Conery, 2000, 2003).
Meyer relies heavily on a new paper by Axe published in the Journal of Molecular Biology. Meyer alleges that Axe (2004) proves that, “the probability of finding a functional protein among the possible amino acid sequences corresponding to a 150-residue protein is similarly 1 in 10^77.” But Axe’s actual conclusion is that the number is “in the range of one in 10^77 to one in 10^53” (Axe 2004, p. 16). Meyer only reports the lowest extreme. One in 10^53 is still a small number, but Meyer apparently didn’t feel comfortable mentioning those 24 orders of magnitude to his reader. A full discussion of Axe (2004) will have to appear elsewhere, but it is worth noting that Axe himself discusses at length the fact that the results one gets in estimating the density of functional sequences depend heavily on methods and assumptions. Axe uses a fairly restricted “target” in his study, which gives a low number, but studies that just take random sequences and assay them just for function – which Meyer repeatedly insists is all that matters in biology – produce larger numbers (Axe 2004, pp. 1-2). 
We would like to pose a challenge to Meyer. There are a large number of documented cases of the evolutionary origin of new genes (again, a sample is here). We challenge Meyer to explain why he didn’t include them, or anything like them, in his review. We invite readers to wait to see whether or not Meyer ever addresses them at a later date and whether he can bring himself to admit that his most common, most frequent, and most central assertion in his paper is wildly incorrect and widely known to be so in the scientific literature. These points should not be controversial: even Michael Behe, the leading IDist and author of Darwin’s Black Box, admits that novel genes can evolve: “Antibiotics and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in fish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism.” (Behe 2004, p. 356)
If we might be permitted a prediction, Meyer or his defenders will respond not by admitting their error on this point, but by engaging in calculated obfuscation over the definition of the words “novel” and “fundamentally.” They will then assert that, after all, yes, evolution can produce new genes and new information, but not “fundamentally new genes.” They will never clarify what exactly counts as fundamental novelty.
The origin of morphological novelty is also a large topic with an extensive literature, but unfortunately we can only discuss a limited number of topics in any depth here. To pick two issues, Meyer fails to incorporate any of the work on the origin of morphological novelties in geologically recent cases where evidence is fairly abundant, and Meyer also fails to discuss the crucial role that cooption plays in the origin of novelty. Below is a small sampling of the kinds of papers that Meyer would have had to address in this field in order to even begin to make a case that evolution cannot produce new morphologies:
Ganfornina M. D., Sanchez D. 1999. “Generation of evolutionary novelty by functional shift.” Bioessays. 21(5):432-9. PubMed
Mayr, E. 1960. “The Emergence of Evolutionary Novelties.” in Evolution After Darwin: Volume 1: The Evolution of Life: Its Origin, History, and Future, Sol Tax, ed. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. pp. 349-380.
Pellmyr, O. and Krenn, H. W., 2002. “Origin of a complex key innovation in an obligate insect-plant mutualism.” PNAS. 99(8):5498-5502. PubMed
Prum, R. O. and Brush, A. H., 2002. “The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers.” Q Rev Biol. 77 (3), 261-295. PubMed
True, J. R. and Carroll, S. B., 2002. “Gene co-option in physiological and morphological evolution.” Annu Rev Cell Dev Biol. 18, 53-80. PubMed
Mayr’s paper in particular is a well-known introduction to the topic. He emphasized the important role of change-of-function for understanding the origin of new structures. In his conclusion he wrote,
“The emergence of new structures is normally due to the acquisition of a new function by an existing structure. In both cases the resulting ‘new’ structure is merely a modification of a preceding structure. The selection pressure in favor of the structural modification is greatly increased by a shift into a new ecological niche, by the acquisition of a new habit, or by both. A shift in function exposes the fully formed ‘preadapted’ structure to the new selection pressure. This, in most cases, explains how an incipient structure could be favored by natural selection before reaching a size and elaboration where it would be advantageous for a new role.” (p. 377-378)
Mayr wrote this in 1960, at the sprightly age of 56, but it applies rather well to discoveries about the origin of new genes and new morphological structures made in the last few decades. Most new genes and new structures are derived by change-of-function from old genes and old structures, often after duplication. Many other terms are used in the evolutionary literature for this process (Mayr’s “preadaptation”, replaced by “exaptation” by Gould; cooption; functional shift; tinkering; bricolage; see e.g. the commonly-cited essay by Jacob 1977 for a discussion of the “tinkering” analogy for evolution), but none of them appear in Meyer’s essay.
The Power of Negative Thinking
Negative argumentation against evolutionary theories seems to be the sole scientific content of “intelligent design”. That observation continues to hold true for this paper by Meyer.
Meyer gives no support for his assertion that PE proponents proposed species selection to account for “large morphological jumps”. (Use of the singular, “punctuated equilibrium”, is a common feature of antievolution writing. It is relatively less common among evolutionary biologists, who utilize the plural form, “punctuated equilibria”, as it was introduced by Eldredge and Gould in 1972.)
Meyer makes the 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 is a theory about speciation. It is an application of Ernst Mayr’s theory of allopatric speciation – a theory at the core of the Modern Synthesis – to the fossil record. Any discussion of PE that doesn’t mention allopatric speciation or something similar is ignoring the concept’s original meaning.
Meyer also makes the 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. PE is about the pattern of speciation observed in the fossil record, not about taxa other than species.
Meyer makes the false claim that genetic algorithms require a “target sequence” to work. Meyer cites two of his own articles as the relevant authority in this matter. However, when one examines these sources, 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 in the two essays. Meyer bases his denunciation of genetic algorithms as a field upon a superficial examination of two cases. 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. Whole fields of evolutionary computation are completely overlooked by Meyer. Two citations relevant to Meyer’s claims are Chellapilla and Fogel (2001) and Stanley and Miikkulainen (2002). (That Meyer overlooks Chelapilla and Fogel 2001 is even more baffling given that Dembski 2002 discussed the work.) Bibliographies for the entirely neglected fields of artificial life and genetic programming are available at these sites:
A bibliography of genetic algorithms and artificial neural networks is available here.
On the Other Hand: the View Meyer Fails to Consider
When Meyer states that a massive increase in information is required to create all the body plans of the living “phyla” he is implying that evolution had to go from a single celled creature to a complex metazoan in one step, which would be impossible. But the origin of metazoans is not a case of zero to metazoan instantly. Rather, it involves a series of incremental morphological steps. These steps become apparent when the evolution of the major clades of metazoan life is viewed in a phylogenetic context. The literature using this phylogenetic perspective is extensive if Meyer wanted to investigate it (for example see Grande and Rieppel eds. 1994, Carroll 1997, Harvey et al. eds. 1996). Certainly an acknowledgment of such literature is crucial if one is going to discuss these topics in a scholarly article, even if it was to criticize it. No discussion of an evolutionary innovation would be complete without reference to the phylogeny, and yet we find not one in Meyer’s 26 page opus.
Perhaps the glaring absence of phylogenies owes to Meyer’s lack of acceptance of common descent, or perhaps it is because when the relationships of the ‘phyla’ are seen in a phylogenetic context, one readily sees that all of the complex developmental and morphological features that diagnose the extant clades need not arise simultaneously. Rather, they are added incrementally. First one cell type, then three, multiple body layers, and bilateral symmetry. At this point you have a “worm” and all the other bauplans are basically variations on the worm theme. There are worms with guts, and worms with muscles, worms with segments, worms with appendages, and even worms with a stiff tube in them (this last would be us).
Missing from Meyer’s picture is any actual discussion of the origins of metazoan development. Reading Meyer, one would think that it is a giant mystery, but the real mystery is why Meyer does not reference this huge area of research.
Meyer implies that the lack of specificity of development in genes is a surprising problem for evolution, yet it is well known and it is widely recognized that development is coordinated by epigenetic interactions of various cell lineages. Meyer treats this fact as if it were some mysterious phenomenon requiring a designer to input information. But, just as the ordered structure of convection cells in is boiling pot of water is not a mystery to physicists even though it is not specified by the shapes of the component water molecules, neither are developmental programs to biologists. The convection cells are an emergent property of the interactions of the water molecules, just as the growth of organismal form is an emergent property of the interactions of cell lineages.
It is thought that metazoan development arose by competition between variant cell lineages that arose during ontogeny, and thus its organization remains in the epigenetic interactions of the various cell lineages (Buss 1987). This was extensively documented by Leo Buss in 1987, but Meyer somehow failed to mention this seminal work on the origin of metazoan development.
Understanding the interactions of lineages and their various reciprocal inductions is crucial to understanding the evolution of metazoan development and bodyplans. The study of this forms the basis for the entire field of evolutionary and developmental biology, Meyer acts like this field doesn’t even exist, while citing sparingly from some of its works. Also absent is any discussion of the difference between sorting and selection (see Vrba and Gould 1986). The difference is crucial: sorting at one level does not imply selection, but rather may be the result of selection at an entirely different level of the organismal hierarchy. Meyer appears to be completely unaware of this distinction when criticizing the inability of selection to create new morphologies. In some cases novelty at one level in the hierarchy may result when selection occurs somewhere else in the hierearchy: the emergent morphology may actually be the result of a sorting cascade, rather than direct selection. The evolution of metazoan bodyplans involved an exchange between selection at the level of the individual and at the level of the cell lineage, which was sorted through developmental interactions (Buss 1987) .
Finally, any discussion of development and evolution would not be complete without dealing with the effects of heterochrony on form, and here too we find relevant citations glaringly absent despite the prominent place of heterochrony in the literature going back to de Beer. This is 60 years of research missed by Meyer. (The oversight is worse when one considers various contributing ideas in development that date back to von Baer.)
Meyer repeatedly appeals to the notion of an ur-cell metazoan ancestor that had all the genetic potentiality of the different metazoan bauplanes. The reference to this hypothetical super-ancestor is as popular with creationists as it is erroneous to biologists. While biologists have at times proposed a need for such an ur-cell, this is no longer particularly in vogue, because the recognition of hierarchy and epigenetic processes and has removed the need for an all-encompassing ancestor.
There are many hierarchies that need to be separated. There is the phylogenetic hierarchy (the order of character acquisition in time), the developmental hierarchy (the order of cell differentiation) and the structural hierarchy (the position of various parts in an organism). Meyer muddles all of these together and treats them like they are all the same thing, but they are not.
A Long Walk Off a Short Peer Review
The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW) is a respected, if somewhat obscure, biological journal specializing in papers of a systematic and taxonomic nature, such as the description of new species. A review of issues in evolutionary theory is decidedly not its typical fare, even disregarding the creationist nature of Meyer’s paper. The fact that the paper is both out of the journal’s typical sphere of publication, as well as dismal scientifically, raises the question of how it made it past peer review. The answer probably lies in the editor, Richard von Sternberg. Sternberg happens to be a creationist and ID fellow traveler who is on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group at Bryan College in Tennessee. (The BSG is a research group devoted to the determination of the created kinds of Genesis. We are NOT making this up!) Sternberg was also a signatory of the Discovery Institute’s “100 Scientists Who Doubt Darwinism” statement.  Given R. v. Sternberg’s creationist leanings, it seems plausible to surmise that the paper received some editorial shepherding through the peer review process. Given the abysmal quality of the science surrounding both information theory and the Cambrian explosion, it seems unlikely that it received review by experts in those fields. One wonders if the paper saw peer review at all.
Although this critique has focused on the scientific problems with Meyer’s paper, it may be worth briefly considering the political dimensions, as the paper is likely to become part of the ID creationists’ lobbying machine. The paper has been out since early August, so it is somewhat puzzling that the Discovery Institute and similar groups have yet to publicize this major event for ID theory. Are they embarrassed at its sub-par (even by ID standards) content, or are they are waiting to spring it on some unsuspecting scientist at a future school board meeting or state legislature hearing? Regardless, once the press releases start to fly, responses to the paper should be careful to not assume facts not in evidence (such as the review, or lack thereof, of Meyer’s paper), and should be careful to distinguish between issues that are scientifically important and unimportant. Whether or not editorial discretion was abused in order to enable “intelligent design” to make a coveted appearance in the peer-reviewed scientific literature is not currently known, and is at any rate not the most important issue. The important issue is whether or not the paper makes any scientific contribution: does it propose a positive explanatory model? If the paper is primarily negative critique, does it accurately review the science it purports to criticize? The fact that a paper is shaky on these grounds is much more important than the personalities involved. Intemperate responses will only play into the hands of creationists, who might use these as an excuse to say that the “dogmatic Darwinian thought police” are unfairly giving Meyer and PBSW a hard time. Nor should Sternberg be given the chance to become a “martyr for the cause.” Any communication with PBSW should focus upon the features that make this paper a poor choice for publication: its many errors of fact, its glaring omissions of relevant material, and its misrepresentations of the views that it does consider.
The ultimate test of the value of a peer-reviewed paper is whether it spawns actual research and convinces skeptics. Applicability and acceptance in science, not in politics, is the ultimate test of proposed scientific ideas. As we have stated before, all ID advocates have to do is demonstrate to scientists that they have something that works. They need a positive research program showing scientists that ID has more to offer than “Poof, ID did it.”
There is nothing wrong with challenging conventional wisdom – continuing challenge is a core feature of science. But challengers should at least be aware of, read, cite, and specifically rebut the actual data that supports conventional wisdom, not merely construct a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations. Unless and until the “intelligent design” movement does this, they are not seriously in the game. They’re not even playing the same sport.
As we have said, the errors in this paper are too numerous to document more than a few here. We invite readers to find more mistakes and misrepresentations in this work and add them to our comments section, and/or email them to us to add to the full online critique.
The original phrase was: “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories”, the title of Meyer’s paper. The random text was generated at the random text generator webpage: http://barnyard.syr.edu/monkey.html
Page numbers for Axe (2004) in this section refer to the in press, pre-publication version of Axe’s paper availabe on the JMB website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jmb.2004.06.058.
As mentioned previously, Meyer is the directory the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Meyer’s reported affiliation on the PBSW paper is to Palm Beach Atlantic University, which requires all faculty to affirm the following statement:
To assure the perpetuation of these basic concepts of its founders, it is resolved that all those who become associated with Palm Beach Atlantic as trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe…that man was directly created by God.
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