Meyer and Thaxton ask one question and answer another

[Photo of Chekhov and Tolstoy discussing literature]
Chekhov(L) and Tolstoy(R). Were they discussing the origin of the book?

An article at the Discovery Institute’s website Evolution News reprints a tribute that Stephen Meyer paid to Charles Thaxton, in a preface Meyer wrote to a memoir by Thaxton.

During a session on the origin of life, the scientists discussed a question I had never considered: Where did the information stored in the DNA molecule come from?


On February 10, 1985, I learned I wasn’t the only one. On that day I found myself sitting in front of eight world-class scientists, who were discussing the vexing scientific and philosophical question: How did the first life on earth arise?

Um, different question!

The “information stored in the DNA molecule” is of course the precise sequence of bases. Not the existence of the molecule in the first place. And there are well-known evolutionary processes that are capable of putting adaptive information into the molecule by choosing particular bases at each site. They continue to happen long after the origin of life.

Let me explain:

It is very much like someone saying that to explain the information stored in some computer memory, what we have to discuss is how the computer came to exist. No, we don’t.

If we compare a novel by Leo Tolstoy to a set of short stories by Anton Chekhov, what is of interest is not how books came to be invented, or how the particular binding, fonts, and physical format were chosen. The two works might be very much the same in those respects, but they of course will be very different in the sequence of letters in the books. And that is where the information is that makes them different, and makes both of them remarkable. In the photo above we see Chekhov(L) with Tolstoy(R), when Tolstoy visited Chekhov’s dacha in 1900. The two authors had much to discuss about their writings, and those of others. But I doubt they spent much of that time discussing how and where books first arose.

Most of Meyer’s piece concentrates on the origin of life, and does not at all discuss how the information in the DNA got there. Why does Meyer insist on describing that as the issue? Is there some big mystery? Are the ordinary processes of evolution, such as natural selection and mutation somehow incapable, in principle, of putting into the DNA information that leads to the organism being well-adapted?

Differences in the sequences in DNA (or RNA) genomes can lead to differences in phenotype. And those differences in phenotype can lead to differences in function, and thus differences in fitness. The sequences with higher fitness will tend to increase in frequency. The genotypes in the population come to be better adapted. When we use the scale of fitness as a specification, the functional information in the genome then increases. There is no mystery as to how this can happen, no proof that improved adaptation is somehow impossible in principle.

Misunderstanding or misdirection?

Advocates of ID and creationists often avoid talking about how changes of DNA sequence by mutation and by changes of gene frequency of the resulting DNA sequences increase the functional information in the DNA. They usually immediately change the subject to the Origin Of Life. I like to call this change of topic OTOOL (Off To the Origin Of Life), or STOOL (Switch To the Origin Of Life). It is moving to a much-less-well-understood topic, one where Design Intervention can be invoked.

They often say that they do not question the processes of “microevolution”, including mutation, natural selection, gene flow, and genetic drift. Yet these processes can easily be shown to put functional information into the pool of genomes.

That’s what Stephen Meyer does in the Preface to Thaxton’s book, the one quoted in his piece in Evolution News. It’s the old switcheroo once again. When Meyer raises the issue of how the information comes to be in the DNA, he immediately does the old familiar change-of-topic. If he does not mean to deliberately switch the topic, then he is giving a strong indication that he simply does not understand what the functional information in DNA is.

In the echo chamber

Of course, as usual, at Uncommon Descent, the Meyer/Thaxton article is taken very seriously, and quoted at length, with no recognition that the origin of the information in the DNA might be a different issue from the origin of the first DNA molecule. The post is authored by “Caspian”, who the site identifies as its regular poster, physicist Eric Hedin. He ought to have a good grasp of information theory. Is it too much to ask whether the site might someday distinguish between these two questions? Apparently so.