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Stephen Meyer Responds to Michael Shermer’s Falsehoods in the Los Angeles Times

In an op-ed in the March 29 Los Angeles Times Michael Shermer claims that after a recent debate with him at Westminster College I admitted that “suboptimal designs and deadly disease are not examples of an unintelligent or malevolent designer, but instead were caused by “the Fall” in the “Garden of Eden.”

Michael Shermer is misrepresenting my position and putting words in my mouth.

Here’s what happened: at the very end of the question and answer time in the debate a student asked me a question about bad design in nature and whether or not such design showed that the designer of life is malevolent. I explained that there are two cases of alleged bad design that design theorists need to account for–suboptimal design and deadly disease–if they wish to deny the malevolence of the designer. In the first case, I disputed that supposed suboptimal designs were in fact suboptimal. For example, in the debate, Shermer had claimed that the vertebrate retina, with its supposed inverted photoreceptors, constitutes a clear case of suboptimal design. I disputed his argument by showing that there is a good reason for the placement of the photoreceptors in the back of the vertebrate retina. I argued further that the design of the vertebrate retina represented a case of well-optimized design in which an excellent tradeoff of many competing design parameters had been achieved. Thus, it is false to claim, as Shermer does, that I said that “suboptimal designs” were “caused by the fall in the Garden of Eden.” In fact, I disputed his claim that these designs are even suboptimal.

In the second part of my answer I addressed the question of disease. I explained that part of the program of design research was to distinguish the evidence of aboriginal design from the evidence of subsequent decay in biological systems. I had earlier explained that design theorists think diseases arose as the result of the degradation of well-functioning original designs, not from actions that can be directly attributed to a designer. In my answer at the close of the question time, I cited an important biological case that clearly supports this view. I argued that genetic evidence shows that the virulence capacity of Yersinia Pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague, had arisen from (1) a mutational insertion in a master control gene and (2) the expression of genetic information out of its original context as the result of mobile genetic units (plasmids) having entered the bacteria. In short, I gave a scientific answer that attributed deadly disease (in this case the plague) to evolutionary processes that degrade or alter an original design. I did note (correctly) in passing that this observation was consistent with the expectation of many theologians and religious believers who think, based on their understanding of Judeo-Christian doctrine and scripture, that the physical world should show evidence of both design and subsequent decay. But I did not say disease was caused by “the Fall.” I said disease was caused by evolutionary processes of decay such as mutation and the random transmission of mobile genetic units. Instead, it was Shermer who introduced the term “the Fall” into the debate as caricature of my answer to the student’s question.

Indeed, after I had finished my answer to the student, Shermer responded with ridicule saying “that’s it, the Fall, that’s your explanation!” After that there was no further discussion of the concept, nor was there any discussion in any part of the debate about the Garden of Eden, contrary to the claim in Shermer’s LA Times editorial. Indeed, after Shermer’s statement about “the Fall” our hosts ended the debate, we walked across the stage and shook hands.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and The Return of the God Hypothesis (forthcoming in 2020). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.