Meyer Exchange at Whitworth College

Stephen C. Meyer
Discovery Institute, December 12, 2001

A rather interesting exchange has taken place recently at Whitworth College. It began when students of the Whitworthian, the campus newspaper, asked Discovery Senior Fellow and Associate Professor of Philosophy Dr. Stephen Meyer for permission to reprint his op-ed from the which critiqued PBS’s Evolution series. Among other errors, this piece criticized the series promotion of the “universal” genetic code as key evidence in support of Darwinism. Granting his permission, the article ran and was met in the following edition by two letters to the editor. One letter, written collectively by the biology department, declared that the Christian faith and evolution were compatible for the simple reason that they believed it to be so. The second letter, written solely by Professor Jean Pond, was targeted at Meyer’s critique of the “universality” of the genetic code. Pond exclaimed, “That Meyer would imply that the genetic code is anything other than prime evidence favoring evolution is astonishing,” and that “the genetic code is nearly universal in all studied organisms.” She went on to say that “the small changes seen in a few groups fit perfectly with the predictions of evolutionary theory.” At which point she closed with the vitriolic statement that she would “do him the kindness of assuming that he does not know what he talking about.” “The alternative explanation for his words holds a great deal less charm.” Meyer’s letter of response was submitted to the Whitworthian, was subsequently published and is appended below.

Dear Editor,
In her recent response to my editorial about the scientific errors in the recent PBS series Evolution, Jean Pond suggests that my editorial misrepresented a key fact. Whitworthian readers may recall that I criticized the PBS Evolution series for, among other things, claiming that the genetic code is universal and for claiming that this alleged fact establishes Darwin’s theory of universal common ancestry.

Dr. Pond expressed astonishment that “Meyer would claim that the genetic code is anything other than the prime evidence favoring evolution.” She reassured readers that, “the genetic code is nearly universal in all studied organisms” and that “the small changes seen in a few groups fit perfectly with the predictions of evolution theory.”

Yet Pond is wrong on both counts. First, the genetic code is neither universal (as PBS claimed), nor “nearly universal” (as Pond claims). There are now—count them—at least 15 known variants from the standard genetic code that determines amino acid assignments from DNA “codons” during the process of protein synthesis in different living organisms. Whitworth students who wish to verify this claim might check the following website maintained by the National Institutes of Health at:

Secondly, and more importantly, the existence of these variant codes is not consistent with a key prediction derived from Darwin’s theory of universal common ancestry. To see why, imagine typing on a keyboard in which the assignment between the keys and the letters that appear on your screen have been secretly changed. When you hit a specific letter such as an “n,” a different letter such as “t” appears. Or, imagine that every time you hit, say, an “o,” a period and a double space appears on your screen. Now envision submitting such a paper to a professor (without any information about the special new code that your computer used). Will your paper make sense? Will you get a good grade? I doubt it.

In a similar way, changes in the genetic code will inevitably result in the production of some amino acid sequences that will not fold into functional (i.e., biologically meaningful) proteins--much to the detriment of the organism. Indeed, many of the variant codes in nature either insert a “stop” (the equivalent of a period) where, in the standard code, a specific amino acid would have been, or they continue to produce amino acids where previously a “stop” would have been. Both these kinds of changes are hardly trivial from a functional point of view.

Historically, advocates of Darwinian evolution have recognized this extreme functional sensitivity of organisms to any change in codon-amino acid assignments. As a result, they took previous evidence for the universality of the code as prime evidence for Darwin’s theory of universal common descent. Since organisms can’t change their codon-amino acid assignments without deleterious consequences (a.k.a. death), Darwinists reasoned that all organisms must have all evolved from a single organism with a single common code. Thus, the theory of universal common ancestry, implied (or predicted) the existence of a universal code. If there was a single common ancestor, there should be a single common code. And since, until recently, biologists knew of only one code, evidence of the same seemed to support the hypothesis that all life had evolved from a single universal common ancestor.

But what if the code is not universal? Well, it isn’t. Many new variant codes have been discovered. Yet evolutionary biologists have not produced credible new explanations about how any organism could continue to survive while nature tinkered with something as fundamental as the code by which its cells (or organelles) direct protein synthesis.

If a single code implies a single origin of life, do multiple codes imply, by the same logic, multiple separate origins? Not for Dr. Pond. Instead, she, and other contemporary Darwinists, assert that the new evidence for the non-universality of the code (which she minimizes by calling the code “nearly” universal) is just as consistent with Darwinism as our previous incorrect belief in a strictly universal code. Heads they win, tails they win.

If such fulfilled “predictions” seem persuasive to modern Darwinists, then I suppose those of us who do not share their convictions can to do little to dissuade them from their system of belief. But surely by the same token, we are under no obligation to take either their inaccurate factual claims, or their interpretations of these claims, as authoritative statements of the truth.

Stephen C. Meyer
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Director, Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture
Discovery Institute