Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Designby Stephen C. Meyer Published 23 Jun 2009
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“Signature in the Cell is a defining work in the discussion of life’s origins and the question of whether life is a product of unthinking matter or of an intelligent mind. For those who disagree with ID, the powerful case Meyer presents cannot be ignored in any honest debate. For those who may be sympathetic to ID, on the fence, or merely curious, this book is an engaging, eye-opening, and often eye-popping read” — American Spectator
Named one of the top books of 2009 by the Times Literary Supplement (London), this controversial and compelling book from Dr. Stephen C. Meyer presents a convincing new case for intelligent design (ID), based on revolutionary discoveries in science and DNA. Along the way, Meyer argues that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as expounded in The Origin of Species did not, in fact, refute ID. If you enjoyed Francis Collins’s The Language of God, you’ll find much to ponder—about evolution, DNA, and intelligent design—in Signature in the Cell.
"Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design" Reviews
This is a must read for very one interested in the origin of life issues. Steven Meyer's new book, Signature in the Cell, takes the reader on a breath-taking journey through modern scientist's findings that definitively demonstrates the improbability of life arising by chance. Don't miss this journey.
Loaded with references, the Stephen Meyer takes you through his journey of discovery during his lifetime.
Richard William Nelson
In his rather tendentious, often dull, treatise on behalf of Intelligent Design and its potential implications for resolving the mystery of the origin of life, Stephen Meyer has written yet another manifesto of the kind we’ve come to expect from Meyer and his fellow Discovery Institute colleagues; one that is long on style and rather short on substance. In “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design” Meyer contends that Intelligent Design is a better scientific alternative than modern evolutionary theory in explaining the origin of life, and perhaps most notably, offers a series of testable hypotheses in a technically-minded Appendix that could establish Intelligent Design as a viable scientific theory capable of making many important predictions and discoveries in all aspects of biology, especially, for example, in molecular biology and epidemiology. Of course this merely begs the question as to why Intelligent Design advocates like Meyer have waited more than twenty years to proclaim Intelligent Design as a “theory” capable of ushering a scientific revolution as notable as those wrought by Newton’s Classical Mechanics, Einstein’s theories of Relativity, and Planck’s Quantum Mechanics. Where have you been Stephen? Why have you kept us waiting so long for your earth-shattering discoveries that should demonstrate to anyone why Intelligent Design is a better, more comprehensive, explanation than modern evolutionary theory in accounting for the history and current composition of Planet Earth’s biodiversity?
Despite ample claims to the contrary, Meyer’s book is merely an intellectual exercise in smoke and mirrors, aimed at an audience which is either sympathetic to the preposterous claims made by Meyer and his colleagues at the Seattle, WA-based Discovery Institute (more aptly named “Dishonesty Institute” for reasons that will become all too clear shortly) or so impressed with Meyer’s condescending comments about the flaws in “Neo – Darwinian” thought that he must of course be absolutely right. Meyer contends that the most important task for modern evolutionary theory is to discern how – and even why – life originated on Planet Earth. Really? That’s a ridiculous assumption on Meyer’s part, when Darwin – and later, his younger colleague and rival, Wallace – were more interested in discerning what Darwin referred to as the “mystery of mysteries”, in trying to understand how, under natural laws, species undergo “transformations” or rather, “transmutations”, yielding a biosphere truly teeming with life. While the very question of the origin of life is quite an interesting and an important one; it is nonetheless a question more appropriately addressed by chemists, biochemists and geochemists, among others, not by evolutionary biologists (As a former evolutionary biologist myself, I was interested primarily in understanding the patterns and the underlying processes responsible for the rich history of life that is well documented in the Phanerozoic fossil record (approximately the last half billion years) and in the molecular biological evidence found in genomic sequence data. I frankly couldn’t care less whether Yahweh, Mother Goose or the Klingons were somehow responsible for creating life on Planet Earth.).
To help make his case, Meyer relies on the construction of “straw men” by claiming that there are really profound differences between historical sciences like biology and geology with other “experimental” sciences such as chemistry and physics. As a historian and philosopher of science – and as a former geophysicist too - Meyer should know better. There are many notable instances whereby well-conceived experiments have yielded important results confirming long-established scientific principles (or even challenging them) in biology and geology. Our understanding as to how Natural Selection does act on populations has been greatly enriched by such classic experiments as microbiologist Richard Lenski’s ongoing two decade-long laboratory experiment on strains of E. coli – the bacterium found within the human gut – and by evolutionary ecologist John Endler’s classic field experiments on pigmentation in Trinidad guppies. In the 1960s, ecologist Daniel Simberloff – then a graduate student of E. O. Wilson – confirmed via his field experiments several of the important predictions made by Wilson and ecologist Robert MacArthur in their theory of island biogeography.
So should we accept Meyer’s proposition that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory simply because it produces testable hypotheses? What hypotheses? For example, he asserts on Page 489, “Design hypotheses envisioning discrete intelligent action also predict a pattern of fossil evidence showing large discontinuous or ‘quantum’ increases in biological form and information at intervals in the history of life. Advocates of this kind of design hypothesis would expect to see a pattern of sudden appearance of sudden appearance of major forms of life as well as morphological stasis.” Moreover, he claims “…they would also predict a ‘top-down’ pattern of appearance in which large-scale differences in form (‘disparity’ between many separate body plans) emerge suddenly and prior to the occurrence of lower-level (i.e., species and genus) differences in form. Neo-Darwinism and front-loaded hypotheses expect the opposite pattern, a ‘bottom-up’ pattern in which small differences in form accumulate first (differentiating species and genera from each other) and then only much later building to the large-scale differences in form that differentiate higher taxonomic categories such as phyla and classes.”
Granted, life would be a lot simpler for paleontologists and paleobiologists if they heeded Meyer’s most generous advice. We wouldn’t have to worry about long-term persistence of ecological communities replete with morphological stasis of their constituent taxa over considerable spans of geological time or those unfortunate “accidents” known as mass extinctions which have “reshuffled the deck” that is Earth’s biodiversity not just once, but at least seven times over the past five hundred fifty-odd million years. After each of these “accidents” we do see eventual recovery of the Earth’s biosphere via the “bottom-up” pattern that Meyer so clearly disdains. What we don’t see however, is any indication of some Intelligent Designer(s) acting to ensure some kind of restoration of our planet’s biodiversity. All the patterns seen in the fossil record are due to natural laws and processes acting on populations of organisms, not through the direct intervention of Intelligent Designer(s) like Mother Goose, Yahweh or the Klingons.
But what more can we expect from someone like Stephen Meyer or his peers and colleagues at the Discovery Institute? For more than twenty years they have refused to engage meaningfully with the mainstream scientific community, acting under the well-established rules of peer review and journal publication that have been the cornerstones of scientific research and publication for nearly two centuries. Instead, they have resorted to substantial omissions and gross distortions of published scientific data, harsh attacks upon their critics, including censorship (which, for example, Meyer’s friend Bill Dembski tried unsuccessfully with one of my previous Amazon.com reviews critical of Intelligent Design two years ago), and, in one rather notorious instance, outright theft. And while Meyer may insist that his infamous article on the so-called “Cambrian Explosion” published in a most obscure Washington, DC science journal is a classic case of a “Darwinist” witch hunt, the sad fact remains that no Intelligent Design advocate has ever published a scientific paper in which one or more key predictions of Intelligent Design were ever substantiated. Nor will such a paper ever be published, since Intelligent Design has never demonstrated that it is indeed a viable, scientific, alternative to modern evolutionary theory. Instead, the dubious, often scandalous, conduct exhibited by Meyer and his Discovery Institute colleagues should demonstrate to any truly objective reader of their work that they are not genuine scholars, but instead, mendacious intellectual pornographers merely interested in disseminating their religiously-derived “scientific” mendacious intellectual porn. I will concede that Meyer is uncommonly good, but he’s uncommonly good as both a shill for the Dishonesty Institute and as a mendacious intellectual pornographer pretending to be a credible historian and philosopher of science.
(Reposted from my 2009 Amazon review)
The year 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. This caused a lot of reflection about the legacy of Darwin, about what his greatest contribution is thought to be. Although the theory of evolution leaps to mind, many scholars believe that Darwin's legacy is not so much his theory per se but the consequences of his theory: that by providing a completely materialistic account of biological history he refuted the classical argument from design, the idea that nature bears witness to a designing intelligence. Richard Dawkins echoes this sentiment in his book The Blind Watchmaker: "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." The operative word here is "appearance" because it is thought that unguided material processes can counterfeit the appearance of design, that design is in fact illusory.
It is a legitimate question to ask, was Darwin right? Can every appearance of design in biology be accounted for by undirected material processes? With these questions in mind, Stephen Meyer turns his attention to an area of biology that Darwin left unaddressed, and that is the origin of the first life. What was once thought to be a fairly straightforward question in Darwin's day and for almost a century thereafter turned out to be something entirely different with a discovery made by Francis Crick in 1957. Four years after discovering, along with James Watson, the structure of the DNA molecule, Crick formulated his "sequence hypothesis." This was the realization that the four chemical bases along the spine of the DNA molecule functioned just like alphabetical characters in a written language or digital characters in a machine code.
DNA, then, is the carrier of vast amounts of complex specified information. Where did this information come from? To answer this question Meyer utilized the same method of scientific reasoning that Darwin used, and that is one of multiple competing hypotheses. You compare different possible causal explanations to try to explain a given effect or event in the remote past. You evaluate them to see which cause best explains the evidence and then you infer that cause which provides the best explanation. What constitutes the best explanation? According to Darwin it was the one that referred to a cause which is known from our uniform and repeated experience to produce the effect in question. And according to Darwin's scientific mentor, Charles Lyell, the famous geologist, we should be looking for causes now in operation.
Now, an obvious cause of information-rich sequences is intelligence. That is not controversial. Computer programs are designed by programmers, and the similarity between DNA and computer software is uncanny, so certainly here we have a strong appearance of design. We know that intelligence has the causal power to produce information. But perhaps unguided material processes are actually a better explanation for the origin of information in living things. To answer this question Meyer devotes a lengthy part of the book to review the history of chemical evolution, the attempts to explain how life came from non-life, using only unguided material processes. These fall into the categories of chance, necessity, or some combination of the two. After his lengthy survey he concludes that none are satisfactory, and that even Richard Dawkins, "not known for rhetorical restraint in support of evolutionary orthodoxy, candidly admitted in 2008 that 'no one knows' how life arose in the first place" (p.333).
Thus Meyer concludes that, using Darwin's own method, if you look at all the competing classes of causal explanations that have been proposed to explain the origin of information, that intelligent design is the best explanation. Neither chance, law-like necessity, nor the combination of the two have demonstrated the power to produce information. But intelligent agents have repeatedly done so. Now, this principle is conceded by scientists in other fields such as those in the SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. If they were to find information embedded in a radio signal coming from outer space, they would assume it was coming from an intelligence. In any other realm of experience (eg. archeology, forensics, cryptography) when we find the hallmarks of information we readily infer design.
That is the essence of the argument at the first-order level, the level of evidence and reasoning to a conclusion. But with intelligent design the debate is also at the second-order level. This is the level of discussion where the nature of science, knowledge, and rationality are at issue. Frequently it is hard to get to the first-order questions of evidence because people get hung up on the second-order issues. So Meyer devotes the last portion of the book addressing these questions, ones like is intelligent design science? He argues that, since the early 1980's, philosophers of science have rejected demarcation criteria that have been used to distinguish science from pseudo-science because any given demarcation criteria, whether it is observability, explains by natural law, or what have you, if it is applied too stringently it ends up excluding not only intelligent design but also areas that are already accepted as part of science.
Meyer makes the interesting point that insisting that intelligent design is not science merely reclassifies it; it does nothing to answer the question of whether it might be true. We know that both natural and intelligent (or agent) causes are interwoven in our everyday experiences, and we can distinguish between them. How do we know from the outset that only natural causes played a part in the history of biology? Is science to be the search for truth, or merely the search for the best naturalistic explanation?
Those who are willing to concede that design might in principle be empirically detectable, but who nevertheless think that intelligent design is a dead end for science would do well to read this section of the book. Meyer gives a whole host of research questions that are suggested by a design paradigm, some of which are already being pursued. For example, Jonathan Wells has suggested that centrioles, tiny structures involved in cell division, are actually tiny molecular machines, turbines, which possibly malfunction when the abnormal cell division of cancer occurs. This is not a question that occurs to those operating in a evolutionary paradigm, who think of cancer as arising exclusively from mutations in the DNA (p.487).
Meyer lists other testable predictions that intelligent design makes that can be compared to those made by evolutionary science. For example, until fairly recently it was thought that the preponderance of "junk DNA" in the genome was evidence not of design but of undirected evolutionary processes. Design theorists back in the early 1990's, however, predicted that most of this "junk DNA" would in fact turn out to serve useful functions, and that is precisely what we are seeing with recent discoveries.
Design was properly a part of biology prior to 1859. It is ironic that, as Darwin's one long argument in the Origin seemed to render this idea irrelevant except to the eyes of faith, now Stephen Meyer, by using Darwin's own method of argumentation, has made design once again a necessary explanatory concept in the natural world.
For those interested in a summary of Meyer's argument but who get bogged down in this long book, I would recommend a one-hour lecture he gives, entitled "DNA by Design", available on DVD from Access Research Network.
I’m not sure I can say more than what’s already been said about this. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel called it one of the best books of 2009 (albeit, the paperback came out in 2010) and the American Spectator called it a “defining work in the origins debate.” It was really long (around 625 pages, if you include the footnotes), but definitely went beyond what I was expecting. I’m a layman, and therefore can’t think of any wondrous objections to it, but I’m still waiting to see how things turn out as it’s fairly new. Be careful in looking for criticisms though, as some of the people who gave bad remarks about it didn’t actually read it (Jerry Coyne and Fransisco Ayala, to name a few).
i liked the book, i enjoyed reading it, the only problem is that he is wrong.
first, id, is fruitless as a research theory, mostly because it causes the discussion to rise from the science level to the theolological, it is a lot more interesting to discuss the designer than it is to talk about how.
second, is that he is really discussing abiogenesis and through a sleight of hand trick says that this criticism makes the neo-darwinian synthesis suspect. nope, creating the first replicator is not the same thing as evolution.
third is the usual confusion of levels that happens in these discussions. partly it is about what is science and what is metaphysics, partly it's a confusion over the term chance, which straddles the line between these levels.
but the biggest one is that it really is a god of the gaps argument. as a Christian i see everything as the will of God, when it rains on my house and when it doesn't. but as a student of science i find god elusive and invisible, to explain why it didn't rain on my house last night i don't resort to God's nature but to meteorology. but that doesn't challenge my faith that God is in control. but a god of the gaps argument seems to find god only in those ever-diminishing gaps, not everywhere as the final and most important reference.
anyhow, it's good, take the time to read and understand it, a good entry into the debate.
He never touched religion in this, which was a wise move. I have always had a nagging disbelief of evolution and this book with a few others just sealed the deal. Pure science, not big corporate science, will leave evolution in the scrap pile with Marxism and Freud. The fossil record is a joke, you can't test evolution, and the fact the Darwinists get so mad is proof that the legs of evolution are built on sand. Lets move science into the next century and get the atheists out of it.