Friday, December 30, 2011

Signature in the Cell - Part 1

One Valentine's day a friend dipped his spoon into a bowl of soup and found unexpected resistance. On further investigation he discovered a half-eaten bread roll lurking beneath the broth. With sinking heart he realised the restaurant was reusing crockery without washing to improve the profit margins of the night.

But what to do? Finding an alternative table for two after sunset on February 14th seemed unlikely. He could alert the staff to their error, but his date did not seem the sort to stay in a venue if she knew of such transgressions. His cooking at the time was functional at best - returning to home base would not do. Seeing no other options he smiled, made romantic small-talk, and ate the evidence.

I experienced similar emotions while wading through Signature in the Cell. Despite wishing to stop and having good reasons to do so, I'd made a commitment to review and no honourable avenues of escape presented themselves.

The first fact that will grab you about Meyer's offering is its length. My Kindle felt heavier for its inclusion. At 613 pages you could be forgiven for assuming that Meyer intends to offer in worship a page for every commandment in the Old Testament.

Length is not necessarily a bad thing, and over six hundred pages of tightly written, relevant material would at least console me that I'd obtained value for money. Is that the case?

Take this excerpt:

"As conceived by advocates of the theory [sic], the activity a conscious designing agent in the past constituted a causal event (or series of such events). Moreover, an “intelligent cause” might well have made a causal difference in outcome. The activity of a designing intelligence might account, for example, for the difference between a chaotic prebiotic environment in which simple chemical constituents interacted with each other in accord with natural entropic (randomness-producing) processes and an environment in which systems with highly specific arrangements of chemicals arose that stored information for building proteins and protein machines. Intelligent design could have made a causal difference between continuing chemical chaos and the origin of information-rich molecules."

A concise, useful definition of his hypothesis, marred only by the abuse of the word theory. So where do we find this? On the jacket cover? In the introduction? Chapter one? No, on page 171. Leaving footnotes and bibliography to one side we find ourselves over a third of the way through this defence of intelligent design before Meyer explains what it is he intends to defend.

How does Meyer entertain us before this point?


If you're interested in Meyer to the point of obsession and want to learn of his family holidays you may enjoy the opening chapters. It's a mix of biography, musings, a trimmed history of the ID movement and an accurate if uninsightful summary of the history of investigations into the origins of life, something reproducible by any reasonable undergraduate with a library card. He draws the conclusion that "Darwin did not try to explain the origin of the first life" (we know), that life is complex (we know) and that we don't have a solid explanation of the origins of life (we know!). I began to wonder when I might encounter the controversy of which Meyer speaks so often.

Much as I'd like it to, it's hard for this review to maintain a cohesive narrative as Signature tends to meander from point to point. In the midst of a discussion on the history of origins of life he tries a hamfisted linking of evolution and Marxism, saying that
"Marx himself had corresponded with Darwin, and he thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution put his own theory about how societies evolved on a firm materialistic and scientific footing."- Page 96
This rumour seems to be the product of the fine minds in the Institute for Creation Research. A little digging found it just plain wrong and I grew slightly concerned for the standard of fact checking in this book's preparation.

Even if it were true, what place should it hold in a discussion of science? Meyer is welcome to write a work of philosophy and opinion, but the world of science is one of (primarily) experimental observation. It is certainly not guided by that which we wish to be false.

Despite the odd manifestation of this preference for philosophy, Meyer goes to great lengths to blend in with real scientists. This borderline arrogance appears when he congratulates himself on his likeness to Watson, Crick, Darwin and Einstein. This is also done to bolster support of his experiment free approach to what I'll charitably call science. Examples include:

"Though Watson and Crick were relatively unknown and certainly undercredentialed, they had solved one of the great scientific mysteries of the ages [discovery of the molecular structure of DNA]. Moreover, they achieved this feat not by working their way up through the establishment, which typically involves publishing a series of narrowly focused technical papers based on their own experimental research, but by explaining an array of preexisting evidence in a new and more coherent way. Could a similar approach help to crack the other mystery surrounding DNA, the mystery of how the digital information in the molecule had originated in the first place?"- Page 139

"While working as a patent clerk without access to any experimental apparatus, Einstein rethought the whole framework of modern physics and, in the process, explained many previously confounding factual anomalies."- Page 139

"Charles Darwin also did little experimental science. He did make several descriptive studies of barnacles and worms and some experimental studies about how species spread through seed dispersal and other processes. Yet his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, contains neither a single mathematical equation nor any report of original experimental research. Yet he formulated a great scientific theory."- Page 140

 "But I had other reasons for liking the story of Watson and Crick, and particularly the story of their encounter with Erwin Chargaff, in front of whom they had grievously embarrassed themselves in their headlong attempt to acquire information about the chemical structure of the mystery molecule. During my years in Cambridge and even after, I had a number of similar experiences—although I can’t say I wasn’t warned."
- Page 143
I won't belabour the fact that theoretical physics has a lower requirement for experiment than biology, that publishing Origins did not make evolution a theory, and that Watson and Crick made extensive use of experimental results of other scientists. Instead I'll quote Carl Sagan:

"But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

After this the book moved to listing of theistic scientists. Reminiscent of a biblical geneology he drops impressive names spanning the centuries, their authority intended to bolster Meyer's case even though he gives no indication that they would join his tiny ID movement if they had access to modern scientific knowledge. Then we go through an unnecessarily long discussion of the difference between assessing unique historical events and repeating phenomena. It is always interesting to see IDers straining to avoid drawing any conclusions on their postulated intelligent designer. Take Meyer on the extinction of dinosaurs, an example of a unique historical event:

"As it happens, paleontologists have proposed a theory that cites a causal difference. As an explanation for a variety of evidence, they have inferred that a massive meteorite hit the earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, causing an environmental catastrophe. They postulate that the meteorite impact generated dust and debris that blocked sunlight and cooled the earth, eventually killing the cold-blooded dinosaurs by destroying their food supply. This explanation illustrates Lipton’s conception of a sound causal explanation. It explains one event (the extinction of the dinosaurs) by citing another prior event (the meteorite impact and subsequent environmental catastrophe) as the cause. It also accounts for the difference between what happened (the extinction of the dinosaurs) and what otherwise might have been expected to happen (the dinosaurs continuing to thrive). Indeed, had the meteorite not hit the earth, the dinosaurs would, presumably, have continued to live beyond the Cretaceous period. Thus, the meteorite impact could have made a causal difference. The impact hypothesis also could explain many other evidences—such as the iridium levels in rocks from the period and the presence of an impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula—and so it has broad explanatory power. None of these facts alone prove the hypothesis is correct, but they provide support for it and put it in contention as a possible best explanation."- Note on Page 158

Although couched in language that will allow Meyer to backpedal when seeking funding from young earth creationists it seems reasonable to assume his agreement with the above. It follows necessarily that his designer either intentionally obliterated most of the life on this planet to clear ground for hairless apes, or that we are not an intended consequence of its interventions. Yet the 613 pages are not enough to allow space for any discussion of the designer's intentions.

On to Part 2 ->


hargaden said...

I don't know how you have the patience!

Geoff said...

I'm a failed writer and find it hard to read fiction without overwhelming pangs of jealousy. I also have a Kindle and a longish commute. I also try to read one book I disagree with for every book that supports my positions. Something of a perfect storm really.