Two analyses of Meyer's "Signature in the Cell"

Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell is the latest entry in the “it’s too complicated to have occurred naturally, therefore ID” genre. Signature joins Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution as the modern-day instances of that strain of argument coming out of the Disco ‘Tute. Paley’s 1802 Natural Theology, of course, is the prototype of that genre.

There have been a number of reviews of the book, some of them favorable (e.g., Thomas Nagel’s controversial plug for it as a 2009 “Book of the year”) and some less so, e.g., Darrell Falk’s review on BioLogos. However I know of no reviews in scientific journals or popular science magazines like Scientific American. (A lawyer reviewed it in American Spectator, though. That’s the same rag that published Wells’ Survival of the Fakest, used by John Freshwater as support for his proposal to pollute the science curriculum in my school district.)

Almost all of the reviews I’ve seen, laudatory or critical, are from theists. And a couple of theists, both scientists, are blogging their way through the book–well, actually, one has finished and one is still in progress. On the new American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) Book Discussion board Randy Isaac, ASA Executive Director, a physicist, has just finished a long series of posts on the book (the link is to the first page of posts; there are three pages). Steve Matheson, a developmental biologist at Calvin College, is up to Chapter 8 (Matheson’s whole series to this point is in this list, along with a few non-Signature reviews as well). I recommend both series of posts to your attention.

Some stray remarks on them below the fold.

On the ASA Book Discussion blog, in addition to slogging through the book itself, Randy Isaac spent 13 posts on a dozen ID predictions Meyer laid out in an appendix to his book. I read all those predictions, along with a fair part of the rest of the book, some months ago, and I wouldn’t have had the patience (nor the forebearance!) that Isaac displays. One thing that struck me as I read through the predictions was the lack of any connection to ID “theory” that Meyer provides for them. Nowhere did I see a sentence (or paragraph) of the form “In ID theory, this principle predicts that this specific observation should follow, because of the process of generation that ID theory posits. This follows because …”, … um, well, for some reason or other drawn from intelligent design “theory.” But one doesn’t see that kind of reasoning. One sees flat claims with no clear connection to any sort of developed conception of intelligent design.

For example, prediction Number 12 is

The functional sequences of amino acids within amino acid sequence space should be extremely rare rather than common.

The natural first question is “why?” Why does ID imply that functional proteins should be rare rather than common? What principle of ID implies that predicted observation? Meyer is clearly merely making an anti-naturalistic argument here, not an ID “prediction” drawn from some coherent conception of intelligent design The subtext is that if those sequences are rare, naturalistic processes are unlikely to happen on to them, and therefore God the Designer did it. ID doesn’t imply that prediction; anti-evolution does. Intelligent design, at least by analogy with human design, would seem to predict the reverse: for mass production of designs, to the extent possible the designer would more likely use easily available off-the-shelf components rather than rare hard-to-find ones.

I found another prediction interesting because it invokes a property of a putative designer. It’s Number 10:

If an intelligent (and benevolent) agent designed life, then studies of putatively bad designs in life–such as the vertebrate retina and virulent bacteria–should reveal either (a) reasons for the designs that show a hidden functional logic or (b) evidence of decay of originally good designs.

Yup, it was the Fall that done it. I presume that’s the same benevolent designer that devised the ichneumon wasp’s habit of paralyzing a caterpillar and then laying eggs inside it so the wasp larvae can eat the still-living caterpillar from the inside out. I doubt whether the caterpillar sees that as the act of a benevolent designer. And I suppose it’s the same benevolent designer that (according to Michael Behe in The Edge of Evolution) designed the malaria parasite that is so successful at killing children. Again, benevolent from the parasite’s perspective but not so benevolent from the human point of view. I’m disappointed that Meyer didn’t mention Multiple Designers Theory in this connection. Meyer is sitting right on the edge of a theodicy mine field here. Where in ID “scientific theory” does that “benevolent” come from? (Apropos of that question, I read an interesting essay by Steven Law the other night in 50 Voices of Disbelief. Law argued that all the traditional arguments for ‘solving’ the problem of evil if God is benevolent work equally well with no changes for a God that is malevolent.)

Isaac concludes his series by writing

It is laudable that Meyer takes the step to explore predictions that ID would make. Predictions that are testable are a vital part of the scientific process. But just making a prediction isn’t sufficient to indicate viable science. Astrologers and tasseologists can also make predictions and sometimes they may be right. Predictions must also be based on causal factors that are understood independently to exist and whose adequacy can be independently verified. The predictions must clearly differentiate between competing hypotheses.

It is unfortunate that this set of dozen predictions is very weak on all counts. It is unlikely to make any difference in the debate. These tend not to be definitive in terms of distinguishing between ID or non ID and will only extend the discussion.

“Weak” is too kind a word.

Matheson, a developmental cell biologist at Calvin College, is, as I said above, just up to Chapter 8, so I’ll won’t comment at length until he’s done except to note that he has been very critical of ID claims in the past and from all indications sees Meyer’s book in that same critical light. There’s a foreshadowing in Matheson’s post on Chapter 3. Noting an obvious error in Meyer’s text, Matheson wrote:

And of course, Stephen Meyer is a layperson. He’s clearly not a biologist, or even a person who’s particularly knowledgeable about biology. (That paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington became infamous due to political disputes; I thought it was most notable for being lame.) This is obvious from my reading of this book and his other work, and the mistake on page 66 just serves to remind me that despite the thunderous praise from fans on the dustjacket and in the ID-osphere, Meyer just isn’t all that impressive as a scientific thinker. Call me a jerk, but I expect a hell of a lot more from someone who wants to rewrite science (and its history). [Emphasis original]

Meanwhile, read the posts in those series. They’re valuable background when someone comes up to you (as someone did to me) and says, “Meyer really made a strong case for ID.” He didn’t. Reading the book helps, and I think critics should know the arguments first hand, but reading Isaac’s and Matheson’s analyses will also help a whole lot.