A review of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell
Pub 2009, Harper One (edition reviewed was the Kindle edition).
In late 2011, Stephen Meyer delivered a lecture in London. Organised by the UK’s very own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), and hosted in Whitehall by Lord Mackay of Clashfern (a notable member of the Free Church of Scotland), I received an invitation in the post. Circumstances surrounding this lecture coupled with some background reading I’d done on Meyer’s thinking and an awareness of how Intelligent Design creationists have in the past used academic attendees at events as some kind of litmus test of acceptance, I decided not to attend. Instead, I was quite vocal (critical of ID creationism) in several internet fora, which attracted some criticism that I had not actually read the book in question (had I attended, I would have been given a copy).
I can summarise my opinion of the book quite succinctly. It is lengthy, tedious, overblown, very defensive at times, occasionally interesting, generally deceptive, but ultimately completely unconvincing to a practising biologist. However, I did read this book with the intention of reviewing it, so here goes.
I reviewed the Kindle edition of this book. This hasn’t made it terribly easy to work through as it’s quite difficult to move to and fro around the text, particularly if one wishes to take a quick look at a citation. HarperOne could have done a much better job. Also the figures are pretty scrappy, resembling sketches drawn to assist a graphic designer: whether the figures in the paper version are better, I don’t know.
Stephen Meyer is a major figure in the American Intelligent Design creationism movement. Along with William Dembski (who is extensively quoted in Signature), and Jonathan Wells (who’s on record as setting out to destroy Darwinism), he’s one of the intellectual leaders of this regrettable movement. Meyer graduated with a degree in Physics and Earth Science from the christian Whitworth College, and worked for a while as a geophysicist before undertaking a PhD in the philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. The more interesting sections of Signature reflect his PhD: they are an account of hypotheses for the origin of life. Meyer then held teaching positions at Whitworth and at Palm Beach Atlantic University (another college with a distinctive christian ethos), before settling at the Discovery Institute, where he’s been a leading light in the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.
Meyer’s background isn’t in biology, or molecular biology, which may explain some of the more startling asides in Signature. His involvement in Intelligent Design can be traced back to around 1992.
The Discovery Institute and the Wedge Strategy
Somewhere along the line Meyer became convinced that life on Earth must have originated with a designer of some kind. According to Signature this was a realisation that followed his study of the many hypotheses of life’s origins that have been advanced over the years. Meyer is credited as one of the authors of the Wedge Strategy document, which sets out the Discovery Institute’s strategy for intelligent design. To quote from the Wikipedia page:
The document sets forth the short-term and long-term goals with milestones for the intelligent design movement, with its governing goals stated in the opening paragraph:
- “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies”
- “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”
There are three Wedge Projects, referred to in the strategy as three phases designed to reach a governing goal:
- Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity
- Publicity & Opinion-making
- Cultural Confrontation & Renewal
Recognising the need for support, the institute affirms the strategy’s Christian, evangelistic orientation:
Alongside a focus on the influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidences that support the faith, as well as to popularize our ideas in the broader culture.
I’m including this outline of the position of ID creationism as seen by the Discovery Institute because I think it reveals an overall agenda in pushing a set of religiously motivated objectives, an agenda that initially was covert. And the identity of the ‘Designer’ is clear from the Wedge Document (though proponents of ID creationism like to keep this vague). Looking into the history of Intelligent Design creationism, one sees that the Wedge Document (thought to date from around 1998) reflects a neo-creationist strategy that began in the early 1990s, and in specific response to successive legal defeats of co-called creation science in the USA, where the teaching of creationism falls foul of the constitutional separation of religion and state.
Intelligent Design is creationism
In 2005, an American court reached judgement on whether Intelligent Design could legitimately be described as science, in the context of the constitutional separation of church and state. The case arose because a school board in Pennsylvania chose to present ID in schools. In the end, the court (on the basis of very persuasive evidence) recognised that ID was a form of creationism, albeit one which had attempted to cover its tracks with a surface of science-y language.
Signature in the Cell
Signature is one of the main sources for Intelligent Design creationism. It presents a version of ID creationism aimed at convincing the general public that not only has science failed to explain the origin of life (specifically the origins of genetic systems), but that it never will, and that ID creationism is (a) a scientific approach and (b) the best explanation for the origins of biological information. Unfortunately for Meyer, he fails to persuade informed readers.
The Victimhood Card
Somewhat strangely, Signature begins with an account of the Sternberg affair, in which a journal editor abused his position and enabled publication of a paper by Meyer. Meyer’s take is somewhat at odds with historical reality, making out that the whole affair was one in which Sternberg’s academic freedom was attacked. However, detailed investigation revealed this to be far from the truth (see for example this report). But I thought that beginning your popular science exposition of Intelligent Design creationism with a bid for martydom was more than a little odd. It’s a theme that recurs occasionally as one ploughs through the tome.
Background to Molecular Biology
Next up is what’s essentially a primer on basic molecular biology. This isn’t presented at a particularly heavy level, which is appropriate for the target general audience. I thought the material was pretty clearly presented, though the reader would be well-advised to look at any one of the multitude of college-level texts that exist if they wish to get an even better feel for the complexity within the cell. It’s while reading these chapters that the astute biologist gains the first inklings of the strategy to come, which is to argue that the complexity of cellular systems is just too much to have occurred through natural processes. I think the biggest failing here is that Meyer’s background is insufficient to truly express how biological systems are systems in which ‘information’ (note that I use ‘information’ in a metaphorical way) can degrade, change and also expand and contract in quantity. And what’s not made clear is that all the molecular processes that are required for evolutionary change are pretty well characterised and understood.
Strangely, Meyer has the hubris to believe he’s having major inspirational insights:
But notice too that there are no chemical bonds between the bases along the longitudinal axis in the center of the helix. Yet it is precisely along this axis of the DNA molecule that the genetic information is stored.
Amplified later as this revelatory insight:
There in the classroom this elementary fact of DNA chemistry leaped out at me. I realized that explaining DNA’s information-rich sequences by appealing to differential bonding affinities meant that there had to be chemical bonds of differing strength between the different bases along the information-bearing axis of the DNA molecule. Yet, as it turns out, there are no differential bonding affinities there. Indeed, there is not just an absence of differing bonding affinities; there are no bonds at all between the critical information-bearing bases in DNA. In the lecture hall the point suddenly struck me as embarrassingly simple: there are neither bonds nor bonding affinities—differing in strength or otherwise—that can explain the origin of the base sequencing that constitutes the information in the DNA molecule. A force has to exist before it can cause something. And the relevant kind of force in this case (differing chemical attractions between nucleotide bases) does not exist within the DNA molecule.
Well, I’m not so sure I find this an astonishing insight. In the context of present-day DNA and RNA synthesis, the phosphate moeities are crucial in the formation of linkage between successive nucleotides.
Origins of Life
This is a genuinely interesting overview of how theories of the origins of life have arisen and been modified in light of increasing understanding of cellular molecular biology. Unfortunately Meyer is clearly presenting a thesis that there are no successful hypotheses. It’s here that the deeply unscientific nature of ID creationism becomes visible: “Science” is not some completed enterprise: indeed new hypotheses and findings are continually made – not least in the fields associated with the origins of life. This is the more intellectually satisfying aspects in origins of life research: that novel hypotheses are continually framed and modified – and tested. But hey, when you’re religiously motivated, why not cut and run and invoke a supernatural designer?
Design Detection, Information Theory & Specified (Functional) Information
There are two significant areas where Meyer draws on the work of colleagues, and in particular William Dembski, a mathematician who claims to have devised probability based methods for the detection of design. Meyer relies heavily on William Dembski’s approach to detecting design. I have several problems: essentially this becomes an exercise in probability, where the probability of events cannot really be calculated.
Yes, it may seem that the probability of life beginning was quite low, but Signature exaggerates this by seeming to insist on features of molecular replication being established all at once. It’s as if Meyer is really keen to place obstacles in front of non-supernatural explanations.
Meyer’s use of information theory in Signature is difficult. As far as I can tell, Meyer doesn’t really have the background to adequately discuss this (and neither do I). Meyer uses neither Shannon nor Kolomogorov information as the basis of his discussions, but a strange hybrid form in which not only the information is considered, but the message/meaning that is in the information. I find this completely uncompelling. Meyer’s arguments require an understanding of which stretches of DNA sequence ultimately have functional significance, and he tends to avoid anything other than protein coding sequences. He doesn’t consider, for example, the latitude there may be in protein sequence before a protein’s function is compromised. I got the sense that for Meyer, the world is a rather binary place: stuff works or it doesn’t work.
Jeffrey Shallit, who has experience with information theory and mathematics has written several articles slamming Meyer’s treatment of information theory in Signature (for example Stephen Meyer’s Bogus Information Theory): much of this revolves around the undefined concept of functional specified information.
Meyer makes great play of the similarities between genetic information and human language – he gives many examples, even reiterating objections to Dawkins’ ‘Methinks it is a weasel’ computer programme, to which he imputes particular strategy in programming. It’s interesting to note that the Weasel programme was a simple script to demonstrate how selection speeds up the attainment of an endpoint, in comparison to random letter choice. This isn’t really a simulation of evolution, and of course the selection pressure here is to home in on a target phrase. I’m unsure quite what Meyer’s goal here is or was, but it’s instructive to read this take on the issue: Dembski weasels out.
Off the Fence: Meyer’s Intelligent Design
Finally, Meyer gets of the fence. He believes that life originated as an act of Design. Unfortunately, Meyer refuses to come clean that he believes that God was that designer, at which is what I would be led to believe from his co-authorship of the Wedge Document (“To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”). Frankly, this is a hugely dishonest approach, but one in keeping with the strategy of Intelligent Design creationism proponents.
But who or what is the designer?
If we can take Signature at face value, no effort seems to be made to establish who or what the designer was. There is no evidence in any shape or form for the existence of such a supernatural entity – though I believe that in the minds of ID proponents they have uncovered evidence OF a designer
Inference to Best Explanation
Meyer’s attempt to infer the existence of intelligent design are somewhat naive. He summarises his strategy as “Inference to Best Explanation”.
Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
The flaws with Premise One: (1) There are plenty of chemical and biological mechanisms which can and do increase the quantity of biological information. (2) ‘Specified Information’ is a bogus concept, and one which Meyer never actually defines. (3) A number of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins of biological information, and it’s only the straw man versions set up as easy targets by Meyer which fail. (4) And finally, science will ultimately continue to generate origin of life hypotheses, some completely undreamt of as yet.
Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
The flaws with Premise Two: (1) Specified Information continues to evade definition by Meyer. (2) The only intelligent cause that Meyer can demonstrate is human cause, and (3) the complex information devised and generated by humans does not in fact correspond to biological information.
Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.
ID creationism fails. Even were one to suppose intelligent design, for this form of creationism to gain traction, one would need at the very least to identify who or what this designer is (or was), and the means by which this intelligent designer undertook this major design effort (which actually exceeds the human ability at present).
Ultimately, Meyer’s concept remains a restatement of the classic ‘God of the Gaps’. Because Meyer cannot conceive of a natural mechanism by which genetic information arose (or indeed believes that such a mechanism can never be uncovered) the role of a supernatural entity is the explanation. Meyer rejects this, and rather unsuccessfully argues that his ‘Inference to Best Explanation’ is not such a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument.
Meyer restates his chain of illogic as follows:
Premise One: Causes A through X do not produce evidence E. Premise Two: Cause Y can and does produce E. Conclusion: Y explains E better than A through X.
For Meyer, the ‘E’ in the first premise is biological (genetic) information. He also supposes that an exhaustive catalogue of explanations has been generated and rejected. This reveals his unscientific approach: the list can not be exhaustive, and many explanations only fail for Meyer because of the way he’s set up straw men, and applied irrelevant statistical tests. Meyer makes a direct connection between human generated information and biological information. From my perspective as a research in molecular genetics, the premises must be restated as:
Premise One: Causes A through P do not explain (in Meyer’s view) the origin of evidence E (biological information), though we have yet to devise causes Q-X . Premise Two: Cause Y can and does produce F (human-generated information). Conclusion: Y explains E better than A through X.
This quite clearly illustrates the flaws in Meyer’s reasoning. I don’t believe that linguistic information or computer code are directly analogous to biological information.
Meyer goes on at some length about how ID creationists in Institutes and Universities have been persecuted for holding heretical views. An earlier example was the Sternberg affair, which Meyer misrepresents. A similar accusation of individuals having their academic freedom trampled on is raised. Unfortunately for Meyer (and fortunately for everyone else), academic freedom allows academics to hold views, and conduct research that run counter to accepted wisdom. This is entirely appropriate. It can have quite serious effects: it’s why, for example, Peter Duesberg is able to continue claiming that AIDS is not caused by HIV – the failure to accept this has led to considerable mortality. But what academic freedom does not (and should not) permit is the deliberate mis-education of students. Frankly ID creationism is so far “out there” that it should not be represented in the undergraduate science curricula.
Meyer spends some time battling against the Dover trial, at which the presiding judge ruled that Intelligent Design was indeed a variety of creationism. But anyone reading the testimony could not fail to be convinced by the evidence that Intelligent Design was a deliberate strategy to make creationism look a bit less religious: particularly damning was the evidence from the iterative revision of the creationist text book Of Pandas and People. Also notable was that the Discovery Institute experts cut and ran from the trial when it became obvious early on that they would be involved in a big time courtroom defeat.
Is Intelligent Design creationism a testable theory?
Meyer wheels out the existence or not of junk DNA as an opportunity to portray ID creationism as a testable theory. He writes:
Consider the case of so-called junk DNA—the DNA that does not code for proteins found in the genomes of both one-celled organisms and multicellular plants and animals. The theory of intelligent design and materialistic evolutionary theories (both chemical and biological) differ in their interpretation of so-called junk DNA. Since neo-Darwinism holds that new biological information arises as the result of a process of mutational trial and error, it predicts that nonfunctional DNA would tend to accumulate in the genomes of eukaryotic organisms (organisms whose cells contain nuclei).
Evolutionary theory does not make the prediction that non-functional DNA would tend to accumulate. Whether mutational events lead to genome expansion would depend on selection pressures. Within the eukaryotes, one can see huge variation in the extent to which ‘junk‘ DNA is present. Whether ‘junk’ DNA exists or not depends of course on how one interprets function: undoubtedly some DNA is present as a structural feature, some will be transcribed to yield functional RNA, and some will be transcribed to yield mRNA. P. Z. Myers gets it about right (Junk DNA is still junk) in a blog article on a peer-reviewed paper.
One assumes that the ‘predictions’ of ID creationism that ‘we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function’ (and that’s a pretty crappy prediction – as much as possible) are an attempt by ID creationists to read the mind of their creator designer.
While I’ve been preparing this review (it’s taken rather longer than I’d thought, due to pressure of work), I note that the Centre for Intelligent Design has posted an article about November’s Meyer lecture (C4ID’s Inaugural Lecture 2011: ‘Is there a Signature in the Cell?’). Sadly, no video is presented. It proclaims:
The content of Dr Meyer’s lecture was fascinating and his book, ‘Signature in the Cell’ is truly groundbreaking. In his lecture, he outlined his initial interest in the problem of the emergence of first life and the absence, then and now, of any credible explanation for it. He described how this had led him to Cambridge to undertake a PhD in the philosophy of science and to his discovery of the significance of the information content of DNA. Using the method of inference to the best explanation, the very approach adopted by Charles Darwin in his elaboration of evolution by variation and natural selection, he described the scientific legitimacy of concluding that the information carried by DNA is best explained by intelligent mind.
This, frankly is nonsense. The book is not groundbreaking but rather contains an insupportable claim not only that science has no credible explanation for the origins of biological ‘information’, but that it can never have such an explanation. It uses outdated accounts of the origins of life, does not review more recent theories that have emerged since Meyer’s PhD thesis, and makes use of mangled information theory. And as for ‘inference to best explanation’, the proposal that some unknown entity, with supernatural powers, was responsible for life’s appearance on Earth is not only ludicrous without evidence for the existence of such an entity but is intellectually hopeless.
There’s a rather succinct demolition of Meyer’s argument in a posting to Panda’s Thumb (ID: Intelligent Design as Imitatio Dei (report on the 2007 ‘Wistar Retrospective Symposium’)) which reviews a bogus conference staged by the Discovery Institute in 2007 (a bit like this one, but where actual scientists were invited – I presume the ID crew learnt from that mistake). I somewhat regret not having read that article earlier, I might not have wasted the money on Meyer’s ‘groundbreaking’ book or more importantly the time it took to wade through it.