by Dennis Venema
Essay Review of SIGNATURE IN THE CELL: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent
Design by Stephen C. Meyer. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009.
viii + 613 pages. Hardcover; $28.99. ISBN: 9780061472787.
Stephen C. Meyer’s recent tome Signature in the Cell (hereafter, Signature) represents the “state of the art” for the intelligent design (ID) movement with respect to the origin of biological information. With Signature, Meyer claims to have established ID as the best scientific explanation for information in DNA, and thus, to have established the presence of a designing intelligence at the origin of life. The book is a landmark for the ID movement, and, in light of its claims, is of significant interest to Christians in the sciences. If Meyer’s claims indeed are found to have scientific support, they would represent perhaps the most significant scientific advance in the last several hundred years, and at the same time, provide no less than “a blueprint for twenty-first-century biological science.”
——Read the full review——-
In some ways, the disappointment for me in reading Signature was its too obvious weaknesses. An ID argument with some scientific teeth to it would be intellectually invigorating, and I expected Signature would deliver more than it did. It has no theory of design, and no vigorous hypotheses to advance the movement. As Randy Isaac noted in an ASA blog, Meyer’s predictions do not distinguish between ID and other hypotheses:
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.37
Effectively, Meyer requests that we trade pursuing an ongoing area of productive research for his pronouncement that it will never succeed. Not so. Biologists know full well that natural mechanisms can add functional information to DNA sequences, and it thus makes good sense to look for pathways that exploit these mechanisms at the origin of life. True, research in this field has not solved the origin-of-life problem, and there are several competing hypotheses on the table, all with some experimental support. Quite a lot has been accomplished in this area in the last few decades, and it is a reasonable expectation that further research will continue to pay dividends. To halt research in this field and to label it “design” (and therefore unsolvable) accomplishes nothing scientifically, especially when there is no workable theory of design to guide future work.
While popular-level books written by nonspecialists can be very helpful to a lay audience if they are carefully reviewed by experts and adhere to consensus science, Signature is not such a book. Like Edge of Evolution before it, Signature in the Cell represents a layman’s attempt to overturn an entire field of research based on a surface-level understanding (and, at times, significant misunderstanding or ignorance) of the relevant science, published in a form that by-passes review by qualified peers, and that is marketed directly to a nonspecialist audience. This is not good science, nor science in any meaningful sense. If ID is going to advance as an intellectual framework, it simply must do better. I, for one, would be fascinated by a scientifically plausible design argument. It would demonstrate that something is fundamentally wrong with the interpretation of very wide swaths of data across numerous disciplines. That would not be a scientific problem, but rather a monumental scientific opportunity that would reshape research for decades to come. Such times are the occasions of scientific legend—careers to be made, Nobel prizes to be won. Alas, Signature is not that argument. I do recommend it for those who follow the ID literature, for it represents the current state-of-the-art in ID thought for an important area of biology. However, for those of us waiting for the science behind ID, it looks as if the wait goes on.