26 January 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 1

The chapter is called "DNA, Darwin, and the Appearance of Design." It's a poor start. Meyer sketches some key themes of the rest of the book in this sloppy chapter. Here are those themes (in my words) and some comments.

1. DNA stores information, using a code that is similar to that of a computer. We know a lot about how that works.

2. Life gives the appearance of design. No one disputes that. But the source of the design is, of course, controversial.

Our commonsense reasoning might lead us to conclude that the information necessary to the first life, like the information in human technology or literature, arose from a designing intelligence. But modern evolutionary biology rejects this idea. ...Lewontin and Dawkins, like evolutionary biologists generally, insist that the appearance of design in life is illusory. Life, they say, looks designed, but was not designed by an actual intelligent or purposive agent.
–pages 17-18
3. We don't know how the information systems arose during very early evolution. This is a mystery, an enigma: the DNA enigma. I hope that Meyer will explain the difference between "unanswered question" and "mystery." If Signature in the Cell is about nothing more than current ignorance regarding certain aspects of abiogenesis, then the book is a joke.

4. There seem to be some distinctive characteristics about the methods and arguments of scientists studying the past, raising the question of whether origin-of-life (OOL) theorizing is fundamentally different from other biological science. Specifically, Charles Thaxton, a founding member of the ID movement and current Fellow of the Discovery Institute, has claimed that OOL theories are inherently untestable and that the uniqueness of the OOL event legitimizes the postulation of "intelligent causes." Meyer aims to critique Thaxton's arguments. Because Meyer wrote his dissertation on historical and philosophical aspects of OOL science, we should have high expectations of his writing on the subject.

It's a fluffy chapter, peppered with personal narrative and reflection. But looking back on the Prologue and this first chapter, we can see the trajectory Meyer is likely to follow. Keeping our instinctive perception of design ever before us, he will establish DNA and genetic information as the uber-example of design, then attempt to convince us that the origin of genetic information systems is inexplicable without reference to an intelligent agent, while reassuring us that this explanatory maneuver is legitimately scientific. But you probably already knew that.

Further comments on the chapter:

1. Meyer seems to recognize that he needs to offer a design-based explanation for the origins of genetic systems:
It is provocative to claim that the evidence from DNA and our best scientific reasoning points strongly to an intelligent cause of life. It is not very interesting to claim that it is possibly true ("plausible") that DNA owes its origin to such cause. Many statements are merely plausible or possibly true. But that doesn't mean we have any reason to think them likely to be true. Rigorous scientific testing usually provides evidence-based reasons for making such claims or for preferring one hypothesis over another. –page 30
I'm sure we'll come back to this theme repeatedly as we go through Signature in the Cell, but let's make it really clear. To establish the kind of design claim that Meyer wants to make, one must do more – much, much more – than merely pointing to current scientific ignorance or (worse) confessing personal incredulity in the face of proposed scientific explanation. What one must do is show that the non-design alternative (whatever it is) is unable to provide the expected explanation. If Meyer fails to do this, it won't mean that his design proposal is wrong. It will just mean that it is "merely plausible."

2. Meyer's historical reflections emit a suspiciously propagandistic aroma. While describing the influence of Charles Thaxton, Meyer writes in ways that I find to be unacceptably misleading. Consider his description of a conference in Dallas in February of 1985. After noting that the conference "would bring together scientists from competing philosophical perspectives," Meyer relates how "controversy erupted":
What introduced drama into what might have otherwise been a dry academic discussion was the reaction of some of the scientists to a new idea. Three of the scientists on the panel had just published a controversial book called The Mystery of Life's Origin with a prominent New York publisher of scientific monographs.Their book provided a comprehensive critique of the attempts that had been made to explain how the first life had arisen from the primordial ocean, the so-called prebiotic soup. These scientists, Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, had come to the conclusion that all such theories had failed to explain the origin of the first life. –page 26
According to Meyer, Thaxton et al. then suggested that because information in DNA is "mathematically identical" to information in language and code, it must have an "intelligent cause." Then:
That was where the fireworks started. Other scientists on the panel became uncharacteristically defensive and hostile. Dr. Russell Doolittle, of the University of California at San Diego, suggested that if the three authors were not satisfied with the progress of origin-of-life experiments, then they should "do them." Never mind that another scientist on the panel who had favored Thaxton's hypothesis, Professor Dean Kenyon, of San Francisco State University, was a leading origin-of-life researcher who had himself performed many such experiments. It was clear that Dolittle regarded the three scientists, despite their strong credentials, as upstarts who had violated some unspoken convention. –page 26
Reading this account makes me worry about the rest of Signature in the Cell. Meyer seems to be carefully manipulating his account in order to give the reader a distorted impression of the "conference" and the book at the center of one of its panel discussions.

The "conference" wasn't the scientific conference that you're picturing. It was a dialogue sponsored by Dallas Baptist University and an organization of Christian scholars. It was called "Christianity Challenges the University: A Dialogue of Theists and Atheists" and it was specifically intended to bring "the theistic position" into dialogue with "the atheistic position" on topics from all corners of the academic world. The opening talks were on "Why I am a Christian."

I think the event sounds really interesting, and the organizers assembled a superb group of scholars. But do you see how Meyer has misled us about that conference? It wasn't a scientific meeting. It was a dialogue between atheists and theists. Why didn't Meyer just tell us that? The session that Meyer attended was not a meeting of scientists for the purpose of discussing OOL research. It was a religiously-oriented dialogue centered on the new book by Thaxton et al., and the session was chaired by Thaxton himself. (You can read more about the Dialogue in the ASA Newsletter, June/July and August/September of 1985.)

And it gets worse. Meyer's claim that "other scientists became defensive and hostile" is contradicted by the report of Owen Gingerich, the Harvard astronomer and historian of science, who was present at the whole dialogue and wrote that "the entire dialogue was conducted with intelligence and good humor, with each side respecting while disagreeing with the philosophical orientation of their opponents." Meyer wants you to picture the "other scientists" reacting with hostility to a "new idea" from "upstarts" while carefully obscuring the nature of the event, to the point that he writes of a "conference" to "bring together scientists from competing philosophical perspectives." I find that to be disingenuous. And quite sad.

Meyer writes that The Mystery of Life's Origin was published "with a prominent New York publisher of scientific monographs." Well, that publisher is The Philosophical Library, and yes they published a few "scientific monographs" over the decades. A few. I'll let you figure out their main scholarly specialty. Meyer's embellishment is pathetic, and this kind of behavior is so hard to understand. Why would the publisher matter? Does Meyer think that no one will bother to see if The Philosophical Library really is a prominent publisher of science books? Did it occur to him that inquiring minds might visit the publisher's web site? Man, I just don't get it.

Finally, look again at how Meyer identifies the characters in his drama. Dean Kenyon, creationist and Discovery Institute Fellow, is referred to as "Professor Dean Kenyon" and "leading origin-of-life researcher." Russell Doolittle, distinguished evolutionary biologist and biochemist, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1984, the year that The Mystery of Life's Origin was published. Meyer refers to him as "Dr. Russell Doolittle."

This book looks like folk science to me. It's already lowered my regard for its author. I hope it gets better. I really do.

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