03 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 2

The chapter is called "The Evolution of a Mystery and Why It Matters." It's interesting and engaging, and I enjoyed reading it. The "mystery" in question is first described on page 35:

...most philosophers and scientists have long thought that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection destroyed the design argument. Yet I also discovered that Darwin himself admitted that his theory did not explain the origin of life itself. [...] His theory assumed rather than explained the origin of the first living thing. Since this limitation of Darwin's theory was widely recognized, it raised a question: Why were nineteenth- and twentieth-century biologists and philosophers so sure that Darwin had undermined the design argument from biology?

Meyer is asserting that scientists in the late 19th century knew that they had no satisfactory naturalistic account of the origin of life. I assume that he's right about that. He's struck by the fact that they weren't shaken by that "small hole in this elaborate tapestry of naturalistic explanation":
Despite the impasse, late-Victorian-era biologists expressed little, if any, concern about the absence of detailed explanations for how life had first arisen. The obvious question for me was, Why? – page 40
Meyer then begins an interesting discussion of the declining popularity of vitalism during and preceding that time, a decline caused by the relentless advance of effective naturalistic explanation. For example:
During the 1860s and 1870s scientists identified the cell as the energy converter of living organisms. Experiments on animal respiration established the utility of chemical analysis for understanding respiration and other energetic processes in the cell. Since these new chemical analyses could account for all the energy the cell used in metabolism, biologists increasingly thought it unnecessary to refer to vital forces. –page 41
The following section, "Evolution on a Roll," is quite good. Meyer credits his dissertation mentor, Harmke Kamminga, with the claim that "Darwin's theory inspired attempts at 'extending evolution backward' in order to explain the origin of the first life." He then explains why "Darwin's theory inspired confidence in such efforts." One key reason: his theory "implied that living species did not possess an essential and immutable nature."

The rest of the chapter is a narrative of the development of early OOL theories, ending with the famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1953. Although I'm not well-qualified to assess the accuracy of Meyer's account, I found the section interesting and informative. The chapter ends with this ominous transition:
A seamless and fully naturalistic account of the origin and development of life-forms appeared, if not complete, then at least sketched in enough detail to preclude anachronistic speculations about a designing hand. The problem of the origin of life had at last been solved. Or at least so it seemed, until scientists began to reflect more deeply on the other great discovery of 1953. –page 57
That "great discovery," of course, is Watson and Crick's description of the structure of DNA. And I call the transition "ominous" because I sense a return to rhetorical tactics that disgusted me in chapter 1. That last sentence suggests that "scientists" share Meyer's seeming awe before "the DNA enigma." And I don't believe that at all. So, here are two observations that I think will be central to a critique of this book.

1. Meyer finds late nineteenth-century scientists to be "oddly confident," even triumphalistic, about their naturalistic explanations for how life began. It seems to me that he seeks to plant doubt in readers' minds about the utility of such explanations by showing that scientists of that time were enthusiastic about naturalistic explanation. My response goes something like this.
You're right, Steve Meyer. Scientists then, and now, are enthusiastic about naturalistic explanation. It's worked really well, so well that many of us are convinced that it will succeed even in areas that it seems to have barely touched. If your point is that science should remain ruthlessly critical of its ideas, or if you suspect that some scientists are overly credulous when it comes to some aspects of OOL theorizing, then you'll find me in agreement. But if you think there is something fundamentally wrong with assuming that life can be naturalistically explained, then we are at odds, and I will oppose your ideas.
I think it's important to be clear about something here. I don't think that Steve Meyer is stupid or dishonest for expressing his own preference in this matter. It seems to me that he prefers to assume that the origin of life could be – or is even likely to be – refractory to naturalistic explanation. He prefers to assume that the origin of life can be shown to be necessarily dependent on a "designing intelligence," such that it is inexplicable apart from that preexisting mind.

I don't have a problem with Steve Meyer's preference for design-based explanation. It will always be a rational and defensible choice, no matter what new data turn up or which new theories – however fantastical or elegant – are proposed. But I want to point to the nature of our difference. It is a difference of opinion, of preference, even of outlook (Meyer would say "worldview," I think). It seems to me that Meyer believes this difference to be decisive, meaning that it will cause me to miss the things that matter: the enigmas, mysteries and other glaringly obvious indications that naturalistic explanation can't work.

But I don't think the difference is all that important. To me, it just means that two Steves, Meyer and Matheson, see the world in two distinct ways. For Steve Meyer to convince Steve Matheson that the mind-first view is vastly superior from an explanatory standpoint, he'll have to do a whole lot more than point to things we don't understand. Until he does that, his writings, even in nicely-crafted chapters like this one, will be little more than quaint explications of the peculiarities of his view of the world. Interesting, even endearing? Maybe. Decisive? No.

2. In this chapter, Meyer continues a theme that he introduced in the first chapter. I'll call it "driving a wedge." The wedge in question is one that seeks to establish a gulf between the idea of design and the idea of naturalistic explanation. Meyer seems to accept the notion that phenomena that can be explained while relying on solely "material processes" are phenomena that do not involve design, intelligence, purpose, guidance. I could be wrong about that; maybe he'll disclaim such a stark dichotomy later in the book. But here's what he writes in a section called "Setting the Philosophical Stage:"
The age-old conflict between the mind-first and matter-first worldviews cuts right through the heart of the mystery of life's origin. Can the origin of life be explained purely by reference to material processes such as undirected chemical reactions or random collisions of molecules? Can it be explained without recourse to the activity of a designing intelligence? If so, then such an explanation would seem to make a materialistic worldview ... all the more credible. Who needs to invoke an unobservable designing intelligence to explain the origin of life, if observable material processes can produce life on their own? –pages 37-38
I'm a Christian of a particular stripe, and I have an answer to that final question. A believer invokes the hand of God, not because he needs an explanation for those things that can't yet be explained by material processes, but because he believes, and therefore sees God's hand in all the processes he observes. Steve Meyer has failed to convince me that the origin of life is a true "mystery." And he's failed to convince me, in any case, that it matters. Not because he's a fool or a failure (though both may also be the case). But because I don't see God's world the way he does.

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