24 April 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapters 9 and 10

"He..strikes at randome at a man of straw."
– Richard Saunders, A Balm to heal Religious Wounds, 1652. Quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition

"An imaginary adversary, or an invented adverse argument, adduced in order to be triumphantly confuted."
– Second definition entered for "man of straw" in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition

Chapter 9 is called "Ends and Odds." Chapter 10 is "Beyond the Reach of Chance." Between them, they advance a straw man so idiotic that I wonder whether Meyer will be able to reclaim any significant intellectual integrity in the chapters that follow. I've already noted that this is not a book of science or of serious scholarship. Now it seems that it doesn't even merit the distinction of popular science or pop philosophy. These two chapters have purely propagandistic aims, and they do serious damage to the book's credibility and to the author's reputation. Meyer has shown his cards.

I can summarize the entire message of both chapters (which consume 34 pages of this bloated mess) in a single sentence: "We have seen that genetic systems of living things are too improbable and too beautifully designed to have come into existence by chance." With annoying repetition and sadly typical scientific naivete, he bulldozes the transparently ludicrous notion that proteins flew into existence through the random combination of their parts. This had already been done, more effectively and with far more panache, by Richard Dawkins himself, and probably by dozens of others before him. Dawkins made this point one of the central ideas of The Blind Watchmaker, and you might recognize my one-sentence summary as a slightly-altered version of the first sentence of chapter 3 of that book. We've done all of this before.

Even if it's true, as Meyer claims, that this notion (which he calls "the chance hypothesis") was once considered plausible, I hope for Meyer's sake that his personal narrative at the beginning of chapter 9 is mythological. He describes how his job as an assistant professor with young children hindered progress on his "research" into the "chance hypothesis." (This made me laugh. Ask me later.) But:
That might have turned out for the best, however. I didn't realize it at the time, but I would be in a much better position to evaluate chance as an explanation for the origin of life after Dembski and another scientist I met in Cambridge that summer had completed their own pieces of the research puzzle. (page 194)
That other scientist is Douglas Axe. We'll come back to his "piece of the research puzzle." But I'm finding it difficult to take any of this seriously. The "chance hypothesis" as a "research puzzle"? REALLY?

Folks, no one who knows anything at all about origins research would ever take that seriously. And Meyer knows this. He's playing to some other crowd here, and these two chapters are part of a major effort in the ID movement to set up and destroy a strawman of such utter insignificance that its continued existence is sufficient to justify a charge of deliberate dishonesty.

Again, I hope Meyer doesn't really mean that he was struggling with a "research problem" concerning the "chance hypothesis" in 1992. Because his whole thesis in chapters 9 and 10, all 34 pages of it, had already been made by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker. In 1986.

Now back to the "other scientist."

Douglas Axe is a molecular biologist who's done some interesting work on protein structure and function. Formerly at Cambridge University and now directing the Discovery Institute's Biologic Institute, Axe performed experiments in which he would change the structure of a protein by altering its amino acid composition. His techniques were quite straightforward (if laborious), and he focused his experiments on proteins that had functions that could be easily measured quantitatively. He found that some regions of some proteins were quite robust to significant change, and that other regions were less tolerant of such mutation. He measured only the specific function of the original protein (meaning that he did not look for novel functions) and made large numbers of changes at once (at least five amino acids were changed at a time). His papers are rarely cited, and have had little impact on the understanding of protein structure-function relationships. The experiment that Meyer singles out for emphasis has been completely superseded, in my view, by more detailed and comprehensive analyses reported recently. (Analysis of Axe's work would merit a separate post, but I'm an associate professor with two jobs and four kids, so I don't know if I'll get to that project anytime soon.)

I mean no disrespect to Dr. Axe, who I don't know at all, when I say that his contributions have been modest and his impact on the study of molecular evolution negligible. Hilariously, Steve Meyer devotes several pages to Axe's work, and includes his picture. When Axe arrives at a typically gargantuan number to represent the "odds of producing a functional protein sequence of modest length...at random," Meyer announces that "this was a very significant result." It wasn't. First, of course, we already know that such things are effectively impossible. But what about Axe's specific conclusions in that particular paper? According to Google Scholar, the paper has been cited a whopping 23 times, and those citations include a silly chapter by Meyer himself, an article in the Journal of Creation, and a book called LIBERTY OR DEATH. My dissertation research, published a few years earlier and describing the growth of moth nerve cells in culture, has been cited 30 times, and not once by a creationist or a colonial Virginian.

Chapters 9 and 10 of Signature in the Cell are, for me, the smoking gun. Steve Meyer does not aim to delve into the interesting details of origins-of-life research, nor does he intend to describe current theories and their interactions. There is not now, and never was, a "research project." There's a project, but its purpose is political and its goal is persuasion. Why on earth these folks can't just be honest about that, I guess I'll never know.

Oh, and we can't end without letting Steve and Charles go head to head.

From page 227 of Signature in the Cell, near the end of chapter 10:
I began to wonder if the odds of life arising by chance alone, at least under the circumstances envisioned by advocates of the chance hypothesis, weren't actually zero. Imagine that a casino owner invents a game in which the object is to roll 777 consecutive "sevens" with a set of dice. He asks the odds makers to calculate the chances of any one contestant winning. They are, of course, infinitesimally small. But now he gives the odds makers some additional information. The dice are made of white chocolate with with dark chocolate spots on the faces, both of which will melt as the result of the glare of the lights over the game table and repeated handling by the game players. Now what are the odds of turning up 777 sevens in a row?
And this is from page 227 of the Origin of Species, 6th Edition:
It has been objected to the foregoing view of the origin of instincts that "the variations of structure and of instinct must have been simultaneous and accurately adjusted to each other, as a modification in the one without an immediate corresponding change in the other would have been fatal." The force of this objection rests entirely on the assumption that the changes in the instincts and structure are abrupt.
That's the beginning of a section entitled "Objections to the Theory of Natural Selection as applied to Instincts: Neuter and Sterile Insects." And there's Steve Meyer's confusion, answered a century and a half ago. Charles Darwin wasn't always right, but here he deserves the last word.

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