18 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part III: Fish and more

ResearchBlogging.orgGiven that disputes over the existence and meaning of the phylotypic stage and the hourglass model have simmered in various forms for a century and a half, the remarkable correspondence between the hourglass model and gene expression divergence discovered by Kalinka and Varga and colleagues would be big news all by itself. But amazingly, that issue of Nature included two distinct reports on the underpinnings of the phylotypic stage. The other article involved work in another venerable model system in genetics, the zebrafish.

The report is titled "A phylogenetically based transcriptome age index mirrors ontogenetic divergence patterns" and is co-authored by Tomislav Domazet-Loso and Diethard Tautz. To understand how their work has shed light on the phylotypic stage and the evolution of development, we'll need to look first at an approach to the analysis of evolutionary genetics that these two scientists pioneered: phylostratigraphy.

12 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part II: The flies

ResearchBlogging.orgThe controversy about the existence of the phylotypic stage is more than some bickering about whether one blobby, slimy fish-thing looks more like a Roswell alien than another one does. It's about whether the phylotypic stage means something, whether it tells us something important about development and how developmental changes contribute to evolution. To answer such a question, we need more than another set of comparisons of the shape and movements of embryos and their parts. We need a completely different way of looking at the phylotypic stage, to see if something notable is going on under the hood. So vertebrates all look the same at the tailbud stage. What does that mean?

Embryos look the way they do because of the positions and behaviors of the cells that make them up. The cells in an embryo all have the same DNA, and the link between that DNA and those specific cell behaviors is the basic process of gene expression. (This is a fundamental principle of developmental biology.) And by gene expression, we usually mean the synthesis of messenger RNA under the direction of genes in the DNA. Different cell types express different sets of genes, and the orchestration of the expression of particular genes at particular times is a big part of what makes development happen. When considering the phylotypic stage, then, developmental biologists wondered: is the apparent similarity of embryos at that stage reflected by similarities in gene expression. Or, more specifically, does the hourglass model hold up when we look at gene expression? This was the focus of the two articles in last Friday's Nature that inspired the cool cover.

10 December 2010

It's just a stage. A phylotypic stage. Part I.

Disputes and controversies in science are always a good thing. They're fun to read about (and to write about), and they're bellwethers of the health of the enterprise. Moreover, they tend to stimulate thought and experimentation. Whether scientists are bickering about evo-devo, or about stem cells in cancer, or about prebiotic chemistry, and whether or not the climate is genial or hostile, the result is valuable.

Now of course, some controversies are invented by demagogues for political purposes. The dispute in such cases is far less interesting and clearly less profitable, even if participation by scientists is necessary.

This week, two papers in Nature weighed in on a major scientific controversy that has its roots in pre-Darwin embryology, fueled by some gigantic scientific personalities and even tinged with what some would call fraud. This intense scientific dispute spawned a sort of doppelganger, a manufactured controversy that is just one more invention of anti-evolution propagandists. The Nature cover story gives us a great opportunity to look into the controversies, real and imagined, and to learn a lot about evolution and development and the things we're still trying to understand about both.

27 November 2010

Mapping fitness: bacteria, mutations, and Seattle

ResearchBlogging.orgThinking about fitness landscapes can stimulate detailed discussion and consideration of the meanings and limitations of such metaphors, and my introductory comments at The Panda's Thumb did just that. Most notably, Joe Felsenstein pointed us to the various ways these depictions can be employed, and urged everyone to use caution in interpreting them. All too true, but the goal here is modest: I want to discuss the interesting questions that arise when considering the relationship between genotypes and phenotypes, i.e., how a particular genetic makeup influences fitness, whether the genetic makeup in question is simple or complex, and however fitness is conceived. These questions can take further discussion in all sorts of directions, but there are two that I have in mind in this series. First, I want to point to increasing capacity of scientists in their ability to examine these relationships experimentally. Second, I want to highlight the failure of design creationists to address or even to understand such matters.

20 November 2010

Mapping fitness: landscapes, topographic maps, and Seattle

The concept of a "fitness landscape" is a fundamental idea in evolutionary biology, first introduced and established during the so-called "evolutionary synthesis" in the early 20th century. It was the great Sewall Wright who pictured adaptation as a "walk" through a landscape (pictured below), where the walking is done by variants (of an organism or a molecule) and the landscape is a theoretical representation of the relative fitness of the variants. (J.B.S. Haldane did similar work around the same time, but Wright's paper is much better known perhaps because it's more accessible to non-experts. See Carneiro and Hartl in PNAS earlier this year for more.)

It's a simple concept, and a helpful one, though sometimes subject to over-interpretation. And it helps to frame some of the big questions in evolutionary genetics. One of those big questions is this one, stated somewhat simplistically: how do the variants navigate to fitness peaks, if there are fitness valleys that separate the peaks? (The ideas is that fitness is higher on the peaks, and so a population would be unlikely to descend from a local peak into a valley.) In other words, given a particular fitness landscape, what are the evolutionary trajectories by which variation can explore that landscape?

12 November 2010

Biologos and Christian unity: mission accomplished?

And so, last week, some of my friends from BioLogos and Calvin College participated in this Vibrant Dance thing. These are people I hold in very high regard, people pursuing goals that I consider to be among the most important projects a Christian scientist can tackle. But mistakes are being made, and in a previous post I pointed to one of the biggest ones: overemphasizing "Christian unity" in an environment of rampant dishonesty, an environment poisoned by apologetic propaganda.

08 October 2010

BioLogos and Christian unity. Part I: The cost of artificial unity

Christian unity is not something to take lightly. Famous biblical proof texts urge us to pursue it. Basic theological commitments establish it as a primary goal of believers. Basic human nature would seem to drive us to seek solidarity with those who share fundamental beliefs. So when a Christian – especially a Christian in the midst of a dispute or disagreement with another Christian – makes an appeal for unity, only a fool would rise to disagree. Considered in isolation, talk of unity is powerfully persuasive to Christian believers. "Considered in isolation." That's where I will focus as I try to explain (again) why talk of unity can be inappropriate and even dangerous when it is offered outside of context. In short, I take the following to be evident: unity is not an end in itself, and is not achieved by wishful thinking or gushy happy talk. I'll look at those two points in two posts on BioLogos and Christian unity.

So, I'm occasionally frustrated by the stance of my friends at BioLogos when it comes to Christian unity. Consider a recent and widely-discussed piece by Darrel Falk, on the question of why BioLogos is co-sponsoring a conference (called The Vibrant Dance) with two organizations known to regularly misrepresent science: Reasons To Believe (RTB) and the Discovery Institute (DI). Falk notes that this choice has been criticized by believers and skeptics alike. In my opinion, his defense of that choice misses the most important criticisms. His defense amounts to a claim that Christian unity matters more than just about anything else. Specifically, he asserts that "what we have in common far outweighs the differences we may experience." And "we" is BioLogos, RTB, The DI, and an interesting group of other organizations, one of which is my employer (Calvin College). I will have words for Calvin in the near future. Here are some comments on his reasoning and his claims in that post.

11 August 2010

How bad genes can escape the Grim Reaper (and why this is good)

Last month, PZ Myers wrote an interesting piece at the Panda's Thumb in which he discussed some problems with very simple models of evolutionary genetics. One of his main themes was the idea that many genetic changes are neutral with regard to fitness; instead of immediately triggering selection (positive or negative), they're just "tossed into the stewpot." I recently joined the crew at PT, so for my first post I picked up on PZ's point and discussed a very recent article that describes one way in which organisms can carry seemingly deleterious genes around with them.

The concept of interest is called "developmental buffering," and it's just another fascinating biological phenomenon that creationists and ID propagandists are wise to ignore.

11 July 2010

Introns. Let's think about this, people. Part IV.

So why is it that I and many other biologists hypothesize that introns are mostly non-functional?
(I'll assume that you've read the previous posts, and that you understand what it is that I mean when I challenge claims that introns are functional elements in an information-rich genome. And to avoid confusion, I'll speak only for myself, although I surmise that a tiny minority of biologists would agree with creationist characterizations of the human genome.)

Here are the basic data that lead me to conclude that intron sequences are mostly dispensable for biological function. I've provided links to key references, and we can go into more detail in further posts or in the comments.

07 July 2010

Introns. Let's think about this, people. Part III.

What does it mean to claim that an intron has a function?

The question is obviously important, at least as long as there are disputes about whether introns have "functions" and whether science ignored them for decades.

Now, I can't help the ID people with their propensity for repeating falsehoods about the history of "junk DNA" and the role of "Darwinism" in its characterization. But I do think we can move a little closer together on this intron thing. So, first a discussion of the types of functions that are associated with introns then some comments on my specific dispute with Richard Sternberg.

29 June 2010

Introns. Let's think about this, people. Part II.

Before we explore what introns are and how they work, let me correct the misuse of my words by one of the ID attack kittens. Months ago, referring to Steve Meyer's claim that introns "are now known to play many important functional roles in the cell," I sought to put intron "function" into context as follows:
The human genome contains at least 190,000 introns (though it's been recently estimated to contain almost 210,000). Together those introns comprise almost 1/4 of the human genome. One fourth. That's 768 million base pairs. And biologists have identified "important functional roles" for a handful of them. How many? Oh, probably a dozen, but let's be really generous. Let's say that a hundred introns in the human genome are known to have "important functional roles." Oh fine, let's make it a thousand. Well, guys, that leaves at least 189,000 introns without function, and gosh, they're snipped out of the transcripts and discarded before the darn things even leave the nucleus.
One critic has interpreted me as claiming that I know that 189,000 introns have no function. That's not my point, and I think most people know that.

24 June 2010

Introns. Let's think about this, people. Part I.

It's time to talk about introns and function, so at least the ID people and I can agree on what we're disagreeing about. First, though, a little housecleaning.

When confronting the avalanche of misinformation on so-called "junk DNA" from intelligent design creationists, it can be hard to know where to start. In a previous series, I addressed many of the falsehoods that are employed by these folks, but the basic outline of the problem is easy to lose in the fog of confusion that ID advocates and other creationists purposefully generate around the issue. You can learn all you need to know by reading the previous series, and by reading the extensive work of Ryan Gregory. But here's a brief re-introduction.

23 June 2010

It's okay, Bono. I'm on it.

U2 can't make it to Michigan this year, due to Bono's back injury. (Me: "Ouch. He'll be fine." My girlfriend Susan: "What do you expect? He's old. He should pack it in.") So here are my attempts to fill the void.

08 June 2010

I love that dirty water...

...oh, Boston you're my home.

Well, it was for five years, if Woburn counts as "Boston." And the lab was at least half my life, so sure, Boston was my home. But anyway, Wednesday through Saturday I'll be at Gordon College, on the North Shore, about 40 minutes from where we used to live, at this Biologos conference. And the point of all this? Well, if you're in the neighborhood, and especially if you're bored on Saturday afternoon, contact me and I'll let you buy me a geographically-appropriate libation. If you're a friend of the Discovery Institute, I'll buy.

05 June 2010

An open letter to Stephen Meyer

Dear Steve:

It was good to meet you last month at Biola. The Q&A period after your presentation was a little too short, but I thought that we identified a couple of areas in which we could "continue to converse." These might include concepts of explanation, ideas surrounding supernatural action, notions of randomness and divine oversight, or more importantly the ways in which people (especially Christians) go about assessing the explanatory power and success of what we call science.

Yes, it would be great to follow up on our brief meeting onstage, and to find ourselves in situations in which topics of mutual interest are discussed by knowledgeable and intelligent people (at conferences, for example, or in multidisciplinary working groups). For my part, I'm eager to be involved in such activities, and in the coming years I intend to seek and create opportunities for scholars to consider concepts of biological design in the context of Christian belief.

Right now, I don't see how you could be a thoughtful contributor to such an effort. It's not because you're stupid, or because you have "bad relationship skills," and it's not because you prefer ID-based explanations for biological phenomena. It's because you seem to have abandoned scholarship and the intellectual community, and instead embraced apologetics and political persuasion. As near as I can tell, you've almost completely isolated yourself from science and from scholarship, and this means you have no future as a contributor to the consideration of design in biology. That strikes me as a sad waste; hence my letter to you.

Here are my observations, along with some unsolicited advice.

1. Although you claim to be interested in the origins of biological information and genetic control systems, you seem not to have any serious contact with scientists and scholars who study such things. Do you attend conferences on these subjects, or initiate contact with experts in these fields? Your ideas are potentially very significant – you seek to rule out naturalistic explanation for the origin of life and of DNA – but even if they were merely interesting, it would be foolish for you to think that you could contribute to the development of new theories or viewpoints outside of regular and rigorous interaction with colleagues who know this stuff the best. I have the impression that you don't do this. That's a crazy mistake.

2. A very serious and related problem is the nature of the scientific community that you do interact with. Jonathan Wells just isn't an accomplished or respected scientist, and his ideas are considered laughable by those (including me) who know and understand the relevant fields. Richard Sternberg's platonic views of biology are interesting, but he's on the fringe (to put it mildly) and, worse, he seems not to understand molecular biology. Doug Axe is a smart guy, it seems to me, but the two of you desperately need to get out of your freakish little gated community and talk to people who know that the initiation of cancer is indeed fueled to a large extent by driver mutations, and that genome sizes are indeed a hard problem for design theorists to tackle. When you have Wells whispering to you in one ear, and the bizarre perspectives of Richard Sternberg echoing in your mind, you have a huge problem: you're out of touch with real science, with real biology, with the ideas that you have to engage in order to really put design on the map.

Steve, seriously: you have no chance of having any influence outside of the church school circuit as long as you are isolating yourself and, worse, listening to some pretty confused people who seem not to even understand the ever-changing fields they claim to represent. Get out more. And find some new friends. It is without sarcasm or guile that I say that you are welcome to contact me anytime to ask questions or discuss ideas.

3. Your Discovery Institute is a horrific mistake, an epic intellectual tragedy that is degrading the minds of those who consume its products and bringing dishonor to you and to the church. It is for good reason that Casey Luskin is held in such extreme contempt by your movement's critics, and there's something truly sick about the pattern of attacks that your operatives launched in the weeks after the Biola event. It's clear that you have a cadre of attack dogs that do this work for you, and some of them seem unconstrained by standards of integrity. I can't state this strongly enough: the Discovery Institute is a dangerous cancer on the Christian intellect, both because of its unyielding commitment to dishonesty and because of its creepy mission to undermine science itself. I'd like to see you do better, but I have no such hope for your institute. It needs to be destroyed, and I will do what I can to bring that about.

4. If you want to save your legacy, to make your movement into something other than repackaged creationism, you should do both of the following. First, you should acknowledge the excellence of natural explanation in general and the steadily growing prowess of origin-of-life theories in particular. I don't mean that you should embrace these explanations, I mean that you should stop misleading your credulous audiences (in print and on stage) into concluding that such ideas are silly. Everyone who knows these fields knows that you are engaging in profoundly misleading tactics, and we have a right to question your integrity when we see that kind of stuff. There's a difference between pointing to the weaknesses in a theory and deliberately portraying it, inaccurately, as obvious nonsense. Stop it. Second, you should pay more attention to the ideas of Simon Conway Morris and (to a lesser extent) Michael Denton. If there's any hope for your movement at all, any hope that it can make intellectual headway and offer rational and useful explanation, it is to be found in the deliberate focus on design that Conway Morris and like-minded thinkers offer.

Steve, I just don't see how the Discovery Institute can be saved; from here it looks to be wholly corrupt. But you can still become a part of the scholarly examination of the phenomenon of biological design, and as a Christian you can offer insight into how these questions impinge on issues of faith. It would be a shame if your only contribution was as a political propagandist who served as an impediment to the honest consideration of design and intelligence in biological origins and who was remembered as an enemy of science.

Best regards,

Steve Matheson

04 June 2010

In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.

No one should take advice from this character, I'll grant you. But even King Richard II could see the obvious:
Then call them to our presence: face to face,
And frowning brow to brow, ourselves will hear
The accuser and the accused freely speak:
High-stomach’d are they both, and full of ire,
In rage deaf as the sea, hasty as fire.

--The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Act I, Scene I, The Oxford Shakespeare
So Richard Sternberg, that aggrieved martyr of the Smithsonian Institution, butchered at the hands of Evil Darwinists and now among his people in Seattle, has posted a nasty rebuttal to a three-month-old post of mine on Signature in the Cell. I had resolved to ignore the minions of that awful place, but I'll grace Richard with a response since he's found a mistake that I do need to correct.

31 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part III)

Here I'm continuing my discussion of the Signature in the Cell book-signing event at Biola University on 14 May. You'll want to read Parts I and II before reading on.

My second question to Steve Meyer was the one question I most wanted to ask him, both out of personal curiosity and because I thought the answer would help demystify many of his claims. The exchange that resulted was memorable – on that, everyone seems to agree. But the nature of my comments has been profoundly misrepresented by Meyer's hired guns. I hope that this will be crystal clear when I'm done here.

27 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part II)

Here are some further observations on the Stephen Meyer book-signing appearance. Part I dealt with Meyer's talk and the other festivities. Here I'll describe the last third of the event, in which Art Hunt and I (the "powerful group of credentialed critics") spent a short time questioning Meyer.

21 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part I)

So last week was the big book-signing shindig and Discovery Institute Annual Convention at Biola University. I knew the DI spin machine would move quickly, and sure enough I've already been quotemined and utterly misconstrued. But my real weakness is research, lab meetings and new papers to present in lab meeting, so some of you had to wait. I'm okay with that.

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.

17 April 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 8

It's been a month and a half since my last post in this series, and recently a friend asked me why I stopped. I can think of two reasons: first, I spent the month of March teaching a graduate course for the first time; second, I'm worried about how this is going to go. I'm worried because I can see that the book is poor scholarship – Meyer is either underinformed or overcommitted to his cause – and I can see that my critique will be considered within a religious milieu that hinders straightforward criticism and analysis. Ergo, I think this might not be very pretty. It would be a lot more fun to blog about any of 15 different papers from the last two issues of Nature.

But we need to finish, partly because I'll be on a panel of critics at an event with Stephen Meyer himself in Los Angeles next month. (Not just critics: "a powerful group of credentialed critics." More later.)

Chapter 8 is called "Chance Elimination and Pattern Recognition." It deals first with the notion of chance and then with subjects that are at the very heart of design thought – the dual consideration of improbable events and the genesis of phenomena that exhibit "patterns." The chapter is pretty good, but seems to contain seeds of significant future confusion.

04 April 2010

Behe and probability: one more try

Almost two years ago, I reviewed Michael Behe's latest book, The Edge of Evolution, here on the blog. I was unimpressed, to say the least, and remain of the opinion that Behe should not be considered a serious scientific thinker given his failure in that ludicrous book.

Since then, my posts have been referenced occasionally in the blogosphere, typically by people trying to explain Behe's surprisingly crude mishandling of probability in the context of genetics. One particular point has been singled out as a mistake on my part, and some ID defenders want that mistake to rescue Behe's argument. Let me describe the so-called mistake, then explain why I'm right.

28 March 2010

Introns and design

Mike Gene has posted an interesting series on introns that's worthy of a few comments. His thesis is that "introns facilitated the evolution of multicellular life."

A. The idea is interesting and rational but not novel. Research on introns and evolution is active and lively, and one prominent scientist in the field, Eugene Koonin, has proposed that introns drove many aspects of the evolution of eukaryotes (i.e., non-bacteria).

23 March 2010

Love. Peace. Unity. Or?

Last month, I read that Biologos (a Christian "think tank" that advances evolutionary creation) and Reasons To Believe (a Christian "think tank" that advances old-earth creationism) were reporting on a dialogue between their two organizations that was intended "to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement" with a particular focus on "the biological record of the past 700 million years."

This is very interesting to me. My position is very closely aligned with that of Biologos, so naturally I often disagree with the opinions of Reasons To Believe (RTB). But as I've explained in detail before, my big problem with RTB has nothing to do with their preference for miraculous intervention during biological evolution. It has to do with their proclivity for the crafting and promulgation of falsehoods, and I have asserted that their statements on various aspects of evolutionary science amount to misconduct that calls for intensive reform.

And so I'm quite curious about how Biologos and RTB interacted. The joint statement reports that "significant progress was made in clarifying similarities and differences" and that the two groups seek to model Christian disagreement that is characterized by "civility, grace, and unity." The comments are full of joyous praise for the effort, and the statement cites classic proof texts calling for Christian unity and mutual respect.

And who could disagree with that? Well, I'm going to try.

27 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 7

The chapter is called "Of Clues to Causes" and it's about scientific explanation. That's an interesting and important topic, one that opponents of evolutionary theory rarely understand. Meyer's summary is predictably fluffy but not inaccurate. Those seeking an introduction to philosophical questions pertaining to scientific explanation should look elsewhere, since Meyer says little in the 22-page chapter. His main points:
  1. There are indeed legitimately scientific means of understanding and seeking explanation for past events.
  2. These approaches validate ID as a "possible scientific explanation for the origin of biological information."
I don't disagree with either assertion. But neither is particularly helpful to ID in its quest for explanatory relevance. (Well, the main quest of the ID movement is to undermine naturalism by any means necessary, but its scientific challenge is to demonstrate that it can provide useful explanation.)

21 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 6

The chapter is called "The Origin of Science and the Possibility of Design." It's short, unimportant and uninteresting. Its purposes, along with Chapter 7, are twofold: 1) to counter the claim that ID theory is "not science" and 2) to establish that "historical science" (that which deals with the past) is not all that different from "operations science" (as defined by Charles Thaxton and others), specifically because the theorizing of "historical science" can be considered testable.

14 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapters 4 and 5 - errors and problems

Meyer's basic idea in chapters 4 and 5 is reasonably coherent. But I find further evidence in both chapters that Meyer is careless and underinformed on the subjects he addresses. (I explained before why I think this matters. If you think I'm not being nice enough to Meyer, consider providing me with the Rules of Engagement that apply when criticizing culture warriors who are proposing world-shifting new ideas.)

13 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapters 4 and 5 - major themes

Chapter 4 is called "Signature in the Cell." It's an important chapter for two reasons. First, along with chapter 5 ("The Molecular Labyrinth") it lays out Meyer's central question by pointing to the specific features of cellular information systems in need of explanation. Second, it exemplifies an aspect of ID thought that I want to highlight. I'll discuss these two themes here, then add some further critiques in a second post.

06 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 3

The chapter is called "The Double Helix," and there's not much to say about it. Meyer provides a fairly standard narrative of the discoveries that led to Watson and Crick and molecular biology. Anyone who's read The Eighth Day of Creation, along with a decent genetics textbook and/or a memoir by one of the principals (What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick is a personal favorite) will already know everything here. Two observations.

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?

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.

14 January 2010

A quick note about a hero

My chapter-by-chapter commentary on Signature in the Cell will resume shortly. But I can't resist writing a little about someone I know who did something extraordinary. Here's the short version.

This friend of mine, we'll call her "Susan," became inspired several months ago while reading accounts of people resisting Nazi occupation during World War II, and especially those who risked their lives (and often lost their lives) working to assist Jews and others targeted by the occupiers. She wondered how/if she would/could do such things. Subsequently, she read a story in our local paper about a grieving father who, in his son's name and honor, had donated a kidney to someone he didn't know, as part of a kidney donation chain. Susan thought, "I can do that." (She's married and has four kids ranging in age from 17 to 9.)

She contacted the local transplant program and found out that such altruistic donations had not occurred in Grand Rapids and that the center didn't have procedures for such an arrangement. But when the program realized Susan was serious, they put the procedures together and began the testing to determine Susan's suitability as a donor. It all culminated in the first altruistic kidney donation in West Michigan on Monday, 11 January. Both Susan and the recipient are doing really well.

Susan is my hero. Somehow, I'm lucky enough to be married to her. We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary a little more than two weeks ago.

Please look into the kidney donation thing. Think of it as an anniversary gift.

09 January 2010

Signature in the Cell: preliminary observations and prologue

There's not much point in "reviewing" a prologue, so let's start instead with some impressions gleaned from reading the prologue and the first chapter while leafing through the rest of the book.

1. This is clearly a pop-science book and not a serious work of scholarship. That's not an insult, just an observation.

07 January 2010

Signature in the Cell: other reviews

Interestingly, Meyer's book is getting a lot of attention right now. At the Jesus Creed, the excellent RJS is also blogging through the book. At Biologos, a guest piece by Francisco Ayala focuses mostly on theological issues. (I like Ayala a lot. I dislike his post a lot.) The ASA has finally decided to establish some blogs, one of which will host discussions of books. The first book under consideration is Signature in the Cell. (Unfortunately, only ASA members can comment, and that excludes me.) And PZ Myers is reading the book right now. He has already concluded that "there's no poetry in creationism." Well, that's a low blow. Meyer mentions Donne on page 16. What more did PZ expect? A personalized limerick? The Digital Cuttlefish?

06 January 2010

Signature in the Cell: beginning the review

So Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute, a founder of the ID movement, wrote a book called Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. It came out last summer, and I ignored it. I ignored it because it didn't seem interesting or important or new, and there's always something interesting and important and new to read. (I recently finished The Road. Wow.) It didn't matter to me that the ID people said it was "groundbreaking" or "seminal" or "a blueprint for twenty-first-century biological science" since they said things like that about Behe's last book. And that is a terrible book, one that reflects very poorly on its author. It seemed reasonable to assume that the ID movement wasn't going to generate any serious new arguments, and that if they did it would be obvious. Signature in the Cell gave no indication that it contained anything new.