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.

2. In discussions at Telic Thoughts over the last week and a half, I got the impression that the book is primarily about DNA and genomics. I was wrong. It's part memoir, part basic overview, part rehash of arguments based on "information." There seems to be little about genomes and their structure here. Again, that's not an insult or a critique. But don't be fooled by claims that this is a work of serious science or that the subtitle ("DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design") indicates a systematic examination of genomics.

3. The book includes excellent notes, an extensive bibliography and an exhaustive index. Very nice.

4. Perusing the index, I discovered something very curious. Mike Behe is mentioned exactly three times in the book, solely in discussions of Darwin's Black Box and irreducible complexity. Nowhere in the book does Meyer cite or mention The Edge of Evolution, where Behe tries to create evidence for intelligent design by calculating mutation rates in, you know, DNA. Hmmm. I'll bet that was an interesting meeting of the Fellows.

5. From the prologue, page 8:
This book attempts to make a comprehensive, interdisciplinary argument for a new view of the origin of life. It makes "one long argument" for the theory of intelligent design.
This looks like a mistake to me. The book is, at least in part, a breezy memoir. Does Meyer really want it compared to the Origin of Species?

6. Key passage from page 8:
Thus, Signature in the Cell does not just make an argument; it also tells a story, a mystery story and the story of my engagement with it. It tells about the mystery that has surrounded the discovery of the digital code in DNA and how that discovery has confounded repeated attempts to explain the origin of the first life on earth. Throughout the book I will call this mystery "the DNA enigma."
I wonder if Meyer understands – really understands – how badly his project will turn out if it's all about what we don't yet know. If this book is about building a case for intelligent design by repeatedly restating the fact that we don't yet understand the origin of the first life on earth, then this book is not an argument for intelligent design. It is more likely the death rattle of the movement of the same name.

7. A key question from the final sentences of the prologue:
Even if we grant Darwin's argument in the Origin, does it really follow that he refuted the design hypothesis?
Again, this is a mistake in my view. What is argued by Ayala and others (it is Ayala that Meyer is answering in the close of the prologue) is not that Darwin "refuted the design hypothesis." In other words, the claim is not that "design is wrong." The claim is that design is not a useful explanation. As I would put it, design isn't the answer, it's the question. That's what you get when you grant Darwin's argument. You don't "refute" design; you enfeeble it as an explanation for biological change.


Bill said...

It appears that "Signature" is a rehash of Meyer's 2004 article (Google - meyers hopeless monster) which is a rehash of Meyer's earlier 2001 writings.

No wonder he didn't reference Behe's Edge book. Behe's totally bungled probability calculations, along with his takedown by a graduate student on one of his main thesis points, killed any relevance of Behe's work.

John Lynch said...

Some nice points here, Steve. I'm looking forward to the rest of this.

Arni Zachariassen said...

"design isn't the answer, it's the question." Nicely put!

Jimpithecus said...

If it really is a rehash, then it will be the third rehash in recent memory by a prominent ID author. Michael Behe rehashed Darwin's Black Box with The Edge of Evolution, William Dembski and Jonathan Marks' new article rehashes No Free Lunch. Is there nothing new to say?

By the way, I love the part about the book being the "death rattle of the movement of the same." It is clear that the DI doesn't see it that way, though.

Jimpithecus said...

Sorry, linked the wrong post. Here is the article link for the Dembski and Marks article. http://marksmannet.com/RobertMarks/REPRINTS/2009_ConservationOfInformationInSearch.pdf

John Farrell said...

If it really is a rehash, then it will be the third rehash in recent memory by a prominent ID author.

Right on the money.

John Farrell said...

The book is, at least in part, a breezy memoir. Does Meyer really want it compared to the Origin of Species?

Of course he does, Steve. Don't forget, William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory. ID Fellows have a history of high self-esteem.


Anonymous said...

Lets see here.....Steven Meyer vs. Steve Matheson????? Are you serious Steve Matheson? Do you think some average student from Arizona State can match the intellect of Steven Meyer fame. Stop kidding yourself Matheson. Just because your career is in Biology and you feed your family because of it, doesnt mean that evolution is true. Its obvious you are just gonna give the same old tired review of SITC - "its not science"......We have heard it all before. Whats painfully sad to me is that your name has to be associated with one of the greatest Thelogians of all time, John Calvin

Stephen Matheson said...

Anonymous, thanks for the laughs! I admit that I'm offended that you associate me with Arizona State University, but I'm sure you are otherwise very careful in your reading of the genomics and origin-of-life technical literature. Anyway, I'm sure that Steve Meyer is thrilled to know that he has such devoted fans in Roanoke.

Bill said...

Although I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy, I'm afraid the latter would be in order to match wits with Meyer.

As for Dembski, he's the Alfred E. Neuman of Information Technology. Get it right!

And, no, in case you were wondering, I don't have any respect for creationists.

Martin LaBar said...

That's a fine last paragraph. Thanks.

Joshua said...

You may want to take a look at Jeffrey Shallit's take on the book http://recursed.blogspot.com/2009/10/stephen-meyers-bogus-information-theory.html

He focuses primarily on the issues of information theory. He notes some interesting lapses in what otherwise appears to be an extensive bibliography.

John Farrell said...

Jeff Shallit has posted his review.