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.

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