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.

Comments in non-random order.

1. Chapter 6 simply notes that scientists from the deep past (Kepler, Newton, etc.) were believers who made various design arguments. In this context, Meyer puts a design spin on the birth of modern science in the West, and I'm very curious what others (John Lynch, Todd Wood, Del Ratzsch) would think about his angle. Specifically, it seems to me that Meyer substitutes "design" for "theism" or "belief in a creator." For example, I think many historians and philosophers of science would agree with Meyer that Christian thought was a critical impetus for the development of modern science, by undergirding such central assumptions as the intelligibility of nature. But the scholars I've read emphasize the role of Christian understanding of creation, not particularly design. In other words, the belief that the cosmos was created, by a God with certain attributes, led to the assumptions of intelligibility, uniformity, and so on. Meyer repeatedly suggests that it was belief in a "designing mind" that birthed scientific thought, and while I'm sure that Boyle and Kepler and Newton believed in a God who could be described that way, I'm suspicious of the way he's peppering the narrative with references to design. One need not enthuse about design, the way ID advocates do, to assert belief in a Creator and thereby enable the assumptions that form the foundation of scientific thought.

2. But of course, if the goal is to establish ID as "science" or as a worthy pursuit with explanatory potential, then the beliefs of people at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution are simply irrelevant. (Not to mention potentially embarrassing: wasn't Newton the guy who thought that God had to constantly intervene miraculously to keep the planets in their orbits?) Isaac Newton's faith, whatever it was, doesn't help us understand gravitation. Richard Dawkins' lack of faith doesn't help us understand adaptation. Even if I believed in the overwhelming power of "worldviews," I would find this focus on the personal beliefs of 17th-century astronomers to be immaterial to the question of whether ID can help us understand the cosmos.

3. Meyer's credulous repetition of the creationist canard about "junk DNA" led me to suspect that we're going to see a lot of folk science in this book. And then I read this, on page 138, in reference to the "interdisciplinary" and non-experimental approach of Watson and Crick:
I was not an experimentalist, but a former applied scientist and philosopher of science. In my investigations of the DNA enigma, I began to marshal every relevant intellectual resource and insight – scientific, historical, mathematical and philosophical – that I could.
I'm skeptical of this claim. I find the book so far to be fluffy and vacuous, simplistic at best and not infrequently wrong or misleading. Meyer's claims about Darwin and the 19th-century design argument, for example, are inaccurate, and his understanding of molecular genetics is undergraduate textbook-level. Signature in the Cell is not the product of a serious two-decades-long inquiry into theories of the origins of genetic information systems. Such a book would look fantastically different from this one. No, this is a work of folk science, at least so far, and readers should not be impressed by Meyer's claim to have comprehensively examined the intellectual landscape of his topic. His aim, as I see it, is much more straightforward, and much less difficult.

4. Recall that Meyer refers to the book as "one long argument for the theory of intelligent design." This got me thinking about the other book that was referred to in this way by its author. And I decided to start a new feature in this series. As we look at each new chapter in Signature in the Cell, which runs to about 500 pages (with the Epilogue and first Appendix), we will choose a page and compare it to the same page in The Origin of Species, 6th Edition, which runs to page 429.

Chapter 6 of Signature in the Cell ends with a discussion of Charles Thaxton's ideas. Here's an excerpt from page 148:

I remembered that my Dallas mentor, Charles Thaxton, thought that many scientists today rejected design out of hand because they failed to recognize that there were different types of scientific inquiry, specifically, that there was a distinctive kind of scientific inquiry concerned with investigating and explaining the past. His distinction between origins and operations science suggested a reason to consider an "intelligent cause" as a possible scientific explanation for the origin of life.
And here's what Charles Darwin was doing on page 148:
According to this view it may be inferred that all vertebrate animals with true lungs are descended by ordinary generation from an ancient and unknown prototype, which was furnished with a floating apparatus or swimbladder. We can thus, as I infer from Owen's interesting description of these parts, understand the strange fact that every particle of food and drink which we swallow has to pass over the orifice of the trachea, with some risk of falling into the lungs, notwithstanding the beautiful contrivance by which the glottis is closed. In the higher Vertebrate the branchiæ have wholly disappeared—but in the embryo the slits on the sides of the neck and the loop-like course of the arteries still mark their former position. But it is conceivable that the now utterly lost branchiæ might have been gradually worked in by natural selection for some distinct purpose: for instance, Landois has shown that the wings of insects are developed from the tracheæ; it is therefore highly probable that in this great class organs which once served for respiration have been actually converted into organs for flight.
How's that for contrast?

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