Did life arise by design or by accident? This debate has engaged scientists for years. One of the leaders of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has written an engaging and challenging answer to the question.
Stephen C. Meyer earned B.S. degrees in physics and earth science from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University) in 1981. He worked as a geophysicist for an oil company from 1981-1985, then obtained M. Phil. (1987) and Ph.D. (1991) degrees in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University. After an extensive academic career, Meyer became Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, in 1996.
Signature in the Cell follows in the same great tradition as its predecessors. In Darwin’s Black Box Michael Behe developed the concept of “irreducible complexity,” the idea that some biological structures are too complex to have evolved by chance. This book was followed by The Design Inference, William Dembski’s complex mathematical demonstration that specified complexity requires ID. Both these books were based on solid science, and both were widely criticized by the scientific community.
Signature considers the information content of DNA and the improbability that this complex molecule could arise by chance. Drawing on disciplines such as biochemistry, molecular biology, information theory, probability and statistics, and computer science, Meyer makes a compelling argument for design. He looks at what he calls “the DNA enigma” to rule out other possibilities for the origin of life and to support his position on ID.
One very valuable section of the book is the discussion of possible origin-of-life scenarios. Meyer reviews the extensive literature on the subject, from the famous Miller-Urey paper in 1953 to current “RNA world” theories. By pointing out significant shortcomings in these ideas, the foundation is laid for the alternative of ID.
The broad scope of the work is both a benefit and a drawback. Signature offers a comprehensive survey of relevant material from a number of disciplines. This broad-based effort is also somewhat of a drawback because the reader needs some familiarity with the science in order to follow the arguments. However, it is well worth the effort in order to grasp the picture that Meyer so deftly paints.
One of the many enjoyable aspects of the book is the way the story unfolds. The material is not covered with just a “here are the facts” approach. Meyer shares his journey with us and relates his thoughts, experiences, and ideas as he develops his premises and conclusions. We share the questions, the challenges, the “aha” moments when things start to fall into place. We read the names of many famous scientists, not as dry footnotes of who did what, but in conversation.
In addition to the compelling science component, Meyer offers a rigorous defense of the ID movement. He is very conversant with the major objections to ID and answers them convincingly. The accusation that ID is a “science stopper” is dealt with effectively with his analysis of what science is and is not. In addition, Meyer lists a number of testable predictions (one of the requirements for any scientific theory) that come out of ID research.
Many evolutionists argue that ID is nothing more than “stealth creationism,” a not-so-subtle attempt to introduce the Genesis creation story into schools. What the critics fail to realize, as Meyer points out, is that there are ID supporters in many world religions and some who profess no religion. Yes, there are theological and metaphysical implications for ID, just as there are for Darwinism or any number of currently controversial scientific issues. Just because these implications exist should not exclude the theory from the scientific arena.
Signature in the Cell provides two valuable contributions to the debate about life. First, the “DNA enigma” directly challenges the reigning scientific paradigm as to how life in all its complexity originated and is replicated. Second, the book contains a very useful overview of the basic concepts of intelligent design, the arguments offered by ID opponents, and the responses to those arguments. The book deserves to be on the bookshelf of anyone even remotely interested in this issue.
—Donald E Calbreath
Donald F. Calbreath, PhD, retired in 2006 after twenty-two years on the chemistry faculty at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. His research interests involve the relationships between brain neurochemistry and human behavior.