book report: Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (2009)

Stephen Meyer hopes this book has the impact that Darwin's Origin of Species has had on the world. I don't think Signature in the Cell stands alone in the way Origin does, but in concert with all the other books (Darwin's Black Box by Behe) from practicing scientist supporting Intelligent Design, it is a major player. Will intelligent design be the next scientific revolution as Kuhn describes them? I hope so. Scientifically, Meyer's arguments are tight, but the philosophical hurdle may be too much for predominantly agnostic and atheistic scientific high priesthood.
According to one worldview, mind is the primary or ultimate reality. On this view, material reality either issues from a preexisting mind, or it is shaped by a preexistent intelligence, or both. Mind, not matter, is, therefore, the prime or ultimate reality - the entity from which everything else comes, or at least the entity with the capacity to shape the material world. Plato, Aristotle, the Roman Stoics, Jewish philosophers such as Moses Maimonides, and the Christian philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas each held some version of this perspective. Most of the founders of modern science during the period historians of science call the scientific revolution (1300-1700) also held this mind-first view of reality. Many of theese early modern scientists thought that their studies of nature confirmed this view by providing evidence, in Sir Isaac Newton's words, of "an intelligent and powerful Being" behind it all...The opposite view holds that the physical universe or nature is the ultimate reality... The age-old conflict between the mind-first and matter-first worldviews cuts right through the heart of the mystery of life's origin. Can the origin of life be explained purely by reference to material processes such as undirected chemical reactions or random collisions of molecules? pp. 36-37.
Meyer's argues well in the rest of the book that only guided experiments produce hoped for origin of life molecules, and only assisted simulations generate specified and complex information. Darwin wrote his argument when cells were understood as vital protoplasm with no guess at the complexity of the machinery within each and every cell. Meyer goes into detail on just a few components of cellular machinery, DNA, RNA, and the storage of protein information and it translation into protein products. The water gets deep, but Meyer explains it well. I hope the reader not familiar with molecular biology does not give up. In my work as a metabolism biologist, I'm familiar with equally complex systems with multiple redundancies that make the development of medicines very difficult and costly. It seems that the biology is fractal, every level is just as complex as the level above it.

Meyer wants to focus on the origin of life as a case for intelligent design.
The picture of the cell provided by modern molecular biology has led scientists to redefine the question of the origin of life. The discovery of life's information-processing systems, with their elaborate functional integration of proteins and nucleic acids, has made it clear that scientists investigating the origin of life must now explain the origin of at least three key features of life. First, they must explain the origin of the system for storing and encoding digital information in the cell, DNA's capacity to store digitally encoded information. Second, they must explain the origin of the large amount of specified complexity or functionally specified information in DNA. Third, they must explain the origin of the integrated complexity - the functional interdependence of parts - of the cell's information-processing system. pp. 134-135
He then shows the failures of science to find purely material explanations for these issues and analogies to support design. He cites the work of Michael Polanyi contrary to the theory of DNA arising because of the laws of physics and chemistry. "DNA base sequencing cannot be explained by lower-level chemical laws or properties any more than the information in a newspaper headline can be explained by reference to the chemical properties of ink." p. 240 This is a great example of the philosophy behind the book. The analogies can be understood by anyone, not only those with higher degrees and white lab coats. For those of us who like the details, though, this book is good.

The end of the book focuses on the divergence that results between the two philosophies. Materialists responded to the discovery of non-coding areas of the DNA by calling them accumulated mutational junk. Design theorists expected function, and then they were proved right. The functions of "junk" DNA keep being discovered, mostly by those who don't expect design, but it doesn't seem to sway them. But neither does the macro structures on animals. If one prefers to not believe in God, evidence for Him, must be explained away. If one does believe in God, it's a pleasure to admire his artistry, like Meyer does.




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