Signature in the Cell pre-review

Stephen Meyer has a new book out on Intelligent Design (ID) called Signature in the Cell. Although I have not read the book, I am going to offer a “pre-review” of the book based on what I know of it and Stephen Meyer. You can download an excerpt of the book here.

To sum up the argument of the book, at least in this excerpt, it is an argument from personal disbelief.  He looks at organisms and thinks “there is no way this happened on its own.  There must have been a designer!”  Meyer will surely make the same tired and evidence-less arguments of ID proponents:  Look how perfectly put together the cell is.  Evil Darwinists have been wrong before!

The title, Signature in the Cell, says a lot more than Meyer wants.  He uses the word “signature”  Doesn’t signature imply that there is some unmistakable sign we can observe?  However, none has been found yet.  Maybe this could lead to an ID hypothesis:

The designer would have left an unmistakable mark in cells that has no other function than to provide information about the designer

If such a hypothesis gets evidence to support it, then I think you have a lot of evolutionists onboard.  I will patiently await this evidence.  Currently unexplained phenomena are not evidence.

In the excerpt of the book, I take issue with some of the ideas that Meyer is conveying, but he does get one thing right:

the appearance of design in living things has been understood by most biologists to be an illusion—a powerfully suggestive illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. As Crick himself put it thirty-five years after he and Watson discerned the structure of DNA, biologists must “constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”

This sort of putting biases and preconceptions aside is part of biology and all of science.  One typical example is the personification (anthropomorphizing) of microbes or even chemical reactions.  Or what about relativity or even quantum mechanics?  Scientists have to constantly guard against human biases and heuristics in order to find out what is really going on .

This is exactly why science depends on testable hypotheses.  This is why experiments have to be reproduced.  This is exactly why there are statistics.  This is why scientists carry out “blind” experiments whenever possible.  When these things are ignored, science turns into pseudoscience.  Meyer using this weakness of human thinking as an argument for intelligent design is ridiculous.

Perhaps I will read the book and offer a real review in the future, but don’t hold your breath.   Until real evidence appears in high caliber peer-reviewed journals, ID should be thought of and treated like pseudoscience.


15 Responses

  1. I think that is an argument of ignorance not of disbelieve, because the reason he comes to that conclusion is because he cannot think of another way than design; forgetting we have a very good theory called evolution by natural selection.

    • i think it odd that there is a “pre” review of this book. You know what else they called preform suppositions? Bias. You do no favors for your argument by using ad hominem or other fallacies. I guess dogma allows for no discussion.

      • Curious – I saw no ad hominem. In my experience, it is almost as if anti-evolutionists are sort of pre-programmed to simply accuse those not in lockstep with them of employing ad hominems.

  2. Ryan, I wrote a “pre” review because of my knowledge of Stephen Meyer and my readings about the book. I also wrote it because I have heard these same arguments put forward before. I do not find them compelling. I did not use any ad hominem attacks. What fallacies did I use?

    Also, I never said there isn’t any discussion allowed, but I appreciate you using the Discovery Institute’s talking point. If I am so dogmatic, then don’t you find it odd that I am discussing a book put forth from someone with a different point of view?

  3. If the arguments in the book are as erroneous as you claim, then you should have no problem finding evidence to support your attacks. Until then, your “pre-view” is as “evidence-less” as the ID arguments that you characterize as such. I am not necessarily saying the claims you make are incorrect, only improperly made.

    An ad hominem attack is BY DEFINITION a response to an argument that is directed at the character or beliefs of the argument’s author, rather than the argument itself. You attack Meyer’s credibility/character on the basis of his role in the Discovery Institute (a group of which I, personally, am skeptical), and on the basis of his belief in ID. You say as much in your first paragraph.

    An excerpt is not adequate to establish an opinion on the book, especially if it is the section that lays out the thesis, because there is not room for the author to fully develope the argument or present the necessary evidence to support the thesis. So, even if an ad hominem argument was not your intention, it is what it is.

    If discussion is your true goal, the way to go about that would be to read the book and then present the evidence to invalidate its arguments. All that a “pre-review” does is establish bias and hinder debate. In summary, Don’t piss on your readers’ backs and tell us it’s raining. Wait for the real thing.

    • “An ad hominem attack is BY DEFINITION a response to an argument that is directed at the character or beliefs of the argument’s author, rather than the argument itself. ”

      In real life, an ad hominem is BY DEFINITION an argument that is directed at IRRELEVANT characteristics or beliefs of the argument’s author.

      That Meyer is a religionist philosopher associated with a religio-political organization among whose stated goals is the insertion of their Christian beliefs (which, apparently, includes a rejection of evolution) into American culture is certainly NOT irrelevant, just as pointing out the fact that Meyer is not a biologist or geneticist and has no track record or recognized expertise on any of the issues he writes about is also not irrelevant.
      It would serve the anti-evolution community well to make sure that you actually understand the accusations you hurl.

  4. skeptic,
    My goal in this post was simply to inform readers of the book and offer my opinions of it. I never claimed that my short blog post was evidence against ID. Also, I never hid the fact that I have not read the book. Take it for what it is.

    Perhaps your definition of ad hominem is different than mine. I did not attack Meyer, only his arguments. I didn’t even bring up his role at the Discovery Institute.

    Discussion is not my only goal (although I do enjoy it). I try to show the other side to the arguments put forth by intelligent design proponents. Often these arguments are ignored by my colleagues and science proponents.

    Like I said in the post, the “real thing” would be evidence appearing in high-profile, peer-reviewed journals. A book is not the correct forum to argue against such a well-supported theory as evolution. I see what you are saying. Be open-minded. Just remember that you shouldn’t be so open minded that your brains fall out.

    • I see what you’re saying. It just seems that too often, the intial response any ID argument, regardless of its merit, is summary dismissal rather than an intellectual debate. Contrast the responses to Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” – Richard Dawkins vs. Keith Robison, respectively. You say you take the intellectual approach, and that’s good enough for me.

      “Be open-minded. Just remember that you shouldn’t be so open minded that your brains fall out”

      – love it

  5. I would be curious to know what you think of the following claim that Steve Meyer makes in this book:

    “Steven J. Gould, the Harvard paleontologist and historian of science insisted that the “historical sciences” such as geology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology used different methods than “experimental sciences” such as chemistry and physics. Interestingly, he also argued that understanding how historical sciences differed from experimental sciences helped to legitimate evolutionary theory in the face of challenges to its scientific rigor by those who questioned its testability. Gould argued that historical scientific theories were testable, but not necessarily by experiments under controlled laboratory conditions. Instead, he emphasized that historical scientists tested their theories by evaluating their explanatory power. Could the same thing be true of the design hypothesis? Perhaps a theory of intelligent design could be formulated as a historical scientific theory about what happened in the past.”

    Additionally, Meyer asked how sequence-specific digital information necessary to building the first cell arise? What is the presently acting cause of the origin of digital information? What is the cause of such information? Or what is the only known cause of this effect? He says, “based upon common experience and my knowledge of the many failed attempts to solve the problem with unguided pre-biotic simulation experiments and computer simulations, there is only one sufficient cause for the origin of such functionally specific information. And that cause is intelligence. Based on the cause-and-effect structure of the world, that intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of the information necessary to build the first cell.” Meyer is also drawing an inference between computer programs, which produce specified complex information much like the DNA molecule. ID proponents say they are forming arguments for ID based on what we know and observe, not from ignorance. I can agree with that, but I think they may still be stuck in weak analogies.

  6. Sarah,
    Sure, ID could be formulated as a historical scientific theory. However, it would have to prove itself to be worthy. This involves the theory making accurate and specific predictions. Something akin to how evolutionary theory predicted the existence of transitional fossils, like tiktaalik. ID would also have to come up with some real details and not the vague generalities associated with the idea. Who was the designer? When did the designer exert its influence. How did the designer accomplish this? etc. Finally, ID would have to prove itself a better explanation for the diversity of life than evolution. The theory would need to explain all the faults in biological systems, the presence of transitional fossils at particular times and places in history, and the genetic similarities between species better than evolution. So far it doesn’t even come close.
    As to your second point, I think the core problem is that Meyer wants to use “common experience” to describe something that is greatly outside of the human experience. Humans have very short lives in the scope of evolutionary time. To imagine millions upon millions of years is nearly impossible. Besides, evolution is not the only place where “common experience” is worthless. Take the theory of relativity for example. Or what about how light is both a wave and a particle? What about supersymmetry or entanglement. All of these things go against our common experience, yet they are real.
    By the way, when Meyer writes that “there is only one sufficient cause for…..and that cause is intelligence,” it is the textbook example of a “god of the gaps” argument. I completely agree with your assessment of the ID proponents forming their arguments from what we know and observe. However, that is not good enough for understanding reality. Its about experiments and evidence, not gut feelings.

    • Obviously you did not read the book either. Meyer deals with everyone of your objections conclusively. READ THE BOOK. Stop being ignorant.

      • John,
        I appreciate you coming by my blog, but you did not offer me anything except that I should read the book and “stop being ignorant.” I really do not have the time or the desire to read the book. However, since Meyer so conclusively deals with my objections, perhaps you could paraphrase?

  7. ………a pre-review ……………………………………………………….
    thanks, you certainly have a scientific and methodical approach to your reviews…………..

  8. “Although I have not read the book, I am going to offer a “pre-review” of the book”

    No problem with “argument from ignorance” here. No-no. Not me.

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