18 of 35 people found the following review helpful
chance & necessity not up to the job
, 14 April 2010
This review is from: Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Hardcover)
The author (following Darwin) describes his book as "one long argument". And it is long - the main body of the text occupies over 500 pages - but the chapters are well sewn together to maintain continuity of the argument.
After an interesting and informative preamble of many pages, the main argument focuses on the discovery of the double helix as the repository of biological information, and the highly complex but tightly coordinated system involved in mapping each nucleotide triplet in a gene to an amino acid in the corresponding protein. This is the "Signature" of the title.
The author describes the many theoretical models that have been devised to explain the origin of this, based variously on chance, necessity, or a combination of both. He exposes fatal weaknesses in all of them. Attention is drawn to an important principle that is ignored by those who propose models based on necessity: information production is stifled by law-governed processes. Logically, contigency is a prerequisite for producing information-rich systems.
Some blithely assert that since highly improbable events occur all the time, life could have arisen by chance. But probability arguments need to be evaluated in the context of `probabilistic resources'. Meyer's colleague William Dembski had calculated the total number of events that could have occurred in the life of the universe to be 10exp(139). This is based on the estimated number of elementary particles in the universe, its assumed age, and the Planck time (the shortest interval that can contain an event). Compared with this, the probability of producing a specific 150 amino acid protein is 10exp(164). For such a relatively short protein to have a 50% chance of forming requires half that number of trials - a number that greatly exceeds the probabilistic resources of the whole universe.
"... origin of life theories that sound plausible when stated in a few sentences often conceal a host of practical problems." Meyer highlights the problem of the origin of information. "I discovered that every attempt to explain the origin of biological information either failed or transferred the problem elsewhere - either by presupposing some other unexplained sources of information or by overlooking the indispensable role of an intelligence in the generation of the information". He also mentions the relevance of the "No Free Lunch Theorems for Optimization" developed by two computer scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center. The important difference between specified, functional information on the one hand, and Shannon information, which is effectively a measure of information storage capacity, is clearly explained.
Common experience shows that while natural processes are capable of generating low levels of specified information, e.g. convection cells, they nevertheless have a universal tendency to degrade high levels of information, e.g. biopolymers. This is why self-organization theories prove inadequate. All origin of life models require information input from an intelligent source (unless the information is already hidden in the system). No other adequate causal agent of complex specified information has been discovered, despite a prolonged and intensive search. It is therefore eminently reasonable to propose ID as the causal agent of living systems. This is an inference from what is universally observed, and therefore scientifically compelling.
After demonstrating the inadequacies of naturalistic theories, Meyer introduces the reader to the method of design detection that Dembski had formalised. He explains how Dembski's criteria apply to DNA and the associated information processing machinery. "we recognize design patterns in the cell's information-processing system that match ones we know ... from our own information technology."
The last few chapters address "but is it science?" and similar objections. Many who acknowledge the absence of natural causes known to produce biological information, nevertheless reject ID on the grounds that it is based on present ignorance - future discovery may solve the enigma. The author contends that scientific knowledge is squarely based on what is known at present, and proscribes certain outcomes on that basis. E.g., the 1st Law of Thermodynamics asserts that energy cannot be created or destroyed. "Those who claim that such "proscriptive laws" do not constitute knowledge because they are based on past but not future experience will not get far if they try to use their skepticism to justify funding for research on, say, perpetual motion machines." and "Those who raise this kind of objection are objecting not only to the design inference, but to scientific reasoning itself."
Many of the same criteria that are applied to disqualify ID as a scientific theory equally disqualify other scientific theories, including evolutionary theories.
The exposition is generally lucid, and can be followed by the interested lay reader who has acquired some basic knowledge of the subject matter. Readers with no knowledge of the basic chemistry will find some chapters demanding, but the effort will be amply rewarded. The book doesn't short-change its readers.
I cannot end without taking issue with the author's propagation of the common charge that creationists misuse thermodynamics (p256). Instead of relying on comments by his students, he should consult the writings of qualified creation scientists. E.g. "Creation Scientists Answer Their Critics" by Duane Gish was published 16 years before "Signature". One whole chapter plus two appendices (a total of 109 pp) deal exclusively with thermodynamics. The author (Ph.D. biochemistry, Berkeley) introduces the discussion with the statement: "... we will be most concerned with statistical and informational thermodynamics because the origin of ... life, and the evolution of a single-celled organism into man would have required an enormous increase of complexity, organization, and information content ..." There is no excuse for Meyer's ill-informed generalisation of creationists, the majority of whom understand the point about open systems as well as he does.
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