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18 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars chance & necessity not up to the job, 14 April 2010
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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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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 May 2010 17:02:58 BDT
Last edited by the author on 7 May 2010 17:05:16 BDT
A. Jones says:
Creationists use the word "thermodynamics" inaccurately in discussing these things, because thermodynamics is specifically about energies; literally "heat-flow". "Entropy" is a good word, but "thermal entropy" is wrong (obviously). Therefore also "thermodynamics" is wrong.
Call it the "Law of Entropy" and point out that it is more general than just "thermodynamics"; that is fine. JUST PLEASE STOP CALLING IT THE 2ND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS.

Meyer is right to correct this. But creationists do not like to be corrected.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 May 2010 03:38:27 BDT
Keithy says:
Rubbish, you are saying that the group of people you have imagined creationists to be wouldn't like to be corrected. I am happy to be corrected, and I always apply the "the law of entropy" in a more general manner, in principle it even applies beyond the invocation boundary of the universe. i.e. the source of the universe must have had less entropy than the universe.

However the law of entropy is typically taught as "the 2nd Law of thermodynamics" it is the engineers and educators who teach the narrower application of the "law of entropy" that need correcting, and by analogue, with your statement of course "they will not like being corrected."

In reply to an earlier post on 22 May 2010 12:07:44 BDT
Last edited by the author on 22 May 2010 12:11:08 BDT
Lloyd To says:
My reply to A. Jones:

(1) Historically, thermodynamics was developed in the context of heat engines (classical thermodynamics). With the advent of statistical thermodynamics & information theory, the term '2nd law of thermodynamics' has been applied more widely. For example, in 'Basic Principles of Classical and Statistical Thermodynamics' Thomas Leland Jr. (U. of Illinois), after typically stating that heat is always transferred from a hotter body to a cooler one, then continues: "When expressed more generally to include all types of driving forces and their driven quantities, this uniqueness of direction becomes the Second Law." Leland had earlier tabulated the various types of driving forces. Or take 'Some Thoughts on Statistical Thermodynamics' by Davide Marini (MIT), who writes: "Some processes in nature happen spontaneously, some don't: this simple observation is the heart of the second law. If we throw a rock in a lake, the coherent motion of its atoms is converted to chaotic thermal motion of the water molecules. The reverse process, a rock being ejected from still water by a sudden coherent motion of the surrounding molecules has never been observed, even though it violates neither the first law of thermodynamics nor Newton's laws of motion. Spontaneous processes are characterized by the conversion of order to chaos: they occur in directions that increase the overall disorder of the universe (system and surroundings)." See:
http://www.uic.edu/labs/trl/1.OnlineMaterials/BasicPrinciplesByTWLeland.pdf
http://web.mit.edu/course/other/beh.410/www/Handouts/statmech.pdf
If you insist on altogether dropping the term '2nd law of thermodynamics' in discussions of complexity, I have no problem with that. As it happens, I don't use that term myself. However, Meyer's criticism of creationists, that elicited my objection, has *nothing* to do with *your* *comments*. On p256 para 2 (please *read* it) Meyer implies that creationists are ignorant of the *closed* *system* *condition* in the 2nd law. He should have familiarised himself with mainline creationist thinking before making such ill-informed insinuations.

(2) "Meyer is right to correct this." - Meyer was not 'correcting' what you suppose, as I've just shown. Your comments are a red herring.

(3) "But creationists do not like to be corrected." - if you mean *some* creationists don't like to be corrected, then you are merely stating the obvious. If you mean creationists are *statistically* *more* *likely* to object to being corrected than other groups, then the onus is on you to support your accusation with valid statistical data. If you mean *all* creationists don't like to be corrected, and that this is a trait *peculiar* *to* *creationists*, then I won't disturb your comfortable preconceptions!
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