Meyer’s new book reveals the irrational about evolution
by Terry Scambray
New Oxford Review
A review of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer. Harper One, 2009.
In a scene that could be straight out of a Henry James novel, Stephen Meyer, then an American graduate student at Cambridge, made an apparent faux pas. When an esteemed visiting lecturer was taking questions after his speech, Meyer asked for some sources on the subject at hand. The lecturer responded politely enough, but Meyer had a vague sense that he himself had struck a wrong note. Afterwards Meyer was pulled aside by one of the Cambridge dons. And in his high Oxbridge accent, the kindly don advised Meyer that admitting ignorance might be okay in America, but it was bad form at Cambridge. As the don put it, “Everyone here is bluffing, and if you’re to succeed, you must learn to bluff too.”
This book is a testament to the fact that, fortunately, such advice never sunk in with Meyer. For after abandoning his life as a geophysicist in search of oil for Atlantic Richfield, and then earning a Cambridge doctorate, he continued to ask questions as he humbly but resolutely began his new quest: the search to understand the origins and basis of life.
Of course, this is an ancient quest. And from then to now, most people have believed that the sublime order that we see in nature must have been designed. But Charles Darwin argued that design was an illusion. Nature alone by a process of accidental trial and error, called natural selection, over eons of time had produced this ineffable harmony.
However, despite its battalions of militant supporters and its acceptance by most educated people, Darwin’s theory from the beginning was weakly supported. It gained acceptance mainly for cultural reasons. Progressive ideas had gained dominance by the 19th century and correspondingly traditional institutions were taking their lumps, mainly religion. Against this background, criticisms of Darwin were castigated as regressive and religiously motivated, despite their scientific objectivity and rigor. Such polemical treachery continues to this day.
In this sense Dr. Meyer’s sweeping compendium provides a final, annihilating assault on the Darwinian Potemkin village. And that his remarkable treatise should be published in 2009 which are both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species adds a rounded finality to this destructive Darwinian episode in Western history.
Traveling to strange, exotic places profoundly influenced the visions of both Darwin and Meyer, Darwin to South America, Meyer to the interior of the organic cell. Though Darwin in his adventures saw the great prolixity of life, he had no idea of the microscopic complexity within each cell, of which we have trillions in our bodies. To him, cells were mere blobs of protoplasm, blunt instruments like building blocks. But for Meyer, as they are for modern science, cells are dauntingly complicated and provide the basis for life.
Meyer began his journey when circumstances drew him to a conference on origin of life issues. The conference made him realize how baffled science is about how life started. Meyer next realized that Darwin’s theory had a gaping hole when it provided no explanation for the transition from dead matter to life.
Contemporary Darwinists ignore this gap when it is to their advantage. However, when speaking to the faithful, they confidently prognosticate that natural selection will bridge this gap and thereby provide a plenary naturalistic, materialistic explanation for life’s emergence.
Dr. Meyer tells a more accurate story of the groping attempts to understand the fundamental structure of life.
Darwin’s earliest progressive disciples thought that since water emerges from a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen which are each so different from water, then perhaps life could also emerge from some combination of simple chemicals. This era, when much less was known both about the earth’s history and the complexity of life, was a last fleeting time when such naiveté was possible. However, by the 1920s, a major pioneer in origin of life studies, the Russian Aleksandr Oparin, wrote, “The problem of the nature of life and the problem of its origin have become inseparable.” This remark gave Meyer confidence in the direction his quest was taking.
Through the first half of the 20th century, despite the hype surrounding the promise of simulating life in the lab, scientists were becoming increasingly frustrated by their failures. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, advances in molecular biology and the understanding of heredity were steadily accumulating at the same time.
Back in the 1860’s, Gregor Mendel, in experimenting with his iconic sweet peas, had made the original discovery of distinctive hereditary traits. His insights along with the help of modern technologies like x-rays and sound waves in the 20th century made for increasingly clearer pictures of the interior of the cell. And the landscape inside the cell involves a whole variety of molecules, structures like “protein myoglobins”, contorted, weird, three dimensional Jackson Pollack configurations. There are also centrosomes, organelles, and an amazing array of other bio-chemical structures.
In 1953, Watson & Crick discovered the spiral stairway structure of the DNA molecule which resides in the nucleus of the cell. As Meyer puts it: “The sequences of nucleotide bases in DNA and the sequences of amino acids in proteins are highly improbable and, therefore, have large information-carrying capacities.” That is, the longer, more complicated these chains of bio-chemicals are, the more information they carry; and, correspondingly, it becomes less likely that these chains of functioning bio-chemicals came about by chance.
Furthermore, Dr. Meyer informs us that building a functioning cell requires more than just the genetic information discussed here. “It would have also required, at the very least, a suite of pre-existing proteins and RNA molecules — polymerases, transfer RNAs, . . .” and many other ingredients.
Additionally, constructing the architecture of “a cell would have required other pre-existing components”
Meyer calculates that, “the odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a pre-biotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164.”
Considering that in the known universe there are 1080 particles, it appears that the odds for the chance construction of a protein are vanishingly small.
Working as a geophysicist familiarized Meyer with computers and the nanotechnology of their digitally encoded informational and storage capacities. This experience opened him up to the reality that such processes exist within the microscopic architecture of the cell where genetic information is also transferred, indexed and stored for later use.
Meyer’s thesis is that chance is not capable of producing these bio-chemicals in just such a harmoniously functioning order. Such an improbable arrangement he calls, “specified complexity,” a concept he borrows from the mathematician and philosopher, William Dembski.
However, Darwinist materialists argue that natural forces like wind and erosion accidentally produced the majestic architecture of the Grand Canyon, so why can’t natural forces of whatever kind produce the architecture of the cell?
Yes, natural, unintelligent forces did produce the Grand Canyon. But they are incapable of producing the orchestrated, specified and complex harmonies of The Grand Canyon Suite. Or to offer a closer counterpart in language, compare Dr. Seuss and Finnegan’s Wake. While the former is repetitive and predictable, the latter is richly bathed in a meaningful context though it may superficially appear disorganized.
Just such realizations drove Meyer to the fundamental question: “What is a better candidate to be that fundamental explanatory principle, the thing from which specified complexity or information intimately comes? Mind or matter?”.
Meyer responds: “Our uniform experience shows that minds have the capacity to produce specified information.” Unintelligent, material processes do not. Therefore, intelligent design “constitutes an inference to the best explanation.”
In a charming section called “Modern Cambridge, Ancient Cambridge,” Meyer tours the places in Cambridge where pioneer scientists worked. Foremost among these scientists was Isaac Newton who wondered, “How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art. . . Was the Eye contrived without skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds?” Meyer echoes such sentiments when he asks, How could genes and proteins have survived, much less reproduced, before there even existed “the extraordinarily complex organismal context in which they alone appear to function?”
Materialistic theories like evolution cannot begin to explain such down-steam planning. Once again the only known cause of such context dependent information systems is a mind with insight and foresight.
In fact, in Ancient Cambridge, the idea that nature is a product of a designing mind provided the crucible in which science developed. But during the last 200 years, this view has been resisted by the thinkers in Modern Cambridge. They insist that, since ‘design’ is a mere religious belief, it cannot be falsified; thus, it is unscientific. Though, immediately after issuing such a fiat, these critics begin cobbling together arguments which attempt to falsify design.
One such argument revolves around the idea that intelligent design suggests an interdiction, a “front loading” of nature which violates the regularity of natural laws. And, as the argument goes, If God or some entity is responsible for such a violation, this merely begs the question of, “Who made God?”
Once again ignoring the advice given to him in Cambridge to rely on bluffing, Meyer responds to all such questions transparently and exhaustively.
He dispatches the first question by arguing that scientific explanations often rely on the discontinuity of natural laws in order to explain something presently observed. For example, Meyer points to the fact that the unusual height of the Himalayans is a result of unique factors, nowhere else seen in such geologic episodes. Materialistic origin of life scenarios also rely upon a singular event, not a general law, to explain how the first living cell was formed.
The question “Who made God?” is also refuted by Meyer. He points out that materialist explanations must themselves finally rest on assumptions. For example, who or what made gravity along with the chemicals, particles and their bonding affinities upon which materialistic explanations rely?
As Meyer concludes: “All causal explanations must ultimately terminate with explanatory entities that do not themselves require explication by reference to anything more fundamental or primary.”
To accept materialist assumptions and then to reject design assumptions is a form of special pleading as Meyer points out.
Stephen Meyer has written a seminal book that deals with complicated matters in a most engaging way. Built itself on the form of the scientific quest, the book takes the reader along as Meyer gradually realizes where all of this is taking him. Thus, however complicated matters get, this is a good story, filled with enlightening anecdotes, and also many reader friendly, shaded pencil sketches to further illuminate this grandest of all quests.
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, CA.