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I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Stephen C. Meyer by phone on Monday, January 11, about his powerful recent book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The book’s main argument, if I may be so bold as to summarize 600+ pages into one sentence, is that (1) materialist explanations (involving only natural processes) for the information present in the first life have never been found and are nowhere on the horizon, (2) that information is known to come from one source and one only, which is mind, (3) that mind is therefore the best explanation for that information, and (4) it is artificial and arbitrary to rule out mind as an explanation.
My first question to Dr. Meyer was something I don’t think I have seen discussed by ID proponents. ID opponents talk about it frequently but usually not in any satisfying way. The question was, “for those of us who are not specialists in the technical fields under discussion—biochemistry, biology, and even geology and cosmology which are not the topics of this book—is it reasonable for us to come to any conclusion on these questions? Can we know enough to make an informed decision of our own?”
ID opponents’ typical answer is, “There is no controversy, so there is no question. Why are you even asking?” For his answer, Dr. Meyer focused just on the origin of life and the information that it must have contained and expressed. The scientific facts are presented in the book for those who want to dive into them. For those who are not so equipped or inclined, the key point is that the basic facts are not in dispute: materialistic explanations are not working—at all—nor are there any prospects that they will in the foreseeable future. So the question is not whether there is or is not some materialistic explanation to be compared with proposed Design explanations. The question is whether one is allowed to entertain Design as an explanation; and if not, then why not?
Scientific rejoinders to this argument have been few, and none of them have addressed the core argument of the book: the origin of the first functional biological information. Not that there haven’t been negative reviews, but that they have lacked substance where it counts most. One of the better ones, by Darrell Falk at Biologos, touches on miniscule details and not on the fundamental point Meyer is making. Another review there, by the very eminent biologist Francisco Ayala, is much more theological in nature than scientific, and weak at that, in my view.
Reviews at Amazon, as I have already analyzed and reported (and discussed in the interview), turn the usual complaints against ID upside down: it is the negative reviewers, the ID antagonists, who have displayed dogmatic theological anti-intellectualism.
Meyer is not an experimentalist. Is his argument therefore not science? He offers two answers: one, does it matter if it’s science if it’s the best explanation? And two, if his is not science on that basis, then ID opponents will be embarrassed to find out who else they have thereby declared to be non-scientists. I suggest you read the book (especially Chapter 4-6 and thereabouts) to find out who; but you can hear the short answer in this podcast interview.
More than six months after its publication, it’s hard to find any effective scientific response against it. One Amazon reviewer called this book a “game-changer.” Time will tell if that’s going to be the case or not. But I have a strong feeling that if you don’t read this book, you’re not even going to know what the score is.
Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer. New York: HarperOne, 2009. 624 pages including extensive endnote material. Amazon Price US$19.13
(The content of the podcast is copyright 2010 by the participants. I edited my portion of the conversation to improve my sometimes slow conversational pace and upgrade your listening experience. Dr. Meyer did not need that kind of help.)