The Signature in the Cell

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll

One of the most vexing and long-standing mysteries of science is the origin of life: that is, how did the building blocks of matter (atoms and molecules) lead to the building block of life: the biological cell? As recently as 2008, Richard Dawkins (who believes that everything is the product of evolutionary processes) confessed, “No one knows.”

Up until the nineteenth century, leading scientists generally assumed that an organizing Intelligence was involved. But after the popularization of Darwinian theory, origin-of-life researchers began narrowing their investigative scope to unintelligent causes. 

For a time, explaining life as the unplanned effect of natural forces went rather swimmingly. Then, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick unraveled the architecture of DNA, the now famous double helix “molecule of life.” Although their discovery solved one thorny mystery of science—how biological information is stored—it led to another, even deeper, mystery: its source.

Fittingly, Dr. Stephen Meyer calls the information in life’s macromolecule “The Signature in the Cell,” the title of his recent book. Signature contains the most compelling evidence, to date, for intelligent design (ID). In the origin-of-life debate, ID is the proposition that certain features in nature are best explained, scientifically, as products of intelligence.

An important contribution to the debate is Meyer’s clarification on what it is that scientists do.

The work of science

It is regularly charged that ID is not “science” because its proponents don’t conduct experiments, have laboratories, or publish in peer-reviewed journals. None of that is true, but even if it were, Meyer writes, “it doesn’t follow that we [aren’t] ‘doing science.’”

Meyer, whose doctorate is in the philosophy of science, notes that many of science’s greatest breakthroughs were made not by experimental researchers but by theoreticians “who taught us how to think differently about what we already knew.”

For example, Albert Einstein developed General Relativity, one of the twin pillars of modern science (the other being quantum mechanics), not by conducting a battery of experiments on a laboratory test bench, but by looking at the world anew, asking unasked questions, and thinking beyond the current paradigm.

Watson and Crick didn’t crack the DNA mystery by their own experimental research but, as Meyer points out, “by explaining an array of preexisting evidence in a new and more coherent way.”

Even Darwin’s theory of evolution, as presented in his On the Origin of Species, “contains neither a single mathematical equation nor any report of original experimental research.” Like Watson and Crick, Darwin sought to explain “disparate lines of observational evidence” with a “novel interpretation of that evidence.” And the same goes for many of the groundbreaking discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution.

All about information

Making the case for ID, Meyer builds upon the seminal work of other ID researchers, particularly mathematician William Dembski. In The Design Inference, Dembski presented a way to distinguish the effects of intelligent agents from those of chance and law.

In a nutshell, products of law (planetary orbits, salt crystals, etc.) exhibit order, regularity, and predictability; products of chance, like the debris field of a tornado, exhibit complexity without order. But products of intelligence exhibit “specified complexity”: that is, arrangements that do not follow any predictable or ordered pattern and yet have information content, whether in the carvings at Mount Rushmore or the letters on this page.

Consider the digital information stored in living cells... Continue reading here.

Continue reading here.
Originally published June 03, 2011.

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