Get with the Program

A Review of Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer
Heather Zeiger
Salvo
December 17, 2009
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In what would be typical British understatement, Dr. Stephen Meyer calls DNA replication a “curiosity.” Here is the conundrum: DNA needs proteins to replicate, but these same proteins are encoded in DNA. So which came first? In his magnum opus, Signature in the Cell, Dr. Meyer puts on the table what went through my mind when I took my first biochemistry class: How did this closed loop get started? Whatever made the loop could not have made the first DNA molecule the same way that it is made now. And the DNA and protein interaction is just one of many closed loops in perhaps the most efficient factory ever observed—the cell.

In 500 pages, Meyer takes his readers on a journey from working as a geologist in Texas, to walking the halls of Cambridge studying the philosophy of science, to being interviewed on television for his theories on origins. The value of his book is not merely in its conclusion that intelligence best explains the source of the DNA code; it is in the process Meyer uses to bring us to this conclusion. The reader sees the scientific process firsthand.

The Methodology of Origins Science

Before William Dembski’s design filter, before Michael Behe’s specified complexity, and even before Phillip Johnson’s exposure of the ideological presuppositions behind neo-Darwinism, there was a small book called Mystery of Life’s Origin. It was authored by a trio of scientists, one of whom served as a major influence on Meyer’s work. Meyer recounts meeting with Dr. Charles B. Thaxton while in Dallas, and being struck by Thaxton’s demarcation between “origins science” and “operations science.”

Those of us who have practiced science usually deal in the realm of operations science. We use the scientific method to achieve our objective of “establishing universal laws by which nature operates,” which we then prove through experimentation. However, when we are dealing with origins science (also called historical science), the rules are different. Essentially, origins science seeks to determine a past cause (or ancient conditions), and to explain present events (“manifest events”) that are due to this past cause (“causal event”).

In other words, using a specific method of reasoning, historical scientists extrapolate into the past, based on our knowledge of the present. This method of reasoning is what Meyer employs in evaluating the best explanations for theories of origins. He cites reputable historians and philosophers of science, not the least of whom are Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, to reinforce the validity of his methodology.

The Origin of Information

Meyer begins by identifying the question to be answered: What is the present event we are trying to find the origin of? He then notes that the operational system of a cell is DNA. But DNA is more than just information; it is functional information that is unique and complex, not almost like a code, but exactly like a code. Thus, we are looking for the origin of functional information.

Origins of life researchers have proposed several theories to explain the origin of DNA, proteins, and RNA, all of which are related to the production of each other. All of the major theories accepted by the scientific community posit explanations involving the mechanisms of chance, necessity (natural law), or some combination of both. However, what we find eloquently laid out in Meyer’s book is that each of the prevalent theories has been measured and found wanting on purely chemical and mathematical grounds.

According to historical scientists, the objective is to make an inference to the best explanation based on what is observed now, what was possible in the past, and what we know are the capabilities of nature. From all of our experience and observation, the level of functional and specific information that is needed to produce DNA and its translating mechanism comes only from intelligent sources, or mind. Unique historical events—whether singular events in the distant past or the scene of a recent crime—tend to arise from intelligent causes.

More than Chemistry

The information contained in DNA and the conclusions from the historical scientific method that intelligent agency is its originator have important implications both within and outside the realm of science. For years, we have learned in science class that the universe is made of matter and energy, and that life was built from the bottom up, from the smallest parts to the macro-scale systems we see now. Therefore, it has been assumed, the essence or identity of something (living or not) can be found if we break it down into smaller and smaller parts; this is called reductionism.

No less an authority than James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, has written: “The double helix is an elegant structure, but its message is downright prosaic: life is simply a matter of chemistry . . . nothing but a vast array of coordinated chemical reactions” (DNA: The Secret of Life, 2003). But as technology allows us to delve deeper and deeper into the cell, we find that, contrary to Watson’s claims, the secret to life is not in the chemistry.

What scientists have found, and what Meyer argues, is that chemistry is merely the carrier of the message—in a sense, the scroll on which the message is written. Along with matter and energy, we now have reason to conclude that there is a third fundamental aspect of the universe: information.

By accepting this premise, it is possible to open the door to areas of science that are only now beginning to emerge, such as work with DNA nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and proteomics. Scientists in these areas assume, whether they acknowledge it or not, that cellular systems are engineered with a teleological function—with an end goal in mind. This turns reductionist thinking on its head and accomplishes some interesting science in the process.

The fact that some scientists get a sour stomach over the metaphysical implications of intelligent design is no excuse for ignoring the evidence. Cellular life, even at the most fundamental chemical level, has the properties of purpose, which should inform our scientific perspective. Meyer has provided us with a compelling argument drawn from academically rigorous presuppositions, so that, whatever one’s metaphysical squeamishness may be, he can confidently approach DNA as a written code and the cell as a complex factory.