Book Review: The Signature in the Cell

Douglas Groothius
The Constructive Curmudgeon
September 24, 2009
Print ArticleLink to Original Article


One could not ask for more in a philosophy of science treatise that what we find in The Signature in the Cell. The book is no less than magisterial, an adjective that curmudgeons such as myself seldom use. At every level--philosophical, scientific, historical and literary--it is a superb treatise.

Reading every word of its 508 pages of text (not counting end notes)--as I did--repays the reader greatly. Meyer thoroughly examines a most significant topic--how life came about--and does so in an engaging, warm, and philosophically rigorous fashion. (Few books ever do such a thing.) In fact, I have never read a book that goes so deep while remaining so welcoming to the reader. It does do by using a minimal narrative structure--there is no obtrusive autobiography here--to guide us through the issues and arguments pertaining to the nature and origin life at the genetic level. The reader is lead step-by-step into the question of the origin of biological information, and so receives a hearty education in the history of science in general and the scientific question to understand life itself.

Meyer doggedly pursues all the possible explanations for the informational nature in DNA and RNA. He carefully explores the philosophy of scientific explanations with respect to unrepeatable events in the past (such as the origin of life on earth). It is a search for clues in the present to explain the past. One needs a causally adequate explanation for past events relies on known features to produce the state of affairs in question.

Having found all the materialistic explanations desperately wanting, he concludes that intelligence is the best explanation for the highly concentrated, amazingly complex, and carefully specified information in the DNA and RNA of the cell. Neither chance nor natural law nor a combination of both are remotely plausible explanations. Yet everyday we perceive that intelligence produces information (such as the words of this review). Nothing else can. Meyer argues convincingly that materialism cannot survive when biology enters "the information age," as it did in 1953 when the double helix structure of the DNA was discovered by two atheists, Crick and Watson.

Critics who dismiss this book as merely religiously motivated should themselves be dismissed. Meyer appeals to no uniquely religious assumptions in his philosophy of science and uses principles broadly employed in the historical sciences. Moreover, while his conclusion--life is best explained by a designing intelligence of some kind--is friendly toward theism, he grants that it does not give us a full Christian account of existence.

This short review cannot praise adequately all the philosophical, scientific, and (yes) literary values of this magnificent work. Its publication may prove to be a decisive moment for the Intelligent Design movement.
Douglas Groothuis has a PhD in philosophy from University of Oregon and is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He has authored ten books and writes for a range of publications, including  Denver Post and Seattle Times.