Signs of Desperation? Early Responses to Signature in the Cell Are Easily DismissedOriginal Article
If the strength of an argument is reflected in the quality of the rebuttals to it, then Stephen Meyer’s manifesto, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperOne, 2009) might be a rare rhetorical gem.
In 600 pages, Meyer takes apart many of the leading materialistic theories for the origin and evolution of life with an unrelenting barrage of logic, evidence, and respect for his opponents. As Heather Zeiger aptly commented in Salvo 11, “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.”
But have Meyer’s critics responded with such grace and rhetorical punch?
After debating Stephen Meyer on the Michael Medved radio program last November, science journalist Chris Mooney apparently felt he couldn’t find sufficient ammo to rebut the Cambridge-trained philosopher of science. Thus, Mooney subsequently posted a piece on his Discover Magazine blog, titled “Time to Refute Stephen Meyer?”, in which he lamented that “Meyer’s book is clearly drawing a lot of attention and is scarcely being refuted so far as I can see.”
Mooney was correct that Meyer’s book was garnishing much interest—though not from critics. In November 2009, an endorsement from the leading political philosopher (and atheist) Thomas Nagel led to its being named one of the “Books of the Year” by the prestigious Times Literary Supplement in London. The following month, Meyer was named “Daniel of the Year” by World Magazine for the “courage” and “perseverance” that led to Signature in the Cell.
Around this time, the anti-ID internet community decided they could not afford to continue ignoring Meyer’s book, and critical reviews began trickling in. In the spirit of respectful scholarly debate, I will assess some of the counter-arguments and give five friendly tips to critics of Stephen Meyer.
1. Time Is on Meyer’s Side
First, know the man you’re attacking. University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tried to dismiss Meyer as a young-earth creationist and had to retract his claim. Had Coyne read Meyer’s book, he would have learned that Meyer’s views about the age of the earth were no secret. Not only does Signature in the Cell adopt the mainstream geological time scale, but as long ago as the 2005 Kansas science hearings, Meyer plainly stated, “I think the earth is 4.6 billion years old. . . . That’s both my personal and my professional opinion.”
2. Read the Book You’re Reviewing
A second tip for critics of Signature in the Cell is to read the book before reviewing it. In December 2009, biology professor P. Z. Myers directed readers of his heavily-trafficked blog to a call for negative reviews of Signature—while simultaneously unashamedly declaring, “I suppose I’ll have to read that 600-page pile of slop sometime . . . maybe in January.”
Seeing that their leader was publicly attacking a book he hadn’t read, P. Z.’s followers felt justified in doing the same. Amazon.com saw a sudden spike in short, negative one-star reviews of Signature in the Cell that had little to do with any of the arguments in the book.
The smear campaign, however, did not have its intended effect. By the end of 2009, Signature in the Cell was fast becoming one of the bestselling science books of the year on Amazon.
3. Try to Stay Positive
A third mistake—particularly common among critics who didn’t heed my second tip—is to cast Meyer’s argument for design as a mere negative critique of evolution.
For example, P. Z. Myers caricatured the book by stating, “I know what is in this book—‘ooooh, it’s so complex, it must have been . . . DESIGNED!’” Had P. Z. read the book, he would have discovered a rigorous positive case for design based upon finding in nature the precise type of information that, in our experience, comes from intelligence.
“What humans recognize as information certainly originates from thought—from conscious or intelligent human activity,” writes Meyer in the opening chapter of his book. “Our experience of the world shows that what we recognize as information invariably reflects the prior activity of conscious and intelligent persons.” Later in Signature, Meyer elaborates on the precise type of information that reliably indicates the prior action of an intelligent cause:
Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source—from a mind or personal agent. . . . So the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source.
Chris Mooney must also have skipped over Meyer’s carefully laid out, positive argument for design (which is hard to miss, since it is woven through the entire book). Mooney claims that Meyer merely “throws up his hands, and says, it’s so improbable, God must have done it.”
With this gross misrepresentation of Meyer’s argument Mooney follows the same approach he took in The Republican War on Science, in which he claimed that a peer-reviewed scientific paper authored by Meyer was “lacking” a “positive case for the necessity of ID.” But in that paper, Meyer had argued that “design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence” but instead are “positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.”
4. Keep It Clean
It sounds so simple, yet so few critics of ID seem capable of following my fourth tip: Remain civil—or at least make some minimal attempt at civility. Unsurprisingly, P. Z. Myers leads the charge in violating this ground rule of discourse, calling Signature in the Cell “Discovery Institute Bulldung,” and proclaiming that “Stephen Meyer lies.”
While readers of P. Z.’s blog generally cheer on his every invective, readers of Jerry Coyne’s blog respond a little differently. After Coyne called Meyer a “Discovery Institute creationist and lying liar,” one of Coyne’s readers commented, “Meyer seems like a lot of things—including smart—but I don’t think he is a deliberate liar. He appears to be a nice guy who differs with you about some things. Attributing malign motives to others only serves to demonize them and make dialogue more difficult.” Coyne did not reply.
While these anecdotes are revealing, an informal survey by Tom Gilson, who runs the popular blog ThinkingChristian.net, actually tried to quantify the level of civility and open-mindedness among various reviewers. His findings were striking. Among the negative, one-star reviewers of Signature in the Cell, Gilson found that “more than nine-tenths said something to the effect that the question is settled, there’s no need to pursue it any more. Many of them were more colorful than that: The question is settled, and attempts to keep pursuing it are just lies from the ‘Dishonesty Institute.’”
But Gilson found that “those who rated the book highly had more open minds to the issue: only 20 percent of that group made statements to the effect that ‘the question is now settled.’” This seems to counter James Madison University mathematics professor and “new atheist” Jason Rosenhouse, who asserted when reviewing Signature in the Cell, “Phony claims of certainty are far more typical of religion than they are of atheism.”
5. Stick to the Science
A fifth common mistake made by critics of Signature in the Cell is to attempt theological rather than scientific rebuttals. Francisco Ayala, an eminent evolutionary biologist and former Catholic priest, who once served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, critiqued Signature in the Cell on the website of the BioLogos Foundation.
Ayala proclaimed that ID is tantamount to “blasphemy” because it implies that God is responsible for “design defects,” such as tsunamis, back problems, misaligned teeth, and complications encountered during childbirth. Ayala’s argument for Darwinism is almost entirely theological: “people of faith would do better to attribute the mishaps caused by defective genomes to the vagaries of natural selection and other processes of biological evolution, rather than to God’s design.”
One might flippantly note that orthodontists and chiropractors might rejoice over such “design defects,” but a serious response to Ayala could be made just as succinctly. Jay Richards made one in Salvo 4 (“Can ID Explain the Origin of Evil?”). “‘Bad designs’ and ‘evil designs’ are still designs; neither of these arguments refutes ID,” he pointed out. “The problem of evil isn’t an argument against ID. An argument for intelligent design is just that. Questions about evil and about the nature of the designer are separate questions.” Meyer corroborates this point in Signature in the Cell, writing, “Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that.”
Ayala’s readers at BioLogos wasted little time in spotting these fallacies. “Dr. Ayala appears to be one of the many reviewers who have not read Dr. Meyer’s book,” wrote the first commentator on the review. “If he has read it, he has not explained why he chose not to address any of the main arguments Meyer makes in the book.” The reader went on to say that Ayala does “not seem to understand Intelligent Design” because he goes “on and on about ‘bad design’ in nature, without showing any awareness of the responses to such arguments that design proponents have made for many years.” The commenter concluded, “This does not further the debate.”
The BioLogos Foundation itself is a theistic evolution advocacy group founded by Francis Collins, which prompts the question: Should religious persons trust the theology of ID critics like Ayala on topics like God, natural evil, and design? In a 2008 interview, the New York Times reported that Dr. Ayala wouldn’t say whether or not he remained a religious believer, because, in Ayala’s words, “I don’t want to be tagged . . . by one side or the other.” Thus, Ayala represents perhaps the most eminent proponent of the view that ID is bad theology—and apparently is endorsed by the theistic evolutionists at BioLogos as a spokesman on the debate—yet he categorically refuses to say publicly whether he is a religious believer or not.
Not only that, but he missed the mark by miles when responding to Meyer.
The Showing Thus Far
The public rebuttals of Signature in the Cell may be inadequate, but does this mean that materialists will never explain the origin of information in the cell? Not at all. In scientific debates, one must always remain open to future discoveries. But the showing thus far does mean that intelligent design deserves serious scientific consideration—not abrasive quips, dismissals, and refusals to engage Meyer’s arguments.
Undoubtedly, more reviews of Meyer’s book are forthcoming, and in fact, further rebuttals to reviewers of Signature in the Cell will be addressed in future issues of Salvo. Nonetheless, as one reviewer on Amazon put it so well: “If materialists continue to fail to answer Meyer’s arguments, or even to seriously engage them, then the tipping point in the debate over design in biology is close at hand.”