An Open Letter (ok, a review) to Stephen C. Meyer, Author of Signature in the Cell:
Dear Stephen (you may call me Ben),
I believe what you do: In one God, almightly creator of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, his only son ... you know the rest. I have worked in science, too, and have a big interest in the questions of how life started. In both of these matters, I am on your side and am also theoretically predisposed to accept your arguments about Intelligent Design. I have no philosophical opposition to it, in fact, I believe, no, scratch that, I know that the creator stepped into creation as Jesus and gave us a glimpse of the future with the physical resurrection on Easter morning, an act of new creation unexplainable any other way.
So w/r/t this whole book you've just written, about how the Creator must be inferred to explain the origin of DNA? I very much wish you were right.
But you aren't.
I don't say this because I fear for my job. I have a feeling I could have a very nice job at the Discovery Institute if I pushed for it, speaking to churches and other groups across the land, defending Intelligent Design. After all, you're in town here, I could just commute. Here I've already got plenty of grant money and tenure, and I'm at a place where I could defend such a defense of ID as part of my job, even if all the rest of that was not true.
I say it because, as a scientist who prays and studies scripture, I do not buy your argument.
Let me offer some incoherent bullet points that I would organize and maybe will someday:
-- First off, if you want to convince someone like me, writing a 600-page book in which you take 200 pages to walk me through the Watson and Crick model of DNA and other details before you get into your argument is off-putting from the beginning. It's clear this book is not pitched to scientists who may have counterarguments. This book is pitched toward the general public who do not have counterarguments, which is fine for reporting, but does not work for the kind of close detailed argument you suggest is lacking. I have seen several sites that report the 600-page length of the book as if it were some kind of indication of its quality. But there's really about 200 pages of argument in it all. Of those 200 pages, about 100 pages or more were arguments that I've seen before in similar literature, repeated here without reporting on the context (some of which I provide below). I just read a 400-page book on the origin of life (see earlier review) that had me reading slowly and re-reading, making connections, illuminating other things I had read or learned earlier... this book, despite being longer, was read in about 1/10 the time (and only had, alas, 10 post-its compared to >100 for the other book!). It just didn't do what science does in that respect. Again, I understand, maybe the creator did it this way. It's just a bad sign when the length of the argument puts me off before I even get into the meat of it.
(So I'll basically go through the post-its now!)
-- The argument about the earth's early atmosphere is tantalizing but seems a case of cherry-picking, of finding old references that call things into question and leaving them at that. Whatever the low number of oxygen that started out, it was low and went up. There's a graph with more than 10 independent measurements of past oxygen levels vs. time, and though there is scatter, there's a line going up through it all. So oxygen was at least rather low, and it makes sense to a chemist that it reacted with a lot of the metals and non-metals to be absent from the early atmosphere, because oxygen is reactive, there's no getting around that. What kind of chemical reactivity do you propose for your assertion that there was some around, enough to interfere with the reduced chemicals? Why DIDN'T the oxygen react, if there was still some around? (Post it pg. 224)
-- Later you claim that DNA is information-neutral, that is, that there is no way one pair of base pairs will be favored over another. Of course, this is true, and is one of the reasons DNA actually works as an information-carrying molecule. But then you claim that because of this there can be no bias toward information in the bonding of DNA itself. Of course there can't -- DNA wouldn't carry as much information if there was a bias. But this doesn't mean DNA can't ever gain a bias in combination with other things. This tunnel vision on DNA shows up in the very way you structure your argument: you first argue it wasn't DNA, then it wasn't protein, then it wasn't RNA only. But what if DNA is brought together in triplets by another molecule -- then the other molecule confers its binding onto the information-neutral DNA template. Three DNA basepairs can be held together by another molecule in a triplet. This pattern holds through the book: the argument is made that it can't be this alone, or that alone ... but what about the recent findings that things can work together? That's a later bullet point. (Post-It Page 242)
-- There are frequent distortions of the biochemical facts. You write about "the discovery of seventeen variant genetic codes." But most of these are in mitocondria and they consist of a few exceptions to the hard-and-fast general rule. The writing implies that they are totally different codes, when actually they are a change in 1 to 6 out of 64 code units. The equivalent is that of an alphabet with one changed letter. Yet you imply that these are totally different codes. It is moves like this that highlight that you are not looking at the data and then coming up with an explanation (even one with God as a causal agent) but are rather starting with your explanation and then making thing fit into it. These are alternate codes that are exceptions that prove the rule: there is really one code and everything else is a slight variant of it, at most. Claiming that there are 17 different alphabets when you have 24 letters the same and 1 or 2 different, 17 times, is something that weakens your case rather than strengthens it. (Post-It pg. 248)
-- "Then again, it simulates a goal-directed foresight that natural selection does not possess." But the RJP Williams book I just reviewed, and my upcoming Weter lecture, are both about how chemistry gives biology a direction through the second law of thermodynamics! So if chemistry provides a "teleos" to biology is your argument undermined? I don't agree with the biologist's caricature of life as meaningless randomness either. But I think the rules for the emergence of life may be encoded, not in an irreducibly complex DNA molecule, but in the rows of the periodic table of the elements. You keep making the point that information must come from somewhere. Well, the pattern of bonding of the chemical elements (which influences the availability of each on Earth and the structures they can form) would provide some sort of information by this definition. The second law, not natural selection, would drive these chemical cycles. You use the second law only as a source of confusion, a Babel-like curse on the universe. But the second law can drive cycles of life, bringing life together, as described by Williams and as is a major point of my upcoming lecture. I can find no reference to the books and articles by RJP Williams and co-authors, and this is an unfortunate omission. (Post It pg. 284 also 336 and 332)
-- The claims that nucleotides are hard to assemble are outdated in one fell swoop by the recent paper in Nature by Sutherland's group that nucleotides form from a mixture of simple constituents, growing more complex with irradiation and cycles of wetting and drying like evaporation and "rain." Not only is this a problem for your argument because we now have a pretty good path by which nucleotides can form, but it also points out the failure in your "divide and conquer" reasoning. You attack DNA on its own, RNA on its own, protein on its own, for instance, and then you say because each of these is improbable we can just multiply the probabilities together and get a huge number. But that argument fails to account for the possibility of cooperation. This is what allows the nucleotides to form; that they mixed everything together in one big pot and these nucleotides spiraled out of it, self-assembling (by the chemical rules of bonding). I have a suspicion that a similar "working together" makes the other myteries work: that of the "central dogma" or the original (non-coded) cell itself. (Post-It pg. 302)
-- On Douglas Axe's work, I'm still a little annoyed that Axe spoke at the recent ASA meeting but no audio was posted for his talk. Do you want scientists like me to believe your work or not? Whatever the reason for that, the published work by Axe is fine enough on its own, and it does show up those who claim there are no peer-reviewed manuscripts in your libraries. But it misses something huge, something again from RJP Williams. You're only using one corner of the periodic table. You're arguing that a protein must be 150 residues long and made only of amino acids to work. I agree, that's improbable that something like that would just come together. But metals and metal ions can catalyze reactions by themselves! What about Fe or Fe-S or Ni or VO4 or whatever? One third of enzymes have metals in them, often for explicit catalytic use, in which the protein helps with binding but the metal does the chemical work. And even today some metal clusters (like nitrogenase's) will catalyze reactions without any protein at all. All Axe has proven is that proteins alone are unlikely to have been a beginning. But metals are better at chemistry and they could have been the starting point. There is no mention of this possibility anywhere in the 600 pages.
The bottom line is that I want your work to be in conversation with mainstream science. Your set of predictions is a good step forward (though you overstate your own success in the accuracy of the junk DNA predictions, you have an OK point). But reading this book after reading Williams is like reading Twilight after reading Lord of the Rings. It's just not in the same ballpark. Look, I want to believe, but you have to help my unbelief by demonstrating something, not by just taking the most difficult thing we can find, saying it's unexplained, and saying "now you have to believe what I say." No, actually, I don't.
I hope one day ID can publish a book that will get 100 post-its from me as I read it (and not from frustrations!). I will keep trying to read these books if you and your colleagues keep putting them out. I believe in your freedom of speech and, again, if I believe in a real God that really makes a difference I must allow for the possibility that you may be right. But you've got to do a better job if you're ever going to have a prayer of convincing me. And you've got to convince me if you ever want to convince someone who doesn't believe in any rationalities greater than their own.
But this book? This isn't it and I'm a bit frustrated at that.
This is not censorship or ignorance. It is grading an effort, and testing an argument, things I do every day. I gave it a chance and am beginning to think that the persistent effort of ID scientists to ignore the other developments (such as Sutherland's) that conflict with their views are seriously leading the church astray, and when you lead the church away from truth you are walking where angels fear to tread.
Yours (truly), BJM