Believe it or not, I stated my intent to review Steve Meyer’s Signature in the Cell about seven months ago and I finally made it to the prologue. You can just imagine the kind of fines I have to pay at the library.
The book opens by setting the stage: Meyer notes three significant events in 2004-5 which ignited media interest in intelligent design including that debacle known as the Dover trial. (Meyer himself is no fan of that mess when a school board tried to get intelligent design into the classroom.) As one of the ID talking heads, Meyer was drawn into a number of interviews by major media outlets at this time. Through these experiences he recognized the need for “a platform for correcting much of the misinformation circulating about the theory of intelligent design.” (3) This book wasn’t written specifically for that purpose, but it certainly does much to correct false impressions.
A number of critics of ID like Barbara Forrest (author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse) have made much of the alleged fact that ID is merely a strategy of creationists to get their views — or the closest approximation of their views — into the classroom. (Forrest testified to great effect at Dover.) But that ain’t true. It undoubtedly is true that ID is used for this purpose, but so what? Civics are used by spoiled kids for street racing. That hardly means we ought to bar the import of Hondas.
So Meyer sets the record straight by noting that ID “was first considered in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scientists — Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen — as a possible explanation for an enduring mystery of modern biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule.” (4) It may have been appropriated by some creationists, but as an idea it doesn’t share common descent.
And as it turns out, that is the topic of Signature in the Cell. It chronicles Meyer’s twenty plus year odyssey to understand this most profound of puzzles. In contrast to creationism with its bloated claims about the meaning of Genesis, six day creation, worldwide flood and the rest, ID simply is the theory that “there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause–that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent–rather than by an undirected process.” (4)
Meyer then notes two landmark ID books of the last fifteen years, Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box and Dembski’s The Design Inference. He’s right. Whatever you think of these books, they have been enormously influential and stimulated many debates. And one suspects they have caused more than a few scientsts to need a visit to the dentist after excessive teeth-gnashing.
Anyway, Meyer seems to view his own book as the third of these landmark books. And he’s right. It is a big book offering a well written magisterial survey and one sustained argument stitched together loosely by a narrative of discovery. But why a book? Why not a series of peer-reviewed papers?
Meyer addresses this issue. First he notes that the practice of publishing in peer-reviewed journals has become predominant since World War II. I take his point. It is important to keep in mind that journals are not themselves part of the natural world, but rather are human conventional means of vetting ideas. This can be good but it can also be bad as new, paradigm shaking ideas can be excluded intentionally or unintentionally by “the establishment”. (Sounds very 1960s doesn’t it, but it’s true.)
I think here of Noam Chomsky who noted how he was only ever invited once onto “Nightline” as a commentator. The problem was that Ted Koppel wanted, and expected, five minute sound bites. But many of the socio-political questions Chomsky was expected to address and offer commentary on were enormously complex and would require at least an hour of careful nuanced discussion to frame the question appropriately. Needless to say, he was not invited back. Only those who could fit into the framework — in terms of time and ideas — offered by “Nightline” could appear on “Nightline”.
The problem is exacerbated because journals are “typically focused … on topics within a narrowly defined subdiscipline, [and so] rarely permit the kind of comprehensive review and assessment of evidence that the advancement of a new interpretive framework requires.” (7) In other words, they generally cater to modest steps not paradigm shifts.
As a result, throughout history scientists who wanted to present a long, developed argument that offers a very different theoretical framework to interpret data have written big books as the preferred means to make their case. Meyer notes that this is precisely what Darwin did by developing “one long argument” for evolution in Origin of Species. And this is what Meyer seeks to do as well in his book.