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In a Thing So Small

By (September 1, 2009) 11 Comments

signaturecellSignature in the Cell

Stephen Meyer
HarperOne, 2009

“Inquiry into final causes is sterile,” Francis Bacon wrote, “and, like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing.” And yet mankind continues to make such inquiries, either out of insatiable scientific curiosity or in the belief that, in ways perhaps inhospitable to expression, virgins consecrated to God do, in fact, produce something fruitful.

Certainly in our own day such inquiries are made with apostolic fervor, both by those who adhere to science and by those who follow faith – and by that segment of every population, quieter than the first two and by far more numerous, who believe it’s possible to live in both mindsets simultaneously. These are the great and rancorous ‘God Debates’ of our beleaguered modern moment, with battle-ready contestants on both sides, writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Behe, and Kenneth Miller squaring off on TV screen and town hall stage to wrestle with eschatological questions as old as Abraham. The fool sayeth in his heart ‘there is no God’ – the wise man, apparently, sayeth it on Larry King Live.

Into this supercharged atmosphere Cambridge-educated chemist and scientific historian Stephen Meyer puts forth his own case in his new book Signature in the Cell. In its calmly-reasoned 400 pages (with an extra 100 tightly-packed endnotes), Meyer constructs the strongest argument yet made for the theory of Intelligent Design, and he does it without once advocating any living God.

He’s trained in some very abstruse and technical matters (despite his best efforts – and this is a very readable book – there are portions of Signature in the Cell that will only really be clear to other scientists), but he consistently makes his points and analogies as simple as those Charles Darwin used 150 years ago in The Origin of Species. And of course the closer analogy is to Meyer’s fellow Cambridge-alum William Paley (1743-1805), whose Natural Theology gave us the celebrated illustration of a man crossing a heath who finds a watch and considers it no strain on his common sense to imagine from that watch a watchmaker. Meyer has in some ways updated Paley for the 21st century, writing, “a computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind, that of a software engineer or programmer.”

But Meyer is not simply Paley gone techno – he’s not calling mankind the pinnacle of creation (as Bertrand Russell tartly observed, that would hardly be a pinnacle to brag about), and he’s not calling anybody to Sunday services. He keeps his case well clear of church, synagogue, or mosque and centers it in the laboratory where it belongs.

It’s a struggle just to get there, as he acknowledges two-thirds of the way through his mild-mannered bombshell of a book. In a classic example of turnabout being fair play, he takes the 4,000-year primacy of faith-based ontology and casts it as the persecuted underdog, and it’s hard not to nod in sympathy. When scientists encounter something like the famous Rosetta Stone, they automatically infer a cadre of scribes doing the intricate trilingual carving. When paleontologists uncover caches of chipped flints at dig sites, they automatically assume they’re looking at the handiwork of early hominid hunters. When NASA trains its massive SETI antennae toward the heavens, they presuppose that “any specified information imbedded in electromagnetic signals coming from space would indicate and intelligent source.” Meyer’s point here is one of congruence: in all cases (concerning both the known – archeological items we have to hand – and the unknown – as yet unreceived signals from another world), intelligence and intent can be known from its handiworks. And yet, when it comes to the question of life itself, even expressing a similar thought about an intelligent purpose is enough to get you mocked, sidelined, or fired. If you’re really unlucky, it might get you a visit from Christopher Hitchens.

Information is the key to all of these cases, and it’s central to Meyer’s contentions about Intelligent Design, a concept he defines as “the deliberate choice of a conscious, intelligent agent or person to affect a particular outcome, end, or objective.” Years ago, Richard Dawkins characterized our increasing knowledge of DNA as “the final, killing blow to the belief that living material is deeply distinct from nonliving material,” but Meyer tackles this and other cautions head-on (his serial dismantling of Dawkins throughout the book is conducted with a very satisfyingly mandarin delicacy). Unlike many other proponents of Intelligent Design, Meyer isn’t afraid of the newly-revealed intricacies of DNA: he welcomes them.

His key assertion is both mathematical and intuitive – namely, that information and uncertainty are inversely related:

By equating information with the reduction of uncertainty, [U.S. mathematician Claude] Shannon’s theory implied a mathematical relationship between information and probability. Specifically, it showed that the amount of information conveyed by an event is inversely proportional to the probability of its occurrence.

Every heavily-loaded, efficiently-coded system of information we know of was intentionally made, not generated by random chance and accrued mutation. All information top-heavy systems have authors, designers. Their handiwork is separated from the rest of the natural world by the simple asymptote of their own complexity, and none more so than DNA:

In prokaryotic cells, DNA replication involves more than thirty specialized proteins to perform tasks necessary for building and accurately copying the genetic molecule. These specialized proteins include DNA polymerases, primases, helicases, topoisomerases, DNA-binding proteins, DNA ligases, and editing enzymes. DNA needs these proteins to copy the genetic information contained in DNA. But the proteins that copy the genetic information in DNA are themselves built from that information. This again poses what is, at the very least, a curiosity: the production of proteins requires DNA, but the production of DNA requires proteins.

(When Meyer talked with a software engineer at the Institute where he works, the engineer commented on the things he’d observed while trying to create a program that simulates cell organization and growth:

It’s like we are looking at 8.0 or 9.0 versions of design strategies that we have just begun to implement. When I see how the cell processes information, it gives me the eerie feeling that someone else figured this out before we got here.)

Meyer never names that someone else – he’s concerned only with getting the possibility re-admitted to the room it once owned. Signature in the Cell pushes forward no theistic agenda; it merely, boldly, convincingly makes the case that among the many competing theories explaining the rise of life from lifelessness, explaining the mind-boggling complexity of life and the DNA that makes it possible, Intelligent Design is not only a legitimate possibility but – and here Meyers’ book will raise ire – the most likely possibility, from the standpoint both of science and common experience where, as Meyer puts it, “intelligent agents produce, generate, and transmit information all the time.” He elaborates:

Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source – from a mind or a personal agent. Since intelligence is the only known source of specified information (at least starting from a nonbiological source), the presence of specified information-rich sequences in even the simplest living systems points definitely to the past existence and activity of a designing intelligence.

The information at the heart of this contention is the densely-coded structure of DNA, a sequence so incredibly packed with data that the sequence for even the simple housefly, if written out in its entirety, would fill a shelf of very thick volumes. This staggering amount of information is stored, stacked, organized, and efficiently reproduced by DNA in ways that resemble no other naturally-occurring phenomenon in the world. The question of how such an information-dense system could develop is central to Signature in the Cell, and the question arises no matter the level of biological complexity at which it’s raised:

The simplest extant cell, Mycoplasma gentialium – a tiny bacterium that inhabits the human urinary tract – requires “only” 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions and 562,000 bases of DNA (just under 1,200 base pairs per gene) to assemble those proteins. In minimal-complexity experiments scientists attempt to locate unnecessary genes or proteins in such simple life-forms. Scientists use various experimental techniques to “knock out” certain genes and then examine the effect on the bacterial cell to see if it can survive without the protein products of the disabled genes. Based on minimal-complexity experiments, some scientists speculate (but have not demonstrated) that a simple one-celled organism might have been able to survive with as few as 250-400 genes.

Meyer examines various computer programs designed to simulate evolutionary development from the oft-referenced “primordial soup” of billions of years ago – from which all Earth’s life-processes at some point began. Researchers attempting to simulate the development of those life-processes must always pre-load their programs with some ultimate cause to get the ball rolling (science fiction fans will recall that in the Star Trek universe, Captain Picard himself is that cause)(like most things Star Trek, it’s a long story), and all Meyer wants is for this pre-loading to be taken into consideration when evaluating the simulations themselves:

… not only do evolutionary algorithms fail to simulate how undirected mutation and selection produce the information necessary for first life; they actually simulate the opposite. Indeed, computer simulations of the origin of biological information expose limitations in the causal powers of natural selection and mutation that correspond precisely to powers that intelligent agents are known – uniquely – to possess. The causal powers that natural selection lacks – foresight and creativity – are attributes of consciousness and rationality, of purposive intelligence.

The scenario these simulations attempt to create will be vaguely familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a life sciences course. The assumption – based on chemical traces and isotopes in the Earth’s surface-strata – is that the planet millions of years ago held pockets of this “primordial soup” consisting of various amino acids and other protein building-blocks of cellular life, and that some random factor – repeated static discharge from the lightning-storms that then as now bombarded the surface of the globe, for instance – began the whole process of cellular division and replication, began the unique interlocking chains of activity we know as life. The problem with these simulations, as we’ve noted, is something Meyer would like addressed: they don’t work. Or rather, they do work, but the results they get don’t sit up and say “Sir, I exist”:

They have invariably produced nonbiological substances in addition to biological building blocks such as amino acids. Without intelligent intervention, these other substances will react readily with biologically relevant building blocks to form biologically irrelevant compounds – chemically insoluble sludge.

In order to produce the kind of chain-reaction that’s worth studying, the scientist who run these simulations must load in safeguards against the tendency of primordial soup to stay soup, and yet they – and the Cambridge-liberal crowd who know only their talking points – become instantly aggressive if someone like Meyer comes along and suggests that if these intelligent agents feel compelled to take deliberate steps to ensure that life-processes get a better-than-even chance to thrive, perhaps other intelligent agents did the same thing three billion years ago. If the amino acids and ammonia traces in those simulations were studied by an alien race, that race would inevitably conclude – correctly – that the material had been intelligently tampered with. It’s unlikely they’d be called frothing religious fanatics for doing so, but you never know – perhaps there’s an Internet on their world too.

At least one evolutionist realized full well the enormous unlikelihood that random chance could create and sustain that first jump to life. In a 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker, Darwin wrote:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present … but if (and Oh! What a big if!) we could conceive, in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

A big if indeed, and one that will divide Meyer’s readers like the Red Sea under the staff of Moses. On the one side will be the faithful, who have been dreaming of a book like this one their whole lives, whose dreams have become tortured yearnings in recent years as great braying jackasses travel the lecture circuit calling all religious faith stupid, retrograde medievalism and challenging devoted ministers to atomize their deepest spiritual beliefs in eight-minute intervals under stage lights. In this regard Meyer is certainly the answer to a prayer (or perhaps some less volatile metaphor): he’s better-informed than these opponents, beyond the reach of their boozy jabs and feints, and almost disconcertingly on-focus. In wedding doxology to toxicology, he has devised the perfect metaphysical grammar for our time.

On the other side will be the deriders, the angry crowd of people who take a loud, territorial pride in their own lack of personal religious faith. These people detest the merest touch of anything smacking of organized religion (except its mindless urge to proselytize – they incorporate that aspect very early on and love it dearly). They like such mentions to occur only on Sundays, in church, among the believers, but nowhere else (sadly, it must be admitted that they have this in common with many of the so-called faithful today) – and certainly not in discussions of scientific fact.

It’s important to point out to such potential critics of his book that Meyer scrupulously adheres to this division in his book, which contains not one stray molecule of spiritualism. The author is concerned only with scientific fact – and the limits of some of those facts. His book is full of interviews with biochemists of all religious backgrounds and the lack of religious backgrounds, and they often confess to Meyer that they – we – can’t really be sure how life began on Earth, or how the process of natural selection described by Darwin and generations of evolutionists since could have resulted in what we know DNA is and what we know it does. He interviews others who admit the same thing but contest that regardless, when those origin-questions are finally answered, they’ll have nothing to do with anything being intelligently designed by anybody.

Maybe so, but in the meantime all Meyer is asking in this solidly stunning book is that we consider one additional possibility, the one that appears to be staring us in the face every time we look in a microscope: that the basic processes of life were designed, not stumbled into. The public funds NASA’s ongoing listening for signals of intelligence elsewhere in the universe – signatures coming to us buried in electromagnetic signals. Meyer wants us to look for such signatures not in our stars but in ourselves, and Signature in the Cell is his own data top-heavy impassioned call to do so. That call is scrupulously scientific in its courses, so Meyer might well disapprove, but I myself am no scientist and feel compelled to point out that the poets are all squarely on his side, including Frost:

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small.

Ignazio de Vega is a native of Trujillo, Peru, and a seminary student in Lima. He is a regular contributor to Open Letters Monthly.