Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Signature in the Cell" Continues to Stimulate Debate

Don't miss the back and forth in the Times Literary Supplement about Stephen Meyer's book Signature in the Cell. You can find all the links here.

I especially enjoyed Thomas Nagel's reply to Stephen Fletcher's suggestion that readers consult a Wikipedia article rather than read Meyer's book:

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher is surprised that I would recommend a book (Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell) whose conclusions I disagree with. I’m afraid I do that frequently; but let me explain this case. I believe that neither theism, nor atheism, nor agnosticism is clearly ruled out either by empirical evidence or by a priori argument: all are rationally possible positions. If one is a theist, the question arises, what belief about God’s relation to the natural order is compatible with the scientific evidence? Deism, the view that God is responsible for the existence of the universe and its laws, but that He never intervenes, is one possible answer. Defenders of intelligent design claim that the appearance of life as a result only of chemical processes would require accidents so improbable that an interventionist answer is more likely. I am interested particularly in the negative part of this argument – scepticism about the reducibility of biology to chemistry. Though I do not share the motives of intelligent design’s defenders to identify problems with the reductive programme, the problems seem real. Atheists, too, face the question of what conception of the natural order is compatible with their beliefs.

Fletcher says I have been duped, and his reference to Uri Geller suggests that Meyer’s book is a deliberate hoax – that he has offered evidence and arguments that he knows to be false. Like any layman who reads books on science for the general reader, I have to take the presentation of the data largely on trust, and try to evaluate more speculative arguments as best I can. Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith. If he misrepresents contemporary research on the origin of life, I will be grateful to have it pointed out to me. But the RNA world hypothesis Fletcher offers as a refutation is carefully described by Meyer, who argues that while it might help solve some problems (in virtue of the catalytic properties of RNA), it simply pushes back to a different molecule the basic question of how such an extremely complex replicator came into existence, thus allowing natural selection to begin.

Fletcher’s remarks don’t address this problem. He should really hold his nose and have a look at the book. It also should be properly reviewed, since it can’t be adequately assessed in the Letters column. I recommended it in one paragraph, speaking as a grateful reader, but the book deserves a review from someone with the relevant scientific credentials.

There do not seem to be many critical reviews that actually address the arguments in Meyer's book. I have not heard of any that pointed out errors in Meyer's science.

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