by Brad Nelson 8/25/14
This book covers much the same area as Stephen Meyer’s other book, Darwin’s Doubt. But the first half of it or so is extraordinarily engaging as it looks at the mystery of life and the various attempts to explain it.
No science fiction novel ever written can complete with the truly bizarre reality of the mechanisms of the cell and the existence of the information in DNA. We are literally living in a nano-machine world. The original Star Trek series has an episode titled “Shore Leave” in which all the flora and fauna were manufactured below the planet. The trees were not real. They were constructed. They were tiny machines themselves.
And that is the fascinating aspect of all life. It is a complex micro-machine. That is not to say that life is nothing but a machine. One of subjects that Meyer takes on is the idea that the information in DNA was the result of some natural cause — as the cubical lattice structure of sodium chloride (salt) is. But there is an inherent problem with this idea. Meyer writes:
Thus, to say that scientific laws generate complex informational patterns is essentially a contradiction in terms. If a process is orderly enough to be described by a law, it does not, by definition, produce events complex enough to convey information.
Anyone familiar with even the most modest aspects of computer programming can understand that a simply “law,” while powerful for creating repeating patterns, are not good at generating new information (which, as far as we know, requires a conscious entity). It is easy to write a BASIC program that looks like this:
10: PRINT “ABC”
20: GOTO 10
Run this program and you will get an endless stream that looks like this: ABCABCABCABCABCABCABCABCABC…on into infinity. It’s an impressive show, but there is almost no information in it.
That is the inherent problem facing the understanding of how all that non-random (and useful) information became encoded into DNA. Not only that, DNA itself (along with its information) is useless without the machinery to translate the information and then construct proteins with it. Adding to the quandary is that the instructions for building the translation devices and protein manufacturing machinery are in DNA itself. One then inherently confronts a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first? And yet you can’t have one without the other.
Meyer takes you on a journey of the various attempts to get around this problem. Meyer points out the seemingly fatal flaws in all of them. He also makes the extraordinarily provocative point that life itself cannot be explained merely in terms of material processes. That is, as complex as the cellular machinery is, and given that the machinery itself does run via natural law, this can no more explain the system itself than you can explain the headlines on a newspaper by explaining the machinery of the printing press. What makes either a newspaper or a cell different is that they are the product of information. A newspaper can no more be explained by the properties of ink than a cell can be explained by the properties of chemistry. There was information content that went in on the front end.
This is all fascinating stuff. And although the explanations of the cellular machinery become quite technical in places, you will renew your fascination for the miracle of life. But as in Darwin’s Doubt, when all of the possible physical explanations are dispensed with, you come to “Intelligent Design” as the only remaining conclusion. And this could indeed be the case. But then that is pretty much all that is said about it. It’s a very incomplete and hollow conclusion after the riveting journey through the history of attempts to explain life. This entire book, thoughtful as it is, is left begging the question: What designer? Why? How?
Given how open-ended the conclusion is, it’s as if you’ve taken this journey through the fascinating landscape of the cell only to end up nowhere. I have no problem saying that Richard Dawkins is simplistic, even disingenuous, in his stubborn insistence on radical materialism. But to then say “All of your theories have holes, therefore Intelligent Design is the answer” seems to leap across at least a few gaps of reasoning.
For the religious, this book will likely be satisfying in that it basically says “God created life.” And that may well be so. But what we have in the fossil record is a curious creator, at the very least. For a billion years or so, all that we had on earth was a simple single-celled life form (blue-green algae). And then there was the Cambrian explosion where, I guess, the Intelligent Designer (having come back from a vacation in the Gamma Quadrant or something) seeded the oceans with the 24 or so primary phylum, many of which have since become extinct, but all life that exists today use those original phylum as a template.
We have to basically write our own conclusion to this book because Meyer does not. We might suppose this Intelligent Designer is the one and only God Almighty. But this designer (or designers) might well be an alien species who once visited earth. And the latter would make more sense. The earth as a kind of ant farm — with the basic seeds of life being planted and then allowed to grow, via micro evolution, as it will — would seem to be more consistent with aliens with an ad hoc plan than God Almighty with a divine plan.
Whatever the case may be, the mystery of life is evoked by this book and certainly not in any way solved. And jumping to the idea of an “Intelligent Designer” is a rational possibility. But it’s too bad that Meyer doesn’t explore some of the implications of this. If this Designer can design as he likes, then why genetic diseases? Why viruses? Why the inherent brutal nature of “survival of the fittest”? He makes no attempt to delve further than just a nondescript “Intelligent Designer.”
This book is, in places, a good critique of the often fatuous ideology of the scientific community. They are committed to radical materialism. But as Meyer points out, science did not start out that way. There was the assumption that we were looking at the work of some kind of Cosmic designer. However, the book, in some of its critiques, is overkill and becomes quite ponderous. There is a fair amount of padding involved for once you have poked enough holes in existing theories on the emergence of life, there really isn’t all that much to say. And all Meyer has to say is “Intelligent Designer.”
Still, I would urge you to pick up this book for that first 1/3 to 1/2 that is utterly fascinating.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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