Examining "Signature in the Cell"

No, just predictable. Paradigm shifts, coming in, usually look just like this, and things gradually settle out. Sorry you haven’t found the ID folks responsive. I have had some of the same experience, but not entirely. What did you make, e.g., of “Darwin’s Dilemma” or “Signature in the Cell?” I think they both, at least, had their moments… just sayin’.


It’s been years now but what I remember of Signature in the Cell was just another lame “It’s too complex to have happened naturally so it must have been an intelligent designer”. (Keep in mind that I’m a born-again Christian and probably share much of Stephen Meyer’s theology. If he can’t even convince a Christian theist like me, what are his prospects with others?)

I think that was the book where Meyer listed a bunch of predictions of “ID theory” in an appendix. So many of them were not only lame, they weren’t even clearly derived from his alleged ID theory. (I say alleged because I’ve never seen Meyer be all that rigorous about presenting any sort of scientific theory, just a hodge podge of philosophical ideas that he relates to science topics.)

By the way, a friend of mine is a leading comparative anatomist (known for her research and textbook on vertebrate anatomy) and she multiplied my examples of basic science errors in Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt book a hundred-fold. (That is, I noticed a lot of factual errors in Meyer’s books but her vast knowledge of the biology topics which Meyer’s addressed meant that she could identify piles and piles of errors, chapter by chapter. Meyer falls into the same bad habit of far too many of my Christian colleagues who have waded into academic territories far removed from their areas of training and expertise. I was very guilty of that early in my career—my confidence far exceeded my competence as a cocky young professor—but I’d like to think that I am much more humble and careful now. I hope.)

As to Darwin’s Dilemma, I only recall the quote-mining and cherry-picking of evidence. However, it is not easy to produce a documentary that doesn’t come across as nothing but a propaganda piece. So I would treat it very differently from a book. People should rarely depend on documentaries for their conclusions about controversial topics. The very nature of video production and the medium’s limitations make depth of analysis virtually impossible.

Once again, if ID “theory” is so compelling as valid science, why has it (1) totally failed in peer-review, and (2) why do its strongest supporters tend to come from those outside of the relevant fields of study? (For example, Stephen Meyer is not a biologist. He’s a philosopher.)

If you had to identify the #1 most powerful “moment” (i.e. compelling argument) in those ID promoting works, what would it be? What is the very strongest of the ID arguments which I should consider?


There is a thread set aside for that here.

In fairness, whether it’s justified or not, supporting ID is an unforgivable offense in biology. That’s why they come from outside the field most often. Those within biology have to be much more chaste.

ID sometimes calls this anti-religious bias. My colleagues would call it an appropriate response to poor scholarship, Dover, and Kansas. I suppose I myself and Francis Collins undermine the ID explanation; there does not seem to be bias against us, even when I defend a de novo Adam. Sadly, the explanation of my colleagues seems more plausible.

Regardless, just shunning them and ignoring ID is a type of disconfirmation bias. If we care about truth, we should listen closely and see when they are right. @Agauger, for example, was right about the limits of population demographic inference, or at least she came to the table with the right questions. Ignore legitimate questions, and we miss out on important things.


I was asking for the best arguments for ID, not the best arguments against ID. Or are you saying that the thread you linked addresses both objectives?

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It didn’t help that a number in the movement, including its father, Phillip Johnson, also jumped on the “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” bandwagon. This, after touting Johnson’s ability to apply well-honed, analytical talents developed in the legal profession to scientific controversies. There have been many overstatements and pronouncements about the ‘death of evolutionary’ theory throughout the years. It hasn’t inspired confidence among biological scientists. More so since it has many of the same roots and deployed most of the same arguments as Creationism in the past.


Ah, that’s right. My error.

Agreed. And yet, given the issues of signal to noise, limited number of hours in a day, and all that, I can see why some things would be easier to miss.

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Hi @AllenWitmerMiller,

It’s been years now but what I remember of Signature in the Cell was just another lame “It’s too complex to have happened naturally so it must have been an intelligent designer”.

By the way, a friend of mine is a leading comparative anatomist (known for her research and textbook on vertebrate anatomy) and she multiplied my examples of basic science errors in Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt book a hundred-fold.

Go easy on Stephen Meyer, OK? First, as you yourself point out, he’s a philosopher. Second, if you’ve read his Signature in the Cell, then you’ll realize that he makes a serious effort to cover all bases in developing his argument that life couldn’t have evolved without intelligent guidance. He looks at all of the naturalistic hypotheses in the literature, and takes great pains to rebut them. Third, if he makes scientific mistakes in his book, they’re not his fault: they’re the fault of the scientists who reviewed his book before it was published. As he writes on page 613:

This book was extensively reviewed for scientific and technical accuracy. For their work reviewing chapters I’d like to acknowledge: Doug Axe, Bruce Gordon, Anne Gauger, William Dembski, Tony Mega, Dean Kenyon, Robert Marks, Richard Sternberg, Jonathan Wells, Paul Nelson, and Alastair Noble.

Several of these people are bona fide scientists, including biologists. Some of them have had articles published in scientific journals. It is they, and not Meyer, who should be held responsible for any scientific errors in Meyer’s book. The same goes for Darwin’s Doubt, where Meyer states on page 414:

…I would like to thank my colleagues at the Discovery Institute and Biologic Institute, in particular Paul Nelson, Douglas Axe, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, Ann Gauger, Richard Sternberg, Paul Chien and Casey Luskin - whose research has made the argument of this book possible.

I might add that Signature in the Cell was highly praised by Dr. Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Norman Nevin, professor emeritus in medical genetics, Queens University, Belfast, and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and Dr. John C. Walton, professor of organic chemistry, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Have a look at the blurb on the back cover. If these learned gentlemen didn’t spot any glaring errors, then why are you blaming Meyer for failing to spot them?

In any case, you misconstrue the argument of Signature in the Cell . The basic argument was simple enough for anyone to understand:

(1) All living things rely on a genetic code: a set of rules used by living cells to translate information encoded within genetic material (DNA or mRNA sequences) into proteins.

(2) Neither law-governed processes, nor stochastic processes, nor any combination of the two, have ever been shown to be capable of producing a code of any sort. (What’s more, there are solid mathematical grounds for believing that there would not be enough time in the long history of the cosmos for chance to come up with a code.)

(3) Intelligence, on the other hand, is known to be capable of producing codes: we do it all the time, using our human intelligence.

(4) Therefore intelligent design should be regarded as the default explanation for the origin of living things - at least, until some other explanation, which has been demonstrated to be viable, is forthcoming.

I have to say that I regard the argument as valid, but not sound: I would query premise (2), for reasons I’ve outlined in my online review of Dr. Douglas Axe’s book, Undeniable. But here’s the point: when Meyer’s book came out in 2009, it looked a lot stronger than it does now. If you doubt me, let’s turn back the clock to 2005. Here’s Dr. William Dembski’s obituary of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Richard Smalley:

Rick Smalley, a Nobel laureate in chemistry at Rice University, died earlier this week. You can read about his scientific contributions and passing here. I had the privilege of having lunch with Rick this summer. The meeting was arranged by his pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, my friend Ben Young. Rick had in the previous year become a Christian as well as a member of Second Baptist Church, and begun to express his doubts about Darwinism publicly (see here and here). I reported on my lunch meeting with Rick here, though to spare him harrassment (sic) I did not mention him by name. Rick’s prediction at the end of his life was that ID would be mainstreamed in five years and that evolution in its conventional materialistic sense would be dead within ten. It will be interesting to see if his predictions are borne out.

Here’s what Dr. Smalley had to say about Origins of Life and Who Was Adam by Dr. High Ross and Dr. Fazale Rana:

Evolution has just been dealt its death blow. After reading Origins of Life, with my background in chemistry and physics, it is clear evolution could not have occurred. The new book, Who Was Adam, is the silver bullet that puts the evolutionary model to death.”

If a scientist of the stature of Dr. Richard Smalley could be convinced that Intelligent Design was scientifically viable, then why are you castigating Meyer for propagating the same view?

Finally, you write:

If you had to identify the #1 most powerful “moment” (i.e. compelling argument) in those ID promoting works, what would it be? What is the very strongest of the ID arguments which I should consider?

I happen to think that Dembski’s Universality Probability Bound and the design inference he drew from it are philosophically sound. It’s just too bad that no-one can make a good mathematical and scientific case that the origin of life - or for that matter, complex animals - is an event of such astronomically low probability that it follows below Dembski’s Universality Probability Bound. If such a demonstration could be made, then a design inference would be perfectly rational, in my view. Cheers.


Because both Dr. Smalley and Meyer provided no compelling reasons for me to think that their opinions have more merit than the vast majority of the academy who have far more expertise in fields relevant to the topic—to say the least.

Moreover, I’ll agree with you that the following statement by Dembski concerning Smalley does not do anyone any favors:

I’ll be gracious toward the late Dr. Smalley and limit my response to one word: Face-palm.

His statement about the impending death of the Theory of Evolution reminds me of hundreds of equally lame pronouncements and premature obituaries written about evolution since the 1960’s when I first got involved in “creation science.” (Even though I have much regret for my anti-evolution activist past, I can at least console myself that I never repeated the “evolution theory is in crisis and will be dead soon” nonsense of my colleagues and fellow speakers.)

Frankly, I’m very surprised that you are looking to the late Dr. Smalley to make your case.

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I actually think Signature is by far the best work ever put forward by an ID proponent. It had it’s shortcomings and a lot of its claim have now been shown to be false with work coming from the Yarus and Zagrovic labs. But I felt like it was a good effort

This thread has strayed considerably from “Science on localized events in distant past” so perhaps some new threads should be spawned from it. In any case, I would repeat my question from yesterday:

What might be considered the #1 best argument published to date for “ID theory”?

Along with it, I would mention a second question I’ve posted on multiple forums over the years but never got much response: What has been the most significant scientific discovery of the past several decades which you would attribute to “ID theory”? (Sometimes I have also included the question, “What has been the most important scientific discovery published by The Discovery Institute?”)

These questions are sincere. I don’t keep up with ID writings like I once did so it is very possible there have been important developments outside my notice.

(1) Because Meyer is the author.

(2) Because I know how the publishing industry operates and how/why people choose to write endorsements for book jackets for many reasons.

Are you sure that you want to base your case on arguments like these?

I find myself almost speechless.

I never had the privilege of meeting the great chemist, Dr. Smalley. It is worth reading ACS’s obituary, and take a moment to respect his contributions, and our loss in his death.


I would go on to say that I did become very good firends with James Tour, his friend and colleague at Rice, and also another chemist of equal stature:

Both of them would and should be the first to acknowledge that they are NOT biologists, and that their major critique is of the origin of life. As for Smalley’s statements about Who Was Adam?, far from being a death blow to evolution, we have fairly definitively demonstrated the RTB model false. That was outside his area, and he was wildly wrong.

It is easy to attack them for their mistake there, however, I take a more equivocal view. I might be the first person who is a (1) a credible biologist, (2) that built trust with Tour, and (3) was competent to clearly explain it to him. That is a major failure on the part of the scientific community as a whole, and specifically Christian biologists. No one had reached out to him before me. I found him to be very open minded, and kind. That is how we became friends. This is not to imply he affirms evolution (he does not), but he does not see it as a theory in crisis. Tour is much more focused on the origin of life, than evolution. And that is wise.

Because of our failings in ambassadorship, we cannot be sure what Smalley would have done if we had taken the time to deal with his legitimate questions. This is the steep cost of:

It is not enough to be right, we also have to be trusted.


@vjtorley, if that was all his argument was, no one would have a problem with it, and it would not require so many pages. The irony is that the basic premise of Signature in the Cell is correct: we just do not know how the first cell arose. It takes special talent to take such a concise and self-evident fact and turn it into a controversial book.

The problem with Signature in the Cell is all the argumentation placed alongside this fact. In particular, the effort to insist that this was real “SCIENCE” not just science-engaged philosophy. That cross the line: The Rules of the Game, and especially in the wake of the Dover Trial and the Kansas Board is hard not to read as an unwise overreach.


I agree that @AllenWitmerMiller was too dismissive.

Just a question @vjtorley, at what point does he need to bear responsibility for ignoring scientific corrections from scientists outside his circle?

Does Meyer bear any responsibility for not engaging fair minded scientists like myself?

I would strongly contrast his work from, for example, yours @vjtorley. You are engage people who disagree with you all the time, and are open to hearing what science shows us from points of view different than yours. That is part of why you and I got a long so well, even when you were solidly in ID. If you, as a philosopher, can do that, why can’t Meyer?

Let me pull in a key point about this from another thread, keeping in mind my high respect for Smalley as a chemist, and that he is a chemist, not a biologist:

We do not need to conclude that ID is pseudoscience to take ahold of this fact. Smalley was a phenomenal chemist, but that does not transfer over to biology, evolution, and population genetics.

Speaking as an interdisciplinary scientist that has made received contributions in several fields, those that successfully cross boundaries:

  1. Maintain very high respect for the expertise of those in other domains, and never claim out field of training trumps the field we are trying to influence.
  2. Are very cautious about picking fights, and only choose battles where we can solidly win.
  3. Work very hard to find ally’s in the field, who can advocate “from within” for a paradigm shifting idea.
  4. Are very very quick to admit mistakes and retract, because as an outsider we are working from a deficit, and trust is the most important commodity in regard to influence.

Let me point out that I am not a population geneticist. I am often introduced as one (over my protest), but I am not. I am a mere computational biologist. Yet my largest contributions, right now, to the theology-science conversation are in population genetics. That is only possible because I’m intently fixating on rules like these. Such an approach is difficult, and requires a great deal of humility, but can also dramatically improve our understanding of science.

If we play by the rules, there are major advances to be made. Science does make errors, but those errors are correctable if we play by the rules, and do the hard work to make our case, and are willing to recognize when we are in error, not science.

These are also the rules that Meyer’s flouts, as do most ID advocates. It is not surprising that they have far more enemies than friends.


It is not so much about hours in the day, rather its discernment. The key valuable questions and critique were repeated over and over again. It wasn’t hard to find it. However, everyone, it seems, ignored it.

Brian Josephson, Nobel prize winning physicist: Also a big champion of extra sensory perception. Linus Pauling was a multidisciplinary genius. But a bit of a quack regarding the benefits of Vitamin C. All that means is that it’s a really good idea to focus on the claims and arguments.

Within biological research, I think there is a great appreciation of the need for multidisciplinary approaches as the answers we’re now trying to address are getting very complicated. I’ve worked to help get engineering students exposed to biology early in their education. Their math and systems education can help create models for testing, among other things. Physicists and mathematicians have had a long history of making important contributions in the field. But you’ve got to immerse yourself in the basics of the field to make the strongest contributions.

And you’re right that almost nobody succeeds if they enter a field with the notion that everyone is wrong and “I’m here to set you straight”. 99+% of the time, that reliably identifies a quack, not a paradigm-changing genius.

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To be clear, it still might be true that 99+% of people are wrong on specific points. The really advantage of being from outside the field is that you are more likely to identify these errors, which can have very high significance. However, “winning” in the sense of changing the view of the field, takes great wisdom, carefully cultivated allies, and a bulletproof evidential argument. Sometimes it takes luck too.

I’ve been very lucky to have been part of shifts like this. If we are lucky, it can be a once in a career sort of contribution. Being in a field of rising importance and cross cutting application (deep learning), and having 9 years of graduate training (physician and scientist), I’ve been really lucky to “be in the right place and time” to see it more than once. I’d count the genealogical correction as on example of that, though the story isn’t fully played out yet. The other examples are far more obscure =), but perhaps with higher significance to human health.