You are on page 1of 6

These two elements, the abstract cipher component based architecture of the cell’s

encased in the sequence of DNA bases and information-processing system, along with its
the contrastingly palpable and quirkily intrinsic interdependence.
shaped proteins of cellular machinery are,
roughly, the beginning and end points of SITC chronicles attempts to solve the DNA
what is called gene expression. And, it was enigma and its evident intransigence, quoting
the explication of gene expression in the sundry expressions of futility by origin of life
1960’s that formally confirmed Crick’s researchers, molecular biologists and
hypothesis that the sequencing of DNA bases philosophers of science including Phil Sci
contained information content. But how was luminary Karl Popper: “What makes the
this information originally supplied? It is the origin of life and the genetic code a
origin of biological information that is the disturbing riddle is this: the code cannot be
pivotal question of SITC. translated except by using certain products of
its translation.”
Dr. Meyer paves the way with a riveting
discussion of gene expression, which he Meyer illustrates the intuitive appeal of the
depicts as an intricate process that relies on intelligent design hypothesis and hints at the
interdependent components that transcribe, formal methods of historical science with an
transport and interpret encoded information. inspired bit of parallel reasoning drawn from
In a chapter titled “The Molecular NASA’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence
Labyrinth,” Meyer takes us on a factory tour (SETI). This quest, he notes, “presupposes
of cellular machinery that describes the chain that any information embedded in electro-
of interactions that results in a working magnetic signals coming from space would
protein. Dizzyingly, it is working proteins indicate an intelligent source.” He continues:
from which this machinery itself is
constructed. This theme of closed loops is As yet, radio astronomers have not
recurring in SITC. Indeed, when Meyer found any such information-bearing
discusses computer-assisted design and signals. But closer to home, molecular
manufacturing and its congruence with gene biologists have identified information-
expression, he remarks: “The cell’s rich sequences and systems in the cell,
information-processing system is strikingly suggesting, by the same logic, the past
similar to CAD-CAM technology, though it existence of an intelligent cause for
differs...in at least one important respect: the those effects.
cell’s information-processing system not only
produces machines, it also reproduces itself.” A Cambridge educated philosopher of
science with a background as a working
His argument focuses unwaveringly on the geophysicist, Meyer outlines a distinct form
origin of first life, leaving the question of the of scientific inquiry, applied to cases in which
origin of species to others. As he lays out his there are singular causes and effects, that is
case, Meyer defines some of the daunting used in such disciplines as geology,
puzzles that origin of life researchers must archeology, paleontology and evolutionary
solve. He insists they must determine the biology. Historical science invokes a
origin of three things: (1) the system for detective-like, multi-pronged approach,
storing and encoding digital information in marked by “abductive” reasoning: a forensic
the cell, (2) the specific information content method that reasons backward from available
stored in the nucleotide sequences and (3) the clues to their possible causes. Meyer avers

TELICOM XXIII.1 – First Quarter 2010 79
that the historical method is not unbounded hearkening back to Darwin’s own doctrine of
or ungoverned by empirical evidence, offering vera causa. This principle rules out exotic
that one of the key tests for any historical causes to explain past events and seeks causes
hypothesis is the test of causal adequacy. This that are known to produce the effects that are
rests on a process of comparing the under scrutiny. It is the key logical device that
explanatory power of competing hypotheses, supports Darwin’s crucial inference that the
starting from the uniformitarian premise that principles of controlled micro-evolution
the laws of nature now in effect have observed in the breeding of animals
operated always and everywhere in the (“variation under domestication”) were
universe. In the modern parlance of historical transferable to speciation occurring over the
science, this is called “inference to the best eons. Vera causa echoes Lyell’s notion of
explanation” (IBE). “causes now in operation,” a key tenet of
historical science. The phrase is immortalized
Meyer argues that we know, from our in Lyell’s seminal Principles of Geology, which
uniform experience of cause and effect, only Darwin read when not overcome with
one kind of cause for the type of faces we see seasickness during the Beagle voyage.
on Mt. Rushmore; similarly we know of only
one kind of cause for the sort of digital code In an “aha” moment Meyer asked himself
we see in the DNA molecule. Bill Gates has “what is the cause now in operation that
remarked that DNA is like a software produces digital or alphabetic code?” This
program—only much more complex than any
yields the answer that there’s just one—
we’ve ever written. (This is quite a
intelligence. To generalize the principle of an
pronouncement from the man who has
effect pointing to a single cause, Meyer
overseen the various incarnations of the ultra
enlists mid twentieth century philosopher of
high footprint Windows operating system
science, Michael Scriven to sketch out an
and the similarly gargantuan Microsoft
investigative framework:
Office suite.) Coded information, whether it
comes from a radio signal, a hieroglyphic
inscription or a computer program, is known “According to Scriven, in order to
to come from an intelligent source. The establish a causal claim, the historical
information found in DNA accordingly scientist needs:
points back to an intelligent source. This is
the core argument in SITC. 1. ‘evidence that his [proposed cause]
was present’...2. evidence that ‘it has on
SITC describes Meyer’s personal story, in other occasions clearly demonstrated its
which he is first struck by the intuitive capacity to produce an effect of the sort
rightness of a necessary nexus between here under study’...3. [to establish] an
intelligence and coded information. It seemed ‘absence of evidence (despite a thorough
compelling that the mapping of an search)...of...other possible causes.’”
arrangement of DNA bases to a separate and
remote arrangement of amino acids should be Item one, the causal existence criterion, is
the product of planning. It should be possible dicey. So, how do historical scientists establish
to formulate a scientific argument to this the existence of a past cause? The key,
effect, Meyer reasoned, “because it might be according to Meyer, is uniqueness. First, the
true.” He set out to develop a scientific case historical scientist examines the historical
for ID in the manner of Darwin and his event to identify a defining effect. Consider
mentor, influential geologist Charles Lyell, this example:

80 TELICOM XXIII.1 – First Quarter 2010
There is a geological formation close to A key cog in Meyer’s long argument is the
Meyer’s home in Washington State, an ash scarcity of something called specified
layer in the eastern part of the state. This ash complexity, an idea with its roots in
layer is a defining feature of an unexplained information theory and the brainchild of
historical event—the origin of the geo- mathematician William Dembski. This can
formation. It happens that there is a lone be defined briefly as an irregular
known cause of such an ash layer, a volcanic arrangement of meaningful information such
eruption. So, abductive reasoning leads to the as the character string “TIME AND TIDE
provisional belief that a volcanic eruption is WAIT FOR NO MAN,” which is
the best explanation. Other causes are composed of 23 letters augmented with
considered but rejected as causally inadequate judicious spacing. When we look at such a
because each fails, as a cause now in operation, character string, we do not believe that it
to produce the target effect. Earthquakes, for resulted from spilling a bag of well-
example, produce many interesting effects scrambled Scrabble letters. When analyzed
but, as a cause now in operation, they do not by Dembski, this judgment actually derives
produce ash layers. from an intuitive grasp of the compound
effect of the low probability of any particular
So, here we go: if a proposed cause is known arrangement of 23 letters plus the specified
to be the unique cause of a target effect then complexity of this arrangement that
it is assumed to have been present prior to the conforms to the rules of an English sentence.
historical event that exemplifies this effect. Meyer asserts that, apart from human
artifacts such as “paintings, signs, written
And, if there is no single effect pointing to a text, spoken language, ancient hieroglyphics,
lone cause? Well, then this same logic is integrated circuits, machine codes, computer
extended to an ensemble of effects, a “wider hardware and software,” specified complexity
class of facts,” that converge on a single cause. is not found in the natural world, beyond
Meyer supplies a homespun illustration of negligible quantities, other than in biological
this variant: a wet driveway could arise from a molecules of DNA, RNA and proteins.
variety of causes but a wet driveway, upon
which rests a wet car, accompanied by dry Meyer submits that the quantity of specified
surroundings, under cloudless skies with a complexity in the DNA molecule
nearby bucket of soapy water and sponge is a overwhelms the chance opportunities of the
wider class of facts that points to a single universe—its “probabilistic resources.” He
cause... weighs the causal adequacy of the chance
hypothesis, as a diligent historical scientist
Ironically, perhaps, it is this very category of will do, and finds that the opportunity for
scientific reasoning that has buttressed neo- even a single working protein to be
Darwinism. Stephen Jay Gould, the iconic synthesized by chance is vanishingly small,
Harvard paleontologist and polymath of the based on computations that include such
last century, has defended evolutionary mind-numbing factors as the number of
biology from attacks that challenge its elementary particles in the observable
testability by invoking it as an exemplar of a universe (10^80), the number of seconds
class of scientific enquiry whose theories are since the big bang (10^16 ), a unit of
tested by evaluating their explanatory power, distance known as the Planck length (10^-33
and not necessarily by controlled laboratory centimeters), and so forth. Meyer makes a
experiments. sobering case to the ever hopeful gambler

TELICOM XXIII.1 – First Quarter 2010 81
who believes that eventually, he will win. Most prominent among the first is what is
“Eventually” has its limits. known as “RNA World.” This is a set of
theories that share the proposition that the
Interspersed with what might otherwise be first molecules imbued with information
dry mathematical and statistical discussions, occur midstream in the gene expression
and throughout these pages, Meyer scenario, viz., in the RNA molecules that
illustrates a core assortment of probability have various downstream functions. The
and pattern recognition topics with appeal of RNA World is that it seems to
homespun, fun and accessible stories and circumvent the interdependency between the
thought experiments. These smooth the way enzymatic functions of modern proteins and
as these same concepts are applied to the the information-storage function of modern
problem at hand. Meyer skillfully images DNA by positing that primitive RNA
burly men alerted by not-to-be-believed runs molecules did a little of both. But Meyer’s
at the roulette wheel, coin flipping games, critique of RNA World effectively conveys
criminal justice punishments of deceptive that RNA advocates are just pushing the
mathematical cruelty, an amusing plagiarism pink stuff around: “every attempt to leapfrog
episode taken from real life and a stable of the sequencing problem by starting with
characters including Slick, the ever sunny supposedly ‘information generating’ RNA
gambling man. replicators has only shifted the problem to
the specific sequences that would be needed
With engaging whimsy, he ingeniously to make such replicators functional.”
adduces The Cat in the Hat as a metaphor
for the displacement of one problem by The second trend, the elephant in the room
another in a kind of continuing regress in of simulation experiments, is the role of
which each highly improbable arrangement intelligence, human intelligence, in efforts to
is explained by another. Readers will recall simulate bio-molecular natural selection on
Dr. Seuss’s immortal sequel, The Cat in the the prebiotic earth. Early examples of such
Hat Comes Back, in which our eponymous attempts were computer programs by
hero must triumph over the tenacious pink Richard Dawkins and Bernd-Olaf Küppers
bathtub ring, the pink stuff that spreads from who invoked the curiously transparent device
one household item to another as the Cat of setting a target character string, an
gamely concocts successive ploys to restore English phrase such as “four score and seven
order before the parents return. years ago,” as a proxy for a target biological
molecule, and gravitating toward a match of
The target of this conceit is various theories, the target string. The software sifted
computer simulations and laboratory through a crop of (pseudo) random strings,
experiments conceived to explain bio- of the same length as the target, and favored
molecular activity as the product of those that most closely resembled it, in
undirected processes. Meyer’s critiques of iterative fashion. This has produced apparent
these rival theories note two persistent success and, Meyer argues, we should expect
trends: (1) proposed solutions “solved” the no less since the game is rigged. He proffers
problem of specified information by using that Darwinian natural selection is not
other unexplained sources of information, present in a prebiotic world and, in any case,
and (2) simulations produced seemingly is not aware of targets; he avers that the
significant results by targeting desirable Dawkins-Küppers experiment withers under
outcomes, i.e., relying on human intelligence. scrutiny. Meyer provides a clear and

82 TELICOM XXIII.1 – First Quarter 2010
convincing expression of the weakness of all the basis of philosophical preferences or
such attempts through recounting remarks of concerns about implications.”
a software engineer of his acquaintance:
Staying on point, Meyer offers another
There is absolutely nothing surprising example of a scientific theory with
about the results of these algorithms. metaphysical implications, the big-bang
The computer is programmed from the theory, to which “scientists with materialistic
outset to converge on the solution. The philosophical leanings” were initially hostile
programmer designed the code to do because of its implication of a universe with a
that. What would be surprising is if the temporal beginning, an idea with a distinctly
program didn’t converge on the theistic tinge.
solution. That would reflect badly on
the skill of the programmer. Everything Dr. Meyer gives us appendices that, while
interesting in the output of the program fittingly apart from the narrative flow, are at
came as a result of the programmer’s the crux of the debate. Appendix A concerns
skill—the information input. There are predictions of intelligent design, some of
no mysterious outputs. which can “help adjudicate proposals that
invoke either intelligent causes or
In the end, Meyer ruminates on the false materialistic mechanisms.” Appendix B gives
choice between religion and science that has a fair hearing to the possibility of a
permeated Western culture for some time. He “multiverse,” an unlimited number of parallel
acknowledges, without reserve, that ID has universes, as a logical device to extend—to
metaphysical implications and that he is a infinity—the probabilistic resources available
Christian believer. But, Meyer takes decided to the various chance hypotheses.
umbrage, as a professional scientist, at the
slings of pigeonholing critics and proponents His long argument is encyclopedic yet lively
of metaphysical naturalism (a religion itself, and persuades that science is at an impasse in
no?) impugning ID’s formulations as explaining the origin of life as the product of
fundamentally religious. He presents the undirected processes. The work overall,
common sense view that it cannot be a source technical at times, is directed to the general
of alarm or scientifically discrediting that ID reader. The scientifically trained reader must
has metaphysical implications since it, not decide whether a popular work is “trying to
surprisingly, pull a fast one,” preferably guided by criteria
that are consistently and dispassionately
“addresses a major philosophical question applied across historical sciences. The
that most religious and metaphysical systems author’s passion for his argument is palpable
of thought also address, namely, ‘What but scrupulously controlled; he is ever
caused life and/or the universe to come into mindful that it is the target of scornful
existence?’ Thus, like its materialistic attacks by opponents who are, to put it gently,
counterparts, the theory of intelligent design not disinterested. Meyer delivers his
inevitably raises questions about the ultimate argument in the manner of a dish best served
or prime reality. …Scientific theories must be cold, yet forcibly enough to shake the base of
evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not on the materialistic paradigm.

TELICOM XXIII.1 – First Quarter 2010 83