Francisco Ayala Responds to “Signature of Controversy”
Written by Darrel Falk
It has been almost one year since Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer was released. The book was on Amazon’s 2009 best seller list for science books and now has 245 reviews there. One year later, it still remains in the top 3,000 overall in books sold. By many accounts, this is a highly successful book.
Signature in the Cell is a book about biology. It actively engages original literature in biochemistry, molecular biology and molecular genetics. To get tens of thousands of people reading about RNA catalysis and nucleotide biochemistry, among many other arcane biological details is a noteworthy accomplishment. Dr. Meyer has done this through his engaging, detective-style writing, and his ability to continually persuade people of the topic's importance. His website, for example, puts the book into this all-important framework:
Meyer is developing a more fundamental argument for intelligent design that is based not on a single feature like the bacterial flagellum, but rather on a pervasive feature of all living systems. Alongside matter and energy, Dr. Meyer shows that there is a third fundamental entity in the universe needed for life: information.
It is difficult to imagine a topic of more fundamental significance to our understanding of the universe than showing for the first time that there is a third entity alongside matter and energy.
So Signature in the Cell is a biology book and it addresses issues of great importance. As interesting as this book is to non-biologists, given the assertions it makes, it also ought to be engaging to those who have spent their lives exploring the biochemistry and molecular biology of cells—the biologists themselves.
To my knowledge the only public appraisal of this book by a biologist who holds a faculty position at a secular research university is that of Dr. Francisco Ayala of the University of California, Irvine. It was not favorable. There were several reviews by biologists at Christian colleges (see here, here, and here), but each of these also spoke of the quality of its science in highly unfavorable terms.
Although he is not a biologist, we also refer readers to the commentary by Dr. Randy Isaac, Executive Director of the ASA, the organization of American scientists who are Christians. He concluded his detailed analysis of a key section of the book this way:
It is laudable that Meyer takes the step to explore predictions that ID would make. Predictions that are testable are a vital part of the scientific process. But just making a prediction isn’t sufficient to indicate viable science. Astrologers and tasseologists can also make predictions and sometimes they may be right. Predictions must also be based on causal factors that are understood independently to exist and whose adequacy can be independently verified. The predictions must clearly differentiate between competing hypotheses.
It is unfortunate that this set of dozen predictions is very weak on all counts. It is unlikely to make any difference in the debate.
If this book “shows that there is a third fundamental entity in the universe for life,” why does it seem that the book has been ignored by the biology community as a whole, except in a few cases where it has been reviewed unfavorably?
I have asked the following sort of question on two other occasions related to the discussion of Signature in the Cell and so far there has not been one positive response:
How have the group of scientists at Discovery Institute reacted to the huge popularity of the book on the one side, but the silence or disapproval of the experts who have spent their careers studying what Dr. Meyer writes about? The Discovery Institute has just published a 103 page copyrighted electronic book, Signature of Controversy which shows how disappointed they are.
The book singles out Dr. Ayala (the one person I am aware of who holds a biology faculty position at a research university) who has taken the time to read the book and to write about it. Dr. Ayala had expressed considerable concern about the scientific quality of the book. They sent a copy of their frankly worded e-book to Dr. Ayala. Below is his response.
Response to Signature of Controversy
by Francisco Ayala
Dr. Stephen Meyer writes: "eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala does not appear to have even made a search for the crib notes online. Indeed, ... it appears that he did little more than glance at the title page and table of contents" (p. 9). David Klinghoffer disagrees: "My colleague Dr. Meyer thinks Ayala did read the Table of Contents, but I must disagree" (p. 19).
Is this the kind of language Meyer and Klinghoffer want to use to engage in constructive dialogue with their critics? Or does it represent a distinctive way in which members of the Discovery Institute seek to practice Christian charity?
For the record, I read Signature in the Cell.
Dr. Meyer writes: "In fact, it [Signature in the Cell] spends only 55 pages out of 613 pages explaining why origin-of-life researchers have ... come to reject the chance hypothesis" (p. 10).
The "chance hypothesis" entry in the Index of Signature in the Cell has 13 sub-entries, each citing one to several pages; the first page cited is 106, the last one is p. 359. On p. 499-503, there are at least four additional references, not cited in this entry, about the insufficiency of the chance hypothesis.
The next entry in the Index is "Chance and Necessity," which has 14 sub-entries; the first page cited is 173, the last one is p. 356.
There is also an entry for "chance association," and one for "chance elimination," which includes three sub-entries citing pages between 179 and 356.
A final sub-entry under "chance hypothesis," says "See also scientific theories."
The entry for "scientific theories" has 20 sub-entries, citing pages between 24 and 444. A final sub-entry says "See also biological science; chance hypothesis; evolutionary theory; intelligent design (ID) theory; natural selection; self-organization theories."
"Only 55 pages out of 613 pages ... to reject the chance hypothesis." Really?
An outside observer reading Dr. Meyer's statement that Signature in the Cell "spends only 55 pages out of 613 pages explaining .. the chance hypothesis" might be justified in wondering whether Dr. Meyer has read his own book. The pervasiveness of the references to chance and their spread over 397 pages out of the 508 pages of text in Signature in the Cell are fully consistent with the statement in my review of the book that the keystone argument of Signature in the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in organisms.
For the record, I have not read Signature of Controversy. I read a few early pages, glanced at the rest, and decided that it was not worth reading.
Francisco Ayala is a philosopher and the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Dominican priest. He is a popular author and lecturer on the compatibility of science and religion. He has received numerous awards and honors, including a 2001 National Medal of Science, the highest honor given by the government to scientists, and the 2010 Templeton Prize.