Monday, January 14, 2013

No. 1 Amazon Review: Steve Meyer, Signature in the Cell

And here is is, my most popular book review on Amazon, out of 300-400 to date . . . Wouldn't be my first choice.  But elections have consequences!   

Signature in the Cell, DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design
758 + / 131 -
I come to this book with two peeves, one pet, the other a stray that is beginning to wear out its welcome.

My pet peeve is fanatics who attack ID out of ideological compulsion, rather than using the "think" cells hidden deep within their brains to evaluate and argue. That includes most of the reviewers who gave the book 1 or 2 stars so far. Meyer, we are told, is "lazy," a "creationist," "idiot," "fraud," and "liar" who hawks "error-prone" "snake-oil," "gobbledygook," "pseudo-science." We should read Richard Dawkins new Greatest Show on Earth instead (I did -- it isn't about the origin of life, you numbskulls). One "reviewer" blasts the book after reading four sentences, and gets 69 of 128 "helpful" votes. Another "reviews" the first few pages and calls Meyer a liar.

Hardly any negative reviews even try to point to any scientific errors. Two exceptions: reviews by A Miller and K. M. Sternberg are worth reading. Sternberg's is particularly eloquent. (Though having written a couple books on the historical Jesus, I tend to wonder about the objectivity, awareness, and / or good sense of someone who thinks there is no evidence for the life of Jesus!)

My second peeve is a growing dislike for the way Discovery Institute often packages its arguments. I visited DI a year ago when another ID book came out -- I won't name it, seeing no need to embarrass the author. His presentation essentially said, "Look at all the wonders of creation. How can evolution possibly explain all that?" When Q and A time came, I was the only one to ask any critical questions. "That sounds impressive, but why don't you engage the explanations evolutionary biologists offer for those features?" Like the talk, the book (he gave me a copy) simply ignored detailed arguments.

This book does much better. Meyer's critics to the contrary, he does offer detailed scientific and philosophical arguments. Signature is NOT mainly about evolution per se - it is about the origin of life. It is, therefore, not strictly parallel to Dawkins' books or arguments -- ID is in a sense broader than evolution as a theory, since it seeks to explain things that evolution does not.

My main beef is the book is too long. While many of Meyer's illustrations are interesting, he uses too many, and repeats himself too often. Meyer should chop out some of the remedial 7th Grade biology, cut some stories and the "I was in Akron when I thought A and in Baton Rouge when B occurred to me" stuff, and cut the book in half.

The first-person auto-biographical is overworked. No one thinks you're neutral, Stephen -- so just argue! Don't pretend your conversion to ID was purely scientific -- reasonable people understand that people act under a mixture of motives, and the unreasonable ones are not worth arguing with. Dawkins, Behe, Hawking, and Darwin for that matter write serious arguments without losing ordinary readers; models that Meyer could profitably shoot for.

But the issue here is the origin of life, and when Meyer finally gets to it, he argues it well, I think. The central chapters seem to cover most of the main issues well. He discusses different solutions, and explains fairly clearly why they do not work, and why some sort of design seems preferable. It is interesting that none of Meyer's critics here dispute those arguments. (Again, Miller and Sternberg come closest, but do not really engage his most important points.) I wish, however, that Meyer had expanded those central chapters, and discussed in more detail leading rival contemporary hypotheses.

Many of his secondary arguments work, too. I suppose one can't complain if a philosopher of science writes a lot about the philosophy of science, and I suppose those arguments are made necessary by attempts to marginalize ID proponents through the sheer power of wordplay.  As I wrote in Truth Behind the New Atheism, in response to Dawkins' attempts to marginalize ID proponents: "David Bohm once defended science as 'openness to evidence.' The best scientist -- or theologian -- is not someone who shouts 'heresy!' when he hears strange views, but one who listens carefully and responds with reason and evidence. When it comes to ultimate questions, 'openness to evidence' is the definition that counts."

The scientific evidence is what matters, and I would have liked to have seen more detail on that. Still, all in all, a strong ID perspective on the origin of life.


Cornell Anthony said...

"One "reviewer" blasts the book after reading four sentences, and gets 69 of 128 "helpful" votes. Another "reviews" the first few pages and calls Meyer a liar."

It really just goes to show how the principle of charity is no longer used amongst the majority who want to disagree.

To be honest, it's really sad

David Marshall said...

On the other hand, as C.S. Lewis said somewhere, "There have always been civilized people, and they have always been surrounded by barbarians." Something like that.