Monday, June 27, 2011

Signature in the Cell - A Review

Confession: I'm not a biologist. Nor do I ever see myself working in any field related to biology, although I did do well in biology in school (and other sciences).

So why did I pick up this book in the first place?

Well, for one, I like to read things outside of my normal fields of interest once in a while and two, I had the opportunity to see the author give a talk at a conference last fall. I had heard of the book before and had heard some of intelligent design arguments that are out there (pro and con), so I was aware of who the speaker was. He was well-spoken in his talk, and what intrigued me even more was his mention of a Wired magazine article he did some time back that only used a fraction of the material that discussed in the interview. He mentioned about how he discussed the topic of intelligent design for three hours, and covered all sorts of subtopics such as nanotechnology, the DNA code within cells, etc. More details of that issue can be found here and here.

At this point, I wanted to read the book just to see where it went in terms of apologetics and because he made reference to fields I was very familiar with: information science and computer science. Admittedly, I had some basic knowledge of DNA, proteins, and basic cellular structure before I started reading the book, which helped.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the book this summer, and just finished it the other week. The basic premise of the book is this: there is a great deal of sophisticated machinery within a cell. What's more, the DNA found in those cells looks a lot like computer code. On top of that, the process of replicating that information is also quite sophisticated.

In addition, a perplexing question is brought up throughout: given all the information in a human cell, how in the world did the information get there? This is not just a jumble of data is written like code and serves a greater purpose. Even the so called idea of "junk DNA" is falling apart (as the author points out) because science is finding that there really is a use for it...even if we haven't completely figured that out just yet.

Structurally, the book follows Meyer's own journey as he considered and/or discarded the various theories of the origin of life, and how the information got into the cell in the first place. In chapters nine and ten ("Ends and Odds" and "Beyond the Reach of Chance"), for example, he mathematically explains just how astronomical the odds are that life more or less came together out of the primordial soup and pieced itself together by chance.

Towards the latter third of the book, Meyer uses this compelling comparision: when one looks at Mount Rushmore, you can't help but think that such carvings were created by intelligence. In other words, the rocks didn't just crumble or erode over several thousand years to create the four faces on the monument. He also makes mention of the SETI project, which is an ongoing search for extraterrestrial life. Now if they find a pattern in the signals coming from space, or more dramatically, some kind of message, then it would most likely be attributed to intelligence.

To make a comparision to my own field, from a software development standpoint, I can tell you that anybody can throw together a program in a matter of minutes using a list of a particular programming language's keywords. Getting the program to actually run is another thing. Getting that same program to perform something useful is another hurdle.

Getting that program to then be used by your company or even the world as a whole takes a completely different level of skill and maybe even a team of programmers working together. And what would the end user see after using the product? Hopefully, they would see realize some amount of intelligence designed the product and that the program didn't just "assemble itself" one day on a cluster of networked computers.

Several times throughout the book the author made parallels to the field of information science and computer science, which helped me through the more difficult passages. Even if I didn't completely grasp the concept of folding, I could follow his comments such as comparing the code inside of DNA to that of an operating system. He also frequently references visual examples he has used with his students in the past to illustrate larger concepts.

The book's chapters also seemed to echo the type of apologetic you would find in the Biblical book of Romans...even though it focused on the specific issue of the origin of life and was heavy with science. It should be noted, however, that Meyer makes it clear in his book that the issue of intelligent design is separate from that of theological issues...and it is.

Regardless of your worldview, Signature in the Cell is a deep, thought-provoking, and sometimes challenging read. Whether the author intended it or not, it also strikes me a sort of indirect apologetic...and one well worth spending your time considering.

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