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On Not Reading Signature in the Cell: A Response to Francisco Ayala (Part 1)


[This response is crossposted from Biologos.org]

No doubt it happens all the time. There must be many book reviews written by reviewers who have scarcely cracked the pages of the books they purport to review. But those who decide to write such blind reviews typically make at least some effort to acquire information about the book in question so they can describe its content accurately--if, for no other reason, than to avoid embarrassing themselves. Unfortunately, in his review of my book Signature in the Cell (titled ironically, "On Reading the Cell's Signature"), eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala does not appear to have even made a search for the crib notes online. Indeed, from reading his review it appears that he did little more than crack the title page and table of contents--if that. As a result, his review misrepresents the thesis and topic of the book and even misstates its title.

The title of my book is not Signature of the Cell as Ayala repeatedly refers to it, but Signature in the Cell.

The thesis of the book is not that "chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms" as he claims, but instead that intelligent design can explain, and does provide the best explanation for (among many contenders, not just chance) the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.

Further, the topic that the book addresses is not the origin of the genomes of organisms or the human genome as the balance of Professor Ayala's critique seems to imply, but instead the origin of the first life and the mystery surrounding the origin of the information necessary to produce it.

Ayala begins his review by attempting to trivialize the argument of Signature in the Cell. But he does so by misrepresenting its thesis. According to Ayala, "The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell [sic] is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms." He notes--as I do in the book--that all evolutionary biologists already accept that conclusion. He asks: "Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point?" But, of course, the book does not spend hundreds of pages arguing that point. In fact, it spends only 55 pages out of 613 explaining why origin-of-life researchers have--since the 1960s--almost universally come to reject the chance hypothesis. It does so, not because the central purpose of the book is to refute the chance hypothesis per se, but for several other reasons intrinsic to the actual thesis of the book.

Signature in the Cell makes a case for the design hypothesis as the best explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the first living organism. In so doing, it self-consciously employs a standard method of historical scientific reasoning, one that Darwin himself affirmed and partly pioneered in the Origin of Species. The method, variously described as the method of multiple competing hypotheses or the method of inferring to the best explanation, necessarily requires an examination of the main competing hypotheses that scientists have proposed to explain a given event in the remote past. Following Darwin and his scientific mentor Lyell, historical scientists have understood that best explanations typically cite causes that are known from present experience to be capable, indeed uniquely capable, of producing the effect in question.

In the process of using the method of multiple competing hypotheses to develop my case for intelligent design in Signature in the Cell, I do examine the chance hypothesis for the origin of life, because it is one of the many competing hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the origin of the first life and the origin of biological information. Naturally, since chance was one of the first hypotheses proposed to explain the origin of life in the wake of the discovery of the information-bearing properties of DNA, I critique it first. Nevertheless, I go on to examine many more recent models for the origin of biological information including those that rely on physical-chemical necessity (such as current self-organizational models), and those that rely on the interplay between chance and necessity (such as the currently popular RNA world scenario). My discussion of these models takes over 90 pages and four chapters. Did Ayala just miss these chapters?

I should add that my critique of the chance hypothesis provides a foundation for assessing some of these more recent chemical evolutionary theories--theories that Ayala would presumably recognize as contenders among contemporary evolutionary biologists and which rely on chance in combination with other processes. For example, in the currently popular RNA world scenario, self-replicating RNA catalysts are posited to have first arisen as the result of random interactions between the chemical building blocks or subunits of RNA. According to advocates of this view, once such self-replicating RNA molecules had come into existence, then natural selection would have become a factor in the subsequent process of molecular evolution necessary to produce the first cell. In Signature in the Cell, however, I show that the amount of sequence-specific information necessary to produce even a supposedly simple self-replicating RNA molecule far exceeds what can be reasonably assumed to have arisen by chance alone. Indeed, my analysis of the probabilities of producing various information-rich bio-molecules is not only relevant to showing that "chance, by itself, cannot account for" the origin of genetic information, but also to showing why theories that invoke chance in combination with pre-biotic natural selection also fail.

In any case, Signature in the Cell does not just make a case against materialistic theories for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life, it also makes a positive case for intelligent design by showing that the activity of conscious and rational agents is the only known cause by which large amounts of new functional information arises, at least when starting from purely physical and chemical antecedents.

Stay tuned for part 2 of my response to Francisco Ayala.

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