Distinguished philosopher blurbs intelligent-design book

December 1, 2009 • 7:20 am

Over at the Times Literary Supplement, an estimable organ for which I’ve written frequently, philosopher Thomas Nagel has blurbed an ID book, Discovery Institute darling Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, as one of the books of the year for 2009:

Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

“Detailed account”?? How about “religious speculation”?

Nagel is a respected philosopher who’s made big contributions to several areas of philosophy, and this is inexplicable, at least to me.  I have already called this to the attention of the TLS, just so they know.

Do any of you know of critiques of Meyer’s book written by scientists? I haven’t been able to find any on the internet, and would appreciate links.

46 thoughts on “Distinguished philosopher blurbs intelligent-design book

  1. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

    Yet the dude couldn’t lift a finger to help prevent the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, Kosovo, 9-11, etc…Bad God!!

  2. Critiques written by scientists? Not yet directly.
    But Meyer’s own launch blurb at the Heritage Foundation is revealing enough to be self-demolishing, ex negativo:


    The most salient passages:
    Materialist solutions of the enigma all face insuperable challenges, Meyer continued. For example, theories that hypothesize the operation of “pre-biotic natural selection presuppose what needs to be explained in the first place, namely the existence of self-replicating organisms,” without which no advantageous feature that is selected could be retained and passed on. It is a “question-begging explanation,” Meyer said.

    Meanwhile, theories of “self-organization” have their own problems. If the original matrix from which life developed was something like a regularly patterned salt crystal, then that still leaves unexplained the enigma of biological information — which, like all information, is defined by not being regularly patterned but rather by specified complexity.

    Meyer asked, “What cause, based on our experience, is capable of producing information?” The only such known cause is intelligent agency.

    Now this is rich. Falling back behind Schrödinger(1944).

    But, as Dr. Meyer so aptly concluded, “…the primary obligation of a scientist is to follow the evidence where it leads.”

    1. “launch blurb at the Heritage Foundation?” is at


      not the link given which is at evolutionnews.org a propaganda website of the Discovery Institute, the intergalactic epicenter of creationist–sorry, I mean Intelligent Design–thought.

      Meyer is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and is, therefore, required to interpret all evidence as supporting ID.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I pasted the link from the text page I actually quoted, because I considered it cruel and unusual punishment for readers to sit through the actual video over at Heritage.

  3. You know, I think the Discovery Institute did something clever.

    When they announced this book, I wrote and asked them for a review copy (they may even have written to me, offering one…I should dig through my email archives). They responded and said they would.

    So I didn’t buy it.

    And I just realized…they never sent me a copy. So I haven’t read it. And most importantly, I haven’t posted a critical review to my website.

    I don’t know of any of the usual suspects among the anti-creationist activists who have received a review copy. Usually we’re up on the latest from these guys — we have “Of Pandas and People” on our bookshelves, the whole load of garbage from Wells, Behe, etc., but nobody is talking against Meyer’s book.

    Those cunning bastards may have taken a note from the producers of movie stinkers: keep the critics away until you’ve got your opening weekend box office from the suckers.

    1. Wow. I’d say the author is more than just a theist. But, yeah, decent criticism as far as I can tell (not a biochemist).

  4. This is fascinating. Daniel Dennett was pointing out over a year ago how some of the mind-first creationists or dualists (like Fodor and Nagel) from philosophy of mind might be moving over to the dark side of full-blown biological creationism. It seems the transition is complete.

    see the first lecture over at:

    1. Actually, Fodor and his colleague Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have written a book (to come out early next year) called What Darwin Got Wrong. Its thesis is that natural selection is bogus, and not the cause of why organisms in nature seem adapted to their habitats.
      Fodor published an essay on this, which is apparently a precis of the book. You can find it here, along with critical letters from philosophers and biologists (including me).

      1. I’d love to have the input of Steven Pinker and David Poeppel on Fodor’s arguments.

        Thirty-four years ago, in 1975, Jerry Fodor made quite a splash at the Royaumont debate between Chomsky and Piaget, attacking Piaget on his concept of ‘phenocopy’ and ‘behaviour as the motor of evolution’, and calling him ‘anti-Darwinian’ and a Lamarckian in all but name. Piattelli-Palmarini, who later edited the proceedings, gradually sided with Fodor and Chomsky.

        It’s fun to see how Fodor, according to his LRB paper, and presumably Piatteli-Palmarini (I haven’t read their book yet) have spiralled full circle. Spiralled, because from one angle they seem to be hovering at great height above the field. Turn 90 degrees, and the circle snaps.

        I was a schoolkid then; while the other kids spent their dimes on Stones records, I spent mine in trying to obtain bootleg transcripts of that Royaumont debate. But the Stones have caught up with me: Jerry Fodor’s contention seems to be, in nuce:
        You can’t always get what you want
        But if you try sometimes well you just might find
        You get what you need

  5. It got a good review from Alister Nobel, a Chief Inspector of Science education in Scotland.
    Then again he is listed as a ‘lay preacher’ on his guardian biog where he has written the following (don’t read on an empty stomach).

    In fact there are quite a few positive UK based reviewers listed in the national review site for Signature of the cell. Some, like the ubiquitous Steve Fuller, are to be expected but a couple more make you wonder how they got into their positions (a Professor of Medical genetics who doesn’t accept evolution as an explanation for the complexity of life!).

  6. Yeah, I was looking for reviews to prep for my cell biology class this quarter. Then, I was going to read/review it myself, but when I found it in the bookstore and discovered that it was something like 600 pp., I groaned and decided that the $30 was better spent on Greatest Show on Earth.

  7. Hey, I’m not scientist – which is what is so devious about Meyer’s book, because it’s not aimed at scientists, and should have been, if he wanted it taken seriously as a contribution to science – but this is not obviously correct (quoted from Nagel):

    “Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause.”

    A predecessor of DNA, as I understood it, was RNA. Am I wrong about this? And RNA itself, I assume, went through a period of development from simpler antecedents, processes which might correctly be thought of as processes of selection. If what I think is true, is true, then Nagel is just wrong. Can someone help me out of my scientific ignorance here?

    1. Eric, you are indeed correct. I’m a molecular biologist who works in the field of functional RNA regulation. There are significant clues that RNA was the predecessor of the DNA genome and of the complex protein based enzymes that make current life possible (mainly in the form of the ribosomes – essentially RNA based enzymes that catalyze the formation of protein chains).
      Natural selection doent need DNA or proteins to function. It can work quite well with just RNA molecules that have the ability to self replicate. Indeed it doesnt even need RNA. Any organic chemical with the ability to self replicate and mutate can be the basis for natural selection.
      RNA was probably not the first molecule to have these characteristics. Perhaps there were numerous other molecules that ‘evolved’ prior to RNA and perhaps we ourselves are close to a historic landmark – the point at which a non DNA based system will acquire the ability to replicate and mutate (computer viruses can already do this) – probably the result of human invention.

      1. I am glad to see this response, as it is the first mistake I caught in the blurb. RNA is found in even the simplest life forms, and there is quite a bit of promising research regarding its origins.

        Since it (and likely its predecessors)is more unstable than DNA, would it could follow that the resulting degradation might have been a source for recombinance in early organisms? If so, that could have been a primary driving force behind early genetic drift…

    2. The point is, that some self-replicating thing, DNA, RNA, whatever, somehow came into existence. (So yes, you are right in principle)

      The claim that this is question-begging is just plain wrong. Meyer wants to call anything that replicates an organism, but that’s obviously not correct.

  8. It’s probably worth saying that although the “scientific points” of Meyer’s book are good to go over, the colossal failure to do science in any real manner is Meyer’s primary failure.

    He’s just doing theology, by making vague and general analogies between human production of information content and some unknown “intelligence.” He’s not in the slightest showing that a cause is plausible and matching it to a predicted effect, for since he’s really doing apologetics, a non-specific and essentially meaningless “analogy” is all that he needs.

    For someone who studied the philosophy of science, Meyer does very well at promoting religious methodology at the expense of science.

    Glen Davidson

    1. I’m still waiting for this “non-materialist” account of what minds are and how they work that theologians MUST have, given that they are running around claiming that science could never possibly explain them. That MUST mean that they have some sophisticated non-science description of how they operate, right?

      Surely they couldn’t possibly act so pompously about science being incompletely when they haven’t produced even a modicum of alternative explanation, right?

      1. I agree completely. They insist that science explain things, but they can’t even show that those things exist.

  9. Nothing new here, I mean an ’eminent’ philosopher shooting his mouth off about a subject he couldn’t be bothered to study beforehand. Remember the late Karl Popper’s dismissal of natural selection as unscientific? Although he later recanted, he uttered similar nonsense about irreducible complexity in the book, ‘The Self and its Brain’, he co-authored with the Catholic physiologist John Eccles. And more recently we’ve had the British philosopher Antony Flew …

    1. Flew doesn’t count. He doesn’t remember writing his own book or its contents, suggesting it was ghost-written.

      1. Flew started spouting off about evolution long before his recent ‘conversion’ to a belief in ‘Aristotle’s god’ and the publication of that notorious ghost-written book. His ‘Darwinian Evolution’ (first edition 1984) contains numerous howlers, including pig ignorant attacks on Richard Dawkins.

    2. My apologies for intervening once again on this thread.
      John Eccles, a very eminent neurophysiologist, provided me with a rare firsthand insight into the workings of a deeply religious scientist.
      Eccles was already a very old man, I was a very young student attending the seminar of one of my hitherto scientific heroes. The Self and its Brain had just been published, and I quizzed Eccles at length on this and related matters. Finally, not really getting anywhere, I asked him about his heuristic principle.
      “Well, if I want to know anything about a neuron, I try to get into the mind of the neuron: if I were a neuron, what would I do?” He gave me further examples in the same vein; all apparently had served him well in his research.
      I realised then and there what deep psychological barriers prevented him from ever becoming a reductionist, how deeply ingrained his sense of and need for irreducibility was, how defensive he had to be about his world-view.
      Curiously, Thomas Nagel’s ‘What is it Like to Be a Bat?’ reminded me of this conversation with Eccles.

  10. the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative

    The shoe is on the other foot.

    There are to my knowledge many proposed natural pathways that goes from selection to reproduction to replication, while there isn’t any alternative at all. (“Creation” famously doesn’t “produce information” as it leads to infinite regress. In fact, such an freewheeling system will inevitably lead to _degradation_ of information.)

    One such simple alternative is presented by cdk007 cdk007 @ youtube. AFAIU it’s pretty much based on Jack Shostak’s research.

    Another much more elaborated alternative is Mulkidjanian’s and Galperin’s Zn world.

    The later is successful in explicitly detailing evolutionary and physical continuity in the processes:

    “A scenario for the evolution of a complex system must consist of plausible elementary steps, each conferring a distinct advantage (Darwinian continuity principle; see also ref. [27,67,218]). Furthermore, these steps also have to be physically plausible, which implies, in addition to the correspondence with physical laws, the continuity of underlying mechanisms and driving forces. Below, the interplay between the Darwinian and physical continuities in the Zn world is considered in more detail.”

    As all we need to know is that _a_ pathway exist, while it can be demonstrated there are several, natural abiogenesis is successfully tested on its main prediction.

    And if Meyer is actually relying on “specified complexity” he is tying the deal. As there is no such concept in information theory, nor can it be as it is contradictory in terms. (See for example “Good Math, Bad Math” blog on this.) It is the usual humbug of creationists.

  11. Cross-post from Jeffrey Shallit’s blog:

    Edit Glen Davidson said… More tripe from Nagel at UD’s blog:


    Exactly how correctly Sisson retells what Nagel said there, I don’t know, but judging from his positive words for pseudoscientific tripe in TLS, I’m guessing Sisson didn’t have to quotemine him.

    For what it’s worth, I responded to the above-linked blogpost here:


    Just more evidence that Nagel’s an idiot when it comes to science.

    Glen Davidson

    6:22 PM

  12. I requested a review copy but was ignored (my blog has negatively reviewed a few creationist books before).

    However, now that PZ has mentioned it – I have had several favourable responses from publishers to requests for review copies of ID books, but they haven’t arrived.

    Perhaps they have a tactic to deflect scientific reviewers.

    Bugger – I don’t want to end up buying such books.

  13. Biogenesis is deeply enigmatic. If someone wants to argue that it was a supernatural process, I have no cogent counter argument. But if they have no interest in explaining the process – and Meyers has no such interest – they are not participating in the scientific enterprise. Science is about explanation, not argument.

    It is depressing to learn that distinguished philosophers can fail to understand this.

  14. Prof. Nagel can recognize rigorous, fair, and creative thinking. He, unlike many secular philosophers, is no ideologue, ridiculing contrarian views–as this post does.

    Eventually, one hopes that more philosophers will get over their “ridicule reponse” (which is really quite childish) and begin to seriously engage ID arguments.

    1. Perhaps it is the total failure of ID to make any headway with peer-reviewed science that leads Mr. Groothius to hope that more “philosophers” (of which I am one, rather than a scientist) would “seriously engage” with ID “arguments.

    2. Philosophers have been seriously engaging ID arguments for centuries.

      And I’m not just taking about Hume, John Stuart Mill and others who have taken on the Argument for Design.

      Even supposedly modern “arguments” for ID have been examined and found wanting by philosophers over the years (e.g., William James nailing the central fallacy of the “fine-tuning” argument back in the 19th century).

      If any philosophers really do have a ‘ridicule response’ to ID, it’s probably because they get tired of seeing the same discredited fallacies being regurgitated again and again.

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