Signature in the Cell – by Stephen C. Meyer

Book summary by Jeff Stauffer

Chapter 1: DNA, Darwin, and the Appearance of Design

In this opening chapter, Meyer introduces us to some of the topics to be discussed in greater
detail later on, as well as providing a brief account of how he started his involvement in the intelligent
design (ID) movement. With the advent of the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and
Francis Crick in the 1950s, the “appearance of design” became a hotly debated issue. As the DNA
structure contained an immense amount of information, the science of DNA led to a widening interest in
information theory. This raises philosophical questions regarding the question of what information is,
where it comes from, and how one knows it when one sees it!

Meyer concludes this chapter with his story as a young physics and geology student working for

an oil company, and how questions of life’s origins spurred on his interest in the philosophy of science.

He later went on to receive his PhD in philosophy of science on the topic of origin-of-life biology.

Chapter 2: The Evolution of a Mystery and Why It Matters

Questions concerning where life came from (as well as what “life” is in the first place) are not
new to our generation. As Meyer points out, from the time of the ancient Greeks, people’s opinions
have generally fallen into two camps: that ultimate reality consists of either mind or matter. Either all
matter comes from and was shaped by an intelligent being (i.e. mind), or physical matter or energy is all
that exists. The implications of this mystery are so profound that they permeate every aspect of

Meyer walks us through some of the theories concerning a scientific investigation of life leading
up to the DNA discovery. He discusses the very influential Russian Aleksandr Oparin and his work on
theories of the cell and the origin of life. The chapter concludes with the Miller-Urey experiment from
1952, where Stanley Miller attempted to reproduce how life began on Earth. His experiment involved
mixing various gases believed to be present in the early Earth atmosphere, along with boiling water and
electricity to simulate lightning. Upon discovering the creation of amino acids in the mix, it was heralded
as a major breakthrough, with a theory of life’s origins now within reach. However, his findings have
since been discounted due to several incorrect assumptions about ancient conditions on Earth.

Chapter 3: The Double Helix

Here, Meyer tells the story of how Watson and Crick stumbled their way to discovering the
structure of DNA. Their brief paper (only 900 words long) appeared in Nature magazine in 1953, and it

“revolutionized biology.” They wrote how the structure of DNA allowed for many different
permutations, but also particular sequencing. This sequencing, they wrote, carries “genetic
information.” This idea of information will be central to Meyer’s developing thesis.

Chapter 4: Signature in the Cell

Understanding some fundamentals in information theory is crucial to grasping how closely the
analogy of information applies to DNA. Meyer begins with a short overview of Claude Shannon’s work
on this topic from the 1940s. Shannon attempted to measure the amount of information stored in a
system. In the case of the English language, the sentence “I believe it is raining outside” carries more
information than the sentence, “I am wet,” because it contains more characters. A second concept is
introduced at this point: that of specificity. Something that is specified is not only improbable, but also
has function or message-bearing capacity. This is what separates a long string of random letters (“jh
liqns nn vc qoas k lponqa”) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“methinks it is like a weasel”) even though both
are the same length and can store the same amount of information. Hamlet is not only improbable, but
also conveys meaning, and is therefore specified. Once you apply these concepts to DNA, a direct
correlation is apparent. Francis Crick wrote on this in the 1960s, realizing that DNA requires strict rules
regarding sequencing of proteins and amino acids, just like we have rules of grammar in the English
language. This is “profoundly mysterious,” writes Meyer, realizing the direct analogy between DNA, an
English poem, or even computer software. He goes on to point out that this level of specified
information is not found anywhere in the natural world, apart from human involvement.

Chapter 5: The Molecular Labyrinth

Chapter five is a fairly technical illustration of how DNA directs the synthesis of proteins through
stages including transcription, translation, and replication. Meyer provides an analogy that may help
with the importance of this issue without having a background in biology: It’s not good enough to find a
system that contains encoded information; you also need a method to read it or somehow process it.
Like finding a computer program in some outdated language, DNA would be useless if it couldn’t be
processed. A cell has an information-processing system that provides this function. However, this
creates a chicken-and-egg dilemma: the cell needs proteins to process DNA, but DNA construction
requires proteins. So which came first? Some contend that this is an example of “irreducible
complexity,” the idea that this kind of system couldn’t have evolved gradually, for all parts are required
for any functional advantage to survive the natural selection process. The origin of life debate must
solve this question.

Chapter 6: The Origin of Science and the Possibility of Design

Switching gears away from the biology of the cell and DNA, Meyer turns to a less technical
discussion regarding the nature of science, and what are acceptable methods in how we do science
today in the academic world. He reflects on a pre-conceived notion in the public’s mind that “science” is
strictly sitting in some laboratory repeating experiments over and over. But, according to him, some of
the greatest discoveries have come from simply stepping back and drawing together multiple lines of
evidences that others have gathered in new and novel ways. He cites Copernicus, Einstein, and Newton
as some who were successful in this manner. While some criticize the ID movement for not “doing
science” in a lab (Actually, the ‘Biologic Institute’ started a few years ago to do just that), Meyer
counters that this is an extremely narrow view of how science is performed. Even Darwin’s Origin of
Species “contains neither a single mathematical equation or any report of original experimental
research. Yet he formulated a great scientific theory” Meyer then questions why positing an
intelligent cause is such taboo in the modern academy, given that many of the grandfathers of science
(Robert Boyle, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, etc.) all presumed an intelligent agent behind the universe. He
provides an insightful quote from astronomer Johannes Kepler who said scientists have the job of

“thinking God’s thoughts after him,” implying that studying the world reveals God’s handiwork.

Chapter 7: Of Clues to Causes

In Meyer’s study of scientific endeavors dealing primarily with past events, he found that
laboratory reproduction of ancient one-time events simply isn’t possible. In determining why the
dinosaurs died off, we can’t get dinosaurs from a mail-order catalog and begin testing! Instead, he found
a common method called “abduction.” This is where one posits various hypotheses, and then compares
relevant data to see which theory holds up the best. This is sometimes called the “inference to the best
explanation.” However, deciding which theory is “best” is not so easy. The “best” theory, according to
Meyer, involves the greatest amount of information, and also employs “causes now in operation.” In
other words, using an observable cause in the world around us is a better source than some far-fetched,
never-seen event. He relates this to the intelligent design movement by pointing out that we witness
intelligent agents act as sources of information. Therefore, why can’t an intelligent source be the cause
of DNA?

Chapter 8: Chance Elimination and Pattern Recognition

In order for an intelligent source to be a legitimate cause for life’s origin, Meyer realizes that the
alternate hypothesis of “chance” must also be evaluated. This chapter lays some groundwork on just
what chance is and how we decide if something is caused by chance or by some other factor. This is best
explained through an analogy:A professor is reading a paper from one of her students when she notices
a long string of words that sounds familiar. Sure enough, another student had used the same three
sentences, word for word. She immediately then accused one of them of plagiarism. Why? Because
even though the odds of any three-sentence long set of words has the same probability of any other
series of letters, it’s the match to an outside pattern that draws her attention. . Here, Meyer introduces
us to Bill Dembski and his work on pattern recognition. Dembski points out that there are particular
patterns that have outside meaning that makes their occurrence so recognizable. In this case, since the
professor knows that plagiarism is a purposeful attempt to get out of doing one’s own work, she knows
that this particular outcome is not merely random. She can confidently conclude that foul-play must be
involved. Meyer then begins to question whether this idea of pattern recognition could be applied to
DNA and eliminate chance as a reasonable option.

Chapter 9: Ends and Odds

This a chapter where those without a biology background may not grasp the full nature of the
argument, but the mathematics involved is the crucial point to take away. Meyer explains how proteins
and amino acids are formed and how improbable are the odds of their occurrence by chance. Even with
some amino acids sequences which are as “short” as 150 units long, the mathematical chance of their
random alignment into this chain quickly grows to number greater than the number of all particles (10
to the 65th power) in the known universe! Meyer concludes this chapter with the work of Douglas Axe

whose recent publications attest to the exceedingly rare chance of “random processes producing
functional proteins.”

Chapter 10: Beyond the Reach of Chance

Continuing on the discussion from the previous chapter, Meyer calls on the expertise of Bill

Dembski to help him compute an “upper bound” for the probability of any event to occur in the

universe. Dembski combines the number of particles in the known universe, the number of seconds
since the Big Bang, and the number of possible interactions per second (i.e. the time limit on how fast
any known event can occur) and computes a number of 10 to the 139th power! The implication here is
that any event with a probability greater than this value can be assumed to never occur. And to put
biology into perspective, a single 150-amino acid has a chance of forming randomly of 10 to the 164th
power. Thus, pure chance is mathematically shown to be an unreasonable answer to the question of

life’s origins.

Chapter 11: Self-Organization and Biochemical Predestination

If pure chance did not create a favorable condition for life, then perhaps there was an unknown
set of physical forces at work that preferred certain combinations of nucleic acids. Meyer explores this
theory by introducing us to Dean Kenyon, who in the 1970s pursued this line of reasoning in what he
called “biochemical predestination.” Kenyon later doubted his own work and gave up on the project.

Meyer narrates how he later made a key discovery in his own research into DNA. Various nucleic
acids bond to the helix structure of DNA (abbreviated by the English letters A,T,C, and G). It is the
various combinations of these “letters” that provide the information-rich capacity of DNA. What Meyer
realized was that, even though these nucleic acids are able to bond to the helix, there are no affinities
causing the four letters to be attracted to each other! If there was any hope of DNA being naturally
created, it would be through this “self-organizing” principle, but none exists. Meyer provides a helpful
analogy: Picture your refrigerator covered in letter magnets. Each letter can bond to the fridge, but the
individual letters are not attracted to each other in any special way. This creates an information-rich
environment for someone to walk up and make any set of words they want, but words cannot occur
“naturally” by someone scrambling the letters together as all combinations are of equal probability. To
carry the analogy into the DNA world, the hope of Kenyon and others was that certain letter
combinations would be preferred over others (like a letter magnet fridge having a natural affinity for
spelling English sentences) through some yet undiscovered laws of nature. But the opposite has become
apparent: the letter magnet fridge has no preference between English, pig-latin, or alphabet soup.

Chapter 12: Thinking Outside the Bonds
Meyer describes two other “self-organization” theories that attempt to solve the problem in
new and novel ways by invoking forces of energy. Just like magnetic forces create lines of order in iron
fragments, or gravitational forces create an orderly swirling motion as a bathtub drains, maybe a force is
being applied to biological structures to create order? After reviewing several of these claims, Meyer
concludes that these models are becoming “increasingly abstract and disconnected from biological
reality.” The central issue is the same: law-like forces cannot produce information; they can only
produce order (which lacks specificity). A swirling bathtub drain, although orderly, is not high in
information content.

Chapter 13: Chance and Necessity, or the Cat in the Hat Comes Back

Summarizing various computer models that propose to solve the dilemma of biological
information, Meyer points out their flaws and summarizes the over-arching problem. For example,
Richard Dawkins wrote a simple program that took a random string of letters and, through a 40 or 50
step series of simple changes, produced a sentence from a Shakespeare play. These programs that
supposedly result in high-information content only are successful because of the directed programming
of their creators, says Meyer. It is because of the information added into the software that allows for a
directed result, something that nature does not have the luxury of providing. He concludes with the “law
of conservation of information,” showing that computers are not able to create more information than
what they initially contained.

Chapter 14: The RNA World

Realizing the struggles scientists have confronted with theories involving DNA or proteins as the
main catalyst for life’s origins, an early-Earth environment made up of RNA molecules “is now probably
the most popular theory of how life began,” states Meyer in the opening page of this chapter. The
remainder of this chapter is a fairly technical analysis of why RNA does not bring one any closer to the
origin-of-life problem, with the same basic issue unsolved: this theory provides no explanation for the
origin of the genetic information contained in RNA. Frustrations seem to be mounting within the
scientific community on this issue. One of Meyer’s advisors at Cambridge even said, “The field is
becoming increasingly populated with cranks. Everyone knows everybody else’s theory doesn’t work,
but no one is willing to admit it about his own.”

Chapter 15: The Best Explanation

Meyer’s last two sentences in this chapter sum it up the best: “I concluded that a rigorous
scientific argument for intelligent design could be formulated. This chapter has described exactly how I
came to that conclusion and why I think it best.” He walks the reader through three main reasons for his
decision: 1) There simply is no other causally adequate explanation, 2) the empirical evidence confirms
the adequacy of the intelligent design theory, and 3) intelligent design is the only known cause of
specified information.

Chapter 16: Another Road to Rome
In this chapter, Meyer takes us back to chapter 8 in his discussion involving Bill Dembski’s work

on pattern recognition. There, we read how Dembski was able to infer design in a system due to an
event’s high improbability and also because it is was highly specified. (To review, an event is specified if
it provides some function or conformity to an independent pattern. When we see Mt. Rushmore, not
only is the rock pattern highly improbable, but we recognize it from independent sources of seeing
human faces.) The question then becomes, do the base sequences in DNA match an independent
pattern, thereby justifying design? Meyer believes it does, as these sequences perform an independent
function. He argues for strong similarities between the information-processing capabilities of the human
cell and the software industry. Since we clearly recognize software as being designed, the same
comparison should be made for the human cell. One software engineer was quoted as saying, “When I
see how the cell processes information, it gives me an eerie feeling that someone else figured this out

before we got here.”

Chapter 17: But Does It Explain?

Here Meyer attempts to dispel some common complaints towards the Intelligent Design
movement, with his rebuttal in italics following each bullet:

-“It’s an argument from ignorance. Since we don’t have all the answers today, you give up
and say ‘God did it,’ thus stopping the progress of science.” The ID position is not based
solely on what we do not know, but some positive instances of what we do know. We are not
ignorant of how information arises: It is through intelligent agents! Also, the design option is
an “inference to the best explanation.” Design, given the evidence, is a better explanation.

-“David Hume repudiated design in the 1700’s. Arguments from analogy between living
forms and human artifacts are flawed as the degree of similarity can be questioned.” ID does
not depend on the degree of similarity between DNA to human or computer language, but

on an identical feature in both: that of “complex and functionally specified sequences of
symbols.” Materialistic theories have yet to produce a cause for this, and intelligent agents

are the only known source for information.

-“Yes, but who designed the designer?” The inability to fully describe the designer doesn’t

have any bearing on inferring intelligence in something the designer created. This would be
analogous to refusing to believe humans made the statues on Easter Island because we
currently cannot describe who sculpted them.

Chapter 18: But Is It Science?

In 2005, a judge ruled on a Dover, Pennsylvania school district that a book about intelligent
design could not be used in a biology classroom. The judge in his ruling said that, by definition, ID was
not science. Here, Meyer points out, we get into murky water regarding just what science is and is not.
He points out that there is no single criterion for what science is, and many disparate methodologies are
employed, depending on what kind of science you study. So Meyer sets out how ID fits the various
models of science: It is based on empirical evidence, it uses established scientific methods, it is testable,
it has been peer-reviewed in many journals,

Chapter 19: Sauce for the Goose

This is largely a continuation from the previous chapter. Here, Meyer points out that when the

many definitions of “science” are equally applied to other scientific endeavors, their disciplines would

also fail to fit the mold! For example, ID is critiqued for not having explanatory power. But if we look at
Newton’s law of gravity, we see a law that merely describes what happens, not explains how! Therefore
gravitational theory has no explanatory power and must not be science! He goes on with a positive case
for how ID is clearly scientific: It is observable, testable, and falsifiable. It makes predictions and
provides a mechanism for its use.

Chapter 20: Why it Matters

Meyer believes the public has a general view of science and religion as being dichotomous:
theories are either based on science or religion. But this does not follow. They might be both. Or, more
importantly, scientific theories may have religious implications. However, this does not prove or
disprove the theory. When the Big Bang model of the universe was proposed, the religious implications
were obvious: the universe had a beginning! But this did not stop the model from being accepted. The
intelligent design movement, strictly speaking, does not attempt to identify the designer. It merely
points out that there is evidence pointing towards one. If the evidence makes certain religious

implications, shouldn’t we follow the evidence regardless of where it leads? Isn’t that good science?