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From the November/December, 2010
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Dogmatic Signs by Phillip E. Johnson

Dogmatic Signs

For anyone who wants to understand the argument for the necessary role of intelligent design in the history of life, the indispensable source is now Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell (HarperOne, 2009). For cultural reasons, when arguments for the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution have been made in the past, emphasis has often been placed on the question of human descent from ape-like ancestors. Meyers’s book, in contrast, directs attention to the scientifically most important subject: the origin of the cell and its complex molecular mechanisms.

Meyers’s analysis is based on facts about the cell that are well-known and uncontroversial in the scientific enterprise. From these facts, he proceeds to infer the best explanation for what we know to be present in the cell. This explanation has to include a role for an intelligent cause because the cell is replete with complex, specified information in digital form. In our uniform experience, we know that such information is produced only by a pre-existing intelligence.

A Peculiar Basis of Attack

Signature in the Cell has been the subject of intense controversy, mostly in what is known as the blogosphere, meaning electronic publications on the Internet. In a way, the attacks are only to be expected, because another thing we know from our uniform experience is that Darwinists tend to be bitterly resentful of any thinker who challenges the fundamental theory on which their careers have been built.

In another way, however, it is peculiar that there is such a furious and often ill-informed objection to a learned volume that isn’t even about the theory of biological evolution. The book advances well-reasoned arguments based on solid evidence about a prior problem—the origin of the cell’s information content—concerning which most scientists would concede that they know very little.

The one thing that many of these scientists think they do know for certain is that, however the cell may have originated, the process could only have involved natural (i.e., unintelligent) causes. But this conclusion is not something these scientists know from the evidence. On the contrary, it is something they know—or rather, think they know— regardless of the evidence. For a long time, it has been the rule in evolutionary science that, if the evidence does not support a fully naturalistic theory about both the origin of life and its subsequent development, then there must be something wrong with the evidence rather than with the theory or its underlying philosophy.

Proper Adjudication

The profoundly biased scientific and intellectual context into which Signature in the Cell was introduced is as important and fascinating a subject as Meyer’s book itself. To understand that context, I recommend reading a slim volume titled Signature of Controversy, which collects responses to the critics of Meyer’s magnum opus. Signature of Controversy can be downloaded for free from the website of the Discovery Institute if you subscribe to one of their free email newsletters (go to www.discoveryinstitutepress.com), or it can be ordered in conventional book form from Amazon.com. Each response in the book directs the interested reader to the Internet to find the original article or review that the response addresses.

What I hope readers of these two books will appreciate is that conflicting scientific claims can only be properly adjudicated by impartially investigating the evidence, and not by excluding an important claim because of an a priori philosophical bias, such as by incorporating the opposing claim into the definition of “science.” When scientists stoop to such dogmatism to protect a cherished theory, they make the protected claim unfalsifiable, and hence unscientific.

A Darwinian philosophical bias has made science incapable of fairly investigating the possible—or probable—role of an intelligent cause in the design of the cell. Those of us who want to free science to do its job have to expect a lot of misunderstanding when we try to help the scientific community get back on the right track.


Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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“Dogmatic Signs” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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