It sometimes seems like every day, some “intelligent design” bozo comes out with
another book rehashing the same-old crap. I usually ignore it. But this time, I felt
like the promotional materials for one of the new books really stepped right into my
part of the world, rhetorically speaking, and so I figured I should give it a
The book in question is Stephen C. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell”. Meyer’s argument
basically comes down to one that is seems like we’ve heard and dealt with a thousand times already. There’s stuff in the cell which looks kinda-sorta like a machine if you look at it in the right way, and since machines were designed, therefore so were cells.
If that’s all he said, I’d just ignore him. Why rehash the same old shit? But no. This time, the DI needed to add a youtube video, which makes some amazingly strong, unsupported claims.
The official description of this is “This animation shows how the digital information encoded in DNA directs protein synthesis inside the cell and provides a unique look at the evidence for intelligent design as described in Dr. Stephen C. Meyers book Signature in the Cell”. The soundtrack, if you pay attention to it, repeats that claim several times in several ways: that DNA is specifically digital information, and that therefore the processes that operate on DNA are effectively digital computations, and since everyone knows that a digital computer required intelligent humans to design it, it’s impossible that the “digital computer” in the cell evolved.
As usual, this is an exercise in dishonesty on the part of the Disco folks. They’re basically hiding their argument behind the word digital. When a typical person hears about a digital computation, something specific comes to mind: silicon based digital computers. The Disco gang are counting on that – that the comparison will make people think that
the processes inside the cell really correspond very closely to the processes of an electronic digital computer.
They don’t. Sure, there’s some conceptual similarity. But as we’ve discussed on this this blog many times, it doesn’t take much to produce a system which can perform
computations – and once you’ve got a system which can in any way be viewed as performing computations, it’s very hard to limit it to anything less than turing completeness – in other words, to make it any less powerful, in theory, than an electronic computer.
Let’s focus on the real problem. They claim that DNA is “digital information”. What
does that mean?
Three possible definitions of digital information:
- Information consisting of a collection of numbers.
- Information encoded in any discrete form which can be represented by
a sequence of symbols.
- Information which can be stored in the memory of a digital computer.
In a mathematical sense, it’s not a well-defined term. There are several different definitions of it, and those definitions have very different meanings. Just
given the term “digital information”, you can’t necessarily decide whether
or not a given entity can be described using digital information. You need to
pick a specific meaning. That’s exactly what the disco gang is relying on: they’re using one definition of digital information to claim that DNA is “digital” (definition 1), while using a different definition (definition 3) to argue that the fact that it’s
digital implies that it’s like a computer.
DNA is, arguably, digital. After all, you can describe a piece of DNA as a sequence – an ordered string of letters. So sure, in that sense, it’s digital.
Of course, in that sense, lots of things are digital. All chemicals are, in
that sense, digital information – because you can describe a chemical by a
notation consisting of a series of characters. In fact, you can treat a chemical as a
representation of symbolic information: a crystal of salt can be interpreted as a
representation of “NaCl”; a solution of sulfuric acid can be interpreted as a
representation of the string “H2SO4.”
Just pointing out that something is “digital” in that sense doesn’t really tell us
But that’s the basic argument that Disco is using: that because we can interpret
DNA as something that is, in some sense, “digital”, that therefore cells are just like digital computers that process DNA, and that therefore they must be designed. It’s the same old argument from incredulity: “I can’t imagine how this could have happened without an intelligent agent doing it, therefore it couldn’t have happened without an intelligent agent.” The only thing that’s new here is that they hide that argument behind the word “digital”. DNA is digital information, and since that means that the cell is like a giant supercomputer, it must be designed like our supercomputers.