Review: The Cell's Design
Work under Review
After reading Fazale Rana's The Cell's Design, the sequel to Origins of Life (Rana and Ross 2004; reviewed in RNCSE 2007 May–Aug; 27 [3–4]: 45–8), I was reminded of John Conlee's 1979 lyrics, "These rose colored glasses, that I'm looking through / Show only the beauty, 'cause they hide all the truth." This country music classic sums up Rana's book, which starts with the foregone conclusion that the cell is designed, by explaining the principles (with reference to Dembski and Behe) of "intelligent design" (in chapter 1). Thereafter, everything is presented through this lens. The material in chapter 1 attests to the fact that the lessons learned from the recent Kitzmiller v Dover case were completely (albeit conveniently) ignored by the author, just as they have been by the "intelligent design" community. One must read this book in a fog of scientific denial and delusion, and accept the fact that the author totally ignores and neglects to inform the reader of the most important and wonderful aspect of science, namely the process of scientific inquiry. Some of the assumptions about the universal acceptance of "intelligent design" are absolutely unfounded, to say the least!
Initially, I thought about recommending this book to my undergraduates as a nice review of general cellular and biochemical phenomena, but after getting through the first nine of the fourteen chapters, I realized (though painfully) that the author was just merely reinterpreting (and without sound scientific basis) commonly known biochemical aspects of the cell, and was not offering any new scientific information, data, or scientific insights. In fact, practically every topic is one that I cover in my advanced cell biology course. But there are startling omissions, such as the endosymbiotic origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts and the residual nucleomorphs found in several algal species, and the origin of human chromosome #2 in the telomeric fusion of two ancestral acrocentric chromosomes. The author essentially treats virtually every standard molecular/cell biology or biochemistry text as a mere arsenal of weaponry to "shock and awe" his readers (however, he particularly favored Lodish and others 2000 and Stryer 1988, which are cited 35 times in the endnotes).
Prior to reading this book, I first perused the glossary and was frustrated by the circularity of many of the definitions that tended to use other glossary terms for their definition, and so on. As a microbiologist, I was particularly frustrated by Rana's inaccurate descriptions of various nutritional biochemical "trophisms", such as autotroph, chemotroph, and a missing term, lithotroph. My current microbiology students would have been confused by Rana's particular definitions of those terms. Although apparently meant to be somewhat of a cell biology primer for the general lay reader, the inaccuracies show that little attention was given to this part of the book, and that it was essentially an afterthought. Similar inaccuracies appear in the text as well; for example, the author refers to the viral capsid as a "capsule", which in bacteriology is something completely different.
Even a reviewer for the evangelical publication Christianity Today, Craig M Story of Gordon College, has already addressed what is basically wrong with Rana's interpretation of the biochemical workings of the cell (Story 2008), but I will try to be a bit more specific.
Having taught courses in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, virology, immunology, and microbiology, the principal scientific problem that I have with Rana's approach is that each of his "design" examples — or what he produces as evidence for design — is presented in such general terms that he has glossed over the diversity represented in related systems or organisms, all of which can be accounted for by evolutionary mechanisms. For instance, Rana claims that all bacterial "chromosomes" are circular; but we now know that some bacterial genomes are combinations of linear and circular "chromosomes", while others contain mini-circular chromosomes, in addition to numerous plasmids. Equally problematic is the question of theodicy: if everything in and of cells were designed, would that not also apply to cancer cells? Perhaps the author should consider explaining the recruitment of cellular genes and cellular processes leading to cancer, assuming the irreducible complexity of cellular components. And what would that say about the Creator?
Upon finishing Rana's book, the phrase "all dressed up with no place to go" came immediately to mind. The subtitle, "How Chemistry Reveals the Creator's Artistry," is also somewhat misleading in that the book is really not about chemistry or chemical processes, but rather about molecules and biochemicals. Curiously, this book is all about the order of things that are designed, but there is not one mention of entropy until chapter 13 (p 246)! The author might have simply written a preamble to be taped onto the cover of every leading molecular/cell biology textbook stating, "The Creator's artistry is unquestionably evident in the subjects discussed throughout this entire book." This would have been much easier than selectively rehashing its contents, and saved the author, and the publisher, considerable time and effort.
I honestly cannot recommend this book to anyone, since it lacks a true scientific perspective as well as an objective scientific explanation of modern cell biology. Most of the "new" material in The Cell's Design is just a rehash of material presented in other "intelligent design" books, and does not represent, as the author states, "work of unprecedented magnitude never compiled before." Prior to reading this book, I finished Ken Miller's Only a Theory (2008), the sequel to his earlier book, Finding Darwin's God (1999). I would recommend these two excellent books instead of Rana's to anyone interested in the "intelligent design" controversy, as a true and objective scientific presentation is provided in both.
This book is a testament (no pun intended) to the failure of discrete politicized religious factions to accommodate their religious beliefs adequately within the scientific knowledge of today. One can certainly be a Christian or a person of faith and not have to impute design to every (or any) aspect of the cell (one might ask, isn't God great enough to let life evolve?). The process of scientific inquiry is allowing scientists to learn more about life at the cellular and molecular level, and while we do not yet have all of the answers as to why things occur as they do, nevertheless, the fact that we do not know entirely why things are organized the way are does not mean that they must be designed.
Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky SL, Matsudaira P, Baltimore D, Darnell J. 2000. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th ed. San Francisco: WH Freeman.
Miller KR. 2008. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. New York: Viking.
Miller KR. 1999. Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. San Francisco: Cliff Street.
Rana F, Ross H. 2004. Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolution Models Face Off. Colorado Springs (CO): NavPress.
Story CM. 2008. Same song, second verse. Christianity Today. Available on-line at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/octoberweb-only/143-42.0.html. Last accessed March 27, 2009.
Stryer L. 1988. Biochemistry. 3rd ed. San Francisco: WH Freeman.
Hillsdale MI 49242
Frank Steiner is Professor and Chair of Biology at Hillsdale College.