One of the most vexing and long-standing mysteries of science is the origin of life: that is, how did the building blocks of matter (atoms and molecules) lead to the building block of life: the biological cell? As recently as 2008, Richard Dawkins (who believes that everything is the product of evolutionary processes) confessed, “No one knows.”
Up until the nineteenth century, leading scientists generally assumed that an organizing Intelligence was involved. But after the popularization of Darwinian theory, origin-of-life researchers began narrowing their investigative scope to unintelligent causes.
For a time, explaining life as the unplanned effect of natural forces went rather swimmingly. Then, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick unraveled the architecture of DNA, the now famous double helix “molecule of life.” Although their discovery solved one thorny mystery of science—how biological information is stored—it led to another, even deeper, mystery: its source.
Fittingly, Dr. Stephen Meyer calls the information in life’s macromolecule “The Signature in the Cell,” the title of his recent book. Signature contains the most compelling evidence, to date, for intelligent design (ID). In the origin-of-life debate, ID is the proposition that certain features in nature are best explained, scientifically, as products of intelligence.
An important contribution to the debate is Meyer’s clarification on what it is that scientists do.
The work of science
It is regularly charged that ID is not “science” because its proponents don’t conduct experiments, have laboratories, or publish in peer-reviewed journals. None of that is true, but even if it were, Meyer writes, “it doesn’t follow that we [aren’t] ‘doing science.’”
Meyer, whose doctorate is in the philosophy of science, notes that many of science’s greatest breakthroughs were made not by experimental researchers but by theoreticians “who taught us how to think differently about what we already knew.”
For example, Albert Einstein developed General Relativity, one of the twin pillars of modern science (the other being quantum mechanics), not by conducting a battery of experiments on a laboratory test bench, but by looking at the world anew, asking unasked questions, and thinking beyond the current paradigm.
Watson and Crick didn’t crack the DNA mystery by their own experimental research but, as Meyer points out, “by explaining an array of preexisting evidence in a new and more coherent way.”
Even Darwin’s theory of evolution, as presented in his On the Origin of Species, “contains neither a single mathematical equation nor any report of original experimental research.” Like Watson and Crick, Darwin sought to explain “disparate lines of observational evidence” with a “novel interpretation of that evidence.” And the same goes for many of the groundbreaking discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution.
All about information
Making the case for ID, Meyer builds upon the seminal work of other ID researchers, particularly mathematician William Dembski. In The Design Inference, Dembski presented a way to distinguish the effects of intelligent agents from those of chance and law.
In a nutshell, products of law (planetary orbits, salt crystals, etc.) exhibit order, regularity, and predictability; products of chance, like the debris field of a tornado, exhibit complexity without order. But products of intelligence exhibit “specified complexity”: that is, arrangements that do not follow any predictable or ordered pattern and yet have information content, whether in the carvings at Mount Rushmore or the letters on this page.
Consider the digital information stored in living cells.
The nucleotide sequences in DNA make up genes that “spell out” instructions for the manufacturing of proteins. The sequences are highly complex and not compressible to a simple expression or algorithm. Furthermore, since, chemically, the bases can attach anywhere along the DNA “backbone,” their precise arrangement is not determined by chemical laws.
In “Did the Universe Create Itself?” I showed (using some very generous assumptions) that the universe is neither old enough nor large enough for the chance production of even the smallest gene. In the parlance of Meyer, the complexity of DNA exceeds the “probabilistic resources” of the universe. And yet the instructional content in DNA is just one tier of biological information in a hierarchal structure.
Meyer points out, “In the same way that words are ordered into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, nucleotide bases are ordered into genes and genes are ordered into specifically arranged gene clusters.” Gene clusters are further arranged into gene “folders” that are “themselves nonrandomly grouped along chromosomes to form higher-order folders.”
And if that weren’t enough, those “superfolders” are arranged by cell type according to specific organs and body plans. The multi-layered architecture of biological information, Meyer explains, “would seem to require considerable forethought, precisely what natural selection by definition cannot provide.” Would seem? A considerable understatement.
The best explanation
Nested levels of instructions and information are characteristic of computer programs. Even Richard Dawkins recognizes this: “The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” And yet the unaccommodating reality for Dawkins is that the only thing known capable of producing a computer program is an intelligent being.
True, neo-Darwinian processes can lead to small, limited changes in the genome. But those changes are overwhelmingly detrimental, and in the few instances where a benefit is conferred (e.g., antibiotic immunity, pesticide resistance) they are the result of information loss or suppression (i.e., of the genes controlling the digestion of the drug or pesticide), not information gain.
From probabilistic considerations and empirical evidence, the best explanation for the code-of-life is intelligent causation. Of course the Darwinist fold is ever ready with a machination that gives chance and necessity a “helping hand.” Currently, the favored narrative turns on the “RNA World.”
The RNA World was devised, specifically, to solve the conundrum of which came first, DNA or proteins. Proteins are built from DNA, but DNA needs proteins to process its information. Once it was recognized that certain RNA molecules had protein-like properties, an origin-of-life theory was cooked up, whereby a fortuitous cocktail of primordial chemicals formed RNA molecules that self-replicated and synthesized proteins that produced DNA that, through the omnipotent wonders of natural selection, eventually led to the first biological cell.
Setting aside the probabilistic obstacles against the undirected creation of essential cellular systems, the production of biological information from RNA shares many of the same problems as the production from DNA—difficulty of synthesization, chemical fragility in a hostile pre-biotic environment—not to speak of the extreme rarity of RNA molecules that can self-replicate. Consequently, evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin admits that “neither the RNA world nor any other materialistic chemical evolutionary hypothesis can account for the origin of life, given the probabilistic resources of the entire universe.”
Answering the critics
Shopworn criticisms of ID include: It invokes an unobservable entity, it is not falsifiable, and it makes no predictions. And Meyer handily rebuts them all.
Reigning scientific theories are rife with entities and processes that are not observable. In physics, researchers infer unseen gluons, gravitons, inflatons, and a host of fundamental particles from observational data. Meyer makes specific mention of the Higgs boson, an imaginary particle thought to produce the material properties of matter. On top of that, there is a whole category of “virtual” (as opposed to “actual”) particles that theorists have concocted to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena.
The same goes for Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not only does Darwinism depend on mutational events and transitional forms that have never been observed, but the evolutionary process itself “occur[s] at rates too slow to observe in the present and too fast to have been recorded in the fossil record.”
The disciplines of cryptography, archaeology, and criminal forensics also infer unseen (and intelligent!) causes from their material effects: A detective knows that a body with six bullet holes in the back is evidence of murder, not an accidental shooting; an archaeologist who finds “All Cretans are liars” etched in stone can attribute it to another human being, without a moment’s reflection about animal scratchings or weathering and erosion; similarly, a computer program, whether written in a series of “1s” and “0s” on a sheet of paper, or in a functional chemical sequence along the DNA spine, is evidence of a programmer.
Falsifying ID is simply a matter of successfully demonstrating that “large amounts of functionally specified information,” corresponding to that of the most complex computer codes produced by man, “do arise from purely chemical and physical” causes. If that were done, Meyer cedes, ID would be reduced from the “best explanation” to a possible explanation for the origin of life.
Meyer goes on to predict twelve research results should ID theory be true, including these: No unintelligent process will demonstrate the ability to create complex specified information; so-called “bad designs,” “broken” genes, and “junk” DNA will be shown to have a hidden function or to have been corrupted from their original state; research will further demonstrate the RNA World scenario as implausible; the fossil record will give evidence of large, episodic infusions of information; and “successful” computer simulations of evolution will be shown to be the result of information supplied by programmers.
The Signature in the Cell is a tour de force in origin-of-life research that advances the scientific theory of intelligent design, front and center. It is a “must have” volume for anyone, layman and expert alike, interested in understanding the theory, its development, its considerable scientific bases, and the creative limitations of unintelligent processes.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.