206 A Signature in the Cell

In 2004, the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a scholarly journal housed at the Smithsonian Institution, published a peer-reviewed article advocating intelligent design by Stephen Meyer.  Angry scientists, alarmed at the article’s deviation from the party line, demanded the journal’s editor be censured for allowing such heresy to gain traction.  In due course, the editor was demoted and assigned another position within the institution.  Such is the opposition that meets any scholar who dares study biology with anything less than a philosophical commitment to monistic materialism—a stance nicely illustrated in Francis Crick’s admonition that biologists, while marveling at the mystery of DNA, must “‘constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved’” (p. 12).  .  

Stephen Meyer, however, has amplified his case for intelligent design in Signature in the Cell:  DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, c. 2009).  Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science and now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.  This book, he says, “attempts to make a comprehensive, interdisciplinary argument for a new view of the origin of life.  “It makes ‘one long argument’ for the theory of intelligent design” (p. 8).  Consequently it is, writes Steve Fuller (a professor at the University of Warwick), “at once a philosophical history of how information has come to be central to cutting-edge research in biology today and one man’s intellectual journey to the conclusion that intelligent design and provides the explanation for that fact.”  

Meyer primarily focuses on the reality of non-material information within the biological world.  Just as you can load “information” into a computer without adding any weight to its material components, so too information (evident in the DNA) has been programmed into all that lives.  Consequently, evolutionary biologists, though deeply committed to reductionistic materialism, cannot avoid using teleological language that refers to intentionality and purpose when describing what they behold.  Thus we read them refer to such things as:  “‘genetic code,’ ‘genetic information,’ ‘transcription,’ ‘translation,’ ‘editing enzymes,’ ‘signal-transduction circuitry, ‘feedback loop,’ and ‘information processing system’” (p. 21).  Overtly denying design, they cannot find words that fail to imply it!  

As a young scientist working in the oil industry, Meyer himself became enamored with the mystery of life while attending a conference that addressed “three big scientific questions—the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the nature of human consciousness” (p. 24).   One of the speakers was “Charles Thaxton, the chemist who with his coauthors had proposed the controversial idea about an intelligence playing a role in the origin of biological information” (p. 28).  Intellectually challenged, Meyer decided to pursue his interests in one of the world’s elite research universities (Cambridge) and discern the degree to which information, not mindless matter-in-motion, best explains life’s mysterious origins.  

Today’s scholars who embrace a “matter first” theory follow the lead of Soviet biochemist Aleksandr Oparin, who sought to harmonize Darwinian science with Marxist materialism.  His position was allegedly confirmed by a famous experiment at the University of Chicago, when Stanley Miller distilled some amino acids from a chemical mix charged with high-voltage electricity.  Despite the textbook popularity of the Miller-Urey experiment, however, recent research reveals its virtual irrelevance in origins-of-life inquiries.  We now know that pre-biotic atmospheric conditions were hostile to life and quite unlike those Miller assumed.  This is largely due to the mounting evidence of the complexity of even the simplest forms of life.  As Watson and Crick and their successors began to fathom the double helix structure of the DNA, biologists confronted the massive amount of “information” contained therein.  Renowned information scientists differentiate between “mere complexity” (routine patterns observed in crystals, for example) and “specified complexity” (evident in proteins and cells as well as meaningful sentences).  As Meyer describes the “molecular labyrinth,” carefully identifying the incredible process (through transcription and translation) whereby cells function, he also ponders the deeply philosophical questions regarding life’s beginning.  Are chance and necessity, as many materialists insist, sufficient causes for the realities we observe?  

Or is there something more?  Something rational supplying the rationality, the information so evident in all that lives?   To Meyer it was clear that Alfred North Whitehead rightly asserted:  “‘There can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things.  And, in particular, of an Order of Nature.’  Whitehead argued that confidence in this proposition was especially inspired by the ‘medieval insistence upon the rationality of God’” (p. 142).   Most great scientists in the history of science—giants such as Kepler and Newton—saw divine design everywhere in the world they studied.  They did so because they inferred the makings of history from its results—employing what Charles Sanders Peirce would label “abduction.”  None of us has seen Abraham Lincoln, but we cannot, as historians, explain the Civil War without affirming his existence and activities.  Historical scientists (as Peter Lipton explained in Inference to the Best Explanation) consider competing hypotheses as they endeavor to explain what happened in the past, what provides “causal adequacy.”  Cosmologists now embrace the Big Bang as the best explanation of the origin of the universe, remarkably unlike the “steady state” theories that long dominated the field.  

Reading Lipton’s treatise on inference to the best explanation, “a light came on for me,” Meyer says.  “I immediately asked myself:  What causes now in operation produce digital code or specified information?  Is there a known cause—a vera causa—of the origin of such information?” (p. 171).  Everywhere it seems evident that intelligent agents—and only intelligent agents—are responsible for specified information.  To explain (using abductive reason) all the information in living organisms, it simply makes sense to posit the possibility of an Intelligent Agent as its source.  Mathematical calculations render the possibility of chance (random material events) creating life nearly preposterous.  Indeed:  “The odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebiotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164”  (p. 212).  To illustrate this astronomical number, Meyer notes that there are only half that number of protons, neutrons and electrons in the entire universe!  There have only been 1016 seconds since the Big Bang beginning of the universe!  We’re faced with the fact, as G.K. Chesterton said a century ago, that:  “Evolution as explanation, as an ultimate philosophy of the cause of living things, is still faced with the problem of producing rabbits out of an empty hat; a process commonly involving some hint of Design” (CW, XVII, p. 291).  After carefully explaining (and rejecting) various naturalistic hypotheses, Meyer declares that since “evidence for the causal adequacy of intelligence is all around us both inside and outside the lab” (p. 340) it makes sense to attribute the vera causa of life to intelligent design.   “Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source—from a mind or a personal agent” (p. 343).  

Meyer meticulously considers a multitude of issues in 500 pages, adding another 50 pages of endnotes and 30 pages of bibliographical references to scholarly literature.  Yet for an academic treatise it is quite readable, reflecting the author’s pedagogic skill, using illustrations, diagrams and drawings.  “In Signature in the Cell,” says Scott Turner, a SUNY professor of environmental and forest biology, “Stephen C. Meyer gives us a fascinating exploration of the case for intelligent design theory, woven skillfully around a compelling account of Meyer’s own journey.  Along the way, Meyer effectively dispels the most pernicious caricatures:  that intelligent design is simply warmed-over creationism, the province of deluded fools and morons, or a dangerous political conspiracy.  Whether you believe intelligent design is true or false, Signature in the Cell is a must-read book.”  

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A decade ago Michael J. Behe, Professor of Biological Science at Lehigh University, published Darwin’s Black Box:  the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, one of the finest works proposing Intelligent Design as a rational rival to the theory of purely Naturalistic Evolution.  He has recently added to his case with The Edge of Evolution:  The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (New York:  Free Press, c. 2007).  He notes that current orthodoxy in the scientific community defends a Darwinism composed of “random mutation, natural selection, and common descent” (p. 1).  Of the three, random mutation is most crucial for understanding the emergence of novel life forms, but “except at life’s periphery, the evidence for a pivotal role for random mutations is terrible” (p. 4).

In truth, because the evidence regarding historical development is so sparse “by default most biologists work within a Darwinian framework and simply assume what cannot be demonstrated” (p. 9).  We need the kind of precise, empirical data evident in engineering and anatomy.  For this we must plumb the mysterious realms of tiny molecules, proteins, and DNA.  Rather than relying on anecdotal items, such as Darwin’s domesticated pigeons and Galapagos finches, Behe insists:  “The only way to get a realistic understanding of what random mutation and natural selection can actually do is to follow changes at the molecular level.  It is critical to appreciate this:  Properly evaluating Darwin’s theory absolutely requires evaluating random mutation and natural selection at the molecular level” (p. 10).  

To do so Behe focuses on malaria—“the single best test case of Darwin’s theory” (p. 12).  Because of its widespread devastation, malaria has been carefully studied for a century.  Since population numbers, not time, “is the chief factor in evolution” (p. 153), so we can see, in 100 years of malaria parasites’ development, what has taken 100 million years in other species.  Amazingly, “the number of malarial parasites produced in a single year is likely a hundred times greater than the number of all the mammals that have ever lived on earth in the past two hundred million years” (p. 194).  Reacting to the parasite, “Hundreds of different mutations that confer a measure of resistance to malaria cropped up in the human genome and spread through our population by natural selection.  These mutations have been touted by Darwinists as among the best clearest examples of the abilities of Darwinian evolution” (pp. 12-13).  And in one sense they are quite right.  But, in a profounder sense, “the molecular changes underlying malaria resistance . . . tell a much different tale than Darwinists expected—a tale that highlights the incoherent flailing involved in a blind search” (p. 13).  The many mutations failed to provide the immunity man needs to successfully resist the pathogen.  And, importantly:  “What greater numbers of malaria can’t do, lesser numbers of large animals can’t do either” (p. 200).  

“Over the centuries,” Behe says in a pivotal paragraph, the human genome has variously responded to malaria’s assault.  Massive scholarly attention to the disease have led to the following conclusions:  “1) Darwinian processes are incoherent and highly constrained; and 2) the battle of predator and prey (or parasite and host), which has often been portrayed by Darwinist writers as a productive arms-race cycle of improvements on each side, is in fact a destructive cycle, more like trench warfare, where conditions deteriorate.  The changes in the malaria genome are even more highly instructive, simply because of the sheer numbers of parasites involved.  From them we see:  3) Like a staggering, blindfolded drunk who falls after a step or two, when more than a single tiny step is needed for an evolutionary improvement, blind random mutation is very unlikely to find it.  And 4) extrapolating from the data on an enormous number of malaria parasites allows us to roughly but confidently estimate the limits of Darwinian evolution for all of life on earth over the past several billion years” (p. 19).  

Darwinism holds that evolution proceeds as random mutations produce beneficial changes that enable individuals within a species to survive.  Careful studies of DNA in various human populations reveal remarkably few such mutations in the past 10,000 years.  In the case of adaptations to malaria, all mutations have been harmful, all of them “acts of desperation to stave off an invader” (p. 38).  Unlike the progressive “arms races” portrayed by Richard Dawkins and other evolutionists, “the data show trench warfare, with acts of desperate destruction, not arms races, with mutual improvements” (p. 42).  Where we have the best imaginable evidence, “The thrust and parry of human-malaria evolution did not build anything—it only destroyed things” (p. 42).  And this is as true of the malaria parasites (mutating in response to chloroquine) as it is of the human populations they invade.

The study of malarial parasites enables us to evaluate human evolution.  Perhaps a trillion creatures “preceded us in the past ten million years.  Although that’s a lot, it’s still much, much less than the number of malaria parasites it takes to develop chloroquine resistance” (p. 60).  For our species to develop “any single mutation of the kind required for malaria to become resistant to chloroquine” (a shift of only two amino acids), is mathematically improbable (p. 60).  For such a mutation to occur, “we would need to wait a hundred million times ten million years.  Since that is many times the age of the universe, it’s reasonable to conclude the following:  No mutation that is of the same complexity as chloroquine resistance in malaria arose by Darwinian evolution in the line leading to humans in the past ten million years” (p. 61).   

The Darwinian doctrine of common descent (detecting duplicated genes or anatomical structures shared by all creatures) certainly explains some things.  But not the really important things!  The eminent French geneticist Francois Jacob famously wrote that Darwinian evolution is a ‘tinkerer,’ not an engineer” (p. 119).  It explains small variations but not intricate designs.  There is a realm within which Darwinism suffices, but the significant development of living creatures has taken place in other realms, for “it does not even begin to explain where those commonalities came from, or how humans subsequently acquired remarkable differences.  Something that is nonrandom must account for the common descent of life” (p. 72).  In short:  “although Darwin hoped otherwise, random variation doesn’t explain the most basic features of biology” (p. 83).  

In his earlier book, Darwin’s Black Box, Behe carefully delineated the “irreducible complexity” of the cilium—large cellular structures that “help cells move around in liquid, acting like propellers” (p. 86).  Despite voluminous (and at times vituperative) attacks from Darwinists, “in the more than ten years since I pointed it out the situation concerning missing Darwinian explanations for the evolution of the cilium is utterly unchanged” (p. 95).  Indeed, advanced microscopic technology reveals yet more complexity.  This is because such things as cilia and flagella “are far past the edge of evolution.  Such coherent, complex, cellular systems did not arise by random mutation and natural selection, any more than the Hoover Dam was built by the random accumulation of twigs, leaves, and mud” (p. 102).  

At the most fundamental level, proteins reveal the mystery of life.  They not only do requisite work within cells, but we now know that they must “fit specifically with other proteins” and most of them “actually work as teams of half dozen or more” (p. 124).  Still more:  “proteins must self-assemble” (p. 125).  Furthermore:  “to acquire some new useful property, not just one but two new protein-binding sites had to develop.”  In the case of malaria parasites developing resistance to chloroquine, it would take “a hundred billion billion organisms—more than the number of mammals that has ever existed on earth” (p. 135).  And, as one would suspect, “all known malarial evolutionary responses to human drugs includes no novel protein-protein interactions” (p. 136).  

What’s true for malaria is likewise true for the HIV virus, which mutates at least ten thousand times more rapidly than cells.  To exhaust all possible “mutations in HIV requires only 1020 viruses, which have in fact appeared on earth in recent decades.”  Scientists have documented HIV’s run through the “gamut of all possible substitution mutations, a gamut that would require billions of years for cells to experience.  Yet all those mutations have changed the virus very little” (p. 154).  HIV studies “also shed light on the topic of the origin of life on earth.  It has been speculated that life started out modestly, as viral-like strings of RNA, and then increased in complexity to yield cells.  The extremely modest changes in HIV throw cold water on that idea.  In 1020 copies, HIV developed nothing significantly new or complex.  Extrapolating from what we know, such ambitious Darwinian early-earth scenarios appear to be ruled out” (p. 155).  Consequently, Behe says:  “there is no evidence that Darwinian processes can take the multiple, coherent steps needed to build new molecular machinery, the kind of machinery that fills the cell” (p. 163).  

Inasmuch as random selection fails to explain the intricacies of the cell, Behe suggests that nonrandom selection may well fit the bill.  “That is, alterations to DNA over the course of the history of life on earth must have included many changes that we  have no statistical right to expect, ones that were beneficial beyond the wildest reach of probability.  Over and over again the past several billion years, the DNA of living creatures changed in salutary ways that defied chance” (p. 165).  He concludes that the “elegant, coherent, functional systems upon which life depends are the result of deliberate intelligent design” (p. 166).  To illustrate, he shows the “logic maps” evident in the gene regulatory networks that guide the inner workings of the animal bodies.  When visually portrayed they reveal an “obvious, impressive coherence,” much like “a complex electronic or computer-logic circuit” that “was very likely purposely designed” (p. 197).  

Behe insists his notion of “intelligent design” has no necessarily religious foundation, though it is of course compatible with many religious beliefs.  One can, irreligiously, simply argue that there is an intelligent aspect to the purely natural world.  Yet it’s increasingly clear that “the origin of life was deliberately, purposely arranged, just s the fundamental laws and constants and many other anthropic features of nature were deliberately, purposely arranged” (p. 216).  Fine-tuning just seems evident wherever we study the natural world, whether as astronomers or microbiologists.  “Like it or not, the more science has discovered about the universe, the more deeply fine-tuning is seen to extend—well beyond laws, past details, and into the very fabric of life, perhaps beyond the level of vertebrate classes.  If that level of design required continuing ‘interference,’ that’s what it required, and we should be happy to benefit from it” (p. 230).  But one need not go that far and insist on a divine power “interfering” with the natural world,  Behe refuses to rule out randomness and contingency or evolution by natural selection in some areas.  It just means we must move beyond “the edge of evolution” to fully fathom the reality of our world.

He regards “design as a completely scientific conclusion,” relying solely on “detailed physical evidence, plus standard logic” (p. 233).  He makes his case as a skilled scientists, anchoring it in the best research available.  He writes clearly, persuasively prodding us to open our minds to the unfolding probability of a cosmos that is truly a cosmos—as beautifully designed as the child’s ear that moved Whittiker Chambers (as recorded in Witness) from atheism to theism.