Discovering life's design

Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua is an isolated spot. So is Lord Howe Island, 600 miles east of Australia. But they were in the news last week as researchers reported in Nature magazine that they had observed in both places the phenomenon of two species with a common ancestor living side by side. The scientists are convinced that the related species developed without geographical separation.

"Darwin was right – again," admonished a Christian Science Monitor headline, for the benefit of unbelievers. The tone was understandable in light of the smouldering political controversy in the United States over the teaching of Darwinism in schools. Though currently eclipsed by the global conflagration over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, that debate is far from dead.

Conservative Christians, committed to some notion of divine creation, object to what they see as dogmatic secular propaganda that the universe, life and human life are the result of random chance. The educational establishment, represented by the National Centre for Science Education, resist what they consider the intrusion of dogmatic religion into science.

A school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that introduced a policy requiring students to consider Intelligent Design as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution, was taken to court last year and a federal judge ruled the policy out of order. It was an attempt "to promote religion in the public school classroom," said Judge John E Jones III. The ruling stands as a test case for similar lawsuits.
Yet the curriculum battle is just a symptom of the controversy in evolutionary research itself, a controversy that transcends national borders. In biology and microbiology departments worldwide, there are signs of a "paradigm shift"—the latent but suppressed awareness that the Darwinian mechanisms, random mutation and natural selection, may not be able to explain the elegance and complexity of life.

The design hypothesis

As early as 1982, as microbiologists learned more about the complexity of the cell, scientist Charles Thaxton raised "the design hypothesis" in his book, The Mystery of Life's Origins. This was followed by Michael Denton's purely skeptical critique of Darwinism, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Then in 1987, California lawyer Philip Johnson's book, Darwin On Trial, gave a popular and persuasive synthesis of both. Major academic conferences followed in 1992 and 1996—the latter at Biola University drawing more than 500 participants.

That same year, 1996, the Discovery Institute's Centre for Science and Culture was founded in Seattle, with Meyer as its director. Since then, the centre's 40 yearly research fellows—working scientists such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jay Richards and Jonathan Wells—have produced 54 books on Intelligent Design, published by the likes of the Cambridge University Press. And fully 417 PhD scientists have signed on to the Centre's Statement of Dissent from the Darwinian orthodoxy.

There is an irony in the intelligent design controversy. ID theorists tend to be pariahs almost as much among traditional Creationists, as they are by doctrinaire Darwinians. Mainstream evolutionists lump ID theorists in with biblical "Young Earthers," who reject the geological and fossil evidence as deceptive. Journalists over-simplify the debate with "God versus Darwin" headlines. And Time magazine's cover story, August 15, 2005, brands intelligent design as a "Subtler Assault" on science, while dismissing ID arguments as "scientifically abstruse, jargon-heavy."

In fact, intelligent design theorists generally accept all the geological and biological evidence. They argue that the evidence itself falsifies any purely materialistic interpretation. Random chance alone cannot explain the amazing complexity of life. Bucking biblical literalists, ID theorists generally accept the universe is 14 billion years old and began in the "Big Bang." They accept that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, that single-cell life—bacteria, plankton and algae—began 3.8 billion years ago, and while they speak of intelligent design, they don't mention a "Designer." All that puts them in the bad books of biblical Creationists, such as the Institute for Creation Research's Henry Morris and Dwayne Gish. But Darwinism's problems begin with the evidence, IDers argue.

Irreducible complexity
Darwinism's skeletons first started tumbling out of its closet with the 1986 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, by biologist Michael Denton, who yet dismissed both creationism and ID as "occult." But Darwinian problems there are. First, in a materialistic account, there is still nothing close to an explanation for the emergence of the first life: complex, interlocking, reproducing structures of molecules that buck the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictum, everything tends to randomness.

"We're appreciating that the life of a simple cell is far more elegant and far more sophisticated than we ever expected," says Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe, author of the book Darwin's Black Box. "We're continually discovering new machines inside the cell, the molecular equivalent of little dump trucks and factories."

Even at their simplest, Behe argues, cells have "irreducible complexity." His favourite example is the bacterial flagellum, the little motor that propels a one-celled organism. The complex parts must work in unison: the little molecular motor running on a stream of mild acid, a molecular frame holding it to the cell wall, a whip-like propeller. No random development of the individual parts could be of the slightest use to the organism, until all the parts can work together. Yet, Darwinism requires that each part develop randomly and be preserved, until such point as they can work together.

The famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, where an electric spark energized a beaker of "primordial soup," produced a few simple organic molecules, but nothing close to the design of a living cell, Behe said. So, faced with "irreducible complexities" in organisms, he says, it's less far-fetched to suppose a design is somehow built-in.

The Cambrian explosion
Second, geologists have now documented the "Cambrian Explosion." Darwin supposed organisms have random mutations, then natural selection lets beneficial mutations survive and harmful ones die. So, given a very long time of very gradual change, simple cells could develop into complex organisms. But Darwin himself warned that abrupt emergence of new species would call his theory into question, and that's what happened.

The first single-celled animals appeared 3.8 billion years ago, and for the next 3.3 billion years, any evolution stayed on the level of single cells. Then, precisely 543 million years ago, every category of complex life on Earth emerged in an unbelievably short five to ten million years: the Cambrian Explosion. Thirty-five of the 40 different phyla (structural families) of plants and animals abruptly emerged, complete with roots, branches, claws, jaws and eyes. Even the incredibly complex Chordates, the phylum that includes fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals, just sprang into existence. Since then, no structurally new organisms have appeared.

Darwinians thought the Cambrian zoo emerged over 100 million years, and were uncomfortable with that brief span. Darwin himself insisted a more complete fossil record would show gradual development going back hundreds of millions of years earlier. Yet the fossil record has shortened the time to ten million years—an event atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle likened to a tornado roaring through a junkyard and leaving a fully running Boeing 747 in its wake. "It doesn't look like random mutation," Behe says dryly.

Information science perspective
Third, the development of information science since the advent of the computer has allowed mathematicians like William Dembski, author of the 1998 Cambridge University Press book The Design Inference, to quantify the amount of information accumulated in living organisms—what philosopher-biologist Meyer calls "the stepwise increases in information" needed to go first from dead matter to living cell, then to complex organism, then to intelligent life.

William Dembski "The DNA in a cell contains about six billion bits of information; that's a lot of information," says Dembski, now moving from Baylor University to Southern Baptist in Lexington. "And there's lots of information outside the DNA, throughout the cell. If you took a frog egg and gave it dinosaur DNA, like in Jurassic Park, it wouldn't become a dinosaur. It'd begin to develop as a frog, then die."

From an information science perspective, Darwinian random mutations are "signal" or "noise," beneficial or harmful, and natural selection is the "filter" discriminating between them. But the vast majority of mutations are harmful "noise," while the few beneficial ones must be very simple, incremental.

Information order is different from chemical order, Behe argues. Lifeless crystals are ordered, but in repetitive ways, the same structure repeating over and over. Information is ordered, highly specific, but non-repetitive: like the words in a newspaper article, each element is in a unique position, performs a different function, and the article is meaningful only in their interrelations. "The interior of a cell makes the interior of the sun seem simple. And the more we find, the more complicated it becomes … "
"The question is, where is the information inputted?" Dembski says. "If you dumped out Scrabble tiles, you wouldn't be surprised to see some words appear. If it was mostly words, you'd be surprised. But if it was all complete, grammatical sentences, you'd know something was going on. There's intelligence in the process."

What difference does it make?
What difference would accepting intelligent design as a competing theory to Darwinism make to the actual practice of science? "Not much," says biologist Behe. "Ninety percent of science focuses on how things work, not how things were put together in the first place. But it would make a huge difference to our world-view as a whole."

Darwinism has been a useful, though now perhaps increasingly inadequate framework for practical research. But for modern materialistic ideology, it's been a weapon, popularizing the notion that life is "just" an accidental collection of molecules "even as practical biology itself increasingly reveals the mind-boggling complexity of even "simple" life forms.

"The interior of a cell makes the interior of the sun seem simple. And the more we find, the more complicated it becomes," says Paris-based writer David Berlinski, a mathematician and microbiologist skeptical of both Darwinism and ID. "So the notion that a guy writing in 1859 had the final answer is ridiculous. Everyone will say in private the stuff (Darwinism) is nonsense. But scientists have no more shame than anyone else. They'll do anything to protect their perks, positions and influence. Dissenters are treated savagely."

The cultural transformation from acceptance of intelligent design could be profound, Berlinski says: "If you believe life is a random accident, driven by survival of the fittest, you look at it a certain way. If you look at life as profound in its elegance and complexity, you look at it a different way. No one likes to admit it, but Hitler would have been impossible without Darwin."

'Scopes Monkey Trial'
Chicago Tribune cartoon One piece of propaganda, promoting the idea of the conflict of "science versus religion," was the 1960 blockbuster movie, Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly. The movie fictionalized the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" of a Tennessee teacher charged with teaching evolution. In the film, ignorant Christian fundamentalists almost lynch courageous high school teacher Bertram Cates. A Christian mob marches to the school where Cates is teaching evolution, has him arrested and jailed, burns the teacher in effigy, and throws a rock through the jail window, injuring him.

But the movie was pure propaganda. As University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky reveals in his new book, Monkey Business, teacher John Scopes never spent time in jail, never paid a fine and never taught evolution. The trial was instigated not by Christian fundamentalists, but by the ACLU, eager to challenge a Tennessee law that prohibited teaching anything denying divine creation. The trial itself became "pack journalism," Olasky told the Baptist Press. "The journalistic coverage led to a stereotype in American life of essentially the smart evolutionist versus the stupid creationist," he said.

Although the film showed stump-toothed Christians threatening to hang Scopes' lawyer, the famous Clarence Darrow, in reality the townsfolk gave him a banquet. The lawyer later wrote he'd been treated "kindlier and more hospitably" than he had expected. "The battle then and now is not science versus religion," Olasky said. "It's a battle of two religions, two worldviews. Both views are held by intelligent people. It's not smart against stupid." Yet cultural historians generally date the marginalization of conservative Evangelicals from that 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.

Problems with design theory
University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr, author of the book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, and a close follower of the intelligent design debate, has "mixed feelings" about the ID movement. On one hand, he says, the evidence is overwhelming that evolution happened, that all life on earth had a common descent. The real question is the mechanism: whether random variation and natural selection explain life's complexity, or something else is needed, "and to my mind, that's an open question," Barr says. "Many evolutionists unfortunately treat this as a closed question. Anybody who calls Darwin into question is quickly silenced. So I applaud intelligent design people for challenging closed-mindedness."

The problem, Barr contends, is that intelligent design theorists argue for something beyond science, good philosophy but not practical research. "Science studies repeatable natural processes," Barr says. "If I see a man walk on water, I may know it's not a natural event. But I don't add anything to an understanding of the laws of hydrodynamics." Since science can handle only repeatable processes, Barr argues, ID theorists are appealing to a hypothesis beyond the competence of science to either prove or disprove. "Darwinists are just as dogmatic or more, defending a position beyond the competence of science," he says, "but the answer to some error isn't an equal and opposite error."

University of Chicago microbiologist Jim Shapiro says the ID critique of Darwinism is "very well taken." But he objects to ID's "deus ex machina."

Origin of life 'beyond science'
Shapiro says the problem of the origin of life in single cells, is way beyond the competence of science today. The cell itself is so complex, real science has nothing to say about its origins. However, given single-celled organisms, science can show their common descent with modifications over time. Again, the question is the mechanism of that evolution, "and the evidence does not support Darwinism," Shapiro says. Far beyond Darwin, microbiologists have now found "a lot more non-random development and biological feedback than we ever could have expected."

"Cells are filled with biochemical systems for restructuring their own DNA—what I call natural genetic engineering," Shapiro says. "They don't want genetic instability, so when things are going well for them, those mechanisms are turned off. But when there's some sort of trouble—it's called genome shock or stress activation—they start to restructure their own genetics."

Cells changing their own genetic structure to adapt to their environments? Doesn't that sound a lot like "intelligence"?

"I prefer to say that cells have tremendous computational powers," Shapiro answers. "Really tremendous computational powers." A single-cell bacteria might divide every 20 minutes, which means it has to read and replicate 2,000 "letters" of DNA per second. Yet, it experiences less than one error in a billion "read and write" operations, partly because it has two proof-reading mechanisms, reducing the error rate by 10,000 times.

So, science can say nothing about the origin of single cells. Yet the enormous complexity and intelligence of complex organisms has now been pushed back to the enormous complexity and intelligence of single cells? "In biology, complexity is the name of the game," says Shapiro. When asked where simple cells could have gotten that kind of intelligence, he says that question for now is beyond the scope of science.

Joe Woodard is a columnist for the Calgary Herald.


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