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Vibrant Dance: Signature in the Cell

The final position paper of the day was by Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute entitled, “Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.”

As Meyer got started by talking about natural versus artificial selection, it occurred to me that artificial selection is even found in the Bible, as far back as Genesis, when Jacob was working for Laban to earn Rachel’s hand. In order to increase his herd at the expense of Laban’s, when the strongest and best animals were going to mate he did certain things so that the offspring would be marked as his, and when the weaker animals were mating, he left them alone so they would be marked as Laban’s. Thus he was using artificial selection to create a superior herd and a weaker herd. (Gen 30) (NB: Jacob’s method of marking is rather suspect, but the fact that he was selectively breeding the stronger animals together and the weaker ones together is the point!)

Meyer asked a couple of introductory questions:  Is adaptation the only appearance of design? And, if not, has natural selection explained away all other appearances of design? In other words, the naturalists say that nature has the “appearance of design,” but not actual design, and that adaptation is a key factor that gives the appearance of design.

In answer, he quotes natural philosopher Bernd Olaf-Kuppers, “the problem with the origin of life is basically the origin of new information.” So, can either adaptation or natural selection be given as an initial source of the information density required for life?

Naturalists initially offered up Chance as the origin of information, but even they have rejected this as being insufficient. The next theory was “pre-biotic natural selection”—that certain arrangements of non-living (pre-biotic) materials was better able to transmit/promote life than other arrangements. Meyer showed that this doesn’t work because it is a non-sequitor:  how can a non-functional system reproduce to form a functional system that functions better? In other words, natural selection is defined as “A process in nature in which organisms possessing certain genotypic characteristics that make them better adjusted to an environment tend to survive, reproduce, increase in number or frequency, and therefore, are able to transmit and perpetuate their essential genotypic qualities to succeeding generations.” So how can something that is pre-biotic (not alive) survive and reproduce better than something else that is also not alive? If it is not alive, then it is by definition incapable of survival and reproduction.

Even Nobel laureate Christian de Duve recognized the problem by saying that theories of origin “need information, which implies they have to presuppose what is to be explained in the first place.”

A third and more contemporary scenario Meyer offered from the naturalists was the general category of “self-organization scenarios.” Here, the idea is that in some solution somewhere billions of years ago, molecular bits bumping around aggregated together in a specific order due to certain attractive forces based on the unique compounds that make up the DNA ‘letters’ and formed the first DNA or RNA molecule, and presto, this random assembly of chemicals happened to code for the first living thing. The problem with this proposal is that it doesn’t work. The DNA letters are chemical units called bases, which are attached to a molecule composed of a sugar and a ‘phosphate group.’ This molecule to which the bases attach is like a vertebrae that when connected to others forms a backbone, and the bases stick out from the backbone like a half-rung of a ladder. The vertebrae are all identical to each other and the letters only attach to the backbone in a way that leaves a given vertebra to attach to any other vertebra, regardless of the base attached to it.

An analogy would be a set of train cars. You can have box cars, flatbeds, tank cars, cattle cars and so on, but they can be placed together in any order because the parts that link them together are universal and identical. The couplers ability to latch to each other is 100% independent of what kind of container is place on top of the undercarriage. It is only the presence of an intelligence, the loadmaster, that determines which order the cars should be linked for the train’s itinerary. {Meyer used a different analogy- a prop he brought, but this conveys better in print.}

Meyer then asked, “can the design hypothesis be transformed into a scientifically rigorous argument?”

To address this, he showed how Darwin explicitly used an approach called “multiple competing theories” in arriving at his evolutionary conclusions. In other words, he looked at various possible hypotheses for the data to explain a historical event (origin of life) and used “inference to the best explanation” to eliminate the bad hypotheses. In plain English, he used logical inferences to see which hypothesis did not adequately explain the data and eliminated them from consideration. Ideally, this leaves the strongest hypothesis remaining.

Using this approach, Meyer drew on another priniciple, that of uniformitarianism—“the present is the key to the past.” The natural laws at work today were at work in the same way throughout the universe’s history. Given that today, “the creation of new information is habitually the result of conscious activity,” he reasons that the creation of life from non-life is the creation of new information and therefore must be the result of conscious activity.

Thus, he argues for Intelligent Design. I agree with Falk on one thing at least, that ID is a one issue view—is design scientifically discernable? And therefore, it is an umbrella over all three main creationist camps (young earth, old earth and evolutionary creationism). While there is a wide variety of opinion on mechanism within ID, they are focused on the issue of whether agency can be detected. However, the ID folks at the conference from the Discovery Institute were definitely old earth progressive creationists and seemed to spend as much time trying to show why evolution is not a viable mechanism as trying to show that God’s agency is scientifically detectable. While there may be some correlation here, and at the moment I tend to agree with them, it does seem to be a distraction from their main point and creates unnecessary (at this point) division within the Christian scientific world.

Random question to the masses: I’ve noticed that in all of these discussions, plant life is virtually ignored and the focus in evolutionary discussions seems exclusively based on animal life. It seems that it would be worthwhile to examine how evolution would ‘explain’ which came first, plant or animal? How did the transformation occur between the two? Where do protists fit in? I think the naturalists’ answer would be that a protist that metabolized via photosynthesis was the first life form and eventually plants and animals diverged from that, but how does that affect the time needed and what genetic traits are common to plants, animals and protists that would give clues to this common ancestor if such a critter did exist?


1 comment:

  1. How does the above (and creation as a theory) fit in with the mounting evidence for non-coding DNA (and RNA) being reserve material for adaptation (and therefore evolution as a theory), especially in humans?