Capitol Ideas

Intelligent Design at the University Club

Good things are happening beneath the media radar.

By From the May 2012 issue

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Stephen Meyer, the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, spoke the other evening at a forum called “Socrates in the City.” Normally it’s in New York City, but tonight it was at the University Club in Washington, D.C. The founder, Eric Metaxas, gave a great introduction. He’s someone who doesn’t follow the intellectual herd.

The author of an influential book, Signature in the Cell, Meyer addressed the question, “Is there a scientific controversy about the theory of evolution?” He made a strong case that there is. A few days later, I also interviewed him about the prospects for intelligent design.

In his talk, inquiring how life first appeared from simpler pre-existing chemicals, Meyer emphasized the concept of biological information, which is embedded in DNA. Think of it as analogous to software code. Bill Gates said that “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” Software contains instructions that direct computers to accomplish various functions. Likewise, DNA contains instructions for the assembly of tiny machines called proteins, which perform vital functions within every cell.

In the 19th century the cell was thought to be simple. Darwin and his contemporaries had no way of knowing just how complex it is. Today it is compared to a high-tech factory. (Except it’s much more complex than that—factories can’t replicate themselves.)

So how did the information get into the DNA in the first place? Without it, the first cell wouldn’t have been constructed, and life would not have begun. In Expelled, when Ben Stein asked Richard Dawkins how life began, he said he had no idea. We still don’t.

Nucleotide bases along the spine of the DNA molecule—in effect the characters in the genetic text—direct the cell’s molecular machinery to link specific amino acids into proteins. If the sequence is incorrectly arranged the protein doesn’t get assembled. Watson and Crick described the double helical structure of DNA. But no one has yet explained the origin of the information it contains. “So that’s a huge stumbling block for evolutionary explanations of the origin of life,” Meyer said.

Just as computer code comes from programmers, so functional information comes from intelligence—from mind. Intelligence, or conscious activity, is the only known cause of the kind of sequence-specific, information-rich code that we see in biology. We infer that the ultimate origin of biological information is an intelligent agent, or agents. All other proposed explanations have failed.

Some think natural selection can get the job done. But as Meyer said, processes such as natural selection can’t take place until life is already up and running. Until we have a living and self-replicating cell, natural selection doesn’t enter the picture. Thus, it does nothing to explain how life first evolved from non-living chemicals.

Meyer also argued that biological evolutionary theory, which “attempts to explain how new forms of life evolved from simpler pre-existing forms,” faces formidable difficulties. In particular, the modern version of Darwin’s theory, neo-Darwinism, also has an information problem.

Mutations, or copying errors in the DNA, are analogous to copying errors in digital code, and they supposedly provide the grist for natural selection. But, Meyer said: “What we know from all codes and languages is that when specificity of sequence is a condition of function, random changes degrade function much faster than they come up with something new.”

He mentioned the Cambrian explosion—the geologically sudden appearance of most major animal forms. It’s a dramatic event in the history of life. Animals with new body plans—arthropods, brachiopods, chordates—appeared suddenly about 530 million years ago. Nothing resembling a precursor appears in the strata below the Cambrian.

So the same problem arises: What would it take to build one of those new body plans? You’d need a big instruction set, just for one body part. The trilobite had a compound, lens-focusing eye. “Each new cell for each new tissue had dedicated proteins,” Meyer said. “The proteins in turn need instructions to be built.”

The problem is comparable to opening a big combination lock. He asked the audience to imagine a bike lock with ten dials and ten digits per dial. Such a lock would have 10 billion possibilities with only one that works. But the protein alphabet has 20 possibilities at each site, and the average protein has about 300 amino acids in sequence.

A colleague of Meyer’s, Douglas Axe, formerly a researcher at Cambridge University and now with the Biologic Institute in Seattle, found that the ratio of functional to all possible sequences for a protein 150 amino acids in length is absurdly small (1 in 10 to the power of 74. “That search space is larger than the number of atoms in the Milky Way galaxy,” Meyer said. “It’s not remotely plausible that mutation and natural selection could produce one functional protein during the entire history of life on earth.”

Remember: Not just any old jumble of amino acids makes a protein. Chimps typing at keyboards will have to type for a very long time before they get an error-free, meaningful sentence of 150 characters. “We have a small needle in a huge haystack.” Neo-Darwinism has not solved this problem, Meyer said. “There’s a mathematical rigor to this which has not been a part of the so-called evolution-creation debate.”

IN AN INTERVIEW, Meyer told me that good things are happening beneath the media radar. If it’s not in a court or a legislature, the press pays little or no attention. Academic articles, especially if mathematical, are ignored. Mainstream journals have begun publishing peer-reviewed articles promoting intelligent design. In 2004 Rick Sternberg, as editor of the Proceedings for the Biological Society of Washington, got into trouble for publishing an article by Meyer. That was the first peer-reviewed ID article. Last fall the 50th was published.

“One reason they went after Sternberg was to make an example of him,” Meyer said. “Now the dam has broken.”

Internationally, ID is also growing. There’s a new Centre for Intelligent Design in London (C4ID). Affiliated with it is Norman Nevin, one of the leading geneticists in the UK. A number of full professors of science within the British system are also affiliated. The Centre has teamed up with Discovery Institute for various events.

In addition, “leading U.S. biologists, including evolutionary biologists, are saying we need a new theory of evolution,” Meyer said. Many increasingly criticize Darwinism, even if they don’t accept design. One is the cell biologist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago. His new book is Evolution: A View From the 21st Century. He’s “looking for a new evolutionary theory.” David Depew (Iowa) and Bruce Weber (Cal State) recently wrote in Biological Theory that Darwinism “can no longer serve as a general framework for evolutionary theory.” Such criticisms have mounted in the technical literature.

At the same time, most draw the line at accepting intelligent design. They insist it is “not science,” maybe a “science stopper.” Science, they believe, can operate only by invoking material causes. But as Meyer has written, scientists earlier felt no such constraint. Newton argued that the arrangements of the planets and the stability of their orbits could only have arisen as the result of “an intelligent and powerful Being.” Robert Boyle, the 17th century chemist, invoked the activity of a “most intelligent and designing agent.”

There are plenty of reasons for thinking that ID is scientific, among them its ability to make predictions that contrast sharply with those of Darwinism. One addresses the question of whether most DNA is “junk,” randomly accumulated throughout evolution’s history of trial and error. Because it seems to lack function, official science a few years ago proclaimed 98 percent of DNA to be junk. But if it is designed we would not expect that. Now more and more of the DNA is turning out to be functional—not junk at all.

Official science, it seems to me, wants to say that everything we see in the world can be explained without any reference to God. Darwinism is overwhelmingly an atheistic project, and has been from the beginning. That’s why any scientific opposition to that agenda stirs up such resentment.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).