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Signature in the Cell

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The book set off what has been at times a ferocious argument concerning the validity and scope of his theories. A new book by Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, is not about the transmutation of species over time. Rather, it is about a much older controversy that has extended for thousands of years concerning the origin of life, something that Darwin did not really address in his book. This old controversy has often been between two essential poles: materialistic naturalism (time plus random, undirected chance) or God.

For example, we can see elements of this controversy played out in the Bible over the centuries of its development. For the sake of brevity I will only note Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”) and Psalms 14:1 (“The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.”) In the 150 years since 1859 the dominant scientific establishment has, it is fair to say, fully embraced the “materialistic naturalism” model generally and specifically as applied to origins.

Signature in the Cell proposes to revisit the origins controversy particularly in light of the discovery over 50 years ago of DNA and the enormous advances in our knowledge of cellular biology and information theory since then. Meyer does this using the motif of his personal journey toward understanding what he calls “the DNA enigma.” This enigma is “the mystery of the origin of the information needed to build the first living organism.” Until such a first life exists Darwinian evolution cannot commence.

Thus, Meyer’s book, if he can successfully carry the burden of proof, is probably one of the most important books since Copernicus challenged the prevailing scientific notion 566 years ago that the Earth was the center of the universe. Here, Meyer methodically challenges the central doctrine of today’s scientific establishment that life arose from purely undirected materialistic and naturalistic forces in the absence of intelligence.

The book itself is a little over 600 pages in length, although the last 100 is made up of footnotes, bibliography and index. Meyer, currently the director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, tells his story of going to Cambridge University in the mid-1980s as he earns his Ph. D. in the history and philosophy of science. He investigates various relevant questions and narrates his odyssey to marshal the evidence necessary to provide answers. His writing is lucid and straight-forward. To a non-scientist the material is not always easy given the details he presents, so it is not really bedtime reading. I especially appreciated, however, that he handled those who disagree with him respectfully and openly. The story is engaging and the fascinating history he shares is helpful to provide a context for today’s controversy.

While the book chronicles and explains a host of issues, I was fascinated by the discussion of random chance and the assembly of the minimum amount of proteins necessary for “simple” life to function. According to Meyer the “simplest extant cell, Mycoplasma genitalium — a tiny bacterium that inhabits the human urinary tract — requires ‘only’ 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions….” If, for the sake of argument, we assume the existence of the 20 biologically occurring amino acids, which form the building blocks for proteins, the amino acids have to congregate in a definite specified sequence in order to make something that “works.” First of all they have to form a “peptide” bond and this seems to only happen about half the time in experiments. Thus, the probability of building a chain of 150 amino acids containing only peptide links is about one chance in 10 to the 45th power.

In addition, another requirement for living things is that the amino acids must be the “left-handed” version. But in “abiotic amino-acid production” the right- and left-handed versions are equally created. Thus, to have only left-handed, only peptide bonds between amino acids in a chain of 150 would be about one chance in 10 to the 90th. Moreover, in order to create a functioning protein the “amino acids, like letters in a meaningful sentence, must link up in functionally specified sequential arrangements.” It turns out that the probability for this is about one in 10 to the 74th. Thus, the probability of one functional protein of 150 amino acids forming by random chance is 10 to the 164th. If we assume some minimally complex cell requires 250 different proteins then the probability of this arrangement happening purely by chance is one in 10 to the 164th multiplied by itself 250 times or one in 10 to the 41,000th power.

That sounded like a pretty big number to me, making it a very small possibility, but is there a way to judge how small? Is there some point at which we can say that such a number is essentially “impossible”? It turns out there may be. Meyer points out there are about 10 to the 80th elementary particles in our observable universe. Assuming a Big Bang about 13 billion years ago, there have been about 10 to the 16th seconds of time. Finally, if we take the time required for light to travel one Plank length we will have found “the shortest time in which any physical effect can occur.” This turns out to be 10 to the minus 43rd seconds. Or turning it around we can say that the most interactions possible in a second is 10 to the 43rd. Thus, the “probabilistic resources” of the universe would be to multiply the total number of seconds by the total number of interactions per second by the total number of particles theoretically interacting. The math turns out to be 10 to the 139th.

If Meyer stopped here and simply asserted that “since undirected, random chance cannot produce even one protein (given the entire resources of the universe) then life must be attributable to an Intelligent Designer,” he would be guilty of something that he strenuously denies: relying on a “God of the gaps” argument. Meyer does not do this. Instead, he explains “abductive reasoning” which enables one to come up with the “best explanation” of a particular unique historical event. He calls this a “historical scientific theory.” In fact, Meyer says that Darwin and his contemporary, Charles Lyell, the father of geology, used such reasoning themselves to explain their theories. In short, “God of the gaps” argues from ignorance whereas “Inference to the Best Explanation” argues from knowledge. Of course, knowledge is continually expanding so any conclusion must be continuously re-evaluated in light of such advances.

When I met Meyer shortly after the book was published and heard him describe this theory and its critics, it occurred to me that many defenders of materialistic naturalism may themselves be guilty of arguing from ignorance. Meyer agreed. The purely materialistic argument essentially appears to be:

Premise One: No materialistic cause of specified complex information is known.

Conclusion: Therefore, it must arise from an unknown materialistic cause.

On the other hand, Meyer describes the intelligent design argument as follows:

“Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

“Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

“Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.”

Meyer devotes two chapters to discussing various arguments that have been made against intelligent design. I will only briefly mention the objection by some that intelligent design is not science because it cannot be falsified and “makes no testable predictions.” Meyer insists that this objection is completely false specifically because it indeed can be falsified by simply showing that “large amounts of functionally specified information do arise from purely chemical and physical antecedents” or that specified information “[was] not present in living systems.” As to predictions, Meyer also points out that intelligent design has been better at predicting the value of “junk” DNA than the competing materialistic evolutionary theories.

Finally I will mention that Meyer persuasively argues that intelligent design is not “religious” any more than any other scientific theory. The conclusion is not required by reference to any supposed “divine revelation.” It does not point to any religion at all to identify the designer. It uses standard lines of scientific reasoning and logic to arrive at its conclusions and it looks to the best evidence known today to determine whether there is explanatory power. Specifically, intelligent design as an explanation for the information required to build the first living organism says nothing about the age of the earth, whether Allah, Jehovah or Brahma has any relevance, whether the Bible is the Word of God or any other doctrine in a long list of “religious” topics and points of discussion. As with any theory dealing with foundational issues, such as the Big Bang, there certainly may be implications for a larger conversation, but the conclusion of either theory is not required because of any religious viewpoint or doctrine.

If intelligent design does not pretend to be able to identify the Christian God as the Intelligent Designer, why should Adventists be interested in this book? In my view Adventists generally have been among a minority in the contemporary larger church that have simultaneously emphasized the value of education yet not given up their belief in a God who specifically created life by a special act and not simply by setting up various physical laws that then were left on their own. One of the denomination’s founders wrote long ago: “All true science is in harmony with His works….We are thus led to adore the Creator and to have an intelligent trust in His word.” (Patriarchs and Prophets, 115, 116) Thus, if the theory of intelligent design is in fact the best explanation, we can more easily acquire such “intelligent trust” it seems to me.

As the controversy over intelligent design shows, the scientific establishment abhors this view and to date has pretty well succeeded in shouting down any hint of real, as opposed to apparent, design. Meyer’s tome is the first book to take the amazing discoveries in biology, mathematics and chemistry over the last 50 years and develop a theory using the acknowledged scientific reasoning of Lyell and Darwin to demonstrate why it is perfectly scientific to assert that life was designed. Adventists should be delighted to see such an ambitious attempt, and, if convinced of its veracity, support its promulgation.

For those interested in the history and philosophy of origins and in the present controversy over the “establishment” understanding, this is a helpful book. For those wishing to have a better understanding of DNA and a “simple cell,” this is an astonishing book. For those who wish to honestly consider what is the best explanation for the origin of specified complex information found in living things, this is an invaluable book. For those who have for whatever reason gravitated to the general proposition that design seems to make intuitive sense, this is an essential book so you can appreciate there is a scientific foundation for your belief. For those who disagree with intelligent design this is the crucial book you must have so as to understand your opponent’s best arguments.

One thing is for certain: Meyer has produced a forceful and comprehensive book clearly expounding the case for intelligent design and the discussion about the origin of life will never be the same.

Ken Peterson writes from Camas, Washington, where he lives with his wife, Claudia, and 17-year-old son. Their daughter is in graduate school in California. A recovering lawyer, Ken now manages a private equity investment portfolio. He is on the boards of Adventist Forum and the Washington Policy Center.

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