Unlocking the Mystery of Life

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” ~ Charles Darwin

British naturalist, Charles Darwin, rocked the world in 1859 with the release of his book The Origin of Species. His theories on Natural Selection paved the way for the popular acceptance of a different view of the world – a world without God as the architect and overseer of creation. Western civilisation began to entertain the idea that man was alone in the universe, and has suffered the logical consequences of that belief ever since.

But are Darwin’s theories plausible today in the light of more recent scientific discoveries? More and more scientists today are rejecting Natural Selection as an adequate explanation for the existence of life. The discovery of DNA has revealed that the world is information-rich, containing unbelievably complex instructions for building living organisms. Scientists can now look deep within the cell to see a level of order and complexity previously unimagined, yielding more and more evidence of Intelligent Design. So is evolutionary theory itself now facing possible extinction?

In 1993, professor Phillip E Johnson, of the University of California, invited a group of scientists and philosophers to a gathering at Pajaro Dunes, California. They came from the major academic centres of Cambridge, Munich and the University of Chicago. Many of them held doubts about aspects of evolutionary theory, but realised that the mystery of life’s origins was much bigger than any one scientific discipline. As a community of scientists from varied disciplines, they compared notes and came up with a response that would challenge the idea that had dominated science for 150 years. Michael Behe, a biochemist, questioned how natural processes could have assembled the intricate structures found in living cells. Dean Kenyon, an evolutionary biologist, no longer believed that chemistry alone could account for the origin of life on earth. Steven Meyer, Paul Nelson and William Demskey sought to explain the origin of the genetic information that is encoded in living organisms.

For centuries, prior to Darwin, most prominent scientists and philosophers viewed the world as the product of some kind of design or plan. But Darwin’s theories set into motion a radical change in scientific philosophy. Whilst Darwin was not the first to propose evolutionary theory, he was the first to offer a plausible naturalistic argument to explain how small variations within biological organisms over time could account for the great diversity of life on earth. Darwin argued that all life was the product of undirected, natural forces: time, chance and the process of natural selection. Darwin plausibly argued that random variations within any population of living organisms produce attributes that may favour their survival under certain circumstances. He postulated that if events transpire within a population to challenge their survival, the creatures with advantageous variations would be more likely to survive and pass on their attributes to future generations.

Darwin cited his study of birds on the Galapogas Islands to illustrate his point. During periods of drought, the shells of seeds necessary for the birds survival become harder to crack. Birds with longer and sharper beaks would therefore have a functional advantage over others and be more likely to survive and pass their attributes on to their offspring. But whilst this may go some way to explaining variations within a given species, can this really adequately account for the existence and variation of all life on earth? Can it account for the origins of new species?

At the time when Darwin formulated his theories on life’s origins, very little was known about the living cell and nothing at all was known about DNA. Since that time modern microbiology has revealed a world of marvellous complexity inside the living cell that appears to defy explanation by natural random processes. In the last 50 years new technologies have allowed scientists to see inside the cell, and have revealed that each cell is a microscopic world packed with circuits, assembly instructions and miniature machines, the complexity of which Charles Darwin could never have imagined.

Michael Behe talks about the molecular machines that are at work inside the living cell: ‘At the very basis of life, where molecules and cells run the show we’ve discovered machines, literally, molecular machines. There are tiny molecular trucks that carry supplies from one end of the cell to the other. There are machines that capture the energy from sunlight and turn it into usable energy... When we look at these machines, we ask ourselves ‘Where did they come from’ and the standard answer, Darwinian Evolution, is very inadequate, in my view.’

The Bacterial Flagellum
When magnified (see above), the parts and three-dimensional structure of the Flagella motor become clear, and is a marvel of engineering on a miniaturised scale: It is a rotary engine capable of 100,000 rpm, hardwired into a sensory mechanism so that it gets feedback from its surrounding environment.

Scott Minnich, molecular biologist from the University of Idaho, describes the Flagella motor; ‘It has two gears, forward and reverse, water-cooled, proton motive force, it has a stator, it has a rotor, it has a u-joint, it has a drive shaft, a propeller, and they function as these parts. It’s not convenient that we give them these names – it’s truly their function.’

Since it’s discovery, scientists have tried to understand how a rotary motor could have arisen through Natural Selection but as yet they have failed to offer any detailed Darwinian explanation.

Irreducible complexity
Michael Behe, coined the phrase irreducible complexity to explain what is happening inside the living cell. The concepts of irreducible complexity can be illustrated by a simple mechanical machine – the mouse trap. A mouse trap is an irreducibly complex machine because if you remove any one of it’s components, the mouse trap simply ceases to function. Behe argues that any given system within a cell has multi-component parts, all of which are needed for the cell to function. If you remove any of these individual parts, the system within the cell ceases to function.

Irreducible complexity presents a serious problem for evolutionists. For life to occur and reproduce, even on a very basic level, the cells require a highly complex and organised system of complex molecular machines to be in place and simultaneously functioning for the cell to survive. And when you examine the complexity of molecular machines within a cell, you find evidence of intelligent design everywhere. The Flagella motor has about 40 different parts that are necessary for it to work. If any of those parts are missing the machine simply will not function. In evolutionary terms you have to be able to explain how natural processes built these systems gradually, when there was no function, until you have all those parts in place.

In 1996 Michael Behe published a book entitled Darwin’s Black Box. He argued that Darwin’s theory of natural selection could not explain the origin of the Bacterial Flagellum, or any other irreducibly complex biological system. Instead, Behe concluded that the integrated complexity of these systems pointed to Intelligent Design. The book created immediate controversy. Some scientists praised Behe’s work while others dismissed it as unscientific and religiously motivated. They argued that Behe had underestimated the power of Natural Selection.

But how the Bacterial Flagellum came into being, with all of it’s component parts working simultaneously is not the only mystery. The Bacterial Flagellum not only requires 40 parts to function but like many complex machines, it also requires a precise sequence of assembly. This presents an even greater challenge for evolutionists, because other complex molecular machines perform the assemblies of these molecular machines within the cell. There are tens of thousands of such functions being performed within the cell. There are numerous examples of irreducible complexity throughout the entire cell.

The Origin of Life
It wasn’t until the 1920s that a Russian scientist, Alexander Oparin, built upon Darwin’s theory and formulated his own theory of chemical evolution to try and explain how living cells could develop from lifeless chemicals. Dean Kenyon, Professor of Biology, San Francisco State University and co-author of Biochemical Predestination, thought that he had cracked the mystery of how life began from chemical origins. Kenyon realised the importance of proteins and amino acids in the constructions of living cells, and the degree of complexity in the way the complex protein molecules combine to form the structures within living cells. There are at least 30,000 distinct types of proteins, each made of a different combinations of the same 20 amino acids. They are arranged like letters to form chains that are hundreds of units long. If the amino acids are sequenced correctly, the chain will fold into a protein which forms a functioning and meaningful structure within the cell. Kenyon previously theorised that life may have been chemically predestined by the chemical properties of the amino acids, and for 20 years his book was a best selling text on the theory of chemical evolution. But Kenyon himself soon began to doubt the plausibility of his own theory.

Kenyon was challenged to rethink his assumptions about the chemical origins of life when one of his students asked him to explain how the first proteins could have been assembled without the help of genetic instructions. The more Kenyon learned about the properties of amino acids and proteins, the more he began to doubt that proteins could assemble themselves without DNA. In DNA Kenyon found a molecule with properties that he could not explain through natural processes, because locked within the DNA molecule is a wealth of information which forms the complex assembly instructions for living organisms. These instructions required to assemble amino acids into proteins are conveyed by the sequences of chemicals arranged along the spine of the DNA.

The origin of genetic information itself presents a serious challenge to the theory of evolution. DNA is the most densely packed and elaborately detailed assembly of information in the known universe. Imagine trying, through random processes, to complete two lines of Shakespeare by dropping letters of the alphabet onto a tabletop. Then understand that the specific genetic instructions necessary to make a single protein in even the simplest single-celled organism would fill hundreds of pages of printed text. However, vast improbability is not the only problem for evolutionists: By definition, Natural Selection could not have happened before the existence of the first living cells at all. Natural Selection can only work upon cells that are capable of replicating themselves. Without DNA there is no self-replication, but without self-replication there can be no Natural Selection - so you can’t use Natural Selection to explain DNA!

When Kenyon realised that chance, natural selection and his own theory of chemical predestination had all failed to explain the origin of genetic information, he began to see only one alternative – intelligent design. Kenyon remarks, “We have not the slightest chance of an evolutionary origin for even the simplest of cells, so the concept of intelligent design of life was immensely attractive to me and made a great deal of sense as it closely matched the multiple discoveries in molecular biology...”

In the years since Kenyon’s rejection of chemical evolution, science has revealed the details of an entire system of information processing that bears the hallmarks of intelligent design. Kenyon: ‘This is absolutely mind-boggling… to perceive that at this scale of size, such a finely tuned apparatus, a device, that bears the marks intelligent design in manufacture. And we have the details of an immensely complex molecular realm of genetic information processing… and it’s exactly this new realm of molecular genetics where we see the most compelling evidence of design anywhere on earth.’

Paul Nelson, Philosopher of Biology, comments: ‘When I look at molecular machines and the incredibly complex process by which cells divide, I want to ask ‘is it possible that these things had an intelligence behind them; that there was a plan or a purpose to this structure.’ Science ought to be a search for the truth about the world. Now we shouldn’t prejudge what might be true… one of the problems I have with evolutionary theory is that it artificially rules out a kind of cause [intelligent design] even before the evidence has a chance to speak.’

Identifying Intelligent Design in the Natural World
Since the late 19th century, partly as a result of Darwinian thinking, scientists came to accept a definition of science that excluded the possibility of design as a scientific explanation. This definition (methodological naturalism) dictated that scientific analysis must be limited to explanations that invoke only natural causes, effectively disallowing the consideration of intelligent design in the exploration of the natural world.

But what do honest scientists do when confronted by clear examples of intelligent design in nature? Surely it is unscientific to rule out intelligent design if the evidence points to it. What is needed is a logical, empirical and scientific criterion that enables us to recognise and acknowledge intelligent design when chance and random occurrence fail to provide an adequate scientific explanation.

Human beings commonly make conclusions regarding design origins when confronted with objects in our day to day environment. But on what basis do we make these conclusions? What are the features that enable us to recognise that stone carvings are not just an odd-shaped rock that coincidentally resembles an object? Mathematician, William Dembsky, in his book, The Design Inference, addresses this issue. In short, the answer is high improbability combined with recognised patterns. The higher the improbability of a feature, and the more that the form or shapes of an object conform with recognised patterns consistent with our knowledge of intelligence, the more readily we conclude that the object was not a product of natural random processes. For example, if we were walking along a beach and found writing in the sand we would not conclude that it was the product of wind or erosion. But why? The basis upon which we conclude that intelligence was involved is that it is highly improbable for letterforms to be formed by erosion, and the shapes of letters conform to our recognised patterns of written language. This criterion for identifying intelligence is commonly accepted, and forms the reasoning that is at the heart of the SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Radio telescopes around the world are regularly monitoring radio waves from space searching for recognisable patterns that might suggest a radio transmission from intelligent life on some distant inhabited planet. Using this same logic, the recent discoveries of molecular biology point very clearly to evidence of intelligent design - within the very nucleus of all living cells on earth.

Bill Gates, of the Microsoft Corporation, has said that ‘DNA is like a computer program, only much more complex than any we have been able to create’. This is a very important observation, because everything in our experience suggests that information-rich systems, such as computer programs, do not arise from random events such as wind and erosion, but arise from intelligent design. So what do we make of the fact that there is information in life itself – in every living cell of every living organism? There is no known naturalistic cause that produces information – not natural selection or chance or self-organisation. That is the fundamental problem facing evolutionists – where does that information come from?

Scott Minnich, molecular biologist, concludes, “I think design is back on the table. We can’t explain these systems by natural law, and if we are searching for truth and they are in fact designed, and if we have to be design engineers to understand them, I say what’s the problem? You go where the data leads you. And the implications… yes, they have profound metaphysical implications, but sobeit.



Further Reading:
The Design Inference by William Dembsky
Darwinianism: A Theory in Crisis by Michael Denton
Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe
The DVD & Video of Unlocking the Mystery of Life is available from www.amazon.com

Thursday, November 9, 2006   printer friendly version | 20291 reads