Welcome to the first issue of Origins & Design, an interdisciplinary journal dedicated to examining "theories of origins, their philosophical foundations, and their bearing on culture," and "all aspects of the idea of design." Origins & Design begins its existence as an adolescent, not a newborn. The reader will notice that this is Volume 17, number 1. Origins & Design represents the natural growth and maturation of Origins Research, the national college newspaper first published as an eight page tabloid nearly twenty years ago. The publishers of Origins Research have wanted for some time to issue that publication in a more permanent format, and to expand its content carefully under the guidance of an editorial board. It now seems timely to move to full journal status as a quarterly.
Origins & Design will continue the editorial practices by which Origins Research was known: openness, encouragement of responsible dissent, and the free give-and-take of views on the science and philosophy of origins. "I dogmatise and am contradicted," said the great English lexicographer, poet, and essayist Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), "and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight." Take delight in being contradicted? But Johnson could do so, comfortably, for he believed in the stability and power of truth.
By encouraging a disciplined exchange of views on origins, the editors and editorial board are persuaded that the truth, which surely can take care of itself, will emerge, and that science, the growth of knowledge, and intellectual freedom will thereby be served.
"Origins" covers a wide swath of ground. In that territory, one finds, for instance, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the NK models of Stuart Kauffman, the heated polemics of the Usenet group talk.origins, the anthropic principle, the book of Genesis, the Cambrian explosion of animal body plans, Daniel Dennett's musings about the motives of Stephen Jay Gould in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, school board debates, the notion of irreducible complexity -- and so on. At its broadest, "origins" includes these and other topics, and the full list of competing answers about how the universe and all its objects came to be.
Among those answers, Origins & Design takes as its special interest the idea of "design." Can there be a theory of design -- understood, very roughly, as intelligent causation -- that serves as a proper explanation in the historical sciences? If so, what would the content of that theory be? Or must science adopt the principle of methodological naturalism, to avoid being swallowed up by a "God of the gaps?" These are questions for which Origins & Design seeks answers. We seek, moreover, criticism of the answers offered here. The notion of design (as a scientific explanation) does not lack for critics, and we urge them to bring their arguments here for publication. They will find a respectful audience, albeit an audience that can be expected to dissent as sharply as it listens carefully.
Origins & Design will be an interdisciplinary journal. Given the breadth of both "origins" and "design," readers can expect to see articles from fields as diverse as developmental biology, cosmology, philosophical theology, and paleontology. We intend to publish articles that are comprehensible, however, by a wide audience, while not sacrificing accuracy or depth.
In the 1980s, with the discovery of self-splicing RNA molecules, or "ribozymes", the hypothesis of an "RNA World" came to prominence: the view, as the January 1996 Scientific American reports, "that ribozymes might have been the precursors of modern DNA-based organisms." And, within the past five years, molecular biologists have learned how to expand the catalytic repertoire of ribozymes to include novel reactions. These and other developments have led many to argue that the RNA World hypothesis provides the most promising avenue for reconstructing the origin of life.
Perhaps -- but the road to the RNA World, if it ever existed, biochemists Gordon Mills and Dean Kenyon argue, is marked with many obstacles. In their feature article, "The RNA World: A Critique," Mills and Kenyon map those obstacles. In an accompanying sidebar article, "What Do Ribozyme Engineering Experiments Really Tell Us About the Origin of Life?" they argue that the intelligently-designed manipulation of RNA, far from supporting the naturalistic story for the origin of life, in fact lends weight to a quite different design-based view. (Ribozyme engineering is certainly important to expanding our knowledge of the properties of RNA. Its relevance to the naturalistic origin of life, Mills and Kenyon contend, is another matter altogether.)
Our second feature article, "On the Design of the Vertebrate Retina," by biologist George Ayoub, looks in detail at the widely-cited claim that the vertebrate retina is "wired backwards." No competent designer, many evolutionary biologists argue, would build a light-receiving device that required incoming photons to pass through several cell layers before they struck the photoreceptors -- yet the vertebrate retina is just so structured. Stupid design, at best.
Not so fast, cautions Ayoub. In a careful analysis, Ayoub looks at the functional context of the retina, and demonstrates that such suboptimality claims are facile.
This issue also features shorter articles, on the thinking of English paleontologist Colin Patterson (including a bibliography of "selected hits" from Patterson's work), literature surveys, and book reviews.
Again: welcome. We hope to make Origins & Design the best new journal in a very old debate, and look forward to hearing from you, our readers. E-mail or the regular variety: the Correspondence column is officially open.
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