April 30, 2001

DNA Demoted


One complaint that Darwinists like to make against the Intelligent Design movement is that the concept of “design” supposedly does not lead to any scientific research program. Once scientists confirm that organisms really are designed, the caricature is that they just throw up their hands, say “God did it somehow,” and then go off to church.

The complaint is a red herring, of course. The computer on which I am typing this report is designed by software and hardware engineers, but this does not mean that it is a black box whose mechanism can never be discovered. On the contrary, I can never understand how a computer works, or why it exists, unless I start with the reality that computers are designed for a purpose. Design does not imply an absence of natural law. The computer obeys the laws of physics, and so does the software designer, but what they accomplish cannot be explained without taking into account the input from intelligence.

Design is reality considered in its entirety; materialist reductionism is truncated reality, reality with the mind cut out. Because post-Darwinian biology has been dominated by materialist dogma, the biologists have had to pretend that organisms are a lot simpler than they are. Life itself must be merely chemistry. Assemble the right chemicals, and life emerges. DNA must likewise be a product of chemistry alone. As an exhibit in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History puts it, “volcanic gasses plus lightning equal DNA equals LIFE!” When queried about this fable, the museum spokesman acknowledged that it was simplified but said it was basically true.

Once DNA has been put together by zapping volcanic gasses with lightning, then the DNA must do its work by a one-gene one-trait model (or something close to that), because natural selection could not do its work if the genes it supposedly selects interact in some irreducibly complex manner. The mind must be chemistry, and only chemistry – except for the mind of the scientific materialist, of course, whose thoughts are the products of reason rather than chemistry. Reductionist biologists are not looking at reality, but only at life as it would have to be if the reductionist program is to succeed. It’s the old story of the drunk who lost his car keys in the bushes, but was looking for them under the street lamp instead because “there’s enough light to see them over here.”

The New York Times this week provided another of the many signs that the materialist paradigm is being left behind as science advances. Dr. Leroy Hood is one of the most successful of modern scientific entrepreneurs. Among other accomplishments, he invented the DNA sequencer, the machine that made the Human Genome Project possible. Hood has an instinct for knowing where the action is, so he can establish himself in promising new research areas ahead of the pack. Now he has decided that universities are not suited to solving the problems of contemporary biology, because their departmental structure makes interdisciplinary work difficult. According to the New York Times:

So now, at 62, Dr. Hood is starting over. He has formed a nonprofit research center, the Institute for Systems Biology, which he hopes will transform the study of biology. Systems biology is a loosely defined term, but the main idea is that biology is an information science, with genes a sort of digital code. Moreover, while much of molecular biology has involved studying a single gene or protein in depth, systems biology looks at the bigger picture, how all the genes and proteins interact. Ultimately the goal is to develop computer models that can predict the behavior of cells or organisms, much as Boeing can simulate how a plane will fly before it is built. But such a task requires biologists to team up with computer scientists, engineers, physicists and mathematicians.

In short, the cutting edge of biological research is the study of information, and traditional biology is merely one of many specialties that study how the information coordinates the many complex mechanisms. Those engineers and mathematicians will be studying irreducible complexity day after day in attempting to model the behavior of cellular mechanisms who interact with each other in complex signaling and feedback networks. Every day they will be asking “design” questions, such as “why is this system configured in this way?” and “how is this complex process controlled so it can coordinate with the other activities of the cell?” Whatever they call it, this is an Intelligent Design research program, and it won’t be long before somebody makes that explicit. Many of those non-biologists will have minds that are not constrained by an indoctrination in Darwinian materialism, and like the child seeing the naked emperor, they will blurt out the obvious truth before anyone can stop them. For example, computer scientist Gene Myers, who was instrumental in Celera Corportation’s gene sequencing success, told a science reporter that "There's a huge intelligence there [in the genome]. I don't see that as being unscientific."

“Beyond Genetic Determinism” by Berkeley biologist Richard Strohman, is in the April issue of California Monthly (not yet online). Strohman says that the true message of the Human Genome Project is that knowing all the genes doesn’t take you very far in understanding how cellular processes work. "DNA has been called the Book of Life by HGP [Human Genome Project] scientists, but many other biologists consider DNA to be simply a random collection of words from which a meaningful story of life may be assembled." [California Monthly, April 2001, pp. 24-27]

Strohman goes on to explain the kind of interlocking systems that must be involved to mine that collection of words and arrange them into something intelligible. “The program location is the cell as a whole; and the cell, through signaling pathways, is connected to larger wholes and to the external world.” A total system of immense and doubtless irreducible complexity is just beginning to be uncovered.

The question is not whether intelligent design has a research program. The question is how long it will take for biologists to become sufficiently realistic to admit that their research constantly employs design concepts, even when they continue to give lip service to materialism. In time they will learn a new motto: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of Intelligent Design.”

Copyright 2001 Phillip E. Johnson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 4.30.01