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INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A PRIMER
In late 2004, the renowned British philosopher Antony Flew made worldwide news when he repudiated a lifelong commitment to atheism, citing among other factors evidence of "intelligent design" in the DNA molecule.
But what is this theory of intelligent design? And what does DNA have to do with it?
According to a spate of recent media reports, intelligent design is a new "faith-based" alternative to evolution'an alternative based on religion rather than scientific evidence. As the story goes, intelligent design is just creationism repackaged by religious fundamentalists in order to circumvent a 1987 Supreme Court prohibition against teaching creationism in the public schools.
Over the last year, many major US newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets have run stories repeating this same charge. But is it accurate?
The History of an Idea
The modern theory of intelligent design was not developed in response to a 1987 legal setback for creationists. It was first formulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scientists--Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, Roger Olson, and Dean Kenyon--who were trying to account for an enduring mystery of modern biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule.
In the book The Mystery of Life's Origin, Thaxton and his colleagues first developed the idea that the information-bearing properties of DNA provided strong evidence of a prior but unspecified designing intelligence. Mystery was published in 1984 by a prestigious New York publisher--three years before the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard court decision.
Intelligent design is not a religion-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life's origins--one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution. According to Darwinian biologists such as Oxford's Richard Dawkins, livings systems "give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." But for modern Darwinists, that appearance of design is entirely illusory.
Why? According to neo-Darwinism, wholly undirected processes such as natural selection and random mutations are fully capable of producing the intricate designed-like structures in living systems. In their view, natural selection can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being directed by an intelligence.
In contrast, the theory of intelligent design holds that there are telltale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, but it does dispute Darwin's idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.
Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes or a guiding intelligence played a role. Design theorists favor the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed.
But why do we say this? What telltale signs of design do we see in living organisms? One of the most important but often overlooked pieces of evidence has been with us for over fifty years.
In 1953, when Watson and Crick mapped the structure of the DNA molecule, they made a startling discovery. The structure of DNA allows it to store information in the form of a four-character digital code. Strings of precisely sequenced chemicals, called nucleotide bases, store and transmit the assembly instructions--the information--for building the crucial protein molecules and machines the cell needs to survive.
Francis Crick later developed this idea with his famous "sequence hypothesis," according to which the chemical constituents in DNA function like letters in a written language or symbols in a computer code. Just as English letters may convey a particular message depending on their arrangement, so, too, do certain sequences of chemical bases along the spine of a DNA molecule convey precise instructions for building proteins. The arrangement of the chemical characters determines the function of the sequence as a whole.
Thus, the DNA molecule has the same property of "sequence specificity" that characterizes codes and language. As Richard Dawkins has acknowledged, "the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like." And as Bill Gates has noted, "DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created."
After the early 1960s, further discoveries made clear that the digital information in DNA and RNA is only part of a complex information-processing system--an advanced form of nanotechnology that both mirrors and exceeds our own in its complexity, design logic, and information-storage density.
Where did the digital information in the cell come from? And how did the cell's complex information-processing system arise? Today, these questions lie at the heart of origin-of-life research. Clearly, the informational features of the cell appear designed. And to date no theory of undirected chemical evolution has explained the origin of the digital information needed to build the first living cell. Why not? There is simply too much information in the cell to be explained by chance alone. And the information in DNA has also been shown to defy explanation by reference to the laws of chemistry. Saying otherwise would be like saying that a newspaper headline might arise as the result of the chemical attraction between ink and paper. Clearly, "something else" is at work.
Yet, the scientists arguing for intelligent design do not do so merely because natural processes--chance, laws, or the combination of the two--have failed to explain the origin of the information and information-processing systems in cells. Instead, we also argue for design because we know from experience that systems possessing these features invariably arise from intelligent causes. The information on a computer screen can be traced back to a user or programmer. The information in a newspaper ultimately came from a writer--from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. As the pioneering information theorist Henry Quastler observed, "information habitually arises from conscious activity."
This connection between information and prior intelligence enables us to detect or infer intelligent activity even from unobservable sources in the distant past. Archeologists infer ancient scribes from hieroglyphic inscriptions. SETI's search for extraterrestrial intelligence presupposes that information embedded in electromagnetic signals from space would indicate an intelligent source. As yet, radio astronomers have not found information-bearing signals from distant star systems. But closer to home, molecular biologists have discovered information in the cell, suggesting'by the same logic that underwrites the SETI program and ordinary scientific reasoning about other informational artifacts'an intelligent source for the information in DNA.
DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers. We know generally that information'whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in a radio signal'always arises from an intelligent source. So the discovery of information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA, even if we weren't there to observe the system coming into existence.
Thus, contrary to media reports, the theory of intelligent design is not based upon ignorance or religion, but instead upon recent scientific discoveries and upon standard methods of scientific reasoning in which our uniform experience of cause and effect guides our inferences about what happened in the past.
Evidence, Not Implications
Of course, many will still dismiss intelligent design as nothing but warmed-over creationism or as a 'religion masquerading as science.' But intelligent design, unlike creationism, is not based upon the Bible. Design is an inference from biological data, not a deduction from religious authority.
Even so, the theory of intelligent design may provide support for theistic belief. But that is not grounds for dismissing it. To say otherwise confuses the evidence for a theory with its possible implications. Many scientists initially rejected the Big-Bang theory because it seemed to challenge the idea of an eternally self-existent universe and pointed to the need for a transcendent cause of matter, space, and time. But scientists eventually accepted the theory despite such apparently unpleasant implications because the evidence strongly supported it.
Today, a similar metaphysical prejudice confronts the theory of intelligent design. Nevertheless, it, too, must be evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not our philosophical preferences or concerns about its possible religious implications. Antony Flew, the longtime atheistic philosopher who has come to accept the case for design, insists correctly that we must 'follow the evidence wherever it leads.' •
Phillip Johnson on the importance of ID. Michael Behe on ID and biochemistry. Guillermo Gonzalez on habitable planets. Don't miss a single one of the 33 new articles on intelligent design and evolution.
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More articles from Intelligent Design: A Primer
The Last Days of Darwin? by James M. Kushiner
What Does Information Tell us About ID? by William A. Dembski
Can ID Explain the Origin of Evil? by Jay Richards
Do ID Proponents Get Persecuted in the Academy? by Caroline Crocker
What Happens When You Challenge a School's Science Curriculum? by Larry Caldwell
What Happens When You Write Positive Blog Posts About ID? by Mike Egnor
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