Following on the heels of his last bestseller, The God Delusion, Darwinian biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has scored another publishing triumph. The No. 5 bestseller in the country, according to the New York Times, is Dawkins’s The Great Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. You might think his success would give him the courage to face critics of his ideas in open debate. But you would be wrong. As one of the architects of the theory of intelligent design, I have formally challenged Dawkins to debate our contrasting views of evolution before the public, but his representatives have responded in the negative, insisting that he does not debate “creationists.”
Never mind that intelligent design is not creationism. Why does Dr. Dawkins refuse to debate? Maybe because some of the strongest evidence of intelligent design in living beings comes from the study of life’s origin itself, posing in turn an enigma that neither Charles Darwin nor Richard Dawkins ever claimed to be able to solve.
We will celebrate this November the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. According to Darwin’s theory, the wholly undirected process of natural selection operating on random variations is fully capable of producing the intricate design-like structures in living systems. Thus Professor Dawkins insists that the appearance of design in organisms is an illusion.
In contrast, the theory of intelligent design holds that there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an actual designing intelligence. In my new book Signature in the Cell, I examine a category of evidence for intelligent design that has been with us for over fifty years.
In 1953 when Watson and Crick elucidated 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. The DNA molecule has the same property of “sequence specificity” that characterizes codes and language. 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? Clearly, the informational features of the cell at least 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. There is simply too much information in the cell to be explained by chance alone. 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.
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, they argue for design because we know from experience that systems possessing these features invariably arise from intelligent causes. For example, 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.”
Of course, many continue to dismiss intelligent design as nothing but “religion masquerading as science” — or “creationism,” as Dawkins puts it. But intelligent design is not based upon the Bible. Design is an inference from biological data.
Even so, the theory of intelligent design may provide support for theistic belief. That, of course, is not grounds for dismissing it. To say otherwise confuses the evidence for a theory and 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 solely on the basis of the evidence — about which, one might add, a candid public debate is long overdue.