These days, we surround ourselves with technology to stay in touch, to keep ourselves informed, and to manage the challenges of our daily lives. We also recognize in our devices and machines all the hallmarks of design, understanding reflexively that they express the ingenuity of engineers or software developers. Our appreciation for applied intelligence comes as second nature to us—we intuitively recognize the work of other minds.
But what happens when we look up from our technology and survey the world of nature? When we look up at the movement of the planets, or into the eyes of our children, or when we peer through a microscope into a living cell? Do we see signs of minds in those places? Do we sense intelligence and forethought? Or does our intuition of design stop at the iPhone and the jet airplane?
In a recent tweet, the world’s most famous scientific atheist, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, confessed to being knocked “sideways with wonder at the miniaturized intricacy of the data-processing machinery in the living cell.”
Dawkins wrote the tweet after watching an animation produced by an Australian medical institute showing how cells store and copy the vast amounts of digital information present in DNA.
The digital information technology found in living cells (as depicted in this and other animations) has raised profound questions about an enduring scientific mystery: how did the very first life begin? And did a mind or intelligent designer play a role?
Dawkins, for his part, has steadfastly maintained that living organisms exhibit only “the appearance” or illusion of design, not evidence of actual design— despite being knocked “sideways with wonder” at the information technology at work in living cells.
As he put it in his most famous book The Blind Watchmaker, “[b]iology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”
The claim that life was not designed, even though it looks designed, may seem contradictory.
But evolutionary biologists since Charles Darwin have insisted that they have good reason for thinking this.
According to Darwinian theory, the mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and mutations) can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without being intelligent itself. As biologist Francisco Ayala has put it, natural selection explains “design without a designer.”
Even so, Darwin didn’t actually attempt to explain the ultimate origin of life—and thus the ultimate origin of the “data-processing machinery” present in even the simplest living cells. Instead, Darwin sought to explain only how new life forms evolved from life forms that already existed—and ultimately from some simple form of life that had arisen from non-living stuff in a “warm little pond.”
And as Dawkins himself has acknowledged, even today “no one knows” how the first life—with its complex information storage, transmission and processing system—might have arisen from non-living chemicals in “a pre-biotic soup.”
Not surprisingly then, some scientists and philosophers now doubt Dawkins’s confident assurance that evolutionary biology has shown that all appearances of design in life are an illusion.
For example, some of my colleagues at the Discovery Institute are part of a vibrant scientific research community advancing the idea that the appearance of design we see in life and the universe is not an illusion, but instead is real.
Scientist and philosopher Dr. Stephen Meyer has argued that the information contained in DNA, and the information processing technology present in cells, points to the activity of an actual designing intelligence.
Meyer notes that after James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, Crick soon realized that DNA contained instructions for building proteins, the molecules that cells need to perform a host of life-critical functions. Additionally, Crick and other molecular biologists showed that the DNA contained these instructions or information in a digital form.
Meyer points out that Dawkins himself has acknowledged that “the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” He also quotes software developer Bill Gates, who has noted that, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”
Meyer argues that these observations are extremely significant. As he explains, “We know from experience that software comes from programmers. We know generally that information—whether stored in a computer program, inscribed in hieroglyphics, or written in a book—always arises from an intelligent source.”
He affirms that the discovery of information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that a designing intelligence played a role in the origin and history of life.
Meyer first developed this argument in detail in his book Signature in the Cell, a 2009 (London) Times Literary Supplement book of the year. He has recently extended his argument by examining evidence for intelligent design in both life and the universe in Return of the God Hypothesis, a new book that directly challenges the “new atheism” of Professor Dawkins and his colleagues.
The debate about design in nature will no doubt continue for as long as human beings inhabit our planet. I leave it to readers to decide whether they think the appearance of design in life is real or illusory, (though they may easily infer where my own sympathies lie).
Whatever readers decide, I think we can all appreciate the wonder that Professor Dawkins has expressed at the sophisticated information technology at work inside our own cells.
We might also marvel at how the discovery of that technology—so reminiscent of the tech present in our own digital gadgets and gear—now lies at the heart of one of the greatest scientific mysteries and philosophical controversies of all time. How did life—and its crucial information technology—first arise?