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DNA by Design

An Inference to the Best Explanation for the Origin of Biological Information Download PDF at Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1998, pp. 519-556

In the second chapter of Philosophy and Biology, Elliott Sober warns historians and philosophers of biology against the danger of anachronism. In particular, he notes that many contemporary evolutionary biologists regard the design hypothe- sis as inherently untestable and, therefore, unscientific in principle, simply because it no longer commands scientific assent. He notes that while logically unbeatable versions of the design hypothesis have been formulated (involving, for example, a “trickster God” who creates a world that appears undesigned), design hypotheses in general need not assume an untestable character. A design hypothesis could, he argues, be formulated as a fully scientific “inference to the best explanation.” He notes that scientists often evaluate the explanatory power of a “hypothesis by test- ing it against one or more competing hypotheses.”1 On these grounds, he notes that William Paley’s version of the design hypothesis was manifestly testable, but was rejected precisely because it could not explain the relevant evidence of then con- temporary biology as well as the fully naturalistic theory of Charles Darwin. Sober then casts his lot with the neo-Darwinian explanation on evidential rather than methodological grounds. But the possibility remains, he argues,

that there is some other version of the design hypothesis that both disagrees with the hypothesis of evolution and also is a more likely explanation of what we observe. No one, to my knowledge, has developed such a version of the design hypothesis. But this does not mean that no one ever will.

This paper will develop a design hypothesis, not as an explanation for the origin of species, but as an explanation for the origin of the information required to make a living system in the first place. Whereas Darwinism and neo-Darwinism address the former question, theories of chemical evolution have addressed the latter ques- tion of the ultimate origin of life. This essay will contest the causal adequacy of chemical evolutionary theories based upon “chance,” “necessity,” and their combi- nation. In the process, it will trace developments in origin-of-life research from the 1920s to the present. As it happens, Jacques Monod’s famous categories of “chance and necessity” provide a helpful heuristic for understanding the recent history of this discipline. From the 1920s to the mid-1960s origin-of-life research relied on theories that emphasized the creative role of random events — “chance” — often in tandem with some form of prebiotic natural selection. Since the late 1960s, theo- rists have instead emphasized deterministic self-organizational laws or properties, i.e., “necessity.” This paper will argue that a third type of explanation — intelligent design — provides a better explanation for the origin of the information present in large biomacromolecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins. To paraphrase Sober, this paper will present a version of the design hypothesis that disagrees with strictly materialistic theories of chemical evolution and provides a better explanation for the observed complexity of the simplest living organisms.


Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and The Return of the God Hypothesis (forthcoming in 2020). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.