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Recently American biologists tried to have a colleague fired from his job: a dual appointment to the National Institute of Health and the Smithsonian Institution. These mainstream scientists were extremely annoyed, on philosophical grounds, with Dr. Richard Sternberg.

Dr. Sternberg, in his capacity as editor of a small biological journal published by the Smithsonian, had allowed an article advocating intelligent design into print. Many mainstream scientists had previously pointed to the fact that no article favourable to intelligent design, had ever been published in a refereed scientific journal. Thus, these people declared, intelligent design did not qualify as science. But now such an article had appeared. A howl of protest rose in response.

Modern science is indeed on the horns of a dilemma: which is more important: facts or philosophy? Of course scientists could be on the side of both facts and philosophy, but only if they choose correctly. Otherwise their philosophy will take them to a position contrary to the evidence. Most establishment scientists maintain that nature consists of nothing more nor less than matter and energy. Such an expectation might apply, of course, to everyday processes where cause and effect involving matter and energy, are routinely observed. As far as origins are concerned however, this idea obviously breaks down. At some point there will be no natural cause. In contrast to the majority of scientists, some specialists admit that in certain situations, some “know how” beyond the scope of matter and energy is the only reasonable explanation for what we see in nature.

Most mainstream scientists recoil in horror at the idea that there is testimony to the work of a supernatural creator, or “intelligent designer” to be seen in nature. As Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences wrote in a letter to the New York Times: “In evolution, as in all areas of science, our knowledge is incomplete. But the entire success of the scientific enterprise has depended on an insistence that these gaps be filled by natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence. Because “intelligent design” theories are based on supernatural explanations, they can have nothing to do with science.” (Opinion – Feb.12, 2005).

Dr. Alberts and like thinkers do not mind admitting that they have no explanation for a given phenomenon. What they do object to, is the conclusion that certain phenomena can never be explained naturalistically.

Life is a phenomenon scientists have long contemplated but nobody really understands what makes a cell alive. With each new discovery of still more exquisite machines and controls inside the cell, groups of scientists assume opposite explanations for it all, depending upon their definition of science. If science involves only matter and energy, then spontaneous events must be adequate to explain how life arose, many declare.

One prominent advocate of such a view is Christian de Duve. His recent article in Nature (February 10, 2005) illustrates this position.

Dr. de Duve begins by declaring that naturalistic science is on the right track in describing the origin of life as a process which is “strictly accidental and unintentional.”  No mind nor intelligence was needed. All that was required, he declares, were small molecules which could reproduce themselves (quite a trick). Once that was achieved, he insists, Darwinian selection would become operative (selecting for what?), and the rest would follow “obligatorily” or in other words out of necessity. He does not say how.

Dr. de Duve’s article is long on optimistic pronouncements but lacks specifics. He lards his discussion with admissions of uncertainty which would be OK except that is all he provides. The words “must have” are connected to “been reached”, or “occurred”, or “been invented” or “been sufficiently individualized” or “been supplied” or “been prefigured”. The terms “invented” and “prefigured” (advanced planning) sound as if some sort of intelligence was involved, but it is not Dr. de Duve’s intention to convey such a thought. Also we find the expressions “much more likely”, “widely believed”, “could have happened” and “presumably” etc. etc.

The dubious nature of de Duve’s position is illustrated by his support for a natural appearance of DNA, the universal genetic code. He first admits that recent studies have established that this code is more than a million times more efficient than other possible codes. The choice of such a vastly superior system, he declares, “would represent a particularly impressive case of optimizing selection.” We might reply, impressive indeed, how about impossible? Dr. de Duve then concludes, “The conditions that would have allowed this kind of experimentation raise challenging questions.”  He has just admitted that he does not know how it could evolve, but he is willing anyway to believe that it did.

Another article (Trevors and Abel. 2004. Chance and necessity do not explain the origin of life. Cell Biol. International 28: 729-739), dramatically contradicts all Dr. de Duve’s points. The authors declare that “conceptual” input was required simultaneously at three levels in the cell, for life to be possible. Firstly, information had to be recorded in the DNA. Secondly, a system was required to translate the meaningful language in DNA into another meaningful language mandating the assembly of long chains of amino acids capable of folding into useful proteins. Thirdly, the proteins were useful only when they had a designated role in a functioning metabolic system. Without all this there could be no selection for useful variations such as Dr. de Duve envisages. Natural selection only works on a complete living cell, it cannot produce the living cell.

Trevors and Abel emphasize that “No combination of the four known forces of physics can account for such conceptual relationships” (p. 732). Furthermore more research will not improve the situation: “No natural mechanism of nature reducible to law can explain the high information content of genomes. This is a mathematical truism, not a matter subject to overturning by future empirical data.” (p. 734). Their article speaks of “conceptual information” rather than “intelligent design” but the idea obviously is much the same. It may be that their publishing in a European journal saved them from a lot of adverse reaction. Europeans seem generally more tolerant of minority views in science.

The hysterical response of American biologists to an intelligent design article seems quite shocking. Where is the hope for reasoned discussion and consideration of the evidence? Opponents to Dr. Stephen Meyer’s article generally ignore the contents. That is irrelevant to them when a non-negotiable issue like the nature of science is at issue. They are dealing not with a matter of fact, but a matter of definition. Philosophy is used to trump the evidence. After all, only in an environment where one point of view only is allowed, can weak arguments such as in the de Duve paper, seem at all convincing. Nevertheless, in spite of majority pronouncements and biased definitions, the amazing complexity of the living cell points us to the Designer.

Margaret Helder
April 2005

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