This article was first published in the March 2007 ABR Electronic Newsletter.
Much has been made recently of the Intelligent Design movement, which many scientists dismiss as inherently unscientific since it relies on a divine, external force to explain certain phenomena that have not yet been satisfactorily explained by science. Whether science will ever prove or disprove the existence of an all-ruling, all-pervading intelligence may never be known, but recent breakthroughs in the field of genetic engineering demonstrate at least the plausibility that such an entity could exist and could be responsible for the extreme complexity of the universe.
According to an article in the journal Science News, genetic engineering "gave biologists their first taste of custom designing living things by tinkering directly with their genomes" (Brownlee 2005: 378). Under "old-school" genetic engineering, scientists would randomly alter a few genes in a cell's DNA. However, according to the article, "some researchers are now breaking genomes into collections of parts and precisely reassembling them to do a scientist's bidding" (ibid.).
Since the mid-1990's, several technologies have started to bring genetic engineering in line with other engineering disciplines. This has enabled genetic engineers to become intelligent designers, creating sections of DNA to fit their specific needs. Some genetic-engineering companies, reported Science News, can now
manufacture the desired DNA sections according to the scientists' design and ship them out ready to slip into cells. To distinguish themselves from researchers who practice genetic engineering the old-fashioned way, those in the new field coined a name for themselves: synthetic biologists (ibid.).
This new scientific endeavor is so advanced that synthetic biologists have essentially become carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who manufacture custom-made life forms. The article stated that they are now able to create
what the scientists call biological circuits, collections of genes that act on each other to produce a chain of signals between the input and output. By hooking together the bits of DNA that encode these parts and then introducing them into a cell, scientists can tinker, as an electrical engineer might, to make tiny, living machines (ibid.).
One synthetic biologist is Ron Weiss of Princeton University, who has created bacteria that, when placed in a Petri dish, can display distinct patterns such as a bull's-eye. He stated: "Patterns are very common in biology" (ibid. 379). Unwittingly, Weiss has drawn a connection between what he has accomplished and what intelligent-design theory has suggested: the highly complex patterns so common in nature, which Weiss alluded to, must have been the product of a designer, just as the patterns in Weiss’s Petri dish were the product of deliberate design on his part.
Other synthetic biologists are manufacturing similar creations. Jay Keasling and his colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley have used synthetic biology to fight malaria by creating Escherichia coli bacteria that pump out artemisinin, an antimalarial drug. Keasling's breakthrough is built on the earlier accomplishment of researchers who created insulin-making bacteria by slipping an extra gene into E. coli (ibid.). In a nationwide competition of synthetic biologists, a group of students from the University of Texas at Austin, in collaboration with Chris Voigt of the University of California at San Francisco, created a mat of bacteria that captures images in the same way that photographic film does (ibid. 380).
These exciting breakthroughs don't prove the existence of an intelligent designer behind the extreme complexity of the universe, but they do suggest that it is not entirely unscientific to surmise that there might very well be an inconceivably intelligent, external SOMETHING that designed the intricacies we see in nature, analogous to the brilliant new generation of synthetic biologists who are making such great strides in the design and creation of new life forms.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Brownlee, C. 2005. "The Sum of the Parts." Science News, vol. 168, no. 24.
Stephen Caesar holds his master's degree in anthropology/archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff member at Associates for Biblical Research.