Several years ago a renowned British philosopher, Antony Flew, made worldwide news when he repudiated a lifelong commitment to atheism, citing, among other factors, evidence of intelligent design in the DNA molecule.
But what is this theory of intelligent design? And what does DNA have to do with it?
According to a spate of recent media reports since Flew’s conversion, intelligent design is a new “faith-based” alternative to evolution—an alternative based entirely on religion rather than scientific evidence.
Over the last year, many major U.S. newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets have run stories repeating this same tripe. But is it accurate?
As one of the architects of the theory of intelligent design, and the director of a research center that supports the work of scientists developing the theory, I know that it isn’t.
Contrary to media reports, intelligent design is not a religious-based idea, but instead an evidence-based scientific theory about life's origins—one that challenges strictly materialistic views of evolution. According to Darwinian biologists such as Oxford’s Richard Dawkins, livings systems “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” But, for modern Darwinists, that appearance of design is entirely illusory.
Why? According to neo-Darwinism, wholly undirected processes such as natural selection and random mutations are fully capable of producing the intricate designed-like structures in living systems. In their view, natural selection can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being directed by an intelligence.
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 intelligent cause. The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution when defined as change over time, or even common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin’s idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.
Either life arose as the result of purely undirected material processes, or a guiding intelligence played a role. Design theorists favor the latter option and argue that living organisms look designed because they really were designed.
But why do we say this? What tell-tale signs of intelligence do we see in living organisms?
In my new book, Signature in the Cell, I examine one of the most overlooked evidences of intelligent design, one 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. Just as English letters may convey a particular message depending on their arrangement, so too do certain sequences of chemical bases along the spine of a DNA molecule convey precise instructions for building proteins. The arrangement of the chemical characters determines the function of the sequence as a whole. Thus, the DNA molecule has the same property of “sequence specificity” that characterizes codes and language. As Richard Dawkins has acknowledged, "the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like." 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? And how did the cell’s complex information processing system arise? Today these questions lie at the heart of origin-of-life research. 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. Why? There is simply too much information in the cell to be explained by chance alone. And 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. Clearly, “something else” is at work.
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 also argue for design because we know from experience that systems possessing these features invariably arise from intelligent causes. The information on a computer screen can be traced back to a user or programmer. 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."
This connection between information and prior intelligence enables us to detect or infer intelligent activity even from unobservable sources in the distant past. Archaeologists infer ancient scribes from hieroglyphic inscriptions. SETI’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence presupposes that information imbedded in electromagnetic signals from space would indicate an intelligent source. As yet, radio astronomers have not found information-bearing signals from distant star systems. But closer to home, molecular biologists have discovered information in the cell, suggesting—by the same logic that underwrites the SETI program and ordinary scientific reasoning about other informational artifacts—an intelligent source for the information in DNA.
DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers. We know generally that information—whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book or encoded in a radio signal—always arises from an intelligent source. So, the discovery of information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA, even if we weren’t there to observe the system coming into existence.
Thus, contrary to media reports, the theory of intelligent design is not based upon ignorance or religion, but instead upon recent scientific discoveries and upon standard methods of scientific reasoning in which our uniform experience of cause and effect guides our inferences about what happened in the past.
Of course, many will still dismiss intelligent design as nothing but “religion masquerading as science.” But intelligent design is not based upon the Bible. Design is an inference from biological data, not a deduction from religious authority.
Even so, the theory of intelligent design may provide support for theistic belief. But that 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 [they thought] the evidence strongly supported it. Today a similar metaphysical prejudice confronts the theory of intelligent design. Nevertheless, it too must be evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not our philosophical preferences or concerns about its possible religious implications. As Antony Flew, the long-time atheistic philosopher who has come to accept the case for design, insists, we must “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Stephen C. Meyer holds a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science from Cambridge University. He directs Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle, Washington. His new book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design has just been published by HarperOne.