Origin of Life, Intelligent Design, Evolution, Creation and Faith
(Updated September 2016)
I have been labeled as an Intelligent Design (sometimes called “ID”) proponent. I am not. I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might. I am sympathetic to the arguments and I find some of them intriguing, but I prefer to be free of that intelligent design label. As a modern-day scientist, I do not know how to prove intelligent design using my most sophisticated analytical tools— the canonical tools are, by their own admission, inadequate to answer the intelligent design question. I cannot lay the issue at the doorstep of a benevolent creator or even an impersonal intelligent designer. All I can presently say is that my chemical tools do not permit my assessment of intelligent design.
I have written a long article on the origin of life: http://inference-review.com/article/animadversions-of-a-synthetic-chemist. It is clear, chemists and biologists are clueless. I wrote, “Those who think scientists understand the issues of prebiotic chemistry are wholly misinformed. Nobody understands them. Maybe one day we will. But that day is far from today. It would be far more helpful (and hopeful) to expose students to the massive gaps in our understanding. They may find a firmer—and possibly a radically different—scientific theory. The basis upon which we as scientists are relying is so shaky that we must openly state the situation for what it is: it is a mystery.” Note that since the time of my submission of that commentary cited above, articles continue to be published on prebiotic chemistry, so I will link to my short critiques of a few of those newer articles so that the interested reader can get an ongoing synthetic chemist’s assessment of the proposals: http://inference-review.com/article/two-experiments-in-abiogenesis.
The origin of life (often encompassing the terms prebiotic chemistry or abiogenesis) article that I cite above is long and I need not repeat it. But even in that article, I never addressed the issue of information. The information or coding within the DNA (or RNA) that corresponds to the sequence of the nucleic acids is primary to the entire discussion of life. Some would rightly argue that the information is even more fundamental than the matter upon which it is encoded. I merely showed that the requisite molecules (lipids, proteins, nucleic acids and carbohydrates) are so unlikely to have occurred in the states and quantities needed, that we could never have gotten to the point of figuring out the genesis of the requisite code or information. The code is analogous to the difference between the Library of Congress and a big box of alphabetic letters— the library has a huge amount of embedded information while the random box of letters has little. So origin of first life is the ‘nail holding the coffin closed’ on the emergence of biological evolution. Without that first life, or simple cell, which requires the four molecule types plus information, all proposals regarding biological evolution are without the base of life. And it is difficult to discuss biology without life.
Nonetheless, some are disconcerted or even angered that I signed a statement in ~2001 along with many other scientists:
“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
That statement has now received its own common name: A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. Let me note several things for the record. The statement was sent to me in an email asking whether I could agree with its content. I confirmed that I agree. I still agree. Plus, many other scientists would agree that “careful examination of the evidence” is warranted regardless of the field, and Darwinian Theory is no exception. However, I had no idea that that statement would be used in legal challenges four years later, or that it would become the courtroom touchstone of the arguments on evolution and intelligent design. I terribly dislike lawsuits and courts of law, so I am sorry that things evolved that way.
I have spoken at length with biologists, philosophers of science, mathematicians and geneticists in order to better understand evolution. Some were gracious in helping me to appreciate their positions based upon the data. Others were less gracious, though they supplied me with voluminous material to read. Here are some of the things that I learned.
Some biologists say that “random mutation and natural selection” have long-been recognized by many evolutionists themselves to be insufficient to account for the complexity of life. They cite research from the 1960s and 1970s suggesting that neutral drift is quantitatively more important than natural selection in understanding genetic differences between organisms. Moreover, the mechanisms of evolution and their relative importance are continuously subject to careful scientific examination and revision so “careful examination of the evidence” has not been avoided. Some biologists suggest that the core of evolutionary studies for the last several decades has not centered upon the sufficiency of Darwinian Theory, defined as “random mutation and natural selection.” (So maybe those biologists should join me in signing “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”.) But evolution is both about the mechanism by which change occurs over time, and the theory of universal common descent (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_descent). This is the idea that all life shares a common ancestor. For those less trained in science, this theory does not propose, for example, that humans evolved or descended from chimpanzees, but that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor in the distant past. I can understand why those fluent in the field of genetics would be convinced by that theory; there is an impressive quantity and insightfulness to the work.
But even with that evidence supporting common descent, others find common descent insufficient to explain some parts of the data. For example, humans have ~20,000 protein-coding genes, which is only ~1.5% of DNA in the entire human genome, and it is within that 1.5% that common descent studies are primarily (though not exclusively) focused. A large-scale project instituted in 2003 by the US National Human Genome Research Institute, called the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ENCODE), seeks to determine the roll of the remaining 98.5% of the genome that was formerly poorly called “junk DNA,” but better called “intergenic regions.” There is ENCODE evidence that part or even much of the intergenic regions have regulatory elements that can affect gene transcription (building of RNA and then construction of enzymes that regulate or build the biological system). Also, work on orphan genes (also called ORFans, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_gene) casts new light on the uniqueness of some genetic information; orphan genes are considered unique to a narrow taxon, generally a species. So some interpret ENCODE data and orphan genes as markers for uncommonness. Even further, some argue that biological similarities between modern humans and other hominids, for example, can be considered as common design parameters and need not require a common descent model.
Still others are dismissive of the relevancy of ENCODE and orphan genes research in the context of common descent evaluations. For example, they say that for decades biologists have realized that intergenic regions have regulatory functions. And they suggest that within ENCODE, the experimental techniques that were used result in much of the data itself being statistically irrelevant, and those regions that are truly functional are minimal in their functionality. With orphan genes, they claim that less than 100 of them show evidence of translation, and all these genes map back to non-gene DNA sequences in the chimpanzee, so it is actually evidence for common descent. Then again, other geneticists contest that many biologists have simply ignored ~200 putative orphans in the human genome because they cannot find homologous non-gene sequences in the chimpanzee genome. If it is true that some biologists are ignoring data that does not easily fit with their common descent model, it is disconcerting.
Thus the same data is viewed very differently depending upon the evaluator’s perspective. As a synthetic chemist, I am unable to render an opinion. I cannot suggest a victor in this contest.
But as a chemist, and one that builds functional molecular nano-systems, I can give some informed input. For several decades I have been building molecular cars with functional motors, wheels, axles and chassis, and molecular nanosubmarines with light-activated motors and fluorescent pontoons, where many parts have to work in unison, and be planned to work in unison during redesign of major features. Even small changes in desired function can send the synthesis all the way back to step 1. In biology, the mechanisms for such transformations are complete mysteries. I posit that the gross chemical changes needed for macroevolution (origin of the major organismal groups, i.e., of the body plans, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_plan) are not understood and presently we cannot even suggest the mechanisms, let alone observe them. Any massive functional change of a body part would require multiple concerted lines of variations. Sure, one can suggest multiple small changes ad infinitum, but the concerted requirement of multiple changes all in the same place and at the same time, is impossible to chemically fathom. One day the requisite chemical basis might become apparent so that the questions can be answered. But present-day biology is far from providing even a chemical proposal for body plan changes, let alone a data-substantiated chemical mechanism.
Humans alone have the capacity for art, music, advanced communication, advanced mathematics and religious practice, which constitute the broader organization of symbolism. Therefore, if one is intent upon a common descent model, there was a massive and presently unexplainable infusion (intrinsic and/or extrinsic) along the proposed very short descent pathway between australopithecines and modern humans. If it were an intrinsic infusion, then the requisite anatomical or chemical differences between the modern human brain and other hominid brains are presently indiscernible and unfathomable. And the chemical basis of the evolutionary mechanisms for such changes is both unknown and presently immeasurable. If the infusion were extrinsic, then the materialistic evolutionist and the design proponent share common ground.
Therefore, I do not understand the mechanisms needed to change body plans or the mechanisms along the descent pathway between the australopithecine brain and modern human brains if we were indeed commonly descended as predicted by the theory of universal common descent. Nobody else understands the mechanisms either. Nobody. But I am saying it publically, hence the arousal of some toward my open comments. Recall, evolution is both about the mechanism by which change occurs over time, and the theory of universal common descent. But the mechanisms are unknown and the theory of universal common descent is confronted by issues of uncommonness through ENCODE and orphan gene research.
So what should be taught in schools regarding evolution, in my opinion? As I wrote, I am not a proponent of intelligent design for the reasons I state above: I cannot prove it using my tools of chemistry to which I am bound in the chemistry classroom; the same tools to which I commensurately bind my evolutionist colleagues. A better approach would include more teaching about common descent using basic genetics arguments. But there should also be coverage of legitimate scientific puzzles such as macroevolution’s weak underpinning for the origin of body plans, the unexplainable functional differences between the modern human brain and that of other hominids, the ENCODE and orphan gene findings and disagreements, the huge difficulties regarding the theories on the origin of first life, and the mystery of information’s origin in the sequence of the nucleic acids. Such deliberations would be exciting and scientifically enlightening to students, and they would be changing with time as more data becomes available. In a secular classroom, one need not include an intelligent designer in order to provide the students with an appreciation for the science or an overview of the theories’ shortcomings. I think that, upon this approach, diverse camps could respectfully agree and lawsuits would be unnecessary.
I used to believe that my outward confession of skepticism regarding evolution was also of little consequence to my career as a scientist. Specifically, in the past, I wrote that my standing as a scientist was “based primarily upon my scholarly peer-reviewed publications.” Thirty years ago, that was the case. I no longer believe that, however. Ever since the time of the legal case referenced above, I have seen a saddening progression at several institutions— which is a further testament to the disheartening collateral damage resulting from lawsuits. I have witnessed unfair treatment upon scientists that do not accept macroevolutionary arguments and for their having signed the above-referenced statement regarding the examination of Darwinian Theory. I never thought that science would have evolved like this. I deeply value the academy; teaching, professing and research in the university are my privileges and joys. Rice University, from the administration, has always been gracious and open. The president of Rice University, David Leebron, writes yearly to the faculty that a,
“core value of our university is free and open inquiry. We encourage robust debate on the difficult issues of the day, and we welcome people with many points of view to our campus to better understand those issues and the differences that can divide us. That can and does mean that we sometimes provide a forum for opinions that may be controversial — or even on occasion reprehensible — to many or a few. While we cannot and will not censor the expression of divergent opinions, we do expect those opinions be expressed with civility and with respect for other points of view.”
Hence, by my observation, the unfair treatment upon the skeptics of macroevolution has not come from the administration level, at least at Rice University. But my recent advice to my graduate students has been direct and revealing: If you disagree with theories of evolution, keep it to yourselves if you value your careers, unless you’re one of those champions for proclamation; I know that that fire exists in some, so be ready for lead-ridden limbs. But if the scientific community has taken these shots at senior faculty, it will not be comfortable for the young non-conformist. When the power-holders permit no contrary discussion, can a vibrant academy be maintained? Is there a University (unity in diversity)? For the United States, I hope that the scientific community and the National Academy of Science in particular will investigate the disenfranchisement that is manifest upon some of their own, and thereby address the inequities.
Based upon my faith in the biblical text, I do believe (yes, faith and belief go beyond scientific evidence for this scientist) that God created the heavens and the earth and all that dwell therein, including a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. As for many of the details and the time-spans, I personally become less clear. Some may ask, What’s “less clear” about the text that reads, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth”? That is a fair question, and I wish I had an answer that would satisfy them. But I do not because I remain less clear. So, in addition to my chemically based scientific resistance to a macroevolutionary proposal, I am also theologically reticent to embrace it. As a lover of the biblical text, I cannot allegorize the Book of Genesis that far, lest, as Tevye in Fiddler on Roof said, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break!” God seems to have set nature as a clue, not a solution, to keep us yearning for him.
As a scientist and a Christian (Messianic Jew), I am unsure of many things in both science and faith. But my many questions are not fundamental to my salvation. Salvation is based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Messiah), my confession in him as Savior and my belief in his physical resurrection from the dead. Indeed, the physical resurrection is an atypical example where God works beyond the normally observed physical laws of science in order to accomplish his purposes. Therefore it’s called a miracle.