Great and Small
By Terence P. Jeffrey,
Friday, July 10, 2009
While Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection might explain how living creatures can evolve from one form to another, it cannot explain how something that was not alive evolved into the first life on Earth.
Terry Jeffrey: Welcome to "Online With Terry Jeffrey." Our guest for this episode is Dr. Stephen C. Meyer who holds a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University in England.
Dr. Meyer became part of a national controversy in 2004 when The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a publication staffed by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, published an article he wrote, the first-ever peer-reviewed article arguing for intelligent design in the creation of life on Earth.
He is now the author of a book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, that makes the same argument.
So, you're arguing that DNA itself presents evidence for why people should see an intelligent design, and therefore a designer, behind living creatures on Earth.
Let's start out with something very basic. What is DNA?
Meyer: That's a great question. To call it the molecule of heredity is one of the easiest answers. It stores the information, the instruction set, for building the proteins that are necessary for keeping the cell alive; and proteins are like the toolbox of the cell.
Jeffrey: Now, does every living creature on Earth have DNA?
Meyer: Oh, absolutely.
Jeffrey: Every single living thing? We've never discovered anything that doesn't have DNA?
Meyer: No, DNA runs the show inside the cells. It directs the protein synthesis that keeps things going.
Jeffrey: So, every living thing on the face of the Earth has cells?
Jeffrey: And within these cells they have this thing called DNA?
Jeffrey: And DNA is a protein?
Meyer: No. DNA is nucleic acid.
Jeffrey: It's a type of acid?
Meyer: Yes - it's almost a cultural icon: the double helix.
It's a beautiful structure. We learn about its chemical properties when we learn chemistry or biochemistry, but very rarely do we focus on the information-bearing properties of the molecule, and that's the critical thing.
Jeffrey: Okay, so this DNA that every single living creature has, it isn't a disorganized thing, is it?
Meyer: No, it's highly organized, but it's a particular kind of organization or order. It's informational.
The great discovery of the structure of the molecule came in 1953, but I think something even more striking was Francis Crick's sequence hypothesis. He proposed, in 1957, that four of the chemicals in DNA, along the spine of the molecule, function exactly like alphabetic characters in a written text or like digital characters in a section of a machine code.
So it wasn't just the chemical structure of DNA that was significant, it was the fact that it carried instructions.
Jeffrey: Let me ask you this: Is the chemical composition of DNA the same from creature to creature?
Meyer: Oh yes, the basic four elements. They're the same. But it's in their various arrangements that they differ. Just as you could have a group of Scrabble letters on the table, what would make each grouping different is the way it was arranged to either spell information or just gibberish.
Jeffrey: So every living thing on the face of the Earth has DNA?
Jeffrey: All the DNA in all these living creatures has the same chemical composition?
Meyer: Same chemical composition.
Jeffrey: Made up of the same things?
Meyer: But different sequential arrangements.
Jeffrey: Of these four -
Meyer: Of the four key letters.
Jeffrey: So, we-
Meyer: And that's not just a metaphor. They actually function like characters in a message system.
Jeffrey: Now, a hundred years ago, the human race didn't know any of this?
Meyer: Oh, no. No. This is 1953, Watson and Crick. And then the ensuing fifteen years were a period of great productivity in molecular biology.
Jeffrey: So, even when World War II came to a close, we didn't know this?
Meyer: No, although there were some scientists anticipating that there must be something driving life, beyond just matter and energy.
Jeffrey: There's sort of this long-term question humans had. They would see people have children, and they'd say, "Gee, those children look like their parents."
Jeffrey: They could see there was something about the reproduction of living things that passed on characteristics and traits from one generation to another.
Meyer: Right, some kind of signal or something, but no one knew where it resided.
Jeffrey: Even as late as the close of World War II, we didn't know?
Jeffrey: So, this is a very new -
Meyer: Very new discovery in historic terms. And there have been several phases of it. There was the Watson-Crick discovery of the molecule itself, the structure of the molecule, then the recognition that it was directing things with information.
Jeffrey: Let's start from there. Watson and Crick, who are they?
Meyer: James Watson: American biologist who was a wiz kid and went off to finish his Ph.D. at a very young age. He finally ended up in Cambridge where he met up with Francis Crick who had been a code-breaker in World War II. He was more of a physicist than a biologist. And they teamed up and cracked this mystery.
Jeffrey: They were trying to find out what it was in a cell that might be causing the transmission of traits from one generation to another?
Meyer: Right. By the early '50s, people had become more and more convinced it must be happening in the DNA. They knew some things about the DNA molecule, but they didn't understand its structure. Once they realized what the structure was, then it occurred to them that this DNA molecule was set up to store code, and the structure of it allowed for different arrangements of characters.
Jeffrey: They discovered, first of all, that there was this double helix structure to this acid?
Meyer: Exactly. As the British say, "They got it right."
Jeffrey: And they figured out there was coding on the double helix that actually determined the traits of living things?
Meyer: Exactly. It has the information for building the proteins that the cells need to keep alive.
Here's a good analogy: Toolbox. Hammer, saw, wrench - each has a different shape, each performs a different function upon the proteins, which it acquires based on how it's arranged in the DNA.
Jeffrey: Okay, and so this other scientist came along in 1957, and he discovered the sort of alphabet of the DNA?
Meyer: Yes. This was Crick again. He really was brilliant. You know, he was literally a code-breaker when he got into biology.
He proposed that not only was the DNA molecule in the form of a double helix, but along the spine those chemicals - the A's, G's, Z's, and T's, as we now represent them - actually function like alphabetic characters in a written language .
Jeffrey: Okay, so when you're talking about the distinction between two individuals of the same species - you and me - how would our DNA be different? How would we distinguish one from the other, just looking at our DNA?
Meyer: Well, typically we see very small differences in the DNA because many of our proteins are doing the same job. You know, you've got hemoglobin in you blood; I've got hemoglobin in my blood. Both of the molecules would be extremely similar, because they're doing the same job. They're capturing the oxygen in our blood.
Jeffrey: So, between any two humans, the coding of the DNA is pretty much the same?
Meyer: Pretty much the same.
Jeffrey: And a few things are altered in this coding?
Jeffrey: Which cause people to have characteristics and traits that you might associate with a specific family or lineage.
Meyer: Right, but now we're also learning that there's information stored at higher levels within the cell, and the term for that now is ontogenetic information.
So now it's more like the DNA has the information for building the small level parts, the proteins, but how the proteins are arranged into distinctive types of cells, how distinctive types of cells are arranged to form distinctive types of tissues, how distinctive tissues are arranged to form distinctive organs, how organs and tissues are arranged to create what are called body plans - whole architectures, not just specific instructions but broad blueprints - that does not seem to be entirely controlled by DNA.
We know where some of this ontogenetic information resides, but not all of it, and it's a great area of continuing research.
Organisms are fascinatingly complex systems, and it makes sense that we have not just one source but a hierarchy of information in our own bodies, which are extremely high-tech information processing systems.
Jeffrey: How do these compare to the information systems that we have in computers?
Meyer: Now, that's where I think the story gets even more interesting.
I have a software engineer friend doing some work for us. He retired early from Microsoft - which means he was about 38 or 40. A young guy. A brilliant architect-level programmer at Microsoft. He's writing code for us, working with our molecular biologists to write a simulation of how genetic information is expressed for us to build proteins. So, we're having an artificial, computer-based simulation of what's called the gene expression system.
He walks into my office one day and throws a book down on the table. It's called Design Patterns - the standard textbook for computer design engineers - and he says, "I get the eerie feeling, when I'm looking at what's going on in the cell, that's somebody has figured this out before us."
And I said, "What do you mean?"
He says, "We've got design logic for processing information, for doing error correction, for doing distributed data retrieval and re-assembly, and for hierarchical organization - we've got files within folders, like on your computer desktop, you know, in the hierarchical filing system."
And he says, "All those design patterns are inside the cell, except they're using a design logic that's like an 8.0, 9.0, 10.0 version of ours. It's the same basic logic, but it's more elegantly executed," and he says, "It gives me an eerie feeling."
Jeffrey: And that logic is embedded in the DNA of the simplest living creature on the face of the Earth?
Meyer: In the DNA and the overall architecture of the information processing system.
Jeffrey: And in the earliest creature that's ever been found historically, that same logic would be embedded?
Meyer: Yeah. There are some differences between what we call eukaryotic cells, which have nuclei, and the simpler prokaryotes, but still, it's all a very sophisticated, hierarchical arrangements of informational modules.
Jeffrey: In all the ways that living things on the face of the earth, from trees, to grass, to human beings, to animals, whatever it is, their design is generated out of this logic in the DNA?
Meyer: Exactly. Either the information embedded in DNA or these other hierarchies of information, these other layers that govern how DNA information is expressed.
Jeffrey: Okay, Charles Darwin, who lived and wrote before DNA was discovered, had no idea what DNA was. How did he explain how living things on the face of the earth got designed?
Meyer: Well, he believed that living organisms looked as though they were designed, and in fact most biologists down through the ages have acknowledged the appearance of design.
The modern Neo-Darwinists today do as well. Richard Dawkins says that biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.
Jeffrey: But referring to design presupposes a designer.
Meyer: No, not for the Darwinists – and this gets to your question. Darwin proposed a mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations, and the emphasis here is on the natural and the random.
Darwin's proposed mechanism is not guided or directed in any way, but it can produce the appearance of design, he claimed, without in any way being designed or guided. There was no guiding hand behind it, so it could mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being designed or guided in any way.
Jeffrey: So, natural selection does what exactly?
Meyer: Well, it produces new form, new structure, new variations.
Meyer: Well, there's a variation in the traits of an organism - we now would call them mutations - and then if those changes confer a functional or survival advantage on the organism it will out-compete other organisms that don't have that advantage, and therefore will, by definition, pass them on to ensuing offspring.
Jeffrey: So, over time, the creature will conform to a certain design or order, because the natural environment -
Meyer: Well, it will make progressively small incremental variations and changes, and therefore acquire new traits and, if the traits help it survive, then we have the classic example of adaptation.
In a talk I give, I use the example of sheep. If you're a sheepherder in Scotland, you're trying to get a woollier breed of sheep. What do you do? Well, you choose intelligently the woolliest males and the woolliest ewes, and only those animals, to breed. After a succession of generations, you're going to end up with a woollier population.
Darwin said, well, wait. What if you had a series of very cold winters? Wouldn't you end up with the same effect, where only the woolliest survive?
So, what he was trying to do with natural selection was supplant the need for a designing intelligence to account for how organisms were adapted to their environment. Wooly animals are well adapted to a cold environment.
And that mechanism, I think, works well to explain minor effects, like that kind of adaptation.
But the question is: Does it explain the origin of sheep in the first place? Or the mammalian body plan? Or the information that's necessary to build an animal like that?
Jeffrey: Which is a big question. So, you're saying that, if you start with a primitive form of a particular creature, natural selection is a plausible explanation for why it took certain shapes and forms.
Meyer: Yeah, exactly. These minor modifications to environment. No one disputes that.
Jeffrey: Well, let me kick you back to what I think is the fundamental question at the heart of your book.
If you start at point A, where there's no living thing on the face of the Earth, there's no life on Earth, and point B is a place where the first life exists, did Darwin, though his theory, have an explanation for how you got from point A, where there's no life, to point B, where there is the first life?
Meyer: Oh, he most definitely did not. He was quite emphatic about this, that he did not have an explanation for the origin of life. Neither did anyone else at the time. He did offer some speculations. It fell to later scientists to propose evolutionary explanations for the origin of the first life, but now, 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species, we have no satisfactory evolutionary account for how life first began.
Jeffrey: Darwin himself was humble about this -
Meyer: Yes, exactly.
Jeffrey: He wasn't claiming he could say how life could be created out non-life.
Meyer: No, he presupposed a few simple forms and then explained how later, more complicated forms arose from those simpler forms.
There's, I think, a suppressed but significant scientific debate about whether or not Darwin's mechanism could explain how you get new and more complex form from this simple life, but no one debates whether there's an adequate evolutionary explanation for the first life itself.
Jeffrey: The actual physical scientific evidence would say that the earliest creatures we've discovered on the Earth in fact had DNA with this kind of coding.
Meyer: Oh, right. The earliest cells have all the same kind of structure, as best we can tell.
Jeffrey: From the evidence, we went from no life on Earth to life that had this incredibly complex DNA that had coding in it that would determine how the offspring of that creature would be formed and shaped.
Meyer: Right, but at the time, in the years just after Darwin, scientists had no inkling of this. So they weren't too worried about their inability to explain the origin of life.
They just assumed it was a simple globule of undifferentiated protoplasm. That's how the scientist Thomas Huxley put it.
So, they thought of a cell as a kind of simple glob of goo, and of course, all that changed radically after 1953 with Watson and Crick's discoveries about the complexity and structure of DNA and other discoveries that were being made at the same time about proteins. And then scientists showed how the two discoveries were linked together. We got an even greater understanding of the whole information-processing system in the cell.
Jeffrey: All right, so what do you, Dr. Stephen Meyer, say caused the first life to have DNA that had this coding that would determine the shape and the destiny of this creature?
Meyer: Well, I think we're looking at a distinctive hallmark of intelligent activity.
Uniform and repeated experience, which is the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past, tells us that information always comes from an intelligent source.
If you look at a hieroglyphic inscription or a section of machine code, or a headline in a book or article, and you trace it back to its ultimate source, it always comes back to a mind, not a material process.
So, when we see that there's information embedded in DNA, and we see that that information is necessary to the beginning of the first life, I think we're seeing that there must have been an intelligence that played a role in the origin of life. That's simply the most logical thing to conclude.
Jeffrey: That designed DNA?
Meyer: That designed the information that is the source of the information of DNA.
Jeffrey: Now, that doesn't mean that after DNA was designed and creatures were created, that things couldn't have evolved or gone through natural selection.
Meyer: Yeah, exactly. As I say, there's a debate about that.
But whatever you think about biological evolution, the origin of the first life has not been explained by chemical evolution. Instead, there is a cause which we know is sufficient to produce information, and that cause is intelligence.
Jeffrey: Well, are there scientists who contest that there is in fact information encoded in DNA.
Meyer: No. There are some people that want to say, "Well that's just a metaphor." But it turns out to be truly not just a metaphor. Crick was right in his sequence hypothesis - that these characters along the spine of DNA actually do function like digital code. They are digital code.
Bill Gates says DNA is like a software program, but much more complex than everything we've ever written. Richard Dawkins acknowledges that it's a machine code. This is pretty well accepted. There's only a few people that have tried to quibble about that.
Jeffrey: To what degree do you think that the scientific community basically agrees with you, and to what degree to they not agree with you?
Meyer: Well, as I mentioned, there's a lot of submerged, or suppressed, dissent about the materialistic, non-intelligent, understanding of biological origins generally. But I would say we have a growing minority of scientists who are very sympathetic to intelligent design.
Jeffrey: Do you have tenured professors at major American universities who are looking into this?
Meyer: Oh yeah, yeah. They're in the minority view.
But I think what's really interesting about the debate is that people who oppose us don't say, "We have a better explanation for the origin of the first life."
What they do say instead is, "Well, intelligent design isn't science" - and they try to define science in a way that excludes consideration of the design hypothesis.
Jeffrey: Why would people be upset if objective observation of the physical world pointed to a Creator?
Meyer: Well, they may hold a worldview that excludes the existence of a Creator, and they may hold it very strongly.
And for that reason, the evidence that we're pointing to would be a challenge to what is, essentially, a religious or quasi-religious perspective that people may hold as a default way of looking at the world.
Jeffrey: So, actually, you believe that some people may start out with the hypothesis: "There is no God, therefore there can't be any design, therefore I'm going to refute any argument that presents evidence that there is design."
Meyer: Oh, I think many people do exactly that. Just as you may have people who start out with the assumption that there is a God, and therefore they might welcome the kind argument I'm making.
We have this idea of scientists as completely objective guys in white coats who just look at the evidence and then the theory pops off the evidence and it's just obvious.
But scientists, being human, do have their own ideological commitments, and those differ from scientist to scientist. That's one of the reasons that you have controversy.
Jeffrey: Well, Dr. Meyer, in a country where most people are in fact believers in God, why is it that we have so much trouble in public schools even entertaining the idea that there is an intelligent designer behind the creation of life on Earth?
Meyer: Well, our elitist culture has very much tapped into this materialistic worldview. There is no God or purpose or objective moral order, that sort of thing.
But the common culture is still much more sympathetic to a broadly theistic perspective. So, there's, in a sense, a contest of ideas within the culture. But many folks who are in the law schools, the courts, the scientific world certainly do hold this materialistic worldview, and so the notion of intelligent design being a challenge to that idea - our saying, no, there's something else, and it's called information, and information always comes from a mind or intelligence - that's a troubling argument to someone who holds the materialistic view.
Home / Of General Interest