SCENARIO #2: Natural Selection

Random chance might not account for the origin of life, but zoologist Richard Dawkins says that when natural selection acts on chance variations, then evolution is capable of scaling.otherwise impossibly high peaks. In fact, that was the premise of his 1996 book Climbing Mount Improbable.

He suggested that a complex biological structure is like a sheer cliff that cannot be scaled in one big bound without intermediate stepping stones, as chance must do. People look at this towering peak and think evolutionary processes could never get them to the top.

The back side of that same mountain, however, has a gradual slope that makes for much easier climbing. This represents the Darwinian idea that nature provides small chance variations and then natural selection chooses the ones that are most advantageous. Over long periods of time, little changes accumulate into major differences. So while the mountain looks impossible to climb from the cliff side, its quite easy to scale via the smaller Darwinian steps of natural selection on the back side.17

In light of that insight, I asked Meyer: "Can natural selection explain how evolution managed to scale the mountain of building the first living cell?"

"Whether natural selection really works at the level of biological evolution is open to debate, but it most certainly does not work at the level of chemical evolution, which tries to explain the origin of the first life from simpler chemicals," Meyer replied. "As Theodosius Dobzhansky said, 'Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms.' "l8

"How so?" I asked.

"Darwinists admit that natural selection requires a self-replicating organism to work," he explained. "Organisms reproduce, their offspring have variations, the ones that are better adapted to their environment survive better, and so those adaptations are preserved and passed on to the next generation.

"However, to have reproduction, there has to be cell division. And that presupposes the existence of information-rich DNA and proteins. But that's the problem—those are the very things they're trying to explain!

"In other words, you've got to have a self-replicating organism for Darwinian evolution to take place, but you can't have a self-replicating organism until you have the information necessary in DNA, which is what you're trying to explain in the first place. It's like the guy who falls into a deep hole and realizes he needs a ladder to get out. So he climbs out, goes home, gets a ladder, jumps back into the hole, and climbs out. It begs the question."

I raised another possibility. "Maybe replication first began in a much simpler way and then natural selection was able to take over," I said. "For example, some small viruses use RNA as their genetic material. RNA molecules are simpler than DNA, and they can also store information and even replicate. What about the so-called 'RNA first hypothesis' that says reproductive life originated in a realm that's much less complex than DNA?"

"There's a mountain of problems with that," he said. "Just to cite a couple of them, the RNA molecule would need information to function, just as DNA would, and so we're right back to the same problem of where the information came from. Also, for a single strand of RNA to replicate, there must be an identical RNA molecule close by. To have a reasonable chance of having two identical RNA molecules of the right length would require a library of ten billion billion billion billion billion billion RNA molecules-—-and that effectively rules out any chance origin of a primitive replicating system."19

Although popular for a while, the RNA theory has generated its share of skeptics. Evolutionist Robert Shapiro, a chemistry professor at New York University, said the idea at this point "must be considered either a speculation or a matter of faith." 20 Origin-of-life researcher Graham Cairns-Smith said the "many interesting and detailed experiments in this area" have only served to show that the theory is "highly implausible." 21. As Jonathan Wells noted in my earlier interview with him, biochemist Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Center was even more blunt: "You have to build straw man upon straw man to get to the point where RNA is a viable first biomolecule." 22

Jay Roth, former professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of Connecticut and an expert in nucleic acids, said whether the original template for the first living system was RNA or DNA, the same problem exists, "Even reduced to the barest essentials," he said, "this template must have been very complex indeed. For this template and this template alone, it appears it is reasonable at present to suggest the possibility of a creator." 23

Scenario #3: Chemical Affinities and Self-Ordering

Meyer pointed out that by the early 1970s, most origin-of-life scientists had become disenchanted with the options of random chance and natural selection. As a result, some explored a third possibility: various self-organizational theories for the origin of information-bearing macromolecules.

For example, scientists theorized that chemical attractions may have caused DNA's four-letter alphabet to self-assemble or that the natural affinities between amino acids prompted them to link together by themselves to create protein. When I broached these possibilities, Meyer's response was to bring up a name I had already encountered during my investigation.

"One of the first advocates of this approach was Dean Kenyon, who coauthored the textbook Biochemical Predestination" Meyer said. "The tide tells it all. The idea was that the development of life was inevitable because the amino acids in proteins and the bases, or letters, in the DNA alphabet had self-ordering capacities that accounted for the origin of the information in these molecules."

I already knew that Kenyon had repudiated the conclusions of his own book, declaring that "we have not the slightest chance of a chemical evolutionary origin for even the simplest of cells" and that intelligent design "made a great deal of sense, as it very closely matched the multiple discoveries in molecular biology." 24 Still, I wanted to consider the evidence for myself.

"How did this chemical attraction supposedly work?" I asked.

"We'll use proteins as an example," he said. "Remember, proteins are composed of a long line of amino acids. The hope was that there would be some forces of attraction between the amino acids that would cause them to line up the way they do and then fold so that the protein can perform the functions that keep a cell alive."

I interrupted. "You have to admit that there are examples in nature where chemical attractions do result in a kind of self-ordering."

"That's right," Meyer said. "Salt crystals are a good illustration. Chemical forces of attraction cause sodium ions, Na+, to bond with chloride ions, C1-, in order to form highly ordered patterns within a crystal of salt. You get a nice sequence of Na and CI repeating over and over again. So, yes, there are lots of cases in chemistry where bonding affinities of different elements will explain the origin of their molecular structure. Kenyon and others hoped this would be the case for proteins and DNA."

"What turned out to be the problem?" I asked.

"As scientists did experiments, they found that amino acids didn't demonstrate these bonding affinities," Meyer replied.

"None at all?"

"There were some very, very slight affinities, but they don't correlate to any of the known patterns of sequencing that we find in functional proteins. Obviously, that's a major problem—but there was an even bigger theoretical difficulty. Information theorist Hubert Yockey and chemist Michael Polanyi raised a deeper issue: 'What would happen if we could explain the sequencing in DNA and proteins as a result of self-organization properties? Wouldn't we end up with something like a crystal of salt, where there's merely a repetitive sequence?' " 25

When I asked Meyer to elaborate, he said: "Consider the genetic information in DNA, which is spelled out by the chemical letters A, C, G, and T. Imagine every time you had an A, it would automatically attract a G. You'd just have a repetitive sequence: A-G-A-G-A-G-A-G. Would that give you a gene that could produce a protein? Absolutely not. Self-organization wouldn't yield a genetic message, only a repetitive mantra.

"To convey information, you need irregularity in sequencing. Open any book; you won't see the word 'the' repeating over and over and over. Instead, you have an irregular sequencing of letters. They convey information because they conform to a certain known independent pattern — that is, the rules of vocabulary and grammar. That's what enables us to communicate-—-and that's what needs to be explained in DNA. The four letters of its alphabet are also highly irregular while at the same time conforming to a functional requirement-—-that is, the correct arrangement of amino acids to create a working protein.

"Here's an example. If you go north of here into Victoria Harbor in British Columbia, you'll see a pattern on a hillside. As the ferry approaches, you'll realize it's a message: red and yellow flowers spell out 'welcome to victoria.' That's an example of an informational sequence.

"Notice you don't have mere repetition—a W followed by an E, followed by another W and another E, and so on. Instead, there's an irregular combination of letters that conform to an independent pattern or specific set of functional requirements—English vocabulary and grammar. So we immediately recognize this as informational. Whenever we encounter these two elements—irregularity that's specified by a set of functional requirements, which is what we call 'specified complexity' —-we recognize this as information. And this kind of information is invariably the result of mind-—-not chance, not natural selection, and not self-organizational processes."

"And this is the kind of information we find in DNA?" I asked.

"That's correct. If all you had were repeating characters in DNA, the assembly instructions would merely tell amino acids to assemble in the same way over and over again. You wouldn't be able to build all the many different kinds of protein molecules you need for a living cell to function. It would be like handing a person an instruction book for how to build an automobile, but all the book said was 'the-the-the-the-the-the.' You couldn't hope to convey all the necessary information with that one-word vocabulary.

"Whereas information requires variability, irregularity, and unpredictability—which is what information theorists call complexity —-self-organization gives you repetitive, redundant structure, which is known as simple order. And complexity and order are categorical opposites.

"Chemical evolutionary theorists are not going to escape this. The laws of nature, by definition, describe regular, repetitive patterns. For that reason one cannot invoke self-organizing processes to explain the origin of information, because informational sequences are irregular and complex. They exhibit the 'specified complexity' I talked about. Future discoveries aren't going to change this principle."

To me, this absolutely doomed the idea of chemical affinities accounting for the information in DNA. But Meyer wasn't through. There was yet another devastating problem with this theory.

"If you study DNA," he continued, "you will find that its structure depends on certain bonds that are caused by chemical attractions. For instance, there are hydrogen bonds and bonds between the sugar and phosphate molecules that form the two twisting backbones of the DNA molecule.

"However," he stressed, "there's one place where there are no chemical bonds, and that's between the nucleotide bases, which are the chemical letters in the DNA's assembly instructions. In other words, the letters that spell out the text in the DNA message do not interact chemically with each other in any significant way. Also, they're totally interchangeable. Each base can attach with equal facility at any site along the DNA backbone."

Sensing the need for an illustration, Meyer stood and reached over to the desk to grab another child's toy—a metal chalkboard with several magnetic letters sticking to it. Sitting back down, he put the chalkboard on his lap and maneuvered the letters until they spelled the word INFORMATION.

"My kids were young when I was first studying this, so I came up with this example," he said. "We know that there are magnetic affinities here; that's why the magnetic letters stick to the metal chalkboard." To demonstrate, he picked up the letter R and let the magnetism pull it back to the board.

"Notice, however, that the magnetic force is the same for each one of the letters, and so they're effectively interchangeable. You can use the letters to spell whatever you want. Now, in DNA, each individual base, or letter, is chemically bonded to the sugar-phosphate backbone of the molecule. That's how they're attached to the DNA's structure. But —and here's the key point-—there is no attraction or bonding between the individual letters themselves. So there's nothing chemically that forces them into any particular sequence. The sequencing has to come from somewhere else.

"When I show students the magnetic letters sticking to the metal chalkboard, I ask, 'How did this word INFORMATION arise?' The answer, of course, is intelligence that comes from outside the system. Neither chemistry nor physics arranged the letters this way. It was my choice. And in DNA, neither chemistry nor physics arranges the letters into the assembly instructions for proteins. Clearly, the cause comes from outside the system."

He paused while the implications sunk in. "And that cause," he stressed, "is intelligence!'

"Almost a Miracle"

Like a skillful boxer picking apart the defenses of his opponent, Meyer had adroitly dismantled the three categories of naturalistic explanations for the origin of life and information in DNA. We even discussed another option-—the possibility that some external force might be responsible for creating organization, much in the same way gravity creates a vortex as water drains from a bathtub. Meyer quickly dismissed that notion, pointing out that such forces may produce order but they can't manufacture information. 26

These dead-ends for naturalistic origin-of-life theories would not be a surprise to scientists in the field. "When prominent origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel ran into another evolutionist at a Detroit conference several years ago, Orgel admitted the overwhelming difficulties he had encountered in trying to figure out how nucleic acids might have been naturally synthesized on the primitive Earth. Then Orgel candidly conceded, "There are equally overwhelming difficulties in the way of all theories." 27

In short, no hypothesis has come close to explaining how information necessary to life's origin arose by naturalistic means. As Crick, a philosophical materialist, has conceded: "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin, of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going. For many researchers, the only recourse has been to continue to have faith that, as one scientist put it, some previously unknown 'magic mineral' will be discovered to have had 'exactly the right properties to cause the necessary reactions to occur to create a nucleic acid.' " 29

"Maybe," I said to Meyer, "someday scientists will come up with another hypothesis."

"Maybe they will," he replied. "You can't prove something like this with one-hundred-percent certainty, because you don't know what new evidence will show. That's why all scientists reason in a way that's provisional. Having said that, though, we do know that some possibilities can be excluded categorically. They're dead ends. For example, I think you can categorically exclude the idea that self-organizational processes can provide new information. More evidence will simply not change that."

"Some skeptics would claim you're arguing from ignorance," I pointed out. "Scientists admit they don't know how life started, so you conclude there must have been an intelligent designer."

"No, not at all. I'm not saying intelligent design makes sense simply because other theories fail," he insisted. "Instead, I'm making an inference to the best explanation, which is how scientists reason in historical matters. Based on the evidence, the scientist assesses each hypothesis on the basis of its ability to explain the evidence at hand. Typically, the key criterion is whether the explanation has 'causal power,' which is the ability to produce the effect in question. In this case, the effect in question is information. We've seen that neither chance, nor chance combined with natural selection, nor self-organizational processes have the causal power to produce information. But we do know of one entity that does have the required causal powers to produce information, and that's intelligence. We're not inferring to that entity on the basis of what we don't know, but on the basis of what we do know. That's not an argument from ignorance."

"Isn't there a fundamental weakness to your argument, though?" I asked. "You're arguing by analogy, comparing the information in DNA to information we find in language. Arguments based on analogies are notoriously weak. Advocates might emphasize the similarities between two things, but opponents will stress the differences."

"I'll admit that there is a way of speaking about the information in DNA that goes too far and then becomes metaphorical," he began. "When people talk about DNA as being a message, that could imply there was a receiver who could 'understand' the message. I'm not saying that DNA is this sort of semantic information. However, I'm not arguing by analogy. The coding regions of DNA have exactly the same relevant properties as a computer code or language. As I said earlier, whenever you find a sequential arrangement that's complex and corresponds to an independent pattern or functional requirement, this kind of information is always the product of intelligence. Books, computer codes, and DNA all have these two properties. We know books and computer codes are designed by intelligence, and the presence of this type of information in DNA also implies an intelligent source.

"Scientists in many fields recognize this connection between information and intelligence. When archaeologists discovered the Rosetta stone, they didn't think its inscriptions were the product of random chance or self-organizational processes. Obviously, the sequential arrangements of symbols was conveying information, and it was a reasonable assumption that intelligence created it. The same principle is true for DNA."