THE CASE FOR A CREATOR
from the book by the same name
The Evidence of Biological Information
The Challenge of DNA and the Origin of Life
Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard this as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when seen in nature, it is explained as the workings of random forces.
George Sim Johnson 1
Einstein said, "God does not play dice." He was right. God plays Scrabble.
Philip Gold 2
In 1953, when Francis Crick told his wife Odile that he and a colleague had discovered the secret of life-—-the chemical structure of DNA, where the instructions for building proteins were encoded—she didn't believe him. Years later, she confessed to her husband: "You were always coming home and saying things like that, so naturally I thought nothing of it." 3
This time, he wasn't exaggerating. He and James D. Watson would win the Nobel Prize for discovering the now-famous double helix of deoxyribonucleic acid, where the "language of life" is stored.
For more than fifty years, as scientists have studied the six feet of DNA that's tightly coiled inside every one of our body's one hundred trillion cells, they have marvelled at how it provides the genetic information necessary to create all of the proteins out of which our bodies are built. In fact, each one of the thirty thousand genes that are embedded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes can yield as many as 20,500 different kinds of proteins. 4
The astounding capacity of microscopic DNA to harbor this mountain of information, carefully spelled out in a four-letter chemical alphabet, "vastly exceeds that of any other known system," said geneticist Michael Denton.
In fact, he said the information needed to build the proteins for all the species of organisms that have ever lived-—-a number estimated to be approximately one thousand million—"could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written." 5
DNA serves as the information storehouse for a finely choreographed manufacturing process in which the right amino acids are linked together with the right bonds in the right sequence to produce the right kind of proteins that fold in the right way to build biological systems. The documentary Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which has aired on numerous PBS television stations, describes the elaborate operation this way:
In a process known as transcription, a molecular machine first unwinds a section of the DNA helix to expose the genetic instructions needed to assemble a specific protein molecule. Another machine then copies these instructions to form a molecule known as messenger RNA. When transcription is complete, the slender RNA strand carries the genetic information ... out of the cell nucleus. The messenger RNA strand is directed to a two-part molecular factory called a ribosome. Inside the ribosome, a molecular assembly line builds a specifically sequenced chain of amino acids. These amino acids are transported from other parts of the cell and then linked into chains often hundreds of units long. Their sequential arrangement determines the type of protein manufactured. When the chain is finished, it is moved from the ribosome to a barrel-shaped machine that helps fold it into the precise shape critical to its function. After the chain is folded into a protein, it is then released and shepherded by another molecular machine to the exact location where it is needed.6
It was this "absolutely mind-boggling" procedure that helped lead biology professor Dean Kenyon to repudiate the conclusions of his own book on the chemical origin of life and conclude instead that nothing .short of an intelligence could have created this intricate cellular apparatus. "This new realm of molecular genetics [is] where we see the most compelling evidence of design on the Earth," he said. 7
It seemed fitting that when scientists announced that they had finally mapped the three billion codes of the human genome-—-a project that filled the equivalent of 75,490 pages of the New York Times—divine references abounded. President Clinton said scientists were "learning the language in which God created life," while geneticist Francis S. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, said DNA was "our own instruction book, previously known only to God." 8
Are such public bows to a Creator merely a polite social custom, meant only as a nodding courtesy to a predominandy theistic country? Or does the bounty of information in DNA really warrant the conclusion that an intelligent designer must have infused genetic material with its protein-building instructions? Are there any naturalistic processes that can account for the appearance of biological data in the earliest cells?
I knew where to go to get answers. One of the country's leading experts on origin-of-life issues, who has written extensively on the implications of the information in DNA, resides in Washington state. He and I had already discussed the intersection of faith and science for Chapter Four of this book; now it was time to sit down with him again, this time in his new quarters at the Discovery Institute in downtown Seattle.
INTERVIEW #7: Stephen C. Meyer, PhD
Since our last discussion, philosopher and scientist Stephen Meyer had moved with his wife and three children to the outskirts of Seattle so he could focus on his role as Director and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. 9 He continues to keep one foot in academia, however, as professor of the Conceptual Foundations of Science at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Meyer earned his doctorate at Cambridge University, where he analyzed scientific and methodological issues in origin-of-life biology. For his master's degree, also from Cambridge, he studied the history of molecular biology and evolutionary theory.
He has written about DNA and the problem of the origin of biological information for the books Debating Design, published by Cambridge University Press; Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, published by Michigan State University Press; Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe; Signs of Intelligence; and Mere Creation. Lately he has been finishing a book called DNA by Design: The Signature in the Cell, which further expands on his analysis of biological information.
"We got together on an unusually sultry summer day, had a pleasant lunch in an avant-garde Asian restaurant, and then settled into an office at the Discovery Institute. Meyer lowered his lanky frame into a plain wooden chair, his back to a half-opened window through which random traffic noises could be heard. It was nearly mid-afternoon before we got started with our discussion.
It was clear that Meyer likes the give-and-take of interviews. Although Meyer is typically more professorial than pugnacious, I've never heard of him shying away from tough questions or even rhetorically bloody debates with fervent Darwinists.
In fact, I once hosted the videotaping of an intellectual shoot-out between Meyer and an atheistic anthropologist on the legitimacy of intelligent-design theories, and I remember walking away amazed at Meyers finesse in deftly dismantling the professors case while at the same time forcefully presenting his own. Maybe that's a throwback to Meyer's earlier years when he trained as a boxer, learning to overcome fears of taking a punch and how to jab away at an opponent's weaknesses.
As for me, I wasn't after blood in this interview; I was merely seeking straightforward answers to an issue that has befuddled origin-of-life scientists for the last five decades. Even though most Darwinists concede they are stumped on the question of how DNA and life itself came into existence,10 they don't like Meyer's conclusions on the matter. I didn't care much about that; my criterion was simple: what makes the most sense from a purely scientific perspective?
The DNA-to-Design Argument
I began our discussion by reading Meyer a quote that I had encountered in my research and scribbled in my notes. "According to Bernd-Olaf Kuppers, the author of Information and the Origin of Life, 'The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information,' " 11 - I said. "Do you agree with him?"
"Oh, absolutely, yes," Meyer replied. "When I ask students what they would need to get their computer to perform a new function, they reply, 'You have to give it new lines of code.' The same principle is true in living organisms.
"If you want an organism to acquire a new function or structure, you have to provide information somewhere in the cell. You need instructions for how to build the cell's important components, which are mostly proteins. And we know that DNA is the repository for a digital code containing the instructions for telling the cell's machinery how to build proteins. Kiippers recognized that this was a critical hurdle in explaining how life began: where did this genetic information come from?
"Think of making soup from a recipe. You can have all the ingredients on hand, but if you don't know the proper proportions, or which items to add in what order, or how long to cook the concoction, you won't get a soup that tastes very good.
"Well, a lot of people talk about the 'prebiotic soup'—the chemicals that supposedly existed on the primitive Earth prior to life. Even if you had the right chemicals to create a living cell, you would also need information for how to arrange them in very specific configurations in order to perform biological functions. Ever since the 1950s and 1960s, biologists have recognized that the cell's critical functions are usually performed by proteins, and proteins are the product of assembly instructions stored in DNA."
"Let's talk about DNA, then," I said. "You've written that there's a 'DNA-to-design argument.' What do you mean by that?"
Meyer removed a pair of gold-rimmed glasses from his shirt pocket and put them on as he began to give his answer. "Very simply," he said, "I mean that the origin of information in DNA—-which is necessary for life to begin-—is best explained by an intelligent cause rather than any of the types of naturalistic causes that scientists typically use to explain biological phenomena."
"When you talk about 'information' in DNA, what exactly do you mean?" I asked.
"We know from our experience that we can convey information with a twenty-six-letter alphabet, or twenty-two, or thirty—or even just two characters, like the zeros and ones used in the binary code in computers. One of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century was that DNA actually stores information—the detailed instructions for assembling proteins—in the form of a four-character digital code.
"The characters happen to be chemicals called, adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Scientists represent them with the letters A, G, C, and T, and that's appropriate because they function as alphabetic characters in the genetic text. Properly arranging those four 'bases,' as they're called, will instruct the cell to build different sequences of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Different arrangements of characters yields different sequences of amino acids."
With that, Meyer decided to show me an illustration he often uses with college students. Reaching over to a desk drawer, he took out several oversized plastic snap-lock beads of the sort that young children play with. "It says on the box that these are for kids ages two to four, so this is advanced chemistry," he joked.
He held up orange, green, blue, red, and purple beads, of different shapes. "These represent the structure of a protein. Essentially, a protein is a long linear array of amino acids," he said, snapping the beads together in a line. "Because of the forces between the amino acids, the proteins fold into very particular thxee-dimensional shapes," he added as he bent and twisted the line of beads.
"These three-dimensional shapes are highly irregular, sort of like the teeth in a key, and they have a lock-key fit with other molecules in the cell. Often, the proteins will catalyze reactions, or they'll form structural molecules, or linkers, or parts of the molecular machines that Michael Behe writes about. This specific three-dimensional shape, which allows proteins to perform a function, derives directly from the one-dimensional sequencing of amino acids."
Then he pulled some of the beads apart and began rearranging their order. "If I were to switch a red one and a blue one, I'd be setting up a different combination of force interactions and the protein would fold completely differently. So the sequence of the amino acids is critical to getting the long chain to fold properly to form an actual functional protein. Wrong sequence, no folding—and the sequence of amino acids is unable to serve its function.
"Proteins, of course, are the key functional molecule in the cell; you can't have life without them. Where do they come from? Well, that question forces a deeper issue-—-what's the source of the assembly instructions in DNA that are responsible for the one-dimensional sequential arrangements of amino acids that create the three-dimensional shapes of proteins? Ultimately," he emphasized, "the functional attributes of proteins derive from information stored in the DNA molecule."
The Library of Life
I was fascinated by the process that Meyer had described. "What you're saying is that DNA would be like a blueprint for how to build proteins," I said, using an analogy I had heard many times before.
Meyer hesitated. "Actually, I don't like the blueprint metaphor," he said. "You see, there are probably other sources of information in the cell and in organisms. As important as DNA is, it doesn't build everything. All it builds are the protein molecules, but they are only sub-units of larger structures that themselves are informatively arranged."
"Then what's a better analogy?" I asked.
"DNA is more like a library," he said. "The organism, accesses the information that it needs from DNA so it can build some of its critical components. And the library analogy is better because of its alphabetic nature. In DNA, there are long lines of A, C, G, and T's that are precisely arranged in order to create protein structure and folding. To build one protein, you typically need 1,200 to 2,000 letters or bases—which is a lot of information."
"And this raises the question again of the origin of that information," I said.
"It's not just that a question has been raised," he insisted. "This issue has caused all naturalistic accounts of the origin of life to break down, because it's the critical and foundational question. If you can't explain where the information comes from, you haven't explained life, because it's the information that makes the molecules into something that actually functions."
I asked, "What does the presence of information tell you?"
"I believe the presence of information in the cell is best explained by the activity of an intelligent agent," he replied. "Bill Gates said, 'DNA is like a software program, only much more complex than anything we've ever devised.' That's highly suggestive, because we know that at Microsoft, Gates uses intelligent programmers to produce software. Information theorist Henry Quastler said as far back as the 1960s that the creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.' "12
"But we're talking about something—the origin of information and life—that happened a long time ago," I said. "How can scientists reconstruct what happened in the distant past?"
"By using a scientific principle of reasoning that's called uniformitarianism? Meyer replied. "This is the idea that our present knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships should guide our reconstruction of what caused something to arise in the past."
"For example ...," I said and paused, hoping to prompt an illustration that would help me follow him.
"For instance, let's say you find a certain kind of ripple marks preserved from the ancient past in sedimentary strata. And let's say that in the present day you see the same sort of ripple marks being formed in lake beds as the water evaporates. You can reasonably infer, then, using uniformitarian logic, that the ripple marks in the sedimentary strata were produced by a similar process.
"So let's go back to DNA. Even the very simplest cell we study today, or find evidence of in the fossil record, requires information that is stored in DNA or some other information-carrier. And we know from our experience that information is habitually associated with conscious activity. Using uniformitaxian logic, we can reconstruct the cause of that ancient information in the first cell as being the product of intelligence."
As my mind tracked his line of reasoning, everything seemed to click into place-—-except one thing. "However," I said, "there's a caveat."
Meyer cocked an eyebrow. "Like what?" he asked.
"All of that is true-—-unless you can find some better explanation."
"Yes, of course," he said. "You have to rule out other causes of the same effect. Origin-of-life scientists have looked at other possibilities for decades and, frankly, they've come up dry."
Before we went any further, though, I needed to satisfy myself that the other major possible scenarios fall short of the intelligent design theory.
The Missing Soup
In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote a letter in which he speculated that life might have originated when "a protein compound was chemically formed ... in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present."13 A few years ago a scientist summarized the basic theory this way:
The first stage on the road to life is presumed to have been the build-up, by pure chemical synthetic processes occurring on the surface of the early Earth, of all the basic organic compounds necessary for the formation of a living cell. These are supposed to have accumulated in the primeval oceans, creating a nutrient broth, the so-called "prebiotic soup." In certain specialized environments these organic compounds were assembled into large macromole-cules, proteins and nucleic acids. Eventually, over millions of years, combinations of these macromolecules occurred which were then endowed with the property of self-reproduction. Then driven by natural selection ever more efficient and complex self-reproducing molecular systems evolved until finally the first simple cell system emerged. 14
"I hear scientists talk a lot about this prebiotic soup," I said. "How much evidence is there that it actually existed?"
"That's a very interesting issue," he replied. "The answer is there isn't any evidence."
That's highly significant, because most origin-of-life theories presuppose the existence of this ancient chemical ocean. "What do you mean, 'there isn't any?"
"If this prebiotic soup had really existed,"; Meyer explained, "it would have been rich in amino acids. Therefore, there would have been a lot of nitrogen, because amino acids are nitrogenous. So when we examine the earliest sediments of the Earth, we should find large deposits of nitrogen-rich minerals."
That seemed logical to me. "What have scientists found?"
"Those deposits have never been located. In fact, Jim Brooks wrote in 1985 that 'the nitrogen content of early organic matter is relatively low—just .015 percent.' He said in Origins of Life: 'From this we can be reasonably certain that there never was any substantial amount of primitive soup' on Earth when pre-Cambrian sediments were formed; if such a soup ever existed it was only for a brief period of time.' "15
This was an astounding conclusion! "Don't you find that surprising, since scientists routinely talk about the prebiotic soup as if it were a given?" I asked.
"Yes, certainly it's surprising," he replied. "Denton commented on this in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, when he said: 'Considering the way the prebiotic soup is referred to in so many discussions of the origin of life as an already established reality, it comes as something of a shock to realize that there is absolutely no positive evidence for its existence.'16 And even if we were to assume that the prebiotic soup did exist, there would have been significant problems with cross-reactions."
"What do you mean?"
"Take Stanley Miller's origin-of-life experiment fifty years ago, when he tried to recreate the early Earth's atmosphere and spark it with electricity. He managed to create two or three of the protein-forming amino acids out of the twenty-two that exist."
I interrupted to let Meyer know that biologist Jonathan Wells had already told me how Miller's experiment used an atmosphere that scientists now recognize was unrealistic, and that using the correct environment doesn't yield any biologically relevant amino acids.
"That's right," Meyer continued. "What's also interesting, however, is that Miller's amino acids reacted very quickly with the other chemicals in the chamber, resulting in a brown sludge that's not life-friendly at all. That's what I mean by cross-reactions—even if amino acids existed in the theoretical prebiotic soup, they would have readily reacted with other chemicals. This would have been another tremendous barrier to the formation of life. The way that origin-of-life scientists have dealt with this in their experiments has been to remove these other chemicals in the hope that further reactions could take the experiment in a life-friendly direction.
"So instead of simulating a natural process, they interfered in order to get the outcome they wanted. And that," Meyer concluded, "is intelligent design."
Undoubtedly, obstacles to the formation of life on the primitive Earth would have been, extremely formidable, even if the world were awash with an ocean of biological precursors. Still, is there any reasonable naturalistic route to life? Like a homicide detective rounding up the usual suspects, I decided to run down the three possible scenarios to see if any of them made sense.
SCENARIO #1 Random Chance
I began with an observation. "I know that the idea of life forming by random chance is out of vogue right now among scientists," I said.
Meyer agreed. "Virtually all origin-of-life experts have utterly rejected that approach," he said with a wave of his hand.
"Even so, the idea is still very much alive at the popular level," I pointed out. "For many college students who speculate about these things, chance is still the hero. They think if you let amino acids randomly interact over millions of years, life is somehow going to emerge."
"Well, yes, it's true that this scenario is still alive among people who don't know all the facts, but there's no merit to it," Meyer replied.
"Imagine trying to generate even a simple book by throwing Scrabble letters onto the floor. Or imagine closing your eyes and picking Scrabble letters out of a bag. Are you going to produce Hamlet in anything like the time of the known universe? Even a simple protein molecule, or the gene to build that molecule, is so rich in information that the entire time since the Big Bang would not give you, as my colleague Bill Dembski likes to say, the 'probabilistic resources' you would need to generate that molecule by chance."
"Even," I asked, "if the first molecule had been much simpler than those today?"
"There's a minimal complexity threshold," he replied. "There's a certain level of folding that a protein has to have, called tertiary structure, that is necessary for it to perform a function. You don't get tertiary structure in a protein unless you have at least seventy-five amino acids or so. That may be conservative. Now consider what you'd need for a protein molecule to form by chance.
"First, you need the right bonds between the amino acids. Second, amino acids come in right-handed and left-handed versions, and you've got to get only left-handed ones. Third, the amino acids must link up in a specified sequence, like letters in a sentence.
"Run the odds of these things falling into place on their own and you find that the probabilities of forming a rather short functional protein at random would be one chance in a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. That's a ten with 125 zeroes after it!
"And that would only be one protein molecule-—-a minimally complex cell would need between three hundred and five hundred protein molecules. Plus, all of this would have to be accomplished in a mere 100 million years, which is the approximate window of time between the Earth cooling and the first microfossils we've found.
"To suggest chance against those odds is really to invoke a naturalistic miracle. It's a confession of ignorance. It's another way of saying, 'We don't know.' And since the 1960s, scientists, to their credit, have been very reluctant to say that chance played any significant role in the origin of DNA or proteins—even though, as you say, it's still unfortunately a live option in popular thinking."
TO BE CONTINUED