What DNA Has to Tell Us About the Origins of Life

October 2010By Terry Scambray

Terry Scambray teaches English at Fresno City College in California.

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.  By Stephen C. Meyer. Harper One. 508 pages. $28.95.



In a scene that could be straight out of a Henry James novel, Stephen Meyer, at the time an American grad­u­ate student at Cambridge, made an apparent faux pas. When an esteemed visiting lecturer was taking questions after a speech, Meyer asked for some sources on the subject at hand. The lecturer responded politely enough, but Meyer had a vague sense that he himself had said something wrong. Afterwards Meyer was pulled aside by one of the Cambridge dons. And in his high Oxbridge accent, the kindly don advised Meyer that admitting ignorance might be O.K. in America, but it was bad form at Cambridge. As the don put it, "Everyone here is bluffing, and if you’re to succeed, you must learn to bluff too."

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design is a testament to the fact that, fortunately, such advice never sank in with Meyer. After abandoning his life as a geophysicist in search of oil for Atlantic Richfield, and then earning a Cambridge doctorate, he continued to ask questions as he humbly but resolutely began his new quest: the search to understand the origins and basis of life.

This is, of course, an ancient quest. From then to now, most people have believed that the sublime order that we see in nature must have been designed. But Charles Darwin argued that design was an illusion: Nature alone, by a process of accidental trial and error over eons of time, had produced this ineffable harmony.

Despite the fact that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was accepted by most educated people, the theory itself was weakly supported from the beginning. It gained acceptance mainly for cultural rather than scientific reasons. Progressive ideas had gained dominance by the nineteenth century; correspondingly traditional institutions — mainly religion — were taking their lumps. Against this background, criticisms of Darwin were castigated as regressive and religiously motivated, despite their scientific objectivity and rigor. Such polemical treachery continues to this day.

In this sense, Meyer’s sweeping compendium provides a final, annihilating assault on the Darwinian Po­temkin village. That his remarkable treatise should be published in 2009, which is both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species, adds a rounded finality to this destructive Darwinian episode in Western history.

Traveling to strange, exotic places profoundly influenced the visions of both Darwin and Meyer — Darwin to South America, Meyer to the interior of the organic cell. Though in his adventures Darwin saw the great prolixity of life, he had no idea of the microscopic complexity within each cell, of which we have trillions in our bodies. To him, cells were mere blobs of protoplasm, blunt instruments like building blocks. But for Meyer and modern science, cells are dauntingly complicated and provide the basis for life.

Meyer began his journey when circumstances drew him to a conference on origin-of-life issues. The conference made him realize how baffled science is about how life started. Meyer next realized that Darwin’s theory had a gaping hole when it failed to provide an explanation for the transition from dead matter to life.

Contemporary Darwinists ignore this gap when it is to their advantage. When speaking to like minds, however, they confidently prog­­­nosticate that natural selection will bridge this gap and thereby provide a plenary naturalistic, materialistic explanation for life’s emergence.

Meyer tells a more accurate story of the groping attempts to understand the fundamental structure of life.

Darwin’s earliest progressive disciples thought that since water emerges from a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, which are each so different from water, then perhaps life could also emerge from some combination of simple chemicals. That era, when much less was known both about the earth’s history and the complexity of life, was the last fleeting time when such naïveté was possible. By the 1920s, Aleksandr Opa­rin, a major Russian pioneer in origin-of-life studies, recognized that the problem of the nature of life and the problem of its origin had become inseparable. Recognition of this convergence gave Meyer confidence in the direction his quest was taking.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, despite the hype surrounding the promise of simulating life in the lab, scientists were becoming increasingly frustrated by their failures. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, advances in molecular biology and the understanding of heredity were steadily accumulating at the same time.

In 1953 James D. Watson and Francis Crick discovered the spiral-stairway structure of the DNA molecule, which resides in the nucleus of the cell. As Meyer puts it, "The sequences of nucleotide bases in DNA and the sequences of amino acids in proteins are highly improbable and, therefore, have large information-carrying capacities." That is, the longer, more complicated these chains of biochemicals are, the more information they carry; and, correspondingly, it becomes less likely that these chains of functioning biochemicals came about by chance.

Furthermore, Meyer informs us that building a functioning cell requires more than just the genetic information discussed here. "It would have also required, at the very least, a suite of pre-existing proteins and RNA molecules — polymerases, transfer RNAs...," and many other ingredients. Furthermore, constructing the architecture of a cell "would have required other pre-existing components."

Meyer calculates that "the odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a pre-biotic soup are no better than 1 chance in 10164." Considering that in the known universe there are 1080particles, it appears that the odds for the chance construction of a protein are vanishingly small.

Working as a geophysicist familiarized Meyer with computers and the nanotechnology of their digitally encoded informational and storage capacities. This experience opened him up to the reality that such processes exist within the microscopic architecture of the cell where genetic information is also transferred, indexed, and stored for later use.

Meyer’s thesis is that chance is not capable of producing these bio­chemicals in just such a harmoniously functioning order. He calls such an improbable arrangement "specified complexity," a concept he borrows from the mathematician and philosopher William Dembski.

Darwinist materialists, however, argue that natural forces like wind and erosion accidentally produced the majestic architecture of the Grand Canyon, so why not the architecture of the cell? Natural, unintelligent forces did of course produce the Grand Canyon. But they are incapable of producing the orchestrated, specified, and complex harmonies of The Grand Canyon Suite.

Such a realization drove Meyer to this fundamental question: "What is a better candidate to be that fundamental explanatory principle, the thing from which specified complexity or information intimately comes? Mind or matter?"

Meyer responds, "Our uniform experience shows that minds have the capacity to produce specified infor­mation." Unintelligent, material processes do not. Therefore, intelligent design "constitutes an inference to the best explanation."

In a charming section called "Modern Cambridge, Ancient Cambridge," Meyer tours the places in Cambridge where pioneer scientists worked. Foremost among these scientists was Isaac Newton, who wondered, "How came the Bodies of Animals to be contrived with so much Art…. Was the Eye contrived without skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds?" Meyer echoes such sentiments when he asks how genes and proteins could have survived, much less reproduced, before "the extraordinarily complex organismal context in which they alone appear to function" even existed.

Materialistic theories like evolution cannot begin to explain such downstream planning. Once again, the only known cause of such context-dependent information systems is a mind with insight and foresight.

In fact, in ancient Cambridge, the idea that nature is a product of a designing mind provided the crucible in which science developed. But during the past two hundred years this view has been resisted by the thinkers in modern Cambridge. They insist that, since "design" is merely a religious belief, it cannot be falsified; thus, it is unscientific. Immediately after issuing such a fiat, however, these critics begin cobbling together arguments against design.

One such argument revolves around the idea that intelligent design suggests an interdiction, a "front loading" of nature that violates the regularity of natural laws. And, as the argument goes, if God or some other entity is responsible for such a violation, this merely begs the question, "Who made God?"

Once again, ignoring the advice given him in Cambridge to rely on bluffing, Meyer responds to all such questions transparently and exhaustively. He dispatches the first question by arguing that scientific explanations often rely on the discontinuity of natural laws in order to explain something presently observed. For example, Meyer points to the fact that the unusual height of the Himalayas is a result of unique factors, seen nowhere else in such geologic episodes. Materialistic origin-of-life scenarios also rely on a singular event, not a general law, to explain how the first living cell was formed.

The question of "who made God" is also refuted by Meyer. He points out that materialist explanations must themselves finally rest on assumptions. For example, who or what made gravity along with the chemicals, particles, and their bonding affinities upon which materialistic explanations rely? As Meyer concludes, "All causal explanations must ultimately terminate with explanatory entities that do not themselves require explication by reference to anything more fundamental or primary." To accept materialist as­­sum­ptions and then to reject design assumptions is a form of special pleading.

Stephen Meyer has written a seminal book that deals with complicated matters in a most engaging way. Built on the form of the scientific quest, the reader accompanies Meyer as he gradually realizes where all of this is taking him. However complicated matters get, this is a good story, filled with enlightening anecdotes and many reader-friendly, shaded-pencil sketches to further illuminate this grandest of all quests.



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At the Catholic Answers Forum I have been debating this matter of life's origin for several years. When the skeptics ask, as their hero Bertrand Russell did, "Who made God?" I always answer: if God by definition exists independent of the universe, having created the principle of causality that dominates the universe, why should God be subject to it? Posted by: Carl Sundell
October 08, 2010 04:32 PM EDT
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