Posted by Andrea Bottaro on August 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

Chapter 9 in Wells’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Evolution and Intelligent Design, “The Secret of Life”, is like previous chapters, a rehash of well-known creationist arguments. This time the topics are DNA, the genetic code, and the origin of biological information. In addition, Wells uses up a third of the chapter with some excuse-making for the lack of peer-reviewed papers supporting “intelligent design”, and with a completely misleading account of the purported “persecution” of an ID-friendly scientist by the “Darwinist orthodoxy”.

As far as the scientific arguments go, after giving an overview of DNA structure and function, Wells presents three main objections to the current scientific understanding of evolution at the DNA level, which in a nutshell go like this:

  1. Since all information-containing systems whose origins are known are produced by intelligent agents, the best current scientific explanation must be that those whose origin is still unknown are also the product of intelligent agents, instead of unintelligent processes.
  2. The sequence of bases in DNA “is not predetermined by the laws of physics or chemistry”, and therefore, implicitly, it must be cause by something outside such laws. (Note that “intelligent design” activists believe that intelligence, even human intelligence, is outside of the laws of nature.)
  3. All available scenarios for the origin of life are sorely incomplete, in particular those that currently enjoy widest support in the scientific community, which hypothesize that short molecules of RNA (a nucleic acid similar to DNA) may originally have acted both as information-bearers and as direct mediators of chemical reactions (a job done today mostly by proteins). This is know as the “RNA World” hypothesis. Wells complains that we don’t have a clear idea how such RNAs may have originated in the primordial Earth conditions and that, although experiments have shown that small, randomly generated RNAs can have intrinsic specific chemical functions, in all those experiments the RNAs were generated by intelligent investigators. (Hence the origin of the information they contain can again be tied to intelligent agents.) Finally, Wells grumbles, even if such experiments could be construed to indicate that short RNAs can harbor non-intelligently-derived information, all known living systems contain much more information, and there is no evidence that that much information can arise naturally—so there.

I don’t think it’s too hard to spot the flaw in the first claim: by the same logic, one could say that all information-rich structures whose origins are known were designed by humans, therefore DNA must have been designed by humans. Of course, this is impossible; however DNA originated, humans as we know them could not have been around then. In science, a proposed explanation is generally considered appropriate when it is corroborated by alternative lines of evidence. Appeals to unknown, unverified and unverifiable entities, as proposed by “intelligent design” activists in this case, are not explanations in any scientific sense but are at best conjectures in wait of validation.

Wells tries to support this argument by citing Bill Gates, who once stated that “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created”. Hey, he’s Bill Gates; he should know! And if DNA is a computer program, there must a programmer, right? In reality, however, DNA is not really like a computer program in any but the most superficial way. It also doesn’t look or work like any of the other common metaphors used to describe it: an “instruction book”, a “recipe”, a “floor plan”. Truth be told, DNA looks nothing like any of the designed objects humans use to direct assembly of any product. But let’s not get the evocative power of a metaphor stand in the way of reality, Wells would suggest.

Did You Know?

  1. RNAs can perform a stunning variety of chemical reactions.
  2. In your body, all proteins are created by enzymatic RNAs.
  3. The genetic code is linked to the chemical properties of amino-acid binding RNAs.

The second of Wells’s argument is more slight of hand than anything else. In one sense, the statement that the sequence of DNA is “not predetermined” by natural laws is trivially true, and in another, it is utterly false. Wells just hopes the reader will get confused between the two. It is true that the sequence of DNA is “not predetermined”, but that doesn’t mean anything at all. The shape of a mountain is equally not predetermined by the laws of physics or geology, but only a crank would argue that therefore the shape of a mountain is not the historical product of physical forces, geological processes, and chance. The sequence of DNA in any living organism, like the shape of a mountain, is the result of a long historical process in which physical and chemical laws, biological mechanisms and chance intertwined to yield a specific result which could not have been predicted or predetermined at the onset, based on the simple knowledge of the underlying laws.

And yet, there are also some aspects of DNA coding that do follow the laws of chemistry in ways that must be most uncomfortable for Wells. For instance, it has been found that certain nucleotide triplets in RNA can physically bind to the very same amino acids their respective counterparts in DNA code for. But DNA is a digital code (“just like a computer program”, remember?), and there really is no need nor reason to expect that a physical-chemical correspondence of this kind should exist. It’s as if you were analyzing the code in a face recognition program and found that the subroutines involved in nose shape discrimination physically stuck to your nose. The “computer program” metaphor has no way to make sense of such a finding, other than attribute it to the whim of the programmer. Biologically, though, such an observation would make sense if one assumed that originally the code was not digital, as it is now, but simpler: analog. At some point, early during the origin of life, when directed protein synthesis arose, the correspondence between nucleic acid sequence and protein sequence may have been not digital, but chemical. And like a molecular fossil, even billions of years after the onset and stabilization of the digital genetic code, remnants of this pre-digital age still remain with us.

Which brings me to the third argument. This is a perfect illustration of the strategy of arguing from ignorance and goalpost-moving which characterize the creationist literature. The “RNA World” hypothesis, that life arose as complexes of RNAs which both contained information and carried out the chemical reactions necessary for proto-life, was formulated in the 1980’s based on the unexpected observation that some short RNAs could perform specific chemical reactions (“ribozymes”). Although still debated among scientists, since its original formulation the hypothesis has accumulated a number of notches on its belt, in the form of verified predictions (either ignored or glibly dismissed by Wells). Among these one can count three important findings.

  1. The empirical verification that short RNAs can perform a stunning variety of chemical reactions, including, to some extent, self-replication, a step that would have been essential for the origin of life.
  2. The finding that certain conditions and chemical “facilitators” likely present in the primordial Earth allow the spontaneous formation and persistence of RNA chains from individual constituent components.
  3. The discovery that certain basic biological processes, once thought the exclusive realm of proteins, can in fact be mediated by RNA molecules. Most spectacularly, it has been shown that the machinery for protein synthesis is, at its core, a ribozyme.

This of course doesn’t mean that we have solved the problem of the origin of life (or that we even can, for that matter), but it illustrates the differences between a priori “explanations”, based on lack of evidence and negative argumentation, and actual scientific research, which proceeds by proposing testable explanations and actually doing the experiments required to test them.

The last part of this chapter recounts the controversy surrounding the publication of an article by Wells’s Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer in the taxonomy journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, which was followed, according to “intelligent design” lore, by the persecution by “Darwinists” of Richard Sternberg, the journal editor, for allowing the paper to appear in the peer-reviewed literature. Without going into much detail on the story, these are some things Wells “forgets” to mention in his description:

  1. The journal itself is a minor publication, with a minimal circulation, that usually deals with topics like description of new invertebrate species. It does not deal at all the kind of broad, general issues discussed by Meyer’s paper. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that Meyer ever even would have known of the existence of the journal (I certainly didn’t, before the brouhaha), except that….
  2. The editor, a position held on rotation by one of the Smithsonian investigators, happened to be at the time an acquaintance of Meyer’s. This scientist had extensive previous contacts with “intelligent design” and creationist circles, had presented at closed conferences with leading “intelligent design” activists, had contributed to creationist journals, and was even invited to speak at an “intelligent design” conference in Finland (with Wells) at the time the controversy broke out.
  3. Contrary to Wells’s claims, the journal has officially stated that the editor failed to follow the journal’s guidelines in handling the review of the submitted paper by choosing to personally manage the process, without sharing editorial duties with other members of the editorial committee, a most unfortunate decision, given the potential conflict of interest arising from the circumstances outlined above. Because the identity of the paper reviewers are anonymous, and the reviewers themselves have not come forward, it is impossible to say whether Sternberg chose reviewers that would be friendly to Meyer’s position, by selecting them among the small circle of known creationism and “intelligent design” sympathizers.
  4. Again, contrary to the impression given by Wells, the “preliminary investigation” by the Office of Special Counsel regarding the alleged workplace harassment of the editor following the article’s publication was in fact entirely based on Sternberg’s own allegations, with no possibility of defense by the accused Smithsonian investigators, and on internal Smithsonian e-mails improperly obtained and selectively divulged by a politically appointed OSC lawyer. Despite this obvious imbalance, which gave the accused no chance of countering the accusations, the OSC lawyer could not find any evidence of retaliation or professional damage to Sternberg, except of course for the distrust and spurning he elicited in his colleagues because of the suspicious circumstances in which Meyer’s article was published, and his creationist sympathies. The OSC admitted that it never had jurisdiction on the case, and the editor chose not to pursue his allegations in more appropriate venues. This did not stop creationist organizations, like Wells’s Discovery Institute, from mounting media campaigns aimed at discrediting and sullying the reputation of Smithsonian investigators, and Sternberg supervisor’s in particular, in national papers and news outlets.

Lastly, Wells claims that this supposedly illustrates a “Catch 23” rule: “intelligent design” is not considered science because it is not published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, and cannot be published in the scientific literature because it is not considered science. This is really just a lame excuse: “intelligent design” is not published in the literature simply because it has no science to publish. The few articles that have been produced by “intelligent design” activists in the scientific literature invariably are either rather debatable, repetitive philosophical/theoretical works, or do not in fact support an “intelligent design” position at all. Most damningly, in January 2002 “intelligent design” activists initiated their own online journal “Progress in Complexity, Information and Design”, with the stated aim “to advance the science of complexity by assessing the degree to which teleology is relevant (or irrelevant) to the origin, development, and operation of complex systems” (profoundly sounding jargon for “intelligent design”), where they could have published any research free of “censorship” or editorial pressures. Meant initially to be a quarterly publication, as of today only 8 issues of the journal have appeared in over 4 and a half years (the last in November 2005). None of the articles published contains any research or scientific finding based on “intelligent design”. Neither have “intelligent design” activists published any research papers in other venues available to them, such as the peer-reviewed journal “Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum”, which routinely harbors fringe anti-evolution papers thanks to its editor, the Italian creationist Giuseppe Sermonti, who was one of the pro-creationism “experts” at the Kansas anti-evolution “show trial”. Any “intelligent design”-based research would definitely be welcome in Rivista—a theoretical paper by Wells himself was published there several months ago. Its absence speaks louder than any of Wells’s unfounded censorship accusations.