Prominent—and often self-appointed—spokesmen for science, usually on college campuses, have long claimed that modern science has shown that belief in God is no longer credible. For example, in 2006 and 2007 a spate of bestselling books, led by Richard Dawkins’ best selling The God Delusion, popularized this idea. Dawkins and other “New Atheists” argued that science shows the existence of God to be a delusion or, as one book put it, “a failed hypothesis.” Why? Because, according to Dawkins and the New Atheists, there is no evidence for intelligent design. Instead, in their view, Charles Darwin explained away all evidences of design. Indeed, the modern version of Darwin’s theory, called neo-Darwinism, asserts that the wholly undirected processes of natural selection and random mutations are fully capable of producing the intricate, seemingly designed structures in living systems. As Dawkins affirms, natural selection can mimic the powers of a designing intelligence without itself being guided or directed by an intelligent agent of any kind. Thus, living organisms may look designed, but in his view, that appearance is entirely illusory. Further, he asserts, since the design argument was, prior to Darwin, always the strongest argument for God’s existence, belief in God is now extremely incredible—tantamount to a delusion.
But is the premise of Dawkins’ argument accurate? Has Darwinism refuted the design hypothesis?
In my recent book Signature in the Cell, I show that there is compelling evidence of intelligent design in the inner recesses of even the simplest living cells. Darwin didn’t know about this evidence, and neither Darwin’s theory nor modern neo-Darwinism even addresses it.
Darwin attempted to explain the origin of new living forms as starting from simpler, pre-existing forms of life. But he did not explain, or even attempt to explain, the origin of life—the simplest living cell—in the first place.
Biologists committed to the Darwinian perspective with its denial of design were not initially troubled by this gap in the materialistic explanation. During the late nineteenth century, they thought the cell was an extremely simple “glob of plasm.” Such an entity, they thought, could have formed readily from a few simple, undirected chemical reactions without any designing hand involved.
As biologists gradually learned more about the complexity of the cell, evolutionary theorists devised increasingly more sophisticated theories of chemical evolution—theories that attempted to explain the origin of the first life from pre-existing chemicals. Nevertheless, all such theories began to encounter severe problems after the 1950s as scientists began to learn more about the immense, integrated complexity of the cell. These difficulties were made even more severe by the discovery of a compelling indicator of intelligent design at the very foundation of life.
The Signature in the Cell
In 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick elucidated the structure of the DNA molecule, they made a startling discovery. The structure of DNA allows it to store information in the form of a four-character digital code. Strings of precisely sequenced chemicals called nucleotide bases store and transmit the assembly instructions—the information—for building the crucial protein molecules and machines the cell needs to survive.
Crick later developed this idea with his famous “sequence hypothesis,” according to which the chemical constituents in DNA function like letters in a written language or symbols in a computer code. Just as English letters may convey a particular message depending on their arrangement, so certain sequences of chemical bases along the spine of a DNA molecule convey precise instructions for building proteins. The arrangement of the chemical characters determines the function of the sequence as a whole. Thus, the DNA molecule has the same property of “sequence specificity” that characterizes codes and language. As Dawkins himself has acknowledged, “the machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like.” Or as Bill Gates has noted, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”
Where did the “digital” information in the cell come from? And how did the cell’s complex information processing system arise? Today, these questions lie at the heart of origin-of-life research. Clearly, the informational features of the cell at least appear designed. And to date, no theory of undirected chemical evolution has explained the origin of the digital information needed to build the first living cell. Why? There is simply too much information in the cell to be explained by chance alone. And the information in DNA has also been shown to defy explanation by reference to the laws of chemistry. Saying otherwise would be like saying that a newspaper headline might arise as the result of the chemical attraction between ink and paper. Clearly, “something else” is at work.
Yet the scientists arguing for intelligent design do not do so merely because natural processes—chance, laws, or the combination of the two—have failed to explain the origin of the information and information-processing systems in cells. We also argue for design because we know from experience that systems possessing these features invariably arise from intelligent causes. The information on a computer screen can be traced back to a user or programmer. The information in a newspaper ultimately came from a writer—from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause.
This connection between information and prior intelligence enables us to detect or infer intelligent activity even from unobservable sources in the distant past. Archeologists infer ancient scribes from hieroglyphic inscriptions. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) presupposes that information imbedded in electromagnetic signals from space would indicate an intelligent source. As yet, radio astronomers have not found information-bearing signals from distant star systems. But closer to home, molecular biologists have discovered information in the cell, suggesting—according to the same logic presupposed in the SETI program and ordinary scientific reasoning about other informational artifacts—an intelligent source for the information in DNA.
DNA functions like a software program. We know from experience that software comes from programmers. We know generally that information—whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in a radio signal—always arises from an intelligent source. So, the discovery of information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA, even if we weren’t there to observe the system coming into existence.
Thus, contrary to media reports, the theory of intelligent design is not based upon ignorance or religion but instead upon recent scientific discoveries and upon standard methods of scientific reasoning in which our uniform experience of cause and effect guides our inferences about what happened in the past.
Though the theory of intelligent design is based upon scientific evidence, it may well have larger religious implications. The theory of intelligent design itself does not identify the designing intelligence responsible for life. Instead, it merely affirms, based upon uniform experience, that an intelligence of some kind must have played a role. Nevertheless, the theory does not prohibit scientists from engaging in further philosophical reflection about the nature and identity of the designing intelligence responsible for life.
As one such scientist, I see two basic options. Either the intelligence responsible for life is an intelligent being within the cosmos or beyond the cosmos. Either the designer is an immanent intelligence or a transcendent one—an alien or God.
I personally think the latter option provides a better explanation, for two reasons:
First, though some atheists and agnostic scientists have postulated an immanent intelligence as an explanation for the origin of the first life on earth, such a postulation does not actually solve the problem of the ultimate origin of biological information. Explaining the origin of life by reference to other life, albeit intelligent and extraterrestrial, only begs the question of the ultimate origin of life and the information necessary to produce it.
Second, modern physics has now revealed evidence of design in the very fabric of the universe. Since the 1960s, physicists have recognized that the initial conditions and constants of physics are finely tuned, against all odds, to make life possible. Even very slight alterations in the values of many independent factors, such as the expansion rate of the universe, the speed of light, or the precise strength of gravitational or electromagnetic attraction, would render life impossible. Physicists now refer to these factors as “anthropic coincidences” and to the fortunate convergence of all these coincidences as the “fine-tuning of the universe.” This fine-tuning, moreover, has been present from the very beginning of the universe itself and, thus, cannot be explained by any agent that arises after the beginning of the universe from within the cosmos. Instead, the fine-tuning of the universe as a whole is better explained by an intelligent agent that transcends the universe, one that has the attributes that religious believers typically associate with God.
Yet the distasteful implications of intelligent design (from an atheistic point of view) are not grounds for dismissing it. To say otherwise confuses the evidence for a theory and its possible implications. Many scientists initially rejected the Big Bang theory because it seemed to challenge the idea of an eternally self-existent universe and pointed to the need for a transcendent cause of matter, energy, space, and time. But scientists eventually accepted the theory despite such apparently unpleasant implications because the evidence strongly supported it. Today, a similar metaphysical prejudice confronts the theory of intelligent design. Nevertheless, it too must be evaluated on the basis of the evidence, not our philosophical preferences or concerns about its possible religious implications. As Antony Flew—the long-time atheistic philosopher who later came to accept the evidence for intelligent design and the scientific case for God—insisted, we must “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
That’s good advice for all of us, and perhaps especially good advice for the New Atheists who have prematurely concluded that science has “buried God.”