Orac’s Challenge: Do Scientists ever use the Design Inference in Biology? (Hmmm…let me think…)

Orac, a prominent Darwinist blogger who is also a surgical oncologist, recently challenged me:

Dr. Egnor… can put his money where his mouth is and present… some actual evidence to support his claims. Inquiring minds want to know: Will Dr. Egnor show us some of these wonderful insights into human biology and disease provided or facilitated by the design inference or will he simply keep repeating the same misinformation? You never know. Maybe he’ll surprise us all.

It took me a while to answer, because there are so many examples of it that I was in the position of Buridan’s ass–I couldn’t decide what to pick first!

So I picked these guys. The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century–Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.
Notice that Watson and Crick aren’t standing next to a pair of dice. To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.
Let them speak for themselves, in their famous April 25, 1953 letter to Nature:

It is probably impossible to build this structure with a ribose sugar in place of the deoxyribose, as the extra oxygen atom would make too close a van der Waals contact.

Full details of the structure, including the conditions assumed in building it, together with a set of coordinates for the atoms….

Furthermore, the design specifications revealed an elegantly simple method by which the genetic material could be copied:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Wikipedia:

Reverse engineering… is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological ‘machines’ and the physical world respectively. (Emphasis mine)

Watson’s and Crick’s work of course had nothing to do with Darwinism (except perhaps their laboratory politics, which is another matter).
This is not to say that Watson and Crick believed that DNA was designed by God. They were both atheists. Even molecular biologists who are avowed atheists use the design inference in their work.
Much of modern biological research, and most research in molecular biology, is reverse engineering. Some scientists infer design explicitly. Some use the design inference implicitly, even if they disagree with its philosophical implications. We can’t do modern biology, at least at the molecular level, without using reverse engineering, which is the inference to design.
So, in reply to Orac’s challenge, I ask: Which inference played a greater role in the discovery of the structure and function of DNA: the inference to Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection, or the inference to design, applying the principles of reverse engineering?

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.