Jeff Shallit, Blueprints, and the Genetic Code

Michael Egnor

Dr. Jeffrey Shallit, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo and a Darwinist, has a few unkind words for Tom Bethell on his blog Recursivity. Mr. Bethell’s sin, it seems, is that he pointed out the rather obvious differences between creationism and intelligent design. Creationism is the belief that the Book of Genesis is literally, scientifically true — that the earth was created in six days, etc. Intelligent design is the opinion that some aspects of biology, such as the genetic code and the molecular nanotechnology inside cells, are most reasonably explained as the product of intelligent agency. The difference between these viewpoints continues to elude Dr. Shallit. Consequently, Dr. Shallit calls Mr. Bethell a “blathering buffoon.”

Dr. Shallit criticizes Mr. Bethell on another point. After calling Mr. Bethell “gullible” and “a liar,” Professor Shallit ridicules Bethell’s observation that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (S.E.T.I.) research demonstrates that, under appropriate circumstances, the scientific inference to intelligent design in nature can be a legitimate interpretation of data. Mr. Bethell uses, as one example, Carl Sagan’s novel (and movie) “Contact,” in which S.E.T.I. researchers intercept a signal from space that consists of the first 261 prime numbers, continuously repeated. The scientists correctly infer that this signal is designed. After the scientists in “Contact” recognize the signal as having an intelligent origin, they intercept two other signals, which they also immediately recognize as intelligent — a primer signal, and a signal that gives detailed instructions to build a space ship.
In reply to Mr. Bethell’s analogy, Dr. Shallit points out that “Contact” is fiction. Then he calls Mr. Bethell “dishonest” and “simply stupid.”
Although the thrust of Dr. Shallit’s argument seems to be that Mr. Bethell’s character and intellect are deficient in a surprising variety of ways, Dr. Shallit does raise an important point. Are the scientific inferences that Sagan portrays in his novel reasonable? Specifically, would the receipt of a signal that contained detailed instructions on how to build a sophisticated device justify the scientific inference that the signal was intelligently designed?
The answer is obvious — of course it would. My question to Dr. Shallit is this:
If the scientific discovery of a ‘blueprint’ would justify the design inference, then why is it unreasonable to infer that the genetic code was designed?

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.