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New Plant Evolution Paper Misfires while Debating the Controversy That Doesn’t Exist

Casey Luskin

In the past we’ve often seen Darwinists debating the controversy over intelligent design that they say doesn’t exist. The latest volley in the controversy that doesn’t exist comes from U. Kutschera, a biologist at the University of Kassel in Germany. Kutschera is a vocal critic of ID who wrote in the first issue of the new NCSE-acclaimed journal Evolution: Education and Outreach that people reject evolution because of “religious indoctrination.” Now Kutschera writes in Annals of Botany, “This spontaneous generation of complex design ‘without an intelligent designer’ evolved independently in the protective ‘skin’ of plants, animals and many other organisms.” The problem is that Kutschera’s study is not even about biological origins, and he mistakes his own amazement at the processes of genetically pre-programmed plant growth for evidence of the power of evolution.

When one reads Kutschera’s paper, one is immediately struck by the fact that it is not about evolutionary origins. It’s an empirical study that describes the composition of cell walls in plants, and it investigates how cell walls grow during plant development. Indeed, his empirical study concludes, “In this article the specific helicoidal cellulose architecture of the growing OEW [outer epidermal wall] is described…” and it is titled, “The Growing Outer Epidermal Wall: Design and Physiological Role of a Composite Structure.”

In short, this paper is not about biological origins, it’s an empirical study of the processes of cell wall growth in plants. (As an afterthought in his paper, Kutschera does observe that there are striking similarities between the growth of helicoidal structures in both plants and insects, but he finds that these must be convergent similarities and no where attempts to explain how cell walls evolved.) Why would Kutschera claim that this is evidence against intelligent design?

Fundamentally, intelligent design investigates the origin of the information in life. What Kutschera has done is analogous to a person who opens up a computer and does nothing more than describes how it works. One can study a computer and find that a good one will work without any intelligent oversight as long as it’s plugged into a power source. But that doesn’t mean that the complexity underlying the computer’s operation evolved by a natural process. Such a study may describe how a computer works, but it does not explain how the computer arose in the first place. Thus, Kutschera’s empirical study is worthwhile. But such types of studies do not explain mechanisms of the origins of the first computer–nor of cell walls.

What Kutschera fails to realize is that intelligent design is a theory about biological origins. It explains how the specified complexity in life came to exist. Kutschera might have aptly explained the processes of plant cell wall growth. But his descriptive study has not explained how the genetic programs that produce plant cell walls arose in the first place.

Kutschera is amazed at the morphological complexity that is produced by the genetically pre-programmed processes that control the development of plants. For all Kutschera knows, his empirical study may have described a finely-tuned genetic processes that resulted from intelligent design. In the end, however, this all his paper did was offer us a fine empirical study of the processes of plant cell wall growth:

Extracellular structures serving supporting function are composed of large, water-insoluble, inextensible molecules that self-assemble into helicoids in order to achieve a low state of free energy (Neville, 1993). It should be noted that molecular self assembly of helicoidal structures in extracellular matrices is a striking example of the occurrence of complex design in biological systems without an ‘intelligent designer’

(U. Kutschera, “The Growing Outer Epidermal Wall: Design and Physiological Role of a Composite Structure,” Annals of Botany, Vol. 1–7 (2008).)

But of course the processes that allowed this “self-assembly” were programmed by information in the genes encoding plant growth and development. The processes encoded by the genes do not demonstrate the power of Darwinian selection, they just show that genes can produce highly complex structures. Do such information-rich genes arise by blind, random processes like evolution? That is the key question that Kutschera has not addressed. Darwinian biologists like Kutschera won’t get very far in the debate over intelligent design that doesn’t exist until they start to answer the question, where does the information come from?


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



plantsU. Kutschera