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Origin of Life Researchers: Intelligent Design of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules Refutes Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

A recent Nature news article remarks about the production of the first self-replicating RNA molecules capable of catalyzing their own replication. Origin of life researchers are excited about this because they think it shows one possible step in their story about how life might have arisen via natural processes, without intelligent design (ID). One big problem with their story: under no uncertain terms did natural processes produce this molecule. One line from the Nature article says it all: “Joyce and his colleague Tracey Lincoln made paired RNA catalysts.” (emphasis added) One pro-ID chemist explained to me privately the precise design parameters that were required to produce the self-replicating enzymes and to use it to produce life:

  1. The system is completely contrived consisting ONLY of catalysts and substrates. No competing materials or reactions were allowed. No natural analog is possible.
  2. There is a vast gulf between their reaction mixtures and anything that might possibly come from a Stanley Miller type electric discharge experiment. This requires explanation.
  3. The 5′-end of the oligonucleotides were primed for the condensation reaction by prior synthesis of the high energy triphosphate form. Simple phosphates fail to react or react at rates orders of magnitude slower. Clearly the reaction only does what the chemist intended.
  4. Reactions were carried out at 42 deg C. –> fine-tuning –> fine-tuner!
  5. Only one bond is formed by either of the paired enzymes. The rest of the molecule was pre-assembled by Joyce and his colleagues. What this experiment shows is that some clever chemists have spent ten years of their lives re-engineering a pair of RNA-zymes to catalyze ONE reaction. And without a constant supply of pre-fabricated component parts, nothing happens. Indeed, if anything, the road to self-assembly just got longer.

The take-home point here is that origin-of-life experiments–while fascinating in their chemical accomplishments–demonstrate little if they do not mimic natural conditions. When intelligent agents intervene to create conditions that would never exist in the real-world, the experiments instead show the need for intelligent design to insert information to form life, not the power of material causes.

William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, in The Design of Life, likewise discuss how similar experiments generating functional ribozymes require the intelligent insertion of information at each step:

Do SELEX experiments therefore demonstrate the power of purely materialistic forces to evolve biologically significant RNA structures under realistic prebiotic conditions? Not at all. Intelligent intervention by the experimenter is indispensable. In SELEX experiments, large pools of randomized RNA molecules are formed by intelligent synthesis and not by chance–there is no natural route to RNA (in fact, the chemical processes in nature that facilitate the formation of nucleotide bases undercut the formation of RNA’s sugar-phosphate backbone and vice versa). The artificially synthesized molecules are then sifted chemically by various means to select for catalytic function. What’s more, the catalytic function is specified by the investigator. Those molecules showing some activity are isolated and become templates for the next round of selection. And so on, round after round. At every step in SELEX and ribozyme (catalytic RNA) engineering experiments, the investigator is carefully arranging the outcome, even if he or she does not know the specific sequence that will emerge. It is simply irrelevant that the investigator learns the identity or structure of the evolved ribozyme only after the experiment is over. The investigator first had to specify a precise catalytic function. Next, the investigator had to specify a fitness measure gauging degree of catalytic function for a given polynucleotide. And finally, the investigator had to run an experiment to optimize the fitness measure. Only then does the investigator obtain a polynucleotide exhibiting the catalytic function of interest. In all such experiments the investigator is inserting crucial information at every step. Ribozyme engineering is engineering. Indeed, there is no evidence that natural processes as found in nature can do their own ribozyme engineering without the aid of human intelligence.

(William Dembski & Jonathan Wells, The Design of Life: Discovering Sign of Intelligence in Biological Systems, General Notes, pg. 59)

Incredibly, the Nature news article about these newly constructed RNA molecules offers the following punchline:

“Ellington says that the observation that different winning enzymes emerge in different conditions is crucial because it further undermines the intelligent-design idea that life is too complex to have arisen without the intervention of a supernatural being.”

Ignoring the fact that Ellington wrongly mischaracterizes ID as a necessary appeal to the “supernatural,” it’s amazing to believe that intelligent agency is now being cited as a refutation of intelligent agency. For some materialists, it seems that no form of evidence can count against their viewpoint.


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.



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