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Intelligent Design at the Frontier of Astrobiology and Biophysics

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Nicola Jones wrote “Frontier experiments: Tough science” in the January 4 issue of Nature. The first two frontiers relate to the origin of life from different angles: astrobiology and biophysics.

1. Spotting distant life. Aside from finding that we can eavesdrop on alien TV, how would it be possible to discover life around other stars? It’s harder than it sounds. The favored method would be to look for biomarkers, such as an oxygen atmosphere, on an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of a star. Detection would require getting a spectrum from the atmosphere as the planet transits the star. Unfortunately, no telescope today has the required sensitivity to pick out “less than one photon in a million” to identify oxygen, a “signal that is ridiculously small.” If the funding-plagued James Webb Space Telescope ever gets launched later this decade, it might have the sensitivity to get the data. Even so, that could potentially identify oxygen, not life. Till then, “astrobiology” remains all astro and no biology; it’s a contrived science without a subject.

Undoubtedly, some evolutionists would consider the detection of alien life, even slime, a triumph for Darwinism. They would leap to the conclusion — actually, they long ago leaped to the conclusion — that we are no longer “special” or unique. That inference is empty; it rests on Darwinian assumptions that only evolution can produce life. Intelligent Design makes no claim that life on Earth is unique. If every star had an Earth-like planet teeming with life, would that be a problem for ID? Absolutely not. Historically, many scientists, religious and secular, assumed life was common on other worlds even within our own solar system. The argument for design does not rest on the number of trials, but on the existence of specified complexity. If the European discovery of human inhabitants in the New World didn’t defeat the argument for design, then neither will the discovery of inhabitants on New Worlds. To date, though, the non-detection of alien life amplifies the design inference.

2. Seeing through the molecular mirror. Jones next examines the problem of chirality. That is, the fact that some molecules, including those in proteins and DNA, come in mirror images of each other. Jones explains the problem:

Biology has a curious lopsidedness. Many molecules are “chiral,” meaning that their atoms can be arranged in two forms that are mirror images of each other. When making such molecules in the lab, chemists typically get a mix of both forms, which, by convention, they label as right- or left-handed. But living cells are generally made from the left-handed versions only. No one knows why.

The bulk of her write-up discusses the technical challenges of trying to detect any physical differences at the quantum level between a left- or right-handed chiral molecule. A physicist at the University of Paris theorizes that “the weak force should cause the energy states in one form of a chiral molecule to be ever so slightly different from those in its mirror image twin.” The difficulty is that any differences are estimated to measure anywhere from 1 part in a quintillion to 1 part in 10 septillion. It is doubtful such infinitesimal differences, even if they exist, could favor one hand over the other to any significant degree.

Since Louis Pasteur discovered chirality in the late 19th century, design-friendly scientists have used the 100% homochiral aspect of biomolecules as an argument for design. Today’s ID advocates can say it matches the requirements for specified complexity.

First, it’s highly improbable: getting a chain of 100 left-handed amino acids for a small protein without design would be like tossing a coin and getting 100 heads in a row. Second, it matches the requirement for functional specification, because homochiral polymers are better suited for the elaborate folds needed for protein machines and the coding in the double helix of DNA. Even one wrong-handed amino acid can destroy a protein’s function. Accordingly, living cells actively maintain homochirality by repairing wrong-handed chiral molecules or rejecting them.

To date, all attempts to explain this phenomenon have been unsuccessful. Jones admits as much: “No one knows why.” If history is a guide, any physical preference for one hand, called enantiomeric excess, is likely to be very small — too small to make a difference. Barring a “new physics” able to account for homochirality by undirected physical causes, ID advocates can and should continue to point to the phenomenon as an example of specified complexity best explained by intelligent design.

A more unbiased scientific world would naturally give ID the edge for these two frontier experiments. ID should be the default position till demonstrated otherwise. Anything else would be like requiring racing enthusiasts to wager on the blind, lame horse lying on the ground at the starting gate, when overwhelming odds favor Secretariat. A hasty apology is in order for this simplistic analogy. The situation for naturalism is actually far, far worse.

Image Credit: Active Galaxy Centaurus A: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration.