Undeniably, the intelligent-design movement is at biology’s cutting edge. Last year, Discovery Institute senior fellow Jonathan Wells published The Myth of Junk DNA describing the many functions that have been discovered for non-coding DNA, formerly dismissed in Darwinian circles as mere “junk.” His Discovery Institute colleague, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, has developed what may be the next frontier for ID. Sternberg’s argument holds that, far more than biology has been willing to publicly admit so far, animal body plans and other features of life are determined by information sources that lie outside of DNA itself.
Together, Wells and Sternberg have provided further backing for Michael Behe’s ideas about irreducible complexity, with its larger implication that many components must be present — all at once — for life too function. This important research will be highlighted by Sternberg and Behe when they join the authors of a new book, The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA, for a two-day conference, February 24-25 in Tampa Bay, Florida. (See here for conference details.)
Speaking of Thomas Woodward’s The Mysterious Epigenome, it’s a fascinating read — a highly effective journalistic popularization of Sternberg’s evidence and argument.
In 2003, researchers completed the Human Genome Project, but that milestone came with a significant surprise. Dr. Woodward, author of Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design and Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design, writing with James P. Gills, explains this surprise:
The Human Genome Project was an undeniable success in advancing our knowledge of the programming of the DNA hard drive, but its payout in terms of health-enhancing strategies seems to have fallen far short of the expectations raised in the early 1990s. How could this be? Is not the human genome a prime example of a new frontier that has been faced and conquered? How could this achievement produce such minimal results in terms of medical breakthroughs?
Spelling out the encyclopedic text of our DNA is indeed a major scientific achievement. Yet perhaps what has been missing, at least in connection with human health, is an equally important genome-related frontier — one that lies beyond DNA and is just now coming into focus. (p. 9)
This new frontier in biology is called the epigenome, and we are just beginning to understand its complexity. Richard Sternberg has done pioneering work in understanding the nature of this epigenome, work on which Woodward’s book substantially draws.
Using a cute science-fiction approach — what they call “frame-shifting technology” — the book imagines what would happen if the reader could fit inside a miniature submarine and go on a fascinating tour of the inner workings of the cell. Woodward and Gills explain:
In probing the operation of DNA, scientists have learned much more about a second biological encyclopedia of information that resides above the primary information stored within our DNA. Researchers have discovered a complex system in the cell — sophisticated “software” situated beyond DNA — that directs DNA’s functions and is responsible for our embryonic development and the differentiation of a single, fertilized egg cell into more than two hundred cell types in a mature body. This higher control system is also implicated in aging processes, cancer, and many other diseases. It guides the expression of DNA, telling different kinds of cells to use different genes, and to use them in the precise ways that meet the needs of those different cells. This “information beyond DNA” plays a crucial role in each of our sixty trillion cells, telling the genes exactly when, where, and how they are to be expressed. (p. 9)
This older view — that much of our DNA is “genomic junk” — prevailed in biology up until recently, because there was so much we didn’t know about the DNA that seemed to be sitting there inert, doing nothing. At least, this strange DNA contained no coded genes that were used to produce proteins. Now we have learned that much of the supposed junk DNA is just the opposite of junk. A gigantic project called “ENCODE” focused on forty-four scattered target areas in the human genome, covering thirty million base pair rungs on the DNA ladder. Scientists uncovered a treasure trove of evidence for something called “RNA genes.” This result, announced in 2007 and steadily confirmed since then, is one of the most exciting and unanticipated areas of modern genetics. (pp. 39-40)
Of course they dive into the details of epigenome, explaining how it provides deeper levels of cellular complexity and information never previously envisioned. You’ll have to read the book for the details, but here’s a snippet to whet your appetite:
[T]he living cell possesses vast riches of life-enabling codes, which go far beyond the spiral thread of DNA itself. Information, in a diversity of usable forms, is lodged in virtually every corner of the cell, from the outer cortex to the centrosome, with its system of microtubules, to the histones with their decorated tails, to the methylation patterns attached to DNA. The mutual integration of these systems and layers of information is a marvel to behold. Unraveling these complex relationships will surely occupy the diligent study of biologists for decades to come. (p. 93)
Besides making us aware of Sternberg’s research, the book highlights the work of Discovery Institute-affiliated ID theorists including Jonathan Wells, David Berlinski, Michael Behe, and Stephen Meyer, clarifying for the reader how all this fits into the debate over design.
Rhetorical attacks on design theory have been harsh and at times brutal. Some opponents of ID have dismissed the theory as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo,” and some intense outbursts from Darwinists have even characterized ID as a threat to America’s leadership in science. Two books published by Oxford University Press even indulged in indefensible hyperbole, charging ID with endangering the future of science itself, and even of Western civilization.
Yet several leading scientists working in design theory have seen progress in publishing their work in peer-reviewed literature. In lab experiments especially, many recent developments bode well for ID’s ongoing progress. We sense the debate has now reached a crucial turning point as fresh data on DNA mutations raise embarrassing questions about the cherished core of neo-Darwinism — the purported “engine” of selection and mutation. (p. 52)
Focusing on Dr. Sternberg, Woodward and Gills write:
[T]he DNA sequences that code for proteins are the mere tip of the iceberg — the shining tip that biologists have focused on during the past four decades. Dr. Sternberg acknowledged that such an iceberg picture would capture the new scientific perspective emerging from the data of genetics and epigenetics. This picture is similar to the graphic used in a recent Time cover story on epigenetics, in which the genome was represented by a small dot, the size of a BB, while the epigenome was a circle more than three inches in diameter.
Of course, if cells require more information than simply what is contained in the digital code of DNA, this raises a question: Could this newly discovered information arise by the Darwinian mechanism? A key issue addressed by the book has to do with the implications of the epigenome for the debate over Darwinian theory and intelligent design. The authors believe this new information points to “irreducible complexity” in the cell, and ask: “How can scientists account for a nature-driven origin of the cell’s complexity when they stumble upon new layers of information — a whole new system of coded-language — above and beyond the cell’s DNA?” (pp. 47-48) They close by unpacking why the epigenetic revolution poses a challenge to Darwinian explanations:
[T]he epigenome adds tremendous pressure to the already-weak Darwinian explanatory apparatus. Random changes, inherited over generations, must not just explain the explosion of DNA as one moves up the purported tree of life; one must also now explain by these mindless mechanisms the rise of each sophisticated layer of the epigenome. (p. 116)
In their view, “This higher level of integrated complexity adds an additional dimension of apparent design to anyone who is not closed off to such a possibility by their personal worldview or metaphysical commitments.” (pp. 113-114)
The Mysterious Epigenome is an easy-to-read layman’s introduction to a very complex topic that biologists are just beginning to understand. The newly discovered layers of cellular complexity they discuss are astounding. What’s even more astounding is the likelihood that if Woodward and Gills were to rewrite this book in another five years, they would have much more to add about known levels of cellular epigenetic information.
That is what’s so exciting about this field: every year, we’re seeing more and more information that confirms the predictions of intelligent design that biology will be rich in information and specified complexity.