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What are Darwinian Evolutionists to Make of Craig Venter?

Evolution News

venter book.jpgHe’s one of them, but he compares genetics with computer software in ways that play into the hands of intelligent design advocates.

Recently in this space, Casey Luskin wrote about a speech Dr. Venter gave in Seattle, in which the genetic engineering pioneer spoke of DNA as digital code. (Check back here tomorrow morning for more about this biotech wizard, by the way.) Venter doesn’t just compare DNA to software; he says it is software. Yet he is a "thoroughgoing evolutionist," who has never suggested any cause for its origin beyond physical matter.

That word, "software," came up in a New Scientist interview with Venter the next day:

Is there a single advance that has shaped your understanding of what life is?

When we were able to move the DNA from one cell to another, converting one species to another, that was the proof that life is a DNA software system. If you change the software, you change the species. (Bold in original.)

Venter views life as an "information system" that can be "booted up" like a computer. He feels his creation of a "synthetic organism" with DNA "proves that we can reduce life to an information system." Yet the interviewer’s next question illustrates Venter’s faith in Darwinian evolution:

But you inserted artificial DNA into an existing cell. Isn’t that a bit of a con?

We’re not trying to recapitulate the origins of life. Obviously, life evolved from much simpler systems, but in terms of trying to get to the next stages of evolution that is not very useful.

Seemingly, Venter has no problem with a materialist account of the evolution of this "software." But his comments highlight the tension between naturalism and intelligent design, as seen in another comment where he treated his synthetic organism like intellectual property:

Your projects, like coding your name into the genomes of your synthetic organisms, seem designed to provoke. Is that deliberate?

Nothing is done to provoke people. We’re making artificial species starting from a very different point in evolution, and I feel that anybody doing that needs to watermark them, or we will lose track of the evolutionary history. Also, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this. We felt as passionate about it as artists signing their work.

The same tension is evident in a review of Venter’s new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life. Nathaniel Comfort, professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins, writing for Nature, knows that Venter with his talk of software and digital codes risks conjuring up Paley’s ghost. That’s why the editors titled his book review "Genetics: the genetic watchmaker."

Comfort repeats the obligatory tale of how Darwin superseded Paley:

For centuries, the metaphor of nature-as-machine served as evidence of design in the Universe — and the existence of a Divine Machinist. William Paley’s famous 1802 image of the watch and watchmaker prodded Charles Darwin towards his naturalistic theory of evolution. Machine metaphors remain ubiquitous in modern biology, but today, mechanisms such as ‘clocks’, ‘signalling’, ‘transport’, ‘molecular hinges’ and enzymatic ‘locks and keys’ are invoked reflexively — almost automatically — and each gives tacit testimony against vitalism, the belief in an ineffable life force. (Emphasis added.)

Comfort offers a false dichotomy: mechanism vs. vitalism. As for Venter’s theme, it’s an update on nature-as-machine to nature-as-computer, which Comfort describes as "rigidly deterministic and controlled by the central program of DNA." Here’s his synopsis of the book:

Life at the Speed of Light is a story about science accelerating towards total mastery of the living world. "This new understanding of life, and the recent advance in our ability to manipulate it," he writes, is leading us into "an era of biological design. Humankind is about to enter a new phase of evolution." For Venter, life is an information system, intrinsically digital and hence as manipulable as software. His vision is to code, debug and compile synthetic organisms that will make us and our environment healthier, more harmonious, better.

Comfort sounds a bit uncomfortable about Venter’s extreme determinism:

So eager is Venter to exterminate vitalism from science that he treats the concept of emergent properties — the notion that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts — as vitalistic. But emergence need not require some spooky mystical glue; it can be accommodated by ordinary physics and chemistry. I can see, though, why it makes Venter uncomfortable: it introduces indeterminacy…

So here we have a three-way battle. The physicalists (Venter and Comfort) are against intelligent design (which they incorrectly portray as either vitalism or natural theology), yet they battle each other over determinism vs. emergence. Eager to rescue Darwin, Comfort resorts to name-calling:

Venter won’t brook the complexities of Darwin’s tangled banks: to make his claims, as he admits, he must clean up messy terms such as ‘life’, ‘organism’, ‘species’ and ‘teleportation’ for the laboratory. In effect, biology becomes what the J. Craig Venter Institute produces. The machine in the metaphor now is the JCVI itself. And the watchmaker, of course, is Venter.

We can only imagine what Venter might think of that label, but it’s beside the point — the most interesting point: where does software come from?

Yesterday, we distinguished intelligent design from Paley’s natural theology. We must also distinguish it from vitalism. Intelligent design is not proposing a "vital force" within DNA that animates it, or a mysterious, invisible puppeteer manipulating it, any more than ID would propose such things as an explanation for computer software. Instead, we know that coded information systems work because they were designed to work. The codes themselves are oblivious to what they are doing. They know nothing of the minds that wrote and installed them. They just go.

Having cleared the air of vitalism and natural theology, the discussion now must center around two naturalistic options for the origin of life, with its information systems: emergence and determinism. Are molecules determined to form software? Venter appears to skirt the issue, but his discomfort with indeterminacy seems to require it. Comfort, on the other hand, champions the powers of emergence.

Neither naturalistic option is supported by the body of empirical evidence. If molecules were determined to end up as software, we should be able to observe them spontaneously making progress toward that end in the lab. If emergence and "Darwin’s tangled banks" could do it, there has only been one instance of it (the origin of life), never observed by humans. Not only is it risky to extrapolate from a sample of one, the examples we have of emergent properties lack the prime characteristic of the software of life: complex specified information directed at function.

As Stephen Meyer argues in Signature in the Cell, when all the options are taken into account, an inference to the best explanation points to intelligent design. It’s not vitalism; it’s not natural theology; it is application from our uniform experience with the cause-and-effect structure of the world. Whenever we see information systems directed at function, we know they are products of mind. That inference alone has evidential support. Prime example: Venter’s own mind. Comfort describes Venter’s optimistic vision:

After sketching some of his ongoing projects, Venter speculates on the future. He gives us his own New Atlantis, a secular genotopia in which novel DNA sequence will be synthesized to specification, "teleported" at light speed and printed out on biological three-dimensional printers. … Novel synthetic life forms, Venter writes, could help to solve some of society’s most pressing problems. Climate change? There would be bio-apps for that, such as engineered algal biofuels. Famine? Drought? Ditto. It is biology for the Google set: unsentimental, joyfully technophilic and boundlessly optimistic.

The highlighted words suggest mindful, purposeful activity. Would Venter be content to describe all that activity, driven by his visionary goals, as determined by matter in motion? Would Comfort be content to describe it as an emergent property of matter? If the action of Venter’s mind is not intelligent design, what is it? Comfort already called Venter a self-proclaimed watchmaker. Is he a watchmaker (in this case, a software-maker) by design?

If Craig Venter can take life’s operating system and intelligently manipulate it by design, then it’s a rational scientific inference that life’s software itself was intelligently designed.

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