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Peer-Reviewed Science: What the Field of Systems Biology Can Tell Us About Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

Yesterday I brought to your attention an exciting new peer-reviewed paper in the journal BIO-Complexity, “Systems Biology as a Research Program for Intelligent Design.” In the article, University of Pittsburgh physicist David Snoke observes that while the burgeoning field of systems biology did not grow out of the ID movement, and while many of its practitioners are materialists, the approach nonetheless has significant implications for intelligent design. Snoke writes:

It goes without saying that a paradigm in which biologists think like engineers, that is, by looking for design when approaching living systems, is consistent with a belief that a creator designed the processes in living systems and instituted them.

SnokePic.PNGSnoke (pictured at right) further points out, “‘Reverse engineering’ would seem to imply that there was ‘engineering’ in the first place. Systems designed by intelligent humans are characterized by the property that their parts are there for a purpose; the more well-designed something is, the more we find that each little part has some function.” But Snoke observes that many systems biologists disagree with ID. He notes: “The degree to which some authors go to remove any reference to a creating designer from the appearance of design is sometimes almost comical.”

So if not intelligent design, then what is driving biologists to adopt a systems biology approach? Snoke thinks the answer is pragmatic: systems biology is popular because it works, and it has been extremely successful in helping researchers to understand biology:

There are two main reasons why the systems biology movement has arisen. The first one is that biology remains firmly an empirical field, and the data increasingly demand a design approach. … The systems biology approach is advancing because it has led to successful, quantitative predictions, and that is enough for most biologists, even though some have expressed discomfort with its teleological language.

Thus, while systems biology is not a direct product of the intelligent-design field, its success nonetheless points back to the viability of intelligent design as a plausible explanation of what lies behind the origin of biological systems. Snoke continues:

The second reason why the good design paradigm in systems biology has flowered is that there is a long history in biology and medicine of expecting each part of living systems to have a function.

Snoke observes that this assumption hearkens back to pre-Darwinian days, and thus in some way systems biology is a return to an era when ID-type thinking guided biology. He quotes English physician William Harvey (1578-1657), “considered the father of modern medicine,” who explained how the human body reflects “a kind of image or reflex of the omnipotent Creator himself.” Snoke thus argues, “Systems biology, and biology in general, can be seen as a longstanding successful outworking of this original explicit good-design hypothesis of Harvey and other Christians like him.”

So if intelligent design predicts a kind of rational ordering and purposeful arrangement of parts, what does Darwinian biology predict? He explains that Darwinian thinking faces a “‘catch-22’ which should prevent a high degree of optimality.” He continues:

If the energy cost of carrying useless or suboptimal structures is too great, then no novel structures will ever be generated. Assuming that new structures with novel function must be generated from several separate parts, each of which is not by itself beneficial to survival, a species must carry around various useless or suboptimal parts for some time, until all the parts are in place for the new, optimized function. In addition, natural selection would seem to reward the first success more than the most efficient success. Any change which decreases the efficiency of function, even if it is a step toward an ultimately more optimal solution, will be selected against.

This is an insightful argument. Darwinian evolution requires trying new things in order to generate novelty. Some new variation provides an advantage and is preserved. But what happens when a new variation isn’t useful? Will it be eliminated immediately? If there is a cost to carrying around “useless or suboptimal” parts, then they will not accumulate to produce features that require multiple parts before providing an advantage. Whatever the case, Snoke observes:

It is a historical fact, however, that evolutionary theory has tended to lead to the expectation of bad design, junk, and sub-optimality, while those following the intelligent design perspective of Harvey have tended to look for a purpose for every little element of living things.

We can use these differing predictions to discriminate between design and Darwinian evolution as potential explanations of what we see in biology. The fact that biologists find it useful to use the approach of systems biology — i.e., to treat biological systems as designed systems — is telling. As Snoke observes, “despite the political incorrectness of the intelligent design movement, ‘design’ has become a successful paradigm within the secular biology world, as long as ‘intelligent’ is not added.” Thus, Wikipedia’s claim that intelligent design cannot lead to fruitful scientific research is simply wrong. Snoke concludes:

It has become clear in the past ten years that the concept of design is not merely an add-on meta-description of biological systems, of no scientific consequence, but is in fact a driver of science. A whole cohort of young scientists is being trained to “think like engineers” when looking at biological systems, using terms explicitly related to engineering design concepts: design, purpose, optimal tradeoffs for multiple goals, information, control, decision making, etc. This approach is widely seen as a successful, predictive, quantitative theory of biology.

His closing words neatly deflect the objections of critics: “Many have demanded that the intelligent design paradigm must come up with a successful, predictive, quantitative program for biology, but it seems that such a program already exists right under our noses.”

Photo credit: University of Pittsburgh.

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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