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Science with a View: Michael Denton at UC Berkeley

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I continue to travel with Discovery Institute geneticist Michael Denton for a series of meetings and presentations in California. It’s been a busy trip but I had an opportunity to take in the magnificent view from the Berkeley Hills, as you’ll see above. I find that Dr. Denton too helps his audiences step back and see things from a certain distance, granting an important perspective we’d likely otherwise miss.

Last night Denton spoke to a student group on the UC Berkeley campus, once again on the topic of “Nature’s Fitness for Advanced Life Forms: Defending the Anthropocentric Vision.”

About eighty people turned out, the vast majority being students. I had heard him speak on the same subject the evening before at San Jose State, but last night here’s what struck me. Denton pointed out that in the ancient and medieval eras, philosophers saw man and nature — including the stars and the universe — as parts of one cohesive system that was planned by God. Later, however, materialist reductionism pulled it all apart.

As Denton said in his talk, new discoveries today in biology, chemistry, and physics are recovering that vision. They have helped to reunite man and nature into a unified whole that appears finely tuned for life — in fact, for human life in particular. According to Denton, modern science increasingly shows that the medieval scholars — despite the many fundamental errors in their science — were after all profoundly right in their metaphysical outlook.

Like the night before, the Q&A led to some great discussion, including about why the universe is so vast and mostly devoid of life, how junk DNA and ENCODE factor into the debate, and also a question about

Michael Behe and whether his arguments in The Edge of Evolution have been validated by subsequent research.

The final query of the evening posed a question that many people often wonder about: Given that the evidence for design is so strong, why do so many scientists reject it? The answer, Dr. Denton explained, is complex, but it certainly has a lot to do with people being committed to a paradigm and simply unwilling to shift views in mid-career.

Clearly there were folks in the audience who were familiar with ID arguments. I also spoke to quite a few students who expressed interest in attending Discovery Institute’s Summer Seminar on Intelligent Design in the Natural Sciences. All in all, the events of the last two nights reaffirmed my previous strong impression that, despite official disapproval, ID is alive and well on university campuses.

How did we spend the rest of our day? Well, that afternoon we visited the Lawrence Hall of Science, a nearby science museum named after Ernest O. Lawrence, a UC Berkeley nuclear scientist who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the cyclotron. The museum sits atop a hill that offers one of the best views of the San Francisco Bay region, which is how I got that photo above. Inside the museum they actually display Lawrence’s Nobel Prize medal — another spectacular thing to see.

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Outside the museum is a huge sculpture of a DNA molecule — a climbable metallic double-stranded helix complete with nucleotides. Unfortunately, the caption on the display needs some updating. It was probably written decades ago because it promotes the old gene-centric reductionist view of biology that is now known to be false.

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Here’s what it says:

DNA is the molecule that told your body how to become exactly who you are and how to stay alive. It is a long list of instructions written in a special code.

Not exactly. The second sentence is correct. But the first sentence is not because it assumes that all the biological information that an organism needs is represented in the DNA. True, DNA contains a huge amount of vital genetic instructions. But as Discovery Institute biologist Jonathan Wells has painstakingly demonstrated through hundreds of citations to the peer-reviewed literature, lots of crucial biological information exists outside the DNA. Those who attended Denton’s talk likely came away with a greater appreciation of why reductionist science doesn’t work. Maybe in a hundred years that caption will have been updated to read:

DNA is a molecule that contains a long list of instructions written in a special code. Those instructions help determine the amino acid sequence of proteins and they play a major role in operating many parts of a cell. However, we now know there is also much necessary biological information that exists outside the DNA.

DNA was one of the main pieces of evidence that helped scientists realize that life was intelligently designed. Why? Because instructions written in a special code have only one known cause: intelligence.

Can you imagine science museums saying such things about DNA? Perhaps in time they will.