Intelligent design means different things to different people. In reality, it’s a sober, meticulous theory of biological and cosmic origins. Starting with the failures of materialism in explaining life and the universe, it goes on to infer that the best available explanation suggests purposeful guidance. For all its modest refusal to draw conclusions beyond the scientific evidence, ID has far-reaching implications that unnerve, even unhinge some individuals.
To observers in the media and academia, ID is a bogeyman, to be slyly conflated with the deplorable “creationism.” To the most rigid evolutionary biologists it’s the monster under your bed at night, that stalks you in the departmental office building by day. To some thoughtful scientists and philosophers, it’s a challenge and a cause of rumination, not welcome, for sure, but not to be dismissed either.
As of today, ID is also something else that I wouldn’t have predicted: the main theme and dramatic backdrop of a pretty effective and tense thriller by debut novelist Bruce Buff. Following the adventures of ex-CIA officer turned computer hacker Dan Lawson and eerily compelling pediatric oncologist Trish Alighieri, Mr. Buff’s The Soul of the Matter (Simon & Schuster/Howard Books) expertly invokes a range of ideas — including irreducible complexity, the Cambrian explosion, the enigma of protein evolution, and the malign illusion of a “transhuman” future.
Imagine Dan Brown meets Stephen Meyer meets Wesley J. Smith and you’ll have an idea of what’s in store for readers. A turning point in the story involves a visit to Seattle’s Pioneer Square and, yes, Discovery Institute. If Mr. Brown’s knockout The Da Vinci Code were to be rewritten from a design perspective with the combined insights of Doug Axe, Michael Behe, and Jonathan Wells, you would have something like Mr. Buff’s impressive book.
Here’s the scenario. MIT geneticist Stephen Bishop believes he has found evidence, codes within codes, indicating the purposeful design of life and intelligent programming behind evolution, and more. The bad part is that one colleague has been murdered while another will be killed in a bizarre mishap. Bishop has kept his research secret but not secret enough. He’s being hunted by unknown parties, a conspiracy of transhumanists.
That’s why he calls to his aid an estranged friend, Dan Lawson, a brilliant but troubled and morose man, to secure the data he’s found before he is ready to reveal it to the world. Which perhaps he shouldn’t do, since the transhumanists have their own purposes to which they’d like to put what Stephen has learned, to speed the path of evolution toward the Singularity where man and machine become one.
In good Da Vinci Code fashion, there are more murders and international travel. The tale would not be complete without a Catholic priest who might or might not be on the side of the angels. Apart from the matters of science and faith at stake, Stephen Bishop’s daughter Ava is threatened by leukemia, which brings in the alluring Dr. Alighieri as Dan Lawson’s Beatrice. (Wasn’t Dan Brown’s last novel, Inferno, a tribute to Dante? Ah yes, it was.)
Thrills aside, Buff touches on some fascinating issues in genetics — beginning with the seeming fact that “there is a huge gap between how much useful DNA exists and how much appears to be needed.” Buff has done his homework, citing Thomas Nagel and Charles Townes, “Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell” and “Wesley Smith’s The War on Humans.” Mr. Buff is not a scientist himself. He’s identified on the dust jacket as a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Business School with experience as a management consultant and information technology executive. But it would a blessing and a relief if more scientists understood this fundamental point, as he does:
The abbreviated phrase “evolution” is misused and misunderstood….No one is arguing over whether things change. The argument is what causes the changes and whether final intent is involved.
Buff’s treatment of ID and its critics is knowing, even wry. Lawson begins as a font of the usual clichés. Discovery Institute is “headquarters of what’s referred to as the intelligent design movement. They are not a serious scientific center.” The Templeton Foundation and Francisco Ayala are touched upon briefly, and a biologist Dan meets sounds like her character should be on the Advisory Council of the Darwin-lobbying National Center for Science Education.
When the protagonists finally arrive at Discovery Institute headquarters, one of them observes, “So this is the place that causes such consternation and wrath.” I had to laugh in recognition, not for the first time, as the narrator relates:
Reaching the lobby, they saw a small set of offices more befitting a small neighborhood business operating on a tight budget than an organization that had attracted the attention — and scorn — of most of the scientific establishment.
An ID scientist, “Dr. Peterson,” tells the visitors, among other things, why layered coding is a problem for Darwinian evolution:
The thing is when one stretch of DNA codes for multiple things, if that area of DNA changes for one purpose, it changes for all its purposes. What might make one thing work better is highly likely to make others work less well, or not at all. The odds that all DNA coding came about though unguided, unplanned means are astronomical.
No worries, there will be no spoilers, though I will say I was glad to see no fictional or real Discovery Institute staff are harmed in the novel. That would be disconcerting.
Is this timeless literature for the ages? No. But how many thrillers are? Yes, there’s a little too much conversation and exposition, and a few intriguing questions that ought to have been resolved by the end are left oddly unanswered. That said, it’s a novel that makes your foot jiggle nervously and your palms sweat, even as it deftly deals with a range of ideas connected with ID, and makes some points I hadn’t thought of before. So this is an impressive effort.
The story is one of redemption and enlightenment, as a cynic rethinks the tenets of materialism he previously took for granted. The book can serve as a helpful introduction to ID, as accessible (in its very different way) as Doug Axe’s new book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. The argument for design can be recondite and these two books together go a long distance to making it comprehensible to the most general of readers.
Obviously, Mr. Buff hasn’t advanced the scientific case for ID. However he has done a service by offering a smart, often exciting story that is intellectually serious and spiritually earnest and that will, one hopes, place ultimate questions about man’s place in the universe before a deservedly wide audience.
Photo source: Bruce Buff via Simon & Schuster.