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Thank you in advance for your generosity. We can’t do what we do without you! The following article was originally published on October 20, 2017.
I’ve finished Dan Brown’s new Robert Langdon thriller, Origin, and I suppose it’s significant that it took me more than a week. At no point did I feel compelled to stay up all night to finish it. In fact, my reading speed slowed at the somewhat talky climax.
Others have mocked Brown as a writer. Not exactly George Eliot, a friend sniffs. And it’s true that he reaches hungrily for clichés. Yet generating plots for novels like this one, or his best-known book, The Da Vinci Code, generously sprinkled with intriguing intellectual tidbits, is no unimpressive feat. You try it! He’s the #7 bestseller on Amazon at the moment. That’s for a good reason.
You could attack him, too, for using, or abusing, the research of MIT physicist Jeremy England. What follows is a spoiler, so be warned: At the climax, Brown recounts the contents of a splashy video by atheist computer savant and “futurist” Edmond Kirsch, supposedly demonstrating that England in his research has explained how life originated through the laws of physics alone. This echoes a claim about Dr. England made by some journalists, which we’ve addressed before.
England himself protested last week in a well-timed Wall Street Journal article, pointing out that he himself is a religious believer, an Orthodox Jew, and that the physics of life’s origin presented in Brown’s book is a vacant space: “There’s no real science in the book to argue over.”
That’s all fine, but in a book pushing atheism, with a warm nod to assisted suicide as an added bonus, I was startled to find the protagonist, Langdon, endorsing a familiar argument for intelligent design. The argument is made in various forms by Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and others. Yes, it’s “only vaguely described,” as England says of his own work as touted in the book. But it’s nevertheless recognizable.
Here is the story in a nutshell, and again be warned of spoilers. Computer genius Edmond Kirsch is semiotician Robert Langdon’s former Harvard student. Kirsch, an eccentric billionaire, calls Langdon to Spain for the world premiere of the video proving how life originated on Earth without design, or God, through physical laws. At the swank event at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Kirsch is assassinated by a mysterious admiral retired from the Spanish Armada.
Langdon embarks on a rapid journey across Spain, with many lessons about the history of art, politics, and religion sprinkled along his path. He’s accompanied by the disembodied voice of Kirsch’s computer assistant, Winston, an unprecedented wonder of AI, and Ambra Vidal, beautiful and brilliant fiancée of the Prince of Spain, soon to be King when his ailing father dies. Several further murders occur across Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Winston, Langdon, and Ambra seek a code that will allow the world to view the amazing, transformative atheist video.
It’s not really as silly as that sounds. But now to the punchline. While Brown never writes about ID by name, the debate about so-called “creationism” is on his mind, with mentions of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, two titles by Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial, Defeating Darwinism), atheists Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and invoking Daniel Dennett on how “complex biological designs” could arise unguided through natural selection. A hero of the story is Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), his work infused with “biological design” and “biomimetic design.”
Kirsch thinks computer simulations have demonstrated that the seeming designs of biology are entirely explained in materialist terms, a play of entropy and order. What about Langdon, hero of Brown’s series of bestselling novels?
Once almost all the action is over, Ambra Vidal puts this question to Langdon directly. She asks: “[A]re the laws of physics enough?” Do “laws spontaneously create life”? Langdon answers with a discussion of patterns versus codes.
A pattern is any distinctly organized sequence. Patterns occur everywhere in nature — the spiraling seeds of a sunflower, the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb, the circular ripples on a pond when a fish jumps, et cetera.
On the other hand, “Codes are special….Codes, by definition, must carry information. They must do more than simply form a pattern — codes must transmit data and convey meaning.” The kicker:
[C]odes do not occur naturally in the world. Musical notation does not sprout from trees, and symbols do not draw themselves in the sand. Codes are the deliberate inventions of intelligent consciousness.
Ambra answers, “So codes always have an intention or awareness behind them.”
Langdon: “Exactly. Codes don’t appear organically; they must be created.”
Ambra: “What about DNA?”
Langdon: “Bingo….The genetic code. That’s the paradox.”
Ambra: “You think DNA was created by an intelligence!”
Langdon: “Easy, tiger!…You’re treading on dangerous ground.” She sure is. And yet, he goes on:
When I witness the precision of mathematics, the reliability of physics, the symmetries of the cosmos, I don’t feel like I’m observing cold science; I feel as if I’m seeing a living footprint…the shadow of some greater force that is just beyond our grasp.
But this, all of it, is exactly something that proponents of intelligent design say. The leap from law-driven patterns, needing no inference to design, to the coded information in DNA, bearing meaning and absolutely requiring such an inference, is a major theme in Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. Arguably it’s the major theme. “Repetitive patterns,” Meyer says, like the ones cited by Brown, can be the work of “natural causes and processes,” “law-like necessity.” Code, on the other hand, whether in the form of computer code or DNA, must trace back to an intelligent agent. It deliberately conveys meaning in every case we know, thus requiring a designer.
ID advocates often give the illustration of the repetitive pattern in snowflakes and other crystals, a product of physical laws just like the patterns that Langdon mentions, triggering no design inference.
Here’s Phillip Johnson:
The heart of the problem is that physical laws are simple and general, and by their nature they produce the same thing over and over again. Law-governed processes can produce simple repetitive patterns, as in crystals, but they can’t produce the complex, specified sequences by which the nucleotides of DNA code for proteins any more than they can produce the sequence of letters on a page of the Bible.
William Dembski contrasts the formation of snowflakes, “irrelevant to the processes necessary to generate biological information,” with that of the bacterial flagellum. The issue is Complex and Specified Information. Here is Casey Luskin writing right here at Evolution News:
Snowflakes are a crystal, and form easily by natural laws. They actually have a very low level of complexity. Like all crystals, they can be described easily by the laws that govern chemical bonding and atomic packing. For that reason, among others, nobody claims that snowflakes or crystals require explanation by design. Because they are characterized by low CSI, or “Complex and Specified Information,” we wouldn’t expect them to trigger a design inference.
“Easy, tiger! You’re treading on dangerous ground.”
I don’t, obviously, have any idea what Dan Brown was trying to communicate to his legions of fans and readers. A message of atheism? Or of intelligent design? No, he’s no George Eliot, but this is an interesting book in part because at the end it seems so conflicted about what it wants to say.
A fuller presentation of ID, in the form of a Dan Brown-style thriller, is available in Bruce Buff’s recent book, The Soul of the Matter. Buff is the better prose writer, and frankly his story is the more dramatically tense of the two.
But good for Mr. Brown. He appears to have waded a little distance into the design debate. Will he go further? We’ll look forward to his next book and see.