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Intelligent Design and the Advancement of Science

Brian Miller

intelligent design

Many believe that publicly criticizing the standard model of evolution is counterproductive. They believe this even though many scientists, for theoretical and empirical reasons, hold serious reservations about evolutionary theory. One major concern for scientists is that attacking such a well-established theory means alienating themselves from their colleagues. Due to the hegemony of materialist philosophy in the academy, the professional danger is particularly acute for those with strong religious beliefs. The group BioLogos promotes its position of theistic evolution from a desire to assist in modeling a positive engagement with the disciplines of science. That is admirable. Proponents of design should always attempt to maintain such a posture, even though the environment can be quite hostile.

A little-known fact about intelligent design is that the majority of it scientists already perform their work alongside colleagues with differing views. And they do so peacefully. Typically this requires great discretion. Sharing thoughts about design in nature indiscreetly risks turning yourself into a target for anti-design zealots. One member of our community, for example, received a postdoc from Harvard in a biology sub-discipline. He mentioned that about one quarter of the postdocs he engaged with were at least sympathetic to design arguments. However, with career concerns in mind, none shared their views in public.

In truth, most science professors are reasonable, fair-minded people who take no offense at colleagues’ personal beliefs so long as the latter conduct good research. Unfortunately, a vocal minority in the sciences has caused enormous problems. One prominent critic of ID went so far as to travel to various universities and display pictures of known design advocates, so faculty and staff would know not to hire them. Such blacklisting, in the manner of McCarthy era, represents an extreme. Nevertheless, several scientists we know have lost job opportunities for failing to pay homage to the materialist faith.

On the positive side, many ID proponents have flourished in the academy, and they have used the design framework to help guide their research. The design perspective has allowed its adherents to anticipate or become early adopters of numerous discoveries:

Some design proponents by necessity have to operate outside of the mainstream academy. That is because they are promoting a radical revision to the modern formulation of science. Such a tectonic shift took place when the geocentric framework for the universe was challenged by Copernicus and Galileo. Geocentricism was a byproduct of Aristotle’s philosophical system, and that system dominated the thinking of both scientists and theologians. As a result, the advocates of the new framework faced significant opposition from both secular scientists and the religious leaders. Today, philosophical materialism is the new geocentricism, and any challenge to it is seen as heretical. Therefore, some must point out the false assumptions of the scientific academy and accept the resulting attacks. Fortunately, the currently toxic environment may not last indefinitely.

Present trends in science point to the fact that matter and energy are not the only active agents in nature. Information too must be recognized as central. Materialistic philosophy has historically driven scientists to expect that everything can ultimately be reduced to physical processes. Often, such reductionist thinking has led to biologists assume that life could be fully understood from the information in DNA. Relatedly, DNA was expected to be the primary source of causality behind the operation and development of life. Such beliefs have previously raised concerns from leading scientists and mathematicians. For instance, physicist Walter Elsasser argued that the unfathomable complexity of the chemical and physically processes in life was “transcomputational” — beyond the realm of any theoretical means of computation. Moreover, the development of the embryo is not solely directed by DNA. Instead, it requires new “biotonic” principles. As a result, life cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics. An unbridgeable gap separates life from non-life.

Similarly, mathematician René Thom argued that the 3D patterns of tissues in an organism’s development from egg to birth and their continuous transformation cannot be understood in terms of isolating the individual proteins generated by DNA and other molecules produced in cells. The problem is that the individual “parts” composing tissues and organs only take on the right form and function in the environment of those tissues and organs. More recent work by Denis Noble further has elucidated how every level of the biological hierarchy affects every other level, from DNA to tissues to the entire organism. Based partly on these insights, Thom concluded in his book Structural Stability and Morphogenesis that the process of development should be thought of as being controlled by an “algebraic structure outside space-time itself” (p. 119). Likewise, Robert Rosen argued that life can only be understood as a mathematical abstraction consisting of functional relationships, irreducible to mechanistic processes. He observed that life is fundamentally different from simple physics and chemistry. It embodies the Aristotelian category of final causation, which is closely related to the idea of purpose. The conclusions of these scholars challenge materialistic philosophy at its core.

Recent advances in biology further undermine reductionist assumptions. For instant, James Shapiro has shown how the DNA of diverse organisms is regularly modified or rewritten according to programmed algorithms. Genetic elements are rearranged during animal development, and bacteria can alter their DNA to generate different surface proteins to evade immune defense systems. The latter and other similar examples suggest that much of the evolution we observe is not due to random copying errors. Instead, it results from preprogrammed responses to environmental stresses. This trend in research further undermines central dogmas of biology that DNA is the primary source of control in life and that random mutations are the main source of beneficial genetic change. Equally striking, Shapiro explains how bacterial cells demonstrate “cognition” and “decision making.” Again, this a clear reference, even if unconscious, to the idea of purpose.

Perhaps most significantly, the recognition that solely materialistic process cannot explain life was made explicit by physicist Paul Davies, a leading theorist in origins research. He articulated his views in a paper co-authored with Sara Walker, “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life.” They wrote:

If one insists on attributing the pathway from mundane chemistry to life as the outcome of fixed dynamical laws, then (our analysis suggests) those laws must be selected with extraordinary care and precision, which is tantamount to intelligent design: it states that “life” is “written into” the laws of physics ab initio [from their inception]. There is no evidence at all that the actual known laws of physics possess this almost miraculous property.

They are essentially saying that life looks like the product of intelligent design, and it cannot be explained by the laws of physics. However, they go even further.

Here it seems clear that it is the information content of the genome — the sequence of bits — and not the chemical nature of DNA as such, which is (at least in part) “calling the shots”… On practical grounds alone, we need to remain open to the possibility that the causal efficacy of information may amount to more than a mere methodological convenience, and might represent a new causal category not captured in a microstate description of the system. What we term “the hard problem of life” is the identification of the actual physical mechanism that permits information to gain causal purchase over matter. This view is not accommodated in our current approaches to physics.

They state that information is central to life, and it cannot be reduced to the chemical properties of the DNA that carries it. Instead, it must transcend physical processes and have causal power over matter. The only difference between this view and that of design proponents is that we would say an intelligent agent produced the information instantiated in life. As these trends continue, promising a new scientific revolution, design advocates should be recognized as having led the way.

Photo credit: xaviercanserra, via Pixabay.