My colleagues at Discovery Institute have written superb commentaries (here, here, and here) on the recent Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded for using evolutionary design to bioengineer molecules. This Nobel Prize research is another vindication of the design inference as a vital component of biological research.
Scientific Inference and Scientific Methodology
As this groundbreaking research demonstrates, intelligent design is both a scientific inference and a scientific methodology. The design inference is this: intelligent agency is evident in some aspects of biological structure and function. We can reasonably infer from the scientific study of some aspects of living things that unintelligent causes (i.e. random mutations and undirected natural selection) cannot fully account for the specified complexity observed in the organisms. Many structures and processes in living things are so complex and functionally elaborate that they could not have evolved by unintelligent Darwinian mechanisms. The genetic code, the intricate nanotechnology (protein synthesis, energy metabolism, etc.) in living cells that exceeds in complexity anything yet developed by human engineers, and the meticulous physiological orchestration of billions of cells in whole organisms are just a few of the myriad examples of biological reality for which the most reasonable scientific explanation is intelligent agency.
Intelligent design is powerfully supported by modern scientific evidence — evidence, for example, of the astonishing complexity of intracellular metabolism — that was not known to Darwin and his 19th-century collaborators. Darwinism, to the extent that it is a coherent theory and not a tautology, may account for some simple aspects of biological change and diversity, but modern biological science reveals unmistakable evidence for design in living organisms. It is perfectly reasonable to infer that Darwin, were he alive today and aware of the astonishing nanotechnology in living cells, would not be a Darwinist. Modern Darwinism is wholly an ideological project, masquerading as science.
Purposes in Biology
Intelligent design science, in addition to providing the best explanation for some aspects of biological structure and function, is also a scientific methodology, and it is this methodology that Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter have applied in their Nobel-winning work. Intelligent design is the inference that there are purposes in biology. The structure and function of living things manifest goals and ends — efficient use of metabolic substrates, accurate replication of genetic material, immunity to infectious organisms, among many other teleological processes. The design inference inspires us to look carefully and consistently for purposes in biological structures — that is, to ask “Why is DNA a double helix with interchangeable bases?,” “Why do neuronal pathways have synapses?,” “Why are photoreceptors located at the back, instead of the front, of the retina?.”
The design inference inspires us to look for the purpose for “junk DNA,” rather than assume, as Darwinian evolution implies (incorrectly it turns out), that “junk DNA” has no function. Time and time again, the inference to purpose has proven essential to the scientific understanding of biological processes.
Consider the Heart
For a rudimentary but strikingly clear example, consider the heart. How would we study the heart if we paid no heed to its purpose? After all, we could characterize the heart in any number of ways: it fills the mediastinum, it makes sounds, it keeps the lungs from rubbing together, it provides cardiologists with employment, etc. It is only by studying the purpose of the heart — that it pumps blood — that we can do meaningful science. The inference to purpose — which is the inference to design — is the indispensable feature of biological science.
Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter discovered an ingenious way to design biological molecules for specific purposes. They used random variation of the sort that occurs in nature — the sort of variation that accomplishes no biological purposes — and by applying intelligent selection of molecules suited to the designers’ (the scientists’) purposes, they were able to engineer biomolecules for specific tasks with remarkable effectiveness and efficiency.
Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter applied intelligent design methodology to biological science to transcend purposeless unintelligent Darwinian mechanisms. Their use of intelligent design methodology is only the most recent remarkably successful application of the design inference to biology. For example, the discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Watson and Crick was critically dependent on the inference that there was a purpose — a design — to its structure. The structure of DNA had to account for the purposes DNA accomplishes (encoding protein structure, replicating the genome, etc.).
Pauling and Other Laureates
Linus Pauling’s groundbreaking work on protein structure in the early 20th century (for which he won the Nobel Prize) depended critically on his correct inference that the structure of a protein must account for the purpose the protein serves in cellular metabolism. Most Nobel Prizes in biological sciences have been awarded to researchers who used the design inference extensively in their work — from Golgi who revealed much of the structure and function of neurons, to Dale and Loewi who studied chemical transmission of nerve impulses, to Holley, Khorana, and Nirenberg who studied the genetic code and the mechanism of protein synthesis, to Axelrod who studied synaptic transmission, to Kandel who investigated signal transduction in the nervous system, to Békésy and Bárány who elucidated cochlear and vestibular function.
None of these researchers used any inference to randomness or purposeless in biological function. All were guided by the inference to purpose and design. No scientist has ever won a Nobel Prize for research restricted to a Darwinian — that is, an unintelligent — perspective on biological function. The inference to purposes — the inference to design — is what guided so much of the best biological science of the modern era.
Obvious but Often Implicit
The design inference is obvious but often implicit, because explicit acknowledgement of design in biology has carried (and still carries) with it substantial career risk because of the ideological commitments of Darwinists who hold sway over jobs and grants. Yet the Darwinian inference to randomness and purposelessness in biology is a science-stopper, a hold-over of discredited 19th-century science that lingers as dogma in biology for ideological, rather than scientific, reasons. The best research in modern biology is motivated by the design inference, whether explicitly or implicitly.
The superb research cited in this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry proves again that evolution guided by intelligent design — whether in nature or in the laboratory — is astonishingly creative. The design inference impels us to seek out the purposes of biological systems. Furthermore, as Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter have shown so elegantly in their Nobel Prize-winning work, we can apply the design inference to engineer biomolecules in new and remarkably effective ways. Intelligent agency permeates living things, and our best research is guided by our desire to understand and put to use the intelligent design that drives evolution and permeates biology.