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“Nothing More Deceptive than an Obvious Fact”

Charles Thaxton

deceptive

Editor’s note: The profoundest mystery and thus the deepest inspiration is life itself. Discovery Institute Press has just published a greatly expanded edition of the 1984 classic of intelligent design science literature, The Mystery of Life’s Origin. Below is an excerpt adapted from an update for the Hungarian edition, published in 1997.

Since the publication of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, additional results have been reported that make our case even stronger. Yet most review articles and popular expositions continue to portray origin-of-life research as a vibrant and flourishing field of inquiry, with much progress being made. The optimistic state of affairs is precisely what led us to write our critical assessment. In our opinion nothing has happened in this field to upset our original position; therefore, we are adding this update material instead of offering a new edition. 

In general the published results on the origin of life continue to ignore two important factors, thereby giving the illusion of progress. First is the problem of interfering cross-reactions, i.e., what we called the “concerto effect.” (See Chapter 4.) Second is the problem of information, i.e., specified complexity, which is supplied by doing the necessary configurational entropy work (Chapter 8). 

We will organize our presentation under the following headings: 

  • RNA World 
  • Hydrothermal Sea Floor Vents and Pyrite Formation 
  • Clay Life 
  • Order, Complexity, and Information 
  • Intelligent Design 

Intelligent Design 

In the Epilogue we considered various alternatives to the dominant paradigm of the Oparin Hypothesis. It was clear to the authors that there is something odd and unusual about the informational molecules, nucleic acids, and proteins. They are in a class by themselves among molecules. No other molecules possess the characteristic of storing and transmit- ting information. So striking was this feature to us that we eventually concluded that the structure of these molecules fits the pattern that our experience shows resulted only from intelligence. 

Heresy it might be called, but it was not a conclusion that we had imposed upon the data. We drew the conclusion that DNA had an intelligent source from the striking pattern within the DNA itself. In presenting our case about an intelligent cause, we introduced a distinction between origin science and operation science, a distinction that is unnecessary to present the case for intelligent design. 

We now make the case directly for intelligent design, without a distinction between origin science and operation science. In order to show the legitimacy of intelligent design, we review first some relevant episodes in the history of science. 

History 

For generations theologians and philosophers had argued that order requires an ordering intelligence, which they called God. Over the course of the development of modern experimental science, western culture learned to rely on sensory experience to gain knowledge about natural phenomena. By following experience scientists learned to infer causes from effects, i.e., to work backward from the character of the effect to the cause. A cause is that necessary and sufficient condition that alone can explain the occurrence of a given event. And it does not matter if the cause is natural or intelligent. In the words of David Hume, who gave a formal analysis of this approach, “From causes which appear similar we expect similar effects.” (Emphasis his.) Later in the same book he added, “the same rule holds, whether the cause assigned be brute unconscious matter, or a rational intelligent being.”

Let us now apply the method of inferring causes from experience to a few examples. Strolling along a wave-swept beach we notice ripple patterns in the sand. The first time it may seem mysterious, but after repeated experiences, we associate the ripple patterns and the waves. We are so accustomed to making this assignment of cause that if we saw photographs of similar ripple patterns in sediments that geologists had dated as three billion years old, we would infer water as the natural cause. Likewise deep channels or rills on the Martian surface are so similar to what we know by experience to be the result of running water, that we would associate the natural cause of the channels with water — even if there is no water on Mars today. Thus scientists at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) have concluded that water must have been on Mars sometime in the past.

Stumbling on Mount Rushmore

On the other hand, were we to hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota and come upon granite cliffs bearing the likenesses of four United States Presidents, we would quickly identify Mount Rushmore as the work of artisans instead of a product of wind and erosion. Our accumulated reservoir of experience enables us to discriminate types of effects we see and to distinguish a natural process from an intelligent cause. Walking farther along and finding “John loves Mary” etched on a rock, what do we conclude? Again from experience, we infer that someone, perhaps John or Mary, left this sign of his affection. We would not conclude it to be the work of erosional forces, since we are able to discriminate causes. This ability is what led anthropologists to eventually change their judgment regarding eoliths.

Eoliths are chipped flints that, for a time, had been considered indicators of early man. Later it was discovered that such chips and scars on rocks can result from tumbling in a stream. This change in the assignment of cause was on the basis of additional experience.

Following the method of experience gives us a way to approach phenomena without a prior assumption of the nature of the cause. It is a method that is completely open to either natural or intelligent causes. The assignment of causal category depends on the character of the effects. To illustrate the method, suppose we are detectives investigating someone’s death. Is this a case of death by natural causes (accident) or death by design (murder or suicide)? We do not know the answer in advance. We must investigate to find out. If we announced before beginning our investigation that death must have been accidental (natural), others would be justified in objecting that we had illegitimately restricted the field of possible causes. An important purpose of the investigation is to determine whether this was a case of intelligent cause (murder or suicide) or natural death. We need a method that is open to either possibility. Experience gives us the greatest probability of determining which category of cause it was, whether natural or intelligent. 

Despite the above explanation, many scientists suggest that science may not entertain intelligent causes. This notion is certainly mistaken. The reasoning involved in the application of the method of experience is analogical, and is very much at home in modern science. Analogical reasoning is routinely used by NASA scientists as they explore the heavens looking for signs of intelligence in their SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program. If signals from space conveyed artificial electromagnetic pulses sent in code to give, for example, the first thousand digits in the transcendental number π (3.14159…), this would be considered so improbable an occurrence that we concur that intelligence had sent it. If scientists ever receive radio signals that are distinguished from noise and have the indicia of intelligence, we can surely expect a jubilant announcement from Washington. 

The Planetary Society has initiated its Billion Channel Extraterrestrial Assay (BETA) scan of the heavens using the world’s largest receiver, an 84-foot radio telescope set up in Harvard, Massachusetts. The goal of this heavenly scan is to receive intelligent messages that some advanced civilization could be beaming our way. It is a program going on within the borders of legitimate science. It is safe to put the objection aside that modern science is opposed in principle to the notion of intelligent cause. 

What Experience Shows About Natural Phenomena 

Why then do scientists no longer accept intelligent design in nature? The short answer is that science can show many examples of natural processes producing order in addition to that displayed in the regular course of the planets, which was a primary concern of scientists in the early development of modern science. Many natural processes have been discovered, and their amazing power catalogued. 

Whether the beautiful patterns in crystals, the soapy swirl down the drain, or the order evident in a spiral nebula, the forces of physics have been demonstrated which produce order. 

According to the scientific picture, even if we consider the total universe as a thermodynamically isolated system, one where energy will eventually run down, there are still pockets within the total system of the universe where energy flow may sustain order over long periods. That is all the defense that materialists needed in order to satisfy themselves against the classic order-means-design and design-means-a-designer argument. 

For nineteen hundred years of western history, the presence of order was held to require an ordering intelligence to account for it. The dominant view of the twentieth century in scientific cultures is that an ordering intelligence is no longer needed. Natural processes have been demonstrated to account for many types of order in the world, and it is assumed that natural processes will be found to account for all the remaining examples of unexplained order. 

Throughout the last four hundred years orderly phenomena of nature have been accounted for by inferential linking of the observed phenomena to natural causes. 

The Case of DNA

Because so many examples of orderly pattern had been investigated and shown to be the result of natural causes, the notion of an ordering intelligence was recognized as not needed, except possibly in the remote sense of an intelligence standing behind the natural process, as many theists believe. But with the discovery of informational molecules, DNA and protein, which are characterized by specified complexity instead of order, the situation has changed dramatically. 

DNA is called an informational molecule because its unique structure functions as the central part of an elaborate communication system within the cell. This code aspect was hinted at by Francis Crick and James Watson in their modest announcement of the famous double helix structure of DNA. An early written statement of this idea was recorded in a letter that Crick wrote on March 19, 1953 to his son Michael: “Now we believe that the D.N.A is a code. That is, the order of bases (the letters) makes one gene different from another gene (just as one page of print is different from another).”

The second group of informational molecules is proteins. They are long chain-like molecules composed of amino acids linked together end to end, which fold up into very complicated shapes. The specific sequence of amino acids in a protein is what determines its overall three-dimensional shape and function. 

DNA, with its alphabet of four bases, and protein, with an alphabet of twenty amino acids, represent two different languages related by a code. When the cell constructs proteins, a translation takes place be- tween one language and the other; the sequence in DNA codes for and determines the sequence in protein. 

DNA and proteins, and, of course, living organisms, are rich in information. Other structures that are characterized by specified complexity, or high information content, are linguistic messages, bridges, paintings, computer programs, and other human artifacts. 

Shannon Information Laws

Molecular biology has discovered a structural identity between the genetic messages on DNA and the written messages of a human language. This discovery opened the way for the application of information theory to biology. Information theory applies to any symbol system, regardless of the elements of that system. The so-called Shannon information laws apply equally well to human language, Morse code, and the genetic code. Hubert P. Yockey notes in the Journal of Theoretical Biology: 

It is important to understand that we are not reasoning by analogy. The sequence hypothesis [that the exact order of symbols records the information] applies directly to the protein and the genetic text as well as to written language and therefore the treatment is mathematically identical.

There is an identity of structure between DNA (and protein) and written linguistic messages. Since we know by experience that intelligence produces written messages, the implication, according to established experimental method of inferring causes from effects, is that an intelligent cause most probably produced the informational pattern in DNA and protein. The significance of this inference lies in the security of it, for it is much stronger than if the structures were merely similar. 

We are not dealing with anything like a superficial resemblance between DNA and a written text. We are not saying DNA is like a message. Rather, DNA is a message. Even though logic indicates a message sender, a result that has obvious philosophical and spiritual implications, it is important to note that it was not reached by philosophical or spiritual presuppositions. It may be an unwanted or unpopular result in some quarters, but scientists do not have a reputation of advocating only what is wanted or popular. We seek the truth. 

The Venerable Sherlock Holmes

As we come to the close of this update chapter for The Mystery of Life’s Origin, it is well to remember that for centuries it seemed to be an obvious fact to many that life resulted from spontaneous generation. Today we no longer accept spontaneous generation. For many today, however, it is considered an equally obvious fact that life resulted by the quite natural outcome of chemical and physical processes, either on this planet or somewhere else before it came to earth. Without direct evidence, all such cases are based on circumstantial evidence. Even though many cases have been settled on this basis, let us recall what that venerable detective Sherlock Holmes noted in another baffling mystery, “The Bonscombe Valley Mystery” (1892):

“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully, “it may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different… There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Read the rest in The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy, from Discovery Institute Press.