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The Shadow of a Science Yet to Be Born

Paul Nelson

Here is a paper that should be in the files of everyone thinking about biological design. It is Peter Tompa and George Rose’s “The Levinthal Paradox of the Interactome” (2011), from the journal Protein Science. I have written about this paper before, but it needs much more attention from the ID community, or the scientific community at large, than it has yet received. Their argument is far more important than I can state in full detail here, but a couple of comments:

A System of Relations

I have told hundreds (maybe thousands, now) of students and colleagues about this paper. Starting with basic facts about cell biology, Tompa and Rose explain that the parts of cells do not explain the origin of cells. To understand the origin of cells, one must focus on the functional interrelations of those parts, which relations occupy the very tiny space of “alive” in the incomprehensibly larger space of “not alive.” That is something Richard Dawkins too understands. As he wrote in The Blind Watchmaker (1987, p. 9, emphasis in original):

however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive. You may throw cells together at random, over and over again for a billion years, and not once will you get a conglomeration that flies or swims or burrows or runs, or does anything, even badly, that could remotely be construed as working to keep itself alive.

Several years ago, when I first became convinced of the importance of this paper, Bill Dembski did me a favor and ran some calculations, using the formula (p. 2075) for the possible pairwise interactions of the protein parts of a bacterial cell. Bill’s calculations are here. You can see that he stopped at 100 proteins. As I recall, what Bill said to me (with a laugh) was “I think this is enough to make the point, Paul.”

Any relation or interaction within a cell is not a material object. It is not a part or a thing. The relations that matter to the living state are functions, and, while requiring material parts, the functions cannot be reduced to those parts. Relations are inherently higher-level properties. Tompa and Rose argue that the space of possible interrelations that fail to yield the living state is so much larger than the tiny neighborhood of “alive” that, if the living state is disrupted, the parts of the cell will never find their way back to that state. Instead they embark on a one-way or irreversible random walk out into the universe of not-alive. This is why a bacterium whose membrane or cell wall is disrupted by sonication in a sterile buffer will never come back to life — even though, at that moment, all the molecular parts (DNA, RNA, ribosomes, proteins, lipids, etc.) are co-present in the same microenvironment.

The essential relations have been lost, irretrievably. The living state, a system of relations, presupposes material things. It is not, however, a material thing itself, and cannot be reduced to materiality. Thus, the bottom-up approach to the origin of life cannot possibly succeed, because it is committed to a category error (i.e., error = the parts of a system are causally primary). Category errors do not yield to further effort.

The Shadow of a Science

So, what I say to students is that Tompa and Rose 2011 represents the shadow of a science yet to be born, a science of biological design. The image you should have is the shadow of someone, standing outside a window, with the bright sun at his back. His shadow falls through the window into the room where we are sitting, and we can trace its outline. This unborn science will explain why attempting to construct the living state bottom-up, from its parts, is doomed to failure — as quixotic an enterprise as trying to build a perpetual motion machine. The paper by Tompa and Rose casts a shadow for us, and we need to trace its outline and derive the theory behind the shadow.

Note carefully: Tompa and Rose do not themselves support a design view of the origin of life. They argue that some unknown, incremental pathway assembled cells: “Presumably, early‐earth life forms originated through an accumulation of changes of ever increasing complexity” (p. 2077). But their interactome analysis does not explain how that pathway would have been traversed, without design – only that (as noted above) having the parts on hand will not yield a cell.

A Theory Worthy of Trust

Einstein, in a famous 1918 letter to his friend Michele Besso, put the general epistemological point this way (quoted by Gerald Holton, emphasis added):

a theory which wishes to deserve trust must be built upon generalizable facts. Old examples: Chief postulates of thermodynamics [based] on impossibility of perpetuum mobile. Mechanics [based] on grasped [ertasteten] law of inertia. Kinetic gas theory [based] on equivalence of heat and mechanical energy (also historically). Special Relativity on the constancy of light velocity and Maxwell’s equation for the vacuum, which in turn rest on empirical foundations. Relativity with respect to uniform [?] translation is a fact of experience. General [Relativity]: Equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. Never has a truly useful and deep-going theory really been found purely speculatively.

A new book by Change Tan and Rob Stadler, The Stairway to Life: An Origin-of-Life Reality Check (2020), is also helpful in this regard.

Photo credit: Adeline Ferolo on Unsplash.