Editor’s note: See also, “Is Information in DNA “Abstract”? Physicist Randy Isaac Responds.”
Physicist Randy Isaac recently wrote a critique of our book The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy, arguing that it fails to persuasively demonstrate that life could not have originated through natural processes or that life demonstrates clear evidence of design. Isaac is Executive Director Emeritus of the American Scientific Affiliation, which is a scientific society for Christians interested in the intersection of faith and science. His review is noteworthy in that nearly every argument he offers demonstrates that he failed to honestly engage with the book’s contents. His failings are not entirely his fault. Instead, they reflect the philosophical filter that distorted his comprehension of the evidence.
Catechism in Scientific Materialism
Isaac’s bias is a direct result of his scientific training. The science curricula in most higher institutions do not simply include training in facts and procedures, but they incorporate a quasi-religious catechism into the philosophical framework of scientific materialism. Future scientists are taught to interpret the world through a rigid conceptual grid that directs them to assume that everything observed is the result of natural processes and that no scientific evidence for design could possibly exist.
As a result, they are conditioned to ignore any data or argument that challenges the tenets of their secular faith. Scientists have greater latitude in considering the possibility of intelligent agency in the origin of the universe. But pondering the possibility of design after the initial creation event is strictly forbidden. Students rarely guard against this cognitive conditioning, so their minds are very often captured by this secular ideology.
Isaac’s review demonstrates the power of such an implanted philosophical bias. He repeats much of the same misinformation found in standard textbooks, while ignoring the sections of the book that discredit his arguments.
Ignoring the Challenges
For example, Jonathan Wells describes in his chapter how the results of the famous Miller-Urey experiment are still misrepresented in biology textbooks. The experimental apparatus comprised a container filled with gasses (hydrogen, methane, and ammonia) and two electrodes that sparked the mixture. The applied electrical discharge generated amino acids, a key building block of life. Wells explains in detail why the gas mixture did not resemble what existed on the early earth. When more accurate mixtures were employed, no amino acids were generated in non-trace quantities. Yet textbooks continue to seriously misrepresent the experiment’s significance.
Isaac asserts that Wells’s critique is misguided:
Chapter sixteen, “Textbooks Still Misrepresent the Origin of Life,” by Jonathan Wells, is another chapter of minimal value.…while some textbooks do claim more than is warranted, the scientific community lauds the experiment, not for solving the true natural origins of nucleic and amino acids but for being the first to demonstrate that these acids can be generated by natural means. Therefore, the work is credited for influencing the direction of much fruitful research.
Isaac’s assertions are highly inaccurate. Wells documents how even recently published textbooks claim that realistic versions of the experiment generate multiple amino acids in substantive quantities. And the claim is not true.
More significantly, James Tour in his chapter demonstrates that the Miller-Urey experiment did not lead to fruitful research. On the contrary, it represents a dead end. In the 65+ years since the experiment was conducted, investigators have made no progress in discovering how life could have arisen through natural processes. Tour details the numerous insurmountable hurdles faced at nearly every stage of origins scenarios. Those include the synthesis of the building blocks (amino acids, nucleotide, lipids, sugars), the formation of large composite molecules (e.g., RNA, DNA), and the assembly of the components into a functional cell. Isaac simply ignores everything Tour wrote.
Censoring the Evidence for Design
Isaac’s philosophical grid displays itself even more dramatically as he addresses the positive evidence for design. He states that the authors present an argument solely from ignorance, also known as the “god of the gaps”:
An attentive reader, remembering these major points and missing the small details, and mindful of the intent of MLO-1 [Mystery of Life’s Origin, 1st edition] to provide a Christian perspective on the origin of life, would easily conclude that the message is the following: since there is no naturalistic explanation of the origin of life, therefore the best explanation is an intelligent designer. [Emphasis in the original.]
Isaac asserts that the book presents no compelling positive evidence for design. This claim is particularly notable when you examine how he quotes the concluding paragraph of my chapter. Here, verbatim, is the quotation that appears in his review:
In summary, the formation of the original cell cannot plausibly be explained by any undirected process. In addition, its minimal requirements demonstrate unmistakable signs of intelligence … In particular, cellular structures and operations demonstrate unmistakable evidence of foresight, coordination, and goal-directedness, which are telltale signs of intelligent agency.pp. 368-369
Here is the complete paragraph including the section he cut out:
In summary, the formation of the original cell cannot plausibly be explained by any undirected process. In addition, its minimal requirements demonstrate unmistakable signs of intelligence. In any other context, the identification of a nanotechnology vessel capable of energy production, information processing, and the other identified requirements would immediately be recognized as a product of design by any reasonable criteria. In particular, cellular structures and operations demonstrate unmistakable evidence of foresight, coordination, and goal-directedness, which are telltale signs of intelligent agency. [Emphasis added.]
The sentence he omits summarizes the partial list I included earlier in the chapter of the essential components of a minimally complex cell. I wrote:
Several research groups have attempted to identify for the simplest viable cell the minimal set of proteins. Removing just one of these essential proteins would result in the metabolism ceasing to function, and the cell would degrade irreversibly into simple chemicals. Similarly, systems engineers, such as those at NASA, have analyzed the minimal functional requirements for a self-replicating machine. The results from both classes of studies converge on several essential functional components.pp. 366-367
The list I offered was as follows:
- Large repositories of information and information processing.
- Manufacturing centers that construct all of the essential pieces.
- Assembly and installation processes.
- Energy production and distribution machinery.
- Automated repair and replacement of parts.
- Global communication and coordination with feedback control systems.
- Sensing of environment and calculation of needed responses.
- Self-replication, which draws upon nearly all other essential functions.
Some might conclude that Isaac censored the positive evidence for design I presented to deliberately mislead his readers about the content of the book. I believe this conclusion is unwarranted. Isaac comes across as an honorable man, and I have come to appreciate the power of philosophical bias to distort even the most thoughtful scientists’ perception of reality.
The positive evidence for design yielded by comparisons of biological and engineering research is conclusive. Thus I believe that Isaac’s unconscious filters blocked the information from even reaching his conscious mind, or perhaps compelled him to suppress it. I suspect if asked he would not even be able to recall the essential components that I listed. One hopes that Isaac will initiate the arduous journey of examining his hidden philosophical assumptions. If he does, then in future reviews he can more honestly engage the evidence for design in life.