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From Intelligent Cause to Intelligent Design: My Debt to Charles Thaxton

Photo: Stephen Meyer and Charles Thaxton, by Chris Morgan.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the Foreword to the new memoir by Charles Thaxton, A Leg to Stand On.

I first met Charles Thaxton after a conference in 1985. Little did I know at the time that meeting him would change the entire direction of my life. 

The conference, titled “Christianity Challenges the University: An International Conference of Theists and Atheists,” convened in Dallas, Texas, in February of that year. It featured panels of scientists from competing philosophical perspectives discussing three big scientific and philosophical questions: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the nature of human consciousness. 

During a session on the origin of life, the scientists discussed a question I had never considered: Where did the information stored in the DNA molecule come from? 

At the time I was working for one of the big multinational oil companies. I had been hired as an exploration geophysicist several years earlier just as the price of oil had spiked and just as I was graduating from college with degrees in physics and geology. 

Though I had been a physics and geology student, I had enough exposure to biology to know what DNA did. I knew it stored the instruction set, the information for building proteins in the cell, and that it transmitted hereditary traits in living things using its four-character chemical alphabet. Even so, like many scientists I had never really thought about where DNA — or the information it contained — came from in the first place. If asked, I would have said it had something to do with evolution, but I could not have explained the process in any detail. 

Not the Only One

On February 10, 1985, I learned I wasn’t the only one. On that day I found myself sitting in front of eight world-class scientists, who were discussing the vexing scientific and philosophical question: How did the first life on earth arise? 

What introduced drama into what might have otherwise been a dry academic discussion was the reaction of some of the scientists to a new idea. Three of the scientists on the panel had just published a controversial book called The Mystery of Life’s Origin, with a prominent New York publisher of scientific monographs. Their book provided a comprehensive critique of the attempts that had been made to explain how the first life had arisen from the primordial ocean, the so-called “pre-biotic soup.” These scientists — Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen — had concluded that all such theories had failed to explain the origin of the first life. Surprisingly, the other scientists on the panel — all experts in the field — did not dispute this critique. 

The Code of Life

What the other scientists did dispute was a controversial new hypothesis Thaxton and his colleagues had floated in the epilogue of their book in an attempt to explain this DNA enigma. Thaxton et al. had suggested the information in DNA might have originated from an intelligent source, or as they put it an “intelligent cause.” Since, in our experience, information arises from an intelligent source, and since the information in DNA was, in their words, “mathematically identical” to the information in a written language or computer code, they suggested the presence of information in DNA pointed to an intelligent cause. In other words, the code of life pointed to a programmer. 

That was where the fireworks started. Other scientists on the panel became uncharacteristically defensive and hostile. Dr. Russell Doolittle of the University of California at San Diego suggested that, if the three authors were not satisfied with the progress of origin-of-life experiments, they should “do them.” Never mind that another scientist on the panel who favored Thaxton’s hypothesis, Professor Dean Kenyon of San Francisco State University, was a leading origin-of-life researcher who had himself performed many such experiments. It was clear Doolittle regarded the three scientists, despite their strong credentials, as upstarts who had violated some unspoken convention. Yet, it was also clear, to me at least, that the authors of the new book had seized the intellectual initiative. They had offered a bold new idea that seemed at least intuitively plausible, while those defending the status quo offered no alternative to their new explanation. Instead, the defenders of the status quo were forced to accept the validity of the new critique. All they could do was accuse the upstarts of giving up too soon and plead for more time. 

A Mystery Story

I left deeply intrigued. If Thaxton’s portrayal of the scientific status of the problem was accurate — if there was no accepted or satisfactory theory of the origin of the first life — then a mystery was at hand. And if it was the case that evolutionary theory could not explain the origin of the first life, because it could not explain the origin of the genetic information in DNA, then something we take for granted was quite possibly an important clue in a mystery story. 

DNA with its characteristic double-helix shape is a cultural icon. We see the helix in everything from music videos and modern art to science documentaries and news stories about criminal proceedings. We know DNA testing can establish guilt, innocence, paternity, and distant genealogical connections. We know DNA research holds the key to understanding many diseases, and manipulating DNA can alter the features of plants and animals and boost food production. Most of us know roughly what DNA is and what it does. But could it be that we do not know anything about where it came from or how it was first formed? 

At the close of the conference, a mutual friend, Jim Parker, introduced me to Dr. Thaxton. I learned he was living in Dallas and working for a small research institute called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics. Thaxton surprised me with his approachability and the interest he showed in me. We shared contact details, and the next week I called him. He offered to meet. We began to meet regularly to talk, often long after work hours. As I learned more about his critique of chemical evolution and his insights about the chemical structure of DNA, thermodynamics, information theory, and other relevant scientific subjects, my interest in the enigma surrounding the origin of life grew. 

These were heady and exciting days for me as I first encountered and grappled with these new ideas in long discussions with Charles. If Thaxton was right, then the classical design argument that had been dismissed first by Enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume in the 18th century and then later by evolutionary biologists in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, might have legitimacy after all. On a visit back home to Seattle, I described what I had been learning to one of my old college mentors whose critical faculties I greatly respected, a philosophy professor named Norman Krebbs. He surprised me when he told me the scientific idea I was describing was potentially one of the most significant philosophical developments in three hundred years of Western thought. Could the design argument be resuscitated based upon discoveries in modern science? And was DNA the key? 

My discussion of these questions changed the course of my professional life. By the end of that year, I was preparing to move to the University of Cambridge in England to investigate questions I first encountered earlier that February and in my subsequent discussions with Charles. During my PhD research, I investigated several questions that had emerged in my discussions with Thaxton. What methods do scientists use to study biological origins? Is there a distinctive method of historical scientific inquiry? Could the argument from DNA to design be formulated as a rigorous historical scientific argument? 

Intelligent Cause, Intelligent Design

Years later, after completing a PhD on the topic of origin-of-life biology, I would write my own book on the subject of the origin of life and intelligent design. My book, Signature in the Cell, built directly on the critique of chemical evolution that Charles and his co-authors had developed in The Mystery of Life’s Origin. It also further developed the positive case for an intelligent cause, or what we now call “intelligent design,” as the best explanation of the information in DNA — in other words, the same hypothesis Thaxton and his colleagues first proposed in the epilogue to Mystery

Of course, I was not the only one to have been influenced by Charles’s seminal book. Many of the leaders of the contemporary intelligent design movement — Phillip Johnson, Paul Nelson, William Dembski, Douglas Axe, Jonathan Wells, Guillermo Gonzalez, Brian Miller, and others — were inspired to investigate the evidence for intelligent design, or develop the case for it, after reading The Mystery of Life’s Origin

Of course, Charles’s inspiration of the now burgeoning and increasingly international intelligent design research program is not the only significant accomplishment of his fruitful and productive life. In 1993 he co-authored (with Nancy Pearcey) an important book titled The Soul of Science. In it, he and Pearcey documented how Christianity — and specifically biblical presuppositions about the order and intelligibility of nature and the rationality of God — played a crucial role in the rise of modern science. 

In addition, for many years he taught at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic. There he shared a much-needed perspective on how scientific discoveries support belief in God with students and faculty who had long been denied exposure to such a viewpoint after decades of Communist rule. In 2005 he organized an international conference on intelligent design in Prague. He also secured a large auditorium for the conference where, ironically, the Communist party of Czechoslovakia previously held its annual party congresses! 

A Hidden Hand

Through all this and many trials, Charles has maintained an admirable personal modesty, equanimity, warmth, and interest in others. His engaging new personal and intellectual memoir, A Leg to Stand On, invites readers into his world and tells the story of “a road less travelled” and of his discoveries, adversity, adventures, and service. In so doing, A Leg to Stand On also subtly reveals a hidden hand at work in the life of Charles Thaxton — just as much as the work of Charles Thaxton has helped to reveal the reality of such a designing hand in the origin of life itself. 

Thus, it is my privilege and honor to recommend this fascinating autobiography — which is also perhaps the least I can do to repay a friend and mentor to whom I owe a profound debt of gratitude.