Science/religion conflict - Intelligent design

Intelligent design

The teleological argument, or argument from design, says that the universe possesses so integrated a complexity that it must have been designed by an intelligent mind.

Naive arguments

There are some very naive arguments that have been put forward about this:

If we go out into the countryside, we find animals that need to eat other animals in order to survive and, lo!, we find other (usually smaller) animals running around that are suited to being caught and eaten. And the numbers of the predators is just right: for if there were too many predators then they would wipe out the stock of prey and then starve; or if they were too few then the prey would grow too numerous and eat all of their own food and therefore die out. In fact, we find the whole food chain is apparently carefully balanced so that the whole panoply of fauna are able to survive in perpetuity. And if we examine the anatomy of any individual animal, we find intricate structures such as eyes, brains, legs, jaws, and digestive tracts that are highly effective in working together to perform the function of deriving nutrition from the environment. Yet there is no immediate mechanistic force that compels these bodily organs to be so formed as to work together, and it is hard to imagine such a force. Or, if we look at the landscape itself, we see further instances of harmony between independent things. For instance, the rain falls on the land but there are natural drainage channels, called rivers, which deliver the water back to the sea. Yet nobody has ever seen a stream of water cutting a river channel out for itself. Indeed, even the very rotation of the Earth, giving alternate periods of light and dark, is admirably suited to our natural inclination to sleep for a certain number of hours each day.

Rupert Sheldrake has proposed some sort of "morphic field" that guides animal mutations towards a higher goal.

But the most naive argument has to be that used by the following man, in a story told by Michael Bland:

An evangelical taxi driver once sought to convert me to Christianity between Ealing and Heathrow Airport. "I can prove scientifically that God exists," he said. When I asked him to tell me more, he replied: "Right, the Earth goes round the Sun every 24 hours doesn't it?" Before I could say "Once a year, actually", he continued: "Not one second more, not one second less - exactly 24 hours. Only a superhuman could make that happen." I thought better of trying to convince him otherwise.

Intelligent arguments

If we move on to less naive arguments, the backbone of intelligent design is the regarding of man-made machinery as an analogue of the natural world. The claim is that, since we accept that every machine must have been engineered by an intelligent mind, so the universe's resemblance to a machine entails that it too must have been engineered by some intelligence.

There is, however, a refutation of the argument, namely that the argument from design is self-defeating, as it presupposes the existence of an architect who is Himself possessed of that degree of complex harmony that is supposed to be possible only through design. In other words, if complex systems can exist only as a result of intelligent design, then God must have been designed; but if it is possible for a complex system (such as God) to organise itself, then it is conceivable that any other complex system (such as the universe) could do so too, so there is no need to postulate the existence of God as architect of the universe.

What is wrong with the above argument? The fact is that God is not a "system" at all - and He certainly didn't need to organise himself!

If we say, "God worked out what the universe would have to be like in order for life to be possible", then the refuters claim we then need to explain how His computational machinery came into existence.

What is wrong with that argument? Quite simply that God doesn't need to "work out" anything", because He knows everything. He doesn't have any "computational machinery" because He is pure spirit. He doesn't "know" because He has some kind of "data storage device" - He knows because He is an omniscient being.

Scientists at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. USA, and a few isolated scientists elsewhere in the world, are promoting Intelligent Design (ID) as a new theory of the origin of plant and animal species. They offer this theory as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

Conservative Protestants in the USA want to see ID taught in the public schools alongside the theory of evolution.

Supporters of ID base their beliefs on various structures in animals and plants that they feel could not have developed through natural selection. In particular, they believe that some of these structures are made up of many discrete parts which must all be present and functioning together efficiently at the same time before the entire structure can operate. For example, a human eye requires a lens, retina, optic nerve and other parts to be all functioning together before the eye will work. Although scientists have suggested ways in which eyes and other structures could have developed as part of an unguided process driven by natural selection, their conclusions are rejected by ID supporters, who conclude that the structures must have been designed by a form of intelligence far superior to that possessed by humans.

Of course, the existence of a superior intelligence who is responsible for the design seen on the Earth does not necessarily have to be a god. It could be, for example, a human-like race of space travellers who came to Earth and created new life-forms.

Molecular biology

One of the most compelling arguments for an Intelligent Designer comes from the field of molecular biology.

The human genome comprises the information contained in one set of 46 human chromosomes, which contain about 3 billion base pairs of DNA. The total length of DNA present in all the cells in a human is 2×1013 metres. That’s equivalent to 69 trips from the Earth to the Sun and back! An average human chromosome in a single cell consists of a DNA molecule that is almost 5 cm long. As a DNA molecule is double-stranded, that is equivalent to two strands of fishing line 125 miles long stored in a baseball. It gets unzipped, copied and then restored on spools at three times the speed of an aeroplane propeller without tangling!

Amino acids are the basic building blocks from which proteins are made. Of the hundreds of amino acids that are known, only 20 are utilised by living systems. 10 are hydrophilic, soluble and polar; the other 10 are hydrophobic, insoluble and non-polar. All 20 have left-handed chirality (i.e. they are laevorotatory to polarized light); the right-handed (dextrorotatory) ones are usually lethal. If life was random, there would be half of each, and one half would destroy the other half.

The final stable (minimum-energy) conformation of any protein is dictated by the specific amino acid sequence. Haemoglobin, for example, is 574 amino acids long. The probability of getting any particular sequence of this length by random chance is 10-650 (c.f. there are only 1018 seconds in the 13.75 billion-year history of the universe, only 1066 atoms in our entire galaxy, and 1080 sub-atomic particles in the galaxy). A probability of 10-650 is equivalent to winning the lottery 90 times in a row!

Now let’s take a look at how much biomolecular machinery is involved in replicating DNA and in making proteins.

DNA replication requires the following proteins:

Protein synthesis requires the recruitment of the following types of molecules that contain nucleic acid sequences:

Transcription from DNA to RNA requires the following proteins:

The charging (or loading) of t-RNA with a particular amino acid RNA requires 20 different species of “aminoacyl t-RNA synthetase” proteins (one for each amino acid).

Translation from the m-RNA code to a specific protein requires:

Why am I giving you these long lists? Because we need to ask a question that’s even more basic than the famous “chicken-and-egg” question: “Which came first? DNA or proteins?” As we have seen, it takes proteins (enzymes) to construct DNA and it takes DNA to construct proteins. Therefore, they both had to be created at the same time, and to a consistent architecture that enables the entire replication/synthesis process to work.

Note that all of this biomolecular machinery (initiator proteins, pre-replication complexes, primase, RNase, DNA polymerase, RNA polymerase, synthetase, t-RNA, m-RNA, ribosomes, elongation factors, etc.) is encoded in the DNA, in addition to every possible protein that these machines are required to manufacture. All of this machinery can only be constructed by other equivalent machinery. The DNA instructions to build the machinery can only come from earlier copies of the DNA. In both cases, you get an infinite regress back in time. No-one believes that life has always existed (or even that the universe has always existed), so there must have been a “first set” of this machinery at some point in the past – but unless it all existed, it wouldn’t work. Each type of molecule depends on the existence of each other type, otherwise nothing can get replicated. Therefore, all of this biomolecular machinery must have been created at the same time. It all hints at a Great Designer and Creator:

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