Does the New Scientific Evidence about the Origin of Life Put an End to Darwinian Evolution?/Program 3

By: Dr. Stephen Meyer; ©2011
In addition to chance, scientists have offered other answers to the origin of the precise genetic information found in DNA. We’ll see why DNA exhibits signs of a designing intelligence.



Today, the most important questions of life: Where did we come from? How did we get here? What brought us into existence. Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species, admitted that he did not know how the first cell came into existence, but speculated that somehow a few simple chemicals combined and the first primitive cell emerged from the primordial waters of the early earth. But today Darwin’s evolutionary assumptions are being challenged by molecular biologists, as scientists have discovered that the human cell is not simple, but complex beyond belief. One tiny cell is a microminiaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up of more than one hundred-thousand million atoms. In the nucleus of each cell is the DNA molecule which contains a storehouse of 3 billion characters of precise information in digital code. This code instructs the cell how to build complex-shaped molecules called proteins that do all the work, so that the cell can stay alive. Where did this precise information in DNA come from? Is it the product of purely undirected natural forces? Or is it the product of an Intelligent Designer? Bill Gates, of Microsoft, has said, “Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any we’ve ever created.” Today, you’ll learn why the digital code embedded in DNA in the human cell, is compelling evidence of an Intelligent Designer. My guest is Dr. Stephen Meyer, co-founder of the Intelligent Design Movement in the world; graduated with his PhD degree in the Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University. We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. We’ve got a great one for you today. You won’t want to miss this. We’re talking about the controversy that is swirling around the origin of life questions. Where did the first cell come from? Where did all the information come from that’s found in DNA? And we have one of the leading scientific researchers in the world with us, Dr. Stephen Meyer. He’s author of the best-selling book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. And, Stephen, refresh our memory here. We were talking about the different theories that have been proposed, the naturalistic theories that most of our kids get in classrooms across the world, you got them at the university yourself. And you investigated all of these, and you took us through all of these naturalistic proposals for, where did that first cell come from with all the complex information that we find inside of it? Review that and let’s pick it up from there.
Meyer: Well, maybe the first thing to review is the key question of what needs to be explained, because that’s what … elicited all these different approaches to trying to account for the origin of life. When you’re trying to explain the origin of first life, scientists now realize you have to account for the origin of information. And this really started with Watson and Crick, who had made this amazing discovery that … of the structure of DNA first, but then also that DNA contains information. And the discovery of the double helix, the chemical structure of DNA, was made in 1953. But in 1957 Francis Crick put forth something that he called the sequence hypothesis, which was a great insight into what DNA actually does, namely that it stores information. And along the spine of the DNA molecule there are four chemicals that function just like alphabetic characters in a written language or digital characters in a machine code, which is to say it’s the specific arrangement of those chemicals, not their shapes or chemical properties, that allow them to perform a function in the cell. What do they do? The arrangement of those digital characters on the DNA provides information, instructions, for building the critical proteins and protein machines that we find inside the cell. So the information in DNA is responsible for sequencing amino acids, the parts of proteins. If those amino acids are arranged properly, proteins fold into beautiful three-dimensional structures, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, and those three-dimensional forms perform all the important jobs in the cell. So information produces proteins, which perform all the important jobs in the cell. That’s what you’ve got to explain, then, is the origin of that information.
Ankerberg: Yeah. And just looking at the proteins you can see how complex they are, and those are just four, there’s hundreds of proteins, all shaped differently, all programmed by the DNA. And the fact is that where did the information come from?
Meyer: Yeah. That’s the key thing. It’s what I call the DNA enigma. And the enigma is not the question of the structure of the DNA molecule; we know that was discerned by Watson and Crick. It’s not the question of where the information resides; we know that information is stored in the DNA molecule. It’s not even what the information does; we have a really good idea of that. It’s where did the information come from in the first place, that’s the DNA enigma.
Ankerberg: Alright. And what were the theories that were proposed, and why were they knocked down?
Meyer: Well, the first approach was the chance approach, just to say, well, all these arrangements of the bases, as they’re called in DNA, the information-carrying subunits, those arrangements were a byproduct of chance assemblages of the subunits in a prebiotic soup or something like that, some ancient ocean where you had chemicals floating around and they just kind of arranged themselves. As I began in the book to examine that in detail, I found first of all that no serious origin of life biologist has taken that seriously since the 1960s, and secondly, there was a very good reason for that: that the complexity, the amount of information required was way beyond what was reasonable to think that could have assembled as a result of chance assemblages.
If you make some simple calculations about the number of possible ways there are of combining the amino acids in a protein, or the information carrying bases in a DNA molecule, and then you compare that to the number of events that have taken place since the big bang, where an event is a minimal interaction of an elementary particle, it turns out that the number of combinations searched is far in excess of the number of events that have taken place since the big bang. So you’re essentially in the situation like a blindfolded man looking for a needle in a haystack, except the haystack is something the size of the universe, and you’ve got a very limited time to search that. It just isn’t going to happen, and that’s why the scientists have really dismissed the chance hypothesis as not being credible.
So the next approach has been to some to somehow combine chance with natural selection. But the big problem there is that natural selection is only a force to be reckoned with once you have life that can reproduce, produce offspring, create competition among the offspring for survival. And… in other words,…if you want to explain the first life, you can’t invoke a process that presupposes the existence of life. And natural selections does that.
So here’s an illustration I have that gets across the logical problem here. There’s an absent-minded philosophy of science professor. And he’s walking home from his office. And he’s thinking great thoughts. Maybe thoughts about… who knows, maybe DNA. And he isn’t paying attention to where he’s going. He’s already lost his cell phone, his keys, … and now he falls in a pit. It’s a deep pit, 30 feet deep. He’s lucky to have survived. But he … he dusts himself off and he says, “Well, no problem. I’ll just go home and get a ladder, and climb… and then I’ll come back and then I’ll climb out of the pit. All I need is the ladder.” so he gets out of the pit. Goes home, gets the ladder, comes back, jumps in the pit. And then climbs out. Now, obviously there’s something wrong with my story, and that is that it’s begging the question as to how the absent minded professor got out of the pit in the first place.
And that’s essentially what’s going on with these proposals of prebiotic natural selection. they’re begging the question of the origin of DNA and proteins which is necessary to get natural selection even going. What were we trying to explain? The origin of DNA and proteins, and yet you’ve invoked a process that presupposes the very existence of the thing you’re trying to explain in the first place. So that approach has been seen as kind of a non-starter, a dead end. and then a third approach has been to invoke basic laws of physics and chemistry to try to say, well, maybe we can explain the arrangements of the parts in the critical information bearing parts of the DNA molecule as a result of forces of chemical attraction.
If you look at the chemistry of DNA, you see on the side, on the two sides of the molecule little P’s and little pentagons. So those are the sugars – the sugars are in the pentagonal shape; the P’s are the circular phosphate molecules, or they’re represented with circles. That’s the backbone of the molecule. That isn’t the part that contains the information. The information is represented by the A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s down the interior of the spine. That’s where the bases are, and it’s the arrangement of those bases, remember, that conveys the information for building proteins and protein machines.
Now the question is, could you explain the information in DNA as a result of forces of chemical attraction? Turns out you can’t. If you look closely at the molecule on the screen, you see that there are little sticks. The sticks represent chemical bonds, forces of attraction at work in the molecule. Notice that there’s bonds between the sugars and the phosphates. There are also bonds between the bases and the sugar-phosphate backbone. But notice that there are no bonds, no sticks, connecting the bases in the vertical axis. That’s the information bearing axis, and yet there’s no chemistry that’s dictating how one base interacts with the next. In other words, no chemistry dictating the sequential arrangement of the bases.
Now, I’ve got a visual analogy that makes this point really clear. This a message that I got recently… well, actually I thought of this first when my kids were small. now … now I have a son in college, so this is a message that I might have gotten from him, “Dad, send money.” Now, I used to get these message on the… on the refrigerator, because it was a metallic surface and these letters have little magnets in them, okay. So, you have forces of attraction that are…that can explain why the letters stick to the backboard, the magnetic backboard, just as you have forces of attraction that explain why the characters that convey the information in DNA stick to the chemical backbone, okay. So forces of attraction explain that, but do they explain the sequencing? Notice that there are no magnetic forces at work between these letters. They are not causing the letters to arrange themselves. The magnetic forces only explain why the letters stick. The sequence is not determined by the magnetism. And I can demonstrate that by just rearranging the letters, destroying the information that was here, and you’ve got the same magnetic forces in play.
The same thing is true in the DNA molecule. The forces of attraction that are responsible for the message bearing text sticking to the backbone, are not responsible for the arrangement of the characters. And you can see that if you examine the chemical structure of DNA. So the self organizational idea, that forces of attraction are dictating the sequencing, turns out to be completely inconsistent with what we know about the chemistry of DNA, and so that theory has failed as well. And the first guy to admit it was actually the guy who originated the theory, professor Dean Kenyon.
Ankerberg: Alright. This is absolutely fascinating. but if you haven’t got chance, and you haven’t got natural selection, and you haven’t got a combination of those two, and you’ve got none of these theories, what’s left?
Meyer: Well, I began to consider the possibility that Intelligent Design might play a role, because even with my illustration of the magnetic chalkboard, it’s obvious that the key factor, the key cause involved in arranging the characters to spell a message, was a mind, was an intelligence. So I began to wonder, could the same thing be true when we’re talking about DNA? Information, after all, is kind of a mind product. It’s something that we know from experience comes from intelligence, not from undirected physics and chemistry or chance variations.
Ankerberg: In fact, I love what you say in the book is the only place it’s ever come from has been intelligence from someplace else. In other words, this information doesn’t come from any other place but intelligence.
Meyer: Well, that was my intuition going into this, and as I examined the DNA enigma and examined the different naturalistic approaches that had been proposed to explain the origin of information, and then found that each of those approaches in turn failed, that led me back to my initial intuition, that maybe intelligence is the only thing we know of that can produce information. And so for me that led to a question, which is, could the design hypothesis, could the idea of Intelligent Design be formulated as a rigorous scientific argument? Not just an intuition, but something that could be justified by reference to a standard method of scientific reasoning using a standard scientific method?
Ankerberg: Alright, how did you go about this?
Meyer: Well, I met a man named Charles Thaxton in 1985. And he’s the one from whom I first encountered the idea that intelligence may be in some way responsible for the information in DNA. He had written an important book called The Mystery of Life’s Origin, still a classic in the field. And it was a comprehensive critique of theories of the chemical origin of life.
But in the epilogue to the book he not only critiqued the standard theories, he floated an alternative hypothesis. He called it the idea of an intelligent cause. And for him this was largely an intuitive thing at this time. It seemed intuitive that you would need a mind to produce information. DNA was full of information. Maybe that was the explanation. So a year later I was off to graduate school. I was intrigued with this idea, but I wasn’t convinced yet. And I began, I thought, well, maybe this is what I’d like to study when I start into my PhD research, and so in fact, I did a dissertation on the whole question of the origin of life. And I had this driving question: Could the idea that Thaxton had, that intelligence is pointing…or that information is pointing to intelligence, could that be cashed out as a rigorous scientific argument?
So naturally, one of the people I studied, one of the first people I studied was Charles Darwin. And the reason for that is that Darwin had a method of study that he called “inference to the best explanation”. Actually later scientists called it that, but the…typical name of the method was the method of “multiple competing hypotheses”. And it’s a method that scientists use when they can’t go back and observe something directly. So then they posit different explanations for what happened in the remote past. We use it in geology for example. You’ve got a layer of ash in eastern Washington. What’s the best explanation? Well, the first thing you can do is posit all the different ones you can think of: well, maybe it was an earthquake, maybe it was a flood, maybe it was a volcano. And then you choose the one which, if true, would best explain the evidence. Well, that makes sense so far, except it begs the question, which is, what constitutes the best explanation? And as I got into the subject a little more, I learned that Darwin and some of his scientific mentors had already come up with a real, solid, commonsense, practical criterion for deciding that question.
Ankerberg: What was it?
Meyer: Well, it’s the idea that we should be looking for a cause which is known from our experience to be able to produce the effect we’re trying to explain. It makes perfect sense. Go back to my volcanic ash example. We know that volcanoes produce layers of volcanic ash. I happened to graduate in 1980, the year the volcano, Mount St. Helens erupted. So we know from our repeated or ordinary experience that volcanoes have that capacity. But we’ve never seen floods or earthquakes do that, so of those three hypotheses, the volcanic eruption hypothesis is clearly the best. So I simply applied that mode of reasoning to the question of the origin of life. And one day I had the light go on. I was reading…just give a little…little rendition here with a couple slides. But I was reading the works of a man named Charles Lyell. It turns out Lyell was Darwin’s scientific mentor, or one of his key mentors. And Darwin was self-consciously following Lyell’s method when he wrote the Origin of Species. And here was …I was reading the front piece, the title page of this 19th century scientific book, and it’s a kind of a long boring subtitle, put most people to sleep. It said, “Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain (snore)…the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface….” and then I woke up, because the last phrase just made the light go on for me. It says, “…by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.”
That’s the principle of reasoning. We’re looking for a cause that we know from our present experience which is operating, which produces the kind of effect we’re trying to explain. And I suddenly thought, what if we applied that to the question of the origin of information? What is the cause now operating that produces digital code? What’s the cause now operating that produces information in any form we find it? And I realized, there’s only one. It’s intelligence. I’d investigated the other proposed causes. From experience I knew they didn’t work, but when you got into the origin of life literature it turned out that there was big problems trying to make chance or necessity or the combination produce information. But when you just refer to your common sense, your ordinary and repeated experience, there was a cause that jumped right out at you, and that was intelligence.
So I began to think about that more, and there was another scientist who had thought about the question of the origin of information. He was one of the early scientists who applied information theory to molecular biology. He wasn’t an advocate of Intelligent Design, but he made an offhand observation, that again, made perfect sense to me, and it caused another light bulb to go on for me. He said that, “the creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity”. I thought, that’s right. And I also thought, that meets Lyell’s criterion of a good scientific explanation. It met Darwin’s criterion. They were operating on a principle called “uniformitarianism”, the idea that the present is the key to the past. Another way to put it is that what we know about cause and effect relationships in the present should guide what our theorizing about what happened in the past. Well, what do we know about cause and effect? We know that information always comes from an intelligence.
Ankerberg: Key word, always.
Meyer: Always. That’s what we know from experience is the only known cause. And so that’s the cause now in operation that Lyell said we should look for. That’s the cause known to produce the effect in question, which Darwin said we should be looking for. So, what are we trying to explain? Again, we’re trying to explain the information in DNA. Bill Gates says that, “…DNA is like a computer program, but much more complex than any we’ve ever devised.” That’s a very suggestive observation, because we know from experience that programs come from programmers. We know more generally that information in whatever form we find it, whether we’re talking about a headline in a newspaper or a paragraph in a book or a hieroglyphic inscription, or even information embedded in a radio signal, if you trace information back to its ultimate source, you always come to a mind, either a headline writer or a scribe or an author or a broadcaster. You never come to just undirected processes. Information is always the product of intelligence. And so when we find information embedded in digital form in the DNA molecule, that by the logic of Darwin and Lyell, points decisively back to an intelligent cause. Because we know of only one type of cause of cause that produces information. We’re looking at the distinctive effect or hallmark of intelligence in information. It’s a compelling… a compelling case.
Ankerberg: Yeah. I find it really ironic. You use Darwin’s method of reasoning and you come to a non-Darwinian conclusion.
Meyer: Well, let me give you one other irony and then I’ll show you the overall structure of the argument as I’ve developed it. There’s a scientific research program looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, intelligence out in space. What are the scientists looking for? They’re looking for information embedded in a radio signal, because they understand that information is always the product of intelligence. If they find information, code, embedded in a radio signal, then they will infer that ET is the source of that information. Now, no one has found such information embedded in a radio signal. But the point is that if you use that same logic, then you apply that to the discovery of information in every cell, you realize you’ve got a compelling indicator of an intelligent source of that information. My little cartoon here says, as I read it, we’re receiving messages from outer space telling them to stop bombarding us with unintelligible messages.”
Ankerberg: You’re actually talking about the SETI project that is actually looking for….
Meyer: Exactly, SETI.
Ankerberg: …intelligent messages.
Meyer: Yeah. But the key is that they concede the principle of reasoning that’s at the basis of my whole argument, which is that information only arises from intelligence. And that’s why they’re looking for information, because they’re interested to see if there’s any evidence of intelligence out there. Now, what I’ve done in the book, Signature in the Cell, is therefore develop the case for Intelligent Design, self-consciously using the method of reasoning that Darwin himself used in the origin of species. I’m using a method called “the method of multiple competing hypotheses”, or sometimes called “the method of inferring to the best explanation”. And what I’ve done is I’ve looked at theories based on chance, theories based on necessity, theories based on the combination of the two, and the theory of Intelligent Design to see which best explains the key feature that has to be explained to account for the origin of life. And the key feature of the cell that has to be explained is the origin of information. We’ve also called it “specified complexity”. But that sequence specific arrangement of text that we’re talking about that’s critical to the cell’s function. And as I examined, even as we’ve done in these last few programs, the different competing approaches, I’ve found only one that provides a cause which is known to produce the effect in question, and that’s the theory of Intelligent Design. Theories based on chance, based on natural law or necessity or self-organization, and theories based on the combination of necessity and chance all fail to explain the origin of information. That leaves us with only one known cause. And because there’s only one known cause of the effect, we can when we encounter the effect infer back decisively to the cause. That cause is Intelligent Design. And the method that I’ve used to make that case is the very scientific method that Darwin himself advanced.
Ankerberg: Alright, next week we’re going to talk about some of the objections that have been raised about Intelligent Design, and we’re going to have the co-founder of the Intelligent Design movement across the world answer them. I hope that you will join us.

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