Does the New Scientific Evidence about the Origin of Life Put an End to Darwinian Evolution?/Program 5

By: Dr. Stephen Meyer; ©2011
In our previous sessions, we’ve seen the competing views concerning life’s origins and that the most likely option is an outside Intelligent Designer as the source for the information in the human cell. In this session, we’ll review some of these conclusions and share the power the Intelligent Design view has for our lives and for our world today.



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’re talking about one of the raging debates in the world. Where did life originate? How did it originate? Where did the first cell come from? And we have one of the guys that is at the center of the storm. He is philosopher of science, Dr. Stephen Meyer. He has written this best-selling book, that you can see is all over the internet, in terms of people talking about this: Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. And basically what he is that life did not arise by chance and the evidence is in the cell itself. And, Stephen, tell us a little bit about DNA and what people are saying about it.
Meyer: Well, the critical piece of evidence as to the origin of the first life is the information that runs the show inside cells. And much of that information is stored in the form of a four-character digital code along the spine of the DNA molecule. That information has been likened to a software program, by Bill Gates. Richard Dawkins refers to it as machine code, and he says that it’s uncannily like machine code. So we’re dealing with something that has a striking appearance of design, and yet there is no undirected evolutionary process that has been devised that could conceivable explain the origin of that information.
So this is the great debate back to the 19th century. Are we looking at the appearance of design? The illusion of design? Or are we looking at actual design in the living world. And when we get right down to the foundation of life, to the smallest unit of life, the first cell, what we find is digital information technology, nanotechnology, miniaturized information storage and processing technology, as well as all kinds of machinery to read that information. So it’s a new day in biology. And I and others have been arguing that what we’re looking at is not just information… or not just evidence of apparent design, of the illusion of design, but that we’re looking at something that looks as if it were the product of an actual intelligence.
Ankerberg: Alright. And if you don’t take “it was put there” by someone with intelligence, okay, you’ve got to come up with a naturalistic theory. And we’ve already talked about chance. And what you’re saying is all of the scientists now have rejected chance. What have they turned to? What are the next two theories?
Meyer: Well, yeah, chance… and this is counterintuitive to a lot of people. They think that chance is where it’s… if you’re not in the scientific world, you think chance is where it’s at. But all the leading origin of life biologists have rejected chance since about the late 1960s because of the discoveries of how immensely complicated and how integrated the complexity of the cell is, and just how much specified information is present, even in a single gene necessary to build a single protein. So with chance kind of gone by the wayside, people have attempted to combine chance with other mechanisms, other naturalistic mechanisms. And this is a kind of classical Darwinian strategy. Darwin didn’t try to explain the origin of new forms of life by chance alone, he combined random or chance variation with the winnowing mechanism of natural selection. And scientists trying to explain the origin of first life have attempted to do the same thing.
Ankerberg: Alright, so explain what’s the evidence against that?
Meyer: Well, it’s a kind of question begging strategy that we have. If you want to explain the origin of the first life and you want to invoke natural selection, you’ve got a problem. You’re really stretching the concept of natural selection to a breaking point, because natural selection was Darwin’s survival of the fittest mechanism. You’ve got a group of organisms, they reproduce, then you have a larger group in the next generation. They begin to compete with each other. If a trait has arisen in one of those organisms that gives it a survival advantage over another organism, then that trait gets passed on, and that begins to alter the attributes of a population. That’s what drives evolution is this differential reproduction and competition that takes place.
Well, if you invoke natural selection before you have organisms, how does that work? You have no competition. You have no reproduction, okay. And that’s the real problem. To get natural selection going you have to have self-replicating organisms. And we have a slide on the screen that actually makes this problem apparent. Natural selection depends upon preexisting self reproducing or self replicating organisms. But…
Ankerberg: The organism’s already got to be there.
Meyer: The organisms already have to be there. But even more fundamental than that, you’ve got to have the information rich DNA in proteins, because in all organisms in which reproduction takes place – think of cell division – you have preexisting information rich proteins and DNA molecules that run that process. So what were we trying to explain? We were trying to explain the origin of DNA and proteins in the first place, and we’ve invoked a process that presupposes the existence of those things.
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, 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 dusts himself off and he says, “Well, no problem. I’ll just go home and get a ladder, and then I’ll come back and then I’ll climb out of the pit. All I need is a 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.
Now one scientist, a Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist named Christian De Duve, who has done a lot of work on the origin of life problem, very succinctly summarized the problem with this whole class of theorizing. He says this. He says that theories of prebiotic natural selection fail because they “need information,” which implies they have to presuppose what is to be explained in the first place. And that’s the problem with these approaches.
Ankerberg: Alright, Stephen, it’s not by chance, it’s not by natural selection, but there’s a very popular theory going around about RNA. What is this RNA hypothesis and what’s wrong with it?
Meyer: Well, it’s called the “RNA-world hypothesis,” and it also attempts to combine natural selection at a prebiotic level with random variations or chance variations of some kind. But instead of envisioning a self-replicating organism, it envisions an early self-replicating RNA molecule, an RNA molecule that can copy itself and therefore in the process produce offspring molecules that could presumably compete with each other and get natural selection going much earlier.
Now, the hypothesis wasn’t proposed initially to solve the problem of the origin of information. And in fact it doesn’t, and I’ll explain why it doesn’t in a minute. It was initially proposed to explain something called the chicken and egg problem in origin of life biology. And I have a slide that shows what that’s about. If you look at the cell there’s this incredible integrated complexity; it’s something an engineer would recognize…
Ankerberg: Yeah. This is just one cell we’re looking at.
Meyer: Just any cell in the body has this chicken and egg kind of problem, an interdependence, a functional interdependence of parts. You need DNA and the information it stores in order to build the proteins that are necessary to keep life going. But you need proteins to process the information that’s on the DNA molecule. So DNA depends on proteins, but proteins depends on DNA. So which gets going first? You can’t have one without the other and hope to have any kind of functionality.
Well, in order to try to split the horns of that dilemma, there was a theory that was proposed called the RNA-world. And it was based on the fact that there is a molecule that both stores information and catalyzes chemical reactions, and it’s called RNA. So instead of it being just DNA or just proteins, some scientists propose that life originated first or started on the way to life with … the evolutionary process started on the way to life with a self-copying RNA molecule.
Ankerberg: That had both in one cell.
Meyer: Well, it could store information and catalyze reactions as proteins do.
Ankerberg: That’s right.
Meyer: Now, the problems with this, in fact, are legion. The first one is that there’s a difference between simple catalysis, which even small molecules can do, and which RNA can do, and what enzymes do. Enzyme catalysis is what proteins actually do. Protein enzymes couple energetically unfavorable and favorable reactions together, that wouldn’t happen otherwise, into multiple stage reactions. And that’s something that the RNA molecule has not been demonstrated to do. So right out of the chute it really doesn’t solve the chicken and egg problem.
But beyond that, what fascinates me is that there are two critical information problems associated with this RNA-world hypothesis. I have a little diagram here that shows the RNA-world in seven steps. I’m just going to go back one slide to show what the RNA-world theorists envision. They envision that the constituents of RNA, which is very much like DNA, it’s a single stranded nucleic acid, it’s got sugars, phosphate bases. So they imagine those components arising spontaneously on the early earth. Turns out that’s a difficult step. But then they imagine them linking together to form RNA molecules. And then they imagine those RNA molecules copying themselves and getting this kind of Darwinian competition for survival among molecules going.
Now, right there. Stop. Stop press. That third step is critical, because it implies the need for information. What we have learned about RNA is that, first of all, we’ve only been able to get it to copy about a tenth of itself. We’ve tried to engineer RNA molecules that have self copying capacity, and the best we’ve been able to do is to get an RNA molecule that can copy about one tenth of itself. But even getting it to do that little tiny bit of functionality depends on RNA molecules that are very precisely sequenced in their nucleotide bases. RNA, like DNA has these information carrying bases. So the third step in this RNA-world hypothesis involves a molecule that must have a lot of information. And nobody, no RNA-world theorist, has explained where that information comes from.
Ankerberg: It’s not just a little bit of information, it’s a ton of information.
Meyer: It’s actually a lot of information. The point is that the RNA molecule can only copy a little bit of itself even in the best of cases. But even in that case that doesn’t accomplish what the theory says it must, you still need information, and that’s unexplained.
Then if you go a couple of steps up in the RNA-world to the critical fifth step, at some point you’ve got to move from the RNA-world, where you’ve got RNA copying RNA, to the system we have today where you have what’s called translation, where you have information, as we saw in that animation a couple of weeks ago, where the information is converted into proteins by what’s called a translation apparatus, a whole machinery for converting information in DNA into proteins. That whole translation apparatus involves lots of proteins. So you’ve got not RNA copying RNA, at a certain point you’ve got to have information on DNA that is being translated with the help of proteins. So you’ve got to have lots of proteins to develop that translation system. Because that’s what we’ve got in life today, and you’ve got to explain what is actually here. And that turns out to be a big information problem as well, because the translation system is made of a whole bunch of different protein components…
Ankerberg: There’s the DNA at the bottom.
Meyer: …and each one of those, exactly right, is encoded for with a strand of messenger RNA, which is a copy of the original DNA message. So, in other words, to build those proteins you need information, and nobody in the RNA-world theory community explains where that information comes from to make this critical transition to the modern translation system.
Ankerberg: Yeah.
Meyer: So those are just three problems: RNA doesn’t work like a genuine enzymatic catalyst; there’s no explanation for the information that you need to get the RNA copying RNA; RNA self-replication going; and there’s no explanation for the information you need to generate the modern translation system which is part of the cell today that has to be explained.
Ankerberg: Stephen, the scientists now that have done the research on this are concluding what?
Meyer: Well, essentially that the RNA-world hypothesis doesn’t work. Christian De Duve, whom I quoted a minute ago, a Nobelist who’s worked on the origin of life, is now calling for … we need some kind of theory that involves a pre-RNA-world, because getting those critical steps off the ground are just prohibitively difficult.
Ankerberg: So you just moved it back one step.
Meyer: Yes. It just moved it back. Robert Shapiro, actually in origin of life studies they call him Dr. Know, because he’s a chemist who really knows what chemistry does, and he’s constantly saying, “Hey, that won’t work, guys. That won’t work. The real world doesn’t work that way.” So people are looking for another approach.
Ankerberg: Alright, but there’s another theory that they’re proposing. And what is it?
Meyer: It’s called self organization. It relies on these forces of necessity that Jacques Monod talked about.
Ankerberg: Alright. When we look at that, folks, we’re going to eliminate that one and then we’re going to talk about what’s left. Alright? Stick with us. We’ll be right back.

Ankerberg: Alright, we’re back. We’re talking with Dr. Stephen Meyer who’s got his PhD from Cambridge. And he’s talking about DNA in the cell, and we’re talking about where did life originate? Where did the first cell come from? And Stephen, we’ve knocked off – it didn’t come by chance; it didn’t come by chance and natural selection. What’s the next option?
Meyer: Well, the other approach is what scientists sometimes call necessity, relying on natural laws or the term of art now in origin of life sciences is self organizational theories. And the first one of these was proposed in the late 60s by a man named Dean Kenyon. And he had a really kind of sensible idea, it made sense at the time; the idea was, well, maybe we could explain the information we need to build a protein molecule, for example, as the result of some kind of self ordering, self organizing forces of chemical attraction. And he made an analogy in proposing this to the way crystals form. We have highly ordered structures in the chemical world. They’re called crystals. If you take the crystal of salt, for example, you’ve got the sodium, the chloride, you put them together in a solution and the positive charge in the sodium and the negative charge in the chloride will cause a…
Ankerberg: Automatically.
Meyer: Automatically. Just self organizing, a nice orderly structure. And if you have a lot of those ions, they’ll line up and you’ll get a very nicely repeating crystal structure.
Ankerberg: Pattern, right straight across.
Meyer: A pattern. Exactly. And the idea was, well maybe that could explain the specific arrangement of the amino acids in the proteins, or who knows, maybe even the arrangement of the bases in the DNA molecule. And this was Kenyon’s idea. He proposed it in a book called Biochemical Predestination. And it was an approach that illustrated one of Jacques Monod’s three categories. Remember, I talked in a previous segment about Jacques Monod saying if you’re a scientist and you want to explain something you’ve got to invoke chance, going to invoke necessity, or the combination of the two. This is an example of invoking necessity. Predestination. Biochemical predestination. The molecules will arrange themselves because of the chemical forces between them.
Well, interestingly, to complete the story, Professor Kenyon, who was a leading origin of life scientist, ended up repudiating, rejecting, his own theory, because he realized at a certain point that it didn’t work. He realized first that even if it worked for proteins – and it later became clear that it wouldn’t – it certainly wouldn’t work for DNA. And DNA had the information for building proteins, so that was the more critical issue that had to be addressed.
Ankerberg: And the rest of the story is, you defended him when he made that statement, and the school, what, they tried to fire him?
Meyer: Well, years after he had announced his rejection of chemical evolutionary theory, he was really persecuted at his university when he made known his reasons for doing so in a lecture that he gave in one of his biology classes.
Ankerberg: And how did you defend him?
Meyer: Well, I wrote an op-ed in defense of his academic freedom for the Wall Street Journal in 1993. And Kenyon was subsequently restored to his position, but it was after quite an extensive controversy.
Ankerberg: Alright. He was muzzled basically after that.
Meyer: He was muzzled. Exactly. Exactly.
Ankerberg: Alright. So that didn’t work, so then what?
Meyer: Well, I think it’s important to explain why it didn’t work. That’s the critical thing. And to see why, you need to get back into DNA chemistry. And this is very exciting. 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’s 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.
Ankerberg: Um hum.
Meyer: Now, I’ve got a visual analogy that makes this point really clear. This is a message that I got recently. Well, actually I thought of this first when my kids were small. 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 messages 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 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, this professor Dean Kenyon.
Ankerberg: Alright, Stephen, that’s absolutely fascinating. If you haven’t got chance answering the question, if you haven’t got natural selection and you haven’t got a combination of the two, then where do you go? What’s left?
Meyer: Well, this approach, this necessity approach, has also been tried, but that’s failed. And I think the way it fails is actually illustrative of the problem, and it points you in the direction of what does come next. Because if you go back to my original visual illustration. We’ve got a message here on the chalkboard. It’s not the result of the magnetic forces of attraction. But where did it come from? Well, it’s obvious it came from an intelligent agent. My son actually arranged these letters. So this is a form of Intelligent Design. And this is the intuition that all of us have about information, that information is a mind product. It’s something that we know from experience comes from intelligence. And so when I investigated, after I went through these various…examined these various naturalistic approaches, is I began to wonder is it possible that Intelligent Design could be formulated as a rigorous scientific hypothesis?
The theory of Intelligent Design is a pretty simple idea at root. It’s the idea that we can detect the activity of intelligent agency in the effects that they leave behind. If you go to Mt. Rushmore, for example, you see the beautiful faces on the mountains there and you realize that, uh, that a sculptor played a role. Now, inside cells, we don’t have little, uh, sculpted faces, but we have other indicators of intelligence: a digital code, complex nanotechnology, little tiny miniature machines, things that we would in any other realm of experience, attribute to intelligence. So, our argument is that what we see in biology doesn’t give just the appearance of design, it’s actually giving us evidence of an actual designing intelligence.
Ankerberg: Alright, Stephen, you said in the book there are other scientific discoveries, new ones that have been found, that are helping to enforce the design argument, other hallmarks of design. What are they?
Meyer: Well, in the book I make the balance of the case for Intelligent Design based on what we’ve known since the late 1960s about the way in which digital code is directing the show, the information in DNA. But in addition to the information in DNA, we’re learning lots of things about how the cell stores and organizes and processes that information. And each of those new discoveries is, I think, providing additional indicators of prior intelligent activity.
Ankerberg: They’re mind boggling.
Meyer: Yeah, they’re mind boggling. For example, inside the cell there’s a mode of processing information that’s akin to a spell check, where the cell is copying information, and when the copying goes wrong, when it loses fidelity in copying the information, there’s a protein complex that locks on, backs up, and then causes the replication to proceed and correct the previous error. There’s a mode of organizing the information… the information in the cell is organized in a hierarchical way like a hierarchical filing system in a computer where we have files within folders, folders within super folders. And there’s even what’s called nested coding of information, where one genetic message is embedded in another genetic message, like Russian dolls. That’s a technique that’s used in cryptography.
And I have a colleague who’s a software designer who worked with the Microsoft Corporation. He retired for a couple of years and came and worked with us. One day he came into my office and he said, “You know, as I’m learning about all these ways the cell processes information, it gives me an eerie feeling that someone figured this out before us, because these are exactly the same design strategies [or what he called design patterns] that we use in modern high tech digital computing.”
So what we’re seeing is other hallmarks of intelligent activity, other ways of processing, storing and organizing information that we know from one and only one kind of cause, and that cause is intelligence.
Ankerberg: Alright, we’ve looked through the microscope and we’ve seen the complex information that only comes from intelligence. Next week we’re going to start looking through the telescope and we’re going to look back at what scientists have found about the Big Bang and the fine-tuning of the universe. We’re going to see the anthropic principles that have been shown through science and we’re going to talk about: Do we see design there? And then we’re going to put the two together and come to some conclusions here about the whole scientific gamut in terms of design. Folks, you won’t want to miss this. This is so fascinating and Stephen is so good at teaching this, I hope that you’ll join me next week.


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