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Monday, July 28, 2014

The Design of Life

Posted by jlwile on February 11, 2010

Now that I have caught up on the scientific journals that I read, I am reading some of the books that have been on my shelves for a while. There is, after all, a lot of opportunity to read when you are on a beach or under a shady tree! More than a year ago, I purchased The Design of Life by William A. Dembski and Jonathan Wells. Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics (University of Chicago) and a Ph.D in philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago) and is known for developing the mathematical underpinnings of Intelligent Design. Wells has a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology (University of California Berkeley) as well as a Ph.D. in religious studies (Yale University). Their mix of expertise makes for a wide-ranging discussion that is very enlightening.

While I don’t think the book lives up to the dust jacket’s claim that it makes “…the most powerful and comprehensive case to date for the intelligent design of life,” I do think it adds a great deal to the ongoing discussion in origins science. Specifically, there are three things it brings to the debate. First, it brings up certain facts that you generally don’t read in the evolutionary literature. Such facts are quite relevant to the overall question of origins, but most evolutionists ignore them (or sweep them under the rug) because they call into question many of the underlying assumptions of macroevolution. Second, it uses a very good blend of mathematics and biology to come up with a general means by which one can estimate the probability with which a certain macroevolutionary transition could occur. Finally, it gives a solid review of the current ideas regarding the origin of life and then demonstrates that they are utterly devoid of evidence.

Before I go into these three contributions to the debate about origins, I do want to point out some of the things I didn’t like about the book. At the end of each chapter, there are “discussion questions.” In general, the questions are inane. They generally ask for the regurgitation of information in the book, such as those that start page 91: “What are fossils? How are they relevant to the study of biological origins?” (DUH!) Even those not looking for direct regurgitation are clearly not very thought-provoking, such as the question on page 207 that asks the reader to compare a blank CD, a CD containing noise, a CD containing an album, and a CD containing computer software. If these are to be discussion questions, they should be the kinds of questions that generate real discussion.

The book is also filled with a lot of “callout boxes.” These boxes supposedly contain an isolated topic and are separated from the rest of the text. I am not a big fan of callout boxes in books, but if a book uses them, the content of the boxes should be valuable. While some of the callout boxes do contain valuable “sidelights” to the main text (such as the one on page 177 entitled “Monkeys Typing Shakespeare”), most do not. For example, a box on page 221 is entitled “Primitive Undersea Experiments.” It discusses experiments that try to test Jack Corliss’s famous suggestion that life originated at hydrothermal vents. While telling the reader about several shortcomings related to such experiments, a discussion of the actual results does not appear. While those results are far from stellar, they are definitely worth mentioning.

Finally, while I think the authors do a superb job of discussing the various origin-of-life scenarios, they spend 15 pages on the Oparin hypothesis, which no serious scientist believes anymore. Sure, it is in most every biology text because most evolution-based biology texts have no qualms about lying to students, but no serious scientist believes it anymore. Why spend 15 pages debunking such an idea? It is sort of like beating a dead horse. Of course, the hypothesis should be mentioned because it is of historical interest. However, a good discussion of the history and the fact that no serious scientist believes it anymore would take about three pages, leaving more room to discuss hypotheses that scientists actually take seriously.

Now don’t get the idea that I think this book is a waste of time. Indeed, the things I dislike about the book represent only a minority of what you find in it. However, I thought these failings were worth mentioning.

Now on to what I really liked about the book. As I mentioned previously, it provides a wealth of information regarding scientific facts that are generally swept under the rug in most discussions of evolution. For example, it is axiomatic in macroevolutionary circles that large brains mean more intelligence, at least in the case of primates. However, it’s simply not clear that this axiom is true. For example, the authors discuss a case study by Sheffield University neurologist John Lorber. As they quote from the study:

There’s a young student at this university who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain…instead of the normal 4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is mainly filled with cerebrospinal fluid. (p. 12 – emphasis added)

Indeed, according to the authors, Louis Pasteur spent a great deal of his illustrious scientific career using only half his brain, because the other half was destroyed by a stroke when he was 46. Of course, if brain size is not directly correlated with intelligence, many of the conclusions of the research related to human evolution need to be thrown out the window.

Another example of the author’s ability to point out facts that are glossed over by evolutionists comes from their discussion of the giraffe. They discuss the typical macroevolutionary approach to understanding this magnificent creature, focusing on the neck. In particular, they point out the assumption that the long neck exists because it gives the giraffe an advantage – the giraffe can eat things that other animals can’t reach. However, they point out that giraffes must bend down to drink, and they often bend down to eat plants from the ground. In addition, they discuss the marvelous systems in the giraffe that are designed to keep its head from exploding when it bends down to do these things.

However, their best insight is to question whether or not the idea of the giraffe’s neck being long is really an advantage:

Consider that the neck of the female giraffe is two feet shorter, on average, than that of the male. If a longer neck were truly needed to reach above the existing forage line, then the females would have soon starved to death and the giraffe would have become extinct. (p. 40)

Alternatively, if the female giraffe’s neck is long enough for that purpose, why is the male giraffe’s neck so much longer, given the difficulty in maintaining such an amazing feature?

There are many more examples of such striking facts pointed out in the book. However, I want to move on to probably the most important contribution of this book – its blend of biology and mathematics that produces a process that might be able to quantify the probability of a macroevolutionary step actually occurring.

In Chapter 7, the authors address the concept of design and how to identify it. This, of course, is the heart of Dembski’s research, and the treatment of this issue is very competent. However, where the chapter really shines starts on page 183, when the mathematics of design is blended with biology. Essentially, the authors lay out seven “hurdles” that any macroevolutionary step must overcome in order to create some novel bit of biology, be it a novel protein or a novel biological structure. These hurdles are the same kinds of hurdles that must be overcome in the building of anything new, like a home, a car, etc. They are:

1. Availability – Does evolution have what it needs?
2. Synchronization – Are the parts of the novel entity there at the right time?
3. Localization – Can the parts break free of their old structure and come together to form the new one?
4. Interfering Cross-Reactions – Can the parts avoid being degraded by other processes?
5. Interface Compatibility – Can the parts work together?
6. Order of Assembly – Can the parts come together in the right order?
7. Configuration – Will the final configuration be one that works?
(pp. 183-184 – note that the boldface words are directly from the book. The explanations are my own.)

The idea, then, is to do studies that determine the probability of each of these hurdles being overcome. Then, the product of those probabilities is the probability that macroevolution could, indeed, produce the novel bit of biology.

How does one assign probabilities for each hurdle? The authors give an example by referencing a study by Michael Behe and David Snoke published in Protein Science in 2004. In that study, Behe and Snoke attempt to model how a duplicated gene could be mutated to mesh with a system that already exists. After all, gene duplication is supposed to be a major way in which novel proteins are formed – the argument being that a duplicated gene can mutate willy-nilly without affecting the organism, since the original version of the gene is still there to produce the right protein. Such a model at least gives estimates for the probability of producing interface compatibility. Arguably, Behe and Snoke’s model could be expanded to estimate some of the other probabilities as well.

This is probably the most important part of the book, since it attempts to produce a quantitative process by which to evaluate whether or not a novel bit of biology could come about by random mutation acted on by natural selection. While there is still a lot of work to be done within this paradigm, it is an excellent start!

The last great thing this book offers is a detailed look at the various origin-of-life scenarios out there. As I said previously, it spends far too much time on a scenario no serious scientist believes anymore, but once it gets off that dead horse, it really gives a solid overview of the hypotheses in the field. There are many, many proposed origin-of-life scenarios, and as the authors state:

…An embarrassment of riches [so many origin-of-life scenarios] points not to the solution of a problem but to vain gestures at a solution. Indeed, the very claim that ‘there are many plausible solutions’ suggests that none is plausible. If any one of them were really plausible, we could expect to see a consensus among scientists that it really is plausible.

Of course, such a consensus is not what we see in the origin-of-life literature. Indeed, the authors discuss eight different origin-of-life scenarios, some of which I had never read before. Nevertheless, each scenario has well-known scientists (like Christian de Duve, Stuart Kauffman, and Michael Russell) associated with it. When so many recognized experts champion so many different hypotheses, you know that none of the hypotheses has any real evidence in its favor. That, of course, is made clear in the detailed discussion found in the later pages of the chapter.

Overall, then, The Design of Life adds quite a bit to the origins discussion. Of course, some will close their eyes, cover their ears, and yell loudly in hopes that such literature will eventually go away. Serious scientists, however, should consider reading this book to see how a very vibrant field in biology is progressing.


3 Responses to “The Design of Life”
  1. Cavan Jurgens says:

    With as much due respect as possible. The general field of science does not respect rapid dacay theory either. Evidence of that is just not happening from what recent data suggests. There are weaknesses in the field, but in a way this reasoning suggests it’s a short term anomally. Most models, and that is what is wonderful, models, at least start the understanding, on the magnetosphere. I know you realize that models can be flawed. I teach from your books, and I think most of it is pretty tight. However in rapid decay theory it should never grow…correct.

    I am a guy that wants a private chat with you.

  2. Cavan Jurgens says:

    By the way I love my students with all my heart. Anything they do with the future in front of them I am supportive of.

  3. jlwile says:

    Cavan, thanks for the posts!

    If you are saying that the majority of scientists do no respect the rapid-decay theory, I agree with you. However, scientific consensus, in my opinion, is worth very little. The majority of scientists have often been wrong. Thus, I prefer to look at the data. In my opinion, the rapid-decay theory is the most consistent with the data. Thus, it is the most reasonable theory about planetary magnetic fields.

    Rapid-decay theory does, indeed, predict growth in magnetic field strength under certain conditions. Essentially, when great tectonic activity can produce short-term increases (and decreases, depending on the conditions) in a planet’s magnetic field.

    I will send you a personal E-MAIL if you want a private chat.

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