Prometheus: Where Do We Come From? (And How Can We Know the Answer?) – part 3

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and perhaps the world’s most famous advocate and defender of Darwinian evolution, has in the past few years given intellectual credence to a concept that had hitherto resided only in the imaginations of science fiction writers:  that a highly advanced alien race may be responsible for bringing life to earth.  In an interview for a 2008 documentary on the theory of intelligent design, Dawkins speculates on this hypothesis:

“Well, it [intelligent design] could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it’s possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.”

 The opening scene from Prometheus appears to have been inspired directly by Dawkins’s idea.  A humanoid being, standing on the bank of a river flowing into a waterfall, swallows a strange liquid in a sacrificial act that causes his body to quickly decompose.  As this alien creature falls into the river, the fast current shreds his body, spilling DNA into the water, clearly conveying the image of ‘seeding’ a designed form of life on our planet.  Even Dawkins, an ardent evolutionist, cannot escape the conclusion that life was designed.    He, and others, have to propose an intelligent cause, at least of the origins of life, because the evidence that Dawkins says “you might find” is abundant and unmistakable.  Yet the reason why people attribute this intelligence to alien superhumans goes much deeper than science.

Belief in an intelligent designer of the universe certainly pre-dates science and for most does not depend on verification from scientific evidence.  The ability to recognize objects as being designed or not is deeply intuitive.  Consider the obvious example of Mt. Rushmore.  Having seen Mt. Rushmore for the first time, one would not marvel at how erosion from wind and rain over the centuries have produced what appear to be the faces of famous U.S. Presidents on the side of a mountain.  Such an explanation would be absurd.  Similarly, if you were relaxing at the beach, gazing up at the clouds, and saw “Happy Birthday” spelled out in the clouds, you would not wonder how the clouds spontaneously arranged themselves into this order.  Of course, you would look around for the airplane that you knew someone used to create a purposeful message.  Our intuition leads us to the same conclusion when we look at living things.   Even Darwin himself recognized the evidence for design in nature, but believed that it only appeared this way.  His goal was to demonstrate, as historian Neal Gillespie puts it, “how blind and gradual adaptation [i.e. natural selection] could counterfeit the apparently purposeful design” that appeared intuitively to be “a function of the mind.”  Dawkins, in his book The Blind Watchmaker, which critiques the belief that God created living things, echoes Darwin’s rejection of design intuition:  “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

Intuition is often not reliable, especially when tested against scientific explanations of things.  When examined by the best available evidence, does our intuition turn out to be reliable?  In the field of biology, there are two main areas where we find ample scientific evidence of design, much of which has been uncovered the last 50 years:  the biochemistry of the cell and genetic information (DNA).  There are dozens of solid books on this topic.  I will only give a brief survey of each.

Biochemistry –

It is important to note that Darwin knew nothing about the structure of the cell and its essential functions.  He believed the cell was very simple and took its origin for granted.  Since then we have learned that the cell is extremely complex:  an intricate, highly efficient machine that is far more complex than anything we designed.  The renowned Francis Crick, one of the co-discovers of the structure of DNA describes the cell as “a minute factory, bustling with rapid, organized chemical activity.  Nature invented the assembly line some billions of years before Henry Ford.”  In his well-known critique of Darwin’s theory (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis), biochemist Michael Denton elaborates on the scale of this complexity:

To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship….What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design.  On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the portholes of a vast spaceship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out.  If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity.  We would see endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction away from the perimeter of the cell, some leading to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units.  The nucleus itself would be a vast spherical chamber more than a kilometer in diameter, resembling a geodesic dome inside of which we would see, all neatly stacked together in ordered arrays, the miles of coiled chains of DNA molecules.  A huge range of products and raw materials would shuttle along all the manifold conduits in a highly ordered fashion to and from the various assembly plants in the outer regions of the cell. . . .Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest elements of which – a functional protein or gene – is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man?”

Darwin took the existence of simple single-celled organisms for granted, but even the simplest organisms contain a level of complexity that bears the unmistakable imprint of design.

Genetic information (DNA) –

You probably remember studying the structure and function of DNA in your high school biology course.  You’ll recall that DNA is constructed from four base molecules – adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C), and guanine (G) – which function as a chemical alphabet, combining in a variety of sequences to code for certain genes.   Calling them letters of an alphabet requires no stretch of the imagination, for this is precisely how they function.  Even Dawkins admits so much:  “What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology.  The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes.  This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth.”  In other words, calling the genetic information in DNA a language is not a mere analogy:  it is accurate to describe it as a language.  Genetic researchers Lane Lester and Raymond Bohlin describe this information using familiar categories:

Such designations [classifying genetic info and processes using linguistic categories] are not simply convenient or just anthropomorphisms.  They accurately describe the situation . . . The genetic code is composed of four letters (nucleotides), which are arranged into sixty-four words of three letters each (triplets or codons).  These words are organized in sequence to produce sentences (genes).  Several related sentences are strung together and perform as paragraphs (operons).  Tens or hundreds of paragraphs comprise chapters (chromosomes), and a full set of chapter contains all the necessary information for a readable book (organism).

The Natural Limits to Biological Change, 1984

Language is intuitively and indisputably a product of intelligence.  We do not even have to understand a language to recognize one and infer an intelligent source.  Consider ancient writings – say Egyptian hieroglyphs, for instance.  It wasn’t until the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 that archeologists were able to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs.  But prior to the translation (the hieroglyphs were discovered 1,400 years earlier by Europeans) they knew there was message there to be understood.  They did not attribute these patterns to some naturally occurring acid that eroded parts of the rock, but knew they were the result of an intelligent cause.

Thus, what we know intuitively is consistent with what we know from science.  This intituion is displayed in Prometheus when the adventurers first arrive at their destination and are looking for a place to land.  When they see a long path/road leading to a pyramid, one of the scientists exclaims “Straight lines!  Nature doesn’t make straight lines.”  They recognized these instantly as a sign of intelligence.  Simply put, the information is the genetic code is not the kind random, purposeless, natural processes make.  It is highly specified information that communicates a message:  the kind only intelligent agents make.

So “the signature of some sort of designer” is found in the details of biochemistry and genetics.  Why attribute this design to advanced aliens, though, and not to an ultimate supernatural agent, as religious explanations have always done?  To answer this, we have to go beyond science and explore the way non-scientific factors – aspects of our spiritual and emotional condition – affect our knowing.  I will address this issue in my next, and final, post on Prometheus.



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