Intelligent Design: DNA

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In today’s world, we often hear about the ongoing debate between Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID). This type of discussion may be popular among friends or acquaintances of varied belief systems or you may hear it on the news every now and again. The idea of ID is a very hotly contested theory among various scholars because of the theological and ideological implications that arise as a result of it.

At the forefront of this debate between ID and Darwinian Evolution is DNA. Since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly how the information within DNA could have possibly originated (Meyer 2009, 12). In a way, DNA has given a large amount of credence to the theory of design because there are no other competing hypotheses that can make as much sense of the mass amount of specified intelligible information mysteriously located within DNA than design.

 The thesis for this article is to present convincing facts on the specified information contained within DNA to be the result of a divinely guided process rather than the random acts of naturalism. As you will come to see, naturalism is simply incapable of coming up with a scientifically and philosophically valid case for the presence of information contained within DNA. As we will come to see, the idea of chance being the sole contributor to such a vast amount of specified information is completely incomprehensible.

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What is DNA?

 I will present some quotes below by prominent individuals who have made remarks on DNA and the biological role it plays,

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instructions…Think of a billion discrete digital characters…If you want to understand life think about technology – Richard Dawkins (Dawkins 1996, 112)

Human DNA contains more organized information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the full text of the encyclopedia were to arrive in computer code from outer space, most people would regard this as proof of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. But when seen in nature, it is explained as the workings of random forces – George Sim Johnson (Sims Johnson 1999)

When Watson and Crick discovered the structure and information-bearing properties of DNA, they did indeed solve one mystery, namely, the secret of how the cell stores and transmits hereditary information. But they uncovered another mystery that remains with us to this day. This is the DNA enigma – the mystery of the origin of the information needed to build the first living organism – Stephen Meyer (Meyer 2009, 24)

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On the whole, DNA can be described as a database that holds the information to create any living organism. It can be related to computer software for biological organisms. In fact, the king of software himself, Bill Gates, said this, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created” (Gates 1995, 188). The objective of DNA is to produce a specified product, namely, biological organisms. Oxford mathematician John Lennox affirms the quote above by George Sim Johnson by noting that every one of the 10 to 100 trillion cells that are contained within each human body contain a database that holds more information than an entire Encyclopedia Britannica (Lennox 2009, 136).

 The process of how organisms are developed at the direction of DNA is extremely intricate so I will not be delving too deep into the specific details of how DNA works but I do feel it is important to have a basic understanding on the physical structure and function of the DNA molecule. The DNA spiral ladder is made up of a very long chain of molecules called nucleotides. The base of this spiral DNA ladder is made up of four different chemicals. These chemicals are called Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine (aka A, G, C, and T). These chemicals are properly combined together to make a gene. Once instructed, these genes form instructions for making a protein (Lennox 2009, 137-138). Of course, organisms are made up of proteins. While there are many more steps along the way that make up a more thorough summary of the DNA and its makeup, this should serve as a simple foundation for the basic understanding and appreciation of why DNA is pivotal in the ID movement.

Three alternatives to design will be discussed as a competing hypothesis for the origin of the information found within the DNA molecule. In my personal opinion, DNA is one of the most compelling scientific pieces of evidence for the existence of God because of the inconceivably enormous amount of specified information contained within such a small space (need a microscope!) that plays such a vital biological role in the life of every living organism. Information, by its very essence, requires intelligence. As you will come to see below, without intelligence, there is no information.

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Chance

Many might ask whether or not design can be intelligently inferred simply on the existence of information contained within DNA. This is a perfectly legitimate question. If we were all honest with ourselves, I think we can probably admit to having thought about it at one point in time or maybe are still struggling with this dilemma of the possibility of chance. Thankfully, chance provides little comfort for those looking for a naturalistic explanation to the information contained within DNA.

The analogy of a book has been used a couple times thus far in this article when discussing the quantity of information contained within DNA. Books, by their very nature, communicate a message. Nobody that picks up a book believes that these letters arranged themselves by accident. The reader is fully aware that the book he has in his hands was written by an intelligent source. In reality, it would be absurd to suggest that any book was written at the hand of chance. However, when even more complicated information arises within our own DNA, people are much more easily convinced that different rules of logic apply. The reality is that nothing has changed outside of the fact that we are not dealing with a physical book but rather with information contained within our chemical makeup. Simply because information is transmitted in a different mode does not mean that intelligence was not behind the information. This double standard is fallible and falters on the basis of sound reason. Those that accept the intelligent origin of books but fail to accept the intelligent origin of DNA are making blind distinctions by failing to recognize the significance of what makes DNA so persuasive for ID; the existence of specified information.

In Lee Strobel’s book, “A Case for a Creator”, Strobel asks Stephen Meyer to describe how likely it would be for a one protein molecule (significantly less complex than what we predominantly see in our own bodies) to be created by mere chance,

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First, you need the right bonds between the amino acids. Second, amino acids come in right-handed and left-handed versions, and you’ve got to get only left-handed ones. Third, the amino acids must link up in a specified sequence, like letters in a sentence. Run the odds of these things falling into place on their own and you find that the probabilities of forming a rather short functional protein at random would be one chance in a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. That’s a ten with 124 zeros after it! (Strobel 2004, 228)

 As you can see, those are not odds that you would want to bet against. Chance requires much more faith than that of ID. Information does not form by chance to create long elaborate messages regardless of the mode. Whether a message is written down on a Word document, post-it, notebook paper, textbook, software code, or DNA, information that communicates a message is the result of an intelligent agent. That is why DNA has made such a positive impact on the ID debate in recent years because of the widespread acknowledgment that information will always have an intelligent source.

Naturalism

Now that chance has been viewed as an inconceivable candidate for the origin of information contained within DNA, another candidate that is given much credit in the scientific community is natural selection. Those that give credence to Darwinian Evolution often accredit the very same process to DNA. Evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins has given this theory much thought and credit in his book “Climbing Mount Improbable” published in 1996. However, there is an insurmountable problem that awaits those who say that natural selection is the mysterious culprit of the immense amount of information found in DNA.

The general premise behind natural selection is that organisms adapt to their surroundings in order to survive and reproduce by passing down favorable traits to their offspring. There is nothing wrong with the concept of natural selection on its own merits; however natural selection requires information-rich DNA to make it work (Strobel 2004, 231). Do you see the problem? Stephen Meyer provides an excellent insight on why natural selection fails at explaining the origination of DNA information,

In other words, you’ve got to have a self-replicating organism for Darwinian evolution to take place, but you can’t have a self-replicating organism until you have the information necessary in DNA, which is what you’re trying to explain in the first place. It’s like the guy who falls into a deep hole and realizes he needs a ladder to get out. So climbs out, goes home, gets a ladder, jumps back into the hold, and climbs out. It begs the question. (Strobel 2004, 231)

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This quote by Dr. Meyer effectively highlights the absurdity of trying to claim that naturalism is a better explanation than a design. Organisms cannot adapt for survivability without having DNA information directing their bodies on how to do so. Naturalism cannot account for DNA information because natural selection presupposes the existence of information-rich DNA. You cannot claim to know the origin of the information through a process that requires the information to begin with. It would be as ridiculous as trying to convince someone that the book they are reading did not have an author. Under this claim, the existence of information is acknowledged but there is a failure to acknowledge the source of the information. The same analogy can be used with natural selection; natural selection acknowledges the existence of information without plausibly explaining the source of the information. As absurd as it may sound, some people who would never reasonably accept the idea that books can be written without authors are unwilling to entertain the notion of the existence of DNA without a designer.

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Chemical Affinities and Self-Ordering

A brief summary of chemical affinities and self-ordering in this context can be described as the inevitability of life coming into existence because of the amino acids in proteins and the letters that make up the DNA alphabet were “self-ordered” (Strobel 2004, 232). This hypothesis stems from the idea that the chemical attraction between each amino acid would naturally guide them to their correct position which would consequently result in the formation of a protein; which would then perform its proper functions as directed by the information contained within the DNA (Strobel 2004, 232-233). However, there are major flaws with this outlook on the origination of information on DNA and its corresponding functions. The person who initially made this idea popular is named Dean Kenyon and he co-authored a textbook, “Biochemical Predestination”. Ironically, Kenyon rejected his own position on this issue after he reviewed additional evidence. In the documentary, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life”, Kenyon said, “We have not the slightest chance of a chemical evolutionary origin for even the simplest cells” and said that the design hypothesis “made a great deal of sense, as it very closely matched the multiple discoveries in molecular biology” (Allen 2002).

Some skeptics may still try to cite examples in nature that would exemplify “self-ordering” (as originally hypothesized by Kenyon). In chemistry, there are many examples of bonding affinities (attractions) between different elements which explain the origination of a particular molecular (Strobel 2004, 233). To use an illustration of chemical forces at work, we can look to salt crystals.

 Chemical bonds in salt crystals attract sodium ions to bond with chloride ions to make the salt crystal (Strobel 2004, 233). However, there is a very big difference between the chemical bonds between a salt crystal and the amino acids found in cells. The big difference is that the amino acids show no signs of demonstrating the same chemical attraction that salt crystals exhibit (Strobel 2004, 233). Not only did this hypothesis of chemical affinities and self-ordering fail to explain why the amino acids do not connect in the right place naturally, but it failed to reveal the source of information. As Kenyon conceded, there is no evolutionary explanation for the origin of information found in DNA.

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Conclusion

Please do not feel overwhelmed by the complexity of this information. This is difficult material! For this particular topic, I would recommend the book titled, “Signature in the Cell”, authored by Stephen Meyer. Gaining an understanding of this material will take time and dedication but it will undeniably give you a greater appreciation for the brilliance of God’s design.

The facts have given us a progressively greater understanding of the magnitude of information contained within DNA which has allowed us to see God’s fingerprint within biology. DNA can easily be viewed as one of God’s most magnificent designs. The amount of information contained within DNA is nothing short of miraculous. However, what has led to this surge of continued belief in the naturalistic worldview given that the evidence does not support it? Given that the data for the existence of information is undeniable, what rational reason is there for placing faith in anything other than design?

The answer to these two questions can be found by observing the worldview of those who hold to a naturalistic worldview. By definition, naturalists cannot allow a supernatural explanation to be considered because their worldview does not allow for a God. God is not an explanation for naturalists because God is not real and therefore cannot serve as an explanation for the intelligible information found in DNA. This is the very unfortunate reality of an atheist. They are philosophically bound to explanations that do not consider God. With that being said, maybe Christians should not be continually plagued with the stereotype of narrow-mindedness.

After examining the three common alternatives to design, it should be clear that these alternatives fail to successfully account for the information within DNA in a manner that would discredit the theory of design. The naturalistic worldview does not make sense of the information because it cannot account for the source of this information. As Christians, we are perfectly within our reasonable rights to infer a supernatural intelligence as the source of the information because it can be logically inferred that all specified information originates from intelligence.

In closing, I hope this information has given you some perspective on how truly great God’s creation is. From the heavens to the earth to your cells, God has left his signature everywhere within this universe for us to explore and admire. For those that are having trouble finding God in this world, I genuinely wonder whether they are really looking at all.

by Alan Anderson

Bibliography

Unlocking the Mystery of Life. Directed by Lad Allen. 2002.
Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1996.
Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead. New York: Viking, 1995.
Lennox, John. God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God? Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009.
Meyer, Stephen C. Signature in the Cell. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Sims Johnson, George. Did Darwin Get it Right? New York: The Wall Street Journal, 1999.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for a Creator. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

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