Review Of Probability’s Nature And Nature’s Probability – Lite, by Donald Johnson
If Intelligent Design is to be escorted out of science debating halls because of its compatibility with a belief in a deity, undirected naturalism should likewise be excluded on the premise that it is the core tenet of nontheistic religions like Atheism. Such is the opening message of the `Lite’ version of a book whose title Probability’s Nature And Nature’s Probability is so captivatingly simple that one cannot help but take at least a cursory look through its pages. And the author Donald Johnson has an impressive list of scientific accolades to his credit brought about by a passion for (and not a disdain of) science- a PhD in chemistry from Michigan State University, ten years as a senior research scientist in the medical and scientific instrumentation field, a twenty year college-teaching career and a second PhD in Computer Science.
Johnson’s personal reflections reveal a lot about how he came to espouse the views of the Intelligent Design movement. Over the course of his career, Johnson grew increasingly skeptical over natural causation as applies to the origin of life. Science as we know it, he notes, should make testable predictions. While speculation does have a place in science, it needs to be presented as such and not dressed up and served up as a `platter of facts’ for consumption by a public unaccustomed to the nuances of scientific argumentation. Johnson brings to the fore the blatant misrepresentations of what is truly `probable’, `plausible’ and `feasible’ in the context of origins of life research as he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of mathematical notation and probabilistic reasoning.
Theories that are at loggerheads with the singular origin of our universe can in most cases be soundly discredited on the grounds that they lack empirical evidence and testability. The oscillating (Big Bang/Big Crunch) model in particular is easily pushed aside given a notable absence of data in support of a universe that will reach the critical density needed to cause its collapse. For an infinite-existence model we are confronted with the question of how a system that has reached maximum entropy over infinite time could ever give rise to a non-maximum entropy cosmos. In the words of Johnson “an infinitely old universe would be energy dead with no capacity for work, since one result of the second law of thermodynamics is that perpetual motion machines are impossible (zero probability)”. Other attempts to eschew the extraordinary fine tuning of our universe, such as we see in the manifold iterations of String theory, posit the existence of multiple universes. The metaphysicality of such alternatives however, given that we cannot possibly hope to see beyond the horizon of our own cosmic abode, renders them unqualifiable as real science.
What are we to make of the abundance of life on our planet? As Johnson so clearly conveys, an acceptable definition of life naturally entails a consideration of observable phenomena such as metabolism, growth and reproduction. At the heart of life lies a myriad of proteins that perform critical functions all of which depend on the tight specification of highly-restricted amino acid sequences. Proteins in the ribosome are themselves translated by the very machinery of which they form a part. The DNA that supplies the instructions for their manufacture is a digital code of the highest order with alternative splicing and sequence overlap of the estimated 20-25,000 genes that exist in humans producing somewhere in the order of 100-200,000 distinct proteins.
Even one of the smallest organisms, Mycoplasma genitalium, sports 482 genes although estimates suggest that as few as 151 genes might be all that is needed to make the simplest life form. How might chemical evolution have taken the first baby steps on the road to what one might tentatively call a primitive cell? The reality as Johnson so emphatically hammers home is that science remains clueless over this singularly important question. Since proteins and nucleic acids have long been known to act as an integrated co-operative whole, models that assume a gradual evolutionary process are today considered woefully inadequate for explaining the origins of life. Truth be told, there exists a pervasive ‘science as we don’t know it’ element in everything from RNA world hypotheses to panspermia and the host of proposed undirected natural processes that invoke the role of minerals in early biocatalysis.
With matter and information representing two distinct “domains of existence”, biologists are at a loss to explain the origin of the digital code contained in genetic material. DNA carries a large degree of so-called traditional information which provides meaning for subsequent interpretation by the translation machinery. Trevors and Abel wrote how the codons of DNA represent “functional meaning only when the individual amino acids they prescribe are linked together in a certain order using a different language”. This has to be one of the outstanding revelations of the bioinformatics revolution. In fact, using his exhaustive knowledge of information science, Johnson demonstrates the extraordinary parallels between a computer program’s algorithmic language and the genetic information system contained within every living cell.
What is most impressive about Johnson’s text is the breadth and diversity of scientific sources that he draws from. Even those who are heavily committed to undirected naturalism display an apparently unavoidable tendency to use a language that connotes design. So it is that while Darwin’s heavyweights seem intent on embracing chance and natural selection as the only drivers of biological change, they are also perhaps unwittingly navigating towards intelligent design through their own corridors of reason.
Trevors, J.T.; Abel, D.L. Chance and necessity do not explain the origin of life. Cell Biol. Internat. 2004, 28, 729-739.