Intelligent Design

Toppling The Stanchions Of Biological Determinacy

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Synopsis Of Chapter Eleven, Signature In The Cell, by Stephen Meyer
ISBN: 9780061894206; ISBN10: 0061894206; Imprint: HarperOne

Biological determinists will argue on the assumption that universal laws undergird the origin of life. Such an appeal to natural law is of course not a novel one. Indeed even thousands of years ago Aristotle philosophized over the existence of some universal organizing principle that could shape life into the easily identifiable forms we see today. From a protein sequence perspective Pennsylvania State University biochemists Gary Steinman and Marian Cole gave seemingly empirical substance to the idea that there were certain combinations of amino acids that were more likely to form as a direct result of amino-acid bonding energies.

Along the same grain, biophysicist Dean Kenyon became a die-hard advocate of the view that proteins first assembled into functional entities through the selective affinities that specific amino acids had for one another. To be sure, Kenyon believed that specific protein sequences were somehow predestined to form as a direct result of such constraints. The title of his much-respected tome Biochemical Predestination, which he co-authored with Steinman, became a spark that served to boost his credibility. But as his joint book garnered strength as a staple text for biochemistry graduate studies in the 1970s, Kenyon himself began to have personal doubts over the validity of his own proposition. Interviewed as part of the Discovery Institute’s documentary Unlocking the Mystery Of Life, Kenyon’s own testimonial brought clarity to the depth of his ongoing struggles:

“There was this enormous problem of how you could get together into one tiny sub-microscopic volume of the primitive ocean all of the hundreds of different molecular components you would need in order for a cell replicative cycle to be established. And so my doubts into whether amino acids could order themselves into meaningful biological sequences on their own without pre-existing genetic material being present just reached an intellectual breaking point. The more I conducted my own studies including a period of time at the NASA Ames Research Center the more it became apparent that there were multiple difficulties with the chemical evolution account”.

I first learned of Kenyon’s misgivings in the Foreword he wrote for another ground-shifting manifesto The Mystery Of Life’s Origins where he noted how it was the information-bearing attributes of both polynucleotide and polypeptide sequences that he had found most vexing and unexplainable. For Stephen Meyer, his own philosophical pilgrimage brought him to the writings of Michael Polanyi who at the end of the 1960s argued that the language-style content of DNA could not be reduced to the mere operation of natural and physical laws. Just as the ink on a paper could not explain the message communicated on a printed page, so the information conveyed in a DNA molecule transcended the chemical and physical properties of its smaller component subunits.

The structures of DNA and RNA presented no escape chute for the chemical evolutionist. As with proteins, there were no constraining forces or ‘differential affinities’, this time along the phosphate backbones of DNA and RNA, that would make any given base sequence more likely than any other. Meyer transpicuously relays this point to the reader by comparing the base letters of DNA and RNA to magnetic letters on the metallic surface of a refrigerator (For further discussion see We Have No Excuse: A Scientific Case for Relating Life to Mind by Robert Deyes and John Calvert). In the same way that the placing of such letters into meaningful strings cannot be reduced to the magnetic forces between them and the refrigerator, so the information-carrying aspects we observe in DNA and RNA bases cannot be attributed to physical and/or chemical constraints.

Constructing his case on the shoulders of prominent philosophers and scientists, Meyer shows how the absence of biological determinacy is a fundamental feature of both codon/amino-acid assignments and the correspondence between amino acids and their respective tRNA molecules. The need for sequence “freedom” in DNA is imperative if it is to be a molecule of “virtually unlimited novelty” that can store information. To draw yet again from one of Meyer’s outstanding depictions, there is no more inevitability in the assembly of functional genes from the ground up than there is in the construction of the palace of Versailles from bricks and mortar.

6 Replies to “Toppling The Stanchions Of Biological Determinacy

  1. 1
    Frost122585 says:

    What has always been interesting to me about DE is the paradox of the synthesis- that on one hand you have the obvious unpredictability of random chance events- but on the other (just to keep it science) you have the invocation of physical laws of necessity- that is a certain mechanical certainty summed up under the large tent of “natural selection.”

    So DE is both unpredictable and fully predictable. They have their cake and eat it too- and this is where the problem of the DE doctrine lies. No one discounts the natural selection at work in the world- whether that be apparently artificial- or not. The issue is that simply invoking the notion of “selection” does not really do the whats, hows, and whys questions regarding origins any good. Since scientists cannot explain through mechanical predictability alone the objects of interest ubiquitous in nature and recognized by the fundamentals of order, complexity functionality and symmetry- the Darwinists are forced to rely on chance to do the rest.

    Obviously as it has been discussed so much before, laws and chance do not get you specified complexity. Hence what you have with DE is a commitment to a religious doctrine- a faith that if science remains faithful to these two principles, scientists will one day discover the mechanical laws and probabilistic resources necessary to prove the doctrine true. Even though the future does not look prosperous for Darwinists, as IDists point out even more complexity and functionality embedded in life- their steadfastness in faith is worth some note.

    Patience is a virtue and in this case it will probably be its own reward as well.

    But it should be noted that the religious faiths of chance and predestination through mechanical necessity do not originate with Darwinism- people have always appealed to events beyond their control to avoid personal responsibility for their actions. Maybe Amy Bishop the so called Darwinian Christian is a victim of her own theology?

    Lest we forget many different theologies do exist- such as Calvinism which is a self proclaimed religion of Christianity based around a mystical sort of mechanical certainty better known as “predestination” or “predeterminism”- which supposedly supersede the impetus of the desire within the domain of man’s soul and free will.

    Predeterminism is more like “Deistic determinism”- and different than “Theism”- which brings up the question of whether Calvinism can even have a “theology” to it at all.

    Calvinism is much like Darwinism actually but in the words of Thomas Jefferson to his predecessor John Adams- and after retiring from the Presidency:

    “I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He was indeed an atheist, which I can never be: or rather his religion was daemonism. If ever a man worshipped a false God, he did… Indeed, I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to atheism by their dogma, that, without revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of God.”

    Then, in this case, it is a good thing for us Christians IDists indeed- who CAN infer a designer from the hallmarks left from of intelligent processes- for without needing to appeal directly to religious authority we can intellectually support the belief in the existence of a benevolent God- who cares both about what we want- and what we do..

  2. 2
    lars says:

    (Veering off-topic)

    “I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to atheism by their dogma, that, without revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of God.”

    It seems to me Jefferson was misunderstanding Calvinist claims. I’m not an expert in the history of church doctrines, but it seems to me that “without revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of God” is not quite what Calvinists said or meant.

    On the contrary, the teaching of Romans 1:20 is well known, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

    Or to put it another way, if it is only through revelation that God’s existence can be known, then we must include general revelation, not just special revelation: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them… ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Rom. 1:19-20)

    If creation (nature) gives plenty of evidence of God’s power and nature, apart from special revelation, how does that give a handle to atheists?

    It seems to me that either Jefferson was mistaken about the details of the claim Christians (Calvinists) were making, or he was in contact with some misguided Christians.

  3. 3
    lars says:

    P.S. nice post… I’ve been working my way through SITC but it’s handy to have the chapters summarized here in bite-sized chunks.

    Also… “transpicuously” is now my word of the day. 🙂

  4. 4
    Frost122585 says:


    The Jefferson quote is taken out of context of a letter between Jefferson and Adams- so the part about revelation and Calvinism as it pertains to Atheism was part of a larger and broader discussion.

    What Jefferson is essentially saying is that the notion of predestination is inherently evil- and it does good religion a bad service by association with it. People thinking about becoming a Christian might read Calvinism and give up on their religious search because they fail to distinguish Calvinism from other interpretations and sects.

    And Jefferson’s dislike for predestination here- which is theology speak for determinism- is so adamant that he calls Calvinism either the world view of an atheist or a religion inspired by demons- that is, an evil religion of the Devil essentially. But what is important to note is that Jefferson’s objection to Calvinism is not merely because he thinks Calvin’s interpretation of scripture is wrong- but that the notion that man has no choice- no free will essentially- totally undermines the notion of the soul that he believed in- and that made his Declaration of Independence one of truth and transcendence. The belief that the Creator gives all men a certain inalienable “equality”- that God does not force man to choose evil- is an absolute Christian or Theistic truth and necessity to Jefferson. Therefore, Calvinism which essentially holds the contrary position is of the devil – or of a philosophy devoid of proper Theism. By this interpretation Calvinism is actually spreading either a religion of the Devil or a philosophical system opposed to true Theism and thus a handle atheists may grab at for aid when attacking the true God.

    And atheists have indeed used exactly this- the notion of determinism- to slam the possibility or rationality of faith in a God who promises hope and choice- and also fair judgement- based in the notion of the freedom of will.

    Jefferson was a better than average philosopher- and one of the most underrated and overlooked.

  5. 5
    andyjones says:

    This is not the place to have a pop at Calvinism.

    Calvin’s teaching is not determinism, or even close to darwinism. That suggestion is absurd. Calvin believed in free will by any reasonable definition.

    But he also believed in God’s absolute sovereignty. That does not necessarily mean that God deliberatively chooses to damn certain people (despite the what-if in Romans 9:22).

    Instead, humanity are quite capable of destroying themselves, and that is the natural course of events in a fallen world. God does not wish for any to die, and saves many, but that involves deliberative personal intervention on his part, and a willing response on the part of the saved.

    How Jefferson connected this to determinism and darwinism, I do not know. I guess there must have been a horrible charicature doing the rounds.

  6. 6
    tribune7 says:

    How Jefferson connected this to determinism and darwinism, I do not know.

    I don’t know either unless he had skills like Nostradamus that we don’t know anything about. Darwinism didn’t come into play until nearly four decades after Jefferson’s death.

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