Intelligent Design

“We’re moving into intelligent design, big-time.”

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George Church

Looking at a cell is like looking into the future of our own designs.

That’s my favorite sentence from The Design Matrix by Mike Gene (a book from which I took copious notes, and am still digesting). But the reason there’s a picture of biologist George Church in this blog entry, not to mention a quote from Church as the title, is the release by editor John Brockman of the transcript of a fascinating roundtable about the nature of life.

Held this past August at Brockman’s farm in Connecticut, the roundtable ranges over a wide array of topics, including intelligent design, synthetic biology, the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, and the effect of the genomics revolution on the theory of universal common descent — i.e., Darwin’s Tree of Life, with its single root in LUCA, the last universal common ancestor. On that score, Craig Venter says the following:

One question is, can we extrapolate back from this data set [the ongoing discovery of previously unknown gene sequences] to describe the most recent common ancestor. I don’t necessarily buy that there is a single ancestor. It’s counterintuitive to me. I think we may have thousands of recent common ancestors and they are not necessarily so common.

But check out George Church’s comments if you really want your head to pop. I think Mike Gene must have been channeling Church when he (MG) wrote The Design Matrix.

Or maybe it was the other way around. Wild days, folks. Wild days.

(HT to Abbie Smith over at ERV for the link to the Edge transcript.)

21 Replies to ““We’re moving into intelligent design, big-time.”

  1. 1
    selectedpete says:

    I am checking out the pdf transcript – absolutely fascinating read so far. Thank you very much for posting this.

    This phrase is telling:

    “We are witnessing a point in which the empirical has intersected with the
    epistemological: everything becomes new, everything is up for grabs. Big
    questions are being asked, questions that affect the lives of everyone on the
    planet. And don’t even try to talk about religion: the gods are gone.”

    Everything is up for grabs….everything is new…well, except the gods part – we’re absolutely sure about that part.

  2. 2
    DaveScot says:

    I think we may have thousands of recent common ancestors and they are not necessarily so common.

    Coming from Venter that certainly gives me pause.

    If life started from a seeding of the planet such as described by Crick and Orgel’s “Directed Panspermia” it isn’t at all unlikely that it would be thousands of different cell lines. Since the early earth probably wasn’t suitable for multi-cellular land dwellers a wide assortment of single celled extremophiles makes the most sense. Accelerating, decelerating, and soft landing any seed capsules to and from reasonable interstellar speeds, especially if many such packages were launched and targeted for different planetary destinations, would require the lowest mass possible which again speaks to a wide variety of free living single celled organisms.

    I basically look at this problem by asking “What would WE do if wanted to seed a barren planet in the goldilocks zone with organic life.” A lot of serious consideration of how we’d terraform Mars for eventual human habitation has been done but in the case of Mars we’re close enough to monitor the progress and adjust as necessary along the way. We’d start with just a few organisms that can survive the current conditions and which would work to increase atmospheric pressure, get a greenhouse effect going to raise the surface temperature, and build up free oxygen. In the case of planets in other solar systems that’s not at all practical. In that case you get one shot at it with a very low mass vessel and can’t easily monitor the progress to say nothing of making adjustments or sending subsequent seed craft based upon current results – not when the time to complete the journey is thousands or millions of years.

    An alternative scenario is a self-sufficient generation craft of large proportion which carries the intelligent agents aboard it. In that case it can stop and study the planet in detail and seed it in more customized manner possibly with more complex organisms. If on some sort of a service route in that case it can revisit the same planet periodically to monitor progress and make adjustments but due to transport vessel speed limitations and distance between solar systems with planet(s) in the goldilocks zone the interval between visits would be on the order of millions of years. It’s difficult to envision intelligent agents undertaking projects with timelines of this scope but on the other hand mastery of nanotechnology (which humanity may very well acquire in the rather near future) theoretically brings about virtual immortality and the ability to enter into hibernation or suspended animation for almost any length of time so maybe it isn’t that far fetched at all. The lightspeed barrier is the biggest constraint and there’s nothing nanotechnology can do about it. That said, it’s physically possible to build large spacecraft that can approach close enough to lightspeed so that the subjective time experienced travelling for thousands or millions of years is compressed into a far smaller interval. Acceleration to and deceleration from close to lightspeed is the constraint in that case and that in itself could take years of subjective time. This is the bread and butter of hard science fiction and a lot of serious thought has gone into it by working scientists who moonlight as science fiction authors. Some of my favorites that I’ve been reading for many years (decades in some cases) are physicists: John G. Cramer, Gregory Benford, Charles Sheffield, and Robert L. Forward. Many scientist/writers have also produced speculative non-fiction in the same general area. Freeman Dyson is one favorite in this category that comes to mind. NASA has also produced a lot of serious non-fiction work in the general area of practical means of interstellar transport.

  3. 3
    bFast says:

    When Chrurch said, “We’re moving into intelligent design, big-time.” It seems to me that he was talking about genetic engineering, the future of genetics where an intelligent agent (us) designs new complexity.

    That said, Church does seem to be less dismissive than most of ID as discussed here. Yet I think it unfair to suggest that he is using the term Intelligent design in the same context and with the same meaning as are Dembski and Behe.

  4. 4
    Paul Nelson says:

    Hi bFast,

    There are very striking parallels between Mike Gene’s arguments in The Design Matrix, and what Church has to say. Have you read Gene’s book?

  5. 5
    Mapou says:

    Naive question: What’s the difference between human-engineered genes and Intelligent Designer-engineered genes? How does one tell them apart? I guess my question is, 1000 years from now, how easy will it be for geneticists to determine through inspection whether or not a given corn plant was engineered by Monsanto?

  6. 6
    bFast says:

    Paul, I have not had opportunity to read Mike Gene’s book yet. That said, Mike makes it very clear that he is prepared to consider that life as currently defined was the product of some unknown intelligent force. Church seems to be saying, rather, that a known intelligent force — humans — are going to intelligently influence future genetic developments. Though Church seems to suggest that science has been too dismissive of ID, he hardly seems ready to sign the document of dissent. As such, I think it unfair to Church to “out him” as an IDer when all he is saying is that humanity is likely to do wonderful things with genetic engineering.

  7. 7
    magnan says:

    Off topic, I found an interesting and very positive discussion of intelligent design from the parapsychology perspective in a recent interview with Gary E. Schwartz, a leading researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson. For him, conscious intelligence is a necessary factor in the origin and evolution of life. This is about ten minutes starting about 37 minutes into the hour long interview, at

  8. 8
    es58 says:

    return to who designed the designer:
    if ventner’s company, in 100 years or so, designs 10K life forms, based on extremeophiles, and seeds zillions of each kind on a moon around jupiter where there’s water under the surface, and it takes root, and aliens land there, are they allowed to think it was designed? (using a robot mechanism that drills, seeds, then takes off, leaving a small footprint that erodes away)

  9. 9
    tribune7 says:

    parapsychology perspective in a recent interview with Gary E. Schwartz, a leading researcher at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

    Something to mull: leading universities have no problem with parapsychology. OTOH, any mention of hard, cold, empirically based ID drives them bonkers.

  10. 10
    larrynormanfan says:

    leading universities have no problem with parapsychology.

    I’m not sure that’s true. Didn’t you see Ghostbusters. Remember Dean Yeager’s words to Dr. Venkman:

    Doctor… Venkman. The purpose of science is to serve mankind. You seem to regard science as some kind of dodge… or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!

    In all seriousness, there have been some parapsych institutes associated with universities, but they’ve severed ties in recent decades. There’s some such institute near Duke, I think.

  11. 11
    larrynormanfan says:

    Sorry for the double posting. I’m still getting used to this.

  12. 12
    tribune7 says:

    In all seriousness, there have been some parapsych institutes associated with universities, but they’ve severed ties in recent decades.

    Well . . .

    Again, not to try to get anyone to lose creds or funding but there does seem to be a double standard w/regard to academic freedom when it comes to ID.

    Even The Parapsychological Association is formally affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science according to Wiki.

  13. 13
    gleaner63 says:

    I believe UCLA has a parapsych lab back in the 1980s. I was stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore, CA., back then when (if I remember correctly) a group from that university came to a nearby town called Hanford to investigate a ghost sighting at a cafe called the Bastille, which used to be jailhouse. Not sure what they found…

  14. 14
    DLH says:

    Thanks Paul for the link. I found especially fascinating Robert Saphiro‘s comments on the origin of life.

    I realized what a fragile and vulnerable molecule [DNA] was, even if was the center of Earth life. After water, or competing with water, the other thing that really does damage to DNA, that is very much the center of hot research now—again I can’t tell you to stop using it—is oxygen.

    I got into the question of the origin of life, and knowing the DNA chemistry that I did know—and helped write—I looked at the papers published on the origin of life and decided that it was absurd that the thought of nature of its own volition putting together a DNA or an RNA molecule was unbelievable.
    I’m always running out of metaphors to try and explain what the difficulty is. But suppose you took Scrabble sets, or any word game sets, blocks with letters, containing every language on Earth, and you heap them together and you then took a scoop and you scooped into that heap, and you flung it out on the lawn there, and the letters fell into a line which contained the words “To be or not to be, that is the question,” that is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback—and there would be no feedback, because it wouldn’t be functional until it attained a certain length and could copy itself—appearing on the Earth.

    Christian de Duve, the Nobel laureate, once wrote a letter to Nature which was headed, ‘Did God Make RNA?’ Because it’s hard to think of any other manner in which RNA out of purely abiotic chemistry would assemble itself on the early Earth.

    I started publishing papers which disassembled—deconstructed, if our German friend wants—so-called prebiotic chemistry, and showed that in every case the result was due to the flagrant interference of the investigator in biasing the results to attain the results that he wanted.

    . . .Miller-Urey experiment. . . the apparatus itself has no resemblance whatsoever to the primitive Earth. . . .if he’d left his apparatus on for a million years,. . . nothing further would have happened because the spark was in the atmosphere and he’d used up all of the chemicals with carbon in the atmosphere, and the amino acids, which aren’t volatile—they don’t fly, so to speak—were safely ensconced in the water solution . . .

    I looked at the paper and thought, How did nucleotides come in? How did RNA come in? How did anything come in? The point is, you would take whatever mess prebiotic chemistry gives you and you would concentrate that mess so it’s relevant to RNA or the origin of life—it’s all in the eye of the beholder. . . . . Nature has no inclination whatsoever to build nucleosides or nucleotides that we can detect, and the pharmaceutical industry has discovered this.

    The half-life of pure ribose in solution, a different experiment and a very good one, by Stanley Miller is of the order of one or two hours, and all of the other sugars prominent in Earth biology have similar instability.

    Richard Dawkins wrote a wonderful book, but the place where he absolutely blew it was in a section on the origin of life. He took all of the supposed irreducible complexity and said that natural selection can explain all this, you need no other rule. But then when it gets to how does one get to natural selection, he has no other recourse—he’s not a chemist—than to invoke some improbable event; he says that we need a vast improbable event and he goes anthropic and says, well maybe there are many universes and we happen to be the lucky one. . . . So his schoolboy howler is the section on the origin of life.”

  15. 15
    DLH says:

    See further extracts on Robert Saphiro’s comments on essential need for energy cycles and feedback under the post:
    Are ATP energy cycles essential to life?

  16. 16

    […] an important date, time is not on my side. But I can’t help but pause and notice something that Paul Nelson just noticed: But check out George Church’s comments if you really want your head to pop. I think […]

  17. 17
    ari-freedom says:

    But then when it gets to how does one get to natural selection, he [Dawkins] has no other recourse—he’s not a chemist—than to invoke some improbable event; he says that we need a vast improbable event and he goes anthropic and says, well maybe there are many universes and we happen to be the lucky one.

    so he goes for that cheap trick too…I wonder if multiverse supporters even realize how foolish they sound?

  18. 18
    bFast says:

    ari-freedom, “I wonder if multiverse supporters even realize how foolish they sound?”

    Hey, quit plagerizing the statements I am about to make!

  19. 19
    ari-freedom says:

    sorry, I have psychic powers. 🙂

  20. 20
    wdt says:

    The Ribosome

    Mention of the ribosome keeps popping up throughout the round-table discussion. It appears to be the participants’ choice for the penultimate evolutionary challenge. Below, I’ve picked out just a few highlights — the emphasis is mine. I’ve tried to preserve the context, but the whole document is recommended reading to put everything into perspective. The participants cited below are: Synthetic Biology pioneer George Church, Quantum engineer Seth Lloyd, Bioorganic chemist Robert Shapiro, and Genomic Research pioneer J. Craig Venter.

    CHURCH: The ribosome . . . [is] the most complicated thing that is present in all organisms . . . you find that almost the only thing that’s in common across all organisms is the ribosome. And it’s recognizable; it’s highly conserved. So the question is, how did that thing come to be? And if I were to be an intelligent design defender, that’s what I would focus on; how did the ribosome come to be? . . . Because it [the ribosome] does a really great thing: it does this mutual information trick, but not from changing something kind of trivial, from DNA to RNA; that’s really easy. It can change from DNA three nucleotides into one amino acid. That’s really marvelous. We need to understand that better. (p.76)

    VENTER: . . . we tried to make synthetic ribosomes, starting with the genetic code and building them — the ribosome is such an incredibly beautiful complex entity . . .Nobody knows how to get ones that can actually do protein synthesis. But starting with an intact ribosome is cheating anyway right? That is not building life from scratch but relying on billions of years of evolution. (p.51)

    LLOYD: . . . frankly I have to say that given the complexity of ribosomes and the way that life is organized right now, it smacks of being something which is the process of a long and complicated and arduous process of evolution at the metabolic level . . . And that means it could be very hard to figure out what happened. That’s potentially bad. On the other hand there is a good thing, which is there is a way to find out what’s going to happen in life’s future — that is you wait and see. I suggest we do that. (p.153)

    SHAPIRO: I can only suggest that a ribosome forming spontaneously has about the same probability as an eye forming spontaneously. (p.78)

    VENTER: . . . to me the key thing about Darwinian evolution is selection. Biology is a hundred percent dependent on selection. No matter what we do in synthetic biology . . . we’re doing selection. It’s just not natural selection any more. It’s intelligently designed selection, so it’s a unique subset. But selection is always part of it. We’re not that far away from being able to do these experiments. It’s very hard to do now, because nobody would spend the money . . . to see if we can get spontaneous ribosome formation, but within a decade it will be doable. (p.79)

    CHURCH: But Seth was saying that if we try to do the whole process, from primordial soup to ribosomes, we haven’t got 10^8 leaders times 10^9 years to do it. (p.80)

    LLOYD: Actually, Bob, I’d be interested in what do you think if you had to bet on the success of this particular venture of trying to recreate a ribosome from scratch — trying to come up with a pathway.
    SHAPIRO: You can synthesize in the laboratory a ribosome from scratch, undoubtedly.
    CHURCH: You mean evolve a ribosome?
    LLOYD: Evolve a ribosome.
    VENTER: We have synthetic ribosomes in our lab, they’re just not totally efficient right now. We didn’t design them; we’re copying the design. (p.81)

  21. 21

    […] you siding with the goose who demands perfectly- defined, narrowly-focused predictions from the… wdt: The Ribosome Mention of the ribosome keeps popping up throughout the round-table discussion. It […]

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