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Design of the Times (Snoke and Mirrors, part 3)

February 21, 2007

I discovered Intelligent Design.

Shades of Al Gore! No, I don’t mean to claim such a distinction for myself. However, while I am musing though Professor David Snoke’s A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, I thought I’d take a discursus from my rantings for a moment and present a personal view.

A dyed-in-the-wool non-evolutionist, in the mid-90′s I had occasion to review my thinking on the subject. A college biology class I was taking suggested evidence of descent from certain seaweeds to land plants based on a shared form of chlorophyll. I recall pondering for some time whether there might not be something to ol’ Chuck Darwin after all.

Fortunately, my microbiology class cured me of such wanton open-mindedness once and for all. It was learning about the inner workings of the “simple cell,” the microscopic unit that is the sine qua non of life. I became an instant admirer of its macro-molecules, particularly the proteins and the nucleic acids. I want to tell you about them, but I hardly know which should come first. And that’s just the point! Neither one can exist or has any reason to exist unless the other is fully in place.

I think, however, that proteins are my favorite. In their vast diversity, each is composed of the same kit of constituent amino acids, numbering a mere twenty (like an alphabet), everything depending on the order of their combination. Assembled randomly, they give you a nice inert blob. Yet if done cleverly, the mere sequence of micro-Tinkertoys turns into the most amazing little contraptions. They are described according to four structures: primary is the precise order of amino-acids, placed one after another like beads on a string. Secondary structure comes about as the differing acids exert influence on the others, this one having say a strategically-placed sulphur atom that pulls on its neighbors; so stretches of the filament coil into a tubes or lay down broad zig-zags to form sheets. These fold upon themselves guided by sticky charges here and there to form distinctive units, the tertiary structure. One of these may be enough to function on its own, or it may clump together with a few other units (its quaternary structure) to form a molecular machine.

Thus are formed the polypeptides, the enzymes in the cell. One might grab onto two ends of a vitamin molecule and snap off the useful bit. Another forms a channel through the cell membrane, locked to all but those molecules sporting the requisite key. Others unzip the DNA, or untwist it, or guard the spinning helix against supercoiling. Some function as cable cars and elevators, shifting this and that around the cell interior. A few serve as mini-motors, causing flagella or cilia to whip around or rotate. There are literally myriads of such tiny engines in the cells of living creatures.

Ending up with the right enzyme boils down to the matter of correctly “spelling” an extremely long word. Not to worry, instructions are included. That would be the nucleic acid. Our most familiar variety is the famous double helix formed from chains of nucleotides, each composed of a sugar shorn of an oxygen (deoxyribose), a phosphate, one of four “bases.” These four are a pair of couples, really, each one dancing only with the one that “brung ‘em,” whether they are leading or following. Four is a tad skimpy for an alphabet, so the DNA works by code, three “letters” at a time (a bit like Hebrew, now that you mention it). That makes 64 possibilities, if I did the math right, more than enough for an alphabet, punctuation and maybe some function keys. Each triliteral “codon” decodes into one of the twenty amino acids, or into signals, such as start or stop, though some trios which seem to be skipped over like”silent” letters. Within a particular section of DNA, known as a “gene,” the sequence of codons matches the sequence of amino acids in a protein, and so reading the one, “spells” the other.

How is this accomplished? Much smaller clover-shaped molecules, built from a slightly different type of nucleic acid, RNA serves as links from one to the other. On one end, a particular type has its own version of the trio, this time the three significant others of each base in a DNA codon. On the other end of the clover leaf is a spot that has a particular fondness for the specific amino acid signalled by the codon. As a result, each time three bases are unzipped, the appropriate tRNA jumps in and sticks to the zipper, places its designated “bead” on the protein string, and then falls off. Little by little, one step at a time, you’ve got your microscopic mechanical marvel.

Pondering all this, what completely flabbergasted me, is that anyone in his/her right mind could imagine this intricate interworking as anything but deliberately engineered. As I stated above, one part makes no sense without the other. And none of it does anything without at least some sort of quorum of constituents present. You need DNA to make the proteins, and you need proteins to work the DNA.

During these days I was driving home and I tuned the radio to a talk show. The guest was telling the host about some amazing molecular machines, and he was using terms like “irreducible complexity” and “intelligent design.” I nearly drove off the road! The radio voice was either Michael Behe or William Dembski; I can’t remember which, but he was putting into powerful words what I had had only vague notions of. It was the first time I had heard the concept of “intelligent design,” but I had already been on board for months.

Intelligent design is a cogent argument that intellectually sends Darwin his pink slip. It is perfectly logical and scientific, though this has not prevented its being derided as pseudoscience by detractors. On the popular level, it is mistakenly confused with the much broader concept of creationism, a movement with a thousand faces. I see this mistake repeated constantly, by both creationism opponents and by creationism advocates alike.

Reading the daily idiot forum, AKA letters to the editor, you find all kinds of blather on the subject, very seldom from individuals who know what they are talking about. It is strange times we live in where ignorance and prejudice come to the rescue of “science.”

Distressing as well, is indications within Professor Snoke’s book that between ID advocates and more traditional creationists there appears to be a great gulf fixed, and perhaps widening. I understand this is due in part to the old-earth, young-earth controversy. If you’ve been reading these posts, you know I have a point of view in the matter, but goodness, folks, Darwin has not yet left the building. I think we might want to stick together for the moment, not sacrificing convictions, but recognizing comrades in arms.

I can understand why some may find themselves in the old-earth camp. Thanks to ID, you can be a non-evolutionist, never even having read Genesis, and also holding your head up high as a practitioner of the scientific method. Granted you’re not going to become a young-earther by science alone, without influence of special revelation. I get it. I do think the balance favors creation of the universe in 144 hours, but I am not as stuck on it as Professor Snoke appears to be on his millions of years. I have some remarks on the text to make, and some reaction to Snoke’s translation of it, but these must wait for another post.

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