Sunday, April 23, 2006

Start of the ID movement: Thaxton, et al., "The Mystery of Life's Origin" (1986)

In my last post I mentioned that Thaxton et al.'s "The Mystery of Life's Origin" (1984) is usually (and in my opinion rightly) accepted as marking the start of the modern ID movement. But rather than post quotes from that book there in support, I decided to do that in this separate post.

In the book, Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen most importantly distinguished between "supernatural" and "intelligent" (since unlike creationism ID's contrast is between unintelligent and intelligent, not between natural and supernatural), cause:

"The study of chemical evolution is strikingly similar to forensic science. Consistent with the uniformitarian view that life arose through processes still going on, numerous investigators have reported on laboratory observations and experiments which they offer as circumstantial evidence for the naturalistic origin of life. Though the conditions of the early earth are assumed to have been different from today's conditions, the processes are assumed to have been the same. According to this uniformitarian thinking, if we can reproduce in our laboratories today conditions as they were in the remote past, we should expect to obtain the kinds of changes that occurred then. This is the basis of prebiotic simulation experiments reported in chemical evolution literature. `Implicit in this [uniformitarian] assumption is the requirement that no supernatural agency "entered nature" at the time of the origin, was crucial to it, and then withdrew from history.' [Kenyon D.H. & Steinman G., "Biochemical Predestination," McGraw-Hill: New York, 1969, p.30]. (Actually all that is required for this assumption is that no intelligent-purposive-interruption or manipulation of the workings of natural forces ever occurred at the time of life's origin or since.)." (Thaxton C.B., Bradley W.L. & Olsen R.L., "The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories," [1984], Lewis & Stanley: Dallas TX, 1992, Second printing, pp.7-8)

They made the point that biotic enzymes and human intelligence (which are not supernatural) can routinely do things (like produce information) that abiotic processes cannot do (or at least there is no experience of them doing it):

"We believe the problem is analogous to that of the medieval alchemist who was commissioned to change copper into gold. Energy flow through a system can do chemical work and produce an otherwise improbable distribution of energy in the system (e.g., a water heater). Thermal entropy, however, seems to be physically independent from the information content of living systems which we have analyzed and called configurational entropy. As was pointed out, Yockey has noted that negative thermodynamic entropy (thermal) has nothing to do with information, and no amount of energy flow through the system and negative thermal entropy generation can produce even a small amount of information You can't get gold out of copper, apples out of oranges, or information out of negative thermal entropy. There does not seem to be any physical basis for the widespread assumption implicit in the idea that an open system is a sufficient explanation for the complexity of life. As we have previously noted, there is neither a theoretical nor an experimental basis for this hypothesis. There is no hint in our experience of any mechanistic means of supplying the necessary configurational entropy work. Enzymes and human intelligence, however, do it routinely."(Thaxton, et al., ibid., p.183)

What success that prebiotic simulation experiments had, they did so by "the crucial but illegitimate role of the investigator" (i.e. intelligent design):

"Over the years a slowly emerging line or boundary has appeared which shows observationally the limits of what can be expected from matter and energy left to themselves, and what can be accomplished only through what Michael Polanyi has called `a profoundly informative intervention.' [Polanyi M., "Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry," Chemical Engineering News, August 21, 1967, p.54]. When it is acknowledged that most so-called prebiotic simulation experiments actually owe their success to the crucial but illegitimate role of the investigator, a new and fresh phase of the experimental approach to life's origin can then be entered. Until then however, the literature of chemical evolution will probably continue to be dominated by reports of experiments in which the investigator, like a metabolizing Maxwell Demon, will have performed work on the system through intelligent, exogenous intervention. Such work establishes experimental boundary conditions, and imposes intelligent influence/control over a supposedly `prebiotic' earth. As long as this informative interference of the investigator is ignored, the illusion of prebiotic simulation will be fostered. We would predict that this practice will prove to be a barrier to solving the mystery of life's origin." (Thaxton, et al., ibid., p.185. Emphasis original)

Note that they made the first ID prediction above that :"As long as this informative interference of the investigator is ignored this practice will prove to be a barrier to solving the mystery of life's origin". That prediction, made ~22 years ago, still holds good today. In other words, until origin of life research: 1) stops using intelligent design illegitimately (in which case their prebiotic simulation experiments won't work at all); and 2) starts using intelligent design legitimately, (i.e. allows the ID paradigm into science) science will never succeed in solving the problem of the origin of life.

Thaxton et al. note that we know intelligent designers can synthesize proteins and build genes but we don't know that it can be done by "unassisted abiotic means" (my emphasis):

"We cannot disagree that there is need for an alternative to chemical evolution. In recognition of the fact that Panspermia offers no theory of origins, it must implicitly assume chemical evolution on some other locale in the cosmos, where conditions are more favorable than on earth. Many of the objections raised concerning terrestrial chemical evolution must, however, apply to other planets by the principle of uniformity In any setting it comes down to the fact that natural forces acting alone must be capable of supplying the necessary configurational entropy work of building the protein, DNA etc., and then assembling the cell. We know by experience that intelligent investigators can synthesize proteins and build genes. We still have no evidence it can be done by unassisted abiotic means. " (Thaxton, et al., ibid., pp.193-194)

Finally, they pointed out that DNA is not just analogous to a message that in our uniform experience otherwise is produced by intelligent causes. DNA's genetic code is a message, such that the laws of Information Theory apply to it, and SETI would unhesitatingly infer an intelligent source to any signal received that conformed to those laws:

"Consider, for example, the matter of accounting for the informational molecule, DNA. We have observational evidence in the present that intelligent investigators can (and do) build contrivances to channel energy down non random chemical pathways to bring about some complex chemical synthesis, even gene building. May not the principle of uniformity then be used in al broader frame of consideration to suggest that DNA had an intelligent cause at the beginning? Usually the answer given is no. But theoretically, at least, it would seem the answer should be yes in order to avoid the charge that the deck is stacked in favor of naturalism. We know that in numerous cases certain effects always have intelligent causes, such as dictionaries, sculptures, machines and paintings we reason by analogy that similar effects also have intelligent causes. For example, after looking up to see `BUY FORD' spelled out in smoke across the sky we infer the presence of a skywriter even if we heard or saw no airplane. We would similarly conclude; the presence of intelligent activity were we to come upon an elephant-shaped topiary in a cedar forest. In like manner an intelligible communication via radio signal from some distant galaxy would be widely hailed as evidence of and intelligent source. Why then doesn't the message sequence on them DNA molecule also constitute prima facie evidence for an intelligent source? After all, DNA information is not just analogous to a message sequence such as Morse code, it is such a message sequence [Yockey H.P., J. Theoret. Biol. Vol. 91, 1981, p. 13]. The so-called Shannon information laws apply equally to the genetic code and to the Morse code. True, our knowledge of intelligence has been restricted to biology-based advanced organisms, but it is currently argued by some that intelligence exists in complex non-biological computer circuitry. If our minds are capable of imagining intelligence freed from biology in this sense, then why not in the sense of an intelligent being before biological life existed? " (Thaxton, et al., ibid., pp.210-211)

While other books, like Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (1985), Johnson's Darwin on Trial (1991) and Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996), had a major influence on the growth of the ID movement, in my opinion (and supported up by the quotes above) Thaxton, Bradley and Olsen's The Mystery of Life's Origin (1984), rather than negatively attack evolution, made the first positive arguments for Intelligent Design itself, and so marked the beginning of the modern ID movement.

That is however not to deny that important arguments for design made by earlier design theorists like Robert E.D. Clark: The Universe: Plan or Accident? (1949) may, and A.E. Wilder-Smith: The Creation of Life (1970) and The Natural Sciences Know Nothing of Evolution (1981) did, influence Thaxton, et al. They included Wilder-Smith's Creation of Life in their Selected Readings (p.220), but his The Scientific Alternative to Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Theory (1987) was too late.

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"


Axinar said...

Interesting notion comparing DNA to a SETI message.

Only one problem ... taken as whole it's hard to tell much ABOUT what sort of "intelligence" may have created life here.

We've always expected to see a series of prime numbers, followed by a primer, followed by some content of some IMPORT.

Now, I suppose one can INFER that the message contained in life is "have lots of babies" combined with some modification of that line from Star Trek: The Motion Picture that says, "Collect all data possible and return that information to your creator ..."

But how can one be sure?

Stephen E. Jones said...


>Interesting notion comparing DNA to a SETI message.

What is "interesting" is that, because of most scientists' personal materialistic-naturalistic philosophy, science can accept the second was the product of intelligence, but not the first.

>Only one problem ... taken as whole it's hard to tell much ABOUT what sort of "intelligence" may have created life here.

The first step is to accept that it WAS intelligence that created DNA's message. Beyond that is outside ID's scope, being the domain of philosophy and theology.

>We've always expected to see a series of prime numbers, followed by a primer, followed by some content of some IMPORT.

That is simply *false*, being based on science-fiction like Fred Hoyle's "`A' for Andromeda" and Carl Sagan's "Contact". *Any* signal that SETI received which conformed to the principles of Information Theory (as DNA's message does) would be accepted as having an intelligent source.

Even if they did not know what the message said (which would be almost certainly the case). Archaeologists knew for many years that Egyptian hieroglyphics were messages, but until they found the Rosetta Stone which provided the key, they could not work out what it said.

>Now, I suppose one can INFER that the message contained in life is "have lots of babies" combined with some modification of that line from Star Trek: The Motion Picture that says, "Collect all data possible and return that information to your creator ..."

See above. The point is that if SETI receieved a message from space, it (and *everyone*) would rightly infer it had an intelligent source. Even if they could never work out from the message who or what the designer was, and what he/it thought about humans, and what they should do.

>But how can one be sure?

See above. There are few absolute certainties in science. To require it in the case of ID, but not in science generally, is to commit the fallacy of special pleading (double-standard).

Stephen E. Jones