Lack of understanding does not equal evidence for design.

The Centre for Intelligent Design generally makes its arguments that life as we see it around us must have been designed by some designer with unfathomable powers (pretty much a supernatural entity resembling a deity), from the starting point that if they (C4ID) cannot understand it, then it can’t have happened naturally. This, I suppose, comes from their religious origins – all religions seem to rely on the ostensible word of some deity relayed to the faithful from some authority figure.  Just this morning, I came across this excellent cartoon (The believer’s perspective vs the scientist’s perspective) from the excellent Calamities of Nature site, which nicely illustrates this:


As a fundamentally religious ideology, therefore, Intelligent Design creationism proponents don’t like uncertainty in the world around them. In complete contrast, a truly scientific approach revels in the unknown, isn’t afraid to grasp the nettle of uncertainty, and seeks to understand the unknown. If I may sound a little Rumsfeldian for a moment, this could be characterised as from the ‘unknown unknowns’ to the ‘known unknowns’ to the ‘known’.

One of the articles on the C4ID website is reached from the link entitled “Genetics”, and is itself entitled The Problem of the Origin of Life. This article, which appears to be authored by “David Swift, B.A. (Cantab), M.Sc, author of Evolution Under the Microscope“, is a classic example of the “it is beyond my comprehension, so God did it” kind of reasoning.

It’s not really clear why this article comes under the heading of Genetics, as it merely touches on molecular biology to set out the stall that things are complex, and that the author cannot understand how they came to be.  Anyhow, Swift begins by outlining the biological processes of DNA replication and protein synthesis, complete with links to Wikipedia.  The point he’s trying to make is that, in the case of extant organisms at least, DNA replication, transcription, and protein synthesis are all intertwined.  You can’t make DNA without proteins, you can’t make protein without RNA and you can’t make RNA without DNA, and so forth.  So, yes, life is fundamentally very complicated.  And lest the reader think we understand all there is to biology, that is most certainly not the case – the picture gets steadily more complex as researchers make further discoveries.

In the second heading, Swift notes that individual macromolecules are complex.  Actually that’s slightly tautological, since the bigger things are, the more complicated they are likely to be.  Macromolecules are big.  But I’m always wary when ID creationists start bandying probabilities around in an effort to explain how bafflingly unlikely it is that something occurred.  Generally they mostly fail to demonstrate a grasp of how natural selection works.  In this section, he cites one Douglas Axe (Axe D, Estimating the prevalence of protein sequences adopting functional enzyme folds, in J. Mol. Biol., 2004 Aug 27; 341(5):1295-315).  Is this the Douglas Axe that heads the Biologic Institute (a Discovery Institute organisation complicit in the Wedge Strategy and who is the managing editor of BIO-complexity?   There is a discussion of this paper at Panda’s Thumb (Axe (2004) and the evolution of enzyme function) – it’s a complex paper, and the discussion is also rather complex.    Anyway, Swift reduces this to:

For example Douglas Axe has estimated that only 1 in about 1074 possible sequences will have biological function (Axe). So it is totally unrealistic to think that such sequences could have arisen by chance.

Which does of course miss out on the massively parallel nature of evolution.

Swift goes on to recount further examples of how biological systems are highly complex and interdependent .  One might question whether this is surprising after an estimated four billion years…

Swift’s thesis here boils down to what is essentially a restatement of Behe’s ‘irreducible complexity’.  We’ve all heard claims that the bacterial flagellum or the vertebrate immune system couldn’t have evolved, and seen these claims thoroughly debunked.  Swift makes the same claims for basic molecular properties of life, clearly supposing that the earliest forms of life on Earth appeared with all these complexities in place.  Here’s Kenneth Miller doing some debunking:

I don’t know how life started: this isn’t my research field.  From what I can divine about David Swift it’s not likely to be his field.  I do think that experiments such as those of Miller & Urey can help understand how molecules could have arisen, and it seems obvious that individual experiments must be designed around current understanding of the nature of the early terrestrial environment, and so could be envisaged differently than 50 years ago.  I can recommend Albrecht Mortiz’s article The Origin of Life for an easy to read overview of theories of the origins of life.  One of the interesting messages from that article is the willingness of scientists to review these theories in light of newly obtained evidence: in science, the consensus view is never fixed and immutable.

As a final note, advocates of Intelligent Design creationism are generally rather evasive about exactly who (or what) their “designer” is (or was). Why can they never come clean about this?  Presumably an admission that they effectively believe it to be a deity would undermine their claims that Intelligent Design creationism is scientific.

Postscript

According to the final lines of the article, David Swift is the author of “Evolution Under the Microsope”, published by Leighton Academic Press. Despite the publisher’s rather grand name, the website proclaims that:

Leighton Academic Press was set up to publish Evolution under the microscope. This is an exclusively scientific, not religious, critique of the theory of evolution. It is a sad reflection of the academic publishing world that, despite the excellent quality of the scientific arguments presented in this book – which have not been refuted in the several years since publication – none of the many academic publishers who were approached was willing to publish it.

It is possible, I imagine, that the academic publishers may just have thought Swift’s arguments rather specious (I couldn’t possibly comment, not having read the book).  However, judging by Swift’s article at the C4ID website, their “scientific critique” style is likely to extend no further that using and misinterpreting scientific observations.  Interestingly, despite Leighton Academic Press’s grand ambitions to

[…] publish scholarly books and other media of the highest quality on issues relevant to modern society, especially in the areas of science, ethics and medicine. If you have a proposal for a book which might be suitable then we would be pleased to hear from you.

The only other book in their catalogue appears to be a book on infant feeding, coauthored by another Swift.

David Swift set up a blog, Evolution under the Microscope, presumably to publicise his book of the same name. Unfortunately he hasn’t had the time to make more than three posts since 2008. In an article at his blog, he rails against hypotheses of eye development (Peer Review, posted 3rd April 2010), one of his major arguments being that he feels that there is a problem with theories that require the appearance of new genes.  I’ve blogged in the past about the origins of new genes (On the gain of genes and gene function).

According to this ID/creationist website, David Swift

graduated in Natural Sciences from St John’s College, Cambridge in 1974 and subsequently obtained an MSc in Water Resources Technology from the University of Birmingham. His research has encompassed many aspects of the hydrological cycle, and he lectures on a range of environmental concerns.

It is a shame he hasn’t properly kept up to date with biology since he graduated in 1974.

Incidentally, Horgan’s The End of Science (another source cited in Swift’s article) seems to take the thesis that science is approaching the limits of what can be known. I came across a review of Horgan’s book, which suggests that Horgan’s approach to interviewing researchers for his book was questionable. And as a researcher in biology, his thesis would appear to be nonsense: in biology, we are nowhere near the end of science!

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  1. David Swift’s avatar

    Thanks for reading and commenting on my article on the origin of life. However, I think your criticisms lack substance, so for the benefit of your readers I’m taking the opportunity to respond.

    First I must clarify that my position is not ‘fundamentally religious’. As I say in the preface to my book, it was studying biochemistry at university that first raised my doubts about evolution. And in the first section of my chapter in Debating Darwin I make it quite clear that I do not think we should be debating scientific theories on the basis of what the Bible says, including saying ’Evolution is essentially a scientific theory, not a theological or philosophical issue.’

    Whilst not specifically saying that I don’t understand how natural selection works, you label me as an ID creationist and say that ‘they’ generally don’t. As you’ve read my blog you’ll have seen my comment ‘We need to fully take on board the non-chance process of natural selection and its potential for producing a very unlikely end-product through a long series of small stages where each offers a small advantage over its predecessor’.

    But the raw materials on which natural selection can operate do arise by chance. From what we know about the structure of biological macromolecules, not only are they prima facie very improbable, but as I indicate in the article, the superficial evolutionary responses to try to overcome these improbabilities do not stand up to examination.

    I notice that you do not contest my statement that the first replicator would need to have arisen by chance. Nor that the genetic code would need to have arisen, or developed to include another amino acid, in an opportunistic manner – requiring many components that have no utility alone to have arisen more or less together.

    Your response to the improbabilities I mention is ‘the massively parallel nature of evolution’ – which I assume is referring to the fact that origin-of-life ‘experiments’ could have taken place not only throughout a terrestrial primeval soup, but also throughout the universe wherever suitable conditions may have existed. I invite you to submit what you consider to be realistic scenarios and calculations (in my book I consider the extreme case of all of the matter in the universe working towards the goal of generating a biological macromolecule, for billions of years).

    You then try to divert attention from the issues I raise by discussing the bacterial flagellum, portraying that the evolutionary answer to its complexity also answers the complexities I mention re the origin of life. But finding new uses for already biologically useful components can’t be applied to the origin of life. (In case you’re interested, in Debating Darwin I explain why the evolutionary response to the bacterial flagellum doesn’t work anyway.)

    You say that I have not kept up to date with biology. But in this week’s (5 March) New Scientist (OK, not an authoritative source, but probably reflects current scientific opinion), p 8, ‘When Stanley Miller and Harold Urey created amino acids by shooting sparks through a “primordial atmosphere” of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water, biologists thought a full understanding of the origins of life was within reach. Almost 60 years on … we’re still waiting.’ – That seems to be pretty much what I was saying (and in my book I discuss various other possibilities not included in the article) – so what significant development have I missed?

    You also accuse me of using specious arguments and misinterpreting scientific observations. I’m quite thick-skinned, so the insults don’t bother me; but perhaps you could substantiate your accusations by being more specific? It seems to me that you are the one who has put forward empty ‘arguments’ as a smoke-screen because you do not have substantive responses to the points I raise. Such as criticising Horgan’s book to try to discredit Stanley Miller’s quote in it that I mention.

    Ultimately your position seems to be summed up in the title to your article ‘Lack of understanding does not equal evidence for design’. I agree with that! I also agree with Dawkins’ criticism of the ‘Argument from Personal Incredulity’. However, unlike you who puts faith in further scientific advances to support your position, it seems to me that the more we find out and understand about how biology works, far from offering hope that an evolutionary route might have worked, the increasing levels of complexity it uncovers reinforces the case against it. As I say at the end of my article, the belief that life arose naturalistically seems to be based more on commitment to naturalistic ideology than on what we learn from empirical science.

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