EN20: Undeniable Design

Early in his graduate work at Caltech, Douglas Axe was confronted with a question on a final exam:  Which of the biological macromolecules is apt to have been the first ‘living’ molecule, and why?  Doug appreciated the presupposition of the question, that life formed from nonliving matter, somehow, via random chemical processes.  He had a choice:  “Do I go with the flow, or do I push against it?”

He decided to give the ‘expected answer,’ but then for extra credit (he hoped) to explain why he found that answer unconvincing.  He argued that no molecule has what would be needed to start life.  When he got his exam back he discovered that his professor had deducted points for not accepting – without resistance – the biological community’s atheistic / materialistic paradigm.  Axe:  “We were there as much to be acculturated as educated.  I had learned my lesson.  The stream of scientific consensus flows with an almost irresistible current.”

Douglas Axe

Douglas Axe

Douglas Axe’s book, Undeniable:  How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (2016), relates some of his trials as a Ph.D. researcher, going against the flow, and – at a very readable level – his arguments that the case for Design in biology is simply overwhelming.  Axe is part of the Intelligent Design (ID) community, associated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle.  He is not a Biblical creationist, apparently not willing to go so far as to profess openly that the Designer is actually God as revealed in God’s own words, the Bible.  As always in my essays, I’ll try to pull some interesting nuggets out for your reading pleasure, without attempting to offer a comprehensive summary of the book.

Axe has a suggestion, a ‘rule’ for deciding what can or can’t be attributed to accidental causes, which he terms “The Universal Design Intuition”:  Tasks that we would need knowledge to accomplish can be accomplished only by someone who has that knowledge. 

He offers some simple examples:  “Can you make an omelet?  Can you button a shirt?  Can you wrap a present?  Can you put sheets on a bed?”  Such tasks seem so ordinary that we don’t think about the training we received early in life, involving many specific steps to get even simple jobs done.  Making breakfast doesn’t ‘just happen.’  Making the bed requires actual thought and skill.

The 1st century Greek historian, Plutarch, agreed:  “Nobody wets clay with water and leaves it, assuming that by chance and accidentally there will be bricks, nor after providing himself with wool and leather does he sit down with a prayer to Chance that they turn into a cloak and shoes for him.”  Yet biologists – of the evolutionary kind – fantasize exceptions for the utterly complex machines of life.  Bricks don’t happen by chance over time, but dragonflies and horses do . . . we are told.  The ‘common folk’ know that smartphones and communications satellites are pinnacles of human technology – intentionally designed by the most superbly skilled of the human race – but “true masterpieces – things like hummingbirds and dolphins . . .” happen by luck?

Blog 98 image hummingbirdA skeptic of neo-Darwinism (mutations plus natural selection ‘create’ the entire ecosphere) for years, Doug looked around for other skeptics.  He spent much of his spare time in the late 1980s, while finishing his Ph.D.,  investigating the foundations of evolution.  (It’s too bad he didn’t find the creationist community.)  In the literature he found the papers transcribed from talks given in 1966 at a symposium in Philadelphia, a symposium entitled “Mathematical Challenges to the neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution.”  That symposium identified many serious problems, in effect calling for serious research programs to see if the ‘story’ of evolution actually held up at a quantitative level.  (It doesn’t.)

Doug was troubled at the absence of any apparent followup between 1966 and the late 80s, though.  Evolutionists at established universities and other scientific institutions were simply not interested in pursuing critiques of Darwin.  In fact, the culture was so entrenched that it wasn’t possible for such a symposium to occur.  There just weren’t any renegades out there.  But Doug saw himself as a renegade, although he would have to keep his rebellion a secret in order to be employable.

Unusually for an ID advocate, Axe addresses why his fellow travelers separate from creationists.  “The truth is that ID and creationism have always differed fundamentally in their methods and starting assumptions.  Creationism starts with a commitment to a particular understanding of the biblical text of Genesis and aims to reconcile scientific data with that understanding.  ID, on the other hand, starts with a commitment to the essential principles of science and shows how those principles ultimately compel us to attribute life to a purposeful inventor – and intelligent designer.”

What Axe tragically misses, as did Phillip Johnson in the 1990s when he started the modern ID movement, is that the origins issue is part of a spiritual war.  Atheists / evolutionists deny their Creator because they want to – they deny and suppress the truth (Romans Chapter 1).  It’s a heart issue at the core, a love of sin and self.  It’s fascinating that Doug uses the word compel – that ID will compel recognition of a generic Designer.  No way!  The atheist starts with the presupposition of naturalism.  No matter how much data you confront him with, no matter how compelling you think your argument, no matter how many mysteries he must suffer, he is adamant in his denial of the Creator.  Notably, when famous lifelong atheist Antony Flew converted to a vague theism just before he died, he had no inclination to recognize that the Designer is the Lord Jesus Christ, before whom he must humble himself, repent from his specific sins, and trust as Savior.

Blog 98 image dolphinsAxe also mischaracterizes ‘creationism’, at least a properly Biblical creationism, espoused via presuppositional apologetics.  I don’t condescend to merely commit “to a particular understanding of the biblical text of Genesis.”  And I’m not aiming “to reconcile scientific data with that understanding.”  I take Genesis as it was clearly intended, a 6-day creation, with the first Adam and his wife there from the beginning (at the end of the creation week), as declared by the Lord Jesus Himself, and a literal flood survived by Noah and his family, and a literal tower of Babel as the source event for the division of languages and cultures . . . etc.

I’m also – emphatically – not merely trying “to reconcile scientific data.”  The Christian worldview, Biblically  based, is that nothing can be explained without standing on the foundation of God’s word.  Nothing includes the existence and structure of this universe, the design of biological systems, the mind and conscience of man, the objective reality of moral law, the real human values of love, justice, truth, beauty, integrity, hope, meaning, etc., nothing makes sense unless God – the Biblical God – is the source of everything. 

Everything includes science – which depends on rational thought, logic, integrity, senses and minds in touch with physical reality, uniformity of physical laws, etc.  Science is entirely dependent on a huge foundation of qualities sourced in God.  You can’t start with science, which presupposes rational persons – scientists, supposedly – who are not merely bags of molecules driven by brain chemistry.

Axe claims that we all “naturally accept that objective truths exist.”  Why?  “Objective truths” aren’t part of the periodic table or the laws of physics.  We should make  the atheist uncomfortable because he has no such foundation to stand on.  His worldview is foundation-less.  Atoms and the laws of physics cannot be the source for truth and rational thought.  Axe sees the atheist’s materialist commitment as “unnecessary to science.”  It’s far worse than that – it’s completely irrational!

University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

In 2002 Axe was working at Cambridge’s Center for Protein Engineering (CPE).  He was asked to take over the leadership of a research group that had tried, and failed, to use a hybrid approach of engineering and laboratory ‘evolution’ to make new enzymes that could replace natural enzymes.  Doug’s condition for accepting the role was to view this research as indications that converting enzymes to new functions was not easy, but rather very hard.

He set up a meeting with the CPE director, an extremely renowned biochemist, along with the team of graduate students attached to the project, arguing that their view of protein origins was incorrect, and the failed projects could be restructured to test the opposing perspective, that proteins are nanomachines of such complexity and functionality that they must be designed.

His pitch “was not a smashing success.”  Ultimately, Axe got fired.  A fellow scientist had been pressing the lab director for some time to dismiss him for his connections to ID.

Finding new research digs, Axe was able to complete a series of experiments that indicated how ‘lucky’ you have to be for a random sequence of amino acids to constitute a functional protein.  In other words, you can imagine stringing together amino acids in chains of a few hundred at a time (a typical length for a protein), but most of such sequences will not be useful to any cell.  This all assumes that you can get all the amino acids into one place and that you have the right amino acids (there are many more types than the 20 found in life’s proteins), and that they are all left-handed (right-handed amino acids are, in principle, just as abundant from random chemical processes).  But if you get all these conditions just right, what are the odds that your random sequence of amino acids is a good one?  The answer is 1 in 1074.  That’s one in

100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,

000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,

000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Do you like those odds?  Want to play a roulette wheel with that many slots?  In comparison, there are only about 1051 atoms that make up the planet we live on.

The implication, of course, is that “a decisive blow had been dealt to the idea that proteins arose from accidental causes.” Then Doug admits, “Nevertheless, my expectation that this would compel evolutionary biologists to hand ‘Out of Business’ signs on their doors proved unrealistic.”  His challenge was not welcomed.  He realized quite poignantly that “real science is nothing like the utopian version I held at the beginning of my journey.  The flag of materialism still flies proudly over the academy and people working under that banner are expected to show due respect.”

And so Doug felt compelled to address the hard question of how to advance the truth in the face of such opposition.  My view on this is that it cannot be done evidentially because of the tightly held religious presuppositions of atheists who run academia.  When I meet such a fellow I go after his worldview, as I’ve explained in many essays on this web site.  However, I’m not going to waste much time going after the old established tenured academic.  I’m looking mostly for the young, the college student, for example, who hasn’t hopelessly hardened his heart.  When I establish to the somewhat open-minded young fellow that only the Biblical worldview allows rationality, then within that perspective I make the challenge personal, sharing the Gospel.  I’m not trying to convert him to a vague theism, but rather to the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s the point of all this – origins, life’s purpose and meaning, hope beyond our imminent deaths – isn’t it?

Axe’s answer to his hard question is useful, though . . . “Because most people will never master technical arguments, there is a desperate need for a nontechnical argument that stands on its own merits, independent of any technical work.”  Yes – I agree.  Let’s weaponize apologetics arguments so that anyone can understand them!  That’s what I try to do with my tract designs; whether or not I succeed very well, that’s the intent.

Axe properly argues that it is our common sense, in fact our common science that validates our design intuition through experience.  As infants we build mental constructs of gravity and balance, along with color and shape.  We classify objects into categories, like toys, clothes, and parents.  This is the stuff of science, acquiring data, processing it, and analyzing it to make useful predictions about how we might best interact with the world around us.  As a youth grows into a cyclist or a skateboarder, does he understand something about Newtonian mechanics?  Of course!  What he eventually learns in physics or engineering courses adds some systematics and numbers to his intuition . . . that’s what the practice of science is, after all, counting and weighing and building instruments and math models to count or predict the number of photons coming out of a laser or arriving from a distant galaxy, or the number of molecules undergoing a combustion reaction in an automobile engine.  But intuition rules in all such endeavors, because you’ll always check to see if the numbers make sense.

Blog 98 image boy on skateboardSo we apply our design intuition to know – beyond a doubt – that lasers and automobiles are designed, along with bricks and breakfasts, yet are told by evolutionists to ignore our design intuition when it comes to the most complex objects in creation . . . our cells and eyeballs and hearts and brains!  There is good news, says Doug.  People who don’t have Ph.D.s have the right and the ability to fully engage in the origins debate, which is far more philosophical and historical than it is scientific.  The reason that the evolutionary establishment dominates  the schools and the colleges and the media is because it is integral to atheistic religion.  Atheistic religionists who have Ph.D.s in counting photons or molecules are blowing smoke particles at you when they claim to have any knowledge whatsoever about how proteins and DNA got started.

How did life get started?  That’s easy.  Life is the most information packed, information dependent realm in the universe.  Information always starts in Someone’s mind, someone who has the knowledge to create and employ that information for specific purposes, such as ecosystems, the creatures in those ecosystems, and the organs and cells within those creatures.  Information => mind . . . no exceptions.  (A => B means that A implies or necessitates B.  “=>” is a double-shafted arrow.)

From the ID point of view, we don’t have to know who built the robot that cleans the pool, but we do know that someone designed and built it.  The pool robot doesn’t know anything, but “is the successful outcome of a much more impressive whole project, namely the design and manufacture of a working pool robot,” involving scores of engineers, machinists, factory workers, project managers, accountants, etc.  Pool robot => human knowledge and intent.  The humans who built the robot => Brilliant Designer with purpose and intent.  Darwin’s view is not only wrong, not only ridiculous . . . it’s so small and shabby!

Doug’s research involved careful and quantitative investigations to explore whether mutations and selection could produce new versions of proteins, especially the folds that produce the 3-D structure of proteins that determine functionality, whether as enzymes to enable critical cellular chemistry or as structural elements for cells and organs.  In one series of experiments his team explored whether enzyme ‘A’ might transform into enzyme ‘B’ within a billion years or so.  (In the lab you can run cycles much faster than you will find in long-lived animals.)  To illustrate, Doug suggests that if mutations and natural selection could turn sponges into orcas in hundreds of millions of years, then surely the modest changes from ‘A’ to ‘B’ could be effected in a billion years.  The result?  Even though they started with an already existing and functional protein ‘A’, relevant mutations and ideal selection schemes could not generate a not-too-different enzyme ‘B’.  Doug cites additional experiments by others that tested millions of random mutations, “searching for any evolutionary possibility that we may have overlooked in our first study.”  No joy there, either.  In the evolutionary scheme, of course, you have to generate the first proteins from scratch, along with DNA and a host of other cellular factory items.  If evolution cannot take tiny steps, how can it make gazillions of huge leaps?

Those of us who allow freedom to our design intuition should not be surprised at such results.  We wouldn’t expect random changes to the blueprints for manufacturing a bicycle (‘A’) to produce a high performance motorcycle (‘B’), with thousands of functional vehicles coming out of the plant between ‘A’ and ‘B’.

Protein structure and folding is difficult to even sketch.

Protein structure and folding is difficult to even sketch.

Doug recounts the tale of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, when an oxygen tank exploded, damaging the spacecraft and threatening the lives of the astronauts as CO2 began to build up.  Engineers on the ground came up with a design to make the box-shaped scrubber cartridges from the command module compatible with the cylindrical cartridge system of the lunar module, where the astronauts resided.  Walking through this on-the-fly design process we see motivating thoughts (save the 3 lives!), analysis of resources, ideas to manipulate those resources, clear communication from engineers on the ground to astronauts in space, skillful construction by sentient astronauts, purposeful installation, and bet-your-life-on-it testing . . . that’s just to briefly outline the process.

Astronaut Jim Lovell interpreted the language – the words – of the NASA engineers so he could gather the critical resources, such as scrubber cartridges, duct tape, plastic bags, and cardboard.  Words connecting concepts (thoughts) to physical reality were key to this life-or-death project.  The words had to make sense to sender and receiver regarding resources and detailed instructions for fabrication.  They had to be ‘good words’.  Now, proteins and cells and kidneys are far more complex than the makeshift CO2 scrubber that saved the astronauts’ lives.  Bio-technology is incredibly more sophisticated than the best of man’s efforts.  Just how smart is God?

Complex objects that have functionality do not happen by ‘accident’.  Doug brings us back to making an omelet.  Cracking the eggs must be done with some precision that requires some practiced skill.  Accidents here ruin the project.  Yet even acquiring the eggs requires deliberate and thoughtful actions.  If you accidentally tug on one of a hundred different objects in your kitchen rather than on the refrigerator handle, you won’t make the omelet that requires the eggs.  Then you have to see and grab onto the egg carton and open it and carefully remove the eggs.  Just think through the entire process.  Thousands of accidents are possible, but the omelet appears only if the entire sequence of actions is done thoughtfully.  “Knowledge is the primary ingredient of every omelet.”

Successful construction projects, whether omelets or motherboards or fighter aircraft or cheetahs, “can’t occur by accident:  they exhibit an organized functional coherence that can only come from deliberate, intelligent action.  They are conceived from the top down and constructed from the bottom up.  They may operate by nothing more than physical causes, but they certainly don’t originate that way . . . Invention can’t happen by accident.”

Apollo 13 carbon dioxide scrubber

Apollo 13 carbon dioxide scrubber

Top down and bottom up?  Creation is top down, beginning in the mind of our Creator.  That’s why the project of creation worked!  Evolution is a blasphemous and hideously stupid insult to the Lord Jesus Christ, claiming that we and what we see is bottom up . . . by luck.  Only an ignoramus can buy into that after he thinks it through.

Axe reviews, at an elementary level, some of the incredible technologies we find in biology.  I’ll mention just one . . . photosynthesis.  We should think of photosynthesis as the reverse of burning fuel.  Add a spark to fuel and off goes the reaction, all quite ‘naturally.’   But unburning is not natural at all.  In cyanobacterial photosynthesis we find a parts list that includes twelve different protein machines and six cofactors.  One cofactor, chlorophyll a, is used 288 times to build the system.  The complete system has 417 pieces, each precisely positioned to collect solar photons and convert the energy of each to chemical potential energy.  About three dozen genes are dedicated to the system’s assembly, which includes those 12 proteins plus other enzymes for manufacturing the cofactors.  The whole assembly, a massive collection of molecules, has a diameter of twenty-two billionths of a meter.  That’s nanotechnology.

Now there are books written about the details, including the antenna system that collects the photons and the electron transfer circuit that delivers the energy.  There are a myriad of devices and functions with specific purposes, all critical and critically in harmony with each other, intended for the production of sustenance for the bacterium.  By the way, human engineers cannot come close to designing a solar energy system with anything like this system’s efficiency . . . not to mention designing it in nanoscopic size.

So, you might ask, what biological systems are simple enough to explain by mutations and natural selection?  Not a one.  Everything in biology is proof of Design, proof of creation.  You can’t get the first protein by luck, no matter how long you wait, no matter how favorable the conditions in a fictional ‘primeval soup.’

There are millions of different kinds of plants and animals, featuring unique organs and specialized genes.  Axe cites a research paper that indicates “that every taxonomic group so far studied contains 10-20% of genes that lack recognizable homologs in other species.”  In other words, every species has many genes that are unique.  Where did they come from?  What is the origin of unique genes?  Axe:  “Each and every new form of life must therefore be a masterful invention in its own right . . . Because each new form of life amounts to a new high-level invention, the origin of the thousandth new life form is no more explicable in Darwinian terms than the origin of the first.”  Each and every one originated in the mind of God, from His workshop.

Biochemical pathways, like photosynthesis, are incredibly complex.

Biochemical pathways, like photosynthesis, are incredibly complex.

Doug is clear about the implications, that atheism / materialism makes no sense of reality, that science is built upon the immaterial (thought, etc.) and therefore is hopelessly unsuited to explain such immaterials as hope and meaning.  One thing I like about Doug is that in addition to not being an atheist, he’s also not a Calvinist (a close cousin).  “Consciousness and free will are not illusions but foundational aspects of reality, categorically distinct from the stuff of the outside world . . . consciousness and free will are at the very center of all reality, just as they are at the center of us.  We love to think and create and express ourselves because we were created to do so by a God who has surrounded us with exquisite proof that he loves these same activities.”

The author explores another implication that escapes atheists and, in my own view, Calvinists:  personhood.   In materialism (or strict Calvinist sovereignty), there are no persons.  Personhood is fundamental to our existence.  It is axiomatic to our self-awareness and everything we do in day-to-day life.  And personhood is nothing without rational thought (not constrained by brain chemistry) and spectacularly free will.  Our will is spectacularly free as evidenced by the heights and depths of good and evil in our lives and what we see going on around the world.  Such extremes of good and evil are nonsensible in both a materialistic view and a strict sovereignty view.

Our personhood makes it all quite . . . personal.  Who we are, our accountability to God, our responsibility – if we are born again Christians – to personally witness the truth of the Gospel to the lost around us, our interactions with other spectacularly free persons, all in the sight of the personal God who yearns for us to trust and obey and follow Him, all these are part of our purpose in life.  Do we make the days count?  How about today?  Are you making it count for something that has eternal value?  God designed your nanotechnology so that you can . . . if you will . . . it’s up to you and me to present our bodies, brilliantly designed nanotechnology, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, in reasonable service, today.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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