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Distinctions, Part 2: “God as a Scientific Theory?”

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April 27, 2011 Tags: Design
Distinctions, Part 2: “God as a Scientific Theory?”

Today's video features Loretta Cooper. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today we debut the second video in our “Distinctions” series, a collection of short videos that look to clarify some of the important scientific questions at the heart of the science and faith dialogue. Today’s video looks at the idea of genetic information, and whether it can offer us “proof” of an intelligent designer.

Over the past two decades, the intelligent design movement has been working diligently to offer a parallel version of modern science, one that can scientifically show God at work in creation. In a way, it is similar to Christian music and Christian art, creating an evangelical version of science. But is their goal an admirable one?

So far, the efforts of the Intelligent Design movement have not been well received by the general scientific community. In this video, biologist Sean Carroll, currently Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin, focuses on one of the reasons for this rejection: the misdirected emphasis of the ID movement. Says Carroll:

To put it sort of in the simplest terms, it’s not the genes you have; it’s how you use them. And so these genes, which are involved in building bodies, you can sort of think of them like a carpenter’s toolkit. That while everyone may have a hammer and a nailgun and a whole set of wrenches… how you use them over time determines what structure you build, whether you build a hope chest or a whole house. So the genetic switches determine the use of those tools. And it’s the genetic switches that are evolving that are giving us the great diversity of, for example, the animal kingdom.

However not all objections to Intelligent Design are scientific. There are also philosophical obstacles. As Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes:

I think if you strive too hard for scientific proofs of God, you’re in danger of accidentally endorsing the scientistic position, of elevating science to be the supreme arbiter of what is intellectually convincing, because you are essentially giving them the deciding control over what is and is not to be believed.

He continues by saying, “I think ultimately you can’t know God in an abstract way. You have to get to know him.”

As believers, we might prefer Christian music or art, but that does not mean there needs to be an alternative set of scientific Christian facts. We agree with the Intelligent Design movement that there is a Mind who has created, established, and sustains the universe, despite the inability of the ID movement to “catch God” under a microscope or in a laboratory. God is at work in his creation, and science is not a challenge to that sovereignty.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Loretta Cooper established the Clarity Communications Group in which she uses her experience with network television news to help clients navigate the media world. She spent over a decade covering the White House, Capitol Hill and the Courts as a correspondent for ABC news. She has also worked with film makers and television producers to generate positive media coverage about their projects, teaching them how to tell their stories in a way that communicates effectively. She is the recipient of numerous awards for outstanding broadcasting, including the prestigious Du Pont Award for her coverage of the events of September 11th 2001 and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Feature Reporting.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #59473

April 27th 2011

If language is evidence of human intelligence, than language, i.e. the genetic code, is evidence of an intelligent design.  However, to go beyond that is not only difficult, but unnecessary.  The genetic code is a scientific fact, not the product of Christian research or theology.  

Arni Zachariassen - #59776

April 27th 2011

It seems to me that one of the points of the video is to say that referring to DNA as “code” or “language” is using a metaphor. DNA isn’t actually code or language, but how it works is analogous to these phenomena. The problem with ID is that it confuses the metaphor with the real thing. That’s what I take away from the video. Am I understanding it right?

Jon Garvey - #59871

April 28th 2011

“Information, transcription, translation,code, redundancy, synonymous, messenger, editing, and proofreading are all appropriate terms used in biology. They take their meaning from information theory (Shannon, 1948) and are not synonyms, metaphors, or analogies.” (Yockey, 2005, p6)

An information theorist and mathematician, not an ID supporter, taking his cue from George Gamow’s groundbreaking work in the fifties. I can’t see how something can be analogous to a digital, linear code but not be one. The alternative seems to be that the genetic code (sorry, genetic metaphor) is purely the result of stochastic chemistry.

All sorts of things seems to follow. The observation that 64 3-letter (metaphorical) base combinations for 20 amino acids, involving (analogically) redundant (so to speak) codes, is close to the ideal for preservation of (what one might mistake as) information, is mere coincidence. Its formal description as the second extension of a quarternary alphabet, with 6 bit bytes, is just a helpful, but false, way of picturing the code. Variations in some of the base triplets (eg in mitochondria), which suggest the code is indeed symbolic, need to be explained instead, presumably, on the basis of the different chemistry operating in the mitochondria.

I’ll be happier to accept the gentic code is only a metaphor when the subject is purged of “information” words. Until then, the duck is quacking and waddling in a distracting manner.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60082

April 28th 2011

It turns out that words as in the Word are real, as are ideas, thus matter and energy are not the only realities in this world, which makes materialism and physicalism false ideologies. 

sy - #60635

April 30th 2011

Like Jon, I have trouble with this fairly new concept that the genetic code is not “really” a code, but just a metaphor for one. The idea that it is the structure of DNA that allows it to function, and therefore it isnt really symbolic is analogous to saying that the words on a printed page are produced by a mechanical printing press, and therefore they could not contain information. Its nonsensical. DNA represents symbolic information, whether we use the letters A,C G T or draw the chemical structures for adenosine etc, or think of the actual chemical 3D stuctures.

I am suspicious that this paradigm, namely that there is no actual genetic code, which I have seen only in the past few months, may be a an attempt to counter ID and arguments related to the origin of life from  other than purely natural means. If so, its silly. All the other arguments in the video related to ID are reasonable in my view. Scientists do not need to subvert the true nature of DNA based coding in order to protect biology, and Christians do not need ID to protect the role of God in creation.

Jon Garvey - #60638

April 30th 2011

Sy, reading one of the papers most easily available on the net from this viewpoint - apparently cited a number of times in the literature, I was struck by what seemed a basic lack of knowledge about information theory (and I speak as the merest dilettante myself). It put forward the argument that smoke contains information about fire in the same way as DNA, which appears almost wantonly ignorant.

As I may have mentioned in another post, I just get the same feelings about “convenient redefinition” as when when embryos suddenly got redefined as “zygotic material” at the time when there was a move to do human embryo research.

Paul D. - #60658

May 1st 2011

I think the difference between DNA and a real code is like the difference between a sign and a symbol. One is a convention, the other arises naturally from innate physical properties.

DNA works because of the innate properties of the nucleotides, not because of a convention regarding how they *ought* to work. That’s why they are like a code, but not a code.
Jon Garvey - #60663

May 1st 2011

What intrinsic chemical properties account for alternative codons in mitochondria and other cells (a break in the convention), for stop codons and non-coding sequences?

And have the innate properties of the nucleotides been fully correlated with their function in DNA? Until they have, then “like a code” is not an explanation, but merely “like” an explanation.

sy - #60669

May 1st 2011

Actually the genetic code has nothing to do with the innate chemical properties of the nucleotides. It really is a pure code, a real language, in that there is no chemical reason that any particular codon should code for an particular amino acid. Some research has been done trying to find direct chemical correlations between codon chemistry and amino acid chemistry (aptamers) but this is extremely unconvincing. What makes the code work are the translator molecules, the amino acid tRNA synthetases, which have binding sites for both the anticodon on the right tRNA and for the right amino acid. You couldnt invent a more code like, symbolic like language.
There is no question (in my mind) that the genetic code is a symbolic form of information and I am frankly saddened by what I consider to be the unscientific attempt to challenge this notion based on a  reaction to ID. There are much better ways to argue against ID, without twisting the reality of what the genetic code is.

Jon Garvey - #60671

May 1st 2011

“What makes the code work are…” - heartily agree Sy. DNA + 0 = 0. It’s inert.

As chance would have it I was checking out James Shapiro’s recommended reading list for his approach to evolution today, and found no such reticence there in recommending sources on bioinformatics and biocybernetics. It would seem that to those like him who postulate a basically complex and organised process for evolutionary change (and I think also to those in fields like evo-devo where similar levels of organisation are key) the precision and specificity of a computer-like code is a welcome supporter. ID is no threat - indeed Shapiro is on record as saying that his model answers ID’s concerns about evolutionart theory.

By contrast, mainstream Neo-Darwinism seems wedded to the Modern Synthesis’s dependence on time and chance. A random point change here, a random translocation there, and eventually everything is explained. Those bigger changes can only be of minor importance, if any. The mindset seems to be of the genome more as a rather disorganised assemblage of chance events. If that’s not an entirely wrong impression on my part, then a highly structured algorithmic code (together with its attendant smart hardware!) running the whole ramshackle show is something of an embarrassment, and ID’s drawing attention to it might be seen as a threat.

In any case, spending ones efforts doing down ID supporters and retreating from the hard-won understanding of DNA as an information system don’t seem to me the actions of self-confidence.

Jon Garvey - #60697

May 2nd 2011

A link to a lecture by Richard Watson of Southampton: http://videolectures.net/sscs06_watson_ce/

Seems to confirm my suggestion that taking bioinformatics seriously can take understanding a lot further, whilst actually being quite antagonistic to Neo-Darwinian gradualism.

I like the early reference to gradualism as “page one of the computing textbook”!

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60688

May 1st 2011

I should hope that Christians are critical of the science of Eugenics.  

Science is not above criticism.  The charge that ID is like “Christian music” is absurd.  Is it wrong to criticize Gangsta rap that glorifies violence and misogyny?

It is strange to me that Dawkins can say that Darwin (as opposed to Paley’s Design argument) made atheism “intellectually respectable,” and no one seems to care.  However, when others with a different viewpoint argue that Paley’s argument makes sense to them, all sorts of alarm bells concerning religion and science go off.  

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