February 22, 2005

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s DNA

There is one issue that is foundational to every worldview — the question of the existence of God. All other issues of life, from psychology to ethics to politics, are simply a postscript to how that question is answered. So the first question is: Is God real?

A traditional reason given for God’s existence revolves around the apparent design found in all living things. The English theologian William Paley detailed this argument in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley noted that if a watch was found lying on the ground, one would not assume that it came into existence through mindless natural causes, since no known laws of biology, chemistry, or physics can produce this kind of complex structure. It would be reasonable to assume that the watch came to be through an intelligent maker. By analogy, complex design in nature demands an Intelligent Designer, i.e. God.

However, two challenges have been offered that sought to dismantle this argument. The first was the philosophical challenge of Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume pointed out that organisms may have come about by chance, given an infinite universe in which there are an infinite number of possibilities. Therefore, there is no need to postulate a Designer.

The second blow came when Charles Darwin offered a naturalistic explanation for biological design in his well-known work, The Origin of Species, published in 1859. Thus, “natural selection” is touted as the “Blind Watchmaker” according to Oxford University Professor of Science, Richard Dawkins. By eliminating the need for a Divine Designer, Darwin’s theory made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[1]

As a result of these philosophical and scientific critiques, the argument from design fell onto hard times, and skepticism regarding God’s existence became fashionable. However, after 140 years of skeptics ruling the philosophical roost, there are rumblings in the hen house. What is causing the stir?

Enter Antony Flew, the legendary British philosopher and champion of atheism. Now, nearing 82 years of age, Antony, it seems, has flown the coop. In a January 2005 interview, Flew described his personal odyssey from atheism to theism, emphasizing the central place that the design argument had in his journey.

Flew currently believes ” . . . the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries” and that “the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.”[2]

To trace why Flew has had a change of heart, we need to recall that in Darwin’s day, cells were thought to be simple lumps of matter because the inner workings of the cell were unknown. It has been just in the past fifty years that scientists have discovered the vast array of intricate biochemical machinery that maintains cellular life.

In his 1986 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Michael Denton comments, “To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times . . . What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design.” Denton describes the millions of openings on the cell surface, the endless highly organized corridors and conduits branching in every direction, which lead “to the central memory bank in the nucleus and others to assembly plants and processing units.” And in the nucleus itself we find “miles of coiled chains of the DNA molecules.” Further, “the simplest of the functional components of the cell, the protein molecules, were astonishingly complex pieces of molecular machinery, each one consisting of about three thousand atoms arranged in highly organized 3-D spatial conformation.”[3]

In addition to the overall complexity of the cell itself, in his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Professor of Biochemistry Michael Behe blew the top off the skeptic’s hen house by revealing incredibly sophisticated examples of molecular machinery.

Behe details one such machine, the bacterial flagellum, a tail-like protein that rotates to move the bacterium through its environment. Recent electron microscopy shows several ring structures and a motor, along with the tail-like paddle. In addition, there are about forty other proteins necessary to cause the flagellum to whip around, propelling the bacteria forward. All of these protein parts must be in place and functioning or else the bacterium has no motion.[4]

Darwinian evolution cannot explain the gradual development of this machinery, for what use is part of a machine without the rest of the machine? If it only works when the entire machine is present, then it is useless by itself; in other words, if natural selection is truly the mechanism driving survival, it will not “select” a useless part. The total inadequacy of a Darwinian explanation does not mean that the argument from design is based on what we don’t know or can’t explain. If that were the case, then future scientific research might fill in the gaps of our knowledge and eliminate the need for a designer.

But quite the contrary, the whole thrust of the argument rests on what we do know about complex structures. Like a watch or supercomputer, the bacterial flagellum displays the marks of complex design, thus demanding an intelligence that far exceeds what simple natural processes can accomplish. And further research only confirms increasing levels of complexity, further bolstering the analogy.

Denton summarizes, “It has only been over the past twenty years with the molecular biological revolution . . .  that Hume’s criticism has been finally invalidated and the analogy between organisms and machines has at last become convincing.”[5]

Of course, all of this makes sense in light of a biblical worldview, which postulates a natural universe reflecting the supernatural qualities of its Creator. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities&mdashhis eternal power and divine nature&mdashhave been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”[6]

While Flew hastens to add that his belief is not in the God of the Bible, but an impersonal “first cause” akin to Aristotle’s Prime Mover or Jefferson’s Deistic God, the fact remains that a world-class philosopher has re-visited the argument from design and found it compelling. In light of the past 50 years of scientific investigation into “what has been made,” skeptics are running out of excuses to doubt the existence of God.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 6.
  2. Taken from an interview at http://www.biola.edu/antonyflew/, accessed 01/17/2005.
  3. Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986), p. 328–329.
  4. Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 70–72.
  5. Denton, Evolution, p. 340.
  6. Romans 1:20.

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