Tag Archives: Intelligent Design

Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

Design Defined

Engineering_design_drawings smallI’ve heard a lot of criticism of “intelligent design” (ID), the idea that certain features of the universe and of living organisms are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided naturalistic processes. But I have to ask, regarding intelligent design, is there any other kind? If we see the appearance of design, is there any other explanation besides intelligence? Let’s first define design. Design is a very broad task, with lots of different types, but a good (if somewhat laborious) definition is:

A specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.

That could really apply to things as diverse as engineering or developing a new soup recipe, but let’s break that down with an example.  I’m an engineer, so here’s an example from an actual job I worked on earlier this year that illustrates each of these criteria. I (the agent) designed a chevron brace connection (the object) to resist a 665,000# earthquake force (the goal) in Little Rock, AR (the environment) using steel tubes, gusset plates, bolts, & welds (the primitive components) to satisfy the 2006 International Building Code (the requirements) without obstructing a doorway (a constraint).

This example is representative of a typical design, but it’s simply not something we see occurring without intent. We don’t accidentally design things.  Water may erode the Grand Canyon, but wind and rain don’t hit the Black Hills of South Dakota with intent to sculpt giant faces into the cliffs. Erosion causing Mount Rushmore is not a reasonable theory! We recognize the design of Mount Rushmore and understand that someone designed it, even if we don’t know who (Gutzon Borglum in that case).  So back to the original question. Is there any other kind of design besides intelligent design? Not really, and here’s why.  Two things jump out from the above definition: an agent, and a goal.  The components, environment, requirements, and constraints add to the definition, but the heart of any design is a person with a purpose. And purpose is not a characteristic of chance or even “natural selection”. It is the result of choice, and choice requires intelligence. Rocks, trees, bacteria, the wind, a piece of steel – none of these can have goals or plans on their own. Only sentient beings can do that. So it seems that design requires intelligence by definition.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Here the Christian and the atheist agree on the presence of appearance of design in nature. Basically, the atheist argument is that this evidence is a false positive, an indication of design when there isn’t any, while the Christian claims that our observations are accurate and the appearance of design is, in fact, indicative of actual design. So at what point do we say, “If it walks like a ducks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck and not a time-traveling homicidal shape-changing cyborg disguising himself as a duck, or an advanced alien holographic projection of a duck”? Much like a duck simply being a duck, I think we can say that a powerful, knowledgeable, willful Master Designer being behind all the apparent design we see in nature is a simpler and less far-fetched explanation than what we have to derive in a strictly materialistic universe. Today I just wanted to address the necessity by definition for a designer in any true case of design, and the corequisite of purpose, both of which are absent in a world governed solely by natural selection. Stay tuned as we dig into the case for actual design in upcoming weeks.