Near the end of March, a team of researchers led by geneticist J. Craig Venter announced in the journal Science they’d created a synthetic organism with a minimal amount of genetic information: a total of 473 genes. What surprised — and, in Venter’s words, “humbled” the scientists was that nearly a third of these genes were mysterious, without an explicitly know function.
Sensing an opening, intelligent design believers dove headlong into the biological curiosity gap.
“Only God, the Designer, can make living creatures so complex, scientists say,” blares a headline on the website Christian Today. (Posts on Christian News Network and CNSNews.com continued to pull that tenuous thread.) But turning this research into a pro-intelligent design argument is at best a willful misreading, applied by the likes of Ann Gauger, a biologist who works at the pro intelligent design nonprofit group Biologic Institute.
Gauger argues the minimal genome is synonymous with an irreducibly complex one. “Irreducible systems are evidence of intelligent design,” she wrote at CNSNews.com, “because only a mind has the capacity to design and implement such an information-rich, interdependent network as a minimal cell.” Even so-called irreducibly complex systems aren’t actually irreducible, however. As John Rennie (who, full disclosure, was my professor at New York University) wrote at Scientific American back in 2002:
“Irreducible complexity” is the battle cry of Michael J. Behe of Lehigh University, author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. As a household example of irreducible complexity, Behe chooses the mousetrap—a machine that could not function if any of its pieces were missing and whose pieces have no value except as parts of the whole. What is true of the mousetrap, he says, is even truer of the bacterial flagellum, a whiplike cellular organelle used for propulsion that operates like an outboard motor. The proteins that make up a flagellum are uncannily arranged into motor components, a universal joint and other structures like those that a human engineer might specify. The possibility that this intricate array could have arisen through evolutionary modification is virtually nil, Behe argues, and that bespeaks intelligent design. He makes similar points about the blood’s clotting mechanism and other molecular systems.
Yet evolutionary biologists have answers to these objections. First, there exist flagellae with forms simpler than the one that Behe cites, so it is not necessary for all those components to be present for a flagellum to work. The sophisticated components of this flagellum all have precedents elsewhere in nature, as described by Kenneth R. Miller of Brown University and others. In fact, the entire flagellum assembly is extremely similar to an organelle that Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague bacterium, uses to inject toxins into cells.
The key is that the flagellum’s component structures, which Behe suggests have no value apart from their role in propulsion, can serve multiple functions that would have helped favor their evolution. The final evolution of the flagellum might then have involved only the novel recombination of sophisticated parts that initially evolved for other purposes. Similarly, the blood-clotting system seems to involve the modification and elaboration of proteins that were originally used in digestion, according to studies by Russell F. Doolittle of the University of California at San Diego. So some of the complexity that Behe calls proof of intelligent design is not irreducible at all.
In this case, other forms of life can indeed function with less genetic information than the organism the geneticists created — it’s only a minimal genome for one particular bacteria, Venter was careful to point out.
Worse than the misreading, however, is when the intelligent design interpretation veers into straight-up mendacity. Citing Venter’s research, Christian Today writer Andre Mitchell says, “In the course of their experiments, however, they realised that only a Higher Being, can create creatures that are intrinsically complex.” Nowhere in the Science paper is God invoked.
Perhaps Mitchell is unfamiliar with Venter, but it’s not like the geneticist keeps his atheism card close to his chest. For instance: In a book blurb for The God Delusion, Venter gushes about biologist and fellow non-believer Richard Dawkins: “Richard Dawkins is the leading soothsayer of our time. Through his exploration of gene-based evolution of life, his work has had a profound effect on so much of our collective thinking, and The God Delusion continues his thought-provoking tradition.”
That some of the most famous scientists alive can still be humbled by holes in our knowledge is great. But just because the holes exist doesn’t mean intelligent design has an excuse to wedge itself in them.
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