Design in life is easy to detect–look for breaks in evolution
NOTE: This was first published here on 8.21.08, and is simply being re-published as a separate post now.
Since Dawkins agrees that biochemical systems can be designed, and that people who did not see or hear about the designing can nonetheless detect it, then the question of whether a given biochemical system was designed boils down to simply adducing evidence to support design. DBB, 203
Behe gets that much right. But how do you adduce evidence to support design? Well, a rationally thought out system would indicate design, and so would some actual purpose in living organisms, to bring up two important criteria. Less precisely, “conceptual precursors” instead of “physical precursors,” would fit the bill, as Behe pointed out, and as I discussed previously. Or another way of putting that fairly inchoate (but usable) conception–and extending it somewhat–would be that we would look for arrangements that do not fit evolutionary patterns.
In other words, probably one of the best ways of looking for design candidates would be to find something that does not fit with evolutionary predictions. After all, what would be a better potential marker for intelligent design than something that wouldn’t occur via natural processes (now using the definition “natural” which means “not caused by humans”)? One would probably still have to check to see if rational thought was used, and if the putative “design” serves a likely purpose, but merely breaking the mold of evolutionary expectations would tend to suggest that something has intervened in the natural processes of evolution.
Behe himself brings up the subject, writing, “…The work does show that an intelligent agent can design a system exhibiting biochemical-like properties without using the biochemicals known to occur in living systems.” DBB 202.
Yes, finding something like that would indeed be a pretty good first indication of design. For instance, find an malaria strain that has a completely new protein, which also has novel amino acids in it. But we wouldn’t have to be that exacting in our demands, a completely new protein would certainly flag researchers that this strain of P. falciparum likely was engineered.
By the way, I used Plasmodium falciparum for an example quite on purpose, since it does not normally share genes with other organisms (not so far as I know, anyway), like anthrax does. Since sharing genes is “natural” for anthrax, and not for malaria, a new protein in the latter would break the evolutionary expectations rather better than a new (or unknown) protein in anthrax would.
There are less clear examples of design, those which simply take a gene from one organism and insert it into a very distantly related organism. Interestingly, these also are relatively easy to find, at least so long as we have their genetically unmodified relatives around. I really do not think that aliens that came to earth would have any difficulty discovering that many of our food crops have been genetically modified by injecting the Bt gene (which produces an insect-killing protein) into these crops, even though the Bt gene has evolved naturally.
Aliens could discover design of Bt crops because, of course, Bt in corn breaks the evolutionary patterns of inheritance and change. Corn, like P. falciparum, does not typically receive genes from other species, while intelligent humans know how to insert Bt genes into the corn genome. To be sure, there are other tell-tale marks of genetic engineering, although many of these are also taken from nature and placed in “unnatural” contexts (like viral promoters are). Nevertheless, even if the genes were entirely “natural,” the fact that evolution would not be expected to produce corn plants with Bt toxin (and liverworts are not) would tend to give the game away. The other “unnatural” components only enhance the notion that Bt genes and other deliberately introduced genes were “designed” to at least a degree.
So why doesn’t Behe drive home the point that he delicately prompts, namely the easy manner in which human designs in nature could be detected (though generally they are detected by looking for known specific patterns of “engineered” genes), by recognizing their breaks from the evolutionary patterns? There is only one reason, this being the fact that he can produce nothing that does not fit the expected evolutionary patterns (aside from our own interventions). He wants to suggest in DBB that there is really no problem with deciding that life was designed because we can do it, while he pointedly ignores the fact that our interventions do not follow the (evolutionarily-produced) taxonomic patterns of nature, and also need not rely upon physical precursors (although we often do–yet we produce unnatural patterns even then).
The fact is that, in both of Behe’s books, he avoids integrating knowledge. That is unsurprising, since said lack would be expected in a creationist. He’ll happily bring up human modification of life as an analogy, but he will not discuss the fact that quite obviously our designs purposefully break the evolutionary patterns, unlike what we see in wild-type organisms. He insists that design can be detected in life (which almost all of us have agreed was possible from the beginning), but he avoids the fact that design would not follow evolutionary patterns, nor would it rely upon physical precursors, as empirically-known evolution does.
The one thing that we would expect almost any kind of biological design to do–step in where evolutionary limits prevent a desired capability–is absent from biology. And even more absurdly, Behe insists that evolution cannot produce complex biology–which conforms to evolutionary limitations–but he insists that design nudged evolution along without producing any of the evidence of genetic modification that even humans have done with their decidedly limited late 20th and early 21st century capabilities. Intelligent intervention is supposed to have occurred, and yet that intelligence didn’t dare to break the rules of evolution, or to deviate from evolutionary patterns.
Instead of breaking the evolutionary patterns, as we would expect of design, Behe insists that design is responsible for complex evolutionary patterns. Has any other crank scientist ever worked so hard to avoid the meaningful tests of his claims as Behe has with his “intelligent design”?
This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.