The Design of Life

DesignOfLifeSuggested by Brad Nelson • Written by two leading intelligent design theorists (William Dembski and Jonathan Wells), this book offers the clearest, most comprehensive treatment of intelligent design on the market, with answers to Darwinists’ objections drawn unrelentingly from the recent science literature.
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10 Responses to The Design of Life

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    They had this book on sale (hardcover) for $10.00 recently so I scooped it up, particularly because it was co-authored by the coherent writer, Jonathan Wells.

    Okay, I more or less cut-and-pasted the blurb for the Bookshelf entry from Amazon. I’m halfway through it, which is at the point that I feel I can comment on it intelligently. Is it the most comprehensive treatment of I.D.? I’m not sure yet.

    The first four chapters (about half of the book) are about the severe problem of, in essence, extrapolating microevolution to macroevolution (the various assertions of Neo-Darwinists refuted step by step). Agreeing with what David Berlinski has said, the authors of The Design of Life state that Neo-Darwinism is little more than a collection of stories. There is no good hard evidence for it.

    The chore of a book such as this is to either pander to the theists and/or break through the hard veil of materialist Darwinian atheistic belief that is the starting point for most modes of thought todoay — a starting point that dismisses the idea of I.D. from the get-go as well as dismisses nearly any criticism of Neo-Darwinism. For the materialist, Neo-Darwinism must be true. Don’t bother them with the details.

    My kneejerk objections to I.D. are sufficiently broken down, particularly because, much like global warming, Neo-Darwinism has been outed (at least to my satisfaction) as a scientific religion of sorts. You’re not arguing facts with Darwinists. You’re inherently arguing a religious-like world view. You’re touching on their deeply-held metaphysics that allows for nothing but blind, unintelligent, material processes.

    Frankly, the books by David Berlinski and John Lennox (which you’ll find summarized here in the Bookshelf) are far better at outing the ideological blinkeredness of Neo-Darwinists. The Design of Life is not a polemic although it sometimes does softly comment on the underlying philosophy of Darwinism. But it’s (so far) more of a summary (although a fairly detailed one) of the problems with Neo-Darwinism in regards to the creation of species.

    As the authors note, had Darwin titled his famous book “On the Origin of Change in Species” there would have been a big yawn. Anyone who has bred dogs understand that species are quite malleable (although dogs always remain dogs). But Darwin claims to be able to explain the origin of species. And that, so far, has been quite a leap too far. And there is no reason to believe, in principle, that Neo-Darwinism can ever be true in regards to explaining the origin of species.

    Given the Wells connection (whose writing style I found superb in The Icons of Evolution), this book reads well and is not overly technical. But the subject matter is somewhat dry. There’s no getting around that. And I’ll stick around until the end to see what they have to say positively about Intelligent Design.

    And that’s really the difficult aspect of these kinds of books. Intelligent Design as a theory could certainly be true. And it is the only credible alternative that exists to purely materialist processes. The problem is (as admitted to by the authors), it also suffers along with Neo-Darwinism in having little hard evidence to support it. Much like Neo-Darwinism, all it has is stories.

    So in the one sense, it is good to see a take-down of pompous, even slightly fascistic, Neo-Darwinism. On the other, what can one really say positively about Intelligent Design? One can more and more make the case for the impossibility of blind material processes which are driven by simple algorithmic forces-of-nature ever producing the complexity found in life. And I quite agreed. I’m sold. And, in a sense, this book continues to sell this same idea, just in a slightly updated form organized a little differently from other books.

    I’ll see if the remaining chapters offer any bold ideas on the functional workings of I.D. in the sense of matching what we see in life and in the fossil record with what might have gone down in terms of design techniques, etc. This is a huge area to delve into, and perhaps many books don’t because there’s not much to say. Better to just leave it open and let religious sensibilities take it the rest of the way, for in the end, this open-ended and amorphous idea of I.D. certainly is an affirmation of theism. And any details might spoil that aspect which certainly goes to sell a lot of books.

    But what of the intelligent designer, whoever or whatever that is? What can reason tell us about the design of life? For instance, we humans have one of the most complex things known in the universe, and we take it for granted most of the time: our immune system. But if there is a designer of life, and that designer can design things as he wishes, why do we need an immune system? Why would this designer design pathogens?

    The obvious answer is that this designer meant for life to do quite a bit of evolving on its own. We see this easily enough on the species level. Built into life (we don’t know how deep it goes, which is the central focus of Behe’s interesting and readable The Edge of Evolution) is the ability to adapt. To some extent, Charles Darwin can be forgiven for assuming that micro-evolution was the same as macro-evolution. Just add time to the small changes we see occurring in micro-evolution and — Shazam! — you have all the designs of life and the creation of new species. But subsequent experiment and research has shown that the category of species has a very hard border. There is no blending into other species.

    So we’re likely dealing with an overall design system and technique that is extremely complex. Life would appear to be designed to be fungible to some extent. The ability for variation is (obviously) built in. And the authors make a terrific point I hadn’t heard before: Every gene has two (or more) alleles. This is why you can have blond hair or black hair or red hair…but it’s all still just hair. The authors make the point that for variations to become fixed in an isolated subgroup (thought to be necessary for most instances of speciation under Neo-Darwinism) this actually entails the loss of alleles (of information). (Think of a tribe of red-haired people who no longer had the black-hair allele.) Under this idea of isolation and specialization, information is actually lost….which, as the authors note, is hardly the method for creating the vast amounts of biological information needed for new structures (and thus species).

    So, back to our immune system. If life is designed to be somewhat fungible, the designer certainly thought ahead and gave us a highly adaptable immune system. It can protect us from pathogens that it has never been exposed to.

    The question then begs: If species are immutable then was the bacterium that produced the Black Death designed? (Gee, thanks, God.) Or are such pathogens (as some suspect) a result of the degeneration of existing species? Or do new species (at least amongst bacterium) evolve in ways unpredictable even by a designer (thus our flexible immune system)? The very existence of the immune system shows the inherent contingency of life, whether designed to be that way or not. It’s a maddening state of affairs for those trying to decide between random processes and design because randomness could well be designed into the system.

    The philosophy of Intelligent Design is mostly an untouched subject. And you can perhaps see why. As soon as the details of life are delved into, and thus the real-world implications of design, no longer do you have such a simple “God” standing behind it all that jibes with most religious belief (or at least religious expectations).

    For instance, it’s abundantly clear that suffering and death are built into the system. Life eats life. And our immune system (especially if designed) is a walking billboard that says “Shit happens and it’s going to happen a lot.” Although Darwinists often criticize the idea of I.D. because they don’t see perfect, god-like design in nature, the more apt point is that there actually is a hell of a lot of “survival of the fittest” going on. And each biological design is both (apparently) designed not only to try to be the fittest but to make sure some other fittest predator doesn’t eat you. I don’t blame Charles Darwin for writing, “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel work of nature!” Whoever and whatever the Intelligent Designer turns out to be, aspects of that are going to stick to him. It’s inherent. There are some ghastly battles and relationships in nature.

    Perhaps I’ll have to write the book the delves into the implications of Intelligent Design. Logical questions include: Why nothing but single-celled blue-green algae for billions of years and then — boom — the Cambrian explosion? Was the designer on vacation for a while, maybe designing stuff in another part of the universe? Did he forget for a while that he left an experiment running on Earth? Did these blue-green algae serves as a sort of “starter” culture, preparing the earth and making it more hospitable for higher forms of life? And if this designer is a God, why couldn’t he just cause the right conditions for complex life to come into creation immediately?

    Scratch the surface behind Intelligent Design and you get (or at least I get) a lot of interesting questions. I half expect that when we delve deeply enough into DNA we might actually find the equivalent of a signature — a sort of “Kilroy Way Here” — perhaps even a primer or brief history of the designs of life encoded into DNA (the ultimate fossil). Sounds like an interesting Twilight Zone episode, eh?

    And yet that idea touches on the mystery that remains when talking about life. It is as if we are living inside a Twilight Zone episode. We just don’t have a hard evidential clue as to how life came about. But we do know it is amazing.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I suspect that we can never prove much in the field of evolution. Macro-evolution simply takes too long to rely on natural observation. We can look at a sequence of fossils that fits what we expect to find — but that isn’t actually proof of anything. We can observe micro-evolution and perform some limited intelligent design, but that seems to be it.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The book made a revealing point about the inherent problem of trying to piece together the story of life from the fossil record. In essence, the authors quote a scientist who basically says that all they have are narratives that they then try to back-fill with whatever evidence that can be cherry-picked from the fossil record. And that pretty much describes Neo-Darwinism and indeed isn’t much of a sound basis for a science.

      Still, plate tectonics is kinda-sorta a historic science. The causes are not completely lost. The perhaps slight difference is, we can see the processes (the spreading of the oceans plates) going on today. We can measure them. The spreading is slow but measurable. And you have other very compelling evidence as well for plate tectonics (which I know you’re aware of).

      The darndest thing about life today is that we don’t see it evolving in any Darwinian sense. Try as we might, we can’t induce speciation (or just major new morphological innovations) via forced mutations. All we get is a scrambling of existing information…and, more likely, dead fruit flies.

      Studies have been done on the case of dogs, for example, that shows that the variety of forms (diverse as they are, from Chihuahua to Saint Bernard) generally represent a net loss of biological information. Some interesting and marvelous variations are produced, which shows the sheer wonder of the biological engine underneath. Imagine a computer program this adaptable. Imagine taking, say, half of Microsoft Word and half of Microsoft Excel and blending them together to create another organism. Something like this occurs every time there is sexual reproduction. How amazing that this can even work. (Sometimes, of course, it does encounter problems.)

      Whether I.D. remains intentionally vague (because it can sell a lot of books to Christians, for example) is up for speculation. I’m not sure how much you can say without specifying a designer or without trying to piece together from the evidence in regards to what techniques and order the designer placed upon nature.

      The existence of blue-green algae (and apparently only blue-green algae) for billions of years is a proper mystery in terms of a designer. Perhaps the designer was sill learning his craft. And then what we see in the Cambrian explosion is both amazing and inexplicable. I would think that many theists believe in a God creating species wholly as they are. Fine. But in the Cambrian explosion come over 20 new phyla (basic body plans). For all intents and purposes, it looks like the seeding of the oceans with the purpose of evolving these life forms.

      The problem is, no obvious transitional forms exist (and certainly no transitional forms between phylum). We have chordates…the basic body plan that humans have. Is this Cambrian chordate a seed or a beta? Was it a test to see which forms would flourish and which would not, a proof upon which to build? For instance, is evolution really sort of a living laboratory for a designer? After all, it seems clear that humans came after gorillas and other apes. But then we are also so very similar. It’s natural to assume that one evolved from another. Not only is the design intuition reasonable but so is the evolution intuition.

      But if humans are not evolved (in the Darwinian sense via small, gradual variations) from apes, could they still be evolved in the informational sense (built upon the same proven plan, only refined and with some features added)? Chimpanzees might have been Human Beings beta 0.82 with perhaps gibbons being Human Beings alpha 0.74. Neanderthals were thus (speculatively) Homo Sapiens 1.0.

      Is this a crazy thought? But what are we left with but to make sense of the species and their order of creation? Certainly one can see the marketable advantage of not saying all too much about the Designer. Still, if we are to take Intelligent Design seriously, these are the things we have to think about and then, perhaps wild theory in hand, see if the evidence at least is consistent with it. We have to — much like Neo-Darwinists — construct a narrative and then see if we can back-fill with plausible data (hopefully not cherry-picked, all contrary evidence being made forthrightly clear).

      But, really (and I in no way blame the book for this), the Intelligent Design industry thus far has not been forthrightly clear about the problems and possibilities inherent in a designer. Stephen Meyer makes a few conservative predictions in one of his books but otherwise there is a conspicuous silence on the subject.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life has a nice look at the strange life forms of the Burgess Shale, which date from the early Cambrian. He thought some of them were evolutionary dead ends — or, as an ID advocate might say, unsuccessful experiments. Later studies reportedly modified some of the initial results (it can be easy to screw up strange fossils).

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I found the Kindle edition of Wonderful Life. But if this is a book full of great pictures, an eBook probably isn’t the way to go. Ebooks tend not to do photos well. You usually get postage-stamp-sized photos that can’t be enlarged.

          Gould was a free-thinker in comparison to his colleagues. But he was completely hemmed in by his Marxist materialism and atheism. These guys box themselves into a real tight box with their atheism.

          His “punctuated equilibrium” thesis is taken on in The Design of Life. There’s not much to say except that the “punctuated” evolution of species faces the exact same problems that the “gradual” evolution of species faces. More narratives to try to make sense of it all.

          But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is indeed something punctuated about the fossil record. The error is to automatically associate it with evolution. Had Gould not been constrained by this atheism and by a fascistic Neo-Darwinist cabal inside of the scientific establishment, who knows what insights would have formed in that otherwise profound mind? We are all, to some extent, limited by our prejudices. He might indeed, as you said, speculated that these phyla were experiments of sorts (which is a very reasonable speculation in regards to an intelligent designer).

          Clearly some of the phyla of the Cambrian (I think) are extinct. I can’t offhand find a source for how many. But what I do know is that there is very little science in regards to Neo-Darwinism. The assumptions are hard and material. Common descent is just assumed because there can be no other proper way for life to have occurred but by random, unguided chance.

          I’m willing to admit something that scientists say is the hallmark of their enlightened state of wisdom: “I don’t know.” But literature and articles all over the web purport to know and spin stories far more intricate and implausible than even Noah’s Ark. Why the Cambrian explosion? A common theory is higher oxygen levels. But that assumes life will spontaneous create itself merely if the right conditions exist. There is no reason to believe this is the case. None. And yet this materialist paradigm continues to constrain all thought on the subject. If there are no transitional fossils it is only because they haven’t been found (a subject demolished by this book). And on and on it goes with constant excuse-making as a truly ad hoc “science” is jammed together to fit ideological needs, not evidentiary ones.

          If I were a Neo-Darwinist, I would be embarrassed by the tall tales commonly being told to try to prop up what is little more than junk science. I also picked up and read the free sample of Doug Axe’s Undeniable. So far so good. Much like Berlinski, he takes a bit more of a wrecking-ball approach toward Neo-Darwinism (which is well deserved, in my opinion). After I finish this current book, I’ll see if I want to spend $12.99 on this one. It’s a reasonable price. But I’m not sure yet.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            The point that we’re all subject to our prejudices is one of the arguments Steve Allen made in his 1989 book Dumbth, which a friend gave me a while back and I’m finally getting around to reading. I hope to do a review of it here; there’s a lot of material that readers of this site would find interesting.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Proving that I’m not too old to learn something, I credit Glenn for thumping me over the head and getting me to take a serious look at Intelligent Design. Perhaps he’s getting more than he bargained for. But I consider myself the leading Hardy-Boy-like amateur expert. And so can you be, because if Neo-Darwinism is the house of cards that it likely is, no one has an unambiguous and verifiable clue as to how life first started and as to how it gained all its various forms. We’re all equally clueless.

              Which is not to say that biologists haven’t comprehended much of the material aspects of biology. They see micro-machines and tiny robots and micro-codes and translation apparatus and complex gene editing and splicing and networks upon network of complicated interacting proteins with feedback loops within feedback loops. No wonder you can’t just mutate a gene and make much of anything useful happen in terms of novel biological features. It likely does take forethought…design of some kind. Darwinian theory is the equivalent of sticking a monkey wrench (point mutations) into the works and expecting something useful to happen.

              And there are vast similarities between the conflict between I.D./Darwinism and conservatism/Leftism. In each case one is left with, for all intents and purposes, trying to argue reason and facts against kool-aid and prevarication. The various narratives of Neo-Darwinism are deeply embedded and well-practiced.

              But as this book and others like it note, the sound of the superficial plausibility of a story is not the same thing as established fact. There are exactly zero research papers that can show how any complex feature came to be according to Neo-Darwinian theory. Yes, there are plenty of stories, but no proofs. And when one takes the facts of biology and its complexity into account, Neo-Darwinism isn’t even plausible. And with the bulk of its “proofs” being a conglomeration of “just-so” stories, there is no reason to take is seriously.

              But there is every reason to learn something from the mindless groupthink that infects the subject.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Although this subject certainly intersects on intelligent design, I thought that layman science and computer enthusiast might be fascinated by these recent breakthroughs: The Hottest New Computer is: DNA

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I thought that was going to be about the similarities, but no . . . it’s actually using DNA for information storage and retrieval. As a computer programmer, I find that impressive.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The amazing this is that it’s not just theory. They’ve actually stored large volumes of data in the form of DNA and then retrieved it with no errors. The read and write speeds might be problematic. The article didn’t mention that aspect, although there are some links in the article that take to you more info.

        But basically the Library of Congress (and more) in the space taken up by a paper clip (one gram). Pretty impressive.

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