I've been reading the articles for the Institute for the Study of Nature's Summer Seminar. Certainly one of the most provocative that I've read so far is "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," a 2002 paper by New Zealanders Michael Denton, Craig Marshall, and Michael Legge.
The article begins with an historical overview: biologists before Darwin believed organic forms to be eternal givens of nature: "Form came first and function was viewed as a secondary and derived adaptive feature" (326).
In contrast, the Darwinians (ironically) adopted Paley's watch metaphor: the organism as a machine, i.e., contingent order imposed from without. While the creationists emphasized God's work in imposing order on matter, the Darwinists replaced the Divine Designer with chance mutation and natural selection.
It's difficult to imagine a proto-lifeform reproducing itself before the cell, so chance locked in by reproduction isn't plausible in the case of life's original coming-to-be (the progenitor of the first cell):
The only area of modern biology where a strong deterministic and naturalistic element is still evident is the ‘‘origin of life’’ with many researchers viewing life’s origin as an inevitable and determined end of planetary and cosmic evolution (Kenyon & Steinman, 1969; Lehninger, 1982; De Duve, 1991; Morowitz et al., 2000; Sowerby et al., 2001). (329-330)
The Denton group's project is to extend this determinism beyond the origin of life, to show that the forms of proteins are determined by the natural laws of physics and chemistry, and not by the Darwinian mechanism of random mutation and selection:
Here we argue that in another important area of modern biology, one related to the origin of life, that involves the evolution and origin of one of the most important classes of complex biological forms—the basic protein folds — the pre-Darwinian concept of organic forms as ‘‘built-in’’ intrinsic features of nature determined by natural law provides a more powerful explanatory framework than its selectionist successor.1 (330)
The data show that proteins folds come in only about 1000 different natural kinds. These forms are determined from within, not from outside by the contingent choice of an intelligence or natural selection. In other words, the folding motions of proteins are natural to their materials, not artificially or violently imposed.
So you can see where this is going, I'll cut to the "money quote" from further on in the paper:
For the lawful nature of the [protein] folds provides for the first time evidence that the laws of nature may not only be fine tuned to generate an environment fit for life (the stage) but may also be fine tuned to generate the organic forms (the actors) as well, in other words that the cosmos may be even more biocentric than is currently envisaged! (338)
In other words, matter is pre-determined to bring forth life; the living order of the universe was front-loaded.
There's a lot more in this paper to recommend it, much more than I can capture in a single post. Here's a great quotation: "Natural forms are robust, contingent artificial forms are fragile." (333) The authors contrast a polypeptide's natural gravitation to its energy minimum with the contigent order of a watch or a Lego construction. While a perturbed natural form settles back into its minimum like a marbel settles into the bottom of a bowl, a perturbed artificial form usually loses its function.
The authors also note that that protein forms have a degree of independence from what they're made of:
The fact that in many cases where the same fold is adapted to different functions, no trace of homology [sameness] can be detected in the amino acid sequences [that compose it], suggesting multiple separate discoveries of the same basic structure during the course of evolution, further reinforces the conclusion that the folds are a finite set of ahistoric physical forms. (332)
This manifests what Robert Laughlin calls "protection": that the behavior of macro-phenomenon is unaffected by its particular micro-dynamics.
A Telling Contrast
It's interesting to contrast this conclusion with the divided Intelligent Design approach of Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in The Privileged Planet. Gonzalez and Richards tried to show that while the universe is "fine-tuned for life and discovery," life's organization didn't arise by necessity. They are walking a fine line: on the one hand, they want to show how God created the world to be good for life, but on the other hand, they don't want life to be the natural outcome of creation: "for a pattern to reliably indicate design, it will need to be relatively independent of the event or structure in question" (299).
But why do they trouble to walk this line? A passage from the book explains their fear:
Objection 13: You haven't really challenged naturalism. You've just challenged the idea that nature doesn't exhibit purpose or design.
It's possible to be both a naturalist and to admit design in nature. In fact, in the ancient world, both Aristotelians and Stoics did just that. Perhaps, for instance, design is somehow an inextricable part of an eternal cosmos, like matter and energy. We can't conclusively rule this out. The problem in our modern setting is that this strategy would require an essentially pantheistic view of nature that most naturalists deny. A cosmos that includes design and purpose—as well as chance, matter, and natural law—is quite different from "nature" as most modern naturalists understand it.
So they're afraid of "pantheism." Notice that they don't and can't rule out what they call "pantheism"; they just say that it's not a concern in today's world. It's unfortunate that they're too busy responding to exigent concerns to look more deeply into the full truth of the matter.2 And of course, pantheism is basically what Carl Sagan's Cosmos advocates, albeit without an explicit belief in purpose or design3. Furthermore, why do they oppose design and purpose with natural law? Doesn't natural law express purpose? The second paragraph of the passage is a little better, but still goes astray:
Moreover, current Big Bang cosmology discourages the view that the cosmos is eternal, which is necessary if design is coextensive with matter, time, and natural law (note also that law is not iself a material entity, nor is it a causal agent). A causal agent that somehow transcends the cosmos is a much more natural explanation for the Big Bang and the resulting physical universe we know than are purely immanent patterns of design. But either is a better explanation than the currently popular view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever shall be [opening line of Sagan's Cosmos!], and that chance and impersonal necessity exclusively explain its existence. (329, emphasis added)
The first sentence about law not being a causal agent is excellent. The highlighted sentence, on the other hand, shows a profound ignorance of philosophy. The use of the word "natural" is wrong on a couple levels. First, nature is an immanent source of motion and rest. Second, they make it sound as if God were a natural agent, when the whole philosophical point of invoking God is that the Existence of everything requires a source in a Agent that derives its Being from nothing else—in other words, a cause so completely unlike the changing world we see because it doesn't receive its being or motion from outside itself. Of course they're using "natural" loosely to mean reasonable. They fail to realize that even if the universe is eternal and all of its order completely immanent, it still requires a God to explain that order, as well as the existence of the universe in general. Philosophically speaking, the God (of the philosophers, not necessarily of revelation) is the only explanation possible.
In sum, ID proponents are afraid of pantheism, though it's not clear that they even understand what it is well enough to distinguish it from natural law, or purpose and design for that matter.
Three different views discussed here can be separated by the source of order:
1. From chance (Darwinism)
2. From intenvention by an intelligent agent (ID)
3. From within (Denton, et al.)
As we've already seen, all three of these require an Intelligent Designer, one who truly transcends nature. The ID folks are afraid of attributing too much self-organization to nature because they are frightened of pantheism—as if God wouldn't have to be responsible for whatever order the universe has through whatever mechanism! Contrary to the ID claim, there is no opposition between intelligence and law; laws require a Lawgiver. Contrary to the Darwinist claim, "chance" operates according to a law, which also requires an intelligence.
As Francis Bacon wrote so wisely in one of his Essays, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." It is only the philosophical ignorance of the Darwinists that allows them to claim that chance obviates the need for God. The irony is that the ID approach feeds off this philosophical ignorance that "inclineth man's mind to atheism."
The Darwinists deny that God is necessary to make the "watch" of creation (Hence Dawkins's blind watchmaker). The ID crowd repudiates the deniers, but in doing so, they've imbibed the atheistic materialists' rather diminutive definition of God: a god who doesn't so much create matter as manipulate already existent matter.
When it comes down to it, it's impossible to devise a scientific scenario that doesn't need a Creator (science can't say anything about Being in itself). Intelligent design says that the order in the universe that can't be attributed to chance or law should really be attributed to an Intelligent Designer (God). There's nothing wrong with this belief in itself, but by denying that God can work through chance or law it sections off an unnecessarily small territory for theism—a territory that actual experience of the world seems to be chipping away.
The work of Michael Denton and his collaborators shows that at least some of the order of living things is native to the matter that constitutes them. Science cannot speak to the ultimate source of this order, but natural philosophy tells us that the source cannot be natural, but what men call God.
1. I've omitted references from this and all subsequent quotations.
2. It is sad that an organization like Discovery Institute with such a noble purpose tends to take such short-sighted approaches.
3. There's actually a whole Wikipedia discussion on Sagan and pantheism.
Michael J. Denton, Craig J. Marshall and Michael Legge, "Protein Folds as Platonic Forms," Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002), 325–342
Michael J. Denton, et al., "Physical law not natural selection as the major determinant of biological complexity in the subcellular realm," BioSystems 71 (2003), 297-303.
Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004).
Note: Next week I'll be traveling. I don't know what my network access will be like, but I may be unable to post.