Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Design Matrix

Mike Gene, of Telic Thoughts, has just finished a fascinating new book on Intelligent Design called The Design Matrix: A Consilience of Clues (the promotional animation was done by yours truly). After becoming a little disillusioned with the ID movement a couple of years ago, I stumbled across Mike’s site and found his unique approach refreshing and constructive. So, without further ado, here is Wonders for Oyarsa’s first book review!

A New Look

The ID debate is one of the most polarized and ugly fights you’ll ever come across, and Mike is well aware of the difficulty he faces even being heard. He makes it clear from the beginning that he does not believe Intelligent Design is science, does not think it should be taught in the public schools, and does not deny evolution. He simply has no interest in the political side of ID. Rather, he is interested in the insights that telic thinking may bring to looking at the origin of life. He is interested in the beginnings of an investigation.

Mike deftly reframes the debate away from the traditional template, which focuses on either disproving evolution (thus establishing design) or showing evolution to be possible (thus removing the need for design). The origin of life, after all, is not a matter of absolute certainty or mathematical law, but of history. We are not ultimately interested in what could have happened, but what we think actually did happen. Thus Mike suggests we eschew dogmatic absolutes for the attitude of a private investigator. It is certainly possible that life was designed, but what sort of clues might make us think it plausible? What sort of evidence and confirmation would convince us that it is not only plausible, but probable?

It’s interesting how far meekness can go in a polarized debate – be it over science, politics, philosophy, or religion. There’s no shortage of bombastic apologists for both sides, railing about how only a total fool could fail to see the rightness of their position. When one person confidently boasts that the evidence for design is overwhelming and another loudly screams that it is nonexistent, most folks are inclined to avoid the whole discussion. But when Mike says the idea is interesting and invites us to take a closer look, we want to join him.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Having established a tone of curiosity, Mike considers the clues. At the most basic level of the cell, life looks like sophisticated nanotechnology. Though we once considered it little more than a sac of chemicals, it turns out that biology at this scale has a great deal in common with engineering, to the point where biology journals sound more like engineering publications than those of other physical sciences. Calling multiple-protein complexes “molecular machines” is more than mere metaphor. To get a faint glimpse of what he’s talking about, take a look at this computer animated journey into the cell created by the Harvard Biovisions group. The core architecture of life has the complexity and organization of a modern city, all easily resting on the point of a pin.

The grandeur and majesty of life on this scale never ceases to amaze me. To think of it as a bunch of chemical reactions is as misleading as considering Mont St. Michel a stack of stones, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a series of brush strokes, or Google’s search database a series of ones and zeroes. When biologists fail to develop the discipline and intuition of engineers who actually build things, I suspect they risk giving hostages to fortune. The stuff has to work, after all, and that's a pretty harsh requirement for any system – be it constructed out of molecules or metal.

Mike, of course, finds this all very suggestive. William Paley once argued that one may reasonably infer life to be designed in the same way you assume a watch on the beach is not a natural phenomenon. David Hume countered that, though life might appear to be in the same category as the watch, the similarities are superficial and the analogy weak. But, while Hume may have been right about human organs like the eye, the recently discovered and unexpected echoes of technology in the most basic unit of life are another matter entirely. Mike then turns to Darwin’s theory of Evolution – which has some much more challenging observations for any design inference.

Front Loading Evolution

Darwin showed how systems which may appear designed from the outset may nevertheless have evolved over time through purely natural processes. Natural selection is a fact of life. It is what happens to any flexible self-replicating system over time or in a changing environment. Mike recognizes the power of natural selection to act as a designer-mimic, but he doesn’t abandon his suspicion of design in the face of evolution. Instead, he suggests a way where Darwinian evolution might actually be employed in the service of intelligent design.

And so he offers his front-loading hypothesis. Since the basic architecture of life seems to be the most difficult thing to explain by modern origin of life theories – the characteristics of the genetic code, the modularity of proteins, and the interdependency of DNA, RNA, and molecular machines – he suggests we envision a human-like intelligence designing a single cell as a seed for life on Earth. Would it be possible to employ Darwinian evolution to unfold a carefully-packaged design?

Mike looks at the clues that make such an idea seem plausible. Every life form on earth shares a huge proportion of the same DNA. Evolution, on the genetic level, seems to operate mostly by tinkering with copies of genes. Mike goes into great technical detail to show how key templates for advanced organisms could be encoded into the core functions of the cell, ready to pop into use as soon as there is a need. It is the very blindness and short-sightedness of Natural Selection that would make it exploitable by careful foresight. According to Mike’s hypothesis, if we were to obliterate all life on Earth and replace it with the same seed cell it started with, we would see it unfold in much the same way as it did billions of years ago, and eventually find creatures not all that different from the ones we have today.

Those who create computer programs, which eventually crash due to unforeseen bugs, will appreciate front-loading as a huge challenge, one which is solvable only by the most brilliant of minds. For those who believe on different grounds that there is a mind ultimately responsible for the creation of the world, the picture Mike paints evokes wonder and awe at the glory and wisdom of God. If this is the mode of creation, it also raises some fascinating philosophical and theological questions, which I may explore elsewhere.

The Matrix

The presence of a front-loaded current running through evolution poses a unique problem for detecting design. How do you distinguish between the core design and the jerry rigged solutions of natural selection? True to his modest methodology, Mike eschews black-and-white certainty for his design matrix: a subjective (but useful) scoring system to gauge our confidence in a design inference.

The matrix score is based on four parameters: analogy, discontinuity, rationality, and foresight. Analogy looks at how closely the solution matches something we ourselves have designed. Discontinuity looks at irreducible complexity, and how difficult it would be for natural selection alone to arrive at the solution by cooption. Rationality looks at the elegance and quality of the design based on its assumed purpose. Finally, foresight judges the design based on any long-term planning present. If a solution only scores high in one area, we wouldn’t have conclusive evidence for design, but if it gets high marks in all four, we may conclude that intelligent design is indeed a probable explanation.

Mike ends the book with an invitation to join him on his quest. Having established his theory and methodology, the next step will be to explore the living world in more detail – and see just how well his hypothesis holds up. If he’s right, this approach may turn out to be a fantastic research guide, yielding bold new insights and discoveries about the living world.

I, for one, am intrigued by the possibilities, and I hope you are as well. My recommendation is that everyone go and buy all their friends a copy of his book so that he’ll have the money to publish volume II!

I'm visiting your blog via the Saturday Review of Books. Thanks for the review! This book sounds challenging, but well worth reading. I like your point about the effectiveness of meekness.

I read bits and pieces of your blogging on the Bible too, and think you really raise the level of the discussion. I'm sure I'll be checking in again.

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