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Darwin’s head-scratcher

Science | How intelligent design offers the best explanation for the sudden appearance of many animals upon the earth—an event Darwin could not reconcile

Stephen Meyer, 54, is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge, is a former professor at Whitworth College, and was WORLD’s Daniel of the Year for 2009. We selected him for that honor because we admire the guts of those willing to put up with attacks because they believe we have a Creator and are made in His image.

Meyer is the author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, and a new book, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, which will be released Tuesday.

Here’s an excerpt from the prologue of Meyer’s new book. —Marvin Olasky

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When people today hear the term “information revolution,” they typically think of silicon chips and software code, cellular phones and supercomputers. They rarely think of tiny one-celled organisms or the rise of animal life. But, while writing these words in the summer of 2012, I am sitting at the end of a narrow medieval street in Cambridge, England, where more than half a century ago a far-reaching information revolution began in biology. This revolution was launched by an unlikely but now immortalized pair of scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson. Since my time as a Ph.D. student at Cambridge during the late 1980s, I have been fascinated by the way their discovery transformed our understanding of the nature of life. Indeed, since the 1950s, when Watson and Crick first illuminated the chemical structure and information-bearing properties of DNA, biologists have come to understand that living things, as much as high-tech devices, depend upon digital information—information that, in the case of life, is stored in a four-character chemical code embedded within the twisting figure of a double helix.

Because of the importance of information to living things, it has now become apparent that many distinct “information revolutions” have occurred in the history of life—not revolutions of human discovery or invention, but revolutions involving dramatic increases in the information present within the living world itself. Scientists now know that building a living organism requires information, and building a fundamentally new form of life from a simpler form of life requires an immense amount of new information. Thus, wherever the fossil record testifies to the origin of a completely new form of animal life—a pulse of biological innovation—it also testifies to a significant increase in the information content of the biosphere.

In 2009, I wrote a book called Signature in the Cell about the first “information revolution” in the history of life—the one that occurred with the origin of the first life on earth. My book described how discoveries in molecular biology during the 1950s and 1960s established that DNA contains information in digital form, with its four chemical subunits (called nucleotide bases) functioning like letters in a written language or symbols in a computer code. And molecular biology also revealed that cells employ a complex information-processing system to access and express the information stored in DNA as they use that information to build the proteins and protein machines that they need to stay alive. Scientists attempting to explain the origin of life must explain how both information-rich molecules and the cell’s information-processing system arose.

The type of information present in living cells—that is, “specified” information in which the sequence of characters matters to the function of the sequence as a whole—has generated an acute mystery. No undirected physical or chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce specified information starting “from purely physical or chemical” precursors. For this reason, chemical evolutionary theories have failed to solve the mystery of the origin of first life—a claim that few mainstream evolutionary theorists now dispute.

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To those unfamiliar with the particular problems faced by scientists trying to explain the origin of life, it might not seem obvious why invoking natural selection does not help to explain the origin of the first life. After all, if natural selection and random mutations can generate new information in living organisms, why can it also not do so in a prebiotic environment? But the distinction between a biological and prebiotic context was crucially important to my argument. Natural selection assumes the existence of living organisms with a capacity to reproduce. Yet self-replication in all extant cells depends upon information-rich proteins and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), and the origin of such information-rich molecules is precisely what origin-of-life research needs to explain. That’s why Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis, can state flatly, “Pre-biological natural selection is a contradiction in terms.” Or, as Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist and origin-of-life researcher Christian de Duve explains, theories of prebiotic natural selection fail because they “need information which implies they have to presuppose what is to be explained in the first place.” Clearly, it is not sufficient to invoke a process that commences only once life has begun, or once biological information has arisen, to explain the origin of life or the origin of the information necessary to produce it.

Adapted from Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer. Copyright © 2013 by Stephen C. Meyer. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

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