Q. In your author photo you’re not wearing a white lab coat or holding a test tube or a beaker or anything like that. You’ve written a book about science but are you a real scientist?
A. I’m a philosopher of science with a record of peer-reviewed publications in technical, scientific, philosophical and other books and journals. As a professional scientific theorist, I’ve been studying and writing about the origin of life since I received my PhD at Cambridge University in the field in 1991. There is a widespread misunderstanding that only men in white lab coats can legitimately “do” science. Of course laboratory work is crucial to the advance of science, but the most important scientific discoveries in modern times have been made by researchers who primarily thought and wrote about their thoughts rather than boiling up stuff in beakers. Darwin himself was primarily a scientific thinker, not a lab scientist. I absolutely love the way he put his case together for unguided evolution. He pioneered the scientific method we now use to formulate a scientific case. In the tradition of Darwin, Watson and Crick, and Einstein, I’ve crafted one long and compelling argument for intelligent design. That’s not meant to sound pretentious, just to point out that the great tradition in science is not limited by any requirement that you spend your days in a lab rather than in an office.
Q. Haven’t we heard all the evidence for intelligent design? The Cambrian explosion, gaps in the fossil record, something about a bacterium and his tail that resembles an outboard motor, all that?
A. It’s true that many people think they have heard all the evidence for intelligent design, but they certainly have not. The intelligent design community is still in its adolescence. The area of evidence I present has not been presented before except in fragments in rather specialized and forbidding scientific venues. I’ve put that evidence together for the first time. Unlike previous contributors to the field, I present a radical and comprehensive new case, revealing the evidence not merely of individual features of biological complexity but of a fundamental constituent of the universe: information. That evidence has been mounting exponentially in recent years, known to scientists in specialized fields but largely hidden from public view.
Q. This year marks Darwin’s 200th birthday and 150 years since he published the Origin of Species. Did you write your book to coincide with those anniversaries, or could it have been written anytime?
A. It’s a happy coincidence for me that my book is appearing in this year of auspicious anniversaries. The truth is, it could not have been written 25 years ago when I was just starting my research on the origin of life. It couldn’t have been written 10 years ago. The scientific data was not yet in hand. It had not been collected or sifted. It’s only in the past decade that the information age has finally come to biology. We now know that biology at its root is digital code, information. Having advanced to this level of digital technology ourselves, in computer science, we can at last begin to appreciate what is going on inside the cell: the nested coding, digital processing, distributive retrieval and storage systems, the whole operating system in the genome. It’s extraordinary. The terminology is the very same that we use in discussing computers. While the digital code in DNA was known by the late 1950s, it wasn’t until much later that we began to understand what it all means. You have to look at the whole technical system for processing and storing information in the cell. A computer’s operating system tells the computer where to find things, and puts them into a data file. The cell is doing the same thing, but with far, far greater efficiency.
Q. Didn’t that federal judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, rule that intelligent design isn’t science? Doesn’t that pretty much blow your thesis out of the water?
A. You are referring to Judge John E. Jones, who presided over the Dover case back in 2005. His decision has been trumpeted by critics of intelligent design ever since. Unfortunately for him and for them, but fortunately for everyone else, neither federal nor state or local judges have the role of defining science. Judge Jones copied much of his decision verbatim from documents prepared for him by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU doesn’t get to define science either. Scientists, and specifically scholars with expertise in the philosophy of science, have that role. One advantage of being in the field I am is that I was trained to step back from the whole confusing panoply of claims about what science is or isn’t and explain, with some authority, that intelligent design makes a claim on the designation of “science” every bit as strong as that made by Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Q. Does your book have anything to say about the whole New Atheist phenomenon, with best-selling authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens going around saying that God doesn’t exist, as science proves?
A. My book is very relevant to the New Atheist debate. Richard Dawkins and his followers and publicists base their claim to have “disproven” God’s existence largely on their premise that the argument for design in nature has been defeated by Darwinian evolution. But Darwin himself never seriously considered the question of how life arose. He knew nothing about the information encoded in DNA. He knew nothing about DNA. The more science reveals about the degree to which life is information-based, the more we are compelled, if we are honest with ourselves, to conclude that there is strong scientific evidence for design in life’s history, and especially in the tremendous mystery of its origin. That simply refutes the foundational premise that underlies the argument made by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, and the rest of them.
Q. Why is your book important for readers who haven’t followed the whole intricate evolution debate up till now? Isn’t this all very arcane and theoretical? What’s it got to do with me?
A. It has everything to do with the way we all live our lives today. The issue at hand here is nothing less than the keystone of what many have called the Culture Wars. The moral crisis of our time is one in which adults and young people alike can’t explain why some things are right and others are wrong. The whole concept of moral responsibility is under attack. Why are people so confused? Because there is this sneaking suspicion, fostered by 150 years of Darwinian evolutionary thinking, that life snapped into existence unaided and unguided, without purpose or meaning. If that were true, it would mean that our lives are without purpose, our moral beliefs nothing more than meaningless artifacts of an evolutionary process that never had us in mind. If there is a signature in the cell, as I argue, then that opens a space for moral thinking grounded not in sentimentality and wishful thinking but in scientific fact.