Were things better in the past than they are today? It depends who you ask.
Without question, there are some things that were better in years gone by. And, clearly, there are some historical attitudes and customs that, today, we find hard to believe our ancestors considered to be an acceptable part of daily life.
It isn’t just attitudes and customs that change over time. Ideas change, too—some for the better, some for the worst. Consider the way doing science has evolved, particularly the study of biological systems. Was the way we approached the study of biological systems better in the past than it is today?
It depends who you ask.
As an old-earth creationist and intelligent design proponent, I think the approach biologists took in the past was better than today for one simple reason. Prior to Darwin, teleology was central to biology. In the late 1700s and early to mid-1800s, life scientists viewed biological systems as the product of a Mind. Consequently, design was front and center in biology.
As part of the Darwinian revolution, teleology was cast aside. Mechanism replaced agency and design was no longer part of the construct of biology. Instead of reflecting the purposeful design of a Mind, biological systems were now viewed as the outworking of unguided evolutionary mechanisms. For many people in today’s scientific community, biology is better for it.
Prior to Darwin, the ideas shaped by thinkers (such as William Paley) and biologists (such as Sir Richard Owen) took center stage. Today, their ideas have been abandoned and are often lampooned.
But, advances in my areas of expertise (biochemistry and origins-of-life research) justify a return to the design hypothesis, indicating that there may well be a role for teleology in biology. In fact, as I argue in my book The Cell’s Design, the latest insights into the structure and function of biomolecules bring us full circle to the ideas of William Paley (1743-1805), revitalizing his Watchmaker argument for God’s existence.
In my view, many examples of molecular-level biomachinery stand as strict analogs to human-made machinery in terms of architecture, operation, and assembly. The biomachines found in the cell’s interior reveal a diversity of form and function that mirrors the diversity of designs produced by human engineers. The one-to-one relationship between the parts of man-made machines and the molecular components of biomachines is startling (e.g., the flagellum’s hook). I believe Paley’s case continues to gain strength as biochemists continue to discover new examples of biomolecular machines.
The Skeptics’ Challenge
Despite the powerful analogy that exists between machines produced by human designers and biomolecular machines, many skeptics continue to challenge the revitalized watchmaker argument on logical grounds by arguing in the same vein as David Hume.1 These skeptics assert that significant and fundamental differences exist between biomachines and human creations.
In a recent interaction on Twitter, a skeptic raised just such an objection. Here is what he wrote:
“Do [objects and machines designed by humans] replicate with heritable variation? Bad analogy, category mistake. Same one Paley made with his watch on the heath centuries ago.”
In other words, biological systems replicate, whereas devices and artefacts made by human beings don’t. This difference is fundamental. Such a dissimilarity is so significant that it undermines the analogy between biological systems (in general) and biomolecular machines (specifically) and human designs, invalidating the conclusion that life must stem from a Mind.
This is not the first time I have encountered this objection. Still, I don’t find it compelling because it fails to take into account manmade machines that do, indeed, replicate.
Von Neumann’s Universal Self-Constructor
In the 1940s, mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist John von Neumann (1903–1957) designed a hypothetical machine called a universal constructor. This machine is a conceptual apparatus that can take materials from the environment and build any machine, including itself. The universal constructor requires instructions to build the desired machines and to build itself. It also requires a supervisory system that can switch back and forth between using the instructions to build other machines and copying the instructions prior to the replication of the universal constructor.
Von Neumann’s universal constructor is a conceptual apparatus, but today researchers are actively trying to design and build self-replicating machines.2 Much work needs to be done before self-replicating machines are a reality. Nevertheless, one day machines will be able to reproduce, making copies of themselves. To put it another way, reproduction isn’t necessarily a quality that distinguishes machines from biological systems.
It is interesting to me that a description of von Neumann’s universal constructor bears remarkable similarity to a description of a cell. In fact, in the context of the origin-of-life problem, astrobiologists Paul Davies and Sara Imari Walker noted the analogy between the cell’s information systems and von Neumann’s universal constructor.3 Davies and Walker think that this analogy is key to solving the origin-of-life problem. I would agree. However, Davies and Walker support an evolutionary origin of life, whereas I maintain that the analogy between cells and von Neumann’s universal constructor adds vigor to the revitalized Watchmaker argument and, in turn, the scientific case for a Creator.
In other words, the reproduction objection to the Watchmaker argument has little going for it. Self-replication is not the basis for viewing biomolecular machines as fundamentally dissimilar to machines created by human designers. Instead, self-replication stands as one more machine-like attribute of biochemical systems. It also highlights the sophistication of biological systems compared to systems produced by human designers. We are a far distance away from creating machines that are as sophisticated as the machines found inside the cell. Nevertheless, as we continue to move in that direction, I think the case for a Creator will become even more compelling.
Who knows? With insights such as these maybe one day we will return to the good old days of biology, when teleology was paramount.
Biomolecular Machines and the Watchmaker Argument
Responding to Challenges to the Watchmaker Argument