Error Control Coding in Biology Implies Design, Part 5 (of 5)

Error Control Coding in Biology Implies Design, Part 5 (of 5)

Parts 1 through 4 of this series described such features as information-processing systems, Gray codes, even parity codes, and error-minimization techniques in biological systems. A fifth feature(not part of this series) observed an analogy of a feedback control system found in dairy cows.

What do these apparent analogies of design in nature mean? Are they really analogues and how do they relate to the popular watchmaker argument?

William Paley’s Watchmaker Argument1

British natural theologian William Paley (1743-1805) is famous for his so-called watchmaker argument. Paley argued that in contrast to a stone, a watch found on a remote path implies a watchmaker. Unlike the stone, the watch could not be constructed by the forces of nature. Paley further argued that organisms are similar to a watch in complexity (in fact, more complex); therefore, a Divine Designer can be inferred. (See here for more details about William Paley and his watchmaker argument.)

A contemporary of Paley, Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) offered several criticisms of Paley’s argument. In Hume’s estimation, the analogical argument between organisms and a watch was weak. Hume argued that the objects being compared (living organisms and a watch) were too dissimilar to constitute a good analogy; therefore, Paley’s argument would not stand. (See here and here for more information on David Hume and his objections to the design argument.)

Modern critics have added further reasons for doubting the legitimacy of the watchmaker argument. B. C. Johnson has argued that Paley did not use a strict-enough criterion for identifying design. For Paley, design was evident when a system contained several parts “framed and put together for a purpose.” Johnson, in contrast, says “we can identify a thing as designed, even when we do not know its purpose, only if it resembles the things we make to express our purposes.”2

Logician Patrick J. Hurley demonstrates the appropriate use of analogy. To build a strong analogy, Hurley reasons that one must find sufficiently numerous and relevant attributes in both halves of the analogy to establish an analogical relationship that supports the conclusion drawn. An analogy is more firmly established when the analogous systems are diverse and abundant.3

Have these criteria been established in the examples considered in this series?

As an engineer I would submit these reasons in arguing for an undeniable “yes”:

  • the genetic system is, by any objective standard, an information-processing system in the same way that our modern communication systems are;
  • the genetic information-processing system uses discrete, symbolic alphabets and sequences just as our modern digital communication systems do;
  • numerous and diverse analogies directly resemble our own designs in information-processing and error-control coding;
  • we have found these analogies to be strict and robust between the domains— analogies that highlight techniques that are aimed to minimize errors and maximize information transfer;
  • we have seen analogies of Gray codes, parity codes, and even feedback control systems (see here);
  • the genetic code has been found to be highly optimized, literally one-in-a-million in terms of its error-minimization capacities, and the very same code simultaneously conforms to a specific and unique mathematical structure that enables, in addition, the existence of code(s) operating along the DNA strands;
  • statistical studies of actual DNA reveal a signature that further suggests that codes similar to the parity code may well be in operation along the DNA strands.

Thus, twenty-first century insight into the genetic system has helped settle the centuries-old debate. The analogies discussed meet the objections raised and standards set by Hume, Johnson, and Hurley. Paley’s watchmaker argument is indeed reinvigorated with this new and powerful evidence coming from the intersection of molecular biology and information theory.

This evidence buttresses the divine design component of RTB’s creation model and finds a comfortable spot within the worldview of Christian theism.

Keith McPherson

Keith McPherson received his Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1993, and currently works as an electrical engineer in Melbourne, FL, in the fields of communications and signal processing.

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  1. See here for further information on Paley’s argument, and objections raised, in the context of molecular motors.

  2. Fazale Rana, “Hume vs. Paley: These “Motors” Settle the Debate,” Facts for Faith, no. 2 (Q2 2000).

  3. Fazale Rana, “Hume vs. Paley: These “Motors” Settle the Debate.”