The Miracle of Life

by Henry on March 25, 2004

Kieran suggests ” that people who subscribe to Intelligent Design theory need to have the perverse mechanics of childbirth explained to them.” Carl Zimmer goes one step further, and asks why the intelligent design crowd doesn’t embrace “one of the most successful, intricate examples of complexity in nature” – the cancer tumour.

Cancer cells grow at astonishing speeds, defying the many safeguards that are supposed to keep cells obedient to the needs of the body. And in order to grow so fast, they have to get lots of fuel, which they do by diverting blood vessels towards themselves and nurturing new vessels to sprout from old ones. They fight off a hostile immune system with all manner of camouflage and manipulation, and many cancer cells have strategies for fending off toxic chemotherapy drugs. When tumors get mature, they can send off colonizers to invade new tissues. These pioneers can release enzymes that dissolve collagen blocking their path; when they reach a new organ, they can secrete other proteins that let them anchor themselves to neighboring cells. While oncologists are a long way from fully understanding how cancer cells manage all this, it’s now clear that the answer can be found in their genes. Their genes differ from those of normal cells in many big and little ways, working together to produce a unique network of proteins exquisitely suited for the tumor’s success. All in all, it sounds like a splendid example of complexity produced by design. The chances that random natural processes could have altered all the genes required for a cell function as a cancer cell must be tiny—too tiny, some might argue, to be believed.

{ 36 comments }

1

praktike 03.25.04 at 11:20 am

carl

2

Mat 03.25.04 at 12:20 pm

I find the example of orchids (discussed on Panda’s Thumb) even more convincing…

3

raj 03.25.04 at 1:05 pm

The issue regarding cancer cells is unclear in regards the ID discussion. As far as I’m concerned, one of the more devastating commentaries on ID is found in Kenneth Brown’s article Life’s Grand Design http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/lgd/index.html Read the discussion on the comparison between the primate eye and the eyes of molluscks. If one were to believe that there is an intelligent designer, it would appear that he/she/it loves squids and octopuses more than humans, since the design of their eyes is better than the design of the human eye. And it isn’t as though the supposed intelligent designer wouldn’t have known how to design an optimal eye for humans–after all, the eyes of squids and octopuses were designed before those of humans.

It strikes me that intelligent design propagandists would have to conclude from this that the intelligent designer loves squids and octopuses more than he loves humans.

/sarcasm.

4

Ken C. 03.25.04 at 1:23 pm

It strikes me that intelligent design propagandists would have to conclude from this that the intelligent designer loves squids and octopuses more than he loves humans.

And of course: the Intelligent Designer seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.

You’d also think that the Intelligent Designer, hating abortion as much as It does, would have figured out a way to avoid all those spontaneous ones.

5

jm 03.25.04 at 1:24 pm

My soul shall not contend with mankind forever; his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.

We aren’t supposed to live nine hundred and thirty years. If all one’s hope is in the here and now, then cancer may be a deal-breaker. I don’t believe cancer is in the genes by design, but the susceptibility to cancer is in any molecular structure, as the laws of physics tell us that all material structures decay.

What the ID people believe is that an intelligent designer who wished to create life from the primordial clay could break the laws of physics, because He invented them.

6

Andrew Reeves 03.25.04 at 1:52 pm

The ID theorist, it seems to me, would ascribe cancer to the Fall. Of course, at that point the mask would be off and you’d have to admit that ID is not the result of a neutral examination of the evidence.

7

mondo dentro 03.25.04 at 2:03 pm

None of these kinds of arguments make a dent in ID theory because it is not predictive. It is, rather, a scientistic (not “scientific”) form of apologia for a certain type of theology. By definition everything is created by God, and therefore, by definition everything must have its reason. If we can not see how cancer can be “intelligent”, then we just have to think harder (for example, perhaps cancer is one of the ways that God tries to bring us closer to Him).

Speaking of apologias, I don’t like to think of tumors as “cancer”. That’s just so… perjorative. I prefer to think of them as sterling examples of laissez faire biology.

8

jm 03.25.04 at 2:04 pm

“Of course, at that point the mask would be off and you’d have to admit that ID is not the result of a neutral examination of the evidence.”

Or rather, you’d have to admit that religious belief is the result of a neutral examination of the evidence.

Adieu.

9

mondo dentro 03.25.04 at 2:07 pm

oops. “pejorative”.

10

des 03.25.04 at 2:09 pm

The laws of physics tell us that all material structures decay.

They do? If you mean the second law of thermodynamics, that was had a non-strict inequality when I studied physics.

What the ID people believe is that an intelligent designer who wished to create life from the primordial clay could break the laws of physics, because He invented them.

What the ID people believe is that:

* Lawyering (typically their job) is an epistemological methodology at least as good as anything scientists have developed for doing science with.
* Disagreeing with the Bible is wicked, and makes the baby Jesus cry.

The first of these is a very common syndrome – remember Roger Penrose (a mathematical physicist) insisting that AI was impossible because of a theory of quantum gravity he didn’t even have? The second is a fertilte ground for hope to all who hate America and yearn for the decline of its empire.

The stuff IDistes pass off as science-like is rancid nincompoopery, and it is good that it is being duly shredded, for sure, but for me the interesting question, which Scott Martens has had a go at, is why lawyering is a model to apply to science. (And I don’t think Popperianism, or whatever’s fashionable these days, is a good model for the human sciences either, so this isn’t just lawyer-bashing.)

11

mc 03.25.04 at 2:29 pm

By definition everything is created by God, and therefore, by definition everything must have its reason. If we can not see how cancer can be “intelligent”, then we just have to think harder

Eh. But that kind of apology for religion entirely discards the very essence of any religion – mystery.

Plus, if humans are not gods, how they ever even try grasping the “reasons” behind a divine design??

Surely honest theologians and people who are truly religious must see how these sort of attempts at explaining away everything in terms of ‘intelligent design’ are even more ‘arrogant’ than scientifical claims as they’re considered by creationists…

It’s paradoxical. Here’s people who think science is arrogant because it tries to explain things from a human, rational perspective… they think that’s arrogant, and they go and beat that by trying – no, claiming with absolute certainty – to be able to explain things from a divine perspective.

Isn’t that hubris at its purest?

If you believe in some God, then part of that belief is accepting you can’t know anything at all about God’s design, at large, or on your own life. You can’t explain what you consider divine by the framework of reason.

Honestly, I much prefer concepts like the resurrection or holy trinity or virgin birth to creationism/ID. They don’t make sense either, in rational terms, but _at least they don’t pretend they’re making any_. They’re supposed to be religious mysteries and that’s it.

This whole idea that religion should try and counter-argue with science is so incredibly obtuse. Even medieval monks knew better than that.

12

mc 03.25.04 at 2:32 pm

The ID theorist, it seems to me, would ascribe cancer to the Fall

Yeah, exactly… and I suppose they’d come up with even more ‘fascinating’ theories about AIDS…

13

mondo dentro 03.25.04 at 3:09 pm

…people who are truly religious must see how these sort of attempts at explaining away everything in terms of ‘intelligent design’ are even more ‘arrogant’ than scientifical claims as they’re considered by creationists…

Karen Armstrong in her book The History of God makes a similar point (I’m grossly paraphrasing from memory here): she goes as far as saying that fundamentalism is actually a post-enlightenment phenomenon that replaced a notion of religion based on the mysteries of existence (that which escapes and, perhaps, transcends reason).

My nutshell interpretation of her view of fundamentalism is that it is a type of philosophical reductionism, innapproriately applied to theology, the development of which was a cultural response to the rise of the “certainty” of science. Your critique of ID fits into this general framework.

14

Abiola Lapite 03.25.04 at 3:59 pm

“The laws of physics tell us that all material structures decay.”

Really? Last I heard, the proton doesn’t undergo decay. Your statement represents yet another popular misunderstanding of science that has hardened into conventional wisdom.

15

Abiola Lapite 03.25.04 at 4:01 pm

“The laws of physics tell us that all material structures decay.”

Really? Last I heard, the proton doesn’t undergo decay. Your statement represents yet another popular misunderstanding of science that has hardened into conventional wisdom.

16

Kieran Healy 03.25.04 at 4:03 pm

My nutshell interpretation of her view of fundamentalism is that it is a type of philosophical reductionism, innapproriately applied to theology, the development of which was a cultural response to the rise of the “certainty” of science.

That’s a nice idea. I’ve just spent several slack-jawed minutes at “this site”:http://www.answersingenesis.org — it really is amazing to see how hard these guys are working to show that biblical literalism (appropriately interpreted, ahem) is scientifically validated. Their love-hate relationship with science is just astonishing: on the one hand they want its authority as a source of evidence, on the other they want to condemn it as a closed-minded bastion of orthodoxy. The result is bizarre, deadly serious stuff like “feasability studies for Noah’s ark”:http://shop2.gospelcom.net/cgi-bin/AIGUS.storefront/4063021000388ef9271cccfd844c064f/Product/View/10&2D3&2D078.

17

Sujit 03.25.04 at 4:13 pm

I’m a relative amateur when it comes to the concept of ID, but going from the definition that I know – “Intelligent design (ID) refers to the theory that intelligent causes are responsible for the origin of the universe and of life in all its diversity” (http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org) – it seems somewhat clear to me that there is increasing evidence of complexity in life/nature resulting from non-intelligent causes.

Doesn’t Stephen Wolfram’s latest book, A New Kind Of Science (full edition for free at http://www.wolframscience.com/nksonline/) basically show that complexity can arise from simple programs with fairly simple non-intelligent initial conditions, or “generated intrinsically inside the systems one is looking at”? (See A New Kind Of Science, Chapter 7, Sections 2-5). Doesn’t this negate the whole idea of ID being the only possible (and plausible) theory of complexity out there?

Apologies in advance for any deficiencies and flaws in logic/reasoning – I’m still learning from you all.

18

Jeremy Osner 03.25.04 at 4:17 pm

Kieran — They also have an answer to the argument from bad design…

19

bill carone 03.25.04 at 4:34 pm

“Their love-hate relationship with science is just astonishing: on the one hand they want its authority as a source of evidence, on the other they want to condemn it as a closed-minded bastion of orthodoxy.”

Thoughtful religion doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with science. It has a love relationship with science, it has a hate relationship with what you might call “dogmatic science”.

Religion bows to science and reason; if science has proved something beyond reasonable doubt, religion must accept it.

Some scientists go further, however, and make claims like “Observation and reason and the only sources of truth.” Religion denies this clearly unproven proposition. (If someone goes out and proves it, religion must bow to it).

So there is no contradiction, no “love/hate” relationship with science.

As for the ID crowd, my understanding is that their theories don’t fit the observations, so it fails both on scientific and on religious grounds. They also may not understand religious argument (that it can’t contradict science and philosophy).

20

Jon H 03.25.04 at 5:35 pm

This description of cancer makes me think that perhaps cancer is the revenge of the mitochondria.

They’ve had enough of their servile existence in captivity, and they’re taking over! They were tricked into taking residence aeons ago, and they’ve been plotting revenge ever since.

21

rilkefan 03.25.04 at 6:56 pm

abiola, protons are expected to decay (due to a set of as yet unobserved phenomena physicists need to make their theories make sense – google on supersymmetry), but don’t wait around (google on Planck scale). I think it’s fair to say that in the long run the universe is expected to end up as a thin mist of radiation and fundamental particles.

22

Justin 03.25.04 at 7:38 pm

bc said: As for the ID crowd, my understanding is that their theories don’t fit the observations, so it fails both on scientific and on religious grounds.

Darwin said: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” (Origin of Species, 6th ed. (1988), p. 154) – Darwin

ID proponents (like myself) declare that Darwin’s evolution fails to explain irreducibly complex systems. Throwing theology in the mix is a red herring to distract from ID findings.

23

Andrew Shultz 03.25.04 at 8:49 pm

ID without Theology is like a sandwitch with not filling. It’s pretty clear that something is supposed to go in the middle, and you’re not fooling anyone saying you’re just going to eat the bread as is.

24

martin 03.25.04 at 10:03 pm

Could I quibble with this statement:

Their genes differ from those of normal cells in many big and little ways

The genes in normal and cancer cells will be identical or very nearly so. It is the expression of those genes that differs. One or a small number of genes may have collected a mutation as a result of which the regulatory mechanisms that govern gene expression are no longer operative.

25

bill carone 03.25.04 at 10:03 pm

Justin,

“ID proponents (like myself) declare that Darwin’s evolution fails to explain irreducibly complex systems.”

I’m no expert; my comment on ID is based on my readings of Dawkins and Dennett.

“Throwing theology in the mix is a red herring to distract from ID findings.”

I agree; ID should be judged on it’s ability to explain and predict observations, just like any scientific enterprise.

If observations go against you, you wouldn’t just say “Well, God says its so, so it is,” or anything like that, right? If evolution were proved beyond reasonable doubt, you would reject the parts of ID that contradicted it, no?

All I was saying is that religion doesn’t contradict science; indeed, since both aim at producing truth, they cannot conflict. If ID doesn’t fit the evidence, then thoughtful scientists and theologians alike would reject it.

26

J. Michael Neal 03.25.04 at 10:12 pm

“ID proponents (like myself) declare that Darwin’s evolution fails to explain irreducibly complex systems.”

My problem with ID (okay, one of them) is that it doesn’t actually *explain* complexity at all, it just pushes it up the chain. You are still left with trying to explain where the complex intelligence that can design all of these things came from. As far as I can tell, ID proponents either don’t address this question at all, or simply assume that it was always there. As an explanation for complexity, neither is very satisfying.

27

vivian 03.26.04 at 12:44 am

Sujit: Great idea using the arrow of time against the central ID trope! I wonder if you’ll get any serious replies, or persuade anyone? (we can only hope)

Although Wolfram is not the best place to learn about spontaneous complexity. Smart guy, but everyone makes mistakes, infers too much from too little. That’s why most of us collaborate and submit to peer review.

You’d do better to read Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations (really cheap at Amazon, but when I tried to paste the link I crashed the comment window). Thoughtful, careful research, incredibly good explanations of each of his steps, and he actually runs the numbers – how large is the set of possibilities, how quickly does it grow, how many have occurred since the beginning of the universe (or the earth, or human history)? Instead of simply waving one’s hands about “gee, that sounds like it’s improbable to me” – much stronger arguments.

His other books are great too, though Origins of Order requires hardcore math to follow it. Also look for stuff by John Holland, Bob Axelrod and the rest of the Santa Fe Institute crowd. Collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, careful work, cool programs, amazing scenery.

28

Abiola Lapite 03.26.04 at 1:35 am

“abiola, protons are expected to decay (due to a set of as yet unobserved phenomena physicists need to make their theories make sense – google on supersymmetry)”

Thanks for the info, but I was already well aware of the fact that various GUTs imply proton decay. The point is that there’s no evidence for it so far.

29

Abiola Lapite 03.26.04 at 1:42 am

By the way, the larger point is that there’s no evidence for any of the GUTs that imply proton decay either. To the best of our current knowledge, protons simply don’t decay.

30

vietulooj 03.26.04 at 3:08 am

In response to sujit, at least one of the rules Wolfram mentions, rule 110 is Turing complete.

31

msg 03.26.04 at 4:35 am

Vivian:
Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations

not-Vivian-
The arrogance, humble though it is, of any human being predicting the entropic flat-line of this limitless environment, this universe, this thing we sit within, with its spatially infinite dimensions and its necessarily endless temporal co-ordinates, never stops amazing me. And irritating the shit out of me.
Though periodically I can listen to it or read people making confident statements as to its inevitability without having stomach upset.
But it does sound the way I imagine terracentric cosmologists sounded in the 15th century.
It’s received wisdom, patriarchal energy transmitted in the classroom. Something you have to believe to be a man. It’s specious horseshit and no different from the desperate illogic of religionists.
Rationalizing a faulty world-view because you’ve already committed to it, at the expense of your soul’s more accurate sense of wonder and awe.

I like to play with the idea that maybe not only is there a Designer/Creator, but also a Real-Estate Broker, a Banker, and maybe something like a Linebacker or a News Anchor. Also maybe a Waitress, Stanley Kubrick’s Fetus, a Police Sergeant, and a Pedophile Bishop or two; I mean on the scale of an Intelligent Designer. Bigtime Players. The Demi-Urge, the Semi-Demi-Urge, the Red-Neck-Urge, The Devil, the Devil’s Lawyer’s Personal Trainer. All bigger than the solar system. Huge other entities.
Because so much of what’s espoused as revelation hinges on the suffering and persecution of the saintly being all right, in fact necessary.
But if it isn’t, if it’s really the case that in the Celestial Spheres, just like down here in the real world good people are outnumbered eighty to one by greedy little bastards, and thugs, and violent cowardly opportunists, and treacherous liars etc, then it’s just like this, only bigger.
That there is a larger context but there’s no escape. That it’s just as dicey in the upper levels and there’s something not quite right wherever, we are wherever we go, because it’s in us. That the imbalance is part of what we are. Because we’re here. Wherever it is we are.

Cancer’s no morally different than nuclear war, if you’re looking at it dispassionately from the safety of Alpha-Centauri.
But just because Jerry Falwell has his head entirely up his lower intestine does not in any way mean that human beings are the highest form of intelligent life in the, deep breath, entire universe.
And it seems quite likely, that something/someone exists somewhere that is not measurable on our anthro-centric scales of intelligence, too far outside our perception to be lensed and proven by any laboratory metric.

I do know this. This world was living and balanced as we began our rush toward industrial triumph, and it’s so out of balance now it’s about to full-system crash.
The twin delusions, of revealed dominion and sanction, and of solitary agency with no discernible governor – the religious fundamentalist and the positivist fundamentalist – did this while they argued like conjoined twins.

The patriarchal deity, God’s Eye for the Material Pie, may well be a myth, but the carte blanche human entitlement that seems to immediately follow its refutation seems equally chimerical, and just as dangerous.

32

mc 03.26.04 at 8:24 am

Justin, you’re ignoring that crucial “if it could be demonstrated” part of Darwin’s statement. Any theory can disprove a pre-existing one, that’s a given. But it would have to be based on the same scientific standards and methods of reasoning and research. An amateurish implant of scientific _language_ into creationism doesn’t fit the bill. It’s not even a “theory” per se. It’s based on a dogma, of a religious nature, with religion reduced to some incredibly lifeless, sterile form of mental rigidity, and then pretends to proceed by flawed scientific argument. Thereby doing a terrible mess of both religion and science.

33

AAB 03.26.04 at 3:09 pm

Justin said:
“ID proponents (like myself) declare that Darwin’s evolution fails to explain irreducibly complex systems.”

Justin look for Evolutionists answer to this here:

http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB200.html

Just consider the evolution of the eye. In the beginning there might have been a collection of molecules that is sensitive to light. This primitive eye would differentiate light from dark. Then some of the molecules (say 20% of total) of this primitive eye would specialize to distinguish, say, red from blue. Then other parts of the molecules (say 60%) would specialize only in filtering out the light that the other 20% molecules have better use for.. etc.. This could be a gradual evolution of the eye. It is not like to has to evolve parts at a time that till the entire eye is complete the part is useless.

34

AAB 03.26.04 at 3:12 pm

Justin, please also look at
http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/icdmyst/ICDmyst.html

regarding the IC issue.

35

Angus 03.28.04 at 1:54 am

Canada’s hockey players are the best in the world. Why? Because Joe Sakic and company beat a pee wee team from Minnesota? No, because they beat the best teams from other countries at the Olympics. (Okay, so they lost to Sweden at the beginning, but we’ll ignore that embarrassing fact.) If you want to defeat ID, you have to refute the best ID has to offer in the way of arguments. In this respect, check out Michael J. Behe’s website, in particular his piece “Philosophical Objections to Intelligent Design: Response to Critics”. If anyone knows of good responses to Behe’s responses, please let me know.
And that’s not even getting into the matter of the “fine tuning”-of-the-universe argument….

36

Joshua W. Burton 03.28.04 at 11:49 pm

_By the way, the larger point is that there’s no evidence for any of the GUTs that imply proton decay either. To the best of our current knowledge, protons simply don’t decay._

Bringing us back on topic, abiola’s remark amounts to an “intelligent design” model for the baryon asymmetry that we observe all around us, which is some 10 billion times greater than can be explained by random primordial fluctuations frozen out by the Hubble expansion. The idea here, I suppose, would be that there is more matter than antimatter because the (observable piece of the) universe was just made that way.

A more parsimonious explanation, involving no GUTs or supersymmetry, is contained within the good old standard model, though it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Kuzmin, Rubakov, _et aliae_ noticed it. Sakharov (yes, _that_ Sakharov) taught us back in the 1970s that certain symmetry violations (already observed in neutral kaon decay) + proton decay + out-of-thermal-equilibrium expansion in the early universe = (is necessary and sufficient for) baryon asymmetry. And Kuzmin’s sphaleron mechanism provides a high-temperature mechanism for the proton decay part, even without any “new” physics.

The actual rate is billions of times too low to be observable in current-generation proton decay experiments, but it’s still part of standard model physics. Since there is _no_ known self-consistent theory that lacks sphaleron-induced proton decay, it should probably be argued that any evidence for _any_ electroweak theory, such as the standard model, is evidence for proton decay. That is, burden of proof shifts to someone who thinks she can come up with a particle physics model without it.

Oh, and if you do somehow suppress high-temperature nonperturbative baryon decay through sphalerons (lifetime around 10 to the 45 years) you’re left with virtual black-hole induced baryon decay at 10 to the 60 years or so. To make the proton _truly_ stable, you have to somehow get past _both_ Weinberg-Salam _and_ Einstein.

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