Design: More Intelligent Every Day

Synthetic biology requires intelligent design, but not the kind they teach in Kansas

By | January 1, 2006

Thanks to a recent court decision, children in Kansas will learn that the fossil record of our planet holds evidence of "irreducibly complex" traits, biological wonders that seem to sophisticated to be products of natural selection. Advocates of intelligent design argue that such complexity of biological life reveals evidence of a designer.

A different sort of designer is working in the nascent filed of synthetic biology. These scientists generate novel biological functions through the design and construction of living systems (see Is This Life?). Synthetic biologists manipulate the most complex biological interactions using the tools of engineering and computer science. It has borne fruit in the design of genomes, proteins, devices, integrated biological systems, and even cell-circuit hybrids. Synthetic biologists use evolution as a method. That seems pretty intelligent.

William Paley probably wasn't imagining such researchers when he expounded on the form of the intelligent design theory that children will be learning in Kansas. In his publication in 1800, Natural Theology, in which he was the first to suggest the idea, he wrote that just as a watch requires a watchmaker, the unexplainable complexities of nature can only be explained by the work of an intelligent creator. A small army of contemporary disciples has advanced the claim that for a variety of reasons intelligent design is a necessary antecedent to the teaching of evolution in schools.

Intelligent design theory might well be inspirational to those in synthetic biology, whose job it is to use their own brains to make imaginative sue of the raw materials and processes of creation. But the feeling would not be mutual. The Kansas school board spoke of its fear of evolutionists playing God. To an intelligent design proponent, synthetic biology is the blasphemous use of God's erector set. If biology is the story of the sacrosanct plan of an omniscient being, rather than the vicissitudes of natural selection, humans have a hard time explaining why they are tinkering with the works.

Some 44% of the US population believes that evolution is not true. Many of these citizens have gone to court and to the polls to push the ideas that intelligent design is an important scientific theory. They do so with religious zeal. A thousand miles away from Kansas in Dover, Pa., families who fired a school board that had insisted on teaching intelligent design are now in grave danger of incurring the wrath of God, according to televangelist Pat Robertson. "If you stick your finger in God's eye too many times, maybe you should try praying to Darwin when the next disaster strikes."

Some people working in synthetic biology wouldn't mind sticking a finger in Pat Robertson's eye. A leading synthetic biologists said to me recently that she is working so hard on building and animating an artificial bacterium primarily so that she can prove to advocates of intelligent design that it doesn't take a God to create life. I wish her luck, and Godspeed.

The real worry, though, is about the future of science. Children educated in a system in which untestable statements of faith are treated as privileged hypotheses are hardly prepared to face a world in which evolution is a fact of life. The next generation of scientists will face the rapid evolution of viruses and the implications of decreasing diversity in animals. We cannot afford to raise a generation of doctors who believe that drug-resistant bacteria are a punishment from God rather than an evolutionary process induced by the misuse of antibiotics. Whomever or whatever created the universe, let's hope they wanted us to be intelligent, too.

Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics.

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