Planetary Science Journal Icarus, the “Wow!” Signal of Intelligent Design

Here’s a new paper that can be added to the growing stack of intelligent-design articles in peer-reviewed journals. Even though the authors do not use the phrase “intelligent design,” their reasoning centers on the detection of an intelligent signal embedded in the genetic code — a mathematical and semantic message that cannot be accounted for by a natural cause, “be it Darwinian, Lamarckian,” chemical affinities or energetics, or any other.

Dr. Vladimir I. shCherbak, a mathematician at the al-Farabi Kazakh National University of Kazakhstan, and Maxim A. Makukov, an astrobiologist at Kazakhstan’s’s Fesenkov Astrophysical Institute, gave their paper a catchy title: “The ‘Wow! signal’ of the terrestrial genetic code.” Their paper has been accepted for publication in the prestigious planetary science journal Icarus, where it’s already available online.

Their title comes from a curious SETI signal back in 1977 that looked so artificial at first, a researcher wrote “Wow!” next to it. With no follow-up examples, that signal has remained interesting but inconclusive. shCherbak and Makukov looked into “biological SETI” — the “biological channel” of communication (e.g., DNA) and concluded “Wow!” — the genetic code has features that defy natural explanation. The abstract states:

It has been repeatedly proposed to expand the scope for SETI, and one of the suggested alternatives to radio is the biological media. Genomic DNA is already used on Earth to store non-biological information. Though smaller in capacity, but stronger in noise immunity is the genetic code. The code is a flexible mapping between codons and amino acids, and this flexibility allows modifying the code artificially. But once fixed, the code might stay unchanged over cosmological timescales; in fact, it is the most durable construct known. Therefore it represents an exceptionally reliable storage for an intelligent signature, if that conforms to biological and thermodynamic requirements. As the actual scenario for the origin of terrestrial life is far from being settled, the proposal that it might have been seeded intentionally cannot be ruled out. A statistically strong intelligent-like “signal” in the genetic code is then a testable consequence of such scenario. (Emphasis added.)

Since intelligent design theory doesn’t consider the question of the identity of the designer, design by space aliens is one possible intelligent cause; however, the phrase used here, “seeded intentionally,” would appear to refer to a broader class of intelligence(s).

Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. Simple arrangements of the code reveal anensemble of arithmetical and ideographical patterns of the same symbolic language. Accurate and systematic, these underlying patterns appear as a product of precision logic and nontrivial computing rather than of stochastic processes (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10-13). The patterns display readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality, among which are the symbol of zero, the privileged decimal syntax and semantical symmetries. Besides, extraction of the signal involves logically straightforward but abstract operations, making the patterns essentially irreducible to natural origin. Plausible ways of embedding the signal into the code and possible interpretation of its content are discussed. Overall, while the code is nearly optimized biologically, its limited capacity is used extremely efficiently to pass non-biological information.

From there, the authors explore a number of fascinating patterns they find in the genetic code itself (not necessarily in animal genomes) — i.e., the relationship between the base pairs of DNA and the 20 amino acids. They are driven to the conclusion of design not only by what they observe, but also “by the fact that how the code came to be apparently non-random and nearly optimized remains disputable and highly speculative.” This reasoning is similar to Stephen Meyer’s in Signature in the Cell in which all the possible natural causes for a phenomenon were considered before inferring design.

The signal of intelligent origin, they reasoned, was strong because both arithmetic and ideographic signals are apparent, both using the same symbolic language. They predicted that a signal, if it exists, should be robust from modification. They did their best to avoid arbitrariness, considering what natural causes could be available to explain their findings. They identified two dimensionless integers — redundancy of codons and number of nucleons in the amino acid set — as “ostensive numerals” forming the basis of the signal, showing in detail how the patterns in those numerals satisfy the conditions for intelligent signals.

Considerations of brevity prohibit giving a complete analysis of their arguments, but let an example suffice. Of the 20 amino acids, only proline holds its side chain with two bonds, and has one less hydrogen in its block. The effect of this is to “standardize” the code to a 73 + 1 block nucleon number. Yet the distinction between block and chain is “purely formal,” they argue, since there is no stage in amino acid synthesis where the block and side chain are detached. Here’s their comment:

Therefore, there is no any [sic] natural reason why nucleon transfer in proline; it can be stimulated only in the mind of a recipient to achieve the array of amino acids with uniform structure. Such nucleon transfer thus appears artificial. However, exactly, this seems to be its destination: it protects the patterns from any natural explanation. Minimizing the chances for appealing to natural origin is a distinct concern of messaging of such kind, and this problem seems to be solved perfectly for the signal in the genetic code. Applied systematically without exceptions, the artificial transfer in proline enables holistic and precise order in the code. Thus, it acts as an “activation key”. While nature deals with the actual proline which does not produce the signal in the code, an intelligent recipient easily finds the key and reads messages in arithmetical language….

In addition, they find a decimal system including zero (via stop codons), and many other fascinating signs of intelligent origin. They examine possible criticisms, such as the claim that the patterns could be due to unknown natural causes:

But this criterion is equivalent to asking if it is possible at all to embed informational patterns into the code so that they could beunequivocally interpreted as an intelligent signature. The answer seems to be yes, and one way to do so is to make patterns virtual, not actual. Exactly that is observed in the genetic code. Strict balances and decimal syntax appear only with the application of the“activation key”.

In effect, the proline nucleon transfer is like a decoder ring that makes the signal apparent and all the blocks balance out. Some other signs of artificiality are the fact that nucleon sums are multiples of 037; the stop codons act as zero in a decimal system, and all the three-digit decimals (111, 222, 333, 444, 555, 666, 777, 888, and 999) appear at least once in the code, “which also looks like an intentional feature.

Could these patterns be due to selection or any other natural process? Could they be mere “epiphenomena” of chemical pressures for mass equalities, or something else?

But it is hardly imaginable how a natural process can drive mass distribution in abstract representations of the code where codons are decomposed into bases or contracted by redundancy…. no natural process can drive mass distribution to produce the balance … amino acids and syntactic signs that make up this balance are entirely abstract since they are produced by translation of a string read across codons.

Even more convincing, no natural cause can produce semantics — particularly the kind involving “interpretive or linguistic semantics peculiar to intelligence,” they write. “Exactly the latter kind of semantics is revealed in the signal of the genetic code.” Here’s a summary of the patterns they conclude show design:

In total, not only the signal itself reveals intelligent-like features — strict nucleon equalities, their distinctive decimal notation, logical transformations accompanying the equalities, the symbol of zero and semantic symmetries, but the very method of its extractioninvolves abstract operations — consideration of idealized (free and unmodified) molecules, distinction between their blocks and chains, the activation key, contraction and decomposition of codons. We find that taken together all these aspects point at artificial nature of the patterns.

Lest anyone perceive a creationist message, they write: “Whatever the actual reason behind the decimal system in the code, it appears that it was invented outside the solar system already several billions years [sic] ago.” In other words, their favored position is panspermia. (Keep in mind, though, that there are multiple versions of panspermia.)

If their thesis of “biological SETI” sounds a little like ideas floated by Paul Davies, the authors thank Davies in their Acknowledgements, along with Manfred Eigen in Germany.

How will evolutionists respond to this paper? It’s hard to see how they could dismiss it. Maybe they will try to mock it as old Arabian numerology, or religiously inspired (since Kazakhstan, which funded the study, is 70% Muslim). Those would be unfair criticisms. The authors have Russian names, certified doctorates, and wrote in collaboration with leading lights in the West. Or perhaps critics could argue that the authors hail from a foreign country whose name has too many adjacent consonants in it to take them seriously.

No, it appears the only way out for Darwinists would be the “Dawkins Dodge.” You may remember that one from the documentary Expelled, where Dawkins admits the possibility of panspermia for Earth, so long as the designers themselves evolved by a Darwinian process.

What’s most notable about this paper is the similarity in design reasoning between the authors and the more familiar advocates of intelligent design theory. No appeals to religion or religious texts; no identifying the designer; just logical reasoning from effect to sufficient cause. The authors even applied the “design filter” by considering chance and natural law, including natural selection, before inferring design.

If Darwinists want to go on equating intelligent design with creationism, they will now have to take on the very secular journal Icarus.


#academic-freedom, #intelligent-design, #science-news

How does the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis differ from design?

Reader asks:

Further to: New call for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (The main problem the extended evolutionary synthesis creates for Darwinism is that evolution happens in many different ways, not just their way):

From the paper:

By contrast, the EES regards the genome as a sub-system of the cell designed by evolution to sense and respond to the signals that impinge on it. Organisms are not built from genetic ‘instructions’ alone, but rather self-assemble using a broad variety of
inter-dependent resources.

A reader writes to ask,

1. “designed by evolution”?

That means that design is so obvious that you can not get rid of it. But you can not represent “evolution” as an agent because “evolution” is not an agent, a force, a cause… Evolution is just “nothing”, the way we name the passing of time, but not the cause of the change.

2. “Designed by evolution to sense and respond to the signals that impinge on it” That is purely teleological, thank you.

3. “Self -assembly??”Ontogeny is not a process of assembly of parts. Aristotle called this process “epigenesis” 2.500 years ago. Kant explained that parts and the whole form being cause and effect to each other.

4. “…using a broad variety of inter-dependent resources”This interdependence sounds a little bit like “irreducible complexity””resources” has big teleological implications. The cell (or the organism that is being formed) “uses the resources” in order to…(Form is the final cause of the process)

Thanks to Jablonka, Müler et al. for reminding us how evident teleology and design are in biology.

Doubtless, the extended evolutionary synthesizers will be asked by others to explain.

Should be an interesting discussion

#academic-freedom, #intelligent-design, #science

Spectacular Convergence: A Camera Eye in a Microbe

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They thought it was a joke. A century ago, biologists could not believe that a one-celled creature had an eye. But since the warnowiid dinoflagellate was difficult to find and grow in the lab, detailed research was rare, until now. A team from the University of British Columbia gathered specimens off the coast of BC and Japan for a closer look. They found that the structure, called an ocelloid, has structures that mimic the complex eye of higher animals. PhysOrgsays:

In fact, the ‘ocelloid’ within the planktonic predator looks so much like a complex eye that it was originally mistaken for the eye of an animal that the plankton had eaten.

“It’s an amazingly complex structure for a single-celled organism to have evolved,” said lead author Greg Gavelis, a zoology PhD student at UBC. “It contains a collection of sub-cellular organelles thatlook very much like the lens, cornea, iris and retina of multicellular eyes found in humans and other larger animals.” [Emphasis added.]

New Scientist shares the astonishment:

It is perhaps the most extraordinary eye in the living world — soextraordinary that no one believed the biologist who first described it more than a century ago.

Now it appears that the tiny owner of this eye uses it to catch invisible prey by detecting polarised light. This suggestion is also likely to be greeted with disbelief, for the eye belongs to a single-celled organism called Erythropsidinium. It has no nerves, let alone a brain. So how could it “see” its prey?

The “retina” of this eye, a curved array of chromosomes, appears arranged to filter polarized light. The news item from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research quotes Brian Leander, co-supervisor of the project:

“The internal organization of the retinal body is reminiscent of the polarizing filters on the lenses of cameras and sunglasses,” Leander says. “Hundreds of closely packed membranes lined up in parallel.”

And that’s not all this wonder of the sea has in its toolkit. It also has a piston and a harpoon:

Scientists still don’t know exactly how warnowiids use the eye-like structure, but clues about the way they live have fuelled compelling speculation. warnowiids hunt other dinoflagellates, many of which are transparent. They have large nematocysts, which Leander describes as “little harpoons,” for catching prey. And some have apiston — a tentacle that can extend and retract very quickly — with an unknown function that might be used for escape or feeding.

Did This Eye Evolve?

Lest anyone think the dinoflagellate’s eye presents an easy evolutionary stepping stone to more complex eyes, the data reveal several problems. The paper inNature claims that the ocelloids are built from “different endosymbiotically acquired components” such as mitochondria and plastids. “As such, the ocelloid is a chimaeric structure, incorporating organelles with different endosymbiotic histories.” We can treat endosymbiosis as a separate issue. For now, we can ask if this complex structure is explainable by unguided natural selection.

The authors did not think this is a clear evolutionary story. “The ocelloid isamong the most complex subcellular structures known, but its function andevolutionary relationship to other organelles remain unclear,” they say. Never in the paper do they explain how organelles with different histories came together into a functioning eye. Most of the paper is descriptive of the parts and how they function individually, or where they might have been derived by endosymbiosis. To explain the eye’s origin as a functioning whole, they make up a phrase, “evolutionary plasticity” —

Nevertheless, the genomic and detailed ultrastructural data presented here have resolved the basic components of the ocelloid and their origins, and demonstrate how evolutionary plasticity of mitochondria and plastids can generate an extreme level of subcellular complexity.

Other than that, they have very little to say about evolution, and nothing about natural selection.

In the same issue of Nature, Richards and Gomes review the paper. They list other microbes including algae and fungi that have light-sensitive spots. Some have the rhodopsin proteins used in the rods and cones of multicellular animals. But instead of tracing eye evolution by common ancestry, they attribute all these innovations to convergence:

These examples demonstrate the wealth of subcellular structures and associated light-receptor proteins across diverse microbial groups. Indeed, all of these examples represent distinct evolutionary branches in separate major groups of eukaryotes. Even the plastid-associated eyespots are unlikely to be the product of direct vertical evolution, because the Chlamydomonas plastid is derived from a primary endosymbiosis and assimilation of a cyanobacterium, whereas the Guillardia plastid is derived from a secondary endosymbiosis in which the plastid was acquired ‘second-hand’ by intracellular incorporation of a red alga. Using gene sequences recovered from the warnowiid retinal body, Gavelis et al. investigated the ancestry of this organelle by building phylogenetic trees for the plastid-derived genes. Their analysis demonstrated that this modified plastid is also of secondary endosymbiotic originfrom a red alga.

Although derived independently, there are common themes in theevolution of these eye-like structures. Many of them involve thereconfiguration of cellular membrane systems to produce anopaque body proximal to a sensory surface, a surface that in four of the five examples probably involves type 1 rhodopsins. Given the evolutionary derivation of these systems, this represents a complex case of convergent evolution, in which photo-responsive subcellular systems are built up separately from similar components to achieve similar functions. The ocelloid example isstriking because it demonstrates a peak in subcellular complexity achieved through repurposing multiple components. Collectively, these findings show that evolution has stumbled on similar solutions to perceiving light time and time again.

But is convergence just a word masquerading as an explanation? We read:

The work sheds shed new light on how very different organisms can evolve similar traits in response to their environments, a process known as convergent evolution. Eye-like structures haveevolved independently many times in different kinds of animals and algae with varying abilities to detect the intensity of light, its direction, or objects.

“When we see such similar structural complexity at fundamentally different levels of organization in lineages that are very distantly related to each other, in this case warnowiids and animals, then you get a much deeper understanding of convergence,” Leander says.

But “convergent evolution” is not a process. It is a post-hoc observation based on evolutionary assumptions. An environment has no power to force an organism to respond to it with a complex function. Light exists, whether or not an organism sees it. Magnetism exists, too; does it contain the power to nudge fish, turtles, and butterflies to employ it for navigation?

#academic-freedom, #debate, #evolution, #eye, #intelligen-design, #science, #science-news

A Tale of Two Professors

It was September 2004. A conservative group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom sent a letter to President Jo Ann Gora of Ball State University (BSU) demanding an investigation into the university’s peace studies program led by Professor George Wolfe. The group alleged that Wolfe had violated student rights in class by excluding contrary views from his course readings, by offering extra credit to students who agreed to take part in a protest against the Iraq war (but not offering credit for students who might want to demonstrate in support of the war), by coercing students to volunteer for various ideologically driven peace programs or attend “Interfaith Fellowship” meetings, and by “creat[ing] the impression that he would lower students’ grades on papers when he disagreed with their views.” (See “Letter to the President of Ball State University,” September 13, 2004, in Indoctrination or Education?, pp. 20-23.) 


The current controversy over BSU physics professor Eric Hedin bears eerie similarities to the nearly decade-old controversy over Professor Wolfe. Just like the Wolfe case in 2004, the Hedin case erupted when an outside interest group — this time the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) — sent a letter of complaint to BSU’s President Jo Ann Gora. In both cases, there was a prominent public activist lurking behind the complaint. In 2004, the activist was conservative firebrand David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom. In 2013, the activist is atheist Darwinian biologist Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago, who started to hurl anathemas against Hedin’s course on his blog before the FFRF issued its formal complaint.

Despite the striking similarities, there are also dramatic differences between the two academic freedom controversies, especially in how BSU administrators chose to respond. Those differences raise important questions about whether BSU is committed to protecting academic freedom in an equal and impartial manner.

In the current dispute, Professor Hedin has been left in an academic no man’s land, waiting while a potentially biased “review panel” investigates him and while BSU’s provost equivocates in public about whether academic freedom protects Professor Hedin’s right to teach his course.

The contrast with how BSU handled the complaint against Professor Wolfe couldn’t be more stark. Instead of appointing a review panel or launching an extensive investigation in 2004, BSU officials quickly circled the wagons around Professor Wolfe and defended him to the media, the state legislature, and the public at large. The minimal investigation of the complaint against Wolfe seems to have consisted of the provost talking to both Wolfe’s supervisor and Professor Wolfe and reading some letters. The provost apparently did not even bother to interview the student who had come forward to allege discriminatory treatment in class. As a result, the Wolfe complaint was quickly disposed of. The letter of complaint from Students for Academic Freedom was dated September 13. A mere ten days later, on September 23, the provost issued a response exonerating Wolfe. (See “Reply from Ball State Provost Beverly Pitts” and “Reply to Provost Pitts” in Indoctrination or Education?, pp. 23-28.)

Wolfe himself later recalled:

When contacted by Ball State provost Beverly Pitts shortly after the Horowitz attack, she asked me how she should respond to the accusations that had been made. Dr. Pitts let me know from the beginning that she wanted to take on this fight, that this was her job as provost. She only needed from me material to address the issues in the media, and more importantly, to the Ball State board of trustees and politicians at the Indiana State House. (emphasis added)

Read the part in bold again: “Dr. Pitts let me know from the beginning that she wanted to take on this fight, that this was her job as provost.” All the provost needed was material she could use to defend Wolfe in the media and to the legislature. In other words, her inquiry was primarily about how to best defend their professor and his academic freedom.

Compare that approach to the Hedin case today. By any objective measure, the complaint submitted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against Hedin was far less serious, and far less credible, than the allegations lodged against Professor Wolfe. In saying this, I am not taking sides about who was right in the Wolfe controversy. Professor Wolfe vigorously challenged the allegations made against him at the time, and David Horowitz has continued to defend his criticisms of Wolfe. My point is merely that the complaint originally leveled against Wolfe put forward much more serious allegations of misconduct than the complaint against Hedin. The complaint against Wolfe identified a student by name who made specific charges of discriminatory treatment and the intimidation of students. By contrast, the complaint against Hedin did not identify any student who was willing to complain on the record against Hedin. Instead, it merely highlighted a few anonymous (and ambiguous) comments from, a website that doesn’t even verify whether those posting comments are in fact college students, let alone whether they ever took courses from the professor in question.

More importantly, and unlike in the Wolfe case, the complaint against Hedin did not allege that Hedin had actually intimidated students or threatened to grade them down for holding different beliefs than himself.

Despite the fact that the allegations against Hedin were far less weighty than those against Wolfe, BSU’s current provost Terry King did not dispose of FFRF’s complaint quickly. Instead, he created a review panel that appears to be stacked with faculty with conflicts of interest who are likely to be hostile to Professor Hedin’s point of view. In the meantime, Professor Hedin has been left hanging without any clear support from the top officials at his university. It is now more than forty days (and counting) since FFRF’s complaint — a far cry from the ten days it took for the university to resolve the more serious complaint against Professor Wolfe.

In public, meanwhile, BSU provost Terry King has equivocated about whether academic freedom protects Professor Hedin’s right to cover the topics included in his previously approved honors course. While saying that he supports academic freedom, Provost King has repeatedly emphasized that teaching must be “appropriate,” without defining what that means. Moreover, according to the BSU student newspaper, King “said some confuse First Amendment freedom of speech with academic freedom in a course, but the two are different.” It’s unclear what King meant by that comment, but he certainly seemed to be trying to limit the reach of academic freedom by making the distinction. King went on to define academic freedom in an extremely ambiguous manner: “in the appropriate teaching of a course, one can bring in controversial concepts if it’s appropriate to the nature of the course… We are very much in support of faculty members appropriately teaching their courses or appropriately doing their research even if it takes them into unpopular areas.” (emphasis added) Provost King did not define “appropriate” for the newspaper, which is such an ambiguous and subjective term that it could easily be used as a pretext to completely silence any professor who holds views that disagree with the majority of his or her colleagues. Is this all the guidance the provost provided to his review panel — to determine whether Hedin’s course is “appropriate”? If so, it won’t be especially surprising if the panel doesn’t end up ensuring Hedin’s academic freedom to teach his course.

BSU’s current provost should look more deeply into his own institution’s Faculty and Professional Personnel Handbook, which offers guidance that is a lot more clear-cut than his vague standard that a professor must be “appropriate.” The Handbook asserts: “Academic freedom is essential… and applies to both teaching and research… Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.” (p. 63) Furthermore, “[t]he teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the appointed subject, but should be careful not to introduce a controversial matter which has no relation to the subject.” (pp. 63-64) Given that the purpose of Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course was to examine the nature and limits of science, as well as the possible metaphysical implications of science, Hedin’s exploration of the relationship between faith and science clearly cannot be disqualified on grounds that it “has no relation to the subject.” Later in the Handbook, there is an explicit statement that “Academic freedom and freedom of expression include but are not limited to the expression of ideas, philosophies, or religious beliefs, however controversial, in classroom or other academic settings.” (p. 68) Has Provost King made sure that his review panel is aware of this language and takes care to follow it?

Once BSU duly hires a professor, and a course is officially approved, should an administrator be able to censor the professor’s class simply because the professor’s views are controversial, or even because the administrator thinks the course is not balanced? BSU professor George Wolfe certainly doesn’t seem to think so. As he stated when defending his own academic freedom:

Who decides the question of balance? Is it the Provost? Is it the Dean? Is it the Department Chair? Is it the Professor? Is it the student? It obviously is the professor who has structured the class, knows the most about the material, and has the most insight into what creates the best learning environment for the students and it is the professor that should determine what is balance. If you have one student out of 20 that complains about the class, does that one student provide reason for changing the course content, we have student evaluations and we obviously know how the majority of the students are feeling about the teacher. (emphasis added)

In another forum, Wolfe went on to provide this expansive statement of academic freedom:

Academic freedom has a long tradition and is meant to protect faculty who teach controversial subjects or conduct controversial research. It also prevents administrators, government officials, and yes, even students, from dictating what can or cannot be taught in a class, or what teaching strategies should be used to present educational material. Professors therefore are free to “profess,” to teach in their own way, to assemble and present course material according to their informed educated judgment regarding the research and subject matter in their respective fields. Keep in mind that if we take this protection away from liberal professors, we take it away from conservative professors as well. (emphasis added)

As BSU faculty and administrators consider the case of Eric Hedin, they should read and carefully ponder the words of George Wolfe. If they end up placing special restrictions on Hedin’s right to teach — restrictions not placed on any other professors at BSU — they will have opened the door to future efforts to restrict their own right to teach. Indeed, they will have ceded the moral high ground and undermined their ability to protect professors who hold views that they favor.

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