The Cell's Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator's Artistry
by Fazale Rana
Baker Books, 2008
336 pp., $16.99
The culture war between evolutionary science and creationism continues unabated in a new book by Fazale Rana, one of the scholars associated with the day-age creationist ministry Reasons to Believe. Rana coauthored Origins of Life with Reasons founder Hugh Ross; The Cell's Design is the sequel.
In its content, however, The Cell's Design really follows Michael Behe's now-classic Darwin's Black Box, which highlighted extremely complex biological structures, such as bacterial flagellum, that Behe argued could not have come into existence by the stepwise mechanisms required in Darwinian evolution. Rana builds on this foundation, marshalling a potpourri of additional highly complex structures and systems from biochemistry to illustrate what he assumes to be obvious: that these structures are designed.
The Cell's Design stands in a long tradition, going back to 17th-century naturalist John Ray and, most notably, 18th-century English philosopher William Paley. Paley, in Natural Theology, famously used the analogy of a pocket watch to represent something that must be designed, engineered, and put together by a maker rather than through a natural process. Rana argues that the machinery of cellular biology is, like a pocket watch, constructed according to the plan of a designer (who, in a departure from most Intelligent Design scientists, he explicitly names as the God of the Old and New Testaments).
In his 2005 book Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, Christian theologian and writer Alister McGrath reminded us that Paley's ideas did not sit well with some of his contemporaries, including theologian John Henry Newman. The Catholic thinker feared that a convincing critique of the watchmaker analogy could undermine faith resting on that foundation. Apparently undisturbed by this concern, Rana writes repeatedly that the forms and functions exhibited by cells proclaim the outside intelligence and artistry of a designer.
Rana, like Behe before him, may be commended for providing a layman's description of a number of astonishingly intricate cellular processes. But his portraits of cellular workings will fail to convince most mainstream scientists for the same reason that Behe's book has been roundly dismissed: The analogy between manmade machines and cells is a poor one at best. Cellular components, although machine-like in some respects, do not behave like manmade machines. They self-assemble and self-manufacture, and they are able to transform available energy sources such as light to fuel metabolic activity. The cell can also replicate itself and copies of its parts, given energy and simple raw materials. Rana strains the machine analogy by suggesting that certain "greasy" amino acids provide "lubrication" to cellular "motors."
In one of the more thought-provoking discussions in The Cell's Design, Rana speculates about the minimal number of genes required for a cell to function, which is about 150 to 200. He believes the probability of these components coming together at once is vanishingly small. This "all at once" argument has a long history in anti-evolution literature, and it's essentially correct except that there is no reason to believe the cell's components had to come together in an instant. Although cells as we know them today may require a minimum of 150 to 200 genes, the components of the earliest cells likely existed independently in a different pre-cellular form. Genetic analysis of the microbial universe has revealed significant swapping and sharing of genetic elements among microbes. Even human cells' mitochondria, which provide energy for cellular processes, contain DNA and genetic code that seem bacterial in origin.
Molecular biologists, biochemists, and geneticists will not be convinced by the familiar arguments in The Cell's Design. However, readers already invested in Intelligent Design will, indeed, see God's artistry in Rana's descriptions, and be rightly impressed.
Craig M. Story is associate professor of biology at Gordon College.
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