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SICI: The Search for Intracellular Intelligence

Steven Novella has a recent post on SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Like many of us, Dr. Novella is fascinated by the prospect of finding evidence for intelligent alien life in outer space. Dr. Novella:

I am a strong supporter of SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. To me this is a fascinating scientific endeavor with a potentially huge payoff...

Dr. Novella defends SETI against the claims by some that it is not real science:

And yet, I find that even within skeptical circles I hear grumblings that SETI is not real science...The primary complaint stems from the misapplication of an important scientific principle - that a necessary criterion for any scientific hypothesis is that it needs to be falsifiable. If you cannot make an observation or conduct an experiment to prove an idea wrong, then that idea is not useful to science...SETI critics argue that the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence is inherently unfalsifiable. No matter how much you look with negative results, one could always argue that it is not enough, we have to look deeper into space, for fainter signals, in more EM frequencies...But this, however, does not render SETI unfalsifiable in the that is meant by philosophers of science, because it runs up against another scientific principle - the notion that you cannot prove a negative. It is logically impossible to prove completely that a phenomenon does not exist (unless it can be demonstrated that it violates know laws - but even then the proof is only as good as the degree to which the violated laws are established). Evidence for the lack of a phenomenon is always only as good as the thoroughness and efficacy of the search methods.

Dr. Novella rambles a bit. He hypothesizes about Dyson spheres and alien SETI projects looking for us:

In a recent Nature commentary, Philip Ball also feels the need to defend SETI. He discusses another method (other than listening for radio signals) for looking for ET, writing:..Dyson suggested that a sufficiently advanced civilization would baulk at the prospect of its star's energy radiating uselessly into space. They could capture it, he said, by breaking up other planets in their solar system into rubble that would form a spherical shell -- known as a Dyson sphere -- around the star, creating a surface on which the solar energy could be harvested...He is talking about the work of Richard Carrigan, who asked a specific question: are there any detectable Dyson spheres within about 1000 light years. That is not the same thing as asking if there are any ET's, rather its a proxy question. It's a method of looking where the light is good. What behaviors might ET be engaged in that we can detect. Well, they may be broadcasting at us in the radio frequency. Or they may have buit something like a Dyson sphere around their star - perhaps we can detect that...Of course, these methods require speculation about what an ET civilization might do. This is problematic because really we have no idea. All we really can do is assume that humanity is somewhat representative of technological intelligence and then speculate about what a more advanced version of our own civilization might do. It's a pretty thin line of reasoning, although it is legitimate as far as it goes. We just know we are speculating from too little information...Another recent SETI "innovation" was to assume that ET might be interested in looking for life elsewhere in the galaxy. They might start by looking for planets around other systems, and planets like earth would be easiest to detect from a direction in the plane of our system. Therefore, to those observers the earth would eclipse the sun and that is one way they could detect it. It might be more likely, therefore, that such civilizations are broadcasting at us, because they know we are here, or at least life might be here. Perhaps, then, SETI should focus its efforts by looking at stars in the plane of our system...That is another long chain of speculation - but very interesting, and legitimate as far as it goes. This is an effective investigational logic to use - imagine what might be the case, then take a look...It still strikes me as odd when people use this feature of SETI to argue that it is pseudoscience. No -it would only be pseudoscience if SETI proponents concluded that ET exists based on such reasoning, or to explain away negative results. But this is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis upon which to design a program for searching for data...SETI programs also use a very reasonable protocol for dealing with signals when they encounter them. They consider such signals an anomaly, then they systematically rule out possible known causes. So far, every candidate signal has turned out to be something known - no enduring anomalies. This behavior is very different from pseudoscientists, who might call such signals "ET signals" and then proceed to only rule out a couple of obvious known causes, or then dismiss non-ET explanations for the signals.

One is struck by SETI supporters' speculative extravagance. The most cogent critique of SETI, in my view, is that it is akin to an article of faith. There is absolutely no evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. SETI is surely a shot in the dark, perhaps literally, but I do believe that it is a worthwhile scientific venture. Methodologically it is certainly science, even good science. The reception of signals with specified complexity or the discovery of artifacts apparently crafted by intelligent non-human agency would be clear evidence for extraterrestrial intelligent agency. Carl Sagan's example in "Contact" is entirely valid. The reception of a signal repeating prime numbers would be very unlikely to have a non-intelligent natural source, and the most reasonable scientific inference would be that it was generated by extraterrestrial intelligent life.

There is another kind of research that has been going on for the past century that implicitly (if not explicitly) investigates intelligent agency in nature. Molecular biology is the study of molecular DNA codes and intricate cellular nanotechnology. It investigates structure and function on a microscopic scale, not an astronomical scale. It is, in a real sense, the intracellular analogue of SETI; we might even call it (only half-facetiously) a search for intra-cellular intelligence (SICI).

Unlike SETI, which, however well intentioned and well designed, has floundered, SICI has been remarkably successful. In the past century, we have discovered intracellular structure and artifacts that, had the analogues of this computer code and intricate nanotechnology been discovered in space rather than in the cell, would have led to the obvious inference to intelligent design and would have been considered mankind's seminal scientific discovery. The series of discoveries that began in Cambridge in 1953 -- the discovery that the basis for heredity was a molecular code written in letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs -- with punctuation! -- was astonishing evidence for non-human intelligent agency of a very high order in nature.

Molecular biology has revealed machines and rotors and motors and dynamos inside cells. In important ways, the most useful way of studying these nanomachines is reverse-engineering, which is the study of designed artifacts. Methodologically, researchers routinely use the implicit inference to design to understand intracellular molecular machines. To understand the bacterial flagellum, it is necessary to understand how motors work. Enzymes have intricate working parts that are most cogently explained as elegantly designed nanotechnology. Had these artifacts been discovered by SETI researchers in extraterrestrial space instead of intracellular space, the inference to design would have been widely accepted and hailed as a turning point is science and in human history.

Of course, if signals or artifacts that appeared intelligently designed were discovered in space, the scientific vetting of this data would include testing the inference that the artifacts arose by natural unintelligent means. That is, the design inference would be tested against the inference to natural unintelligent causation. This of course has been done in SETI; there have been instances (e.g. pulsars) in which signals that raised the question of design were investigated and found to have a natural unintelligent cause.

Yet, in SICI, the inference to design has not been vetted, and in fact, investigation of the obvious evidence for design has been ruled out in many established scientific circles. Why the widespread scientific resistance to SICI, which has produced abundant scientific evidence for design, but not to SETI, which has produced nothing of scientific value?

The answer, I believe, is that the implications of SICI are unacceptable ideologically to many scientists, who are philosophically materialistic and hence unwilling to examine the evidence for design in biology from an unbiased perspective. The maxim "Follow the Evidence" stops at design for many biologists. The argument that 'evolution' explains these obvious design manifestations has no traction. Evolution by Darwinian mechanisms has explained very little of specified functional complexity in molecular biology in any rigorous way. And evolutionary hypotheses can only be evaluated by comparing evolutionary explanations with design explanations, so that meaningful inferences could be drawn. If we cannot methodologically draw design inferences, then there are no hypotheses to which to compare evolutionary inferences, and evolutionary 'explanations' are merely dogma, unchallenged and unchallengeable.

Dogmatic materialists continue looking through their (figurative or literal) SETI telescopes, searching for evidence of intelligent agency in all the wrong places. The search for intelligent agency in the living cell, using the same entirely valid inferences for the detection of intelligent agency as are used in SETI, is producing a mountain of evidence for intracellular intelligent design, whereas SETI, looking for intelligently designed signals from outer space, has come up dry.

The past century of biological science can be summed up succinctly: biology is replete with evidence for intelligent design.