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Life's Dynamic Machines Don't Have to Be Supernatural to Be Designed

Hoffmann.jpgA book reviewer is in awe of the molecular machines in life that extract energy for function. He sees a scientific revolution brewing.

The book is Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter Hoffman (Basic Books, 2012). It's reviewed in Nature by Mark Haw, a physicist in Edinburgh. Dr. Haw feels that this book squares up to the challenge of "the most personal question about our universe," namely, "what is it that makes us?"

The 19th century saw the triumph of equilibrium thermodynamics. Now, new imaging technologies demand that we view "a molecular world shaped by the interplay of randomness and physical interactions." Mark Haw sees in Life's Ratchet a connection with his own 2007 book Middle World: the conviction that life must now be understood in its dynamics, not its static components: "life is a dynamic process, a thing of moving parts, not a question of frozen chemical formulae, DNA sequences or abstract genetic information."

A fundamental difference between living and nonliving things involves life's mastery over energy through use of molecular machines:

Everything is made of atoms. So why can I think, write, even develop new models of my own existence, while the chair I'm sitting on cannot? Somehow, in living things, matter makes molecular mechanisms with the ability to harvest the energy to organize, maintain and propagate themselves. That opens up a world of potent complexity that leads to cells, plants, animals and humans. One example of this mastery over energy is the molecular 'ratchet' of Hoffman's title. (Emphasis added.)
A toolman's ratchet wrench, like any one-way mechanism, can be operated by hand or by natural forces. Once advanced into its next configuration, the ratchet cannot slip back until released. Although cellular machines are not operated by a supernatural guiding hand, they similarly perform useful functions because they "convert otherwise inaccessible, random fluctuations in chemical energy into useful work, enabling molecules to move, construct, deconstruct and generally carry out the nanometre-scale activities that keep us alive." Haw's review includes an illustration of a component of ATP synthase, a rotary engine that does just that: it uses a proton gradient to turn its turbine-like motor in a preferred direction.
Exactly why the molecules in biological entities can do this and the stuff in the chemistry laboratory's test tubes cannot is the theme of the book, more or less successfully introducing a popular audience to the latest science on how life works.
Haw's generally ID-friendly review does not mention his own views about evolution or materialism. The only "hit" in a search for "evolution" is in "revolution," as in scientific revolution:
But the book's important message is that there is a revolution brewing. This revolution will not tell us what matter is made of. Instead, as described in Life's Ratchet, it will tell us how matter and energy combine to make me and you.
The summary of Hoffman's book on Amazon makes it clear, though, that the author intended to limit himself to naturalism:
Life, Hoffman argues, emerges from the random motions of atoms filtered through the sophisticated structures of our evolved machinery. We are essentially giant assemblies of interacting nanoscale machines; machines more amazing than can be found in any science fiction novel. Incredibly, the molecular machines in our cells function without a mysterious "life force," nor do they violate any natural laws. Scientists can now prove that life is not supernatural, and that it can be fully understood in the context of science.
Intelligent design, however, does not require that molecular machines be supernatural or operated by a life force. It's a false dichotomy. No one would argue that a robotic factory, like one that assembles automobiles, is animated by a life force or is supernatural. But to say the robots can be understood without design would be utterly foolish. The design is in the configuration and operation of the parts, even though they are composed of regular old natural atoms.

For example, New Scientist reports that German engineers have created a nano-machine that converts thermal energy (noise) into functional work, "mimicking molecular machines in nature."

Heat from their surroundings causes all molecules to move randomly, but engineers tend to regard such movements as noise to be avoided like the plague. Jose Ignacio Pascual at the Free University of Berlin in Germany and colleagues took inspiration from the natural world, where random motion powers structures such as proteins that move cargo around inside cells.
Their bio-inspired "springboard" is very simplistic compared with the exquisite technology found in living cells, but it makes our point: intelligent designers can make machines that bear the imprint of design, even though the machines and the engineers are not "supernatural" (whatever that overly abused word means). An objective observer would be justified in inferring design when seeing this "tiny engine" harvesting random energy to do work.

The new book Life's Ratchet looks capable of supporting a powerful argument for intelligent design, despite being written by a critic of ID. Whoever wrote the "Book Description" on Amazon.com seems to misunderstand that ID infers a designing intelligence from the operation of natural parts; it doesn't reason that the parts are supernatural, or that their function requires a life force.

As of this writing, there were no comments on the Amazon page. Some of our readers might want to read the book and write a comment there, pointing out the mischaracterization of intelligent design, and explaining why the very machines Hoffman talks about provide excellent empirical evidence for design.

Indeed, the growing appreciation of "machines more amazing than can be found in any science fiction novel" leaves naturalism wholly inadequate to explain their origin. As what Bill Dembski calls The Design Revolution continues to gain ground, intelligent design will be seen as a prerequisite for life to be "fully understood in the context of science."