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In the Planetary Science Journal Icarus, the "Wow!" Signal of Intelligent Design

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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 an ensemble 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 be unequivocally 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 extraction involves 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.

Image Credit: Earth at Twilight, NASA.