Interview: Biochemist Explains Why Lipids Are "Designed Objects"
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the natural world are best explained by a mind (or minds) rather than by non-intelligent processes like random mutation and natural selection. The case for ID draws upon an array of phenomena, including genetic information, epigenetics, the blood clotting cascade, bacterial flagella, fine-tuning of the physical constants of the laws of nature, and so on. From the far reaches of the cosmos to the intricacies of the cell, nature manifests the hallmarks of mind. The more scientists probe the stunning complexity of nature, the stronger the case for ID becomes.
The same can be said for a "commonplace" biological phenomenon: fats. Recently we visited with an expert on fats (technically known as "lipids"), a professor of biochemistry at one of Israel's institutes of higher education who has studied the subject for nearly his entire career. He asked that his identity be kept in confidence -- a fair request given that those who dislike his views have targeted him in the past. For scientists sympathetic to ID, it's a familiar story.
What really matters, of course, are his claims, evidence, and arguments.
Q: In layman's terms, what is a lipid?
A: "Lipid" is basically the technical word for fat.
Q: You've been studying lipids for about three decades. Tell us about your research.
A: During my PhD work in the mid 1980s, I focused on how some lipids can help attach proteins to a biological membrane in the cell. But it was during my postdoc, which started in 1987, that I started working on lipids directly, even though my PhD, by accident, had also touched on lipids. And for the last 25 years as a faculty member at an institute of higher education in Israel, I've been working on more or less the same questions; certainly the same class of lipids for over three decades now. In fact, just before you got here, I submitted my 229th paper. And I was as excited about it as all the other ones. I actually got the student who did the work to push the submit button. It was her first paper. And I was just as excited about submitting the paper as she was.
Q: You sound enthusiastic about your research. What makes it enjoyable?
A: For me, the amazing thing is that as much as I work on a particular research questions, there's always something new to discover. The more you discover, the more you discover that there is to discover. Biological life is unbelievably complex. And it only gets more complex the more we dig. Non-scientists will often say to me, "Have you found the answers yet?" And I'll say to them, "Yeah, we found the answers to some questions, but unfortunately, that opened a pile of questions for another set of issues, which we are working on at the moment." So it's never-ending. And if you are a curious person like me, then it's exciting and fun. I'm always telling my students, "Look, if what you do isn't fun, don't do it." There are a lot of headaches in the actual mechanics of doing science. You need to be funded, you need to have lab space, you need this, you need that. But the best thing is that it's fun.
Q: Tell us about your current research on lipids. What are you up to now?
A: I work on a class of lipids called sphingolipids. Their name derives from "the Sphinx," believe it or not, because J.W. Thudicum, the chemist who discovered them in 1884, considered them enigmatic. Over the last few years, I've worked on two genetic diseases, cystic fibrosis and Gaucher disease. Lots of people know about cystic fibrosis, but few know about Gaucher disease. It's found in high levels in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. Everyone's heard of Parkinson's disease, right? It turns out that mutations in the gene which is involved in Gaucher disease also cause some people to have Parkinson's disease. It's unclear what that connection is. We do know that there's a genetic link -- it's been worked out by genetic mapping -- but we're still working on the mechanistic connection. We've made no findings in that field at the moment, but we're working hard to understand whether our work on Gaucher disease might be at all applicable to the more well-known work on Parkinson's disease.
Q: You've spent a lot of time studying lipids. You've had plenty of opportunity to consider the important question, "How did lipids arise in the first place?" In your view, can unguided evolutionary processes like natural selection and random mutations adequately explain the origin of lipids?
A: Lipids are amazingly complex. If you look at the lipids that we have in our lipid bilayers today, you'll find a huge number of chemical structures, each of which differs slightly in its composition. I don't want to go into chemistry too much, but there are different chain-lengths, different double bonds, different side chains, different head groups, and so on. It's been estimated that there might be 10,000-100,000 different chemical structures of lipids in the cell. And if you change even one of them, you could end up with dysfunction in the cell. That's right. The smallest change in the lipid bilayer is often pathophysiological.
Complexity abounds not just in the lipid bilayer at the cell surface, but within the cell as well. Inside the cell, we have organelles -- the nucleus, the Golgi apparatus, the lysosome, and so on. Each one of these is surrounded by a different lipid bilayer. No two organelles have the same lipid composition. Moreover, a lipid bilayer has two layers: one pointing out, one pointing in. The lipid composition of the two halves of the bilayer is not the same. It differs completely. Moreover, lipids change their composition depending on the physiological state of the cell. It's amazing. So, when I look at the complexity of the lipid bilayer that exists today and I compare it to the supposed primitive bilayer in the ancient past posited by evolutionary biologists, I cannot begin to understand how we went from that simple thing to a huge and complex thing today. Even if that simple membrane existed, how did it become today's lipid bilayer? I cannot begin to get my head around that. So when I look at the lipid bilayer, I say, "Wow, this is amazing. How did that happen?"
Q: An evolutionary biologist might reply that evolutionary processes can produce such complexity. How would you respond? Have evolutionists provided a detailed and substantive account of how lipids came to be?
A: There are papers suggesting that lipids evolved by this or that chemical process. But as a scientist, I go through those papers and I end up with many questions. You want to say that gene duplication occurred? You want to say that enzymes evolved by a mutation here or a mutation there? Fine. But please explain to me the mechanisms by which these alleged events occurred. How exactly, chemically, did lipids evolve? To me, it's not a question of this or that philosophy; it's a question of science. At the level of biochemistry -- a mechanistic level -- do these studies provide a valid explanation of how lipids evolved? And I personally have yet to see that. In almost any field of biochemical sciences, I just don't see it.
Q: Some theistic evolutionists, like Francis Collins, might say that God created natural processes that are capable of giving rise to biologically complex phenomena, including lipids. Your response?
A: First of all, I have to say that I absolutely admire Francis Collins. And I have no problem with people who believe in theistic evolution. But I nevertheless have a number of simple questions. How exactly did it happen? Can you explain these evolutionary processes to me mechanistically? And this is where theistic evolutionists' arguments fall down, because we don't have adequate mechanistic explanations. Now, it is a valid position to say, "We don't have these explanations now, but we may have them in the future." I personally don't know if I have enough faith to believe that we will come up with valid biochemical mechanistic explanations to explain the complexity of life as we see it.
Q: How, then, did lipids come to be?
A: My explanation is that they are designed objects. "Design" wasn't always my explanation -- I was an atheist until my late teens. But I say lipids are designed, and designed in such a way that enables them to function very well.
Q: How did a designer do it?
A: Let me be very clear. I have no idea. Okay? I honestly don't know. And I don't lose sleep at night because I don't know how the designer designed it.
Q: In that case, how do you know a designer was involved?
A: When I look at life, I find a code. And that code, as far as I understand it, cannot be explained by purely naturalistic phenomena. I don't see the biochemical mechanisms that can explain that code. So, how do we know the code was designed? Consider the example that Professor John Lennox uses. Lennox says that we're looking for life in outer space by the SETI program. We're looking for patterns. We're looking for a signal to come back from somewhere in outer space which has some binary code, which couldn't have happened by chance or natural processes. And if we discern this code, then we'll conclude that there's life out there. When we look at life on earth, it has many codes. To my mind, the best explanation of these codes is that somebody actually designed them, just like somebody designed the code we're waiting for from outer space.
Q: Isn't your argument an example of God-of-the-gaps reasoning?
A: We have to be very careful. The fact that we don't know something doesn't mean that it couldn't have happened. Many things we didn't know two hundred years ago, we know today. Yet we know that designers can produce things like software code or my beloved Macintosh PowerBook. We also see similar complexity and codes in lipids, genetic information, bacterial flagella, and so on. We know in our experience that whenever we see that level of complexity, a designer had something to do with it. So, that's why it seems to me that I am not making a God-of-the-gaps argument. I have positive reasons for my conclusion -- reasons that are based on knowledge, not mere ignorance.
Q: So just to be clear, you really have a two-part argument. Number one, all known natural processes are inadequate to produce these highly complex lipids. And number two, we know that designers can produce this level of complexity. So from our experience we have not just negative reasons against unguided processes, but also positive reasons based on what we know designers do. And that's true even if we don't know exactly how they did it. Is that right?
A: Yes. But let me take it one step farther. We have not yet managed in the lab to design a lipid bilayer that corresponds to the complexity that we see in nature. As I mentioned, lipid bilayers have two halves. The two halves don't have the same lipid composition. Today we've managed to make artificial lipid bilayers, which are called liposomes. But for the most part, they are totally symmetric. They have the same composition on the inside as on the outside. Even as of 2017 we don't know how to make a so-called asymmetric lipid bilayer. There's a level of design in lipids that is far beyond our powers of invention.
Q: Thank you for your time.
A: I am honored to be interviewed.
Image: Lipid bilayer, by National Institutes of Health via Wikicommons.