The Clockmaker Returns

Review of Frank B. Salisbury. The
Case for Divine Design: Cells, Complexity, and Creation.
UT: CFI, 2006. xv + 256 pp., with subject index,
notes, glossary, appendixes, and bibliography. $15.99.

The Clockmaker Returns

Reviewed by James L. Farmer

For much of the twentieth century, few geologists believed,
in spite of evidence to the contrary, that continents could drift. Continental
drift was called “geopoetry” because there was no known mechanism to
drive continents through the hard oceanic crust. Now continental drift is “geoscience”
because the theory of plate tectonics explains the motion. Similarly, cosmology
was once considered to be nonscience because there was no way to test hypotheses.
Now there is powerful observational evidence and an impressive theoretical base
for the science of cosmology.

Observational and experimental evidence for evolution are
sufficient to justify the assertion that the origin of living species by evolution from ancient species is as close to being a fact as any
historical description can ever be. The theory of evolution (especially with regard
to the mechanisms that drive evolution) is very advanced, although not yet
complete. But how did life begin in the first place? Is the origin of the first
living cells a science? That is one of the major questions explored in Frank
Salisbury’s book The Case for Divine Design.

Except for religious fundamentalists, including the
Creationist[1] community, few informed people doubt that evolution has produced our biological
world. This book largely ignores the debate on evolution per se and
concentrates on a new version (“intelligent design,” or ID) of an old
idea (namely, the watchmaker analogy made famous by William Paley in 1802; see
appendix B in Salisbury’s book).

One of the basic premises of ID is that some essential
structures or processes are too complex to have arisen by chance. The concept of “irreducible complexity” has been used by
Creationists for a long time. A commonly cited example is the vertebrate
eye. A structure or process that requires many different parts, not one of
which is functional without all of the others, could not have arisen by
sequential addition of the parts, one at a time. In the case of the eye, that
argument failed when scientists discovered that each part made the
light-detecting apparatus more adaptive, even in the absence of some or all of
the other parts. More recently, the supposed irreducible complexity of
subcellular processes and structures has attracted a great deal of attention
(see examples in appendix C).

The Creationists have eagerly adopted the subcellular
version of irreducible complexity in an attempt to force public schools to
teach ID in science classes as a way to undermine the teaching of evolution.
The one court case to date denied their attempts, ruling that ID is not
science. Like nearly all other scientists, Salisbury agrees that ID is not
science, since there is no apparent way to support it or refute it by
observation or experiment. However, he apparently finds ID to be an attractive
possible explanation for the origin of life.

In chapter 1, Salisbury briefly examines the nature of
scientific research as a way to discover how the world works. He also discusses
the role of scripture, belief, and revelation in discovering religious truth.
In several places, he uses the differences in these two approaches to explain
why ID is not science. He also makes a good case for why some scientists’
statements about the origin of life are not yet science either. He points out
that research on the origin of life could become science in the
future if someone were to figure out how to do relevant experiments that
address the crucial questions. He emphasizes the danger of basing belief in God
on ignorance about something that might someday be explained.

In chapter 2 and elsewhere, Salisbury shows that evidence
for evolution of living organisms from more primitive forms over vast periods
of time is very strong. However, he correctly points out that it cannot be
shown that God had no hand in the history of life. Salisbury suggests that
perhaps God occasionally tweaked the process to accomplish what he had in mind.
Salisbury repeatedly uses a probability argument (especially in chapter 4) to
suggest that it is reasonable to infer that a designer occasionally crafted new
DNA sequences to produce novel kinds of proteins during the history of life. He
does not make the claim that this proves the existence of God, but apparently
he finds it a compelling argument that strengthens his own belief. I am not so
convinced by this part of the book. Probability arguments are always
treacherous since they depend so strongly on assumptions about the nature of
things that we do not know and, in many cases, cannot know.[2] I am also
troubled by the fact that, so far at least, there is no convincing evidence of
directionality, steady progression to an end, in the evolutionary record.
Although Homo sapiens is the only species of our genus
to survive, there were many other species, now extinct, that diverged from our
direct-line ancestors.

Human beings and every other living thing we have looked at
carefully are continuing to evolve, and recently mutated genes that make
organisms better adapted to their environment have been described. For
instance, a mutation appeared in humans in a town in Italy just a few hundred
years ago that prevents cholesterol from damaging the arteries of those who
have the mutant gene. These people routinely live for about a century.[3]

Chapter 5 may be the most
important chapter in the book. Salisbury shows quite convincingly that, with
regard to the origin of cellular life, there is no scientific hypothesis that
is supported by experiment or observation. Since the book was written, more
work has been published, but in my opinion it does not invalidate Salisbury’s

Just as I dislike false claims made by Creationists, I
dislike false claims or misstatements made by some scientists and textbook writers
who say that we know how life began. In fact, we do not. The claims
are made because of the philosophical beliefs of the people who write and adopt
the texts and because of pressure from the general scientific community. In my
experience, many scientists are atheists or are indifferent to religion.[5] If one believes there is no god, it is obvious that life must have originated spontaneously because there is no other possibility, and it is
only a matter of time until we discover how it occurred. It would be much more
honest for textbooks to say that while we do not know how life originated,
future research may shed light on the matter—and perhaps it will.

There are scientific hypotheses about prebiotic (chemical)
evolution, based on experiments showing that complex organic molecules can
arise spontaneously, in the laboratory and in nature, from a mixture of simple
molecules and a source of energy. The prebiotic hypotheses seem credible and
worthy of more research.[6] The origin of living cells is a much more difficult problem. Although the term irreducible
has become a red flag to many scientists, it seems
appropriate in this context. A cell worthy of the name must have both an
information storage mechanism (presumably RNA or DNA) that contains useful
information and a translation mechanism to put the information into usable
forms. In Salisbury’s opinion, and mine, the “RNA world” hypothesis
does not solve the problem. The problem is difficult enough that Nobel
Prize–winner Francis Crick coauthored a paper with Leslie Orgel
suggesting that perhaps the first living cells were carried to earth from some
other place.[7] It is also not clear how eukaryotic cells (the kind found in plants, animals,
fungi, etc.) could have arisen from the apparently earlier prokaryotic cells
(bacteria and Archaea), although there is good evidence that some parts of
eukaryotic cells were derived from symbiotic prokaryotes.

Michael Behe, a biochemist at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh
University, is the foremost spokesman for ID in the scientific community, where
his ideas have had a very hostile reception. In chapter 6 Salisbury reviews
Behe’s ideas and the responses of his critics and then discusses his own views
on the matter. Behe continues to publish, and his critics continue to respond.[8] Although Salisbury has a lot of sympathy for Behe’s ideas, he makes it very
clear that he does not consider ID to be science or to be appropriate for the
science classroom.[9]

To be sure, feelings within the scientific community about
ID and irreducible complexity are strong. To illustrate, a research paper on
the origin of eukaryotic cells[10] provoked a critical letter that, after a technical discussion, ended with this

Finally, and most
disturbing, if contemporary eukaryotic cells are truly of “irreducible
nature,” as Kurland et al.‘s title declares, then no stepwise evolutionary
process could have possibly brought about their origin, and processes other
than evolution must be invoked. Is there a hidden message in their paper?[11]

What I find most disturbing about this paragraph is
that it sounds very similar to comments made by some Latter-day Saint Creationists
about Latter-day Saint scientists who are perceived to be friendly to the
theory of evolution. Are scientists justified in being so thin-skinned when it
comes to ID? Perhaps they are. The Creationists have been so dishonest, so
aggressive, and so single-mindedly antiscience for over a hundred years that
scientists generally detest them and all that they stand for. It is not
surprising that many scientists (including me) are very wary about anything the
Creationists say. Unfortunately, ID per se has come to be seen as guilty by
association with Creationist literature. I do not condemn members of the scientific
community for their reaction, but I wish they were more aware of the identity
of their true enemies.

In chapter 7 and appendix D, Salisbury makes his personal
scientific and religious views explicitly clear. They are interesting, and for
what it is worth, I feel much the same way.

Salisbury’s book is a sound introduction to most of the
topics related to the origin of life. It contrasts the possibilities of
spontaneous generation of life with a creationist view. It is written for an
intelligent reader who is not necessarily well-grounded in science. I strongly recommend the book to anyone who is troubled by the often acrimonious debate concerning evolution and creation.


[1]In this
review, the lowercased word creationist refers to anyone who
believes that God was involved in some way in the creation of life. When I
capitalize the word Creationist, I am referring to members of political
groups who have attempted, for the last few decades, to persuade school boards,
and subsequently courts, to mandate the inclusion of their religious views
about evolution in public school textbooks and other teaching materials, as
well as the teaching of those ideas in science classes. The Creationist
community has tried to make a case for what they call “creation science”
largely by ignoring the discoveries of science, by appealing to magic, or by
dismissing those discoveries because they do not agree with an absolutely
literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly Genesis. Salisbury briefly
reviews some Creationist beliefs in appendix A.

[2]These are post hoc probability arguments. Salisbury calculates the probability that something
could have happened, even though we now know that it did happen. Once something
has happened, then the probability that it could have happened is 1
(certainty). For instance, roulette wheels have occasionally produced a very
long sequence of red (or black). Consider a run of twenty blacks in a row. If
we make the slightly simplifying assumption that the probability of black is
0.5, then the probability of twenty in a row is (0.5)20 = 0.00000095, or about one chance in a million. Someone who observes such
an unlikely run might conclude that it could not be due to chance, but of
course it can be.

One should also be aware that, if the roulette wheel
is unbalanced, the chance of such an unlikely run might be much higher (or
lower). Is our universe “unbalanced” in that formation of unlikely
DNA sequences is more likely than we think?

[3]“A Rare Protein Mutation Offers New Hope for Heart Disease
Patients,” Berkeley Lab Research News, 17 May 2002, (accessed 21 August 2008).

[4]These are a
few of the more interesting recent articles: Claudia Huber and GŸnter
WŠchtershŠuser, “a-Hydroxy and a-Amino Acids Under Possible Hadean, Volcanic Origin-of-Life
Conditions,” Science 314 (2006): 630–32; Jeffrey L. Bada et
al., “Debating Evidence for the Origin of Life on Earth” (letter), Science 315 (2007): 937–38 (see in Science 315 GŸnter WŠchtershŠuser and
Claudia Huber’s response, 938–39); Irene A. Chen, “The Emergence of
Cells During the Origin of Life,” Science 314 (2006):
1558–59; W. M. Napier, J. T. Wickramasinghe, and N. C. Wickramasinghe, “The
origin of life in comets,” International Journal of Astrobiology 6 (2007): 321–23; Philipp Baaske et al., “Extreme accumulation of
nucleotides in simulated hydrothermal pore systems,” Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
104 (2007): 9346–51.

interesting recent book review discusses several aspects related to this
subject: Olle HŠggstršm, review of Irreligion: A
Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up
, by John Allen Paulos, Notices of the American Mathematical Society 55 (2008): 789–91, (accessed 20 August 2008).

excellent, short commentary on this work is available on the Internet: Eugene
V. Koonin, “An RNA-making reactor for the origin of life,” Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
104/22 (2007): 9105–6, (accessed
20 August 2008).

[7]F. H. C. Crick and L. E. Orgel, “Directed Panspermia,” Icarus 19/3 (1973): 341–46.

[8]Michael J.
Behe, The
Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism
(New York:
Free Press, 2007); Sean B. Carroll, “God as Genetic Engineer,” Science 316 (2007): 1427–28; Michael J. Behe, “Addressing Cumulative
Selection” (letter), Science 318 (2007): 196 (see in Science 316 Sean B. Carroll’s response, 196).

[9]For a
current summary of Salisbury’s position, see Frank B. Salisbury, “Simple
answers to creation” (letter), Deseret News, 2 May 2008, section

[10]C. G. Kurland, L. J. Collins, and D. Penny, “Genomics and the
Irreducible Nature of Eukaryote Cells,” Science 312 (2006):

Martin et al., “The Evolution of Eukaryotes” (letter), Science 316 (2007): 542–43 (see in Science 316 C. G. Kurland et al.’s
response, though it does not address the quoted paragraph). Both letters are
available at (accessed
21 August 2008).