Tuesday, October 11, 2016


An article at Evolution News and Views (ENV) reflects on the news that three European chemists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for having engineered simple molecular machines. According to the article:
  • Jean-Pierre Sauvage (University of Strasbourg, France) in 1983 linked two molecular rings together.
  • Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (Northwestern University, Illinois) in 1991 threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle and demonstrated that the ring was able to move along the axle.
  • Bernard L. Feringa (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) in 1999 got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction.
These are amazing achievements, to be sure, and required incredible skill and genius to accomplish, but compared to the thousands of complex molecular machines that operate in every one of the cells of our bodies to keep us alive the machines these men built are quite simple.

So here's a question: If the highest human genius is required to design and develop relatively simple molecular machines, how did the far more complex machines in living things develop by unguided random chance with no input from an intelligent agent? Is such a development independent of intelligent guidance even possible?

One of the Nobel recipients, Bernard Feringa, was asked by the Prize Committee in a phone interview what inspired him to work on molecular machines. Interviewer Adam Smith asked him:
AS: So you describe your work as being inspired by nature? BF: Yes, of course. If you look at the cells in our body or the functioning of the organism, it is flabbergasting. It is fantastic to see how this intricate machinery works. And when I'm talking about motors, as we focus on motors, if you look at the essential functions in the cell, like cell division, like transport, like making your muscles move, bacteria that go to food .... it's all controlled by molecular motors, and so the biological motors, and the biological machinery, is so crucial to all these functions. And of course we get great inspiration from that, while we as chemists are extremely good in building all kinds of materials, and that is what intrigued me.
What sort of molecular motors is Feringa talking about here? Below are animations of three examples. You don't have to be a biologist to appreciate how marvelous these are and why Feringa seems to be grasping for superlatives to describe them.

ATP Synthase:
Protein synthesizers:
These wondrous nanoscale machines leave one speechless. Language seems totally inadequate to the task of supplying adjectives to express one's amazement. How did such complex machines ever come about, especially on this scale of size? Maybe the Darwinians are right and they are just the products of natural processes acting solely by chance, but assuming one's mind is not already philosophically closed to the idea, it seems far more plausible to think that they were designed by an intelligent engineer of some sort.

Remember that on the Darwinian view most of these machines had to be present in the very first living cells which means they didn't have eons of time to evolve nor could they have been the product of genetic mutation and natural selection since they had to exist before the cells that housed them could survive to reproduce.

Yet students are often taught in school that unthinking nature, unguided by any purpose or intention, somehow produced these astonishing structures. It's as if Nature waved a magic wand, sprinkled some pixie dust, and, presto!, there they were.

And the same folks who tell us this also insist that the belief that these machines must have been engineered by an intelligent agent is unscientific and "superstitious." Why?