Looking for God at Berkeley

A provocative theory called "intelligent design" claims evolution is hogwash. But it's not the usual religious zealots leading the latest attack on Darwin. It's scientists and professors at Cal.

Intelligent design theory is, in fact, a whole bundle of theories and arguments. From molecular biology comes an argument that organic processes like the ones Macosko studies are too fundamentally complex for evolution to explain them; from statistics, a claim that probability theory can show whether an organism has had enough time to evolve; from philosophy, a rhetorical study suggesting that Darwinism isn't science so much as a closed-minded materialist viewpoint that needs rethinking. The common thread is an incendiary claim: People are being misled -- or outright lied to -- about the theory of evolution's power to explain the whole of nature, and that room needs to be made for something that is, if not the hand of God, then outside of our accepted notions of scientific evidence.

It's a hard thing to be on the fence about. To agree with intelligent design is, in a way, to renounce our idea of "evidence"; it means saying the holes in Darwin's theories are so enormous that God or space aliens or creatures from the fifth dimension need to be there to fill in the gaps. To disagree with it is to potentially miss the boat on what might be the greatest sea change in scientific thinking since Copernicus said the Earth revolved around the sun. So what is causing highly educated people to embrace such a radical view? What evidence could inspire Jed Macosko to buck the scientific establishment and risk his reputation?

The answer to those questions starts at Stanley Hall, which sits on the far eastern reaches of the UC Berkeley campus. Macosko works on the third floor, as one of a quiet hive of 10 researchers in the department of molecular and cell biology. Even if his views are unpopular, he does get to voice them there: On a small bulletin board just outside the lab's door, Macosko has thumbtacked some recent news articles about intelligent design theory.

Macosko and his colleagues are studying how genetic material -- RNA, DNA, enzymes, and proteins -- goes about its business. Throughout the spacious lab, expensive and intricate measuring equipment is mounted on cinder blocks, which are then hung from the ceiling on thick, taut bungee cords. It gives the place a bit of a clumsy, toolshed kind of feel, though it's meant to prevent even the slightest movements during the slightest seismic activity. Macosko's office is hardly an office at all, just a corner of a conference room he's staked out for himself with enough space for his computer and shelves of books that seem dangerously on the verge of collapse. It's here that Macosko pulls out a sheet of paper and patiently tries to explain exactly why he sees God when he stares at E. coli.

Macosko is investigating a process that ought to be familiar to anybody who was taking notes in high school biology class. For those who were passing notes instead, here's the painless recap: DNA, the double-stranded molecule that carries genetic information and makes up chromosomes, reproduces when RNA makes copy of a DNA strand. In this way, cells make proteins that help the cell do any number of things, including reproduce, or they make proteins that are essential to the life of the organism.

This process begins with an enzyme called RNA polymerase, the focus of Macosko's work. It's this enzyme that splits the DNA strands in two: a template strand and a coding strand. RNA uses that coding strand to transcribe information in the DNA to make a variety of "gene products" supporting the organism -- including more RNA polymerase. Even if that's calling up ugly memories of biology pop quizzes, take away this much: A complex system of molecules is doing very specific things in very specific places at very specific times at very specific rates.

Understanding that process better is the goal of Macosko's research group. However, apart from the group's official goal -- and contrary to his colleagues -- Macosko believes this system to be what he calls "irreducibly complex." Irreducible complexity, a term first coined by Lehigh University biochemist Michael J. Behe, is based on two principles. First, an irreducibly complex system must have each component working in order to function; take away one part and the whole system collapses. Second, in an irreducibly complex system, each component can't have a useful function outside of the one for which it is being used.

Behe's favorite metaphor for explaining this is a mousetrap. Take one part away from a mousetrap -- its spring, hammer, catch, or platform -- and it becomes useless. Logically, a mousetrap had to be created by a human engineer. Likewise, Behe argues that certain biological systems are made of component parts that had to have been created, all at once, by an intelligent designer; Darwin's theory of evolution may work fine to account for the variation in species of plants and animals, but irreducible complexity argues that it begins to collapse in molecular biochemistry.

In the case of Macosko's research, the theory of irreducible complexity says that even the slightest change in the composition of RNA polymerase and its course of action in the cell would make the whole system nonfunctional; furthermore, the arrangement of amino acids in the system is so complex that they could not have evolved. "This RNA polymerase has to make RNA copies that are close enough to the DNA so that information is passed along, and that it can do a useful function," Macosko says. "It has to be fast enough; there are all sorts of design constraints." The very structure of RNA polymerase exemplifies this, he says. It's a complex arrangement of six chains of different amino acids -- over a thousand per chain. If you change the structure or remove even a few of the amino acids, he says, the enzyme's function collapses -- and that, he argues, leaves room for the possibility of God's hand structuring the process.

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