Of Molecules and Men

Of Molecules and Men
Francis Crick
Prometheus Books, 2004

O ye of little faith! O ye Biblical literalists, why hast thou forsaken faith to worship fallacy in the name of Science?

OK, it isn’t Biblical, but the question is real: why do Biblical literalists want their lovely faith presented as some sort of “scientific” theory? Why can’t they render unto science what is science and render unto God what is God’s? Isn’t their faith strong enough to simply accept that faith may tell us one thing while intellect tells us another? After all, believing the irrational is the very definition of faith,

Or even better, why can’t God work in mysterious ways (to coin a phrase), so that the faithful can believe in the Creation story without believing they need to explain it scientifically. For example, why couldn’t God have invented the process of evolution to carry out His will? The Christian fundamentalist’s obstinate and emotional misreading of scientific method and evolution remains a continuing puzzle to this writer and, I suspect, to the many Christian scientists who have little problem reconciling the two in their own lives.

Which is part of the poignancy of this book of Crick’s lectures, delivered at the University of Washington in 1966. Francis Crick was one of the discovers of the structure of DNA, the stuff genes are made of. He gives a simple explanation of the importance of understanding DNA and gently rails against “vitalism”, the quasi-religious doctrine that life itself is somehow divine and not reducible (or reproducible) by scientific principles. The scientific joke, “life is a function of the carbon atom”, captures the spirit of the materialist view of life. As Crick takes pains to point out, the reality is much more complex, but he is steadfast in the belief that man will eventually decipher the recipe for life, even if we may not ever be able to create life in the lab.

Another theme of the lectures is the direction of biological research. To this interested layman it is startling how closely Crick’s vision seems to have played out in the last 40 years. He was clear on the work needed to further molecular biology, much of which has been achieved.

But it is clear that for Crick, the larger mystery is why often even educated people cannot embrace scientific methodology for what it can tell us, and leave to religion to explain what science cannot. For a democracy this is an important question, since we can vote against supporting science and technology and permanently damage our country’s ability to compete and succeed in the modern world.

A good example of this is the Discovery Institute (www.discovery.org), based in Seattle. leading proponents of inserting the concept of “Intelligent Design” into school textbooks along side discussions of evolution. In a nutshell, intelligent design asserts that life is too complex and finely engineered (in the case of the eye, for example) to be the product of random mutations and evolutionary mechanisms. Life must therefore be the product of intelligent design. Intelligent design presupposes an “intelligent” designer and thus is a circular proof of God’s existence and a retelling of the Biblical creation story in slightly newer clothes. Well-funded, the Discovery Institute is led by a Harvard graduate, and inserts itself into textbook disputes around the country.

The problem is, of course, that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, that is, it cannot be tested. It is merely a retelling of an earlier argument against Darwin and evolution (see “The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins) by English religionists. It makes no predictions that can be tested and offers no causality. It is, therefore, a “faith-based” theory and an attempt to establish a state religion when inserted into public school textbooks. And it is supported by intelligent people, such as George Guilder, author of several best-selling books such as “Telecosm” which posits its own, peculiarly American religion of utopian techno-rapture which found great favor in the late, lamented “dot bomb” bubble and bust of the late 1990’s.

Crick’s lectures are literate, lucid, insightful and accessible introductions to the foundations of modern biotechnology. They are also a useful reminder that scientific endeavor is still only partly accepted by even the educated and that we have yet to fully integrate scientific methods into our culture and civilization.