Some time ago I collaborated with Dr. William Dembski in writing a book entitled Understanding Intelligent Design.In it we covered the many facets of the arguments for intelligent design. The remaining portion of this answer is drawn from that book.
Second, besides being complex, the floral arrangement is laid out in a very specific manner. Certain flowers make up the eyes, others the nose, and yet others the mouth and the renowned ears. The image exhibits an independently given pattern—it’s therefore specified.
This combination of complexity (or improbability) and specificity (or independently imposed patterning) is called specified complexity. Specified complexity is a marker of intelligence. Like a fingerprint or a signature, specified complexity identifies the activity of an intelligent agent. The huge flower beds at Disneyland and Disney World exhibit specified complexity and lead us to believe an intelligent gardener was their cause. Does the same pattern exist within nature?
What a Single Living Cell Declares
The more specified complexity a thing displays—that is, the more complex it is and the more its form obviously follows specific patterns—the more it points to an intelligent designer. Take, for example, the building block of human life—a single living cell. Does it have specified complexity?
Let’s briefly look at a cell magnified a billion times. On its surface we find millions of openings, like portholes in a ship. But these are not mere portholes. They regulate the flow of materials in and out of the cell. Cells exhibit nano-engineering on a scale and sophistication that scientists have hardly begun to scratch. Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA’s structure, described the cell as “a minute factory, bustling with rapid, organized chemical activity.” That was in the early 1980s. Scientists now think of the cell as an automated city.
Inside the cell we find a host of raw materials maneuvered back and forth by robot-like machines all working in unison. In fact, many different objects move in perfect unison through seemingly endless conduits. The level of control in these choreographed movements is truly mind-blowing. And this is just one cell. In larger organisms, cells must work together for the proper function of organs such as hearts, eyes, livers, and ears, and these in turn must work together for the life of the organism.
If we peer further inside the cell, we find coils of DNA that store the information necessary to construct proteins. Proteins themselves are remarkably complex molecular systems. A typical protein is composed of a few hundred amino acids arranged in a precisely ordered sequence that then folds into a highly organized three-dimensional structure. That structure enables the protein to perform its function inside the cell.
Biologists today cannot even describe the activities inside the cell without comparing it to machines and other feats of modern engineering. The reason is that nearly every feature of our own advanced technology can be found in the cell. 2
As we carefully observe the inner workings of the cell, one thing becomes apparent: There is complexity and sophistication that dwarfs human technological innovation today. This is why more and more scientists are concluding that the best explanation for the cell is intelligent design.
Life Requires Vast Amounts of Information
The key feature of life is information. Life, even the simplest of bacterial cells, requires vast amounts of information to function. Cellular information is stored in DNA. The DNA in one cell in the human body holds the equivalent of roughly 8000 books of information. A typical human body has about 100 trillion cells, each of which has a DNA strand that could be uncoiled to about three meters in length. Thus, if all the DNA in an adult human were strung together, it would stretch from Earth to the sun and back around 70 times! 3
Supposing there were no Intelligent Designer—how would the needed information for life be assembled? The typical answer Darwinists come up with is this: Given enough time, matter, and chance, anything can happen.
But how much time, matter, and chance are actually available? As early as 1913, the French mathematician Émile Borel argued that a million monkeys typing ten hours a day would be exceedingly unlikely to reproduce the books in the world’s libraries. The universe is very old and enormous, according to Borel, but not old and big enough for something that unlikely.
Let’s narrow Borel’s scope. Instead of focusing on many books, let’s consider the works of Shakespeare. Here is the question: How many monkeys and how much time would be required to reproduce one of the works of Shakespeare, or even just a few lines?
Work has been done on this question by MIT computational quantum physicist Seth Lloyd. According to Lloyd, in the known physical universe, chance is capable of producing only 400 bits of prespecified information (this is equivalent to a string of 400 zeroes and ones). This amounts to a sequence of 82 ordinary letters and spaces. Therefore, the longest initial segment of Hamlet’s soliloquy that the entire universe—given its size and purported multibillion-year history—could by chance produce is the following two lines:
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE, THAT IS THE QUESTION.
WHETHER ’TIS NOBLER IN THE MIND TO SUFFER…
Clearly, the phenomenon of chance is limited in its ability to explain certain features of the universe. All the chance in the known universe can’t randomly type more than two lines of Shakespeare, much less an entire book. 4
If chance operating over time cannot create enough information for two lines of Shakespeare, how could it ever create the specified complexity of even a single primitive cell? A single cell requires hundreds of thousands of bits of information precisely sequenced in its DNA. So those who deny an Intelligent Designer have the impossible task of explaining how the information (specified complexity) in even a simple living organism could arise from an unguided, blind process. Life simply requires too much information for it to have occurred randomly. For example:
The information-storage capacity of DNA far surpasses even the most powerful electronic memory systems known today. Molecular biologist Michael Denton notes that, for all the different types of organisms that have ever lived, the necessary information in their DNA for the construction of their proteins “could be held in a teaspoon and there would still be room left for all the information in every book ever written.” But DNA does not just store information. In combination with other cellular systems, it also processes information. Hence Bill Gates likens DNA to a computer program, though far more advanced than any software humans have invented.
This is why intelligent design best explains the information content of DNA. Imagine you are walking on the beach and notice the message “Sean loves Stephanie” inscribed in the sand. What would you conclude? You might think Sean, Stephanie, or some gossipy stranger wrote it, but it would never cross your mind to attribute it to chance, necessity, or some combination of the two. Wind, water, and sand simply do not generate meaningful information. The most reasonable inference is that it is a product of intelligent design. If we justifiably infer a mind behind a simple message of 15 characters, then inferring an intelligence for the origin of the cell—which requires hundreds of thousands bits of information—is fully justified. 5
When we look at the incredible complexity and design all around us we are faced with a choice. Either the entire universe, down to a single living cell, was designed, or it developed by some combination of chance and the laws of nature. The cosmos is either a product of Intelligent Design or a cosmic fluke.
1. Rich Deem, “Evidence for the Fine Tuning of the Universe,” article accessed May 17, 2011, at www.godandscience.org/apologetics/designun.html.
2. William A. Dembski and Sean McDowell, Understanding Intelligent Design (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 122-123, slightly adapted.
3. Hill Roberts and Mark Whorton, Holman QuickSource Guide to Understanding Creation (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008), 323.
4. Dembski and McDowell, 109-110, slightly adapted.
5. Dembski and McDowell, 133-134, slightly adapted; embedded citation from Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Chevy Chase, MD: Adler and Adler, 1986), 264.
This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers. Harvest House Publishers, 2008.