How Secular Institutions Can Do Design Science
Design science is done any time a scientist assumes a purpose and
looks for it. No overt appeals to religion or ideology are needed.
In today’s highly-polarized academic institutions, it can be very risky to come out in favor of “intelligent design” (ID). In the example below, we have no knowledge of the researchers’ philosophy or feelings about ID. It’s not necessary to know, because design-based science can be done by any scientist anywhere, anytime. For all we know, these researchers might be evolutionists and could be radical leftist transgenders who despise ID.
Only two things are required for ID science: (1) ignore evolutionary theory, and (2) look for how a phenomenon works, assuming there’s a reason for it. The article below is so full of purpose, it could well pass for an ID article, even if the author believes in evolution. Does this story not illustrate how good science should be done?
How does RNA know where to go in the city of the cell? Using cellular ZIP codes and postal carrier routes (The Conversation, 6 March 2023).
To avoid any potential trouble for the author, we will not mention his full name except to call him Matt. Matt is a biochemist at a major state university. His team became interested in how RNA molecules get to their destinations. Using the analogy of a postal service, Matt went looking for their “zip codes” and delivery trucks. (Notice that postal services are intelligently designed—if they work). Look for the design-friendly terms in the opening paragraph:
RNA is a chemical cousin of DNA. It plays many roles in the cell, but perhaps it’s most well-known as the relay messenger of genetic information. RNA takes a copy of the information in DNA from its storehouse in the nucleus to sites in the cell where this information is decoded to create the building blocks – proteins – that make cells what they are. This transport process is critical for animal development, and its dysfunction is linked to a variety of genetic diseases in people.
In some ways, cells are like cities, with proteins carrying out specific functions in the “districts” they occupy. Having the right components at the right time and place is essential.
Was there any need for a just-so story on how this evolved? No. Every part of the analogy refers to something that we know in city life was intelligently designed. Design science does not need to invoke the ID phrase. We don’t know Matt’s feelings about the design vs Darwinism issue. He just set to work looking for how RNA transport works, assuming there was a method in the bustling madness of intracellular activity.
We started by breaking eight mouse neurite-localized RNAs into about 10,000 smaller chunks, each about 250 nucleotides long. We then appended each of these chunks to an unrelated firefly RNA that mouse cells are unlikely to recognize, and watched for chunks that caused the firefly RNA to be transported to neurites. To extend the mail analogy, we took 10,000 blank envelopes (firefly RNAs) and wrote a different ZIP code (pieces of neurite-localized RNA) on each one. By observing which envelopes were delivered to neurites, we were able to discover many new neurite ZIP codes.
Readers can go to the article to find out what Matt’s team found. He talks about molecular trucks, mail carriers, the organization of role-playing proteins in the molecular “city” and the highways on which the transport machines move.
We could compare this process to a mailing address. While the top line (“The Bank”) tells us the name of the building, it’s really the address and street name (“150 Maple Street”) that contains actionable information for the mail carrier. These RNA ZIP codes send RNAs to specific places along microtubule streets, not to specific structures in the cell. This allows for a more flexible yet uniform code, as not all cells share the same structures.
Another Good Example
The third embedded video in the article gives another good example of Darwin-free ID research work published in a secular journal. A scientist named Ron tells how he spent 20 years figuring out how kinesin works. Kinesin is a molecular machine that was featured on the ID-based YouTube channel Discovery Science. Both Ron’s video and the ID video seem comfortably compatible, because there is no mention of evolution in Ron’s, and the important role of kinesin was discovered through a purposeful inquiry into its function. Ron started by assuming that the body had a way to transport cargo from one end of a neuron in the spine to the other end nearly a meter away in a toe.
That assumption was productive. From his discoveries, all biochemists now know how a functional machine expends energy to “walk” the cargo over a long distance.
There’s a profound moment in the video where Ron says that the kinesin machine travels as fast (relative to its size) as a car on a freeway, but with four times the energy efficiency at converting chemical energy into motion. Ron was fascinated by what he discovered, so his function-seeking approach was rewarding and motivating for him. And it was not a science stopper. On the contrary, he says there are
still so many fundamental questions that we don’t know, about how all this motility is regulated, how all these cargoes ‘know’ how to go to the right places – there’s always more questions that one wants to know the answers to.
Both Matt and Ron, working at separate scientific institutions within secular academia, did “de facto” ID research without using the phrase or getting into trouble. Both found pleasure in the search for function. And both saw opportunities to help the human condition through application of their discoveries. What need had either of them for Darwin’s Stuff Happens Law? Irrespective of their personal philosophies, their methods show how good science can and should be done.
We often criticize bad examples (like yesterday’s post), but we prefer to commend good examples like these. The researchers did terrific work that bolsters trust in science and helps people.
ID scientist Paul Nelson remembers a proverb his grandfather told him: “If something works, it’s not happening by accident.” If you are a scientist, consider how innocent, fun, and rewarding it can be to ditch the Darwin habit and figure out how things work. Won’t it feel fresh and clean? Won’t it be like the way the old pioneers of science approached their mission? It should be intuitively obvious in life, as well as in cities, that if something works, it’s not happening by accidental mutations and impersonal selections. Assume it’s purposeful, and figure it out. Try it. You’ll like it.