A. E. Wilder-Smith
The Intelligent Design Movement is big news today, but did you know much of the scientific reasoning behind it came from a European organic chemist? William Dembski, author of several key books in the ID movement, credits Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith for the inspiration to make the study of origins his life’s work. Dean Kenyon, the evolutionary origin of life researcher turned creationist, called Dr. Wilder-Smith one of the two or three most important scientists in his life. Wilder-Smith was very influential to Dr. Matti Leisola, author of a recent book Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design. Much of the literature coming out of the modern intelligent design movement contains echoes of powerful arguments made by A. E. Wilder-Smith decades ago.
In his books and tapes, Arthur Edward Wilder-Smith stressed the importance of information in biology, stressing that the materialist’s formula for the life, energy + matter + time, was deficient because it left out information as another necessary basic entity. He convincingly argued that the information in DNA, in its translation, had to follow a language convention which presupposed an agreement between parties needing to communicate with one another. For example, he explained how SOS is a meaningless sequence of letters unless there has been a convention (a “coming together” agreement, in advance) that it is a signal for distress. Similarly, the DNA triplet codon for alanine, GCC, looks and smells nothing like alanine, by itself. Unless both the translation mechanism (the ribosome) and the DNA code both have a convention that GCC means alanine, it means nothing at all. This, he explained, was prima facie evidence of intelligent design.
He also argued effectively against Thomas Huxley’s old monkey-typewriter analogy, the claim that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters would eventually produce Psalm 23 by chance, given enough time. Wilder-Smith pointed out a fatal flaw that undermines the whole argument. By showing that since the chemical reactions that would have led to life in a primordial soup are reversible, that fact rendered the analogy useless – in the monkeys’ case, if the letters fell off the page as soon as they were typed, no meaningful sequence would ever be produced. Huxley, therefore, had cheated by claiming that the letters typed would remain on the page. The laws of chemistry do not permit that sort of stability in chemical evolution scenarios. With points like this, he argued that creation was scientific and naturalistic evolution was unscientific.
As a highly qualified organic chemist, A. E. Wilder-Smith was uniquely positioned to critique so-called “chemical evolution.” This kindly gentleman was merciless in his attacks on Miller, Oparin, Fox and other evolutionists who claimed to be making progress explaining life’s origin by chance and necessity. His effectiveness stemmed not from vituperative ability or rhetoric, but rather – because of his intimate acquaintance with the facts of chemistry – from calm, rational dismantling of the philosophical and scientific assumptions underlying his opponents’ errors: i.e., from scientific arguments that could not be denied by any knowledgeable chemist. Dr. Wilder-Smith was one of the first to emphasize the necessity for one-handed molecules to hold genetic information (see online book), and to apply the laws of thermodynamics and equilibrium to discussions of the origin of life.
A. E. Wilder-Smith was one of few scientists in the world to have three earned doctorates. He obtained his first Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry at the University of Reading, England in 1941. A research scientist during the war, he subsequently became a fellow of the University of London, and then director of research for a Swiss pharmaceutical company. After becoming a full professor at the University of Geneva, he earned a second doctorate in pharmacology there, and later, a third in pharmacological sciences at ETH, a senior university in Zurich, Switzerland. In addition, he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a NATO three-star general!
Dr. Wilder-Smith was not only an expert on chemotherapy, pharmacology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry, but a gifted teacher and popular public speaker. As a convert from atheism himself, he did not shy away from entering the lions’ den of the evolutionary establishment. At a time when communism was strong and evolutionary science reigned with unchallenged bravado, he was like a Daniel with seemingly divine power to shut his opponents’ mouths. Once, in a manner reminiscent of Paul turning the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other (see Acts 23), he got the better of a hostile audience of Finnish and Russian students by referring to a word that meant one thing in Finnish and another in Russian. The Finns, who despised the Russians, were incensed to hear him claiming this word had the Russian meaning, but the Russians agreed with him. As they were shouting at one another, the English jumped in and argued that the word was a meaningless syllable. Thus the professor made his point effectively: without a language convention, a sequence of letters carries no information. Dr. Wilder-Smith confronted communists with scientific arguments that undermined their political philosophy. God only knows how much his work contributed to the eventual demise of communism, but it certainly affected numerous individual communists.
A. E. Wilder-Smith was probably responsible for Richard Dawkins refusing to debate creationists any more. In 1986, Wilder-Smith and Edgar Andrews debated the two leading evolutionists in Britain, Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith, at Oxford – a lions’ den with the two strongest Darwinian lions in Europe. Yet even there, over a third – almost half – of the staunchly pro-evolution audience voted that the creation side had won the debate. The vote count became a contentious issue. There were claims of a cover-up by the Oxford Student Union. The AAAS was accused of lying about the vote count and didn’t correct it even when confronted (see article). The evolutionists apparently were embarrassed that the creationists made such a strong showing. Reports from those in attendance say that, contrary to the ground rules of the debate, Dawkins and Maynard Smith repeatedly attacked religion, while the creationists used only scientific arguments. Dawkins himself had to be reprimanded by the moderator for attacking Wilder-Smith about his religious views. Dawkins implored the audience not to give any votes to the creationists lest it be a “blot on the escutcheon of ancient University of Oxford” (an odd remark, considering Oxford was founded by Christians). For whatever reason, after that night Dawkins was no longer willing to debate creationists.
After the debate, details of the event were lost by the University. Normally, Oxford Union debates are big news, given prominent publicity in the press, radio and television. This one, however, which should have rivaled the historic 1860 Huxley-Wilberforce debate in importance, and indeed was even titled the ’Huxley Memorial Debate,” was silently dropped from the radar screen. In his memoirs, Dr. Wilder-Smith wrote, “No records of my having held the lecture as part of the Oxford Union Debate could be found in any library. No part of the official media breathed a word about it. So total is the current censorship on any effective criticism of New-Darwinian science and on any genuine alternative.”
A sought-after public speaker, Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith shared his insights with tens of thousands throughout America and Europe. His rapport with audiences made them feel at home with even difficult scientific concepts as he would occasionally glance into their faces to see whether they “got it” and, if not, would ask who needed a term or concept explained before he went on. With charming simplicity he could be found discussing comfortably everything from black holes to one-handed molecules, or Shannon information theory, time dilation, DNA transcription, AIDS, criminal psychology, history, natural theology, natural selection or why God allows suffering. He was no mere talking head. A devoted husband and father of five children, a devout born-again Christian, and an unquestionably capable scientist, he left no chinks in his armor. To the consternation of his scientific colleagues, here was a Biblical creationist they could not pigeonhole as an ignoramus. He could not only hold his own among the best of them, he could make his opponents turn tail and run for cover. Wilder-Smith authored over 70 scientific publications and more than 30 books, some of which have been published in 17 languages and are still in print. Many of today’s leading creationist consider him a major influence in their own intellectual development, and call him a pioneer in anti-evolution arguments.
Dr. A. E. Wilder-Smith appeared prominently in an award-winning creation film series called Origins: How the World Came to Be. Still available from ChristianAnswers.net, this series keeps his wit and wisdom alive. It’s a good way to become acquainted with the man and his message.
In one episode, he holds up a living plant and a dead stick to the energy of the sun and asks the viewer what is the difference. If energy is all that is necessary to produce life, why does one grow, and the other decay? The answer, he explains, is that the plant has built-in teleonomy. The plant contains a genetic program that directs the energy of sunlight through machinery to harness the energy for growth. The stick, though once alive, is no longer operating the program. And so the energy that falls on it only warms it up, but does not cause growth. Such pithy illustrations using familiar objects are a good teacher’s art.
In another taped lecture (The Seven Main Postulates of Evolution), he holds up a sardine can. Could life evolve from this can? he asks. After all, it has all the ingredients necessary for life, because the sardines inside were once alive. It’s an open system, too: we can heat it or cool it any way we wish. Everyone knows that nothing will happen. If new life could originate from the can, he points out, the food processing industry would be in turmoil, because no one would be able to predict what new life-forms would evolve in our food. He drives the point home by asking what would happen if the genetic program and machinery for E. coli bacteria were inserted into the can. An explosion of life would result! Clearly, matter and energy are insufficient to produce life under the best of conditions; the essential ingredient is information, in the form of the genetic instructions and processing apparatus to utilize the matter and energy to carry out the program.
Not a “mere design” theorist, Dr. Smith knew how to steer intelligent design arguments toward the gospel of Jesus Christ. He stood unashamedly in the pulpits of many great churches, including Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, California, where the late pastor Chuck Smith honored him as a personal friend. He could employ design arguments effectively without any reference to religion, when appropriate (as at the Oxford debate). But he was seamless in his world view, unabashed at sharing the good news of of the gospel in the same lecture with design arguments.
Some ID leaders seem reluctant to wear their religious views on their sleeve, thinking intelligent design must be sanitized of religion to be effective. Dr. Smith shows that to be unnecessary. Context will determine what is appropriate to say in a given venue, but when your scientific credentials and arguments are sound, they can stand on their own, and lend credence to the intellectual integrity of your entire world view.
The time you are taking reading this short biography of a great creation scientist might be better spent listening to Dr. Wilder-Smith himself. Fortunately, friends have made a website in his honor: WilderSmith.org. It has information about his books, tapes, videos and articles. Additionally, a few of his lectures survive on YouTube. So after reading this, go browsing and learn more; download some audio or video files and listen. To know A. E. Wilder-Smith from his legacy of literature and lectures is to love him, not only as a great scientist and thinker, but as a winsome Christian man of integrity. He had the look and voice of a kindly grandfather. His disarming personal appearance belied the sharp intellect inside. His soft-spoken and unhurried speech, seasoned with wry humor, had a way of getting right to the heart of important issues and conveying difficult concepts in terms accessible to everyone. A masterful teacher, he won the “Golden Apple” award three years in a row at the University of Illinois Medical Center for the best course of lectures. The last one was inscribed, “He made us not only better scientists, but better men.”
Despite his busy schedule, A. E. Wilder-Smith loved classical music and enjoyed hiking in the Swiss alps. The music of Haydn’s Creation reminded him of God’s creativity described in Genesis. Of his outdoor experiences he said, “In God’s beautiful nature, with the colorfully blossoming mountain meadows in front of you and the gigantic snow-capped ten thousand footers behind them, the murmuring brooks beside you and the ringing of the cow-bells around you, hearts automatically begin to admire God’s creation and wisdom and cannot but praise the intelligence behind such manifold beauty.”
For glimpses into the human side of Dr. Smith, and for details of his travels and accomplishments, see Fulfilled Journey by his wife Beate. It includes selections from his own writings and reminisces. Beate describes his last breath on September 14, 1995 with the family gathered around, praying. She writes,
Sadness and gratefulness filled everybody’s heart as we together approached the throne of God committing the past, the present and the future into the hands of the Lord who had wonderfully guided our lives until now. He would also care for us in the future.”
Will you have a legacy like that? Will your journey be a fulfilled one? If not, Dr Wilder-Smith would have certainly urged you to follow Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. You can do it now by repenting of your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Guide for the remainder of your own journey. Jesus promised, “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).