Living Cells Can Keep Track of Time


Oh, the power of metaphor. Richard Dawkins’s “blind watchmaker” is back, tinkering in his workshop to make timepieces of elegant craftsmanship. Xiaojing Gao and Michael Elowitz from Caltech begin a piece in the science journal Nature like this:

Living cells keep track of time with exquisite precision, despite using molecular components that are subject to unavoidable random fluctuations, known as noise. For example, natural circadian clocks can track the time of day, even in single-celled cyanobacteria. Such clocks have been selected over evolutionary timescales for their precision, and thus can be thought of as a literal embodiment of the biologist Richard Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’— his analogy for evolution’s ability to produce systems with astonishing capabilities. However, evolution is not the only way to make a biological clock. The field of synthetic biology is based on designing artificial genetic circuits to implement new functions in living cells. Can a synthetic clock rival the precision of its naturally evolved counterparts? Potvin-Trottier et al. demonstrate on page 514 that even a relatively simple synthetic clock circuit can be astonishingly precise. [Emphasis added.]

Just how precise the synthetic clock is we shall see in a moment, but we need to draw some distinctions first. The passage above confuses two very, very different concepts: intentionally designed things and “naturally evolved” things. Gao and Elowitz personify “evolution” as a maker — a watch maker — an entity with ability (“evolution’s ability”) and goal-seeking behavior (“to produce systems”). And they say that natural circadian clocks are not just a virtualinstance of this phantom personage; they are a “literal embodiment” of him (or her). They have ascribed personhood to the clocks!

For clarity, we need to understand that the natural designer in this picture is not just blind. The “blind watchmaker” is also deaf, dumb, unfeeling, un-tasting, non-smelling, unthinking, careless, senseless, and dead. A more accurate analogy we used previously is to picture dead athletes on a track needing to run the high hurdles — mile-high hurdles at that. The gun fires! They’re off! But they won’t get over the first hurdle unless a volcano erupts or an asteroid hits to launch them randomly into the air. You get the picture; adding “evolutionary timescales” to allow for more volcanos and asteroid impacts isn’t going to help.

One cannot emphasize enough the distinction between natural processes and intelligent processes. This is where Dawkins and so many other evolutionists go wrong. They look backward from the finish line, see the scores on the scoreboard, and assume Darwinian processes won the race. They go to the jewelry store and see watches of exquisite precision, and assume the blind watchmaker crafted them. What we need to do is take them back to the starting line and ask them, “Using only the tools in your materialistic philosophy, can you get to the finish line?”


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