DNA building
© Alexander Popov via Unsplash
Editor's note: We are delighted today to offer a new book from Discovery Institute Press, The Mystery of Life's Origin: The Continuing Controversy, a greatly expanded and updated version of the book that, in 1984, launched the intelligent design movement. The following is excerpted from Discovery Institute Senior Fellow David Klinghoffer's historical introduction to the work. Other brand new chapters on the "continuing controversy" about the origin of life are by chemist James Tour, physicist Brian Miller, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, biologist Jonathan Wells, and philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer.

How does life emerge from that which is not alive? This mystery exercises a peculiar fascination, with the power to elicit remarkable feats of imagination. As the novelist Mary Shelley recalled, her invention of the story of Frankenstein traced back to conversations she witnessed between Lord Byron and her husband Percy Shelley. Holidaying in Switzerland in the summer of 1816, they spoke late into the night, past the "witching hour," about "the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated." Up for discussion was gossip about "experiments of Dr. Darwin" (Erasmus, the grandfather of Charles) who "by some extraordinary means" produced "voluntary motion" in a length of spaghetti. The poets alluded to "galvanism," electrical experiments by Luigi Galvani, spurring thoughts that "a corpse would be reanimated."1 Later, sleepless in her bed, Mrs. Shelley would experience a vision, receiving the seed for one of the great horror novels.

Less horrific but hardly less imaginative are scenarios of unguided "chemical evolution," or abiogenesis, featured in high school and college biology textbooks, taken as gospel by the media and preached as such by a range of authoritative popular and scholarly figures in the culture. Simple experimental work by Louis Pasteur in the early 1860s demonstrated that life does not spontaneously generate itself, not from spaghetti, not from anything. Instead, life comes from life. How then may science explain the origin of the very first life?

The Very First Life

The Mystery of Life’s Origin
Charles Darwin in 1871 famously speculated in a letter to Joseph Hooker, "But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes."2 The "warm little pond" generating "protein compounds" is not far off from textbook orthodoxy today. Students are taught that a prebiotic soup gave rise to key biotic chemicals, amino acids, stimulated by atmospheric electricity — galvanism in a modern guise — as demonstrated in the famed Miller-Urey experiment of 1952. One feat of imagination here lies in conceiving by what "extraordinary means" such building blocks came together, unguided, in precisely the right order to give rise to biological information, the digital code of DNA and RNA, that underlies all life on Earth.

In 1969, San Francisco State University biologist Dean Kenyon would give the theory of chemical evolution its then most up-to-date presentation, in an influential text, Biochemical Predestination. By 1984, Kenyon had abandoned the theory altogether in favor of what would later be called intelligent design. His public confession of apostasy came in the Foreword of a short yet remarkable book, The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, by biochemist Charles B. Thaxton, materials scientist Walter L. Bradley, and geochemist Roger L. Olsen. Discovery Institute Press offers this new version of the book, the Ur-text or original edition of the modern theory of intelligent design, along with supplementary essays by scholars updating and extending the work. These new chapters, by synthetic organic chemist James Tour, physicist Brian Miller, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, biologist Jonathan Wells, and philosopher of biology Stephen Meyer, present the current state of the debate that Thaxton and his-coauthors sparked in 1984. The enigma they identified remains, hardly resolved by further technical research amplified and distorted by press releases and hysterical headlines, but rather, if anything, compounded as science has advanced.

Down These Halls

For anyone familiar with today's intelligent design theory, to read The Mystery of Life's Origin is to experience a powerful sense of déjà vu. Surely we have walked these halls before. Or rather, Mystery is the hall down which ID walked before it emerged into history as "intelligent design." The now familiar phrase appears nowhere in the text. But other phrases, persons, and motifs, the stock-in-trade of the modern ID theorist, are present. That is most notably, thickly so in the book's Epilogue, authored by Dr. Thaxton, where the technical details are left behind and a forthright argument for a design hypothesis is offered. Stephen Meyer has been forthcoming about his intellectual debt to Thaxton. In a sense, Mystery is a daring first draft of what would become Meyer's own work, especially in Signature in the Cell. Here we have the "principle of uniformity,"3 "the present is a key to the past,"4 adducing what "we know by experience" about how "intelligent investigators" act,5 the role of the "idea of creation" in the "origin of modern science,"6 the injunction to "follow the evidence where it leads,"7 how "certain effects always have intelligent causes,"8 Shannon information, Michael Polanyi, "specified complexity,"9 taking Darwin himself as a historical precedent in one's argumentation, conceiving of the search for truth about biological origins as akin to the work of a detective in a murder mystery, and more.

The "God Hypothesis"

A separate article could be written tracing the influence of such themes from Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen on Meyer alone, reflected in his books including the forthcoming The Return of the God Hypothesis. That last formulation, the "God hypothesis," first used by Meyer in the title of a 1999 essay in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, itself appears in the Epilogue of Mystery.10 Thaxton uses it to contrast different theaters of scientific investigation, "operation science" versus "origin science," where consideration of a transcendent intelligent agent as being at work in causing certain events either doesn't belong at all, or might in fact be permissible. In Signature in the Cell, Meyer would later write that this "terminology" was "admittedly cumbersome."11 For "origin science" he substitutes "historical science."

When I spoke to Thaxton recently, he explained that the "God hypothesis" was simply the shorthand way professors talked about the idea when Thaxton was a post-doctoral student at Harvard in the philosophy of science. Other key ID concepts and habits of thought came to him from this same period in his post-PhD studies. For example, looking to Darwin as a model or precedent for one's arguments, as Meyer does, was something he picked up from historian of science Reijer Hooykaas (1906-1994), whom he came to know at this time. "Uniformitarianism" is via the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), but Hooykaas wrote a book about it in 1963, The Principle of Uniformity in Geology, Biology, and Theology. Shannon information was from information theorist Hubert Yockey (1916-2016), referring to mathematician Claude Shannon (1916-2001), and "specified complexity," now much associated with mathematician and intelligent design proponent William Dembski, from chemist Leslie Orgel (1927-2007). The advice to "follow the evidence where it leads," or as it is sometimes found, "We must follow the argument wherever it leads," a staple of writers on intelligent design, is a paraphrase from Socrates in Plato's Republic. In Allan Bloom's translation (394d), "[W]herever the argument, like a wind, tends, thither must we go."12

The Origin of an Idea

In other words, the interest of The Mystery of Life's Origin lies partly in the question of an idea's origin. Meyer and Thaxton form a link with scientific and philosophical investigations of the 20th century, the 19th century, and before, much as intelligent design more broadly connects Greek philosophy, especially Anaxagoras (5th century B.C.), with the thinking of Darwin's colleague turned rival, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913).

Without going into needless detail, or searching too far back into the past, this Introduction will sketch some of the immediate historical background behind the writing of Mystery and its subsequent influence on the evolution of the theory of ID. That influence and its importance can hardly be overstated. On the question of life's origin, misinformation from the media and from scientists themselves have set a stumbling block for many in the public, rendering a false picture of the answer to an ultimate question. The authors of this book have inspired a defense of the truth. For ordinary, unnamed people, given hope of a purpose at work behind the veil of brute physical existence, to be recognized in the origin of life, the impact of The Mystery of Life's Origin is immeasurable.

  1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein [1818] (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003), 8.
  2. Charles Darwin, quoted in Lucas Brouwers, "Did life evolve in a 'warm little pond'?" Scientific American, February 16, 2012.
  3. Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories [1984], 2nd printing (Dallas, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1992), 193, 210.
  4. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 211.
  5. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 193.
  6. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 206.
  7. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 209.
  8. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 211.
  9. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 211.
  10. Thaxton, The Mystery of Life's Origin, 202-203, 205.
  11. Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 29.
  12. Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 73.