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Monday, January 01, 2007

Francis Crick, atheist

I recently read Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, by Matt Ridley. (New York: HarperCollins, 2006) The title itself should strike a careful reader as curious. In the first place, Francis H. C. Crick is best known for the discovery of the double helix, with Watson, not for the discovery of the genetic code. In the second, genetics textbooks, and other sources, such as the Wikipedia article on the genetic code, do not give Crick much, if any credit for cracking the code whereby sequences of messenger RNA are transformed into sequences of amino acids.

But there is something to the claim that Crick was the discoverer of the genetic code. Francis Crick theorized about protein synthesis. Secondly, Crick (who was not known as an experimentalist) did do critical experiments that led to the realization that the code was a triplet code. Ridley describes how Crick also was the catalyst that cajoled others into doing the work that led to the discovery. In that, he appears to have been something like Neils Bohr, who, collaborating with many scientists, lectured, thought, wrote and discussed, playing a pivotal role in the discovery of quantum physics in the previous century.

Watson, in his best-selling The Double Helix, began by writing that he had "never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood." Ridley is not modest in his biography, as he anoints Crick as "the greatest biologist of the twentieth century" (p. 5). No doubt that claim, however important, could be disputed. (Eugene Odum, Edward O. Wilson, and Niko Tinbergen, and many others might merit consideration.) Nonetheless, Crick was important. It is unfortunate that he was an atheist. (So was Watson, unless he has made a radical change recently.)

Ridley says that what really motivated Crick was a desire to discredit vitalism, the idea that living things cannot be explained and understood completely in terms of physics and chemistry. Crick believed that they could be so explained. So did many other scientists. Depending on what is meant by explanation, so do I. Crick and Watson apparently felt that they had explained life when the DNA helix was proposed. Crick went on to study consciousness, which he was continued to do until the end of his life, as, says Ridley, the last bastion of vitalism. He did not live to see the achievement of his goal of being able to understand consciousness in terms of neuron activity. We are probably a long way from that yet.

What is meant by explanation? If, by explanation, we mean that we can, at least in principle, describe how a cell works, in chemical and physical terms, most biologists of today would agree. This has not yet been done, at least not completely, but, within my lifetime, enormous strides have been made. I would not be surprised to see the construction of a working living cell, capable of metabolism and reproduction, produced from laboratory chemicals, in the first half of this century. There does not seem to be any reason to suppose that any aspect of cell function cannot be explained and understood in terms of the chemistry of the cell. Does this rule out Divine action? Certainly not. In principle, it is possible to understand, say, all the parts, and the functioning, of a Ford Explorer. If I did so understand it, that would not mean that it wasn't a wonderful piece of equipment, nor would it mean that it wasn't designed and planned. In the same way, even if we did understand all of the molecular activity of organisms, it wouldn't make their existence any less wonderful, nor would it rule out supernatural design and planning.

If, by explanation, we consider some other questions, such as "How did life begin?" "Why do Carbon atoms and other chemical entities have the properties that make life possible?" "Why are humans interested in this sort of question?" then we can't explain life. Crick, nor anyone else, has done so, and I don't believe it is possible to do so. (More and more plausible naturalistic answers for the first question may be produced, but they will never amount to a certain description of what actually did happen.) Crick, in fact, according to Ridley, put forward panspermia as an explanation for the origin of life on earth, at least half-seriously. Why would an otherwise intelligent person consider that living things may have been placed here by extraterrestrials, and reject that they were placed here by a supernatural being?

It is unfortunate that Crick, who was noted for discussing serious issues for extended periods with intelligent people, including, or especially, when they didn't agree with him on all points, didn't really come to grips with the issues of the meaning of life, and the origin of living things, and the universe that makes them possible. Perhaps he didn't really want to come to grips with these questions. Perhaps he was turned off by interpretations of the Bible that claim to rule out some of the important findings of science. I don't know. But it is unfortunate.

Thanks for reading. God's best in the New Year!


Julana said...

happy new year, Martin!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, and to you and yours.