Posted by: Dan | May 2, 2006

Intelligent Cells?

Re-posted from A Concerned Scientist with a minor addition at the end:

Via one of the Cornell IDEA club members, I was directed to a Wiki-based site dedicated to compiling research and information on Intelligent Design: Apparently their first research initiative is “to catalog at least two research applications for major and minor disciplines on our fields page by 2008.” Indeed, apparently finding a practical application of ID to actual science is itself a major under-taking.

What struck me as interesting on the site is the External Link of the Week, to a site on Cell Intelligence. The name itself sparked annoyance on my part, simply because it sounds like it is an extension of IDiocy. However, while I don’t know much about the site’s webmaster (Guenter Albrecht-Buehler), it doesn’t mention or link to ID as far as I could tell – it doesn’t mention anything about evolving or designing of eukaryotic cells at all. Instead, Cell Intelligence seems to merely be a new descriptive way of looking at cellular behavior.

Correction – hidden away in the “appendix” at the end is a bit on “The best design for a cellular eye is a pair of centrioles,” which ends in this paragraph (emphasis in the original):

Furthermore, since the design of the ‘eye’ was based on necessary and optimized conditions of its intended function, there are not many other designs that would fulfil the same conditions. This feature seems to be matched by actual centrioles, as well. The geometric features of centrioles belong to the best conserved properties in nature. Independent of the place on the evolutionary tree, if a cell has centrioles, it has these ones. Their design is, therefore, unlikely to be an accident of evolution but a consequence of the function of centrioles.

This is a common argument coming from ID: that because a molecular structure appears perfect as an operating machine, it must have been built that way. While he IS correct in saying that their design is a consequence of the function of centrioles, he gives nothing to contradict the simple statement that centrioles possess this structure because they were naturally selected to be that way, completely side-stepping evolution and yet claiming to have beaten it in one quick stroke. Very sneaky of him.

In more detail, his case for “Intelligent Cells” proceeds thus:

An intelligent cell contains a compartment, which is capable of collecting and integrating a variety of physically different and unforeseeable signals as the basis of problem-solving decisions.

Further, he gives his radical bias away with this statement:

Unable to believe that any machine can be designed that contains an instruction library which anticipates all the mishaps and glitches of a billion years of evolution without crashing over and over again, I began almost three decades ago to search for signs that the cell was actually a ‘smart’ machine.

Ah… the argument from Incredulity and Ignorance. Suprised? I’m not.

Further, he choses to focus on the study of cell movement for his proof of intelligence, attributing chemically-explainable processes in living cells the equivalent of a soul, abstractly choosing how to operate. Cells apparently have a language, eyes, societies, etc., according to Guenter. Sound crazy? Just wait:

In summary, the study of cellular ‘vision’ may be the door to our next quantum leap in the development of medicine. As mentioned above, all diseases are ultimately healed by cells. Doctors ‘merely’ aid the cells of their patients to do their job. Just imagine, the powerful medicine doctors might practice in the future if they can literally ‘tell’ cells in their own language what they want them to do! For example, cancer cells might be ‘told’ to stop growing or at least may be ‘summoned’ to a certain place on the skin where surgeons can easily scoop them out. Cells at the wound of a lost limb or eye may be ‘told’ to grow it again. They did it once. If we learn the right ‘commands’ maybe, we can persuade them to do it again. Obviously, we need to learn to speak the language of cells, if we want to carry medicine to this advanced level. Initially, we would record the light signals of cells in different parts and stages of an embryo. Subsequently, we could reproduce them using microchips and laser diodes, and ‘play’ them back to the cells of an adult patient, which we want to perform one of the embryonic functions. Later, we may learn to compose our own messages in the language of cells, in order to compel cells to carry out specialized tasks, which they have never performed, even in the embryo.

So, one day we may use translators to cure disease, as opposed to doctors!

Incidentally, all of this IS based upon peer-reviewed research, such as this paper published in PNAS by the site’s author. The actual research, however, includes only the scientific description of cell behavior in response to infrared light cues – his conclusions on “intelligence” did not pass peer review.

Of note, has a response, and I would like to commend the effort for trying to be scientific about their teleological views – but this does not compensate for the absense of data to support claims of Intelligent Design, nor their lack of understanding of empiricism (or of modern evolutionary theory itself), or the necessity of methodological naturalism.

Bottom line: Nice try, but please keep your theology in its rightful place (not in science classrooms), and if you must discuss teleology, try and recognize that “purpose” in biology is a subjective concept which we, humans, have constructed in our minds.

For a broader reaction to the vacuity of the site, check out The Panda’s Thumb.



  1. This is an abstract from Trevor and Abels peer-reviewed paper published this summer 2006. I find their claim on prescriptive information similar to complex specified information formulated by Dembski…

    Trevors and Abel-July 2006, “cellular automata have not been shown to self-organize” Title: “Self-organization vs. Self-ordering Events in Life-origin Models” by David L. Abel and Jack T. Trevors Accepted 5 July 2006. ……Abstract: “Self-ordering phenomena should not be confused with self-organization. Self-ordering events occur spontaneously according to natural “law” propensities and are purely physicodynamic. Crystallization and the spontaneously forming dissipative structures of Prigogine are examples of self-ordering. Self-ordering phenomena involve no decision nodes, no dynamically-inert configurable switches, no logic gates, no steering toward algorithmic success or “computational halting”. Hypercycles, genetic and evolutionary algorithms, neural nets, and cellular automata have not been shown to self-organize spontaneously into nontrivial functions. Laws and fractals are both compression algorithms containing minimal complexity and information. Organization typically contains large quantities of prescriptive information. Prescriptive information either instructs or directly produces nontrivial optimized algorithmic function at its destination. Prescription requires choice contingency rather than chance contingency or necessity. Organization requires prescription, and is abstract, conceptual, formal, and algorithmic. Organization utilizes a sign/symbol/token system to represent many configurable switch settings. Physical switch settings allow instantiation of nonphysical selections for function into physicality. Switch settings represent choices at successive decision nodes that integrate circuits and instantiate cooperative management into conceptual physical systems. Switch positions must be freely selectable to function as logic gates. Switches must be set according to rules, not laws. Inanimacy cannot “organize” itself. Inanimacy can only self-order. “Self-organization” is without empirical and prediction-fulfilling support. No falsifiable theory of self-organization exists. “Self-organization” provides no mechanism and offers no detailed verifiable explanatory power. Care should be taken not to use the term “self-organization” erroneously to refer to low-informational, natural-process, self-ordering events, especially when discussing genetic information.”

  2. Thanks for the contribution… and I think that Trevors and Abel make good points about “self-organization” being baseless in chemistry and biology. But, note, that simple multi-cellular life can self-organize. For instance, in experiments with sea sponges, one can break them down to individual cells and allow them to spontaneously reform into the complete animal again. So, at some point biological processes gained the capacity to self-organize. When did this happen?

    Trevors and Abel were talking about the OOL though, and transition from the pre-biotic world to the RNA world, and as they point out, it seems absurd to think that simple nucleotide-like molecules polymerized into RNA spontaneously in one step. This is a difficult challenge to the RNA World hypothesis – scientists assume that this transition occured in a series of simple (and perhaps minerally-catalyzed) steps, but unlike most of the rest of life, we have no way of extrapolating precursors from comparative molecular homology.

    But that’s the assumption – that the prebiotic -to- RNA World transition occured not by self-organization, but by a series of kinetically- and/or thermodynamically favorable events. And it’s a pretty robust view, based upon modern chemistry.

    More relevant posts of mine on this topic are here and here.


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