The Slartibartfast Principle

From Wired:

Canadian poet Christian Bök wants his work to live on after he’s gone. Like, billions of years after. He’s going to encode it directly into the DNA of the hardy bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans. If it works, his poem could outlast the human race.

If it is conceivable, just 57 years after the identification of DNA's structure, for a Canadian poet to imprint his poetry into the DNA of a living organism then isn't it probable that an intelligent designer in the past would have had similar desires and perforce much greater abilities to accomplish the task?

Thus the evidence for intelligent design ought to be readily available in the graffiti of DNA. "Slartibartfast was here," or perhaps "3.14159265," or given what we know of economics, "All rights reserved, MegaCorp. Call for a free estimate."

The fact that we have not found such evidence reduces my belief in intelligent design, although I am not against more investigation.  Indeed, one of the few arguments for god that I have ever given much credence to was the putative discovery of codes predicting future events in the Bible.  A serious paper on this topic was published in Statistical Science in 1994.  The paper was later convincingly rebutted but I still think it was the best evidence ever presented for an intelligent designer. 

Addendum One: Interestingly one of the few people who thought as I did, although coming from a quite different direction, was Nobel prize winner Robert Aumann who early on supported the Bible codes research.  However, after further research, supervised by Aumann, concluded that the paper could not be replicated Aumann returned to his prior view that the codes were improbable.  It's unclear what, if anything, would further shift his prior.

Addendum Two: Steven Landsburg was here yesterday and at lunch suggested that perhaps the great designer's name was in fact 3.14159265…


Did you have much belief in intelligent design to begin with?

Ai yi yi

I am a Christian, but really, looking for proof?

There's a reason it's called "faith" and not "based on reason" nor "scientific theology" (well, in my church anyway).

Be careful of your wallet around anyone who says they can scientifically prove that there is a God.

And also around any "poet" who can find a way to encode their "poetry" on DNA. Some people will do ANYTHING to get their stuff published!

What are the chances his poetry will turn the bacteria into something that can kill us all?

Mary Doria Russell explored this idea in her philosophical sci-fi novel, Children of God. IIRC, people found some intriguing patterns in the DNA sequences of humans and aliens. But the evidence was ambiguous -- the patterns seemed too unlikely to be random, but not so obvious as to be a creator's signature. In other words, pretty much the same ambiguity we see in the rest of Nature.

I commend unto thee a poem by Les Murray.

Better keep the poem short enough! Otherwise the bacteria will waste too much energy replicating it and die off relative to other bacteria!

Or maybe we haven't achieved the intelligence required to spot the pattern yet? I was thinking about Robin's take on this, given his Overcoming Bias aspirations. But, given Robin's biases, I am thinking that a characteristic of God is Omniunbiased.

I am sorry, this is the least intelligent post I have ever read on MR. Take a gander at the websites The Panda's Thumb and the Sensuous Curmudgeon for intelligent informed discussion on evolution and Intelligent Design (Creationism masquerading as ID). How odd, that of the five blogs I read the most, this is the first overlap from the evolution ones to the economics ones.

seems like the complexity of the design itself is the signature. what could be more profound than the simple beauty of dna itself? or equations like e^(i*pi)=-1... i see these as evidence of intelligent design themselves, and no inscribed message could be more beautiful or profound as the handiwork itself...

Why would you believe that God has the same ambitions and goals as a minor, primate, eqotistical poet?

Besides, isn't this poet going to be an intelligent designer, thus proving the feasibility of the practice?

That there is no "Kilroy was here" existing in the DNA doesn't prove anything, not the least of which because DNA is highly mutable, which is in fact the reason things can evolve.

So, to me, this scores more points for intelligent design than against it.

I like the way you are thinking, but I think you are making a mistake that many make when considering whether there is a God/ID. You assume or suppose God would have put some sort of code like Pi. But, really, you are dictating what type of code is acceptable. It's entirely possible that God placed a different type of "code."

I am a Christian, and I believe there is a Bible "code" but I also think the type of Bible code you referred to is very unlikely to exist. In fact, orthodox Christianity has asserted a "code" for two thousand years. That is, God put a code in the unfolding of history. Many OT prophecies and types point to later events. Particularly, prophecies about the Messiah which indicate things like his birthplace and manner of death. Now that we have the dead sea scrolls we know these were not placed into the text after the fact. Then, this guy Jesus shows up and matches up with all these prophecies. I think that is God's code.

It's not a hidden code that only a mathematician can discover. Read the OT - books like Isaiah - and then read the NT. I think it is quite clear.

Now, I freely admit it is always easier to see the patterns after the fact. That is where "faith" comes in (and it takes faith to not believe these point to Christ too). But, it is worth looking at the big picture in the Bible and reading widely to determine for yourself if the text was manipulated or not. Biblical criticism has come a long way since the 1920s and even the tough critics will admit the Jesus existed and was crucified or that a book like Philippians is not a Second of Third Century product.

(PS Some of the prophecies (you can find many lists online) are clearly only obvious after the fact. But consider ones describing crucifixion in a time that form of execution was not even known and you start to wonder.)

Others mentioned the beauty of DNA. I agree and would recommend anyone seriously willing to consider ID to read Stephen Meyer's new book Signature in the Cell. It's all about how the specific information got into the DNA.

In fact, I'd like to hear Alex review/comment on the book. Alex seems like he is willing to reason through this question rather than just make ad h. arguments as is so often done by both sides in this debate.

As usual there is an xkcd comic for this

What Galileo said:

It has always seemed to me extreme presumptuousness on the part of those who want to make human ability the measure of what nature can and knows how to do, since, when one comes down to it, there is not one effect in nature, no matter how small, that even the most speculative minds can fully understand.


You say "complexity of the design itself is the signature". Yet when I design something, I try to make it as simply as possible, following Kiss's Law ("Keep It Simple, Stupid").

You could argue that the designer of the universe is not limited like I am, so it can make its designs as complex as it likes. But at that point design loses its meaning. If something is simple, it's designed. If it's complex, it's designed. If it's functional, it's designed. If it's nonfunctional, it's designed.

There is no longer any way to spot design.

"Mischievious artifacts are good proof because it's highly unlikely to be naturally selected."

Does Barney Frank count?

Bada Bing!

Why should God pander to humans?

Better keep the poem short enough! Otherwise the bacteria will waste too much energy replicating it and die off relative to other bacteria!

Genetically engineered bacteria are usually at an evolutionary disadvantage to non-genetically engineered bacteria. Even isolated populations will relatively quickly have a mutation event to get rid of the genetic engineered operation. This poem is not going to last a billion years.

What about 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,... or 1.6180339...

The problem is, how would we know we'd found it?

I mean, DNA is just a sequence of two sets of pairs of four nucleotides. Thus there's the problem of encoding a "name" in it at all... especially in a way that can be reliably differentiated from noise by someone who has no idea what the encoding or the language BEING encoded are.

It'd be less difficult to put in something sufficiently arbitrary to be noticeable, but equally it'd be far less meaningful.

(Anyonymous' very good point is rendered less applicable by the assumption that the code-maker would, by virtue of having left the code as a signature, want it to be findable.

But that only applies to the "Slartibartfast Principle" of leaving a signature; if a designer had no desire to "sign", then the mere fact of design could be impenetrably subtle indeed.)

Come on, the Bible Code nonsense has been debunked as thoroughly as spoon bending and any mention of it at this point in intelligent company should be embarrassing. Couple that with talk of "further investigation" of the utterly unscientific "Intelligent Design" and you get the most disappointing post I've ever read on this blog.

What's next, credulous talk of Ouija Boards as possible proof of an afterlife and the need for further investigation of Bigfoot?

If it is conceivable, just 57 years after the identification of DNA's structure, for a Canadian poet to imprint his poetry into the DNA of a living organism then isn't it probable that an intelligent designer in the past would have had similar desires and perforce much greater abilities to accomplish the task?

With respect, I don't like this post one bit and this quote is especially ludicrous. Why presume the designer, who has gone to so much trouble to hide him/her/whatever self in every place humans have looked, has any interest in revealing himself at all? Or that, of all places to leave his fingerprint, a designer would choose DNA? What, other than its arbitrary modern-ness to our eyes but presumably nobody else's, make you think he would choose DNA? Why not just make it small so people 100 years ago with the first microscopes could see? Or hide it in the stars so Galileo could get it in 1610? Or in the geometry of triangles so Archimedes would see it 2000 years ago?

I have to say I have less respect for anyone who gives any scientific credence whatsoever to intelligent design given its obvious political and US legal origins. Why should we expect a doctrine developed as a way to circumvent decisions by the US Supreme court to say anything about the nature of the universe, except by luck. So when I read:

The fact that we have not found such evidence reduces my belief in intelligent design, although I am not against more investigation

I think willful blindness or the Krugman-like corruption of an otherwise very clever mind. I am not saying this because of your religion (I don't know if you are) but because you have failed to recognise what is obvious: the designer is a religious concept, it produces no testable hypothesis, and there is nothing to investigate.

According to a book published in the 1920s the Great Pyramid's dimensions contained a code that had predicted the election of the first British Labour govt, on the basis of this success the authors argued the Great Pyramid also predicted an era of world peace in the 1930s.

And who designs the designer? Is it turtles all the way down?

If the DNA sequence doesn't code for anything, then there will be no selective pressures, meaning it will succumb to mutations and genetic drift. It should be rendered almost indecipherable within the poet's lifetime, considering the mutation rate of bacteria.

In case you're wondering, I'm probably uniquely qualified ot render an opinion on this since my B.A. is in recombinant gene technology and I did two years of grad school in molecular biology before moving on to get a M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in the humanities, educating myself in poetry and to be a poet.

pi is not a particularly interesting number ( if god signed his name in a number (and he didn't, because there's no god), you'd think it'd be something like e or Aleph one. Or a more mundane but significant number like 1 or 0

VA Classical Liberal,

Nice point. Complexity, simplicity, intricacy, design... Eye of the beholder...


If there were a God and an existence beyond life as we know it, then that God would not be able to provide any proof of that.

Life simply wouldn't work if there were proof. Everyone would commit suicide at the slightest pain or threat thereof.

(P.S Atheist here)

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