A design for life?

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How would you sum up the significance of DNA in a single sentence? When challenged by an Essex biology teacher in 1989, the DNA pioneer Francis Crick didn’t hesitate:

As you may have noticed, 2009 is a major anniversary for evolutionary theory. But 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, arguments still rage around evolution, creationism and intelligent design. The clash of ideologies is neatly summed up by a recently catalogued exchange of letters from 2003 in Crick’s archive. The writer, a US medical professor, interprets DNA’s significance rather differently to Crick, seeing it as evidence of intelligent design by a supernatural being:

From your [DNA] model, I could only think of a supernatural or divine design and revelation through your ingenuity… [Y]our discovery has truly transformed my view of religion and strengthened my belief of a creator which I was previously very skeptical [sic] about…

How did Crick the dogmatic atheist respond to such opinions? Back in 1991 he showed fighting spirit, rushing to the aid of a Minnesota biology teacher under pressure to teach creationist learning packs. Crick’s letter influenced the local education board to reject the packs:

No scientific theory is ever fully proven, though its truth can, in favourable circumstances, be made highly probable. This does not mean that some other nonsensical theory is automatically of equal value, and therefore should be presented to students.

Evolutionary theory won the day temporarily, but 12 years later Crick’s reply to the medical professor is terse and resigned in tone:

I am an agnostic with a strong inclination to atheism. I think the God hypothesis is bankrupt, and that we have evolved from non-living matter by Natural Selection. Our DNA model only confirmed me in these beliefs.

Lacking the instincts of Darwin’s Rottweiler, the letter reveals an older and wearier man unwilling to engage in apparently pointless debate.

Helen Wakely

Helen Wakely is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library.

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