I've posted this at a number of haunts and hope no-one is bored or offended by another outing of
Signatures: what it would take to convince me we were designed (but which would still leave debate open about who the designer was)
Intelligent design proponents can point to almost anything as though it is the signature of a deity if they ignore the fact that anything capable of asking the question "who made that?" is likely so well adapted to its surroundings that everything it encounters would appear designer made for its purposes. This line of thinking must also ignore every part of that being that doesn't work particularly well and everything that might try to eat or parasitise the thing asking the question, these being signs of poor design on that thing’s behalf.
If a deity really wanted to stamp something with a maker's mark, they could do far better than the wishy-washy fitness of purpose that any ratcheting process of change could achieve just by adhering to physical laws. What would a deity do, to borrow from Douglas Adams, to put Slartibartfast's signature in the glacier?
Maths would be the communication channel of choice. You can communicate all sorts of complex ideas using languages, but if all you want to do is show another sentient being that you are also sentient, mapping it out with maths will bridge the gap when words fail you. Mathematical principles are universal, so any intelligent being could use them to illustrate that their understanding of their surroundings goes beyond that required to survive and reproduce.
In "2001: A Space Odyssey," Arthur C. Clarke imagined that a slab of hard material with proportions of 1:4:9, the squares of the first three integers, had been uncovered on the moon. While objects with that general shape might occur naturally, the mathematical operation behind the ratio and the precision with which it was illustrated told the human characters that the slab had been made by intelligent beings, and that those beings wanted humanity to come to that realisation. The mathematical message was so loud and clear that coincidence couldn’t be invoked as an explanation for the phenomenon.
A recent tongue in cheek guide to communicating with aliens proposed that when faced with the language barrier likely to exist in such a situation, you might draw a right triangle in the dust and place three stones on the shortest side, four on the next longest, and five on the hypotenuse, indicating you are at least intelligent enough to understand a basic concept of trigonometry. You mightn’t get the scale perfect, but the principle will be clear. While the aliens wouldn't know who Pythagoras was, or perhaps even be able to hear or make the sounds of that word, they would know the theorem and would recognise you as being capable of abstract thought.
If we get a probe to Europa and find a triangular land mass with offlying islands in the three, four, five configuration it would stand as strong evidence that intelligence was once at work there, though it might represent engineering by a very powerful being or race rather than the signature of a deity.
A maker keen to leave its creation a sign of its handiwork would have to find a medium that wouldn't erode or change configuration. The marker would have to last billions of years, which rules out messing about with land masses. Even on geologically inert planets, the scope for the evidence to be erased by catastrophic impacts would make mountains or landmasses a poor long term messenger prospect. Far better to leave the mark on something numerous, so obliteration of one version of the signature didn’t erase the entirety. Some form on Von Neumann machine would be favourite, so it could regenerate itself from local resources any time the signature vessel got a bit beaten up.
Would a creator perhaps write pi, or some similarly significant mathematical principle, into the DNA of the organisms it created? Using base pairings as ones and zeroes, it could write pi in binary form. Base pairs mutate quickly on the time scale under consideration so perhaps longer, repeated strings of relatively stable base pair sequences could act as the ones and zeroes, so that mutations didn't alter the message too much over time, and even a sizeable degradation in message integrity could still make a readable signature, giving the system a longer shelf life.
Of course, a deity could program the system such that when organisms within the system became sufficiently adept at looking into such things, the message would appear in its perfect form.
I wonder if anyone at the Discovery Institute is looking for a creator, waving at us from our DNA . If they’re not, they should be. All the irreducible complexity hand waving is pathetic. What if pi was embedded in the DNA of every cell in your body? There's no reason for it to be there. It would be a work of art, its only function being to be itself. What if something even more valuable came of the study, like a mathematical recipe for generating stable worm hole configurations that could allow us to explore the universe. I’d certainly have to re-think a lot of stuff, even if all we got was the score for “Happy Birthday to You, or a picture of a smiley face poking its tongue out. That would still be the most astounding discovery in human history.
When presented with this possible avenue of investigation, I suspect many theists will try to hedge around the idea with the "if a god revealed themselves, it would be a negation of people's faith," swerve. This is a common dodge applied when calls for evidence to justify a religious position on real world issues is called for, but the fact that intelligent design proponents are engaged in attempts at finding evidence in support of a creator negates the potential objection.
Another counter argument might run that the need to retro-engineer DNA to produce particular proteins destroys the possibility that a creator could use the molecules as a means to communicate a mathematical message. This would not be a valid objection. If you want to posit a being that can marshal matter to its will to the extent it did in short order what would otherwise take billions of years of evolution to achieve, don't short change it on the awe inducing attributes. The omnimax paradox makes a convincing case that no being can be omnipotent and omniscient, causing some theologians to redefine the words, leaving their almighty gods able to do any possible thing, but that’s the realm of very powerful or long lived beings, and not very god like. The difficulty we would have incorporating a significant message in DNA should not be allowed to stand in the way of intelligent design proponents taking up this challenge. If you want to posit a deity, don’t try to weasle out of defining it as an actual deity and possessing the requisite god-like abilities, otherwise any intelligent, long lived being could qualify as a creator. Even someone form the current crop of biogenisis researchers might qualify before too long.
Intelligent design proponents have no excuse to not take up this opportunity to investigate an extant data set with extant tools. The SETI program has been looking for mathematically interesting patterns in huge data sets for many years and the human genome project has generated the necessary input to set this style of investigation in motion. Searching our DNA for an unambiguous sign of design is doable. A positive result would put an end to debate about our origins as it would clearly show that design was involved at some point. A negative result wouldn’t be conclusive either way on the matter of the possible existence of a creator, but it would show that any being involved in establishing life on Earth had either not spotted the opportunity, or held no desire, to communicate with its creation in an unambiguous and convincing manner.
I don’t think the positive result is likely, but if the creationists are serious about pointing finding evidence of intelligent design, they should put their money where their mouth is and seek evidence that could silence their critics forever. If nothing else, it should get them to shut the fuck up for about six months while they do the work, and that alone would count as a positive result for all humanity.