We have all sometimes found ourselves trapped in conversations that veer off in directions we would prefer not to follow. At such times I find a light touch is usually good for making a quick rhetorical getaway. My wife and I were out to eat one evening with a relative we did not often see and his good friend. The friend began expounding on UFOs and government cover-ups. I was relieved that he did not claim to have been abducted by aliens. However, he regaled us with tales about the flying saucer that reportedly crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. He assured us that many of the technological advances of the previous half-century had been reverse-engineered from artifacts found in the wreckage, including lasers, fiber optics, computer chips and Velcro. He paused to allow this revelation to sink in, and I made my move. "The aliens will be back," I dead-panned, "and this time they're bringing their patent attorneys."
I was barely an infant when aliens allegedly took their wrong turn in Roswell, New Mexico. At the time my parents owned an old wooden console radio, and I can still remember sitting on the floor of our living room as a small boy listening to The Lone Ranger and The Jack Benny Show. I wonder what would have happened if an ordinary household artifact like that were suddenly spirited back to a mid-19th-century parlor, and the best scientists of the day tried to figure out how it worked through reverse engineering. If they turned the radio on, nothing would happen because there was nothing to plug it into. Even if there were, there would be nothing to listen to with no broadcast stations. A simple device like a radio requires a vast technological infrastructure to operate and cannot be understood in isolation.
This is worth remembering when we consider the origins of a genetically engineered marvel such as ourselves. The big controversy now is whether we were, in fact, engineered, or whether we were somehow assembled without an instruction manual. The scientific community is furiously defending the theory of evolution against the purveyors of intelligent design. There is nothing new about arguments from design, which go back to the ancient Greeks. More than 200 years ago, a naturalist and Anglican cleric named William Paley argued that if you came upon a watch in a field, you could reasonably conclude that it had to have a maker. Would not the same also be true of a human eye, which is far more complex than a watch? In the Origin of Species, Darwin himself conceded "the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection," and then proceeded to demonstrate how light-sensitive nerve cells might plausibly evolve into an eye through numerous successive steps over eons.
To understand fully how we came to be, you have to widen the frame and ask, how did evolution itself arise? The structure of a DNA molecule, which is responsible for the numerous successive steps that produced the human eye, is far more complex than a watch or, for that matter, a radio. As the proponents of intelligent design like to point out, there is more information packed into the genetic material of a single human cell than in all 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and nobody is claiming that the encyclopedia wrote itself.
Widen the frame still further, and you come up against a still bigger puzzle. It turns out the fundamental properties of the universe are so finely tuned that even minute variations in some 20 physical constants would have been enough to prevent life from arising at all. Whether by design or by chance, the entire universe is required to produce intelligent life. You could argue that the deck was somehow stacked in our favor, although you could also argue there is no point in calculating the odds after you've already won the hand. A few physicists might admit to being a bit perplexed by the seemingly incredible number of coincidences that are required to sustain life in our universe. But others theorize there is not one universe but many, possibly trillions of them, and we just happen to be living in the one that is tailor-made to our existence. Does this sound farfetched? Sure -- but no more farfetched than the notion that aliens crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico and bequeathed us Velcro.