Slartibartfast Was Here

The claim is sometimes made that, “evidence for an intelligent designer should be readily available in the graffiti of DNA”. Perhaps something like “Designed by Yaweh” embedded in the sequences of DNA. Similar suggestions have been made about the number pi. Alex Tbarrok has dubbed this the “Slartibartfast Principle“, after the planetary designer in Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy”. As a planetary designer, Slartibartfast liked to leave his signature on his creations.

This “principle” makes no sense to me. DNA is sort of like a compression algorithm, from which an entire organism is constructed. Compression algorithms are efficient to the extent that they factor out redundancy, so a sufficiently advanced compression algorithm creates output that is virtually indistinguishable from random data.

Imagine that you’ve written an epic story for you grandchildren, and you ZIP up the file to save space. Your grandkids grow up, and are perfectly able to unzip the file and read the story. One day, one of the grandkids gets the idea to analyze the raw bytes of the ZIP file, and concludes that “the bytes are essentially random — the story has no author”. Huh?

When DNA is uncompressed, it has given us the Psalms of David, the works of Shakespeare, and countless other treasures. It’s even given us what we need to decode our own DNA. If Slartibartfast were truly a brilliant designer, he would’ve created planets which would support creatures who would eventually write comedies about a designer who says “Slartibartfast was here”. And he would create creatures who could understand how funny and absurd the idea is. That would be a signature!

3 thoughts on “Slartibartfast Was Here”

  1. Just going through some of your back pages, and was drawn in by this one. Beautiful, J. Such good fun.

    Slartibartfast might be my second or third favourite character from the HHGttG, mainly because of his love for the fiddly bits around the fjords.

    Since the treasure of HHGttG was from Douglas Adams, an unabashed non-believer, does it make such a signature all the more funny and absurd?

    If there is a God, then I can certainly imagine God’s sense of humour being so incomprehensibly bizarre and subtle. I wonder if the big guy’s like a comedian on the bare stage, and after delivering his punchline is waiting in that moment of dead air for us to ‘get it’ and share a laugh…


  2. Sometimes I claim that Adams was a closet theist who was in on the joke — the joke being that he himself was part of the signature.

    To see why he was in on the joke, you need only realize that the date which forms the number 42 in binary (10/10/10) happens only once per millennium, and occurred less than 10 years after Adams’ death. He would’ve been 59 on 10/10/10, and was planning to announce that he was really a theist all along, on that date. Unfortunately, he died prematurely, but we know that we’ll see him in heaven, because the signature — 42 — is there in his books.

    (Just shows how easy it is to come up with crackpot theories about signs :-))

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