Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Evolution Definitions

Few issues generate as much discussion and posturing as evolution. The term is bandied about relentlessly by many members of the science profession. It is their philosophical underpinning. They are convinced that nothing in bioscience makes sense except in the light of evolution. Various definitions of "evolution" all connote the idea of change. The word's origin in the 17th century preceded the meaning it acquired in the mid-19th as a result of work by Charles Darwin. Today its most common usage refers to the theory that all creatures alive today trace their origins to earlier, different species. More formally, all living organisms descended from LUCA, a "last universal common ancestor" somewhere about 3.9 billion years ago. Darwin called this process "descent with modification." Darwinian evolution is also associated with the proposal of natural selection as cause of all the changes.

Modern biology is predicated on evolution as described above. Virtually all biology textbooks and most scholarly articles in the field of bioscience are permeated by the term, as if to fortify the concept by its mere mention. In 1973 evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky made a statement in an essay which has become gospel in the field of evolutionary biology. He said "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Naturalistic evolutionists see the process as totally unguided because they do not believe in the existence of God. In their view, atoms and molecules self-organized and produced the biodiversity we see today. On the other hand, theistic evolutionists believe God was the Creator of all things at the beginning and endowed matter with the ability to evolve into the many complex living creatures present today. Theistic evolutionists might say God originally "wound the watch," then stepped aside to let it run, knowing in advance what would happen. Neither naturalistic nor theistic evolution allows for the possibility of episodes of sudden, supernatural introductions of new life forms. The secular science community lives by the guideline that only natural explanations are ever allowed in science -- NO supernatural allowed -- not even discussion of that possibility. This principle is an unmovable cornerstone in their concept of science.

What's a Christian to do? May he pick and choose? Did God "wind the watch" of life and then step aside to listen to its ticking? Future posts will address these complex questions. Evidence, authority, philosophy, and worldview blend to factor into this question perhaps more than any hot-button issue discussed today.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rational Capacities

In the world of living things, man is distinct from all other animals because he bears the "image of God." Among other things, the image of God endows us with rational capacities not possessed by animals. Therefore, we intuitively ponder the meaning of order, organization, and design surrounding us -- a capacity not possessed by other living creatures. Consider this post in that light.....

When I go to Wal-Mart expressly for a package of picture hangers, I may not contemplate much beyond locating the item, paying for it, and leaving. But while searching in the supermarket with my grocery list, I may linger a few moments to consider the array of thousands of food items and our ability to easily satisfy nearly every whim of our culinary desire. I might further reflect on the store's organized scheme of display and access, muse over the efficient way hundreds of employees function in concert, marvel at the complexity of the delivery system for thousands of products, or even enthuse about the ease of checkout, inventory, and accounting resulting from barcode technology.

Do you share amazement at these every day "givens" of 21st century lifestyle? Compared with the design features and function of each of trillions of cells in our body, our visit to the superstore does not seem quite so amazing. When we study diagrams of the cell we discover a collection of dozens of intricate structures of surprising functional beauty. But when we understand cell chemistry and the spectrum of interactions taking place, we stand back, astonished. Bear with me as I alphabetically list some of the cell's activities. We'll make it a list of verbs: Our body cells absorb, communicate, detoxify, metabolize, recyle, regulate, repair, respire, secrete, sort, store, synthesize, and transport. One wonders how units so tiny are able to fill such giant roles.

The hierarchy of structural levels above the cell includes tissue (groups of similar cells), organs, (such as the stomach), organ systems (like the digestive system), and finally, the organism ( a human being). The cell is a unit far greater than the sum of its parts. The same can be said for all higher structural levels including, of course, the fully formed human being, made in the image of God.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cellular Master Craftsmen

Let's contemplate one more chemical wonder of the cell in the hope of converting some "ho-hums" to "wows" in the world of the very small. Imagine a master architect's blueprints for the world's most magnificent building -- complete, detailed specifications for thousands of exquisite, hand-worked ornamental features in addition to the building's basic structure and function. Such a blueprint from a master architect would be remarkable in itself, but of little use without master foremen and master builders to implement the plans.

The building's blueprint is like the cell's DNA containing all the organism's genetic information. DNA is able to replicate -- make a copy of itself -- but what else can it do? It synthesizes messenger RNA (mRNA) by a similar replicating process called transcription. mRNA then carries messages to the protein building machinery of the cell, much like the building foremen communicate information to the construction workers. Then, through a process called translation and the help of other types of RNA, proteins are put together, analagous to the activities of the master craftsmen on the construction team.

What are proteins? How are they put together? And what are they for? Proteins are various combinations of amino acids. There are only twenty amino acids used in protein building. If you think of each amino acid as a letter in a game like Scrabble, there are endless combinations of letters which could form an unlimited number of words if we had unlimited Scrabble tiles and no limit on how long the word could be. RNA directs the formation of tens of thousands of proteins in our bodies, each with a specific structure and function ranging from support, to storage, transport, communication, movement, and defense. Just as there are millions of words possible by combining and repeating some of our 26 alphabet letters in various ways, there are millions of proteins to be formed from just twenty amino acids.

Does anyone wonder why living things display such diversity, beauty, and functionality? RNA's "master craftsmen" know exactly what raw materials to use and what products to fabricate in the construction process. Wonderful as the information-rich system of DNA is, analagous to a computer's invisible memory capability, RNA is actually much more versatile, like a computer's communication capability together with the printer's ability to generate visible, recognizable pictures or meaningful literature in the final step of its process sequence. The computer system's final printed product gets the "oohs" and "aahs." When we contemplate the variety of human life and achievement, not to mention all categories of biological life surrounding us, we cannot help but renew our sense of wonder, perhaps with "oohs" and "aahs" and cheers for the Master Architect.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The DNA Code -- Whose Mind?

DNA, that huge molecule contained in every chromosome of every cell in our body, is a treasure store of coded information which contains intricately detailed instructions. Every known code is the product of a mind. Codes do not originate by themselves. Written languages, for example, are codes -- products of intelligent minds. Our DNA and the DNA of all living things contains nearly unimaginable quantities of ordered, coded information.

The DNA molecule, an elegant example of design, not only for its own design features, but also for the functionality it imparts to body systems, is a damaging refutation of those who scoff at the very concept of intelligent design anywhere in our universe. With the exception of identical twins, every person on earth has DNA unique to him or her. It is composed of chemically linked groups of atoms called nucleotides stacked in pairs like rungs on a ladder. The ladder is twisted into a double helix, or spiral. The nucleotides arrange themselves in groups of two, called base pairs. There are three billion base pairs in the DNA of one human cell. Think of these as letters of an alphabet. There are only four "letters," but their instructional sequence is crucial. The sequence tells other molecules what to do.

Information in the DNA molecule preserves every single detail of genetic inheritance, and contains a mechanism for passing on that information to one's children. In that tiny micro-speck of material is a catalog of instructions for building a complete human being distinct from six billion others. He is also distinct from any of the five million other species present on earth today. The wonder of life is that each of these five million species uses the same DNA template. Obviously, the base pair letters are in a different order! What mind devised the system plan? and what mind thought up the order of the base pairs?

Let's quote Eugene Peterson's The Message translation of Psalm 139:13-17. "Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother's womb. I thank you, High God -- you're breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration -- what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, the days of my life all prepared before I'd even lived one day. Your thoughts -- how rare, how beautiful! God, I'll never comprehend them!"

Friday, January 11, 2008

DNA -- Then, and Now

Now and then I check a biology textbook in order to find an answer to a question on some detail of life science. Many of my questions involve the majestic functions of the DNA molecule. When I was a student in high school biology in the early 1950s we were content to credit chromosomes and genes for transmission of traits of living things. That is true, but there were many more underlying secrets still waiting to be discovered. Among those secrets... the final word that DNA in those chromosomes and genes was really the fundamental genetic material. As late as the 1940s it was still not known whether to give that credit to DNA or to the many proteins in genes.

The question was answered in favor of DNA in 1952, followed by the discovery of its double helix molecular structure in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. In 1953, my friends and I were more interested in basketball than biology, so I must confess this discovery, immensely significant in the annals of science, went right past me. Many more discoveries of the genetic code contained in that double helix molecule were made in the 1960s. The total genetic information contained in the DNA molecule of any living organism is called its genome. The textbook referenced above, Campbell, Reece, and Mitchell's Biology, exults as follows about DNA: "If the entire library of genes stored within the microscopic nucleus of a single human cell were written in letters the size of those you are now reading, the information would fill more than a hundred books the size of this one." That is more information than contained in an encyclopedia!

In a future post we will discuss the significance of DNA being a literal code capable of transmitting complex information through symbols, similar to letters of the alphabet, which have meaning other than the meaning of the symbols themselves.

Believers in supernatural creation who express amazement at the myriad discoveries made by professional scientists, such as unlocking the secrets of the DNA molecule, are often mocked by naturalist scientists as having no rationality. The naturalists claim we are merely discovering more about how natural processes work -- nature being "all there is." Supernaturalists, on the other hand, see more and more convincing evidence that a Designer is responsible for the design, and that a code such as that in DNA is the product of a supernatural mind. This conclusion is entirely rational.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Let There Be Order!

The 50 year catalog of landmark scientific discoveries we discussed in our last post involved a range of distances from the limits of our universe (13.73 billion light years away) to the vanishingly small distances involved in quantum physics -- the "Planck length." Our catalog also mentioned discoveries which have occurred in length dimensions familiar to us in every day life: man's solar system journeys in satellites, the cells of our body, and the DNA in our cells. The greatest distances to far away objects at the limits of our universe are nearly incomprehensible, but so are the Planck length distances important to quantum physicists. The protons and neutrons of the atoms we came to know and love in high school chemistry, compared with the Planck lengths of quantum physics, are gigantic by comparison.

What do such new discoveries have to do with our belief in God? Do they weaken it? or do they strengthen it? Atheists and agnostics may feel more empowered and confident with their increasing knowledge of the material world, since they believe the material world is all that exists. But those who embrace belief in God may take comfort in the catalog of discoveries for a different reason. Why? Because our recently acquired knowledge, from macrocosm to microcosm, indicates our universe is a place of order, not chaos. The presence of order is highly significant in helping us formulate our belief system.

"Order implies information." This is a quote from chapter one of a high school biology texbook. That book proceeds to describe the magnificent order found in the biological world in its next 1000 pages. The quote could just as well have introduced subject matter in a cosmology or quantum physics textbook. The universe is a wonder-filled place of order every place we look. Wherever there is order there is information input. On a humorous, mundane level, if I look at my son's bedroom and find order there, it is obvious there was a significant input of information. If you will, instructions were followed! Without the information input from a mind and obedience to that information and its inherent instructions, chaos would reign, whether in a child's bedroom or in our universe. Order in our universe is the identifiable signature of the Creator.

Friday, January 4, 2008

An Incredible 50 Years

A catalog of startling discoveries and achievements of the past fifty years would read like an 1870 Jules Verne novel. Verne researched the geology and astronomy of his day to provide ideas for his imaginative tales. What stories could he produce today with access to the reality of discoveries since 1950? Let's mention a few. Men have launched satellites (space travel was one of Verne's literary ideas), traveled to the moon several times, and returned to earth. Plate tectonics discoveries have proven the continents have been moving apart for eons and continue moving apart today. Earth's paleoclimate history has been read from deep sea sediments. Particle physics research enabled by huge accelerators shows the existence of a new family of particles of which protons and neutrons are composed, as well as many other exotic particles, causing us to revise our concepts of matter. Development of computers and applied technology have been life changing.

Advances in cosmology range from confirmation of the Big Bang to the quantification of visible matter, dark matter, and dark energy in our universe. In 1998 we were startled to discover the expansion of our universe is accelerating. In the biological realm, we now know far more about the incredible abundance of information contained in a single cell, owing to the DNA molecule and unlocking of the genetic code within it.

Many non-scientist Christians, upon observing some of these wonders, give credit to God as the source. Naturalist scientists are quick to criticize such proclamations as "God-of-the-gaps" explanations which credit God for things we don't understand rather than searching for causes which accord with the "rules of nature." This is a foolish criticism. Christians do not oppose efforts to discover as much as possible how every day, natural processes work.

Naturalists and theists have two entirely different interpretations of the mind-bending discoveries of the past fifty years. Naturalists do not see the Creator in any of these thrilling discoveries. They think we will eventually find a natural explanation for every phenomenon -- no God needed. The theist, on the other hand, contemplates the Cause and sees the Designer behind the design. He is entirely willing to ascribe natural and material causes for events, but still finds existence of the supernatural rational and reasonable.