Monday, June 22, 2009

The Stuff of Life

Readers old enough to have studied biology before 1960 now realize that the course emphasis has changed. We recall a term for the “living substance” of the cell: protoplasm. The concept originated in the 19th century. Compared with the knowledge of cells available today, 1950s knowledge could be considered the dark ages of biology.

Back then, high school and college biology courses were mainly studies in anatomy and basic physiology. But beginning about 1960, life science was highlighted differently. The catch-all term protoplasm has become the dinosaur of studies in biology. In 1868, T. H. Huxley described protoplasm as “the physical basis of life,” a basic homogenous stuff made of protein. The 20th century brought discovery of enzyme catalysis and more knowledge of complexity, but the deepest knowledge of cell function has occurred in the last sixty years. Fazale Rana, in The Cell’s Design, states, “The ever increasing understanding of the cell’s chemistry has revolutionized our daily lives. Biochemistry drives many of the technological advances in biomedicine, agriculture, and even industry.”

The quantum leap in knowledge of molecular genetics in the same time frame--discovery of DNA as the material of information storage and heredity, and RNA as processing director--greatly strengthened recognition of the appearance of design. To illustrate this knowledge leap, consider the fact that most children, about half-way through their first decade of life, learn how to operate a bicycle. The skill seems to arrive suddenly and intuitively. Years later he may learn about the physics of energy, forces, motion, friction, and mechanical advantage. His knowledge expands exponentially. The joy of learning the operational skill is marvelously enriched by discovery of the underlying physical laws which make bike riding possible. Likewise, our knowledge of the complex coding system of DNA in just one cell’s nucleus helps us appreciate “the physical basis of life,” Huxley’s dimly visualized dream.

Recently our local pregnancy center sponsored a “Walk for the Unborn.” The goal of such ministries is not solely to counsel and promote respect for life, important as that is. The larger aim for these events is the awareness of the real tragedy of abortion, the destruction of embryos and fetuses possessing FULL personhood. The foundational concepts promoted by such ministries are far more profound in light of our knowledge gains in the last six decades. We must cite once more the majestic passage in Psalm 139 by King David. Is this passage poetic, or presciently scientific? In the light of our expanding knowledge base, it is both.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made: your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” Psalm 139:13-16 (NIV).