Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Designed Structure

When a child receives a new toy, before asking “How does it work?” he may pause to admire its structure and other physical features. Likewise, before considering the function of the cells in our body--that is, what cells accomplish in their role as the fundamental units of life--we may pause to consider some of their basic structural characteristics.

The most well-known structure within the cell boundary (the plasma membrane) is the nucleus. Inside the nucleus, all the cell’s DNA molecules are packaged in fibers called chromatin which are wound together to improve packing efficiency. Chromatin fibers then loop repeatedly and are attached to a protein scaffold, which loops even further. Finally this compact structure forms chromosomes. The human has 46 chromosomes in each human body cell. They become visible through a microscope during cell division.

The nucleus also contains one or more structures called nucleoli. These produce particles called ribosomes which are exported to the cytoplasm outside the nucleus. Suspended within the semi-fluid medium outside the nucleus are many different organelles, tiny bodies with specialized functions. An intricate network of tiny tubes and sacs provides pathways for orderly transport. A few of the organelles are mitochondria, lysosomes, and the golgi apparatus. Of course, this brief description of cell structure is inadequate to convey its complex and wonderful beauty.

This discussion is not meant to prepare you for an exam on cell structure. It may, however, trigger a greater measure of appreciation for the structures manifest in nature, an important goal science educators share in addition to their lofty goal of imparting science literacy. More specifically, the many structures of the human body and, indeed, all living things, are evidence of design activity triggering our thoughtful contemplation: Who designed the structures? How did they come to be?

Curiosity about the natural world is often innate, especially among children. Natural enthusiasm sometimes wanes as the concerns and interests of teenagers and adults shift focus. Pastors and religious educators, however, could become more effective in presenting the wonders of structure and apparent design in our environment. Their goal should be not only to stimulate appreciation of structure for its own sake, but also to foster appreciation of the Designer.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Intelligent Agency

It is surprising that the concept of intelligent agency in bio-systems or in the cosmos at large is rejected so vehemently by many science professionals. There is no disagreement from that community that the many physical systems we encounter in everyday life fall generally into one of several categories. They may clearly manifest intelligent input and causation, or there is uncertainty, or there is no evidence of intelligent input and causation. Uncertainty provides the occasion for careful, further investigation. Sometimes the intelligent input is obviously highly complex and organized. At other times the intelligent input is less obvious and shows a lower level of organization. Identifying intelligent agency in system organization, however, is usually not a difficult task.

Using human body cells as an example, the structure and function of our many trillions of body cells is becoming better known with each passing year. A study of any contemporary high school or college biology textbook would make a 1950 edition seem primitive by comparison. The makeup of thousands of molecules and the exquisitely functional structures they form within the cell stretch the imagination. Here we speak only on the level of the cell, not the organization of tissues, organs, organ systems, or the complete organism. In Darwin’s day such information would have read like science fiction with the author’s creative talents gone wild.

At a more mundane level, when we inspect our children’s bedroom and closet, our home’s kitchen, or even our local school district’s 10th grade biology classroom, we easily detect the operation of an intelligent agent. At times we may be more impacted by the absence of intelligent input than by its presence. In our everyday life experience, identification of organization as an outcome of an intelligent mind at work is a fairly simple matter.

It is difficult to separate a cell’s structure from its function. The relationship of structure and function is a basic theme of biology, but is not always clearly evident when we examine the cell’s structure. But we wonder how the cell’s design is related to function: What functions are enabled by the cell’s design features?

The cell is a paragon of efficient packing and storage. It is complex and intricately organized. Seen visually through various types of microscopes, we may even pronounce it aesthetically beautiful. For a mundane example, we may inspect a suspension bridge spanning a river. We admire its structure without immediately considering its function in facilitating transportation. Likewise, we could examine the cell and admire its structure as a prelude to understanding how it functions.

Even without considering the function of cells to build, benefit and sustain the organism, it is not intuitively difficult to perceive intelligent agency in their origin. We define intelligent agency in this blog as the creative actions of the God of the Bible.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Problem Solving Cells

Garden hoses have an innate tendency to weave themselves into bewildering, inextricable tangles. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of Murphy’s law. Our body cells solve far more intricate problems than are posed by the most complex garden hose project imaginable. Living cells possess coded information and have the ability to issue instructions, synthesize countless new products, and regulate numerous activities. The cell’s activities have the unmistakable signature of a mind in its design and function.

What problems, we may ask, does the tiny cell solve? For starters, consider that in each body cell the DNA double helix molecules, tightly packed in loops and folds inside the cell’s nucleus, would be six feet long if stretched out. DNA molecules are composed of two delicately twisted ribbons of sugar-phosphate backbones. Between these backbones, billions of chemical “base pairs” are positioned like rungs on a ladder. Molecular biologists call these base pairs “CG” and “AT,” shorthand for their chemical composition.

The base-paired spiral, if stretched out, could be visualized as a single strand of material, like a string. But the strand does not remain straight like a garden hose leading to a distant corner of our lawn. Imagine that we wrapped our hose two or three times around a thick spindle every few feet. The analogy to DNA is strong. At frequent intervals the DNA strand is wound around eight-molecule protein packages. These structures are then called nucleosomes. Another analogy is winding yarn on a spool. Some writers report the product of this periodic winding of the strand around the protein packages appears similar to “beads on a string.”

Most remarkable, the DNA strands must be unraveled and reassembled many times during the process of DNA replication, RNA synthesis, and other cell activities. One article reported “No one knows exactly how cells solve this topological nightmare.” That secret, however, abides with the cell’s Master Designer. It appears the cell solves the problem of keeping its DNA in order far more effectively than most people deal with tangles in garden hoses and balls of yarn.

My brief review does not do justice to the grandeur of the process. The layperson is not obligated to know all the intricate details, but rare is the person who cannot express wonder and amazement over the cell and intuitively recognize that its design and achievement is the product of an intelligent mind.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Cell -- Small Wonder

Searching through dusty picture albums of my early childhood, I find snapshots of my toddler years do not resemble those taken at my wedding. They bear even less resemblance to my appearance today. Likewise, my high school and college biology textbooks would not compare well with the texts in use today. Molecular biology was in its infancy during the Dwight Eisenhower administration. Today it has achieved adulthood.

Knowledge of what occurs inside the cell has multiplied exponentially in the past six decades. One of my primary basic resources is the ever-popular Biology by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece. In its 1231 pages of text, my sense of wonder and worship is heightened as I study it and contemplate the secrets of life our Creator has enabled man to discover. At mid-20th century, biologists basically knew what occurs inside the cell, but not very much about how things occur. They did not know the structure of DNA, how it functions as a code, how the information in the code translates to an instructional system, and finally, how many thousands of proteins needed to build the body are actually synthesized.

To illustrate, when we were young, we recognized the splendor of Grandmother’s completed Thanksgiving dinner. Years later when we became adults, however, we became fully aware of the many intricate steps necessary in procuring, preparing, processing, and presenting such a magnificent feast.

In the last sixty years we have discovered the structure of the cell’s molecular genetic material. We now know how its information storage and transfer mechanisms work and how the synthesis of thousands of new proteins needed for life actually occurs. The essentials of this knowledge were in place fairly early after the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure and composition. Noted biologist Sydney Brenner (b. 1927) stated in 1963 that nearly all of molecular biology’s classic problems had been solved or soon would be. One could compare solving these classic problems to ascending a steep slope on our way to achieving our goal of reaching a broad plateau. The ascent may be slow and difficult, but it makes possible exploration of the potential of the broad plateau. For example, we have now sequenced the complete human genome, making possible treatment of some diseases. And we have the potential ability to create artificial, non-natural microbes for possible production of new fuel sources. The possibilities are almost limitless.

Scripture (Daniel 12:4) refers to an increase in human knowledge during the end times. Proliferation of knowledge has never been harmful when achieved with the help of God’s wisdom and for God’s purposes. Increased knowledge of cell function, cosmology, particle physics, earth sciences, and digital technology are God-enabled gifts to man. We are able to see and understand the works of God in ways impossible a few generations ago. Knowledge of our intelligently designed universe and its life forms enables man to make a more intelligent choice in accepting the reality of the work of the Creator, or even choosing willfully to deny it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Beyond Theory

When a repair or service technician comes to my home, I have the habit of lingering nearby to ask questions. Of course, I ask permission for the privilege. The knowledge I acquire is theoretical, not practical, rather like the knowledge of an enthusiastic baseball fan who never really played the game.

Simple understanding that every physical trait of the millions of species present on earth is stored in information contained in the DNA molecule may be regarded as true, but theoretical knowledge. Knowing information contained in DNA is present and transmitted in four-digit code form is also theoretical, but we may begin to feel more pride in our knowledge. Discovering that codes are always the product of an intelligent mind enhances our sense of pride and wonder even further. But our sense of cognition may be diminished as we realize we do not really know the first thing about how the system works. We only know the systems works, and that it works marvelously.

Probing the world of operating living systems serves to increase our intuitive sense that living things are intelligently designed. For the believer familiar with Christian theology, it is not difficult to conclude that the designer is the God of the Bible. Even the most basic knowledge of the functionality of living things and the transmission of genetic traits from one generation to another serves to trigger our exclamation that these events do not “just happen.”

Many scientists married to the naturalistic worldview, however, have no problem dismissing God from the picture. They loudly proclaim the irrationality of such a belief. This proclamation flies in the face of abundant evidence for design. The design indicators mentioned in this post do not consist of detailed, ironclad proof for the truth of intelligent design. There is no “proof level” verification for intelligent design in the scientific sense, but inferential evidence is beyond plentiful.

Questions I pose to my service or repair technician as he labors over our water heater or air conditioner help me grasp the sequence of events in a properly functioning system. For the most part I do not understand the precise workings of the unit he repaired or installed. In the world of living things we may know that DNA transmits the coded information necessary for proper system function, but it is in discovering more profound details about how the code operates and how its instructions are carried out that our deeper senses of awe and wonder fully engage. As a result, we may plan better instructional strategies using science as an apologetic tool in the church to help us think more deeply about the reality of God.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Science Literacy

Literacy is a term with rich and diverse meaning. Without a qualifying adjective, it simply means the ability to read and write. Reading and writing ability suggest comprehension of what is read and the ability to express one’s thoughts in written form. The term scientific literacy is used in a broader and more specific sense. A partial list includes overcoming fear, understanding concepts, discovering answers, making decisions, and ability to evaluate scientific issues. Science literacy is a more elusive goal than commonly thought. Science appreciation may be a more realistic goal, both for school students and for our fellow Christians.

The Christian’s attitude toward science and the Christian’s worldview are integrally related. Consider this functional definition: Worldview relates to how we make sense of God, reality, the world, knowledge, ethics, history, human nature, human destiny, the problem of evil, logic, consciousness, music, mathematics, and science. Therefore, our personal attitude toward science has an important connection with the vision of our place in the world. Sadly, I must report that the attitude toward science of many people within our churches does not strengthen their Christian worldview.

If we establish that a healthy perception of science helps create a healthy Christian worldview, where do we go from there? Do we work hard to try to improve the scientific literacy of our church members? I submit that such a goal is unrealistic and unreachable for the most part. In 1995 an interesting book was published by physicist/science educator Morris Shamos (1917-2002). He claimed, in The Myth of Scientific Literacy, that the vast majority of students emerge from science classes with neither an intellectual grasp nor a pragmatic appreciation of science. Shamos’s curriculum goals would emphasize science appreciation rather than science literacy. This may be analogous to encouraging students in the joy of playing basketball rather than teaching them the physics of trajectory, laws of motion, and the history of the game.

Many college transcripts contain records of a few courses such as “Art History and Appreciation” or “Understanding Musical Styles.” Immersing a beginning student in full scope study of art techniques or a thorough scrutiny of music theory would be a “turn off.” For decades I have heard calls from alarmed and well-meaning government officials intent on increasing the science literacy of our students. These campaigns never achieved the hoped-for results. Science literacy is a complex and difficult objective. On the other hand, fostering appreciation of science is far more productive and enjoyable for students. Science literacy may follow as a more natural outcome.

Science is an effective apologetic instrument to demonstrate the reality of the work of the Creator in lovingly establishing nature’s laws, the design of the cosmos, and the functioning of living things. We may draw another analogy to the instruction our pastors provide. They do not visualize future seminarians sitting in every pew. But they are fulfilled as their parishioners acquire a clear vision of God and His resources operating effectively in their lives.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Liking and Disliking Science

When discussions about my involvement with science arise, I am sometimes greeted with sentiments such as “I like science!” I am pleased when someone tells me he or she “likes science” and disappointed when the opposite sentiment is vocalized. It is apparent that many factors contribute to human likes and dislikes, whether we are talking about a leisure activity, preferences in friendships, church worship styles, or even a broad, inclusive topic like science.

Attitudes toward science among our fellow believers are not always positive. Sometimes they are even resistant, verging on the negative. Our dislikes relate to what we fear. We often fear what we do not understand. Science is an extremely broad-based and multifaceted field of knowledge. Therefore, many fear science simply because the quantity of knowledge seems overwhelming, among many other reasons. But there are important theological truths to be achieved from gaining knowledge of characteristics of the creation which originated in the mind of God. Scripture encourages this study.

Job 12:8-9 states “…or speak to the earth and it will teach you…” This phrase occurs in the context of animals, birds, and fish referenced in the surrounding verses. We may infer that the characteristics and laws of the natural world provide us with valuable lessons for living. The animals receive their wisdom from God, and the attributes of the earth itself reflect the orderly planning of the Creator.

“Speak to the earth and it will teach you” implies that our study of how the world operates informs us of operating principles in both the physical and spiritual realms. Scripture contains abundant references to events in the heavens, the world of weather, and the behavior of animals and plants. Many passages suggest scientific discoveries confirmed in our day, centuries after they were written. For example, the creation narrative speaks of the beginning of time, space, matter, and energy in a transcendent creation event initiated by God. Romans 8:22 could refer to the cosmos’s present governance by the law of entropy: “…creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.” The many Old Testament references to the stretching out of the heavens describe our expanding universe. The methods of scientific inquiry and methodology which have flourished in the past 400 years of the scientific revolution were actually birthed in precepts outlined in scripture. The success of these methods has provided man with rich spiritual lessons.

Such topics may strike those who fear science as threatening and inaccessible. Perhaps school science instruction was approached in an overly pedantic fashion, without joy, enthusiasm, or humor. Now and then truly spectacular science demonstrations could help, such as the Sermons from Science programs at past World’s Fair pavilions or the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. But these hyper-fascinating demonstrations are not what most science educators hope their students embrace as “Science.” Instead, they wish their students could acquire a vision of science as a broader, more inclusive knowledge and understanding of the wonder of everyday life experiences.

This issue is not as simple as liking or disliking science. Over the centuries, the attitude of the Christian church with respect to science as a support structure for theological truths has varied considerably. One thing seems certain, however. There is a harmony between the world of science and the world of theology. God is the author of truth in both spheres