As you’ve probably noticed, this is the science wing of my house. We’ve just walked through the Anthropology and Cosmology rooms, and now we come to my Biology room. I should mention again that there’s not always a clear division between these rooms of science and some of my other rooms, especially when the science is dealing with matters of history or matters of “origins.” (It’s very difficult to run repeated experiments on the origin of the universe!) I’m not saying that science can’t or shouldn’t deal with history or with origins, but I think we should recognize that there are different types of science. “Normal” science, let’s call it, involves repeatable experiments on realities that are easily accessed by empirical means. But this isn’t possible for historical sciences or sciences that try to explain one-time events.
Furthermore, all sciences still use some philosophical assumptions. Every science presumes that nature is real; that nature is orderly and rational; and that our physical senses are sufficiently reliable (and hopefully the instruments we use) to give us knowledge of the world. But science, as science, cannot justify these assumptions or explain why they are true. It uses them, but it can’t give a scientific explanation for them; they are philosophical assumptions. Personally, I think they are perfectly reasonable assumptions. Yet I would add—as I mentioned earlier in the Philosophy room—that these philosophical assumptions that are necessary for science are conceptually justified by a God who created nature to be orderly and understandable.
I’m sorry for that diversion about science in general. You are probably interested in knowing more about this Biology room, since I’ve noticed you looking at the microscopes, beakers, flasks, and Bunsen burners. I also have a good centrifuge, but I keep it out of sight during home tours and when the grandkids are around.
Of course, biology is the study of life, and there’s a lot of that to study. On the West side of this room, I have a major exhibit about Darwin. It displays his own ideas and how they were later revised to include what we now know about genetics. There’s no question that Darwin’s notion of natural selection offers a powerful explanation for much of the diversity of life. But there’s still a lot of debate about whether the unguided and non-intelligent processes of nature and genetic accidents can adequately account for the existence of all kinds of life. In fact, a number of well-credentialed scientists and other intellectuals started a new movement back in the 1980s that we now call the Intelligent Design movement. It includes Christian believers, general theists (who accept some kind of God), Jews, and agnostics. Basically, the movement questions whether purely natural processes can sufficiently explain things like the origin of the cosmos and the origin of life. Instead, it proposes that some kind of intelligence is necessary. The approach of the ID movement is still not widely accepted as a “scientific” method, but there are many reasons for that. The ID movement is worth finding out more about. If you come back, I’ll be willing to give a special tour about that. (If you can’t wait, I’d recommend looking at the Center for Science and Culture website when you have a chance.)
Given the time we have today, I want to focus on the origin of life. While Darwin and the debates about Darwin are important, his idea of natural selection is only relevant after some form of life already exists. Darwin did not explain the origin of life and admittedly didn’t even try. The bigger and more significant question is this: How did life originate in the first place?
I suppose some of you think about this the way Darwin did: It happened “somehow,” and it probably wasn’t a terribly difficult thing. The very earliest form of life had to be pretty simple, right?
As it turns out, what we now know is that the “simplest” form of life we are aware of is anything but “simple.” It is amazingly complex, requiring multiple components that depend on the functioning existence of one another. Of course, Darwinists still contend that this all happened “somehow” in a purely naturalistic way with no intelligence involved. But the difficulties with this view are much bigger than most of them will admit.
Nonetheless, the bookshelves on the South wall have a number of books that expose many of these problems. For example, one book, published back in 1985 by an agnostic named Michael Denton, is titled Evolution: A Theory in Crisis: New Developments in Science are Challenging Orthodox Darwinism. The title represents the views of a growing number of others.
Perhaps the main problem in biology is the origin of the information within the DNA molecule that exists in every cell of every living thing. It was not until 1953 that the structure of DNA was discovered, and we have learned much about its incredible capacity to store information. In fact, some relatively recent work at Harvard was able to store 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA! That’s the equivalent of 14,000 50-gigabyte Blu-ray discs! In terms of computer hard disks, you would need 233 3-terabyte hard drives to store that much information. But maybe you need it broken down even more. If you have a 500 gigabyte hard drive on your computer or laptop—which is a decent size hard drive—you would need 1,398 of those hard drives to hold the data that was successfully stored in that one gram of DNA! (After our tour, you can find an article about that Harvard research HERE.)
What I have been describing illustrates the potential of DNA to store information. But it actually stores spectacular amounts of information within every living cell. So what does DNA do? Basically, the information in DNA gives the instructions for assembling amino acids into proteins, which in turn are used to build functional parts of living organisms. The human DNA in each cell, if it were stretched out, would be about 6 feet long! Multiply that number by the approximate 100 trillion cells in a human adult, and you end up with the mind-blowing outcome that the average human adult has a combined DNA that would reach 113 billion miles! That would mean that the cumulative length of an adult human DNA would go to the sun and back about 607 times ! I’m sorry for raising my voice (with all of these exclamation marks), but this is truly phenomenal.
Each double-helix DNA molecule consists of a very long sequence of a four-letter alphabet. It looks like a circular staircase with rails on each side. These rails are joined by some “steps” that consist of two halves—one from one rail and one from the opposing rail. (If you press the button in this display case, you can see a picture that might help you understand it better.) After the double-helix molecule splits apart, its “messenger” half is transferred to another location where it gives the instructions for 20 different amino acids to get in the right order so they can fold up properly and become a specific protein. But it’s not just a matter of getting 20 things to line up correctly. These 20 different types of amino acids must be used repeatedly and in various spots to create much longer sequences that carry the information in a language of sorts.
The necessary length of amino acids for proteins ranges from about 40 for the “simplest” proteins to about 27,000. (A very curious complication is that these amino acids come in “left-handed” and “right-handed” forms. While the numbers of both forms are created in about equal quantities in nature, DNA only uses the “left-handed” forms.) Sequencing the amino acids is a very small part of the complex process. Once the amino acids are sequenced properly to produce ONE protein, many proteins must be combined and arranged in just the right way to create a functioning organism. In the case of E. coli, which in some forms creates bad infectious outbreaks that we hear about in the news, requires about 4,300 proteins.
As you might sense, this is a very complicated process! But to summarize it in its simplest terms, (a) complex and specific instructions are supplied by the DNA (b) to get long chains of 20 amino acids to get in the right order or sequence (c) so they can become one distinct protein, (d) which must then somehow be assembled with many other proteins (d) to produce even the simplest form of life.
All of this complexity is somehow driven by information—information in the DNA. The gigantic question is this? Where did this information come from? What is its origin? Without God, or at least without some “cosmic intelligence,” the only possibility is that purely naturalistic and unguided processes of dead, non-living matter somehow produced the necessary level of information. It’s at this point that I would definitely concur with the title of a book published in 2004: I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek.
This consideration of biology points me to God—not to fill some gap left by our current scientific ignorance or limitation—but because nothing that we do know lends any credence to the speculation that such levels of information can be generated by purely naturalistic processes.
It’s no wonder that the atheist/agnostic astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, as well as the Nobel prize-winning co-discoverer of the DNA molecular structure, Francis Crick, proposed a “panspermia” hypothesis: life did not originate on earth; it came from space—maybe from space aliens or perhaps from “seeds” of life hitching a ride on a meteorite. Hoyle calculated that the random chance of life spontaneously starting on earth was about 1 in 10 to the 40,000th power. For Hoyle, someone who did not believe in God, the odds were way too small for life to have originated on our planet. (The number Hoyle came up with is certainly incredible, especially when we hear that the total number of atoms in the entire visible universe is estimated to be about 10 to the 80th power. And by the way, Hoyle is the one who coined the term “Big Bang” and who strongly rejected the Big Bang idea, claiming that it was too close to the concept of creation.)
The origin of life is indeed a major mystery! In spite of optimistic claims that it somehow happened without God or without any intelligence, my faith in a creator God is greatly bolstered by what I find in this room.
(If you want to read more about the wonders of the cell and about the history and status of origin of life studies, I’d recommend looking at a book by Stephen Meyer called Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligence Design [HarperOne, 2009]. You’ll find it on the bookshelf near the doorway as we leave this room. Meyer has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in the history and philosophy of science. I think you’ll find his publications and presentations very intriguing.)