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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

The Witness of Creation--Part 2, Evidence from the living world

  • Regis Nicoll
    Regis Nicoll's weblog
  • 2008 Apr 11
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“For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

Life is the most awe-inspiring feature of the universe. Living things have the unique abilities to metabolize, grow, reproduce, respond, and adapt to their environment. Discovering how the universe “went live” is the grail of origin-of-life studies.

Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin put forward a theory of life involving innumerable, small changes accumulated over geologic periods of time. Through the holy trinity of random variation, adaptation, and natural selection, the tree of life sprouted and grew with ever-increasing diversity and complexity. Today’s life forms are the fruits of branches that won out over their neighboring limbs in the fierce competition for sun and sap.

While Darwin explained the survival of species, what many people don’t realize is that he never explained the arrival of species. His theory assumed the existence of a common ancestor from which all living organisms descended. Darwin wrote his celebrated On the Origin of Species at a time when the biological cell was thought to have the complexity of grandma’s homemade jelly. But that notion would soon change.

Over the next century, advances in electron microscopy and x-ray diffraction revealed a structure beyond anything Darwin could have imagined.

As it turned out “grandma’s jelly” is packed with data storage media, information processors, molecular machines, transcription devices, and error correction systems. Inside a bubble of microscopic dimensions a genetic code directs the assembly and repair of cellular components.

Even more amazing, each cell is encoded with addresses, routing directions, and instructions for assembling into one of 200 cells types.

In essence, the living cell is a tiny, self-sustaining biological factory.

Imagine discovering an unmanned space station that 1) manufacturers the equipment it needs to probe deep space, 2) monitors damage done to it by asteroids, 3) repairs the damage, 4) constructs its own spare parts, 4) makes copies of itself and 5) directs those copies in an intergalactic network to optimize exploration.  Would any straight-thinking person reason it to be the product of an unguided, haphazard process? Hardly.

And yet the engineering of the biological cell is equally astonishing—down to its most fundamental component, DNA.

DNA is the famous double-helix structure that contains the instructions for life.  Functioning like the hard disk on your computer, DNA stores the software that controls the construction and maintenance of biological systems.

Cell instructions are written using a chemical “alphabet” of four base molecules—adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T)—segmented according to functional units called genes. The complete code consists of hundreds to tens of thousands of genes that, in turn, consist of thousands to hundreds of thousands of letters. Even the smallest organism requires nearly one million molecules to “spell out” all of the necessary instructions. 

Each molecule attaches to the strand in identical fashion; which means that the DNA sequence, like letters in a sentence, is not determined by its chemistry.

As Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is not reducible to the chemical reactions between ink and paper, neither is the “complex specified information” (CSI) of DNA a product of chemical laws. That leaves two options: blind chance or design.

Consider the simplest life form, a bacterium—the odds of its million-molecule-long instruction coming about by trial-and-error is about one in 10600,000. If written in standard notation, that’s a number big enough to fill 300 pages in a book!

Those are crumby odds, to be sure, but in a 15-billion-year-old universe that should be doable, right? Wrong. As I have shown elsewhere, even considering the age and expanse of our universe, there hasn’t been nearly enough time or space to allow for the formation of the smallest gene, much less the smallest genome.

So if CSI is inexplicable by natural laws or chance, it must be a product of design. In fact, the evidence for design is so overwhelming that atheist and DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick warned: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” Reminds me of another warning I’ve read about people who are “ever seeing but never perceiving” (Acts 28:26).

From genes to organisms, life also exhibits “irreducible complexity” (IC). A system is irreducibly complex if it has multiple interacting components which are essential for the system to function. 

At the genetic level, DNA depends on amino acids and proteins which, themselves, are manufactured by DNA. At the cellular level, cell survival depends on a membrane, DNA, RNA, and assorted cellular machinery. At its most fundamental level, life exhibits an interdependency that cannot be explained by gradualism.

Moving up to organs—the eye, blood clotting and the bacterium flagellum are examples of IC. Each depends on a host of integrated parts which, if any is missing, render the system non-functional.

For instance, the flagellum is a motorized propulsion system made up of 40 different proteins enabling a bacterium to navigate in its aquatic environment. Its onboard components include a stator, rotor, bushings, U-joint, and a propeller that can turn over 1000 rpm and reverse directions in one-quarter revolution. The flagellum is, as Harvard biologist Howard Berg describes it, “the most efficient machine in the universe.” Let that sink in for a moment.

For the Darwinian faithful, the flagellum is a big problem. Any organism whose fitness depends on 40 integrated, co-existent parts, spells trouble for gradualism. However, after years scrambling to keep this pillar of faith from crumbling, evolutionary scientists made a discovery.

They found that the needle-like structure of salmonella used to infect healthy cells was made up of seven proteins identical to those in the flagellum. The similarity was taken as “strong evidence that the two systems evolved from a common ancestor,” and that a partial flagellum could have had a viable function during its evolutionary development.

Come to think of it, my mountain bike shares many similarities with my Ford Escape: both have wheels, brakes, gears, and are made of a metal frame. Yet, who would dare suggest that given enough time, the creative effects of quantum “fizz,” cosmic rays, and wind erosion could morph my bike into an SUV? No reasonable person would imagine such a thing—despite the fact that an SUV comes nowhere close to being “the most efficient machine in the universe.”

Living organisms also depend on numerous functional systems—each, irreducibly complex—for survival. Because of “combined specified complexity” (CSC), a dog can live to a ripe old age without its tail, but it won’t survive a moment without a central nervous system, heart, lungs, or brain.

According to Darwin, land creatures began their evolutionary journey in the sea. To survive in water, they needed gills, but to move to land they needed lungs. A fish with lungs would drown, but a mammal with gills would suffocate. And that’s only one of over 50,000 morphological changes needed for the transition. 

Because of the glacial pace of evolution, Darwin’s theory is difficult-to-impossible to verify. In fact, the only changes that have ever been observed are small-scale variations due to genetic inheritance and adaptation; otherwise known as micro-evolution. But one place where large-scale changes (macro-evolution) should be demonstrable is in the microbiology lab. There researchers have access to billions of organisms whose rapid replication allows follow-up for many thousands of generations. One such organism is Plasmodium Falciparum, the single-celled parasite responsible for malaria.

For several decades, researchers have studied Plasmodium Falciparum, applying various environmental pressures to see how it responds. Yet after trillions upon trillions of replications—many more than occurred in the evolution of fish to mammals—the bacterium never evolved into a multi-celled organism. It remained what it had always been: a single-celled parasite which, in some cases, developed a resistance to anti-biotic drugs.

Similar results have been obtained with other microbes and drosophila. While none of these studies disprove Darwinism, they are strongly contraindicative of its macro-evolutionary claims.

Richard Dawkins once wrote, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Maybe that’s because, to the unbiased seeker of truth, they have been designed for a purpose. Indeed, even Francis Crick was forced to admit,

“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be a miracle.”

That was 27 years ago, and all the knowledge we have accumulated hence, has only made those “appearances” look all the more actual.