Friday, April 27, 2007


Richard Dawkins writes in 'River Out of Eden', his popular book on evolution, "The machine code of the genes is uncannily computer like. Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal. Among many other consequences, this digital revolution at the very core of life has dealt the final, killing blow to vitalism-the belief that living material is deeply distinct from nonliving material. Up until 1953 (the unraveling of the structure of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick) it was still possible to believe that there was something fundamentally and irreducibly mysterious in living protoplasm. No longer."

Does the fact that genetic code resembles computer code lead one to think that living beings are less mysterious, or more so? The accepted wisdom is that DNA sends instructions to the cells using genetic code, which consists of four nucleotide 'letters' arranged in myriad sequences. Computers use a binary code, just two letters, high frequency or low frequency, 1 or 0. Computers work basically like this: A person, a conscious, intelligent being, types a message into a computer, an elaborate machine invented and constructed by conscious, intelligent beings, which translates the message from a language (spoken code) to computer code, which then travels to another machine, created and constructed by conscious, intelligent beings, which translates the code back to the original language at which point it is received and understood by yet another conscious, intelligent being.

If there were two computers that grew from two microscopic pieces of plastic or wire, without any assistance by any human intelligence, one of which started sending, by itself, millions of coded messages to the other, in a code which they invented themselves, and the other, upon receiving these messages began building impossibly complex new machines, and they both, in their spare time, were replicating themselves, then, that would still be a very pale, very inept imitation of a human being. Are we back to being fundamentally and irreducibly mysterious yet, or have Watson and Crick figured out the whole thing?

Supposedly DNA uses genetic code to send instructions to the cell. But DNA is the code. Does that mean that the code is sending its own instructions? That would be the equivalent of the high frequency and the low frequency of binary code, getting together to decide how to arrange themselves to create software. What part of the DNA is formulating these exquisitely complicated coded instructions? Is it the nucleic acids, the protein molecules, the sugars? What sense does it make to imagine that the code itself is formulating messages? Do letters, by themselves, form into novels? Do numbers, by themselves, form into equations? Codes are created by intelligence to communicate intelligent purposeful ideas to other intelligence. The way modern science thinks of it, lifeless submicroscopic bits of nucleic acid (genes) by sheer accident formed themselves into codes which communicated messages that were read and executed by other lifeless pieces of acids and proteins out of which, accidentally, came replication, the will to survive, birth, growth, death, digestion, elimination, metabolism, ambition, love and consciousness. And if you dare to challenge any of these ridiculous materialist assumptions, you are either an out of date religious fundamentalist who refuses to acknowledge the 'findings' of modern science, or you are some sort of a 'weirdo' who has a problem accepting 'reality' as, of course, only they can define it.

The physical plane is not the causal plane even when it is viewed through a microscope. We accept the structure (too small to see) of long, long chains of genetic code stretching along the twisting ladder of the DNA molecule. If you took all the genes from every cell of one human body and arranged them in one impossibly thin string, they would stretch from here to the sun (yes, not the moon, the sun) and back. What are they? Scientists tell us they are instructions. The genes, consisting of four nucleotides, make up a four letter language that give myriad instructions to the cell. The information in these instructions is so detailed and complex that the amount of genetic information in a single bacteria exceeds the total amount of information in the greatest libraries in the world. When a cell needs a certain enzyme it locates the particular piece of code it needs from the nucleus of the cell, copies it and brings it to the ribosome which reads the code and manufactures the enzyme. This is seen. This is known. But what is unseen? How does the cell know what enzyme it needs and how to locate that precise piece of code among the over three billion genes in each cell? Who or what knows the exquisitely precise sequence of protein and enzyme manufacture involved in the development of a human body from a fertilized ovum? How does the ribosome 'read' the code and then manufacture the enzyme? Yes, dedicated cellular biologists have studied these mechanisms and can describe many of the molecules and enzymes involved in these processes and the way in which some of these molecules interlock with others, but how? How do they know what to do, where to go and when to do it, and how did they arrive at those impossibly complex and precise shapes that allow them to do these things? These same scientists continue to study the cell to understand more of the thousands of chemical processes that go on simultaneously within the cell and the exquisitely delicate structures of membranes and molecules that enable the cell to do it's work. Mind you, the cell is the 'beginning' of evolution'. The common wisdom is that evolution starts with a 'simple' cell and then gradually over billions of years becomes more and more complex. Yet generations of our most brilliant scientists still struggle to understand the workings of this 'simple' cell, and few dare say that when they see such an impossibly intricate design and when they have clear evidence that each of our one hundred trillion microscopic cells remembers, reads, and replicates with a transcendent intelligence, only few would dare say that some other transcendent power and intelligence, an unseen force that shapes and energizes the whole thing, could possibly be at work.

I have a pretty good assistant. If I give him twelve instructions he will probably do six well, three passably and forget about the rest, and the last time I looked my assistant was a human being, the pinnacle of evolution. Here we have a microscopic cell and not only is there a Library of Congress' worth of instructions in that invisible dot, but there is somehow the artistry and intelligence to receive and execute all these instructions and coordinate that with the one hundred trillion other cells in the body, each with their own Library of Congress' worth of instructions, to create one synchronous, living human being.

I have a channel changer for my TV. In my area, at least, when I presses #4 I get NBC. This happens every time. It's scientifically consistent. Press #4, night or day, weekend or weekday, I get NBC. Does this mean that the #4 or the little wire inside that button, creates NBC? Does it mean that that wire is responsible for all the writing, acting, musical and administrative talent involved in the creation of NBC? Does my #4 even want NBC or care one iota about it, or even know of its existence? Of course not. A wire is a wire, a protein is a protein and an acid is an acid. The programming of NBC is, of course, created by the irreducibly mysterious talents of thousands of actors, directors, producers, designers and executives. My little #4 merely attracts the products of all this talent and intelligence to it. Watson and Crick thought they had found God in the DNA molecule. What they found was God's channel changer.

Please feel free to comment.


Anonymous said...

I see that you have "Comment Moderation" enabled. I take that to mean that other points of view that do not reflect yours will not see the light of day, however I will still share my comment with you.
You ask how a cell's DNA can know which chemical process to perform with it's "Library of Congress" worth of instructions. I ask you, how does any chemical reaction know how to create its substrate from it's two or more primary components? It's science. Cut and dried. When you consider how little we know, but how much we've learned even in the last ten years, I'm sure that someday we will have the answer to not only how these things happen, but why.
Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your theses.

Matt Chait said...

When you say "It's science. Cut and dried," what do you really mean by that? Are you saying that the knowledge of how to respond to a host of different situations, in a way that always enhances the survival of the organism, is contained within the chemicals themselves? What part of the chemical contains that knowledge and makes those decisions? You sound a little like my Jewish father who would cut off my inquiries into any religious practices by saying, "We do it because we do it!" In other words, don't wonder, don't inquire, just do it. If you have either real spiritual curiosity or real scientific curiosity, there is little, if anything, in this universe that you will find to be either "cut" or "dried".

Matt Chait said...

Just one addendum to the previous comment. I am not talking about a simple laboratory chemistry experiment, where, when you know the components going in, you will know the components going out. There are three thousand possible enzymes that a human cell can manufacture. The ability of the cell to respond, at every moment of your existence in this body, to a myriad of external situations by manufacturing exactly the right amount of the particular enzyme that will most enhance your survival, in exactly the right amount and at exactly the right time, and to do this in perfect synchronicity with a million, and often a billion, and occasionally a trillion other cells, is not just 'science' and is not 'cut and dried'. It is an awesome miracle.

Elvina said...

Good words.