Artificial Cells and the Evolution Myth

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I’ve got a soft spot for the Stanley Kubric movie that Steven Spielberg finished after Kubric’s death – AI. Some people hate on this movie – mainly because of the jarring emotional meltdown that occurs in the final act of the piece. May I point you to the final sentence of the original short story that inspired Kubric? The hints are there in the text, my friends.

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Supertoys Last All Summer Long

Now…odd as it may seem – we are closer to an artificial life form than you may realize. Zoom back in your time machine to 2010. Back then, the first replicating cells containing artificial, human designed DNA, were created in the lab. Small…fragile…but by any definition, surely that qualifies as Artificial Life? (tho not Artificial Intelligence!)

The J Craig Venter Institute programmed their own DNA chromosome by cutting and pasting existing DNA instructions together – and inserting some code of their own into the artificial chromosome. Including (oddly enough) an email address and some stirring quotes! As you watch the press conference below, they use words like “software”, “booting up the cell”, “debugging”. Clearly the human race has already entered the new world of biological software, of creating life for a purpose. We’ve actually been there for 4 years already.

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Craig Venter Unveils Artificial Life

In 2010 they had to inject the DNA into a natural bacteria cell to reprogram it. But in 2014, they are synthesizing the cell wall itself using fatty acids and many other chemical techniques. Does this life form do anything useful yet? Don’t count on it – but there are hopes that this research may lead to vaccines and new sources of fuel for our oil strapped planet.

We have some smart research scientists who are taking the “Lego Bricks” of life and building something new.

But here is something that they are NOT doing.

Despite what the media reports claim – they are not finally discovering how the first biological cell evolved billions of years ago from the primordial slime.

There is a lot of confused thinking around this point. We fixate on needing life to have a completely natural, non-supernatural cause; of deciding ahead of time that no Designer was responsible for life on our planet. And yet the very work our research scientists are doing proves the opposite. We are trainee Life Designers with “L plates” and “training wheels”. And we are following the work of the Teacher and the Master.

  • Scientists engineer a controlled Lab environment for the life experiments – this is done by design.
  • Scientists engineer using a vast chemical storehouse built for them and use complex stuff like fatty acids that come pre-prepared – this is done by design.
  • Scientists read and understand the pre-existing DNA instructions. And are now coding their own instructions themselves – this is done by (biological software) design.

In other words – no one is demonstrating the ability of Biological Evolution to create complex life. Rather – everyone is demonstrating the necessity of a Designer to get the conditions and the components of life aligned in the right way.

By research – humanity is actively affirming the truth that life came from a Designer – while confidently passing on the tale that life arose from the chemically random, naturally selected past.

Surely a mistaken contradiction that we need to wake up to?

But more than that – we need to wake up to the God who made us – and loves us. He’s not annoyed that we are learning about what he has made. I am sure He loves it when we ethically explore what He made with the minds that He’s given us.

Who knows when the first, true AI will occur?  I certainly don’t. But what I do know is that our Artificial creation – will be based on His creations. It doesn’t make him any less God that we can pick up little scraps of ideas from all that He has made.

But…doesn’t the fact that He made it all first…not just fill you with the slightest little twinge of awe?

For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. 

Psalm 95:3-7, NIV

Wouldn’t “Designed” Eye Balls Work Better, tho?

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“My eye balls could work better, of course.”

 This is sometimes the response to the,  “Eyes are so complicated that God must have designed them” type of argument.

 

But it’s a response that’s a tad ungrateful, don’t you think?

“Yea – thanks to the Universe (or Evolution) for giving me eyes. But you could have done a better job of evolving them, eh?”

 Isn’t there a touch of ingratitude there?  

 

Often people point to:

  • the inverted nature of the image on the eye’s retina
  • the spot where our optic nerve goes thru into our brain where we all have a blind spot
  • nerves are actually positioned at the front of our retina, not behind our retina, getting in the way of the retina doing its job.

And then, if we are particularly on a roll, someone might point to the human Appendix and exclaim – “It has no purpose – why would a designer include it? It must be a vestige of evolution…just like the problematic eye design I have to put up with every day!”

 

 

In response I’ll suggest 3 things.

First – it’s much better to go thru life with an “attitude of gratitude”. And that includes gratitude for our health. Life looks and feels better for us when we are grateful for each day. When we are grateful – new opportunities open up for us. It’s a more healthy approach to life! Sermon over.

Second – I’m not a Doctor – and I don’t have a degree in Biology and Anatomy. But I know that Biologists have done some work to explain good reasons why our bodies are wired up as they are. Google is our friend if we want to investigate further.

Third – tricky arrangement of parts is NOT actually proof of NO design. What do I mean? Let me draw an analogy.

My first car was a rust coloured Mini Clubman – it was naturally rust coloured…and it was also actually falling to pieces because of rust. Now – whenever I opened the bonnet and tried bravely to do some work on it…I found myself hitting problems. There wasn’t a lot of space for that 1.1 litre engine in the tiny bay. If I wanted to try to get at the spark plugs, that was okay (although the skin on my knuckles was always at risk). But try to get to the oil filter or the Distributer cap? Forget it! Tried that – got frustrated – gave up. I had to take it to a mechanic who could do it.

My second car was a light blue Volvo 340. It wasn’t as rusty. But it was always better at driving in a straight line, rather than going round corners. This was a problem.  Anyway – it had a much bigger engine bay than the Mini. Open the bonnet – there was more space in there where than 1.4 engine sat. This time – the oil filter was much more reachable! It was to the side – easy to get to. Brilliant. And the Distributer cap? Yes – I could get to that easy enough. But the plugs were a pain and the sump to drain the oil was a nightmare. Tried it – got frustrated – and covered in oil – so I gave in and paid a mechanic to service the car instead!

 

I’m going to suggest two things from this analogy.

ONE – just because a mechanism isn’t put together as I would have liked it to be – does not mean it hasn’t been carefully designed. It just means that the designer hasn’t spoken to me first about how I would like it done! Frankly – I know nothing about car design – so why would the designer speak to me anyway? And I bet you don’t know too much about Biology either. Get my point? Let’s not be too complain-ey about how our bodies work – let’s just enjoy the fact we have them. And admit there are probably good reasons that we just don’t know anything about.

 

TWO – just because a Volvo engine is tricky to work with – doesn’t mean it wasn’t built by Volvo. It just means there must be a close relationship WITH Volvo for the car to work at peak efficiency. In my case – I would take it in to them to be serviced regularly. Tricky design means Volvo get money for car servicing. Funny that!

 

If our lives are a bit tricky right now…I wonder if this might just be the thing that God has allowed in order for us to come close to OUR Designer…to the one who has a service for our soul waiting for us? It’s just a thought. Why struggle – when the one who can do it for us…is just a word away?

 

Embark on a close relationship with the Designer – life runs better that way.

Is it Likely that Evolution Gave Us Working Proteins and Eyes?

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I remember having a conversation where my friend and I were discussing the origin of life. Where did we come from?

And he had no problem at all looking at the amazing complexity of the human eye (for example) and confidently asserting that this arrived as a result of random naturalistic processes. Evolution. After all, he suggested, all that is required to kick off Evolution is the sudden appearance of a single self replicating molecule on the surface of the planet. If you’ve got that – and you’re lucky – then eventually life happens. Right?

Now – I’ve known this guy for a long time. And I know that my friend is a smart guy. I think he’s smarter than me in many ways. And I also think something else. He has more FAITH than I have! Eyes have photoreceptors, lenses, an iris that lets the right amount of light thru…a cleaning system that kills off harmful bacteria. Eyes are fine tuned instruments. It takes alot of faith to believe they occurred as a result of random changes and natural selection.

My friend and I are both men of faith. He has faith in the natural processes that slowly but eventually formulate working eyeballs.

I on the other hand am a man of faith in a designer of eyeballs – God. I recognise the biological processes that underpin the physical beings that roam about on planet Earth. But I don’t look to these biological processes as an explanation for life itself. That would be like seeking to explain the existence of motor cars by appealing to the engine or the suspension. No – I look beyond our planet, our Universe and its constituent parts. I look to an agency outside as the designer of life. In other words I look to the designer of the car to explain why we have cars in the first place.

So I’m on a different page from my friend totally. That’s okay – we’re still friends.

But lets take my friend’s assertion and consider it for a moment. He said – all you need is a single self replicating (or reproducing) molecule to kick off the evolution of life…from simple molecules over vast periods of time…the staggering engineering evident in the human eye (for example) will arise thru evolutionary processes. How likely is this?

To examine his assertion – i’m going to describe a scenario to you.

 

 

 

Imagine you are sitting in a Costa or Starbucks Coffee shop – and you notice out the window someone kneeling by a bike rack across the street. You sense something’s not quite right. Well – you are right to be suspicious because this person is trying to nick one of the bikes on the rack! But to do so – he has to pick the lock that chains said bike to rack.

Picture in your head a bike lock with 3 dials that can each take the value between 0 and 10. How long do you think it would take for the thief to hit on the right combination, unchain the bike and escape? Well – he could be lucky and hit the right combination quickly. Or it could take him absolutely ages.

Now – imagine you decide to pick up your mobile phone and call the police and tell them that someone is stealing the bike. The thief doesn’t realise it – but the amount of time he has got to hit the right combination of dials has now been drastically reduced! Now how likely is it that he’s going to unchain the bike and cycle away? Yes – its possible (especially if he has a set of bolt cutters in his pocket!) – but its not very likely he will randomly hit the right combination. Is it?

 

 

 

I’m talking about bike locks – because they are a great analogy for Proteins. Proteins are one of the building blocks of biological life. Machines that make life work.

Haemoglobin is a Protein and its the mechanism that allows oxygen to be transported thru your blood stream to the organs of your body. Haemoglobin is made up of specific Amino Acids. And Amino Acids are composed of specific chemicals. Think of Haemoglobin as the biological equivalent of a bike lock. There are many combinations of these chemicals that won’t transport oxygen. But one combination that does the job perfectly. That’s Haemoglobin.

But Haemoglobin doesn’t have 3 dials. It has closer to 320 dials!

You know what I’m going to ask next, don’t you?

How long would it take to randomly select the right combination of dials for Haemoglobin to occur? Well – given the number of dials, there are just a staggering number of possible combinations. Probably more combinations than there are atoms in the Milky Way Galaxy! That’s a big number. And remember – there are a vast number of chemical combinations that don’t transfer oxygen thru your blood…and only a tiny number of combinations that will. Sounds a bit like our thief on an impossible mission to pick the bike lock, doesn’t it?

Remember our thief had the police on his tail – his time was running out? Well – the evolution of Haemoglobin had limited time too. If Science is correct when it calculates the age of the Universe to be 14 billion years then the plain fact is – there aren’t enough seconds from the Big Bang till now to go thru every possible combination of chemicals to find Haemoglobin (assuming it takes us a second to choose each one)

We’ve probably not had enough time since time began for Haemoglobin to occur thru random chance and natural selection. Yet that’s what evolutionary theory confidently asserts has happened. That’s what my friend believes.

Now consider this. Your body contains anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 different proteins working away, doing their jobs right now. But we’ve not had enough time for even one of them to occur by random mutation and natural selection.

 

 

My friend has faith that – as long as a self replicating molecule existed…in other words as long as you have a way to switch lock combinations…then life will happen. Have I gone some way to show how staggeringly unlikely that is? Just because I can change the position of a dial does not mean I’ll manage to hit the correct code in time on 10,000 bike locks!

Belief in evolution is putting one’s faith in something that seems completely unreasonable to me.

Belief in a designer on the other hand is perfectly reasonable. Why? Because it explains why we’ve got 100,000 different Proteins whirring and clicking away in our bodies. The molecules didn’t have to try to unpick the lock by going thru every combination. Instead, the designer knew the exact code for every Protein in our bodies and he dialed it in correctly with just one step.

I know for many people the thought of God is a tough one to accept. But based on this discussion alone – it seems the most likely explanation for the existence of my Proteins. Right? If its the most likely explanation for my Proteins, then its also the most likely explanation for the rest of the mind bending complexity at work in our bodies…like our eyes, for example.

Life couldn’t evolve from a self replicating molecule. Maybe the Bible has kinda been saying that all along…

“Ears that hear and eyes that see – the Lord has made them both.”

Proverbs 20:12 (NIV)

 

 

It is Evolution’s Daddy’s Birthday.

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Today is Darwin Day – in other words, it’s the big boy’s birthday. He would have been 205 years old if he had lived!

Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809 and he died in 1882 at age 73.

He was a Geologist who contributed greatly to so many areas of scientific study. He contributed to Archaeology; he gathered insects and birds of previously unknown types and gifted them to Universities for further study. And he travelled the world. He was fascinated by the ethnography of people.

What a great man.

And he was also fascinated by how breeding could adjust the attributes of pigeons. A breeder could change the shape of eyes and beaks by pairing certain types of birds together over many generations. He was amazed to see a similar phenomenon in Nature – the Finches that lived on the Galapagos Islands seemed to change their beak length depending on what the natural climate was doing.

Darwin put these and many observations into a melting pot of careful observation and study and experience. The result was a proposal that all life on planet earth must have arisen thru selective breeding on a single, primordial life form. But there wasn’t a person doing the breeding. Instead – Nature itself was doing the breeding – randomly changing the attributes of a creature to form a different class of creature. And only the strong variations survived – thru the process of Natural Selection.

I’ve not done justice to his theory – but that’s the crux of it, I think. This was the free thinking, radical theory that challenged the Western World when he proposed it.

And yet I wonder…

… if Darwin had been alive today, would he still have proposed his theory? Would he have stood behind it as a credible idea in 2014?

When today we can peer into the inner workings of each microscopic cell – and watch the operation of a complex biological factory. A factory humming with different machines which are managing and processing information constantly.

  •  Machines to read the instructions that are somehow encoded in your DNA that code for countless proteins that are essential for your body to function correctly
  •  Machines that combine amino acids according to the amazing  instructions
  •  Machines that fold up the resulting strand into a precise shape to allow the protein to do its specific job in your body

When today we have spent nearly 100 years understanding information theory and software engineering. And we can see abundant evidence of both of these disciplines…and so many others… in the groundwork and the operation of our cells.

  • Each of your body’s countless billion cells contains 700 megabytes of digital information. (Scientists have started using DNA as the equivalent of biological USB Memory sticks today. Cool eh? Yet life has had this technology built in all along…and we are only just starting to catch up)
  • Digital information takes time and effort to create. Just ask any software engineer who is staring down the barrel of the project plan. And has a boss breathing down his neck…telling him that he must finish debugging his code NOW! Just ask any blogger who is looking at a blank page – trying to think of something interesting to say.
  • And what effect does randomness have on information? Does it contribute to the creation of information? No. We have found that random activity degrades information. It is like the noise on the line that causes your mobile phone conversation to be so difficult to understand that you end the call. Randomness is not a friend to digital information. It destroys it. It does not create it.

I imagine Mr Darwin looking at the completely new, innovative and mind boggling Scientific evidence we have amassed today, over a century since his death. I imagine him shaking his head in wonder and saying – “Hey – it was a great thought. But in the light of all this new discovery… I’d better think again. Forget evolution. There must be another more reasonable answer to why life on this planet looks so exquisitely and carefully designed!”

He would be right.

I’m pretty darn sure that it was.

A Curiosity Snap

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This might surprise you.

Above the door to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University is not a pithy quote from a forefather of Experimental Physics or Evolutionary Biology. No – the quote above the entrance to the Lab is from the Bible – Psalm 111 verse 2, to be exact.

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

If you are thinking – “Yea – I bet that was a decision made over hundred years ago at a far more religious time” – then you might be partly right. When the Cavendish Laboratory opened in 1874 the prescription above the door was indeed Psalm 111:2, written in Latin.

“Magna opera Domini exquisite in omnes voluntates ejus”

But before you dismiss these  naive people of a more ignorant time…think again. When the Cavendish moved location in the early 1970s, the decision was made for the inscription to remain above the door. And everyone who enters this seat of learning in Cambridge walks beneath it to this day.

So what? Why should I care?

Because that quote hits the nail on the head. Consider this:

Last week, 50 million miles away from where you are reading right now, on the surface of the planet Mars the Curiosity Rover stopped and turned its robotic eye to the sky. And it snapped a startling photograph. Someone has kindly tagged us all in that photograph. You can see it above

On its lonely mission, as it explores the Martian landscape, Curiosity snaps a picture of us. Or more accurately – it snaps a picture of the distant Earth.

That is mind blowing. An army of scientists and engineers from many disciplines worked long and hard for years to get the Curiosity Rover safely onto the surface of Mars in 2012. My mate Mike is one of them. And you can hear him talk about it here.

Why did they all put the effort in? The long days…weekends…late nights? Why did they allow themselves the torture of launching their carefully crafted rover into space in the hope that it would land safely on Mars months later?

Because these people delight in our Universe. They are filled with insatiable curiosity about how our Universe works and what is out there. And because they delight in creation – studying it is no chore to them. It is what they were born to do!

“Great are the works of the Lord, they are pondered by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2, NIV

Curiosity’s photograph reminds us how wonderful our Universe is – and how talented the engineers are who got that little guy onto that alien landscape in the first place! But it also points back to the Cavendish Laboratory inscription. The Bible makes a good point.

We passionately explore our solar system because it is there. We visit alien planets with unmanned spacecraft because we can…and because planets exist to be explored. We are so fortunate that we are the ones living at a technologically advanced time where space travel is possible.

But more than that – we are such fortunate people to be alive. To exist. To have been placed in this mind bogglingly beautiful yet mysterious Universe. We are indeed blessed to have the opportunity to delight in and to intensely study creation.

But it’s not our Universe. We are only placed here. We are only passing thru it. We live for a few short years in which to discover who we are, exercise our brains and our talents and our personalities. We discover and we theorize. And we pat ourselves on the back for being pretty smart.

But the One who created it and holds it all together – wow. His works are truly great in every sense of the word. And with all our cleverness – we are merely scratching the surface of His wonderful works.

Let me end with three brief points.

First – may I suggest humility and respect as we pass thru His creation; both personally in our own lives, and cosmically as we explore our Solar System. After all – we are not here to stay. We are the visitors here.

Second – even though it’s not the cool thing to ask for – may I suggest humility and respect for Him. There are those in 21st century Science who regularly pour scorn on people of faith. And in doing so – they are also criticizing the brilliant minds who started their own Scientific disciplines all those centuries ago.

  • Forebears like Johannes Kepler, who in the 17th century perceived intelligent design in the mathematical precision of planetary motion and the laws governing it.
  • Forebears like James Clerk Maxwell who discovered electromagnetic theory – and who quoted the Bible at the entrance to his Cavendish Physics Laboratory in Cambridge.

Surely these men and many more besides deserve respect from the current thinkers of today?

Third and finally I call for humility and respect towards the One who has made our lives – and our space exploration possible. Who has given us a Universe to travel thru and to wonder at. Because, as Psalm 111 says in closing…

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Psalm 111:10, NIV

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap sign on the edge of a London Underground Tube station's platform

I can’t help it – something inside of me cringes when I hear well-meaning Christian believers acting out as aggressive anti-evolution apologists. After all – come on! How insulting for the poor guy or girl, trying to do their Science job and understand how stuff works…only to get blasted by an un-called for, anti-evolutionary rant? I noticed a tweet from Professor Brian Cox once who expressed exasperation at being on the sharp end of a “Christian apologist” rant. I groan with Brian!

One reason people go into Science is because we love finding out how things work, and we love to understand things better. Right? I speak as a Computer Scientist, by the way, so I feel somewhat qualified to make the previous statement (even if my field might be regarded as particularly geeky!)

 

There’s something else that makes me cringe. It’s when I hear well-meaning believers in the theory of Darwinian Evolution (Common Descent and Natural Selection acting upon Random Biological Mutations) speak as if Darwin’s theory is as unassailable as the truth that our planet orbits the Sun. I mean…really?

We have empirical evidence about how the Universe works – we observe how it works. And we know a little bit about what holds it together. And we are starting to realize there’s a lot we don’t yet know. But does the Earth orbit the sun? Yes – sure – we can empirically prove it – much to the chagrin of the 17th century church!

But the same cannot be said of Darwinian Evolution. The media does a great job of presenting evolution as a done + proven deal. But behind closed doors – away from the foot lights and the spin doctors – the truth is quite different. Scientists committed to this Theory are still scouring the fabric of our planet for the evidence in the fossil record that Darwin assumed would prove his origin of life theory. But they are coming up short.

Don’t believe me? Just Google the phrase – “Cambrian Explosion”. Life didn’t appear in gradual increments. Life exploded onto the surface of our planet at a number of certain specific points in Earth’s history.  And I can say that with confidence because it’s what the fossil record has recorded. That’s our  empirical evidence. If we are talking about what is provable – rather than what we would like to believe (evolution) – then the evidence suggests that life just appeared. Fully formed – and with incredible amounts of information and complexity. And it all just appeared – delivered to planet earth – right out of the box with an amazing ability to adapt in minor ways to its current surroundings

 

Ah – and it’s this point that the well-meaning scientist (who doesn’t happen to believe in God) sighs and shakes their head.

You Christians – you are such God of the Gaps people! What do I mean by ‘God of the Gaps’? I mean that – Science studies something amazing (life) to learn about it. But people of faith aren’t hard workers – they are lazy. Rather than trying hard to find a natural explanation for the appearance of life – you just glibly blurt out “God did it”. That’s intellectually lazy.  

 

And the scientist who DOES believe in God responds.

I’m sorry – but you are mistaken. It is not laziness that points me to God. Rather – it is intellectual honesty and hard work and good Science. It is a willingness to accept a cause that goes beyond the hard-wired, natural forces of our closed universe.

  • The pre-programmed laws of physics create a perfect swirl of water as I empty my bathtub. They also create the wonder of snowflakes. There is natural, material beauty and artistry in creation.
  • But what we find in the building blocks of life is of a completely different order. The specified complexity and carefully crafted information processing systems we find in every tiny biological cell are mindbogglingly complex. Biological computers, if you will.

I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps. I believe in a God whose creative skill is becoming more and more evident as we learn more and more about our planet and the creatures that inhabit it. I see more evidence for God in each scientific discovery – not less evidence.

 

John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, and a Christian thinker has taken the response of the Christian a bit further. He says:

“Postulating an unobserved Designer is no more unscientific than postulating unobserved macro-evolutionary steps. It is surely very evident that ‘evolution of the gaps’ is at least as widespread as ‘God of the gaps’.”  — John C. Lennox

In other words – I’m a Christian. But I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps, mate. Ironically though, when you cling to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution…in spite of the current lack of empirical evidence…then you are evidently clinging to an Evolution of the Gaps!

 

Okay – I’m one of the faith filled Scientists. Yes – I believe in a Designer. I’m a Christian – so it makes perfect sense for me to ascribe the role of Designer to God. But don’t accuse me of wanting to stop Science. No way! What would be the point in that?

 

Just because smart guys designed computer architectures doesn’t mean I don’t have to work hard to understand what they came up with. That’s my job. And frankly – I get enjoyment and fulfillment out of doing it (sad I know).

In a similar way – just because God designed the cosmos and the life that lives in it – by means we currently don’t understand – doesn’t mean all Science should stop. Quite the opposite – lets enrich life by learning all we can using the minds he’s given us.

 

I don’t believe in a God of the Gaps. I don’t recommend you should either. I also don’t recommend you should believe in an Evolution of the Gaps!