Natural Theology’s Revenge
“A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is part of the day’s unity.” — Charles Ives
In the not too distant past it was considered an obvious truth that the universe, nature and their respective details were the handiwork of a conscious designing intelligence. People simply observed their surroundings and noted the beauty, the ingenuity and the orchestrated harmony of the massive multiplicity of its parts — and stood awed by it. This view was perhaps most artfully expressed by the English philosopher William Paley in his well-known watchmaker analogy:
“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” — William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)
In the course of the two centuries since Paley wrote these iconic words, the mystery of life was seemingly eroded by the march of science. For example, in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, destroying the concept of Vitalism — the idea that living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. In 1833, Anselme Payen isolated the first enzyme, diastase. Most significantly, for social and political purposes, was the 1859 introduction by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace of the theory of evolution by natural selection. For the first time, it became possible to imagine that the mechanized complexity of life as we know it is the result of purely material and wholly unguided processes. This new possibility electrified the scientific community and had a profound effect on public consciousness. As Dr. James Le Fanu wrote in his engaging work on this topic, “Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves,” science was triumphant — almost.
A funny thing happened on the way to materialist hegemony: the more scientists discovered, the less explicable certain facets of the natural world became. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century, biologist Earnst Haeckel conceived of the cell as “a simple little lump of albuminous carbon,” easily produced from inanimate material. The invention of the electron microscope in 1931 laid that quaint notion to rest. The subsequent decades have piled us high with new understandings of the staggering complexity of the functional nano-machines that rule the world of the cell. These machines are capable of producing thousands of proteins (highly complex, task-oriented biological compounds) per second, per cell. Some scientific thinkers wonder whether or not Darwin’s theory is equal to the task of generating an object of this sort in the time frame that it arose.
“Faced with the enormous sum of lucky draws behind the success of the evolutionary game, one may legitimately wonder to what extent this success is actually written into the fabric of the universe” (Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, Tour of a Living Cell).
The Human Genome
The Human Genome Project was undertaken to uncover the blueprints of life. It was thought that if the genomic information was “unpacked” and cataloged we would be able to articulate an adequate scientific explanation of the human experience. It didn’t work out that way. One surprise was the discovery that humans share 98 percent of their genome with the humble field mouse. What, then, accounts for the rather severe physiological and cognitive differences between us and our rodent companions? We don’t know. It seems as though opening one box has simply revealed another. This is how science historian Evelyn Fox Keller put it:
“We lulled ourselves into believing that in discovering the basis for genetic information we had found the ‘secret of life’; we were confident that if we could only decode the message in the sequence of chemicals, we would understand the ‘program’ that makes an organism what it is. But now there is at least tacit acknowledgement of how large that gap between genetic ‘information’ and biological meaning really is.”
A very recent addendum to these discoveries is that science has now essentially laid to rest the idea of “Junk DNA” — the assumption that the bulk of the human genome contains mostly useless fragments of non-coding DNA sequencing produced by eons of Darwinian action. As this is not an expected outcome of the classical Darwinian model, this new development seems to have struck a nerve in the anti-Paley community.
One would do well to stand silently awed by the intellectual achievement of the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and others. They succeeded, as precious few have, in describing crucial, fundamental properties of existence — their force of mind piercing though layers of shroud. Einstein was especially eager to simplify all of these forces into a single “unified field theory,” a goal which eluded his genius and all those who have subsequently attempted it. Once again, in the wake of cognitive achievements of immense proportions, when (some) physicists walked proudly, confident that all but the finishing touches on a complete grasp of the workings of our universe were on the cusp of discovery, the universe took a step back, retreated to obscurity and thwarted the materialists expectations. The more that was discovered, the stranger matters became. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was one obvious example. It was also soon noted that the properties that allow for life’s development seemed uncannily precise — “fine-tuned,” as they were later described. If gravitation, or the strong or weak nuclear force or the electromagnetic force were any different than they are, life could never have arisen. Physicist John Polkinghorne has estimated that they had to be accurate to within one part in a trillion trillion — a degree of accuracy equivalent to hitting an inch wide target on the other side of the universe.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Creator of the universe is infinite and that the study of Him or his works must, perforce, be infinite as well. One who has dipped his or her foot into the sea of spiritual exploration is familiar with the feeling that we will never get ourselves on top of the pile — that no matter how far we go there will always be an infinity stretched out before us, waiting to be discovered. Perhaps that is why despite its unassailable achievement, science has not (nor will it ever) bring us to anything like a full understanding of the beautiful yet ever elusive reality laid before us.
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” — Isaac Newton