Signature in the Cell: The Definition of Life

“What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
    made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. Oh, look—the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon”

(Psalm 104:24-25, MSG).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

CHRISTIANS TODAY ARE FREQUENTLY looked upon with suspicion as a subculture that holds strange, old-fashioned, narrow-minded views on the origin of the universe, the nature of man, and the existence of a supreme being. In certain circles, especially politics and academia, there is a degree of condescension, suspicion, and contempt. The world sees Christians as “haters” or “bashers,” labeling us  elitist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and delusional. Unfortunately, this is due in part to the words Christians use when taking on today’s culture. Still others say Christians are on the opposite side of science, believing in a fairy tale God, holding irrational beliefs as to the origin of life and the universe. Although Christians are called upon to be ready to defend the Gospel at any time, 1 Peter 3:15 provides a clear admonition that when doing so we are to show courtesy and respect.

Darwin Portrait

In Darwin’s time, few, if any biologists talked about biological or genetic information. Today, they routinely refer to DNA, RNA, and proteins: carriers or repositories of information. Biologists tell us that DNA stores and transmits “genetic information,” that it contains a genetic message, including instructions—a genetic blueprint or digital code—regarding how the life it “represents” should be assembled. Biology has recently entered its own information age. Scientists seeking to explain the origin of life have taken note. Life is not made up of mere matter and energy, but also information. Since matter and energy existed before life, this critical aspect of living organisms is now center stage. Inanimate matter cannot write the information necessary for life. At some point, biological information came into existence. Consequently, theories that claim to explain the origin of life must answer the genetics question.

It’s a Matter of Information

What exactly is “biological information?” Beginning in the 1940s, mathematicians and computer scientists began to define, study, measure, and quantify information. They made distinctions between several types of information. What kind of information does DNA contain? What kind of information must origin-of-life researchers explain the origin of? DNA contains specific information that deepens the mystery surrounding life. Most of us use the term information to describe some piece of knowledge. According to the standard definition, information holds two distinct meanings: (i) facts provided or learned about something or someone; and (ii) what is conveyed or represented by an arrangement or sequence of things. The second definition is on point regarding our discussion on the origin of biological or genetic information. It refers to genetically transmitted information. The specific “code” of life itself. It is a rather dubious claim to state that genetic information came from nothing; that it “wrote” itself. Moreover, information specific to the second definition equals an arrangement or string of characters that accomplishes a particular outcome or performs a function of communication.

Indeed, DNA contains alternative sequences of nucleotides that can produce some specific effect. This certainly indicates that DNA contains information or, if you prefer, instructions, regarding life. Neither DNA nor the cellular machinery that uses its information is conscious. As an appropriate comparison, neither does software “code” comprehend the existence of the software program itself. Yet clearly software contains a kind of information or instruction. Strikingly, its code is made up of some combination of zeros and ones: yes/no, left/right, this/that. How much more complex is the genetic code of a living organism?

Information theory was developed in the 1940s—81 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which he claimed explained the development of the rather complicated and sometimes messy process of speciation. In was in the 1940s that MIT engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon was studying an obscure branch of algebra. Few people were paying attention. He had taken nineteenth-century mathematician George Boole’s system of putting logical expressions in mathematical form and applied its categories of “true” and “false” to switches found in electronic circuits. I am reminded of my study of basic electronics and electrical systems in the 1970s as a high school student, wherein the movement of energy through a circuit was determined by whether a switch was “open” or “closed.” Shannon’s master’s thesis has been called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.” It eventually became the foundation for digital-circuit and digital-computer theory. Today, structures exhibiting specified complexity in living organisms are completely unknown and unknowable apart from the DNA, RNA, and proteins that establish their genetic features.

Applying Information Theory to Life

Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of variation between species. Species—groups of similar organisms within a genus—are designated by biochemical and other phenotypic criteria and by DNA relatedness, based on their overall genetic similarity. You may recall from ninth-grade biology class that living organisms (whether animal or plant, zebra or zucchini) are divided into seven levels: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Classification System.png

There are five kingdoms, which are determined by how living organisms obtain their food, the types of cells that make up their body, and the number of cells they contain. Phylum gives us a grouping of physical similarities. Class designation narrows similarities even further. For example, the reason man is considered a mammal is because we too drink milk from our birth mothers. Order is based on taxonomy—a checklist of characteristics that determines how organisms are grouped together. Orders are then divided into families. Because they share much genetic information, organisms in a family are said to be related to each other. Genus is a way to describe the genetic name for an organism. Species is the most specific classification of living organisms, hence the word used to label the category. The root for this term comes from the Latin specificus meaning “constituting a kind or sort.” Accordingly, when we identify a subject in conversation, we are said to get specific.

Consider species with which we are familiar. We recognize zebras by their stripes, elephants by their trunks, giraffes by their long necks, bald eagles by the color of the feathers on their heads, and monarch butterflies by the patterns on their gossamer wings. Species are defined by their traits. This is true across all life. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, starfish, sea urchins, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, worms of all kinds, shellfish, octopi, snails, corals, jellyfish, sponges, mosses, ferns, grasses, orchids, fruit trees, fungi, algae, bacteria, and all the life forms on earth possess unique combinations of traits. The origin of species is a question of the origin of traits. If you want to know the origin of zebras, you need to discover the origin of stripes. The origin of plants is bound up in the origin of trunks. Giraffe origins are inextricable from the origin of long necks. The origin of any species is found in the origin of the traits that define them. Examination of traits must include microscopic observation.

Let’s Get Specific

Somatic cells (i.e., non-reproductive cells) divide through a process of cell division termed mitosis. In both animals and plants, before the nucleus breaks down, structures that look like flexible noodles (called chromosomes) appear during a period termed prophase. Through prometaphase, the membrane surrounding the nucleus breaks down. The process continues through a complicated sequence of events. Because the process of nuclear division is so complex, it suggests a functional role for chromosomes. If chromosomes were inert and irrelevant to heredity, why would cells take such care to pass them on via such a unique and detailed cycle?dna helixThe answer to the how of DNA function is intricately bound up in the structure of DNA. Any potential structure for DNA must show how it could carry complex hereditary information. The architecture cannot simply repeat unchanging units. Chemically, the structure of DNA would need to be stable over many generations in order to pass traits along to future generations. For example, elephants produce more elephants each generation, giraffes more giraffes, bald eagles more bald eagles, and so on. The stable framework of DNA is the only explanation for this phenomenon. In addition, DNA must suggest a method by which it can be replicated. Without consistent transformation of genetic information, hereditary traits would become diluted and, ultimately, extinguished. Theoretically, this would result in a gradual fading of features familiar between parent and offspring, and, consequently, between homo sapiens.

Biologists eventually discovered the double helix, the structural relationship between DNA and chromosomes. DNA doesn’t exist in chromosomes as a long, straight stretch of helix. Rather, chromosomes represent dense forms of DNA. This is accomplished by packaging of DNA—cells wrap these helices around proteins in progressively higher levels of concentration to form the familiar chromosome shape. When sperm and egg fuse, the chromosomes of the sperm join the same nuclear compartment as the chromosomes of the egg. Interestingly, these paternal and maternal chromosomes exist as individual entities, carrying coded information from each parent. In other words, since both the father and the mother provide an equal number of chromosomes, both parents make an equal contribution to the features of the newly conceived offspring. Given the intricate science of heredity, it is simply impossible for the DNA of a giraffe to morph into the DNA of a chimpanzee. An offspring mimics its parents, period.

Remarkably, the physical basis for heredity—the nature of the very code of life—was not uncovered until nearly 100 years after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. This is indeed a significant bone of contention. Without this genetic information, Darwin could not have accurately argued for the origin of species. If he had no concept of how traits were written in a genetic code, he could not have identified the origin of any particular trait. In addition, he had no biogenetic knowledge that giraffes cannot become buffaloes. Moreover, reptiles cannot develop into mammals. It is simply not possible—not even through mutation. In other words, Darwin could not logically argue that through survival of the fittest a salamander became more adept at surviving in trees, leading them to eventually become birds, flying from tree to tree in the acquiring of food. This violates the very code of speciation.

What Are the Odds?

Carl Sagan Photo.jpg

The arguments presented by today’s New Atheists fly in the face of logic and probability. They espouse their theory on the origin of life amidst a vacuum of proof. Indeed, despite mathematical probability. I was a huge fan of Carl Sagan. My father and I used to watch his weekly television program on PBS. I loved hearing him utter those famous words, “…billions and billions.”  Sagan went to his grave viewing the universe as nothing more than molecules in motion. Granted, we and everything around us are comprised of molecules. Looking at the atom, we see a tiny universe unto itself—protons and neutrons orbiting a nucleus. Stepping back, we can see each atom orbiting other atoms in myriad combinations specific to the type of substance it is—air, water, carbon, hydrogen, grass, trees, the family dog, the food we eat, even the screen on which you are viewing these words. In fact, molecules of light are making it possible for you to see your computer screen.

BigBang

Sagan, and others, would have us believe this finely-tuned orchestra of atoms circling atoms, planets circling the sun, the Milky Way circling other universes, just “happened” at some indiscriminate point in the observable past, when the universe just burst forth from a singular point of extremely hot and extremely dense matter. Matter, incidentally, which they claim popped into existence out of nothing. They fail to explain why it is okay for their theory to violate the laws of thermodynamics. Something cannot come from nothing. Energy cannot create itself. Further, prior to the Big Bang (which, by the way, is a term that does adequately describe the point when the universe began) time, space, and matter simply did not exist.

Donald Page of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Science has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000124 which is a number that exceeds all imagination. Astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe found that the odds of the random formation of a single enzyme from amino acids anywhere on our planet’s surface are one in 1020 and, in addition, that there are about two thousand enzymes. The probability of these enzymes assembling randomly in a pattern that could define life is only one part in (1020 ) 20,000 or 1040,000. This is an outrageously small probability that could not be achieved even if the entire universe consisted of a dense organic soup. This is just one step in the formation of life. Nothing has yet been said about DNA and where it came from, or of the transcription of DNA to RNA, which scientists say cannot even be numerically computed.

Scientists have yet to thoroughly explain mitosis and meiosis. The first term mitosis refers to a cell dividing into two clones of itself, each with the same number of chromosomes. On the other hand, meiosis describes cell division that produces four cells (called gametes). These gametes are more commonly called sperm in males and eggs in females. Unlike in mitosis, the gametes produced by meiosis are not clones of the original cell, because each gamete has exactly half as many chromosomes as the original cell. A chromosome is a thread-like object (scientists literally called them threads or loops when they were first discovered) made of a material called chromatin.

dna

Chromatin is made of DNA and special structural proteins called histones. One way to think of a chromosome is as one very long strand of DNA, with a bunch of histone proteins stuck to it like beads on a string. Chromosomes are stored in the nuclei of cells. If you compare the diameter of a cell nucleus (between 2 and 10 microns) to the length of a chromosome (between 1 and 10 centimeters, when fully extended!), you can see that a chromosome must be scrunched up into a very small package in order to fit inside a nucleus. The average chromosome is about a thousand times longer than a cell nucleus is wide. The situation is a bit like how a very long snake can coil up into a tight ball. This process is known, but the mechanism is not understood.

Joey Lagarbo, a scientist who works in the field of genetics, stated, “I completely understand where [this] comes from but at the end of the day it will only confuse you more. There are 46 chromosomes in a diploid human cell or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes. Each of these 46 chromosomes do replicate but are still attached to each other by a centromere (that’s how we get the prototypical X shape of a chromosome). Each replicated chromosome is composed of two sister chromatids that are attached at the hip by a centromere; they are NOT completely separated. In other words, we went from 46 ‘I’ shaped chromosomes to 46 ‘X’ shaped chromosomes.” Someone responded to Lagarbo’s explanation by saying, “I understand this, but if someone could explain [the] conceptual problem it would be very much appreciated.”

A Change of Worldview

Jean Paul Sarte.jpgI want to share something about Jean-Paul Sartre. He was a French atheist and existential philosopher, most noted for his 1943 Being and Nothingness. Sartre promoted an anti-deterministic philosophy. In other words, science not based on causality. That’s scary! This is a type of existentialism based on the “logic” that existence precedes essence, and that matter is only defined by what man thinks it is. Man, according to Sartre’s initial philosophy, first materializes into the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself. There is no “definition” of anything outside of man’s opinion as to what it means to him. This is an anti-materialistic worldview that stands at odds with the scientific basis of existence. He wrote, “The effect of any form of materialism is to treat all men—including oneself—as objects, which is to say as a set of predetermined reactions indistinguishable from the properties and phenomena that constitute, say, a table, a chair, or a stone.”

The problem is that man is said to be free to choose—to invent himself and the physical universe. There would therefore be no genetic code for anything, let alone ethics. No ontological proscription for how man should behave. This is the very essence of moral relativism: The view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to culture and the zeitgeist of each historical period. No standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Amazingly, Sartre underwent a deathbed conversion espousing the grace of God and the “creatureliness” of man. Reversing himself, he said, “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God” [emphasis mine].

Divine Design

The astronomical evidence for God must be strong when atheistic scientists admit that the universe exploded out of nothingness. Agnostic astronomers now claim that supernatural forces were at work in the beginning, leading them back to a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. But the scientific evidence for God does not end with the Cosmological Argument. For many, the precision with which the universe exploded into being provides even more persuasive evidence for the existence of God. This evidence, technically known as the Teleological Argument, derives its name from the Greek word telos, which means “design.”

The essence of the Teleological Argument is this:

  • Every design has a designer
  • The universe has a highly complex design
  • Therefore, the universe has a Designer

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) wrote, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” William Paley (1743-1805) made the now-famous argument by his commonsense assertion that every watch requires a watchmaker. Imagine you’re walking along in the woods and you find a diamond-studded Rolex on the ground. What do you conclude is the cause of that watch: The wind and the rain? Erosion? Perhaps some combination of natural forces? Not at all! There is absolutely no question in your mind that some intelligent being made that watch, and that some unfortunate individual must have accidentally dropped it in the woods.

Our universe is, in fact, even more complex than that watch—containing a planet with a myriad of improbable and independent life-supporting conditions that make it a tiny oasis in a vast and hostile universe. Odds noted above that Princeton’s Donald Page put forth, and which astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe added to some time later, support intelligent design. These highly precise and interdependent conditions (which are called “anthropic constants”) make up what is known as the “Anthropic Principle.” In essence, the Anthropic Principle states that the universe is extremely fine-tuned (designed) to support human life here on earth. But this concept is more than a mere supposition. It is dependent on particular conditions:

  1. Oxygen Level. On earth, oxygen comprises 21 percent of the atmosphere. That precise figure is an anthropic constant that makes life on earth possible. If the oxygen level was just a few percentage points higher, fires would erupt spontaneously; if it were a few percentage points lower, human beings would suffocate. We know this is true from numerous summits at Mount Everest that require climbers to gradually acclimate to lower levels of oxygen higher up the mountain. Typically, climbers must supplement their need with bottled oxygen or risk dying from high-altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema (HACE or HAPE).
  2. Atmospheric Transparency. The small window astronauts must hit reflects the exacting standards by which the universe has been designed. While the atmosphere presents a reentry problem for astronauts, its present qualities are absolutely essential for life here on earth. The degree of transparency of the atmosphere is an anthropic constant. If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar energy would reach the surface. If it were more transparent, we could be bombarded with a lethal amount of solar energy. Moreover, the atmospheric composition of precise levels of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone are in themselves antropic constants. (This is why we’ve heard near-doomsday warnings about a thinning of or a hole in the ozone layer.)
  3. Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction. If the gravitational interaction between the moon and the earth were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were weaker, orbital changes would cause serious climate instability. In either event, life on earth would be impossible.
  4. Carbon Dioxide Level. Precisely the correct amount of carbon dioxide is maintained naturally in the earth’s atmosphere. In fact, forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, storing carbon above and below ground, and producing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Consider the danger of increased “carbon footprints” created by various forms of pollution, including transportation and manufacturing. The phrase  greenhouse gases is based on the increased “greening” of our trees, which is causing higher concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere.
  5. Gravity. The gravity that is pulling earth’s inhabitants to the surface is also an anthropic constant. Its strength may be frightening and mysterious, but it couldn’t be any different for life to exist. If the gravitational force were altered by 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 percent, our sun would not exist, and, therefore, neither would we. Now that’s precise design!

Typically, atheists respond to the concept of an Anthropic Principle in one of two ways. Some admit there’s some kind of Designer. Astronomer Fred Hoyle had his atheistic beliefs shaken, responding to this concept by agreeing that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and biology. Although he was vague, Hoyle recognized that the fine-tuning of the universe requires intelligence. Other atheists admit design but then claim there is no Designer. They say this precise tuning “happened by chance.” This flies in the face of basic logic. How can the universe be designed (indeed, finely-tuned) without a “tuner?” Pianos cannot possibly tune themselves. Nor could the universe have “designed” itself.

Concluding Remarks

John Glenn, on his return to space in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.” Nearly 2,000 years ago Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20, RSV). Evidence of a heavenly Designer is clear, but man often takes it for granted or, more typically, sets out to prove a negative: There is no God, therefore God did not create the universe. C.S. Lewis, in his iconic book The Screwtape Letters provides great insight into this tendency we have to take for granted the amazing world around us. It seems that in our empirical world we are too busy to slow down and contemplate the universe and our place in it.

All instruction, all teaching, all training, comes with intent. Someone who writes an instruction manual does so with purpose. Every cell in our bodies contains a very detailed instruction code, much like a miniature computer program. A computer program is written in the language of ones and zeros: 110010101011000. The way they are arranged tell the computer program what to do. The DNA in each of our cells is very similar. It’s made up of four chemicals: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. When mapping genomes, scientists abbreviate these chemicals A, T, G, and C. These are arranged in the human cell similar to the following: CGTGTGACTCGCTCCTGAT. I find it remarkable that there are approximately three billion letters arranged in code for every cell in a living organism. The very function of each cell is determined by how the code is written.

We’re often told by “scientists” that God does not exist. They don’t leave it there. They also add that science cannot prove the presence of a metaphysical concept or an ephemeral being. Of course, the “logical” conclusion they come to is God is not real. The irony is not lost on me that they are trying to prove a negative by using the same science that actually points to several critical points: (i) the universe began as a very hot and very dense singularity; (ii) energy and matter cannot create itself; (iii) the universe is expanding, and will ultimately cease to exist due to entropy and chaos; (iv) all physical elements, from from the subatomic level to the the endless expanse of the universe, orbit each other in an extremely well-tuned dance; (v) the Anthropic Principle provides a critical examination of five major factors which, if altered even one tittle, would cause the extinction of all forms of life on earth.

The laws of physics, when applied uniformly and fairly, indicate that the universe could not have created itself. The scientific principle cause and effect fails to support the birth of our universe from nothing, as there is no known explanation for the cause of the singularity or the cause of the “explosion” that formed everything. Scientists who accept that the universe was formed from the Big Bang believe their assumptions are true. However, they too rely on “faith” to conclude that that the universe was born at the precise moment of the Big Bang from an infinitely small point of hot, dense matter for which they have no explanation of its original source. Simply stated, they have absolutely no theory for the original source of this matter and energy. William Paley’s logical conclusion was that every watch requires a watchmaker.

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