Self-Organization and Nature's Blueprint
“Something we cannot see, touch, or get our hands around is out there, organizing life.” (Margaret J. Wheatley)
Last year, rumor had it that NASA had found life in our solar system. As it turned out, what they actually found was evidence of water on one of Saturn’s moons. Although water is just one of many things required for a life-friendly environment, the discovery bolstered faith that life is “out there.”
The hype surrounding NASA’s finding reflects nothing less than religious hope in the search for extraterrestrial life. How so? Because, for its enthusiasts, extraterrestrial life would mean that we are part of a cosmic community with neighbors who may be able to teach us how overcome our trajectory of violence, poverty, and planetary decline—and all without duty to a higher Being.
It would mean that we are not a cosmic accident, but the inevitable end of a material cosmos.
We could look up to the stars, rather than down to some ancient text to discover the purpose and significance of human existence. But doesn’t evolution tell us that? Not entirely.
TOO YOUNG AND TOO SMALL
According to modern evolutionary theory, life arose from an unsupervised process of random variation and natural selection. There’s just one catch. Before the selection process can begin, there has to be something to “select.” And that something is genes. If evolution can be thought of as manufacturing process whose product is increasingly complex life forms, then genes are its raw materials.
Genes are regions of DNA that consist of thousands to hundreds of thousands of base molecules arranged in a precise sequence. Needless to say, producing such a highly organized structure from a random, undirected process is a tall order. In fact, the chance of getting the correct sequence of molecules by happenstance is about one in ten to the thousandth power, even for the smallest gene. (Those are the same odds as landing heads on three thousand consecutive coin flips!)
But what if the base molecules were shuffled not once, but repeatedly? Specifically, if the molecular sequence was re-arranged in every moment of time, the production of the nascent gene would be guaranteed, correct? Let’s see.
For a 15-billion-year-old universe, there has been about 1017 seconds for nature to get the arrangement right. According to quantum theory, each of those seconds can be divided into 1043 moments of time (known as Planck time), giving nature a whopping 1060 chances to win the “gene lotto.” Unfortunately, that is far short of the 101000 chances needed.
Okay, then; what if the shuffling process occurred in every particle of matter instead of just one? If we let all of the known 1080 particles in the cosmos in on the game, then nature’s chance of success is increased to 10140. Still far less than what is needed. And none this accounts for the time it would take for the building blocks of matter (quarks and leptons) to form atoms; and atoms to form the molecules necessary to create something to shuffle.
But didn’t researchers Harold Urey and Stanley Miller demonstrate how this could all happen back in 1953? While it is true that Urey and Miller produced amino acids in a highly controlled laboratory setting, their success depended not on an undirected and unguided process, but on an intelligently designed and managed experiment that started out with the necessary chemical components.
In light of all of this, even atheists like Sir Fred Hoyle have admitted, “The idea that life originated by the random shuffling of molecules is as ridiculous and improbable as proposing that a tornado blowing through a junkyard would cause the assembly of a 747!”
Hoyle is among many who now concede that the universe is neither old enough nor large enough to produce even the most elemental gene. And without genes, evolution is like a factory assembly line without anything on the conveyor belt.
But if the laws of nature cannot account for life, and God didn’t create it, then how did life come about? Over the last thirty years, there has been a growing conviction about a creative process encoded in the cosmos. Huh? First, a little background.
A COSMIC BLUEPRINT
It is a fundamental principle of physics that in any closed system—one isolated from energy input—things inexorably decay. Take your house, for example. Unless you regularly expend energy into its maintenance and upkeep, your domicile will eventually collapse into a pile of rubble.
This principle is also true for the universe. As the universe expands, it moves ever further from its original ordered state of pure energy into an increasingly differentiated and disordered configuration of matter and energy.
While on the cosmic level, the “arrow of time” always points from order to disorder, on the local level that arrow can be reversed. On an intra-cosmic scale, a system can borrow energy from its environment to organize matter, turning disorder into order.
Consider the formation of a star. When a disorganized collection of atoms combines to form a clump of matter, it can join with other clumps through gravitational attraction. If the clumping continues, the gravitational energy of the growing mass will be eventually converted into self-sustaining nuclear reactions, giving birth to a new star.
On the other end of the spectrum is the development of biological life. By way of a process not completely understood, a hodgepodge assortment of molecules arranges itself into a conscious, living organism.
In his book, The Cosmic Blueprint, astrobiologist Paul Davies marvels at the development of the human embryo. From a single fertilized egg, a variety of highly specialized cells emerge, governing host of functions and hereditary traits. Davies wonders how these cells “know” whether to be a brain cell or bone cell. He also wonders how, at the molecular level, a cell “figures out” where it is supposed to go in the finished product. It’s as if each cell is programmed with zip code and routing instructions.
Without question, the production of independent action, thought, language, rationality, and creativity from a single cell is nothing short of miraculous. It suggests to Davies a “blueprint” and a “global supervising agency” that guides the organism to its final state.
Lest you think that an endorsement of theistic creation, Davies is quick to state otherwise. Rather than seeing a Creator or some mystical principle operating behind the scenes, Davies believes in the “organizational properties of complex systems.” Life, according to Davies, is “written in” material processes at work in the cosmos—processes, Davies believes, are “likely to be forthcoming as result of new approaches in research.” (That’s as strong a faith statement as any to be heard from theists.)
For Davies, our existence is not accidental, but fundamental to the cosmos. And that gives Davies what he calls “a deep and satisfying basis for human dignity.”
Paul Davies is one of a growing number of researchers who have concluded that neo-Darwinism is insufficient to account for the full complexity of the universe. They have come to realize that complex systems, like the mind, are more than the sum of their parts—and more than what can be explained by gradual adaptation and selection. Yet they attribute that difference not to Omnipotence, but to “emergence.”
According to emergence theory, evolution is just one epiphenomenon of a grand and inexorable process of self-organization hard-wired into matter itself. As the meta-process of nature, emergence “explains” the existence of things that do not impart a distinct evolutionary advantage—things like multi-cellularity, sexual (versus asexual) reproduction, and intelligence.
For those uncomfortable with the idea of an omnipotent Creator, emergence imparts hope in an omnipotent creation—all without any moral baggage.
IT’S FAITH OR . . . FAITH
But all this talk about self-organization overlooks some very inconvenient facts: To self-organize, there first has to be a “self”—a coherent assemblage of matter and energy functioning under the direction of a mind. There also has to be a blueprint and a set of assembly instructions for a “self” to follow in creating the inevitable end-product—a self! It’s all a bit circular, don’t you think?
Nevertheless, those who hold a materialistic view believe that the instructions for life are deeply embedded in the cosmic matrix of matter and energy. It is like believing that the information in this essay originates from the chemicals in the ink and paper on which it is written.
The chemicals on this page neither create information nor are, themselves, information. Rather they are the tools used to form letters that make words and sentences, according to pre-designed conventions of language and grammar to communicate something originating outside of those chemicals: my thoughts—vaporous cerebrations that can be right, wrong or indifferent, but certainly not material.
The same is true for the instructions for life. The atoms and molecules in DNA are not those instructions, they are building blocks used to form the chemical sequences that direct a host of cellular functions including data replication, repair, transmission, feedback looping and self-correction—all according to a “language,” blueprint and design originating elsewhere: the mind of God.
Admittedly, that is a faith statement. But those who criticize it have a faith statement all their own:
“I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection.” (Richard Dawkins, author and neo-Darwinist)
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: email@example.com.
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