The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No God Required

As I write these words, human beings have not only synthesized all of the basic building blocks of life, but have actually taken the next great step in directed evolution and have begun to create entirely new organisms, assembling new genetic code designed from our understanding of those these incredible molecules interact with one another. It is imperative that we as a species come to recognize what it is that we are capable of doing. Human beings are capable of not only creating all of the essential buildings blocks that comprise living matter, but have also developed the technological expertise necessary to assemble those building blocks into a self-replicating system.

We have already mastered the technology necessary to create entirely new branches in the tree of life. This is an extraordinary feat that ranks among some of the greatest human achievements of all time. It is important, however, to place this in perspective. Humans discovered DNA in 1955. We have been aware of the existence of the genetic underpinnings of life for only a little over half a century. We have been able to manipulate genetic code for only the last twenty years. In that time, a handful of scientists have managed to create, from scratch, all of the fundamental buildings blocks necessary to create life. At the same time, they have reached a level of mastery that has enabled scientists to create a very basic living organism. In less than 50 years, a small number of scientists, through dedicated effort have managed to create organisms animated by energy that are capable of self-replication. This is the very essence of life.

What I find most intriguing about this entire process is that it vividly demonstrates that life does NOT require a spark of the divine. Indeed, it demonstrates the exact opposite, that even humans with a dedicated effort, can organize matter so that it crosses the threshold between non-living matter and living matter. If this marvelous feat can be accomplished by a handful of scientists in the span of a few decades, does that not show better than anything, that no divine spark, no authorship, no design was necessary to begin the chain reaction of life on this planet? Advocates of Intelligent Design will argue 'Wait! This was intentional! It was an act of authorship! These scientists intended to do this. They took steps to ensure it happened! Such an act would be impossible without their authorship. It would never happen in the wild!

Nonsense. Much of the science required to bring these first organisms to life consists of trial and error, of switching one genomic sequence with another, over and over again. Advanced microbiology, as almost all pioneering sciences are, an iterative process of trial and error. If the miracle of life can be artificially created by a handful of scientists in a scant handful of decades, how many hundreds of thousands of trials did it take? How many millions? To be sure, the effort was staggering, their labor painstaking and the number of trials numerous, but understand that in the primordial Earth, our entire globe seethed with a global ocean.

This global ocean teemed with organic chemicals and compounds formed through the same processes scientists can now use to form the most basic buildings blocks of life. These compounds inevitably grew in complexity as they surged back and forth with one another, combining and recombining in endless and various formations. And as the global ocean surged back and forth, churning in its primordial state, these complex organic compounds would combine and recombine endlessly for millions of years. To be sure, the individual chances of any one of these interactions producing a basic living thing are infinitesimally low, however, as has been shown by scientists, no divine spark is necessary. All that is truly required is a small strand of RNA. While the individual chances are small, given the fact that scientists have managed to create an organism from scratch in only a handful of decades, it suddenly seems highly likely that a global ocean teeming with countless septillions of organic molecules would eventually, over the course of hundreds of millions of years, produce something that a handful of scientists have produced within a quarter century.

While authorship and an attempt at intelligent design definitely facilitate the process, and greatly enhances the speed and efficiency by which it can occur, it is by no means necessary. What man can accomplish through a small but dedicated effort in a few decades, chance, working on septillions of molecules over hundreds of millions of years, can also accomplish.

It is the biological equivalent of a thousand monkeys working at a thousand typewriters eventually producing King Lear. While such a feat is unlikely at any given point in time, given enough monkeys, typewriters and time, the result is not only likely, but inevitable. And the result, far from being a meaningless spattering of keys, is actually made more meaningful because its emergence is so unlikely. Were a thousand monkeys working at a thousand keyboards to actually produce a novel or a work of poetry of surpassing emotionality, beauty and meaning, would your emotional reaction to it be lessened by the fact that its creation was random? If so, I pity you, for you are missing out on the true beauty of existence.

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