How does insulin control blood sugar levels? How do antibodies fight coronaviruses? Questions like these have been at the frontier of biochemical research for as long as we have known there were such things as proteins. Understanding proteins and how they are made is a challenge that continues to be the focal point of a great deal of work.
The human body contains at least 20,000 different proteins, and their shapes are controlled by how their component amino acids are twisted and folded. In the medical field, the importance of understanding proteins is enormous. Not understanding proteins and how they are made would be like trying to fix a car engine when you don’t know how it works or how it was put together.
The Week for December 18, 2020, quotes Janet Thornton of the European Bioinformatics Institute, saying, “This is a problem that I was beginning to think would not be solved in my lifetime.” What has changed is that computers can do in hours what would take a human years to solve. Scientists have analyzed protein structures for malaria, sleeping sickness, and leishmaniasis (a disease caused by parasites) to find new methods of treating those diseases.
Amino acids are the basic building blocks of life, and we know that they exist in outer space and can be produced in the laboratory. Using these building blocks to make proteins that govern how life works is extremely complex. The amino acids bend and fold in origami-like structures to make proteins. To suggest that proteins can result from some chance process of organic evolution is stretching credibility to the breaking point.
Genesis gives us the simple statement, “And God said ‘It is good.’” As biochemistry begins understanding proteins and how they are made, we see how complex God’s creation is. Those simple words wonderfully describe what we are starting to understanding as a work of incredible intelligence and design.
Those who maintain that all life is a product of chance have a new opponent on their hands. He is Dr. David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University, chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies, and a member of the National Council of the Arts. He says that we are not a product of chance.
One of Dr. Gelernter’s main arguments is the difficulty of producing a stable and functional protein by blind, mechanical chance. Proteins are the work-horses of life. Proteins called enzymes catalyze all sorts of reactions and drive cellular metabolism. Other proteins, such as collagen, give cells shape and structure. Proteins drive nerve function, muscle function, and photosynthesis. The question is whether mindless, random changes in molecules can create all the different proteins necessary for life to exist.
The argument starts with amino acids, which we know can be formed by natural processes in specific environments. Statisticians calculate that the odds of amino acids forming a stable protein are 1 in 1074. As Gelernter writes, “To say that your chances are 1 in 1074 is not different, in practice, from saying that they are zero.” For comparison, science tells us there are only 1080 atoms in the universe. Gelernter says, “The odds bury you. It can’t be done.”
It is essential to understand that we are not talking about the formation of life here. Gelernter is talking about making chance mutations in existing DNA that result in a useful new protein that could play a role in evolution. Macroevolution, or the creation of new species, would require new genes that could create a meaningful new protein. This is simply one small step in producing the materials necessary for life.
We are not a product of chance. There is growing evidence of the design and planning that has gone into the making of life and us. Dr. Gelernter says he has been attacked by some atheistic scientists, because, as he says, “I am attacking their religion.”
One of the more honest and fair writers in modern scientific publications is Dr. Bob Berman. He has a regular column in Astronomy magazine and an interesting website. In the September 2017 issue of Astronomy(page 10) he has an outstanding brief review of the problems involved in trying to explain the origin of life. He begins by pointing out that the definition of “life” has been an issue because of questions such as whether or not a virus is alive. Viruses have no metabolism, they don’t feed or breathe, and yet they reproduce.
Berman then reviews some of the parameters necessary to consider when addressing the origin of life. Chirality is a major issue because amino acids that make up proteins come in right- and left-handed versions. Life on Earth is made up of only left-handed amino acids. Sugars used by the proteins are limited to the right-handed direction and so is DNA. The wrong chirality just will not work to support life so how could nature sort out the chirality? If life is easy to produce, why don’t we see it coming into existence all over the Earth? The “amoeba-to-man” model assumes that it only happened once which conflicts with the view that life is abundant in the cosmos.
What is especially interesting is that Berman raises questions about the ability of evolution to explain on a chance basis some of the designs we see in living things. He uses the example of the airfoil that all flying forms of life have. The upper surface is convex using the Bernoulli effect to produce lift. The earliest bird and the flying reptiles all had a wing design that works. Trial and error would not work well to explain how the wing design would come into existence by chance. Berman points out that “some 400,000 cells would all have to simultaneously mutate in just the right way to create a properly shaped wing. This defies an evolutionary hypothesis.”
Berman concludes with the statement “I’m not invoking spirituality, merely that the effect of random collisions and mutations is not always a workable answer. So perhaps nature is inherently smart.” I would suggest that wing design is just one of a massive number of design features that allow life to exist.
News items in the media in early March have made the spectacular announcement that “life material” has been found on Ceres, an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Technically that announcement is correct, with the weasel word being “life material.” NASA was very careful to announce that they have “not actually found any signs of life on the dwarf planet.” Rather than finding life on Ceres, what they found is a spectrograph of light reflected from the surface giving the same pattern as seen in hydrocarbons on Earth–specifically kerite and asphaltite.
We have pointed out repeatedly that finding life on Ceres or anywhere in space is not a biblical issue. The Bible doesn’t tell us that God did not create life elsewhere, and He very well may have. There is a deeper motive for announcements like this one. If you are going to teach that life began in a primeval soup full of organic molecules, you have to find the molecules to put into the soup. Amino acids have been found in meteorites and in dark nebulae, but most have been small and very limited in complexity.
Life and its formation are so complex that even having the “soup” doesn’t tell you much about how life could have formed. The picture that is emerging of the early days of Earth does not show an environment hospitable to the organic soup that is postulated by some cosmologists. The assumption of anaerobic conditions is not valid, and the number of agents hostile to life existing seems to grow with every passing discovery. Future studies will tell us more about how God prepared the Earth and perhaps the universe for life, but none of this is a threat to the faith of those who believe that God is the creator of all we see.