The Blog Banner, Walt Whitman, ID and the Genetic Code (and more).

I chose the banner for my blog mostly from an instinctive attachment to the idea of a parent passing on the wonder of science to a child (as my own father did with me). The fact that the subject is astronomy and not biochemistry did not strike me as important. But now, after reading a very interesting post by Dennis Venema at the Biologos blog, I was reminded of a famous poem by Walt Whitman, which I have never liked, about astronomers as exemplars of scientists.

When I heard the learned astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I never liked the poem, because Whitman got it wrong. Yes, the learn’d astronomer might have been pedantic, tiresome and boring. And perhaps listening to any scientist drone on and on with slides of data, figures and diagrams is soul deadening. But what Whitman leaves out of his poem is that the astronomer, when his lectures are done and his admirers have dispersed, also loves to look up and contemplate the beauty of the stars. In fact, that astronomer was very likely the young boy in my banner, following his father’s pointing finger to see the magic of the night sky.

I, and every scientist I have ever known, went into science for love, and only love. And what we love is the thing we study. I like the night sky, and I like animals, but what I love is the way the chemicals of life work. I have been blessed to be able to study and do research into the realities of how biochemistry operates in living creatures.

So what does this have to do with Dennis’ blog post about the origin of the genetic code? The post is technical. It concerns whether experiments showing that part of the code could have had a natural explanation (meaning that it might have had its origin in chemical interactions) were convincing or not. Paul Nelson and Stephen Meyer from the ID-supporting Discovery Institute have written that these experiments (done by the research group of Michael Yarus) are deeply flawed and therefore do not contradict their own idea that the genetic code could not have been “a natural” occurrence and thus must have been the work of an intelligent designer.

Dennis quotes a comment I made on an earlier post showing that many of Nelson and Meyer’s arguments are inaccurate (and he kindly shares a link to this blog). But the real problem I have with ID is more general and philosophical than technical. When we look at nature, any part of nature, our task should be to understand it within the context of our love for what we are studying. And this should be true regardless of whether we believe that all of nature is God’s creation or we’re convinced that it’s the accidental and purposeless result of blind forces. I know many religious scientists, and they all do their science in exactly the same way as our atheist colleagues.

But if we do believe in a God of providence, a God whose work includes purpose, and we believe that purpose includes us, then we should not be constrained by the philosophical assumption that whatever we find out about nature must be unguided, non-designed and ultimately meaningless. I don’t think even atheist scientists feel this way, or they would have become lawyers or bankers or doctors  instead of scientists. What sets believers apart is that they may understand that in all of nature, and especially in biology, there is a guide, a design, and a meaning for everything we uncover. All astronomers can gaze with wonder at the stars, but Christian astronomers can also see how the “Heavens proclaim the glory of God”.

So when Nelson and Meyer try to disprove the template model of code origin, insisting that there could be no possible natural explanation for the genetic code and therefore it must have been “designed”, I am left deeply disturbed and puzzled. Of course the genetic code is designed. Who could argue with that? The code was designed by God, whether it was constructed by some biochemical miracle in a micelle or protocell, or whether it was started by aptameric binding between an amino acid and its codon. To try to prove that so-called “natural explanations” are impossible is to fall into the trap of some of the new atheists who wrongly claim that if all phenomena have a “natural” explanation, then we don’t need God, so He doesn’t exist. The atheists are wrong, not because there are examples of non-natural explanations (which is what ID is constantly trying to find) but because all of nature is God’s work, so natural explanations are as divine in substance as are supernatural ones.

I have rarely looked through a telescope, but I have looked into microscopes for many years. I have seen cells dividing and growing. Yes, I was gathering data for my own charts and diagrams, but I never failed to be awestruck at the wonder of the life I was seeing. When I was an atheist, I didn’t think much further about how all of life had come to be; now as a Christian, I know that God is our creator. But I still want to know all the details about how it all works, and how it happened. Nothing I nor anyone else can ever find out could possibly disprove the beauty of the design of life (especially the majestic glory of the genetic code), and there is no reason at all to try to prove something that we know is true by faith.

So when this learn’d biochemist looks up from his charts of complex regulatory interactions and gazes at the flowers planted by his wife, he sees not only the deep beauty of the flower and the woman, but the glory of the God who made us all. And that is all I need.

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2 Responses to The Blog Banner, Walt Whitman, ID and the Genetic Code (and more).

  1. SheilaDeeth says:

    I think I just read more biochem than ever before (astronomy was my love). And I loved it. And I loved your argument. Thank you

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