Functional Integrity in Biology

Date: Tue Nov 28 2000 - 11:30:17 EST

  • Next message: David F Siemens: "Re: Rational Methodology for Evaluating Supernatural Claims"

    "God did it, but how?" - to quote Robert B. Fischer's title (Grand
    Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981). There has been much discussion about how
    God might have created. Here, I focus on Howard Van Till's concept of
    "creation's functional integrity" (H.J. Van Till, "Special Creationism
    in Designer Clothing: A Response to The Creation Hypothesis", PSCF 47
    (1995), 123; H.J. Van Till, "Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of
    Creation's Functional Integrity", Science & Christian Belief 8 (1996),
    21). I'd like to raise the question of the applicability of this concept
    in the biological realm and ask for comments.

    From the point of view of biblical theology, it seems clear that God is
    not only the Creator of the universe, life, and individuals, but also
    that he continually upholds all of his creation, actively keeping it in
    existence. He certainly is capable of performing any "supernatural"
    processes ("miracles") he chooses, but he is also the Author of any of
    the "natural" processes science is able to investigate. It is therefore
    not meaningful to talk about God "intervening" in the created order, as
    if he hadn't his hand in it anyway. Whatever evolutionary processes
    occurred in the history of the universe or of life were acts of God. His
    creation is evolving, and it is he who made it do so.

    In all of this I agree with Howard. I also accept his view of creation's
    functional integrity for the development of the universe, up to the
    prebiotic Earth. We differ, however, regarding the emergence of
    biological information. At least twice, I discussed this problem with
    him personally (if I remember correctly, it was at the 1990 ASA annual
    meeting in Grantham, PA, and at the 1994 C.S. Lewis conference in
    Cambridge, U.K.), but he doesn't seem to have deemed my arguments
    convincing. They were dealt with in my paper "How has Life and its
    Diversity Been Produced?" in PSCF 44 (1992), 80, and again touched upon
    in the paper by Armin Held and myself, "Genesis Reconsidered" in PSCF 51
    (1999), 231. Similar views have been expressed by Roger Forster & Paul
    Marston, "Reason, Science & Faith" (London, U.K.: Concorde House, 1999,
    479 pp.).

    Howard insists that God created a universe that from the outset had
    functional integrity in the sense of being capable of producing
    everything God intended to originate at the appropriate time, without
    any need of his further "intervention". And Howard includes the
    biosphere, apparently not considering life (and even human life) as
    being categorially different from the physical dimension. He does not
    call the emergence of biological systems autonomous, because it was
    decreed by God from the beginning. With functional integrity, it was
    autonomous, however, in the sense of not requiring anything God had not
    yet gifted creation with from the outset. I concede that God certainly
    could have done it this way if he had chosen to do so. But as with Young
    Earth Creationist claims, the question is not what God could do, but
    what he did do.

    Howard's view implies that all information required for the structures
    and functions in the biosphere, including humanity, was either contained
    in the early big bang plasma (and the prebiotic universe ever since), or
    that it emerged by self-organization out of nothing (this is what is
    usually claimed). From what is known in the biological sciences, it
    appears to me preposterous to believe either version. Curiously, in the
    PSCF paper, Howard even seemed to prefer the first version, explicitly
    including "biological systems" among the "basic entities" which God
    "from the beginning, when the creation was brought into being from
    nothing," gifted with all of the capacities needed. Yet biological
    systems didn't come into existence for another 10 billion years. What
    and where were these systems with their capacities more than 4.5 billion
    years ago?

    On the other hand, how could biological information have been fed in
    later? I don't suggest any divine "intervention" in "gaps" in the sense
    Howard rejects. For theological reasons, I believe God "hides his
    footsteps" in creation, in order to protect the personal freedom he has
    chosen to give us for a faith decision for or against him. His footsteps
    in creation are plain, but only to those who choose to believe; to
    others, they are ambiguous as evidence. However, from the viewpoint of
    molecular biology, the faith in miracles of those who believe in
    self-organization of the biosphere is just too big for me. How can these
    two convictions be harmonized?

    There are plenty of "gaps" of knowability which can never be bridged by
    science, not just for the present, but in principle. They are
    fundamental impossibilities in epistemology. But here God is free to
    act, as well as everywhere else where we can investigate scientifically.
    In order to clearly distinguish these limits from the gaps of the
    "god-of-the-gaps" view, I prefer to call them God's "hidden options". To
    be more specific, they may include quantum uncertainties, randomness in
    elementary events, unpredictability due to minute differences in
    parameter values in nonlinear systems (deterministic chaos),
    coincidences. For instance, if we consider a specific combination of
    mutations required in the evolution of a certain enyzme, we can never
    prove it impossible, even if its spontaneous occurrence may, in context,
    be transastronomically improbable, as the tails of the Gaussian
    probability distribution extend to infinity. But God may have chosen to
    actively decree it to occur.

    Such "hidden options" do not represent acts of "special creation" in the
    sense of exceptions to any natural law. Rather, they are specific
    selections among distributions of many different naturally possible
    values for stochastic variables. The only thing that is "supernatural"
    is that a specific selection represents feeding information into the
    system. The physical system does not lack any functional integrity, but
    it needs information, just as a fully functional computer requires
    software and data to do any useful work. Of course, the only reasonable
    interpretation of such a hidden source of biologically meaningful
    information is the Creator. Intelligent design in biology cannot be
    divorced from God. How often such selections hidden from science would
    occur is another question, which seems to be very difficult to judge. I
    believe the biblical Hebrew term "bara'" (as it is variously used after
    Genesis 1:1) would correspond to this.

    The reason why mere random processes without selection cannot do the job
    of producing biological functions and an entire biosphere is the huge
    size of the possibility space; for biopolymers, this is sequence space.
    But natural selection is too inefficient, especially as long as
    selection coefficients are small or nonexistent and therefore random
    walks the only option. The sequence space for most protein domains
    (namely all having at least 62 amino acids) comprises over 10^80
    different sequences and is therefore transastronomical, such that it
    cannot be productively searched by any means. If only invariant parts of
    the sequences (specified by the requirements of the same specific
    function in many different organisms) are considered, the sum of all
    invariant amino acid occupations, plus the sum of the fractions of 1
    corresponding to invariant groups of similar amino acids which can
    replace each other, amounts to about 30% of all amino acids (although
    the percentage is variable). Thus, the possibility space of the
    invariants of proteins containing 2 small domains (around 100 amino
    acids each) is again transastronomical. But the average protein length
    is perhaps twice as large.

    Therefore, it is in principle impossible to find out, by any systematic
    means, whether a belief in spontaneous evolution of today's protein
    world is plausible. The best we can hope for is to design and synthesize
    an initial substrate for darwinian evolution, namely a functional,
    self-replicating mini-organism comprising mini-proteins of minimal
    activity only, each of which requires a sum of amino acid invariants of
    less than 3 (cf. my PSCF paper mentioned), or an equivalent RNA
    organism. Those active in origin-of-life research know that, in the
    foreseeable future, it would be wildly unrealistic to hope to reach such
    a goal. Such a mini-organism, with a genome much smaller than that of
    the simplest bacteria, would have had to be available earlier than 3.8
    billion years ago, which is shortly after the initial heavy bombardment
    of the Earth with planetesimals ceased.

    The "hidden options" suggested are not "god-of-the-gaps" speculation:
    (1) there is no logical reason, either scientific or theological, for
    excluding such hidden options in principle;
    (2) they are claimed for scientific reasons, not theological ones;
    (3) we know from science that these off-limit areas for scientific
    investigation exist;
    (4) they are not research-stops, but honest admissions of ignorance in
    place of obfuscating just-so stories;
    (5) they are not gaps representing exceptions from a supposed usual
    inactivity of God;
    (6) they are not gaps in "creation's economy" as all materials and their
    properties were fully in place and well equipped to proceed anywhere in
    development, just sometimes in need of the specific direction they would
    require for lack of time for successful random-walk trials;
    (7) they are not gaps in God's initial plan, but from the beginning a
    part of what he presumably intended to do at the appropriate time, in
    addition to his activity in the processes open to scientific
    (8) they avoid the easy appeal to gaps in our present knowledge which
    science is very vaguely and optimistically expected to be able to bridge
    some day.

    Are there any theological reasons for excluding God's "hidden options"?
    Howard suggests that it would detract from God's honor to admit that he
    created something unfinished or imperfect. This sounds dangerously close
    to Young Earth Creationisms insistence that God created everything
    perfect, in sudden fiat creations out of nothing, as anything else would
    deny the absoluteness of his wisdom and power. Of course, Howard's
    functional integrity of creation does permit long developmental
    processes. But what is the theological justification for claiming such
    integrity not only for the Creator himself, but for created processes
    and systems? It is understandable that Basil and Augustine felt that
    way, as science in their day presumably still had a strongly platonic
    inclination and knew nothing of the large-scale developmental processes
    of the universe and of life and its complexity. Or is there reason to
    believe they relied primarily on biblical data for their idea of God
    being creatively active only once?

    To a limited degree, we may compare God's acting in human history, of
    which we know something from the Bible, with his acting in the history
    of the universe and of life, of which the Bible tells us much less. God
    guided the history of his people by continuously shaping many big or
    small events. If it were not for the biblical proclamations of these
    events and developments being God's direct action, one might attribute
    many of them to "natural" causes like human tendencies, coincidences,
    etc. In this sense we may say that God used "hidden options", i.e. he
    did specific things in human history, of which we know by revelation
    only that it was he who did it, but not from secular history or other
    sciences. Did God preprogram all of history from the outset, down to a
    suitable level of details, excepting only the modifications to be
    expected from some free will decisions by his creatures? There is no
    biblical indication for this. Of course, God knows everything that is
    going to happen in the future, but preknowledge is not coextensive with

    If there was a kind of self-emptying (Phil. 2:7) and becoming flesh
    (John 1:14) of God in his methods of salvation and, I believe, also of
    revelation, this reality may well apply to his method of creation, as
    well, in the sense that he did not create the platonically "perfect
    biological miracle maze-solving machine" which works all by itself.

    Peter Ruest, CH-3148 Lanzenhaeusern, Switzerland

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Nov 28 2000 - 11:27:44 EST