I once stood with a friend next to a gravel pile.
Design in Nature
By Tim Standish
I once stood with a friend next to a gravel pile. Among the crushed rocks we saw an unmistakable stone arrowhead. The arrowhead’s specifications were unlikely to be matched by the randomly broken stones surrounding it. So we both concluded it was designed, not simply a product of chance or natural laws.
Design and Natural Laws
Experience tells us that chance is an unsatisfying explanation for improbable objects that meet certain specifications, such as those of an arrowhead. But if chance is insufficient, why not invoke natural laws to explain the origin of things that use them, such as arrowheads, machines, or living organisms? Machines ranging from molecular motors inside cells to cars exploit natural laws. Cars do not run on miracles; they are machines that convert energy from oil or electricity into kinetic energy to transport us. Like other machines, cars use natural laws to achieve our goals. Operating according to natural laws is not the same as being a product of natural laws.
Within living organisms, as with cars, the parts essential to the processes they perform sometimes come from diverse suppliers. One example can be found in the roots of legumes, plants that make protein-rich beans. In the cooperative process of extracting nitrogen from air to make proteins, the plant provides energy and creates special low oxygen conditions necessary for a bacterium to “fix nitrogen.” To soak up oxygen, which prevents nitrogen fixation, an “oxygen sponge” called leghemoglobin is used.
It was once thought that the protein part of leghemoglobin is made by the plant, while the bacterium supplies the heme molecule that holds the oxygen-binding iron. Now it appears that at least sometimes the plant makes the entire leghemoglobin complex.* This process beautifully illustrates the cooperative nature of creation. It is similar to the way well-designed factory departments cooperate together to produce cars or bowling balls, candy or electronic gadgets. If each production step didn’t fit an overarching plan, nothing would be made.
The necessity of a plan is true for all organisms, because organisms cannot survive alone. Cooperation does not benefit just the organisms directly involved; in the case of nitrogen fixation, it benefits all life. Rare breakdowns in this cooperation illustrate why it is essential for life; for instance, when non-native organisms are introduced into a new setting, they may disrupt ecosystems. Even normally benign or helpful bacteria, such as staphylococcus or E. coli, can cause sickness or death. Yet these are exceptions, not the rule.
The question should not be whether or not nature appears designed. From the trillions of nonhuman cells that live in our bodies cooperating with us in various ways that keep us healthy and happy, down to the molecular machines that keep each cell running, all the way up to the cooperation between plants and animals that keeps animals fed and plants pollinated, the real question is “Who is responsible for the marvelous designs we see brought to life all around us?” Who came up with the necessary plans? The Bible provides a compelling answer that also accounts for the, thankfully uncommon, exceptions to the beautiful design that pervades creation. Design in nature is far more amazing than a simple stone arrowhead, and has far more profound implications. The Bible liberates us to see it and praise the Designer.
* M. A. Santana, K. Pihakaski-Maunsbach, N. Sandal, K. A. Marcker, and A. G. Smith, “Evidence That the Plant Host Synthesizes the Heme Moiety of Leghemoglobin in Root Nodules,” Plant Physiology 116, no. 4 (1998): 1259-1269. Online at www.plantphysiol.org/content/116/4/1259.
Tim Standish, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute and lives in southern California, United States.