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The Language of Life

DNA double-helix molecule

The article below is an entry submitted by Fr Robinson into an essay contest for seminary professors. It contains an explanation of the workings of DNA similar to the one found in chapter 10 of The Realist Guide to Religion and Science.


1. Introduction

At the basis of all religion is the recognition of our created condition. To the degree that humans are able to notice and acknowledge their own limitations, to that degree are they moved to identify and admire causes higher than themselves.


The wonders of scientific discovery can be a means to assist a priest to elevate the thoughts of others towards higher and spiritual realities. It seems not a little providential that our age has been made privy to many such wonders. Materialism is our century’s dominant ideology, and yet matter has never so proclaimed its spiritual origin. Humans have produced so many magnificent technological instruments, but those instruments have only enabled us to discover that every nook and cranny of the material world—from quarks to quasars—is vastly more magnificent than we ever could have imagined.


In this essay, I would like to show how a priest might use science as an aid in his work for the salvation of souls.


First, I will highlight a scientific breakthrough from the 20th century. Second, I will indicate how that breakthrough might be used to aid others on their way to their true goal.   


2. Life’s language

The discoveries of the 20th century were so prolific and astounding that the judicious lover of science finds it difficult to choose a favorite with which to regale the reader. But one in particular, I believe, provides striking evidence of the hierarchy of being present in reality. It is the discovery that life has a language, a language understood by all life forms.


Full in the flush of this dramatic statement, I must hasten to clarify what I mean. It is not the English language; it is DNA. It is not a spoken language; it is a written, coded language.


An example from my computer science past will help complete the work of disambiguation. When a programmer wants to design a computer program, he starts with a computer language, such as C++ or Java, which contains various symbols corresponding to instructions to be performed. He then, secondly, writes his program, arranging the symbols of the programming language in a specific sequence so that the desired set of instructions will be executed, and in the correct order. Thirdly, the programmer compiles his program. There is a compiler for each programming language and its job is to translate the symbols of that language into a code that can be executed on the computer, something called assembler code. This code consists of a series of binary digits, zeroes and ones, which are transmitted in packets to the computer’s Central Processing Unit, which ‘understands’ the operations that it must execute from the order of those digits. This execution of the assembler code is, in fact, the fourth and final step that remains to the programmer after he has compiled his program. Once this step is completed, the computer program, assuming that it has been written correctly, performs the task for which it has been designed.


To recap, in computer programming, there is:

  1. a language 
  2. with its symbols arranged in a specific sequence
  3. compiled into assembler code
  4. and finally executed on the computer.

Such a four stage process more or less takes place in the cells of all biological forms, and this is the reason why I speak of life as having a language. To illustrate this scientific fact, we would do well to review the history of the discovery of DNA.   


Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid[1]

It was the Austrian Catholic monk Gregor Mendel who, through his experiments with peas in the 1860s, was able to show that certain pea traits seemed to have an existence on their own. Those traits would not appear in one generation, but would then reappear in the next. The traits were later termed “genes” and the fact of their existence set scientists on the search to find their source.


In 1869, Friedrich Miescher isolated chromosomes in the nucleus of cells. It was later shown that chromosomes combine in equal proportions when an egg and a sperm unite. This led many to infer that they are responsible for heredity.


The next step on the way to explaining genetics came in 1909. Through experiments with fruit flies, Thomas Morgan at Columbia University located four information-bearing entities on the chromosome that were responsible for passing along mutations in the flies. Other scientists in the same year separated a nucleic acid in the chromosome from protein material. They called it “deoxyribose nucleic acid” or DNA. They found that it was made of four bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—biologists abbreviate them as A, C, G, and T.


At this point, DNA had been discovered and its chemical composition was known. But scientists did not think that it had anything to do with heredity. It was true that it contained four information-bearing entities and was part of the chromosome, conditions required by Morgan’s experiments. Yet most scientists believed that the four bases ACGT were linked together on the DNA in a monotonous, repeating order. And if there was not variety in the arrangement of those bases, then they certainly could not account for the great variety of traits found in peas and fruit flies. As a result, DNA was ignored as a possible candidate for genetic agency for a few decades.


Only in 1944 was Oswald Avery at the Rockefeller Institute able to show that, in fact, DNA must play a role in heredity. He was puzzled by the fact that, when he injected mice with a serum containing two types of bacteria—dead, lethal bacteria and live, non-lethal bacteria—the mice would die. What he discovered was that the dead, lethal bacteria were passing genetic material to the live, non-lethal bacteria, turning them into mice slayers. What genetic material was being transferred? DNA. 


This discovery motivated chemist Erwin Chargaff of Columbia University to re-visit the question of the distribution of nucleotide bases in DNA. What he found was that the ACGT bases, far from occurring in regular patterns, had a quite irregular sequencing that allowed for immense variation. This made it clear that DNA, after all, could be a trait-determining agent within the cell.


In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick, at King’s College in London, constructed the now iconic double helix model of DNA, clarifying its structure and so opening the door for theories on how the irregular sequence of bases on the DNA spine could determine features in living bodies.


Crick, for one, had an idea, which he proposed in 1958, and which came to be called the “sequence hypothesis.”[2] He thought that it was not the chemical composition of the bases ACGT which caused this or that activity to take place in the cell, but rather their order alone. If this were the case, then arrangements of the bases would act like letters that spelled certain words, which would contain instructions that the cell would read, interpret, and execute. In short, life would have a language.


It did not take long for Crick’s hypothesis to be formally confirmed. In the early 1960s, scientists were able to discover the way in which DNA produces proteins in the cell—a process called “gene expression”. It does so in the manner of a computer code or a written language.

 

A short explanation of this process will provide us a concrete example of the language of life. 


Producing proteins

Stephen Meyer explains the importance of proteins in the cell as follows:[3] 


"Scientists today know that protein molecules perform most of the critical functions in the cell. Proteins build cellular machines and structures, they carry and deliver cellular materials, and they catalyze chemical reactions that the cell needs to stay alive. Proteins also process genetic information. To accomplish this critical work, a typical cell uses thousands of different kinds of proteins."


Where do all of these indispensable proteins come from? They are built according to the instructions contained in the order of the nucleotide bases on the spine of the double helix DNA molecule. The process goes as follows: · 

  • A DNA molecule is unwound and a specific section of its long strand containing the code for making a given protein is copied to a long message-bearing ribbon called “messenger RNA” (RNA = RiboNucleic Acid).
  • The strand of RNA, bearing a certain sequence of the DNA’s nucleotide bases, travels to a molecular compiler called a ribosome. The ribosome ‘reads’ a section of three bases at a time, for instance, CAG, AGG, and the like. · 
  • The ribosome executes the instruction ‘contained’ in the three bases, by summoning a component of the future protein, called an amino acid, of which there are 20 types. For instance, if the nucleotide sequence is CAG, the amino acid glutamine is summoned; if AGG, the amino acid arginine. The right types must be set in a line in exactly a specific order for a protein to form. A typical protein contains 150 amino acids.
  • This reading and execution of sets of three bases is repeated until all of the amino acids are in place. After they are all in position, a base sequence like TGA tells the ribosome to stop reading and wrap things up. The ribosome cuts the strand containing the new sequence of amino acids, which goes off to another part of the cell where it is formed into a protein.

In this process, we have each of the four elements that are involved in computer programming. Firstly, there is the language, the set of symbols that correspond to certain instructions to be performed. In our DNA example, triplets of nucleotide bases serve as symbols for certain cellular operations to be performed: start reading, summon this or that amino acid, stop reading. Secondly, there is the writing of the program. That work has been done; the program for every living thing—plant, animal, and human—is written in the sequences of DNA found in every one of their cells. Third, we have the program’s compilation. In the case of DNA, this is accomplished by a strand of DNA being copied, and then the base triplets being isolated for reading. Finally, the program is executed when the triplets are read, the amino acids lined up in a row, and the protein assembled.


Thus far a snapshot of the language built into all that lives on this Earth. Its existence is entirely unique in the physical world. Beyond the workings of DNA in the cell, we know of no physical process that operates in such a way, by means of a system of intricate encoding.


I have focused on the fact that the genetics of life operates on a system of symbols. I could have also mentioned the inter-dependence of the components of the cell: DNA contains instructions for building proteins, while proteins build DNA. Or the fact that a single strand of DNA contains multiple programs that are mixed one within another, that there are higher level programs that direct the accessing and combination of multiple lower level programs, that transcription mistakes occur for only around 1 out of 100,000,000 nucleotides transcribed. 


Suffice it to say that cellular functioning is vastly more complex than what can be explained in a library of volumes—even if we did know how it all works, which we certainly do not—much less in a short essay. Let us just rest on the astonishing fact of the presence of a coded language in the cell and see how a priest might lead souls closer to God by means of it.


3. Application to the ministry

It is common to refer to the priest as a physician of souls in reference to his ministry in the confessional. But priests obviously must look to heal souls in every context, and truth, scientific or otherwise, can act as a balm to our fallen nature. And while priests can only confess Catholics, they can yet speak about truths from God’s book of nature to everyone.


The way, however, that a priest will present scientific facts will differ depending on whom he is speaking to: the atheist, the agnostic, or the believer. In each case, he has the same goal in mind—the salvation of souls—but he must wisely adopt the right strategy with each in order to help them take the immediate next step closer to God.


Let us consider those three cases in turn.


The Atheist

Aristotle recommends that, when facing off against one denying first principles, one employ a disproof. [4] This involves adopting the other’s position, showing him where it leads, and then asking him to embrace its consequences. Atheists, often implicitly and unknowingly, but assuredly, undermine the principles upon which reason rests. Science can be the only tool to make them realize this, since many of them consider that only science is capable of providing true knowledge.


To help the atheist see the consequences of his position, we begin by presenting him with the striking fact, taught to us by science, that the cell is a data processing unit, similar to our own computers, and yet many orders of magnitude more complex. Then we ask the cause. By definition, the atheist must respond with a merely material process, such as a just so story about amino acids jostling around in a prebiotic soup being struck by a fortuitous lightning bolt and spontaneously forming themselves into a self-replicating cell.


Our job is to show it is mindless to postulate a cause without mind. If we are to follow Aristotle’s advice, we must be careful not to argue our own position. Rather, we must take the atheist’s position and infer from it that an intelligent process—the coded language in the cell—had its origin and cause in non-intelligence. From this, it follows that causes do not have to be capable of producing their effects. They can communicate to their effects something that they themselves do not have. In this case, a reality with nothing of intelligence is able to embed intelligence in living cells. The effect comes out greater than its cause, possessing something not present in the cause.


If the atheist accepts these consequences—which he surely must, if he is honest—then we simply conclude that science provides us no knowledge whatsoever. The reason is this: science is about inferring causes from effects. But if an effect does not have to resemble its cause in order to come from it, then no such inference can be correct. Any cause can produce any effect. If non-intelligence can yield intelligence, when they are at contradictory poles of reality, then anything between those poles is within the realm of possibility. Rabbits can come from bacteria, bananas from rustling winds, supernovas from sesame seeds.[5]


Either the atheist accepts the law of causality or he refuses all of the findings of science. This is the logical conclusion of his own position. If we can only enable him to see that all causes must be adequate for producing their effects, we have accomplished much.   


The Agnostic

We may presume that an agnostic is not so firmly fixed in a materialistic ideology as the atheist, and so we can attempt a positive argument, and not a merely negative one. The mistake, here, however, would be to use the reality of genetic coding as a basis for proving the existence of God. The reason is that it cannot be done, and trying to prove what cannot be proved makes us look foolish.


If we want to prove the existence of God, we must have recourse to metaphysical notions; we must argue from ‘being’. We can infer—with absolute certainty, the certainty of which Vatican I speaks[6]—an unlimited being from limited beings, an uncaused being from caused beings, an immutable being from mutable beings, and so on. Only an omnipotent God can have a causal power adequate for communicating being to that which previously had nothing of being, or conserving in being that which is not self-existing. But everything less than God can, in theory, have a causal power adequate for taking an existing being and changing it in some way.


If, then, we consider DNA as a limited being, then we can argue from it to the existence of God. But we are not doing that here. We are considering DNA as a possessor of a coded language that is understood by all living things. From there, without the help of revelation, we can only get halfway to God. The best we can say, by reason alone, is that at least a demi-god must be responsible for it. And getting an agnostic to a halfway station before unloading metaphysical concepts on him is perhaps the most prudent goal. Most agnostics know that the admission of the existence of God is quickly accompanied by the admission of a moral law. This realization can make them cold towards those attempting to turn them into theists at a first conversation, whereas they might be quite willing to grant that life must have been designed by some higher intelligence, not understanding that such an acknowledgement will mark a turning point in their lives.   


The Believer 

How refreshing it is to be able to set aside polemics when speaking to a theist about the marvels of nature. There is no need to stifle the wonder welling up in the soul, to lower one’s lifted eyes, to steel one’s intellectual faculties, in order to argue the obvious. Instead, we are immediately able—I should probably say free—to add another section to our understanding of God’s reality, and use it for the glory of God and the attainment of our end. New knowledge of the book of nature leads to a new love of its Author: we admire the care and goodness of the Father in fashioning us. The new love leads to new service: our adoration assumes a special fervor. We sing a new canticle, adapted from the old one, the one of the three young men in Daniel, who called upon the whole of irrational nature to praise God: “Let the earth bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever” (Dan. 3:74). “All ye nucleotide bases”, we could say, “bless the Lord. Adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, bless the Lord. Ribosomes and proteins, bless the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever.”


4) Conclusion

Due to the technological advances of the past century, the human race has been made privy to a wealth of astonishing facts about God’s creation. One of these facts is the presence of a coded language that is written into the genetic information for all living things in a double helix molecule within their cells.


The faculties by which we made this discovery and all others—our senses and reason—were given to us by God Himself. We are finding what He meant us to find. Nature is, after all, His book; scientific fact, of itself, is directed to His glory. It is for the priest to employ science as a means to lead others to God. A priest can use the language of life to convince atheists that the first principles of reason must hold true; to persuade agnostics that there must be intelligent beings higher than humans; and to inspire believers with a greater love of their Creator. To one and all, he can hold up as an object for deep reflection the remarkable scientific fact that someone’s intelligence is built into the least and the greatest of living creatures.


FOOTNOTES;

[1] For the history of DNA’s discovery, see Stephen Meyer’s magisterial yet quite readable Signature in the Cell (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 60-84.

[2] For Crick’s hypothesis and its confirmation, see Meyer, op. cit., pp. 100-105.

[3] Ibid., p. 92.

[4] Metaphysics, 1006a11-18. I adopt this strategy to argue against scientistic materialism in The Realist Guide to Religion and Science.

[5] This is how we get atheist scientists claiming that universes spontaneously pop in and out of existence, from nothing, upon fluctuations of the quantum vacuum. See, for example, Lawrence Krauss in A Universe from Nothing (New York: Atria, 2012), pp. 169-170, or Paul Davies in Nothing (New York: The Experiment, 2013), p. 50.

[6] “If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty with the natural light of human reason through the things that are created, let him be anathema” (Denzinger-Hünermann, §3026).