The Astonishing Elements of Life

The Chemistry of Life: Evidence of Intelligent Design?

Each of the millions of chemical compounds, made from the 100 different building blocks, the elements, has its own unique properties. Even simple molecules like water, show evidence of being designed for life.Considering what similar substances are like, water is a surprising liquid that has the special properties life requires. It is a unique solvent with a solid form (ice) that is less dense than the liquid form, so that ice floats and fish survive the winter. The fact that water has so many unusual properties, not shared by similar substances which make it essential for all living organisms is something not only interesting, but significant. It was thinking about the unique properties of water, which certainly seems designed for life, that got me thinking many years ago about the deeper significance of molecular properties.

Life as we know it is built on carbon. Carbon also has unique properties that make it a key element in building the molecules of life. Its the only element able to form very long chains with itself, where great stability is combined with the power to attach widely different kinds of atoms or groups. It turns out that carbons very existence in the universe is an unlikely event. The well known British astro-physicist Fred Hoyle discovered that it was an amazing and highly unlikely coincidence, a unique matching of properties between helium, beryllium, and carbon, that overcame a complete road block to the nuclear processes that lead to the formation of carbon, upon which all life in the universe depends. Carbon production is another example of how the Universe is just right for life. It seems the Creator got a hole in one every time!

Commenting on the delicate positioning of the nuclear properties needed for the production of carbon inside stars Hoyle wrote:

"If you wanted to produce carbon by nucleosynthesis, there are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just about where these levels are actually found to be. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature."

All living organisms are tied together by their dependence on the properties of carbon, so that the molecules of life, DNA, RNA, proteins, amino acids and ATP, etc. require its uniqueness. No obscure marine invertebrate is based on silicon chemistry rather than carbon, no bacteria uses a genetic molecule unlike DNA, or RNA. We don’t deal with organisms made of crystallized clay.

But surely, claims the naturalist, carbon atoms come together by natural causes. You dont need to pray every time you make a large polymer! True. But we need to understand that the big molecules of life are of a different order of complexity from the polymers we can readily synthesize, and they contain a level of information that gives evidence of intelligent design.

However, before we get into the evidence from the big molecules of life, lets stay with water, and develop an analogy that will help us understand this point. In its solid form water forms snowflakes. Snowflakes are beautiful designs. Each has a unique hexagonal pattern. However, there is a natural cause explanation for beauty of this kind. There is nothing mysterious about the beautiful shape of a snowflake. It arises by natural processes involving what scientists call hydrogen bonding and dendritic growth, that always accompanies the change of H20 from liquid water, to solid snow.

There are many kinds of order that can arise like this from natural causes, i.e. from something within the matter itself. These kinds of order are therefore not the best evidence of an intelligent cause. For example, the wind and rain may erode rocks and blow sand to form beautiful patterns, which are accounted for by natural forces. But what about Mount Rushmore? If you saw the four faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln carved on the granite cliff of Mount Rushmore, you would ask “who did it?” and conclude that there must have been an intelligence at work, changing the rock face. Selective weathering by wind and rain is not, in this case, a viable explanation.

This everyday analogy reminds us that there is a kind of order, where natural forces is an inadequate explanation. In this case, the order produced by intelligence is different from order produced by natural forces, and we can recognize the marks of an intelligent mind in what we observe.

There are parts of science that readily use intelligent design as an explanatory principle. Archaeologists use it to tell whether stone artifacts were created by natural processes or by intelligent beings, When researchers on the SETI project (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) wanted a transmission to stand out against the background of interstellar noise, that could be recognised and hopefully decoded by any intelligent beings out there, they chose a set of prime numbers, (divisible only by themselves and by one) because they form a pattern. They are unnatural (in the sense that there is no natural way they can be produced) but designed so that an intelligent being can recognize them.

Now lets get to the big molecules of life. We find that the big molecules of life require not just natural order, like snowflakes or eroded rocks, but the kind of order like the four faces on the cliff, that makes us ask who did it? We recognize it as the kind of order which must be produced by an intelligent cause. Life requires purposeful design in the way the building blocks are put together at the molecular level.

The Big Molecules of Life

The use of DNA as a carrier of inheritance, which expresses its information as proteins via molecular intermediates, is a compelling molecular analogue of the four faces on Mount Rushmore.

The discovery of DNA reveals that at the core of life is a molecular message that contains a staggering quantity of information. A single cell in your body contains more information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. The origin of information carrying molecules like DNA is one of the key challenges in explaining life.

All of us began as a tiny ball, smaller than a pin head, which contained our DNA, the molecule that spelled out all our physical characteristics, such as height, eye colour, nose shape etc. It is particularly in this molecule we see an order that demands an intelligent cause.

We can best understand the functioning of DNA as being like a language. The molecular sequences in DNA spell out in coded form the instructions to a cell. It works just as letters in the alphabet do in conveying information in a sentence. The genetic code is a molecular communication system, using a sequence of chemical letters to transmit information to each living cell. In the case of written messages we know from experience that they always have an intelligent source. On the basis of analogy we conclude that the remarkable information sequences in DNA also had an intelligent source.

We are not now talking about things like crystals or snowflakes. The sequence of nucleotides in DNA, or of amino acids in a protein, is not a repetitive order like a crystal, A highly ordered, but repetitive pattern like a crystal, has a low information content.

To help understand the difference between order and information content consider another every day analogy. Wrapping paper with Happy Birthday on it is highly ordered, but it has low information content. We only need two instructions to specify it.(1) Write Happy Birthday (2) Do it again. But if I want my computer to print out a birthday poem, it requires a large number of instructions. You must specify every letter – there are no short cuts. This is the kind of order we find in DNA. You cant produce a simple set of instructions telling a chemist how to synthesis DNA. You would have to specify every letter in every word, one by one.

In every day life you know that to organize information in music, computer programmes, and books we need an intelligent agent. Is it not reasonable to conclude that the DNA molecule is likewise the product of an intelligent agent?

The best that scientists can do, in their attempt to explain the order in DNA, is to replace an intelligent Designer by some mysterious unknown intrinsic property in atoms and molecules. And they do this by drawing analogies to spontaneous ordering in non living structures, such as crystals. But the fatal flaw in all such speculation is that crystals, while highly ordered, are low in information content, and are incapable of storing and transmitting the large amount of information that life requires.