Undeniable: Control and Purpose in Living Things

Here’s my fifth installment of the 2017 Westminster Conference on Science and Faith. In this one, Dr. Vern Poythress spoke on how control and purpose in living things is evidence of design.

I like a point he made at the beginning when he said that seeing design depends on people. There’s no mathematical formula that can prove design; design must be inferred based on the information and evidence available to us. People, including young children, are able to identify things that are designed. We can see someone’s initials carved on a tree and realize it didn’t happen by chance. Even if we had never seen anyone carve their initials in a tree before, we’d be right to conclude that someone must have done it because trees don’t naturally grow with initials in their bark, and we’ve never observed termites eating away to produce such a phenomenon. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the initials were carved by a person on purpose. This is a logical interpretation.

Biological organisms also contain signs of design that can be detected by people. Dr. Poythress used the crab as an example, pointing to its eyes, claws and legs. They each have function and purpose. The eyes are useful to the crab for seeing food, predators and obstacles, while the claws grab food or can be used as a weapon to pinch, and its legs help it chase down prey or flee from predators. These organs and limbs can certainly provide other uses and function, but the point is we can identify their purpose.

The same cannot be said for a stone. I could pick up a nice round stone and use it as a paperweight so that my stack of papers doesn’t fly off in the wind, but that doesn’t mean the rock’s weight, composition or color exists to keep paper from flying away. Sandstone doesn’t contain sand for the purpose of depositing it on the beach. Hurricanes don’t have fierce winds because they want to damage things or kill living organisms. These inanimate objects exist because of naturally occurring events that can be observed, predicted, tested and understood.

Even the atheist Richard Dawkins recognizes design in nature, saying, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose [but are not].”

He may not realize it, but his conclusion that biological organisms were not designed for a purpose is a statement of faith and a personal opinion, not a fact. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly normal for people to be able to identify things that are designed- or at least has the ‘appearance’ of design.

Poythress goes further, stating that we can detect design in molecular structures by identifying an expression of purpose. To demonstrate, he points to a peer reviewed abstract in Nature, stating,

“During protein synthesis, the growing nascent polypeptide chain acts as a positive or negative regulator of the rate of peptide-bond formation and ribosomal fidelity, and influences the efficiency of downstream protein-folding and targeting events.”

This is technical, but the authors have indicated that when cells generate new proteins, even while in a developmental stage, the chain serves the purpose of regulating the rate and formation of peptide bonds.

A regulating device can be described as, “a device which has the function of maintaining a designated characteristic. It performs the activity of managing or maintaining a range of values in a machine… it can be a variable according to a predetermined arrangement scheme.” And this is exactly what we find in biological systems.

Now does this mean life couldn’t have arisen spontaneously by natural occurrences, or that we have to invoke God’s existence? Atheists would say ‘no’, but still, this is pretty strong evidence that life was designed by God. We don’t see naturally occurring regulating devices forming spontaneously by chance- at least none that are observable and testable. We can see hurricanes forming, for example, but the high and low-pressure systems and warm, moist air that feed the storm are acting according to natural processes (designed by God).  But these are external forces, not forces contained within the storm (like the components of a cell). When those external forces no longer feed the storm, it dies. (Can you imagine if a hurricane were a living, self-aware organism?)

Another component that hurricanes don’t contain- but designed objects do- is what can be described as fidelity- something that is faithful at producing a goal or purpose. Generally speaking, the engine in a car is designed to faithfully accelerate, while the breaks faithfully slow it down. If an airplane faithfully delivers us from point A to point B, then we can see fidelity as it achieves its purpose. Our eyes faithfully allow us to see so that we don’t bump into things or fall into holes. The components of a cell faithfully repair wounds, obtain nourishment, and reproduce. Being able to identify these components and their goals allows us to determine whether or not something has been designed.

Another abstract published in Nature said,

“Our findings identify key mechanisms controlling the Mcm2–7 DNA-entry gate during origin licensing, and reveal that the two Mcm2–7 complexes are loaded via a coordinated series of events with implications for bidirectional replication initiation and quality control.”

This is amazing. The authors found key mechanisms faithfully controlling the opening and closing of an entry gate, and other key components loaded in a coordinated series of events for quality control. This description of the way a cell works screams of design! Of course, evolutionists would say this is just the way chemicals react, and the authors were just using shorthand to describe it. They would deny there are any goals in the cell, but just mindless, blind natural forces without purpose. But the problem with that explanation is that we don’t see chemicals behaving in this manner in nature. Scientists can’t just mix chemicals in a lab and produce living organisms, and they certainly have never observed the spontaneous generation of life in the wild. If that is how chemicals react, then we should see life arising from non-life all the time- or at least occasionally.

Control is another component by which we can detect design. Poythress used the nervous system as an expression of control when he quotes from another peer reviewed article:

“Here we describe a mammalian nervous-system-specific membrane proteasome complex that directly and rapidly modulates neuronal function by degrading intracellular proteins into extracellular peptides that can stimulate neuronal signaling. This proteasome complex is closely associated with neuronal plasma membranes, exposed to the extracellular space, and catalytically active. Selective inhibition of the membrane proteasome complex by a cell-impermeable proteasome inhibitor blocked the production of extracellular peptides and attenuated neuronal-activity-induced calcium signaling.”

Again, we have specific components that directly and rapidly modulate function and provide selective signals to inhibit and block production. These molecular control systems provide for plant growth, as well as animal defense and behavior.  This sort of thing has never been observed to occur naturally in non-living chemicals, so I think it’s unreasonable to conclude that it could happen if given enough time.

Lastly, Poythress considered the evolutionary process, and pointed to the malarial parasite, HIV and fruit flies as evidence against evolution. Even though scientists can observe 100 billion-billion generations of the malarial parasite in a single year, they have never observed one evolve beyond a parasite. HIV can produce 100 billion-billion generations in a year, but cannot advance beyond its barriers. Scientists have been experimenting with fruit flies for decades, but they haven’t evolved beyond a fruit fly. Yet organisms like mammals are said to have evolved from ape to human anywhere from 4 to 14 million years within 150,000 to 650,000 generations. Richard Dawkins was half-right when he said, “Evolution has been observed. It’s just that it hasn’t been observed while it’s happening.” I’d argue that not only has evolution never been observed while it’s happening, but it has never been observed at all.

Overall, Poythress made some excellent points. His presentation doesn’t prove that God designed life- or the universe, but his points, along with other evidences provided during the course of the conference, are solid evidence that God did design life, and that he left tell-tale signs.



4 thoughts on “Undeniable: Control and Purpose in Living Things

  1. As always, I enjoy the compare and contrast between a thing that was designed (a hurricane), and a thing that was ALSO designed (a crab). I think maybe I could have skipped my 3000 word essays and just posted a link to a venn diagram last time….

    – No interest in rehashing our discussion, nor will I be following this post today…but you asked for comments on the blog, so maybe this will get someone else to write something in a line of thought we haven’t already explored

    • The hurricane, of course, is something that can be observed to occur naturally (even though I believe they’re created by God too. But with the crab, we can’t observe it’s evolutionary history- if there were such a history- and we can’t see any other organism evolving new, novel designs in body type or function. Therefore, I think it’s quite valid to compare and contrast a crab and a hurricane, just as we can with a watch or Mt. Rushmore. We can compare and contrast things we know to be made with things that occur naturally, and with things we believe to be created by design. And when we do compare and contrast, we’re able to observe the differences and similarities, and then formulate conclusions. You conclude that it’s inconclusive for philosophical reasons, while I maintain we’re able to use our mental faculties to reasonably conclude that life had to be designed.

  2. But hurricanes only ‘evolve’ from previously existing weather formations and conditions. No one has ever observed the component air currents, cyclonic effects, and requisite low pressure areas forming from nothing. What you define as ‘natural’ is really just a synonym for ‘well understood’, and what you define as ‘supernatural’ is simply ‘not completely understood’. Inferring design =/= demonstrating design.

    • Yes, hurricanes are well understood, while spontaneous generation and evolution are not. And this is precisely why a supernatural explanation is the most plausible explanation available, considering what we do know about God and science. It is far more likely that life were created and designed than to have arisen by purely naturalistic means. To deny this is a statement of faith itself.

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