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Why is Everything so Complicated?

Why is Everything so Complicated?


The study of science really was a lot less complicated a generation or so ago. What we knew about the planets in our solar system, for example, was short and sweet. The planets basically had location, size and mass, rings or no rings, moons and names. That wasn’t too hard to learn. Since the advent of the space age however we have discovered a wealth of exciting new information. Every planet is different not only in appearance from all the other planets, but also in important physical characteristics. Three planets (Venus, Uranus and Pluto) spin in a backwards (retrograde) direction as do a few moons. In addition the axis of rotation for Uranus is tipped so steeply that it is basically spinning sideways. Moreover four gaseous planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, all exhibit magnetic fields just as Earth does. The orientation of the field however with these giants is exactly opposite to that on earth. A compass on any of the four Jovian planets would point southward. Evidently the solar system is becoming more complicated with the launch of each additional probe.

It is the same story when we look at deep space. The Hubble Space Telescope continues to reveal a bewildering wealth of unexpected detail in the far reaches of the cosmos. In 1995 a NASA press release reported “surprisingly complex structures” in galaxies that emit noise. The newly observed details suggested to scientists that “the processes powering these so-called radio galaxies are more complex than previously thought.” (NASA release 95-133 Aug. 7). Similarly a NASA news release in 1997 (97-287) reported astonishing variation in old stars. Previously scientists had believed: “The end of a sun-like star’s life was once thought to be simple: the star gracefully casting off a shell of glowing gas and then settling into a long retirement as a burned out dwarf.” But this uncomplicated view is no longer possible. The dazzling collection of “pinwheels, lawn sprinkler style jets, elegant goblet shapes, and even some that look like a rocket engine’s exhaust” have indicated clearly that the older and simpler interpretations need to be overhauled. It is obvious that the complex shapes and symmetries of these stars will not be easy to explain in terms of suitable natural processes.

As if details in space are not enough to confuse us, J. M. Denton tells us that things are actually worse in the field of biology here on Earth. In his view “Biology is now caught up in an ongoing complexity revolution which, is surely one of the most extraordinary events in the history of modern science.” (J. M. Denton. 1998. Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe. Free Press p. 343). Nor are the new details which biologists are uncovering, comparable in magnitude to the discoveries in other disciplines. Apparently new biological information is far more profound. “The phenomenal nature of the complexity revolution that currently pervades every field of biology is increasingly a source of comment among researchers in various fields. the general reaction is one of amazement at the ever-greater depths of complexity revealed as biological knowledge advances.” (p. 343)

In the days before widespread use of the electron microscope, for example, study of cell structure was relatively straight forward. Most youngsters could identify the nucleus, vacuoles, mitochondria and chloroplasts, if any. More recently however the eager student must grapple with endoplasmic reticulum, golgi bodies, lyzosomes, glyoxosomes, ribosomes etc etc. Not too many years ago a cell type called heterocyst in certain blue green algae was believed to be basically structureless and useless. Now we know these cells are crammed with membranes which are the site of an important biological process called nitrogen fixation. In other organisms certain thread-like projections enable microscopic cells to swim. Once believed to be solid units, we now know that these threads are very complicated inside. Dr. Michael Behe in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box (Free Press) indicates that these threads require over 200 different proteins to be present in the proper locations and proportions if the organism is to swim at all (p. 72). And so it goes in biology. In the field of genetics, for example, “jumping genes” complicate a picture that becomes ever more difficult to follow.

In his new book, one example that Dr. Denton discusses is the structure of proteins. This should be a simple enough topic and indeed that is what scientists initially assumed as they began these investigations in the late 1950s. Biochemists expected that each amino acid would contribute equally to the overall structure of the protein molecule. But this was found not to be the case. Indeed studies on the three dimensional shape of various proteins soon indicated that each molecule was the result of highly orchestrated folding processes which were in turn controlled by weak electrochemical forces. He likens the sequence of events to stepping stones which “lead the folding process along an energetically favorable route to a magic disclosure, the exquisite beauty of the three-dimensional native form of the protein.” (p. 180) These events remind him of origami, where the intermediate folding stages bear little resemblance to the final design.

Even this small aspect of biological science however has profound implications according to Dr. Denton. Each protein is so different from every other protein and so complicated in its form, that such details and others, point to “an infinity of the unimaginably complex.” (p. 350) And we have just begun to scratch the surface of increasingly intricate details. In the field of protein structure alone, our present discoveries lead Dr. Denton to muse: “…the arrangement of the atoms in a protein is unlike any ordinary machine built or conceived by man, or indeed unlike any object of common experience with which we are familiar. On superficial observation one is immediately struck by the apparent illogic of the design and the lack of any obvious modularity or regularity. The sheer chaos of the arrangement of the atoms conveys an almost eerie, other worldly impression.” (p. 174)

Despite these remarks Dr. Denton states at the beginning of this new book that his loyalty is solely with materialism. Thus he is not advocating either creation or Darwinian evolution but some other kind of natural process. Nevertheless it is possible for us to continue where Dr. Denton leaves off. The essence of modern studies, whether science or any other discipline, has always been to find general principles with which to explain a wide range of details. If one has to explain each observation in terms of ad hoc explanations, then no new knowledge has been gleaned. The current wealth of biological detail is unexpected because it does not lead to generalizations. Moreover evolution theory is considered by many secular scientists to be the most importa nt general principle possible in biology. Now however it seems that complexity points to a lavish attention to infinite variety. No longer should scientists be looking for mechanistic processes to explain where we came from. Instead planning, purpose and intelligence in the creation, are becoming ever more obvious.

Margaret Helder
December 1998

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