Design in Nature

One day I was standing with my friend Henry Zuill next to a pile of gravel. Henry happened to look down at the stones as we talked and, as I followed his gaze, we both saw something surprising, a stone spearhead. Even though it was in the middle of many other chipped and broken stones, there was no mistaking it. Most people have little difficulty differentiating things that are designed from those that are products of chance and natural laws. A spearhead may be made out of something as simple as stone, but its specifications are unlikely to be met by randomly broken stones.

Sometimes we can become confused about what is designed if we don’t understand the design, or if we imagine that because something runs completely by natural laws it must be a product of those same laws. If we think about it, all designed things run by natural laws. It isn’t as if cars, for example, run on miracles. Cars are machines that convert the thermal energy released during gasoline combustion into kinetic energy and in so doing use the energy to do the work of carrying us to the store, the park or wherever else we might want to go. Like other machines, cars are all about using natural laws to achieve what we want, not about violating them in some way. There is a big difference between operating according to natural laws and being a product of natural laws.

The whole point of machines is to take advantage of natural laws to do work more efficiently. In living things we see a multitude of machines doing exactly this. Inside plants we find innumerable molecular machines that harvest sunlight and store the energy in hydrogen bonded to carbon atoms. The product of these machines is the sugar that fuels the rest of life. Molecular machines are as difficult to understand as the machines we encounter in our day-to-day lives, perhaps more so due to their minute size and amazing elegance. Still, the basic principle applies that these molecular machines operate according to the same natural laws as all other machines, as does the principle that machines are products of intelligent minds that design them to use those laws to do work; they are designed for a purpose.

One of the most amazing things about organisms is that parts essential to the processes they perform sometimes come from diverse suppliers, something like the parts of Airbus or Boeing airliners. One example of this can be found in the roots of legumes, plants that make protein-rich beans. In the cooperative process of taking nitrogen out of the air and convert it into a form that allows the plant to make proteins, the plant provides the energy and creates the special conditions necessary for a bacterium to “fix nitrogen.” The bacterium can only fix nitrogen when there is essentially no oxygen present. To soak up all the oxygen an “oxygen sponge” called leghemoglobin is used. Leghemoglobin is similar to the hemoglobin that we use to soak up oxygen in our lungs and release it to the cells in our bodies.

It used to be thought that the protein part of leghemoglobin is made by the plant, while the bacterium supplies the heme molecule that holds the iron which binds oxygen.[1] Now it appears that in at least some cases the entire leghemoglobin complex is made by the plant.[2] Whether or not the plant makes the entire complex, the cooperation between plant and bacterium is amazing. What it illustrates beautifully is the cooperative nature of the creation. Instead of being “red in tooth and claw,” nature could not survive if it were not primarily about organisms cooperating with each other. This is similar to the way a well-designed factory works with various departments cooperating together to produce cars or bowling balls, candy or electronic gadgets. If the different entities didn’t cooperate, nothing would be made. Not even the most enthusiastic Laissez-faire economist believes factories would produce products if there were not some grand plan in place to coordinate the activities of workers.

The necessity of a plan is true for all organisms because organisms cannot survive alone. The cooperation does not just benefit the organisms directly involved, in the case of nitrogen fixation it benefits all life. Thankfully the exceptions to this cooperation are just that, exceptions and not the rule. It seems that it would be easy enough for nature to operate in ways that cause the collapse of ecosystems and death of individuals. We see this sometimes when new organisms are introduced into a setting they are not native to, or when normally benign or even helpful bacteria, such as Staphylococcus or E. coli bacteria cause sickness. Yes, it is bad for parasites when they kill their hosts, but this doesn’t seem to stop many from doing just that and in the case to Staph infections or illness causing E. coli, the organisms are not parasites in the first place. The bottom line is that it is easy for things to go wrong hurting all the organisms involved, yet that is not what seems to be happening most of the time in nature.

When it comes to design in nature, the question should not be whether or not nature appears designed. From the trillions, yes trillions, of non-human 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 keep the animals fed, the plants pollinated and any number of other cooperative relationships between organisms, the real question is, “Who designed the marvelous plans we see brought to life all around us?” The Bible provides a compelling answer that also accounts for the, thankfully uncommon, exceptions to the beautiful design that exists throughout the creation. The design we see in nature is far more amazing than the simple spearhead Henry and I spotted in a gravel pile and has far more profound implications.

Tim Standish, PhD

Geoscience Research Institute

[2] Santana MA, Pihakaski-Maunsbach K, Sandal N, Marcker KA, Smith AG. 1998. "Evidence that the plant host synthesizes the heme moiety of leghemoglobin in root nodules". Plant Physiol. 116 (4):1259–1269. doi:10.1104/pp.116.4.1259. PMC 35032. PMID 9536042.