Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

The Storms of Life

Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast
Minots Ledge Lighthouse, Mass. coast

On November 15th, 1860, the lamp of the rebuilt lighthouse on Minots Ledge in Massachusetts was turned on for the first time. The notoriously rough seas of the area had shipwrecked dozens of ships and destroyed the first lighthouse erected on iron pilings cemented into the stone of the reef a few years earlier, and that after only a few months in operation. After that lighthouse on iron stilts was destroyed in the 1850s, it was replaced with the current one made out of 2,360 tons of granite. In fact, the first 40 feet of the lighthouse is solid granite made of interlocking stones chiseled precisely to interlock with each other and the jagged rock ledge it’s built on (check out the blueprint at the bottom of this post). Interestingly, this particular “jobsite” was only available to work on for about 2-3 hours a day at low tide in calm weather, took 5 years to construct because of this, and was the most expensive lighthouse ever built in the US. But 154 years later, and this solid rock still stands, it’s light still visible 15 miles out to sea, even though waves have occasionally gone completely over the top of the 97′ high lighthouse. While the lighthouse isn’t particularly beautiful on its own, the addition of especially horrendous and otherwise destructive waves makes it very photogenic and awe-inspiring. It is the storm that highlights the hidden character and strength of the lighthouse.

Sometimes, storms come into our lives that threaten to destroy us: disabling injuries, natural disasters, long-term illnesses. Maybe you’ve been through a car wreck with months or years of recovery (if at all). Maybe a tornado, hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami has literally wiped away all signs of your “life” in a matter of seconds. Maybe you’ve battled cancer, where the doctor’s “good news” was surgery and/or months of chemotherapy or radiation, followed by tests and hopes of cure/remission, only to be set back by the cancer returning twice as aggressive. Or maybe  you’ve just received the crushing diagnosis of late-stage cancer and you only have weeks to live. Sometimes the storm in your life is the stress of caring for a loved one with a terminal disease, the heartbreak of seeing your children go down a dark path in life where you fear for their life, or the anxiety from losing one’s source of income (but none of the bills). It seems there are a thousand different ways to be beaten and battered by life’s storms, and so few ways to stay standing.  Similarly, there were many inadequate ways to build the lighthouse at Minots Ledge, but one way that has stood strong through the worst of storms.

Are there lessons here for us? I think so. First off, if our life is founded on the Rock of Christ and dovetailed into that Rock of Ages such that the storm surge increases the strength of our foundation rather than pulling it apart, then we can stand firm even when the storms of life submerge us, just like the Minots Ledge lighthouse. In fact, our steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds may very well be the “photograph” someone else needs to see in the depths of their life storm to encourage them and keep them from giving up. But the key is the foundation. An iron will is useless with feet of clay, but the whole spectrum of human effort is like subtle grades of clay compared to the bedrock that is Christ Jesus.
Second, the lighthouse doesn’t just sit on the solid rock, but is fitted to it like a jigsaw puzzle and pinned in place; it has become one with the rock ledge.  Likewise, knowing about God isn’t enough. That’s like just sitting on the surface of the rock waiting to be swept off by the first storm.
Third, the individual stones of the lighthouse dovetail together beautifully. This is exemplified when Jesus tells us “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Our beliefs are fragile when they’re compartmentalized. But when they interlock together in an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual fortress fitted into the unmoving rock of Christ, we are storm-proof in Him.

Minot's Ledge Drawing - courtesy of

Lost Compasses

compass_smallMy latest bulletin from the Oklahoma Engineering Board had an article about engineering ethics and the following excerpt struck me.

It has taken generations for professional engineers and professional land surveyors to create the level of public trust that they have been afforded. Unfortunately, years of competent and ethical conduct can be destroyed very quickly by one unethical decision. One such serious breach of the public trust happened in Oklahoma just a few years ago.  A city’s Public Works department was racked with a bribery scandal involving one of its own professional engineers and other professional engineers in the private sector. After pleading guilty to the charges, the professional engineers were sentenced to jail time and assessed large fines.  Following disciplinary investigations and hearings, the Board revoked each of their PE licenses.  As a way of explanation for this unethical and illegal behavior, the attorney for one of the engineers told the court that his client had ‘lost his moral compass’. [emphasis mine]

I used compasses a lot in the Army. They’re nice tools. They’re also susceptible to error. I remember the Land Navigation course at Camp Williams, UT had one mountainside that was very iron-rich. Finding waypoints in that area was difficult because of the havoc magnetic materials wreak on compasses. You had to work off of known points and correct the heading your compass was telling you in those areas. Otherwise, you could truly go around in circles. You may get through most of the course trusting this handy little tool, but if you follow it when it clearly doesn’t match up with reality (i.e. I know that mountain is to my north, but my compass says it’s to my south…), then you are setting yourself up for failure, much like these unnamed engineers did. In fact, as I learned in the army, and as my cross-country flights for my pilot’s license later reminded me, compasses don’t match up exactly with reality to begin with. We say a compass points north, but a compass actually points to magnetic north, which generally does not line up with  true north. So as useful as a compass is for pointing you in roughly the right direction, precise navigation with one requires using a map that tells you the “declination angle”, or how much magnetic north and true north differ in your area. Where I lived, it was a 15.3° difference.

It really comes down to a matter of truth, whether that’s true north versus magnetic north when you’re physically lost, or truth versus error when morally lost. It can be said that something is true when it correlates with reality. If it is objectively true in this manner, then it is true regardless of our perceptions or rationalizations. Reality, then, is a known reference point that we can use to check  ourselves.  For instance, even if I’m red-green colorblind, there are tests one can do to verify that the color of light being reflected off of some grass is, in fact, green, thereby validating the statement that “the grass is green”.  But what of non-physical questions such as the ones that typically form ethical dilemmas? We need a known point of reference in those areas also to calibrate our “moral compasses” and correct them if needed.  What “known point”, – what benchmark – can straighten our meandering paths through ethical quagmires?

  • As our position changes, it should be unchanging for us to figure out how far off track we are (like a  “resection” in land nav).  If unchanging, this known point, or standard, would be applicable universally, i.e. multiple people could reference it to “fix”, or locate, their position on the map.  Likewise, a good ethical reference point should not be subjective. It should apply equally to all, from Mother Theresa to Adolf Hitler.
  •   A known point is also applicable without respect to time. You could likely figure out your location each year on vacation in Yosemite by looking for Half-Dome or El Capitan as those huge cliffs aren’t moving year to year. Using the snowplow on the side of the road as a reference point because it’s been in the same spot your entire week of vacation likely won’t help next year. Another example of this is how a homeowner’s property lines may be determined off a monument marker a surveyor set as a known point over 100 years prior. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be just as valid whether it’s 2014, or 1914, or 2114.
  • A good known point is easily identifiable. Trying to shoot an accurate compass bearing to “the 15th tree down from the 3rd boulder over” when there’s a giant rock spire jutting from a barren mountainside a few hundred feet away is just silly. Use the obvious landmark. Likewise, a good ethical reference point should be obvious. For instance, if your ethical standard requires lengthy research on your part to agree that something as horrible as say, torturing babies for fun, is wrong, then I strongly suggest you find a better ethical “landmark”.

Is there a system of ethics that can provide us the known point we seek? A comparison of the several different and highly nuanced ethical systems and variations of each will have to wait for another day (and probably take several posts to even scratch the surface) but consider this: the combination of deontological and classic virtue ethics found in the Christian Bible provides an unmoving reference point in the character of God that applies equally to all people in all places and at all times. It explains the notion that some things really are inherently wrong (like torturing babies for fun) and are not “wrong for you but OK for me”.  It provides a readily identifiable reference for us in God’s holy character. “Is this activity I’m considering (i.e. bribery) in line with God’s character?” No? Then don’t do it! Done, compass calibrated. Move on down the road.

Engineering a “More Perfect Union”

Constitutional Signing_Small
Today, on this Election Day here in the US, I want to take a break from talking about correlations between engineering design and Christianity to point out similar correlations with our electoral system. Sometimes tiresome political ads and mudslinging candidates can make us forgetful of what a well-planned system of government we were given. Have you ever gotten a kit with detailed instructions for assembling all of the parts that have been carefully designed to work in unison efficiently once fully assembled? Have you ever skimmed through the directions of a complicated kit, or even ignored them entirely, and finally, hours or days later, had to start over again following the directions to the letter? Engineered products often have interdependent parts and require assembly in a particular order to function, whether talking about a skyscraper, a sports car, or your kid’s Christmas gift. It turns out the same applies to elections.

Our Founding Fathers were all too familiar with our fallen human nature so thoroughly explained in the Bible. They and their ancestors had come to these shores fleeing the abuses of power resulting from that propensity toward evil. They had seen for themselves the tendency of kings toward such abuses, as described in the Bible millennia before in 1 Samuel 8.  So they decided to eliminate that possibility by forming a very weak, decentralized government through the Articles of Confederation, but it was too ineffective to take it’s place among the nations of the world.  And so they sought to form a “more perfect union”, a government limited in its power over the people, accountable to the people, with power spread out in different branches and with the branches countering each other through many “checks and balances” to prevent the inevitable power plays that people dream up when given authority over others. They also recognized the tendency of a true democracy to deteriorate into mob rule, a “might makes right” condition best described as 2 wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner.   The middle road between tyranny of the government and tyranny of the majority was our Constitutional Republic, a government bound by the Rule of Law rather than the whims of the men in authority or majority.  But one key component of this experiment in self-governance was an informed, dutiful, and moral citizenry: informed both on current issues and history, so that they can make wise decisions for the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past; dutiful in that they would not be apathetic and leave their responsibility for self-governance in the hands of those all too eager to assume more authority; and yes, moral, in that only a moral people will do the right thing, even when it’s not in their own self-interest. In the words of our 2nd president, John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So, much like a thoughtfully designed product (which it is, really), our political system has some key components that are vital to its functioning correctly. And when we try to operate it without those parts in place, we will continue to be frustrated by it malfunctioning.  Let’s look back to the instructions left us by the designers of our Republic, and get back to building it and maintaining it as it was intended. While this 2014 election has come to a close, may I heartily ask a future favor of everyone – study to know what and who you’re voting for, take part in your governance all the time, not just once every 2-4 years in a general election, and vote for what is right and not just what is popular, or “feels good”, or benefits you personally at the expense of others.