Today I picked up a brand new smartphone, an Apple iPhone 4S. There’s something thrilling about holding such an elegant piece of engineering in your hand, feeling the smoothness of the materials used, admiring the beauty of the design as it fits so naturally into your hand, and experiencing the ease and power of these devices. Smartphones reflect brilliance in everything, from their aesthetically attractive appearance to the ones and zeros that encode their software.
Smartphone manufacturers are very diligent about protecting the ownership of their brilliant products. In fact, they employ small armies of lawyers to do this. Their engineers are not working to enrich other corporations. They are working to keep themselves employed and to earn money for their company’s shareholders. In addition, many engineers probably take pride in the roles they play in producing such amazing devices. They are like artists who don’t want others to steal the credit for their creations.
Recognizing the brilliance evident in smartphone designs is relatively easy, even for those of us who don’t understand every detail of how they work. Yet, if we chose to study them more carefully, it’s doubtful that we would come to the conclusion that smartphones are less impressive than they first appeared. In fact, the opposite would be true—the more we learned about how they are designed and how they work, the more impressed we would be.
The world of nature
This same principle is true when studying the brilliance evident in living things. Birds, fish, roses, elephants, and the rest of the natural world are not just beautiful works of art on the surface. As we study how they function, we find profound levels of complexity all the way down to the DNA that codes for the proteins living things are made out of.
The principles on which life operates are both simple and profound. Like smartphones, organisms run according to the same laws of physics as everything else. As is true with smartphones, it would make no sense to conclude that because life runs according to the laws of physics, living things and their software must be the products of natural laws and chance. We know from experience that it takes geniuses like the late Steve Jobs and the amazing team of engineers working for Apple, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin and the Google engineers who designed Android, to produce smartphones, their operating systems, and the apps that run on them.
How nature works
Understanding something about how smartphones work can give us insights into how living things operate and where they came from. The DNA found in the cellular building blocks of all living things is comparable to the software running on smartphones. The DNA language is written in four chemical letters called adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine (commonly abbreviated A, G, C, and T). This four-letter DNA alphabet is much more complex than the two-digit (one and zero) “alphabet” of computer programs, but it is still simple relative to the 26-letter alphabet I am using to write this article. Yet the simplicity of the DNA alphabet indicates elegance, and the information it encodes exudes brilliance.
I work as a molecular biologist, so I study information encoded in DNA in the same way English professors study beauty in Shakespeare’s sonnets or musicians marvel at the notes encoding Beethoven’s sonatas. So is the information encoded in DNA different from the information encoded in letters on paper or in smartphone apps? Let’s look at some DNA-encoded information, and then decide.
The language of DNA
Let’s compare the language of DNA to a book. In this “book,” the “chapters” are genes. In my lifetime there has been a revolution in how we understand genes. When I was in school, we learned that there are lots of genes, and the idea back then was that genes are relatively simple, more like sentences than chapters. This misunderstanding arose from the research of two brilliant geneticists, George W. Beadle and Edward L. Tatum. They concluded from studying mold that every protein (or enzyme) is coded for by a gene, and they believed that every gene made a single protein—what they called “one gene, one protein.” At first, it seemed that this idea was almost inspired, so much so that Beadle and Tatum were awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
When I started to teach molecular genetics, I taught my students that each gene makes a single protein and that, because we make many proteins, we must have many genes. This logic seemed so obvious that few people questioned it. This conclusion was, in fact, almost right. Unfortunately, being just a little bit wrong can lead to profound misconceptions. When scientists sequenced the genes in the entire human body, they discovered that humans have far fewer genes than had previously been thought— about one-fifth the number in earlier estimates. How could brilliant scientists have been so wrong? To find out, we will look at a gene called PITX2 (paired-like homeodomain transcription factor 2).
PITX2 produces proteins that bind to DNA, influencing the production of other genes. These PITX2 proteins perform various functions, including such things as influencing the shape of your head and the proper development of your eyes. The secret to PITX2 function is that it produces several different proteins, not just one protein, as most molecular geneticists had assumed based on Beadle and Tatum’s hypothesis. The question was, how can a single gene make multiple proteins?
Understanding what a gene really is helps us answer this question. Because it had been assumed that genes originated from the Darwinian process of random changes sorted out by natural selection, most scientists also assumed that genes must not be very complex. After all, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism doesn’t appear to be capable of producing the kind of complexity found in things like smartphone software, yet it turns out that the PITX2 gene, in association with other molecules in cells, has a lot in common with smartphones and other computers. Both are information processing systems that take input, process the information, and then respond appropriately with the correct output.
smartphones and smartgenes
In the case of a smartphone, the input might be finger swipes or letters typed on a keyboard. The output ranges from images on the screen to music to radio signals that can ultimately be picked up by other phones via cell towers. In a similar way, the PITX2 gene takes in information from its environment via proteins and other associated molecules that bind specific DNA sequences. This information is processed and the output is the appropriate protein.
But we have still not answered how one gene can make several different proteins. The mechanism takes advantage of the fact that the PITX2 gene is not just a single unit of information; it is made up of several different protein-coding segments of DNA. These segments, called “exons,” can be joined in different ways to make different proteins. If a gene is like a book chapter, then exons are like paragraphs that can be joined to tell different stories.
We can also imagine exons as something like Lego blocks. A few Legos can be used to make a wide variety of things; the person playing with the blocks usually decides what the blocks will form. In the case of PITX2, the gene not only codes for the exon “Legos,” it also puts them together in the appropriate way so that the right protein is made. But it does not do this all by itself any more than smartphone apps operate independently of smartphones or smartphones operate independently of cell towers or wireless networks. To function, genes require a large amount of associated machinery found inside cells.
Just like PITX2, most genes in humans and other organisms are made up of exon segments that can be joined in several ways to make multiple kinds of proteins. This explains how organisms make so many different proteins with far fewer genes. And the PITX2 gene is not the only gene that acts as an information processing system. There are literally thousands of them.
When we understand that genes are information processing systems, we see that these DNA systems are incredible feats of engineering. For those with an eye to see it, genes are more than just technical marvels; they really are like smartphones, in that they reflect the brilliance of their Creator.
This brings us to our understanding of where marvels like this come from. We laud geniuses like Steve Jobs at Apple and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin—and so we should. We benefit incredibly from the technology that has resulted from their vision and the work of the thousands of geniuses working in their corporations. But whom can we thank for the far more remarkable technology that we find inside ourselves and even the simplest of other living things?
Our experience tells us that information processing systems, software, and information itself, all originate from intelligent minds, not from unguided nature. We could deny the need for intelligence to account for the amazing engineering we find within ourselves, but this would make no more sense than denying the existence of Steve Jobs (now deceased), Larry Page, and Sergey Brin.
The Bible offers a much more reasonable alternative, encouraging us to embrace the reality of the Creator God. Far more profoundly than we credit those who design technological marvels like smartphones, embracing this reality of a loving and intelligent Creator God liberates us to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7), giving honor to the One who created us “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).