Early in the eighteenth century, in the last few years of his life, the great philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz exchanged a series of letters with Isaac Newton supporter Samuel Clarke in which they debated a range of topics. One topic was, for lack of a better term, error correction in the natural world. The brilliant Newton had discovered that the solar system was unstable. Newton trusted his findings and concluded that perhaps the solar system is occasionally adjusted by special divine action. That is, a divine finger intervened to nudge a planet in its orbit and avoid an incipient instability.
For Leibniz this was practically heresy. As with Burnet, the idea that God would not design a world capable of self-sustained, perpetual operation was terrible theology. As Burnet made an analogy with a clockmaker. Clearly, the greater clockmaker is the one who makes a clock that is not in need of adjustment. We don’t admire the clockmaker who must nudge the hands of the clock occasionally to set things right, or otherwise makes a clock that doesn’t work:
We think him a better Artist that makes a Clock that strikes regularly at every hour from the Springs and Wheels which he puts in the work, than he that hath so made his Clock that he must put his finger to it every hour to make it strike; And if one should contrive a piece of clock-work so that it should beat all the hours and make all its motions regularly for such a time, and that time being come, upon a signal given, or a Spring toucht, it should of its own accord fall all to pieces; would not this be look’d upon as a piece of greater Art, than if the Workman came to that time prefixt, and with a great hammer beat it into pieces?
Is it not the same for the Creator? The greater god designs a world that has no need of adjustment. So for evolutionary thinkers such as Burnet and Leibniz, there was a need for a naturalistic explanation for why the solar system had not disintegrated. And just such an explanation was provided. It came later in the eighteenth century from the great French mathematician and scientist Pierre Laplace who solved the stability problem when he figured out that Newton’s bothersome instabilities would iron themselves out over the long run. Leibniz’s prophecy seemed confirmed as the solar system was inherently stable after all, with no need of divine adjustment.
This story is a classic example in the history of science of an apparent success of greater god theology (interestingly today’s science guarantees no such stability but suggests a remote chance that the solar system could become unstable).
In recent years, however, a plethora of new scientific evidence, from the burgeoning field of molecular and cellular biology, has been discovered that bears directly on this issue of error correction in nature and greater god theology. Even this week new papers are continue to elucidate this issue.
Consider, for example, DNA repair. The delicate double helix macromolecule can be compromised for a number of reasons and for this problem the cell has an astonishing built-in repair capability. Worst of all is the so-called double-stranded break where both threads of the DNA double helix are broken. But even here the cell is able to mend the damage. As one researcher put it, “it’s almost as if cells have something akin to a computer program that becomes activated by DNA damage, and that program enables the cells to respond very quickly.”
One such cause of DNA damage is the accidental insertion of ribonucleotides (RNA) into the DNA molecule. These errant ribonucleotides can accumulate by the millions in a single cell and, as a new paper explains, are edited out in mice, for example, by a crucial enzyme.
The presence of ribonucleotides in DNA can also cause copying errors when the DNA is replicated, as part of the cell division process. And as with DNA damage, DNA replication also has an amazing error correction process. Amazingly, the copied DNA is checked for accuracy and corrected to dramatically reduce the error rate.
Not surprisingly DNA copying is more error prone when there is DNA damage. When such damage is detected the normal copying machines are paused and a special “sloppier copier” is ushered in to do the job. This backup copying machine is able to replicate a damaged section of DNA by not reading it so precisely. This means that there are more copying errors, but a copy with more errors is better than no copy at all.
In fact the cell division process involves various mechanisms that are, as the author of another new paper put it, “very complex.” For instance, in the more advanced eukaryotic cells the DNA is arranged in chromosomes. The chromosomes are replicated in the cell division process, and these chromosome pairs are attached in something like an “X” pattern. The two copies are later separated and destined for the respective daughter cells produced by the cell division.
This process too can incur many problems and again the cell has incredible error correction mechanisms to make things right. Here is how one report explained new findings on this process:
During cell division, the cell's DNA is consolidated into X-shaped chromosome pairs that align along the middle of the cell. Where the arms of the X cross, each chromosome has two kinetochores--protein complexes that facilitate microtubule attachment to the chromosome. As cell division progresses, these microtubules pull the right or left half of each chromosome towards the spindle poles to separate them to opposite ends of the cell.
Problems can frequently arise during this process. As a microtubule extends from a spindle pole, it may attach incorrectly to a kinetochore. When this happens, the cell needs a way to detect the mistake, detach the problematic microtubule, and reattach it correctly. If the issue is not addressed and cell division proceeds, the chromosomes typically fail to divide evenly, resulting in cells with the wrong number of chromosomes. This aberrant distribution of chromosomes can lead to cancer or premature cell death.
To correct attachment problems, cells rely on a system of phosphorylation -- the addition of a phosphate group to certain proteins -- to control whether or not microtubules stay bound to the kinetochore.
According to the Molecular Cell paper, the enzyme Aurora B resides within the inner kinetochore and adds phosphates to a key player in the kinetochore, called the KMN network, that attaches to the microtubule. […]
"This is a very sensitive system that allows the cell to dynamically respond to different attachment problems," says Julie Welburn, first author of the Molecular Cell paper and a postdoctoral researcher in the Cheeseman lab.
DNA repair, DNA replication and chromosome dynamics are just a few examples where we find incredible error correction mechanisms in the cell. These various molecular correction mechanisms are, of course, extremely improbable given evolution. We would have to believe that evolution constructed fundamental cellular processes which were literally disastrous. Stable populations would not have been possible. But then, somehow, evolution rapidly rectified the calamity with astonishing error correction mechanisms. This narrative is simply untenable from a scientific perspective.
Equally unlikely would be the notion that the error correction mechanisms were already available, more or less in place and ready for use when the newly constructed, error-prone, processes originated.
But this is not merely a story of yet another evolutionary failure. What is interesting here is how these new findings reflect on the age-old greater god theology. To be sure, the operations of the cell are fantastic and should please the most idealistic observer. See this animation, as just one example of the splendor. Is it not like harmonious music?
But as we have seen above, clearly the world of molecular biology is error prone. This, it may seem, would present an immediate problem for the traditional idealistic view of creation. It hardly seems aesthetically pleasing for key cellular processes to be regularly producing errors at a high rate. Would the ancient Greeks not have been troubled by such findings?
Perhaps not. Recall that Leibniz’s concern was with an intervening Creator who adjusted and fixed His creation. The clockmaker should not “put his finger to [his clock] every hour to make it strike” as Burnet explained. What if the clock came with fantastic, built-in, devices to perform every correction and adjustment automatically?
It is not that the clock itself works on its own, but it does with these additional devices. Leibniz probably would have been delighted with this narrative. After all, elsewhere the German polymath argued that creation cannot be perfect but rather necessarily must entail evils and inefficiencies, for otherwise it could not be distinguished from the perfect Creator.
And so our new knowledge of nature provides profound insights far beyond the mere materialistic molecular actions. We now know things that wise men and sages from ages past could only have dreamed of. And these things reveal fundamental aspects of the creation. We leave such contemplations to the reader, but two messages are obvious.
First, the evolutionary view, that the world is a byproduct of a combination of chance events and the necessary action of law, is obviously challenged.
Second, the idealistic view, that the world is always a symmetric, harmonious, beautiful arrangement, according to our sentiment, is also challenged.
Yes creation does operate according to natural law, and it is certainly harmonious and incredible in many instances. But these two views do not extrapolate well.
The greater god theology, however, has held up rather well. It seems to derive from the idealistic view, and it motivated the evolutionary view, but taken in isolation from its lineage, the notion that God would not create a world in need of sporadic divine intervention continues to be serviceable.