DNA Does Not Explain Morphology
How do you get from a linear code to a 3-dimensional, active body?
A new book says nobody has found the answer.
Many assume that the genetic code directs the construction of all parts of the body, but that is like thinking that a parts list builds a car. Something more must direct the locations of all the parts and fit them together in the right places and at the right time.
The new book Your Designed Body by engineer Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman, MD (Discovery Institute, 2022) raises interesting questions about the connection between genomics (DNA) and the shape of an active, working body (i.e., its morphology). In a sidebar on page 78, after a discussion of bone and cartilage in the section on connective tissue, they point out significant design problems that science has not solved. We quote:
What does it take to build a house? Where are the shapes for these bones specified?
Since bones are made by many individual (and independent) bone cells, building a bone is an inherently distributed problem. How do the individual bone cells know where to be, and where and how much calcium to deposit? How is this managed over the body’s development cycle, as the sizes and shapes of many of the bones grow and change? Surely the specifications for the shapes, their manufacturing and assembly instructions, and their growth patterns must be encoded somewhere. There must also be a three-dimensional coordinate system for the instructions to make sense.
In home construction, we know that builders have blueprints and verbal and written instructions. Those alone, however, cannot build a house. A project manager is first needed to order all the parts and pay the price. Once delivered, though, they will just sit there unless acted upon. Foremen and workers have expertise in all the facets of home construction: concrete, lumber, drywall, plumbing, electrical, roofing and all; this know-how takes the parts and fits them together in the right order and time (see an episode in the Illustra Media film Unlocking the Mystery of Life that uses the home construction analogy). But where is this know-how in a cell, or a complete organism? Laufmann and Glicksman continue:
Is the information located in each bone cell, or centrally located and each individual bone cell receives instructions? If each bone cell contains the instructions for the whole, how does it know where it is in the overall scheme? How do all those bone cells coordinate their actions to work together rather than at odds with each other?
As the book explains elsewhere, these are hierarchical problems. Individual cells must solve them. Tissues must solve them at a higher level. Organs must solve them, too, and finally, entire organisms must solve them. The liver has to arrive at the right place behind the rib cage at the right time just as much as a protein in a blood cell must arrive at its operational location on the cellular highway to function. Epithelial cells must “know” where to line up along vessels and organs, to ensure a tight fit. And all the parts have to figure this out in the dark, without eyes and ears.
Now multiply these questions by all the organisms that have ever existed: flatworms, honeybees, dinosaurs, eagles, pangolins and human beings. Millions of body types arise from linear code that seems inadequate to account for the result. How does life get from DNA to morphology?
As yet, no one has answers to these questions. One thing we can expect, though: whoever solves these mysteries will likely win a Nobel Prize—which invites a question: If it takes someone of Nobel-caliber brilliance to answer such questions, why wouldn’t it have taken similar or greater intelligence to engineer it in the first place?
The observable reality of working, living, breathing, active large organisms like ourselves calls for explanation. We know that every functional system of integrated, hierarchical complexity for which we saw its origin was designed. But in life, the designer of the human body and all other instances of morphology must have unfathomable intelligence. And to add to the awesomeness of life, consider even higher levels of hierarchical design: ecosystems that rely on networks of other organisms, and a planet with the right composition, atmosphere, and energy source—the sun—to power the whole biosphere.
Sometimes asking the right questions generates appreciation for the magnitude of the awesome wonders that surround us. In light of the above questions, watch again the short video about the human skeleton by Illustra Media that we featured on 17 Oct 2021. Here it is again:
The only organism that does not instinctively fulfill its designed purpose, but usually rebels against it, is the human being: the only creature made in the image of God. That’s why we need something more than a genome, a morphology and a physiology. We need forgiveness, mercy, and grace. That’s the reason for Christmas: Jesus Christ became human to pay the price for our sins and offer a new nature that can (and needs to) align itself with our purpose for existence. Only a life aligned with its purpose can experience fulfillment.
Today is the time to confess. It’s time to confess the trivialities of secularism that universe has a creator. Maybe their sins will be reduced by confessing.
Thought-provoking is too small a phrase to use for this article. Can’t wait to read the Laufmann-Glicksman book. I’ve dealt with the human body all my career (and I also still live in one), and I knew that the individual cells of all types somehow know what to do, where to do it, and how much of it is needed. But add the concept that the exact morphology of every living thing that ever lived was constructed in 3D by up to trillions of individual cells, hardly ever missing a beat, and you certainly have an irrefutable case against blind chance doing the job.
As usual, every time I read an article like this, I am again amazed at God’s handiwork and genius in designing and creating our world. What an awesome and amazing God we have and worship!