Recently a friend sent me a link to a TEDx talk, “Digital biology and open science — the coming revolution,” which affirms that life’s “complex interacting molecular machines” reveal “molecular clockwork is real and pervasive” and appear to be “built by an engineer a million times smarter than” we are. The speaker is biologist and engineer Stephen Larson, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from University of California, San Diego, and is CEO of MetaCell, a systems biology research and consulting company that seeks to understand biology through computation.
Now I don’t think that Dr. Larson is pro-intelligent design, which makes his descriptions of biology all the more striking. In fact, after recounting some complex features of biology that appear designed, he immediately throws in the disclaimer that “what we understand of course is that life evolved on the planet over billions of years.” Nonetheless he admits that he finds the extremely “well organized” nature of life’s “technology” to be “unsettling.” He even says, “I’ve got to be honest with you, I kind of hate this.” Here’s the transcript of the relevant section, from most of the first 4:30 of the talk:
[A]s science continues to reveal how life works, we find again and again that the magic that seems to distinguish between things that are alive and things that are not [is] actually created by complex interacting molecular machines. These microscopic machines are as precise and intricate as a mechanical watch, but instead of being run on gears and springs, are powered by the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry. Our understanding of the precise coiling and uncoiling of the DNA molecule, or the way that one molecule can literally walk almost robotically along the tightrope of another molecule, continue to show us again and again, this molecular clockwork is real and pervasive.
Now what’s most unsettling to me about this is that we didn’t build these machines. As someone originally trained as an engineer, I’ve got to be honest with you, I kind of hate this. As the most clever species on the planet, we kind of like to think of ourselves as the builders of the most sophisticated technology in the entire universe. We invented written language and the printing press. We cured polio and sent a man to the moon. Heck, we even took savage beasts and turned them into kittens, and then built a global communications network to share pictures of them. That’s pretty impressive.
And yet when I look through a microscope at a humble bacterium — by the way its ancestors were on the planet a billion years ago, billions of years ago — I still wonder how it really works. Because the mechanical watch that is life is not like any watch we’ve ever built. It is biological gears and springs, but they fill rooms and buildings and cities of a vast microscope landscape that’s bustling with activity.
On the one hand it’s extremely well organized, but on the other hand the sheer scale of all of this unfamiliar well-organized stuff that happens in there makes me feel that I’ve stumbled onto an alternate landscape of technology that’s built by an engineer a million times smarter than me. The more that I search for principles beyond the ones we’ve already learned, the more I am overwhelmed with the feeling that this stuff was built by aliens.
OK, not literally. I don’t literally mean that I think little green men and women came down to the earth and seeded life here a billion years ago. What we understand of course is that life evolved on the planet over billions of years. But the results of evolution confuse even our smartest engineers when we try to understand how we could build what biology has evolved.
What if life has good engineering principles and we just haven’t figured them out yet? Could studying biology give us the ability to extract new engineering principles that maybe then we could use to solve the world’s intractable problems? Our experiments only give us glimpses into what happens in these tiny spaces, but what happens there has huge implication for the future, in the 21st century, and beyond.
Now Larson is a systems biologist, which means he is trained to see life from an engineering point of view. In such a perspective, scientists treat biological systems as if they are infused with teleology — built from the top down to achieve some goal, not blindly from the bottom up as Darwinian evolution sees them. This doesn’t mean that systems biologists have doubts about Darwinian evolution (doubts that they’ll admit) or that they support intelligent design. They hold their extremely fruitful systems biology viewpoint in tension with the origins-models they otherwise endorse. Here’s how physicist David Snoke describes the field with its sense of cognitive dissonance:
Opponents of the intelligent design (ID) approach to biology have sometimes argued that the ID perspective discourages scientific investigation. To the contrary, it can be argued that the most productive new paradigm in systems biology is actually much more compatible with a belief in the intelligent design of life than with a belief in neo-Darwinian evolution. This new paradigm in system biology, which has arisen in the past ten years or so, analyzes living systems in terms of systems engineering concepts such as design, information processing, optimization, and other explicitly teleological concepts. This new paradigm offers a successful, quantitative, predictive theory for biology. Although the main practitioners of the field attribute the presence of such things to the outworking of natural selection, they cannot avoid using design language and design concepts in their research, and a straightforward look at the field indicates it is really a design approach altogether.
(David Snoke, “Systems Biology as a Research Program for Intelligent Design,” BIO-Complexity, Vol. 2014 (3).)
Larson talks further about the machine-like nature of many biological systems, how we can use computers and an engineering-based view of biology to better treat diseases, and even how we can understand complex biological mysteries like love. He says we can only understand biological feelings like love as “a series of complex but specific and knowable events that happen inside your body.” Complex and specified — sound familiar?
I highly recommend watching the talk in full.