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Applying the Design Filter to Biological Sands

Photo credit: Siim Sepp, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

These familiar words by William Blake aptly conclude a TED talk by microscopist Gary Greenberg:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…

Greenberg photographs “the beautiful nano details of our world,” particularly sand grains. Using innovative 3D techniques, he turns ordinary sand into artworks of color, light, and shape (see examples on his Sand Grains website).

In his talk, after showing and explaining some of the exquisite details of sand grains from different parts of the world, and demonstrating how each grain reveals something of its history, Greenberg sums up: “Things as ordinary as a grain of sand can be truly extraordinary if you look closely and if you look from a different and a new point of view.” 

What we’re after here, however, is something more than aesthetics. Is there a way to distinguish grains by their information content? Can we infer design for some grains, as opposed to chance and natural law for others? 

A Sand Grain’s History

A summary of Greenberg’s book The Secrets of Sand explains the significance of a sand grain’s history:

Every grain of sand is a snapshot in time: Each grain originated somewhere and isheaded somewhere else. [Emphasis added.]

In an article at Live Science, he describes the histories of some grains of sand:

Mineral sands originate from the erosion of rock into tiny grains. When granite rock erodes by the forces of wind, rain, ice and multiple freeze-thaw cycles, the angular grains of feldspar, quartz, mica and other minerals are liberated. They are transported to lakes via streams, rivers and glaciers, and on their journey, their original crystal shapes begin become more rounded by the forces of erosion. Many continental beaches have a high percentage of quartz sand grains because quartz survives the forces of erosion longer than other minerals. The pounding surf is responsible for rounding and polishing the rugged quartz grains.

Biological Sands

These grains, as colorful and beautiful as they may be, are easily explained by natural laws acting on crystals in a random maner. But if you look closely at beach sand, you may find some grains that stand out. They are shaped like spirals, stars, or striated cones. These grains have a different history:

Biogenic sands often contain fragments of the hard tissues from marine organisms such as shells, corals, sponges, sea urchins, forams, and bryozoans. When these organisms die, the hard tissues that are left behind erode into some of the most spectacular grains of sand imaginable.

Greenberg adds:

Biological sands tell the story of the plants and animals that live along the shorelines. Fragments of coral, tube worms, barnacles and sea urchin spines get washed up onto the beach, along with the amazing, shell-like, minuscule bodies of foraminifera, tiny amoeboid protists.

He contrasts these sands with those found on the moon. The grains are made of the same minerals as on Earth, but you will not find the intricate geometric shapes there. 

As human observers, we are already familiar with the reason for the two classes of sand grains, the biogenic ones and the mineral ones. Examining Greenberg’s photos, we readily detect the ones that came from living organisms. But could we explain intelligent design to an intelligent alien unfamiliar with Earth life?

The Design Inference

A robust design inference requires more than complexity. Sand grains from the moon look very complicated. A design inference also requires more than simple geometry. Some crystal grains retain their mineral packing structures in the shapes of rhomboids, spheres, and cubes. Finally, a design inference must go beyond chance. One grain in the photos looks like a crystal heart fit for a necklace, but that’s coincidence. Each of these examples can easily be explained by unguided natural law.

The grains that pass the design filter are those that required coded instructions to make. The biogenic grains came from complex specified information encoded in DNA. That information, under the control of molecular machines, directed the manufacture of specified shapes that would never have been produced by unguided natural law. Coded instructions imply purpose — something that has its origin in mental activity, even if the code operates in a programmatic way. This difference would allow even a child to separate the designed grains from the non-designed grains.

A Fuzzy Line

To be sure, there’s a fuzzy line between the categories. Biogenic sand grains no longer contain any of the DNA that produced them. A broken spicule from a sponge might not be distinguishable from a rod-shaped mineral grain. Our alien interlocutor, though, upon learning what natural processes (like erosion and wind) are capable of achieving, could look upon diatoms or forams and know something is special about them. Being sentient itself, the alien would appreciate the special capabilities of purposeful intelligent activity. Alongside the child, therefore, the alien could sort its pile into designed grains and non-designed grains. 

Brains are material, but minds transcend brains. Since minds are not made of particles acting under unguided natural law, they could be considered transcendent of nature; we might say “super”-natural. Blake was right; when you look closely, you can find a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2015.