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No. 136: JUL-AUG 2001

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Are We Merely Fancy Crystals?

Just about everyone will concede that when sodium and chlorine atoms arrange themselves to build salt crystals that they are simply obeying the well-known laws of physics. In other words, salt crystals are "natural." "Intelligent design" need not be invoked in explaining their existence.

This is OK for salt crystals but can we say the same for biological forms such as proteins and, ultimately, human beings? Are these more complex biological forms also natural; that is, reducible to and explainable by the laws of physics? Human beings certainly seem irreducible; and some proteins are so large and complex that one is unsure that physics is up to the task of explaining these tangled structures consisting many hundreds of atoms.

Some of these doubts have been relieved by recent advances in protein chemistry. It appears that the different types of protein folds, which number in the thousands, can be classified and sorted into distinct structural families -- just like the much simpler crystals of salt, quartz, galena, etc fall into orderly classes. The clear implication is that protein folds and, by extension via further research, the protein molecules themselves, are also natural and reducible just like the salt crystals.

If proteins are natural, perhaps even more complex biological forms are also, and so on up the complexity ladder to viruses (which often look like crystals through the microscope), bacteria, and even (gasp!) mammals. This is, of course, reductionism in the extreme. But the successes with protein folding have led two New Zealand biochemists to speculate as follows:

If it does turn out that a substantial amount of higher biological form is natural, then the implications will be radical and far-reaching. It will mean that physical laws must have had a far greater role in the evolution of biological form than is generally assumed. And it will mean a return to the pre-Darwinian conception that underlying all the diversity of life is a finite set of natural forms that will recur over and over again anywhere in the cosmos where there is carbon-based life.

(Denton, Michael, and Marshall, Craig; "Laws of Form Revisited," Nature, 410: 417, 2001.)

Comment. In the limit, then, R. Dawkins' "blind watchmaker" becomes a sculptor of incredibly complex cystals. The services of neither God nor that fabled "intelligent designer" would no longer be needed, as in the usual reductionist view of the universe.

From Science Frontiers #136, JUL-AUG 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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