Q&A: Why Would a Limitless Creator Face Trade-Offs in Biochemical Designs?
“Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”
—Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit
In my experience, no one denies the complexity and sophistication of biochemical systems, regardless of their philosophical or religious views. To put it another way, there is no debate. Biochemical systems have the indisputable appearance of design. The question at the center of the creation/evolution controversy relates to the source of the design. Is it the handiwork of a Creator? Or, is it the product of unguided, evolutionary processes? Is the design authentic? Or is it only apparent?
As a creationist, I regard the elegant designs of biochemical systems as evidence for a Creator’s role in bringing life into existence. Yet, many in the scientific community would disagree, maintaining that the design emerges through evolutionary processes. In support of this position, these detractors point to so-called “bad” biochemical designs and argue that if an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good Creator produced biochemical systems, these systems should display perfection. On the other hand, less-than-optimal designs are precisely what one would expect if life resulted from an evolutionary history.
Are Bad Designs a Challenge to the Design Argument?
In my book The Cell’s Design, I offer a chapter-length rejoinder to this challenge, pointing out the following:
- Often when life scientists interpret biochemical systems as poorly designed, their view is based on an incomplete understanding of the structure and function of these systems. Inevitably, as researchers develop new insight, these systems are revealed to be additional examples of the elegant designs, characteristic of biochemistry.
Junk DNA serves as the quintessential illustration of this point.
- In some cases, biochemical systems labeled as flawed designs are suboptimal in reality. Their suboptimal nature is necessary for the overall system to optimally perform. Routinely, engineers intentionally suboptimize facets of the systems they design to achieve overall optimality. This practice is necessary for complex systems built to achieve multiple objectives. Inevitably, some of these objectives conflict with others. In other words, these systems face trade-offs. To manage the trade-offs, engineers must carefully suboptimize the performances of the systems’ components, again, so that the systems will result in overall optimal performances.
Some recently discovered examples of biochemical trade-offs include:
- the inefficiency of protein synthesis;
- the inefficiency of rubisco, a key enzyme in the dark reaction of photosynthesis;
- the inefficiency of the Entner-Doudoroff pathway for glucose breakdown.
After recently posting the article I wrote on the trade-offs associated with glucose breakdown, my Facebook friend Riaz, a skeptic, offered this come back:
“There is no need for trade-offs if one has unlimited resources . . . not to mention being able to change [the] law[s] of physics and design/re-design the universe from scratch . . .”
Trade-Offs Are Inevitable
This is a reasonable question. Why would the Creator, described in the Bible, ever deal with trade-offs? But what if the God of the Bible did choose to produce a universe with fixed natural laws? If he did, trade-offs inevitably result. And, I contend, the elegance in which these trade-offs are managed in biochemical systems are nothing less than genius, befitting the God of the Bible.
A Follow-Up Question
What about Riaz’s second question? Why create a universe with unvarying natural laws, if that means suboptimal designs would necessarily result? If the Creator is infinite in power and extent, if the Creator is all-knowing and all-good, why would He confine himself so that He is forced to suboptimize even a single facet of His creation because of trade-offs?
Interesting questions, to be sure. From my perspective, there are at least three reasons why God created the universe with unvarying natural laws.
Constant Laws of Nature Reflect God’s Nature
A universe with constant natural laws reflects God’s character and nature as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Scripture teaches that:
- Yahweh does not change (Psalm 55:19 and James 1:17),
- Jesus is unchanging (Hebrews 13:8),
- Yahweh does not change his mind (Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29),
- God’s purpose does not change (Hebrews 6:17).
It is reasonable to think that the universe made by a God who does not waver would be governed by unvarying natural laws.
Along those lines, Psalm 50:6 tells us that the “heavens declare God’s righteousness.” From my vantage point, the righteousness revealed in the heavens would be most clearly manifested through the conformity of the heavenly bodies (and all of nature, for that matter) to constant laws.
An interesting interplay of these ideas is found in Jeremiah 33:25. Here, the Lord compares the certainty of the covenant He established with His people to the “established laws of heaven and earth.”1 To put it another way, if we ever wonder if God will keep his promises, all we need to do is look to the constancy of the laws of nature.
Constant Laws of Nature Are Necessary for Moral Accountability
This assertion may not seem obvious at first glance. But, careful consideration leads to the conclusion that apart from a universe with fixed laws governing nature, it is impossible to have moral laws. In his classic work Faith and Reason, the late philosopher Ron Nash writes:
“The existence of a lawlike and orderly creation is a necessary condition for a number of divine objectives. . . . it is also reasonable to believe that God placed these free moral agents in a universe exhibiting order. One can hardly act intentionally and responsibly in an unpredictable environment.”2
Ron Nash goes on to say:
“If the world were totally unpredictable, if we could never know from one moment to the next, what to expect from nature, both science and meaningful moral conduct would be impossible. While we often take the natural order for granted, this order and the predictability that accompanies it function as a necessary condition for free human action. . . . One reason people can be held accountable when they pull the trigger of a loaded gun is the predictability of what will follow such an action.”3
Constant Laws of Nature Permit Discoverability
Unchanging natural laws render the universe (and phenomena within its confines) intelligible. If the laws of nature changed from day-to-day—or at the Creator’s whim—it would be impossible to know anything about the world around us with any real confidence. In effect, science would be impossible. The orderliness of the universe leads to predictability, the most important condition for a rational investigation of the world.
Because the universe is intelligible, it is possible for human beings to take advantage of God’s provision for us, made available within the creation. As we study and develop an understanding of the laws of physics and chemistry, the composition of matter, and the nature of living systems, we can deploy that knowledge to benefit humanity—in fact, all life on Earth—through technology, agriculture, medicine, and conservation efforts. To put it in theological terms, the intelligibility of the universe allows us to unleash God’s providence for humanity as we come to understand the world around us.
Ultimately, I believe that God has designed the universe for discoverability because He wants us to see, understand, and appreciate His handiwork as a Creator, so through His creation we can know Him. Scripture teaches that we can glimpse God’s glory (Psalm 19:1), majesty (Psalm 8:1), and righteousness (Psalm 50:6) from nature. From the Old Testament, we learn that God’s eternal nature (Psalm 90:2) can be gleaned from the world around us. We can see God’s love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice (Psalm 36:5–6) in creation. This powerful revelation of God’s character is only possible because the laws of nature are constant.
Scripture (Romans 1:20; Job 12:7–9) also teaches that we can see evidence for God’s fingerprints as well—evidence for His existence. And toward that end, I maintain that we see God’s handiwork in the elegant way trade-offs are handled in biochemical systems.
- The Cell’s Design: How Chemistry Reveals the Creator’s Artistry by Fazale Rana (book)
- Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Hugh Ross (book)
- Faith and Reason by Ronald Nash (book)
- “Bad Designs” (RTB 101 webpage)
- “Junk DNA” (RTB 101 webpage)
- “30% Inefficiency by Design” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Uprooting a “Bad Design” Argument” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Cars and Cells: How Trade-Offs Make Good Designs” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Q&A: Why Would an Infinite Creator Employ the Same Designs?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Duck-Billed Platypus Venom: Designed for Discovery” by Fazale Rana (article)
- Jeremiah 33:25–26.
- Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 200.
- Ibid., 201.