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A popular Creationist challenge is, “DNA is a program, programs demand a programmer, and that programmer is God” (I responded here). Let’s turn to a related idea, that DNA is too complex to have evolved naturally.

DNA (or RNA) becoming more complex, from the first simple cells four billion years ago to humans and other animals today, is explained by evolution, but conservative Christian groups often dogmatically reject evolution. They say that it is incompatible with God creating life in Genesis (in two incompatible stories, but never mind that). Adam didn’t evolve from earlier apes, they tell us—that would be yucky. No, God created Adam from dirt, which is far more dignified. And we know that Eve was made from Adam’s rib because it’s right there in Genesis (leading to the belief, which survives, that men have one fewer rib than women).

Curiously, they never seem to be troubled by quantum physics, which is far more counterintuitive. It’s almost like an agenda drives them to select what they’re going to be confused about.

Fibonacci and φ

Let’s explore a few examples besides evolution where complex comes from simple. The well-known Fibonacci sequence is very simple. Each term is the sum of the two previous terms: F(n + 2) = F(n + 1) + F(n). After {1, 1} as the first two terms, we get:

1 + 1 = 2

1 + 2 = 3

2 + 3 = 5

3 + 5 = 8

5 + 8 = 13

And so on. It’s almost trivial, and yet entire books have been written about this simple series and its applications. As one example, the ratio of consecutive terms in the Fibonacci series becomes an increasingly good approximation to phi (φ), the golden ratio. Expressed formally:

And then phi itself is a fascinating number about which entire books have been written. To take just one example of many, phi (φ = 1.618 . . .) is the only number that if you take off the initial one (0.618 . . .) and then invert it (1/0.618 . . .) you get the original back: φ – 1 = 1/φ.

Complex from simple

There are many more examples of complex coming from simple, many of which you are already familiar with.

  • Crystals and snowflakes are infinitely complex but formed from simple physical principles and laws.
  • Simple equations can form beautiful, complex, fractal artwork such as Julia sets.
  • The harmonograph (typically a pen is controlled by two pendulums as it draws on paper) was invented in the 1800s. A Spirograph creates similar art.
  • John Horton Conway’s Game of Life is a two-dimensional cellular automaton with three simple rules. The general category of cellular automata also create complex patterns with simple rules.
  • The members of colonies of social insects such as ants, termites, and bees don’t have large brains for complex algorithms, and yet they still create complex hives and nests. “A single ant or bee isn’t smart, but their colonies are,” as National Geographic put it. Starlings are famous for their “murmurations” (video) that appear to act as a single organism, and many fish swarm (also here). Simple rules govern both.
  • A piano has 88 keys but can create a vast number of pieces of music.
  • The Periodic Table has 94 naturally occurring elements. From these, millions of compounds are possible. Only 19 elements are essential for human life, but these make the thousands of chemicals that are metabolized as food and converted into thousands more to make a healthy human.
  • Mathematics has a small set of axioms (an axiom is a statement declared true because of evidence, not because it derives from more fundamental statements) from which derive its fantastic complexity—algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, topology, group theory, linear algebra, probability, statistics, number theory, and so on.
  • Pulsars emit a beam of radiation at very precise intervals, measured in milliseconds or seconds. From our vantage point, a pulsar acts like a lighthouse. The pulses were so curiously regular that an intelligent source was considered, first as interference from the earth and then as a signal from an alien intelligence. We now know that pulsars are rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation from their poles.
  • We find emergent properties in nature such as surface tension. Surface tension isn’t present in a single water molecule and appears only when great numbers of them interact.
  • Christianity itself is an example of complex from simple. It wasn’t particularly simple at its beginning when separate appeals were made to Jews and gentiles, and now it has 45,000 denominations. (A real religion would likely be simple.)

Why bring up God to explain DNA?

That complex can come from simple is no proof that DNA wasn’t made by God or that there is no God, but it does illustrate that complexity can be nicely explained with natural means.

Creationists are forced to the very brink of accepting evolution when they agree that antibiotic resistance is caused by random mutation and natural selection acting on bacteria. Add more time (not just years but millions of years), and you get the diversity of life that you see on earth. Creationists seem to imagine an unexplained shield that allows some change but prevents one species from eventually becoming another. Or something.

At best, they propose an argument from ignorance: Wow—look at how DNA works. What could’ve caused that?? This is no evidence for God. Even where science has unanswered questions, God has never explained any puzzle about nature. That this argument from incredulity is in their arsenal shows how embarrassing the Creationist position is. A god worth believing in wouldn’t be hidden.

If you pretend that your problems are already solved,
you have no motivation to solve them.
— Scathing Atheist podcast #76


Image from Chatsam (license CC BY-SA 3.0)


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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...