The Language of God: Size Doesn’t Matter

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins describes how “the study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things” (p.133-4). There are a lot of ideas in this chapter to unpack, so I’d like to start by reviewing Collins’ material on DNA at a high level: size and broad similarity. It would be my hope that, even if Creationists only heard some of the material in this chapter, they would quickly see the flaws in Intelligent Design.

First, to lay some groundwork: There is a common misconception made particularly among Creationists that atheism necessarily follows from believing in evolution. This argument is as logically flawed as saying that atheism necessarily follows from believing in gravity, eschewing the entirely-poorly publicized view of Intelligent Falling. Granted, I think evolution poses difficult challenges to theism, but evolution is not theism’s death knell. Atheism is a lack of a belief in god(s); the strongest form of atheism takes it one step further to declare “there are no gods.” That’s basically it. One could hypothetically be an atheist and still believe in the Tooth Fairy, The Loch Ness Monster, or the efficacious treatment of homeopathy. Or, more to the point of evolution, an atheist could believe in Intelligent Design so long as the designing was done intelligently by some space-faring aliens. So long as you don’t believe in a god, you’re an atheist; this is despite all the other nonsense you might believe. Of course, Collins wants you to see that, too. He’s trying to harmonize science and religion, so it would do him no good whatsoever to make all these compelling assertions about the validity of evolution if he thought you were going to jump ship and become an atheist.

Now, that being said, Collins called the genome “the book written in the DNA language by which God spoke life into being” (p.123). Although we still don’t know how abiogenesis occurred, Collins appears to be incorrect in waxing poetic about DNA’s crucial role. It appears that RNA, acting as simple enzymes, might have paved the way for life to begin. But even beyond waxing poetic, Collins treats DNA as something sacred, as “uncovering this most remarkable of all texts was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship” (p.3). And, although Collins has admonished his readers to steer clear of god-of-the-gaps arguments, he states that “DNA… seems an utterly improbable molecule to have ‘just happened’” (p.91). Indeed, Collins confesses that he is “in awe of this molecule” (p.102) and regards the “digital [sic] elegance of DNA” as “deeply satisfying” (p.107). (Since DNA is based on four letters, it’s really a Quaternary system.) It’s probably that deep sense of awe that one can only get through belief in god.

Regarding the size of the genome, Collins makes the observation that a surprisingly small portion of it actually codes for proteins. There are only about 20,000-25,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome. Collins states that the total amount of DNA used by those genes to code for protein is about 1.5-2.0% of the total genome. Collins notes that some observers have been insulted at this. Surely as monarchs of the animal kingdom, we should be special! Well, these observers contend, perhaps “our complexity arises not from the number of separate instruction packets, but from the way they are utilized. Perhaps our component parts have learned how to multitask” (p.125). He disappointingly never expounds on whether genes can multitask, so we’re left wondering. Answer: at least some can.

To quell the righteous indignation of some, Collins offers an analogy by way of the language used to write books. He goes on to say the average educated English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. (Actually, that is a very low estimate, as Stephen Pinker in “The Language Instinct” points out that the average high school graduate knows about 45,000 words; it might even be 60,000 if you count proper names.) Collins says these words can be used in simple ways (owner’s manual) or really complex ways (James Joyce’s Ulysses). Unfortunately, I think the analogy fails in a way that subverts Collins’ intent. If you want to bring the faithful around to seeing how evolution (unplanned, no ultimate goal, no creator) works, then it doesn’t do well to relate it to a construct (language) whose entire function hinges on the intent of, and usage by, intelligent actors. I think I would have offered the reader an analogy of chemistry: you got some protons, neutrons, and electrons to form a few basic building blocks. From different combinations of these, you get the periodic table. For the theoretical physicists in you all, you could even punt to the different vibrations of strings a la Superstring Theories.

Regarding the similarities, Collins mentions that humans are all about 99.9% the same DNA-wise. This certainly makes me feel better, since my hometown was jokingly known for its residents meeting their future spouses at family reunions. He points out that this fits well with the fossil record, which places us in East Africa about 100,000-150,000 years ago to a common set of founders about 10,000 in number. Now, before you get all antsy, making your way to AnswersInGenesis (I can’t bring myself to link to it) to refute the fossil record, I want to tell you we will disregard for now this line of evidence; we’re really interested in seeing how Collins can back up his claim that DNA alone is sufficient to demonstrate evolution.

Back to just DNA. Here’s a nifty table!

AnimalProtein Coding GenesRandom Segments between Genes
Fruit Fly60%~0%

The significance of that table is this: If you asked a computer to construct a tree of life based solely on similarities of DNA sequences of multiple organisms, you’d get (courtesy of this site):

Tree of Life, made only through DNA evidence

The DNA similarities also show that genetic mutations that do not have deleterious effects on survival will accumulate over time – the stuff quite arrogantly dubbed “junk DNA.” Indeed, mutations in coding regions of genes are observed far less frequently, since the deleterious effects of these are more pronounced.

If these genomes, Collins asks, were created by some intelligent designer, why would these particular features appear? Collins poses more challenges to Creationists, and we’ll address them in the next posts.

Other posts in this series:

The White Man Non-Culpability Squad
The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness
Movie Review: The Martian
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.