Why High School Biology Made Me Angry (And Why I Like it So Much Better Now)
I didn’t like biology in high school. It made me angry, actually. That’s ironic, looking back now. Besides writing here at The Stream, I’ve edited almost all of Discovery Institute’s last 400 to 500 podcasts on Intelligent Design theory, with a lot of biology included in them. Needless to say, I’ve come around since school days.
It was bad then, though. Mr. V., my high school biology teacher, was definitely part of the problem. He spent six class periods teaching us Charles Darwin’s life story. Don’t jump to conclusions here, now. It’s not that it took him six hours to get through all his material. No such luck. He delivered exactly the same story. One class period long. Beginning to end. All six times.
Maybe he didn’t realize he’d already done it once (twice? three times? four or five times?) before. Whatever the reason, it was certifiably bad teaching. But Mr V. wasn’t my biggest issue with biology, and it wasn’t Mr. V. who made me angry, either.
And now some of you will jump to conclusions again. I’m a conservative Christian, so the problem was evolution, right?
Wrong. Way wrong.
How Does It Know the Difference?
An old joke tells the problem nicely.
There’s this that company wants to hire a genius, you see, and the hiring manager has it down to three candidates. They’re all sitting in the room together with him, and he asks them, “What would you say is the most amazing technology in the world today?”
The first person says, “It’s the internet, no doubt about it. Look at all the information! Look at all the communication!”The hiring manager nods appreciatively.
The second says, “No, it’s medicine. Can you even believe how many lives we’re saving these days?” Another appreciative nod.
The third guy says, “No, no, you’re both wrong. It’s the Thermos bottle!” No nod this time.
Everyone turns and stares. Finally, someone asks the question. “The Thermos bottle???”
“Yes, the Thermos bottle! Just look: It keeps hot things hot, and cold things cold. How does it know the difference?”
Glossing Over the Question
I had a problem like that with what they taught me about the living cell. It had a cell wall (plants) or cell membrane (everything else). That membrane or wall let oxygen in, along with hydrogen and nitrogen and calcium and phosphorus and sodium and everything else the cell needed. It put other chemicals out, like garbage on trash day. How does it know the difference?
This time, unlike the Thermos bottle, something really incredible was going on. And our the textbook glossed over it like no problem at all. That’s what bugged me.
The Darwin Connection
Interestingly enough, it turns out there’s a connection here with Charles Darwin — not that he had the same problem, actually. What’s interesting is that he didn’t. As far he knew — as far as anyone knew in his day — the living cell was a featureless little blob. It had its cell wall or cell membrane, and all it had inside was a boring glob of goo. This goo had a name, or would soon enough. While Darwin was publishing his Origin and Descent, other scientists were publishing things like, “all living cells are made of a living substance called protoplasm.”
Note how they called it “a … substance,” as in, just one thing. What did they mean by that? Well, I’ve got another weird story for you.
Many years ago, I read a Superman comic that explained Lex Luthor’s hostility to him. (There have been lots of Lex Luthor myths). Luthor had just invented protoplasm in his lab. He had manufactured life! The real thing! But then the lab caught on fire. And Superboy (they were both teens at the time) came along and put the fire out with his super-breath. In the process the chemicals got mixed up, and Luthor’s grand invention, life itself in the form of protoplasm, was ruined. He blamed it on Superboy, and the rest is comic and movie history.
We’re not looking at complexity on the level of a computer. Not even close. Cells are more on the level of a large city, computers included.
No, I didn’t turn to comic books to fill in for my disappointing biology classes. The authors were years behind on the science themselves. Still, it helps illustrate what science thought for several decades. Life’s secret ingredient, the thing that made life different from non-life, was a substance, something you could imagine a mad scientist cooking up in a beaker.
Boy, were they wrong.
Discovering How It Knows the Difference
It was the best they could see with early microscopy, but it was way too simple. (Even the way I said that was way too simple.) That apparent simplicity was one reason Darwin could think evolution could easily produce all of life’s grand variety. Darwin didn’t know what we know.
Anyway, when I was in high school (if I recall correctly — it has been a while) they were still talking about protoplasm. By then though, they’d also found out there was other stuff in the cell besides: the nucleus, mitochondria, organelles, and other organelles. They also knew the cell membrane pulled the right chemicals in and pushed the right stuff out. As for how that membrane knew the difference, though, my textbook just ignored the question.
I didn’t buy it. I figured something was up — something they weren’t telling us. Maybe I was too hard on them. Scientists really had not much clue at the time, at least compared to what’s known now. Again, it wasn’t their fault; it has taken decades of advances to get us where we’ve come since then. Still it bothered how the textbook just ignored the problem — bothered me enough I remember it to this day.
Maybe with a better teacher I’d have been inspired to go study and help find out. Others did, and I’m glad. I’m glad, too, that I get to help bring some of their work to the public. Because scientists have a clue now, and it’s more amazing than I’d ever dreamed. Way more amazing.
Someone at church asked me not long ago, “Just how complex is a simple cell? Is it as complex as a computer?” I gave him the answer I’d learned lately. Take a simple cell like a bacterium, and you’re not looking at complexity on the level of a computer. Not even close. Cells are more on the level of a large city, computers included.
I can only imagine how different school might have been if we’d had videos like this one from Veritasium. Ever heard of molecular machines? This’ll blow your mind.
(I’m a great fan of Veritasium, by the way.)
Derek Muller, the host, raises an intriguing question at the end: Will humans someday be able to design nanomachines like these, to insert in our bodies and help heal diseases? Maybe? I won’t say no, but I’m skeptical. This much is certain: It could only happen with years of intense study, extraordinary technology, enormous insight, and a healthy dose of creativity. Muller would undoubtedly agree.
Taking the Complexity Seriously
I seriously doubt he’s taking the problem seriously enough, though. Your own body has something like 30 trillion cells in it. That’s 30 trillion large cities’ worth of complexity, with thousands of nanomachines powering and doing the work inside each and every one.
That’s only a glimmer of it. All that complexity gets multiplied exponentially by what it takes for those trillions of “cities” to work together as tissues, organs, and systems, keeping you alive, moving, thinking, communicating, working, loving, and everything else you do. It raises the question: How did all this happen in the first place? How did all those nanomachines develop? How did they come to work together so effectively? Can naturalistic evolution explain this? Seriously?
Science keeps running into greater and greater problems for evolutionary theory.
There was a time — maybe when I was in high school — when evolutionists would have answered, “Just hold on. We’ll learn more, and we’ll get that solved for you.” They would have been wrong. Science is going the other direction instead. The problem now is much harder than they ever thought it was.
This isn’t “God of the gaps,” or some silly rush to say “God did it,” when with a little more patience, we could hold on for answers from science. No, this is, “Science keeps running into greater and greater problems for evolutionary theory.”
A Better Paradigm
Meanwhile, the Intelligent Design paradigm keeps fitting better and better. In one of those podcasts I edited, Dr. Howard Glicksman tells part of the story I wish someone could have taught me in high school: how the cell membrane “knows the difference.” It’s stunning. And as he explains, it’s pretty hard to give unguided evolution credit for accomplishing it. (If you prefer video, go for The Design Inference, the series on Your Engineered Body, or Unlocking the Mystery of Life.)
That’s why I like biology better now. Someone is taking the questions seriously. They always were, but we have more detailed answers now, they’re astonishingly interesting answers, and it’s easier find access to those answers. I have to wonder, though: What are they teaching in your children’s high school?
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.