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Intelligent designer? More likely, God is a chemist

Intelligent Design proponents continue to make progress in their efforts to have their theory taught in the science curriculum of schools, while the evolution folks continue to resist. But this is falsely set up as an either-or situation. Many scientists who believe in evolution also believe in a God who set out the parameters of the universe, created the system, and then let it loose, but that He does not interfere in the details of how things develop.

Why would someone create conditions that are ripe for the development of life and then not interfere with the details? I know, because I do it every day. I’m a chemist, and maybe God is, too.

When I set up a reaction, my goal is to produce as many copies of “My Molecule” as I can. To do this, I sit down and contemplate what other things I should mix to produce My Molecule. My thoughts are guided both by what experiments other people have done and by my understanding of how things work. I choose the chemicals to mix, the solvent to mix them in, what strength to use, etc. I choose the conditions that I think will work best, but in fact it is never anything more than a guess. Then I throw the stuff together and see what happens.

I choose the chemicals to mix, the solvent to mix them in, what strength to use, etc. I choose the conditions that I think will work best, but in fact it is never anything more than a guess.

I am only interested in the reaction. I take care not to blow things up, but I am unconcerned about how this world I’ve created perceives its fate, if indeed it can perceive anything.

After waiting a while, I check my reaction to see how it’s doing. If it turns out that my calculations were wrong and it is not doing what I had hoped, I throw it down the drain with plenty of water, not unlike a cleansing flood, and try again with a new set of conditions. If it looks like things are going as I had hoped, I might let it go a bit longer to see if even more molecules do what I want. Or maybe I’ll decide to adjust things a little—turn up or decrease the heat, or toss in an extra ingredient, to make the conditions even better.

I love my molecules. I fervently hope my reaction will work, and that every molecule in the system will do what I have designed for it to do and turn into My Molecule. However, I would be thrilled, in most cases, if 90 percent of them turned out OK. What I cannot do is reach into the pot and prevent particular molecules from suffering some horrible fate. I rely on numbers—there are zillions and zillions of molecules simultaneously chugging away, and I can’t be bothered with the fate of any individual. If there is a another 5 percent of My Molecule that fails to survive the isolation process, reducing my yield to 85 percent, I can live with that.

If molecules could think, one might imagine what they would think about me. They would think it is a miracle that they are here, and I have made it happen. They might thank me profusely for creating them. I am all-loving, all-powerful, all-seeing, but in fact all I did was set things in motion and wait.

They may see the poor suffering molecule next door and wonder why I allow such suffering, and of course I have done my best to avoid it but once the reaction is running there is nothing I can do but wait it out (or destroy it). They may actually be one of those suffering molecules, and cry out in pain and despair, asking me to make their life better, but I cannot hear them. Even if I could, I couldn’t help them, and I’m willing to tolerate some losses to obtain a high yield. It makes no difference to me which individuals succeed and which ones fail, so long as I get lots of my product.

Worse yet, they may be among those 5 percent who did what I asked, became My Molecule and still got lost in the isolation process, getting thrown out with the garbage. “Why me?” they would wail. “I’ve been good! Why am I being punished?” But of course, they are not being punished, they are just collateral damage I am willing to tolerate because I do not know how to avoid it, and I am satisfied with the 85 percent I’ve isolated.

Is God a chemist? It makes a lot more sense to me than many of the other stories we hear about Him.

David Reingold is the H. George Foster Chair in Chemistry at Juniata College. He is always looking for reactions.