29 April 2008

God's Favored Creatures

"God has an inordinate fondness for beetles." Biologist J.B.S. Haldane

I'm reading science again. Earlier this year I read two books on physics. This led to my sermon on Einstein--and I'm proud to say it's one of the most influential sermons I have ever preached. In the 2 1/2 months since I gave it, nearly every lay speaker at my church has referenced it somewhere in their talk. What a compliment!

Now I'm into astrobiology: The Living Cosmos by Chris Impey, where he goes into the development of life on planet Earth and speculates on the possibilities of life across the galaxy. There is plenty of evolutionary biology to be found here--something I appreciate, since my knowledge of evolutionary theory is pretty weak. Of course, there is plenty of our Creator to be found, too, if one has the spirit to seek...and find.

Impey conveys biology in a way that I had never understood it before. Instead of the two-kingdom approach of plants and animals, he presents life in a much broader array. I always saw the Animal Kingdom as a progressive chain of animals with bacteria at the bottom and humans at the top. The Plant Kingdom had a similar, somewhat hierarchical order.

Impey presents at Phylogenetic Tree of Life. This is based on genetic differences. The three branches of the PTL are Bacteria, Archaea (primitive microbes first discovered in the 1970s), and Eucarya.

In the Eucarya strain, humans seem insignificant. We are one of 5,400 species of mammals. This compares with 8,200 reptile species, 10,000 bird species, 29,000 fishes, 290,000 plants, and 1,200,000 species of invertebrates, of which 950,000 are insects.

It's a bug's world, apparently. As I noted above, you could take the total number of vertebrate species, multiply that number by five and you STILL wouldn't total the number of species of beetles.

This gives me a unique view of God. Maybe He does have a fondness for beetles. Instead of the human-centric view that I have of Him--that he created me in His image, that he set mankind above all fauna, that he sent his son to die for human beings--maybe I should consider a more beetle-centric view.

Consider this: we exist to feed beetles. The crops we plant, the dung we create, our very bodies themselves once they have left this mortal coil--all go to feed beetles. I don't know of any humans that eat beetles--or who use them to get food. No, it seems more and more that beetles are the top of the food chain.

God created man...for beetles? I need to check back with Genesis 1.

The organization of life in genetic branches also makes for some fascinating comparisons. Remember that in the new biology, humans are linked with plans, invertebrates and other complex organisms.

It is well known that humans share 99% of DNA with monkeys, but did you now that we have 85% in common with dogs and 67% in common with moths? If you could examine the DNA of the banana you had for breakfast, you would find that it holds 50% in common with you, as does yeast.

That seems crazy. I am, after all, 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' according to Psalm 8. Not as much as I thought, however, since I'm only twice as fearfully and 100% more wonderfully made than a grapefruit--in terms of my unique DNA.

Insult to injury: Impey reports that the E coli bacteria, which has 4,500 genes in its genetic code, has 1/6th the number of genes that I have. That's not a broad leap.

I don't have time to go into his astronomical observations, but they are fascinating, too. I'm not finished with the book, and I have a feeling that the refresher courses I have had in biology and chemistry are setting me up for some pretty remarkable physical conclusions.

I'll keep you posted, as always.

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