Thursday, January 31, 2008

On the Fifth Day, Part 2: Creation and Un-Creation

Then God said / “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures / and let birds fly above the earth / across the face of the firmament of the heavens” / So God created great sea creatures / and every living thing that moves / with which the waters abounded / according to their kind / and every winged bird according to its kind / And God saw that it was good / And God blessed them / saying “Be fruitful and multiply / and fill the waters in the seas / and let birds multiply on the earth” / So the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

In Latin: "Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua" = "Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory." The seas were first, and then the land, then the heavens. Day 5 tells about the seas and heavens filling with creatures great and small.

The earth doesn't always look full with life, but life always finds ways to surprise us. In the 1830s, a respected biologist, Edward Forbes, announced that from his studies of the ocean, nothing could live below 2000 feet, so it would obviously be foolish to try to explore for deep-ocean life. No one had any ability to go down there and check, so his conclusions became the de facto conclusion of the scientific world. After all, the transatlantic telegraph cable had been laid and no deep-sea mermaids had come crawling up it. So the voice of experience had spoken.

Until that experience changed. In the 1860s, the transatlantic cable had to be dragged to the surface for maintenance. When they pulled it up, it came up with all sorts of life on it: the cable was crusted with shells and strange sea creatures from the bottom of the ocean. Immediately the paradigm shifted. Even the deep ocean, where no man could go, teemed with abundant life.

Fast forward to the 21st millenium. Craig Venter, genome plumber extraordinare, wanted to sail his yacht around the world, like the H.M.S. Challenger did in the 1870s. What's better than sailing around the globe? Sailing around the globe and doing science on the way. Venter and his team stopped every 200 miles and collected seawater microbes, then sequenced the DNA to find out how diverse and different they would be. According to a recent Time article, they found 6 million new genes and 400 new species. "Most people thought the ocean was a homogenous soup," Venter says. "But 85% of the species we found were unique."

That's just skimming the surface. Deep-sea submersibles travel to the bottom of the ocean, near deep-sea vents, at pressures that would crush your lungs to about the size of a thimble, and take pictures like this:

Ten-foot tube worms live off the water boiling up from heat inside the earth there. Clams are crusted on rocks, even strange shrimp (I wonder how they taste?). No one had even imagined that. The Little Mermaid doesn't hold a candle to bizarre sulfide biochemistry -- but I may be biased in that.

In Romania, a deep cave was explored in the 1980s, containing 33 blind, albino species. Other caves have revealed blind white salamanders, blind white scorpions, all sealed off from sunlight so long that they lost both color and eyes. In terms of sheer elegance, a mechanism that can populate these caves with species, filling them with life, seems more amazing and creative to me than individual acts of special creation for each cave and each species.

There's even life miles down in the earth's crust, where buried microbes live off water and rock, slowly transforming the energy from radioactive decay into life. Take my biochem class (or listen to the podcast next September) if you want to know more.
Because life is based on solution chemistry, it exploded in the water first, producing jellyfish, fish with backbones, tribolites, sea dragons, and corals. Some of these were able to venture above the water and move into a new kind of living, breathing in reactive oxygen from the air and growing to huge, almost unthinkable sizes. From time to time, when you look at fossils, new forms just explode across the scene with joy. Fish first, then dinosaurs, then birds filled the sea, earth, and sky. Species we would only know by their unthinkably huge bones ruled the earth before us.
But of course, there's a flip side to the joy of exploding life. Where did it all go? Why can you only find dinosaurs as audio-animatronics at Disneyland? Why did they all die? This abundant life is always paired with abundant death. That's not just a biological statement. Consider the abundant life Jesus had -- with the Garden of Gethsemane and the "place of the skull" taking up chapters upon chapters in his four biographies. There is constant creation, shadowed by constant un-creation. This tree of life we celebrate is burnt, cauterized at each limb.
Wave after wave of extinctions have rolled over the earth and beneath the seas. 95% of all species may have been lost in one event in the Permian. However you cut it, more than 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct, and only can be seen as bones, shells, or genetic fossils. For instance, consider the trilobite. You can find them all through the fossil eras, but at one point along the way they just didn't make it. I'm guessing I'll never lay eyes on a trilobite. (The closest I'll get is a horseshoe crab, and I find them kind of creepy, actually.)
If there's anything to Darwin's descent with modification, then life by its nature overproduces and get ruthlessly cut back in waves by a cold, hard world. All nature suffers, as intense as birth pangs, but also as meaningful -- we trust.
You can't talk about how beautiful life is without talking about how fragile it is. You also can't talk about the goodness of God without at some point talking about what God is not, at which point you're talking about the judgment of God. Look at Isaiah 6 and 9, always quoted at Christmas, but very carefully cut and pasted so that Isaiah's pronouncements of judgment are not heard. The Messiah figure in Isaiah is sometimes a child, sometimes a warrior, sometimes looking like David, sometimes like Goliath.
It reminds me of Scott Becker, once again. The first sermon I heard from Scott was on the Magnificat. He read that famous text of upheaval, and told us, you know the rich who are being uprooted? That's you! The last message I heard from Scott was on his blog, Aufbehung, and it quoted Job contending with God, just as Scott was as his body broke down. Being a Christian won't save your body from dying. Being a Christian doesn't directly increase your odds of bodily survival or passing your genes on to your offspring. Whole Christian societies in the East have gone extinct. I don't know why God let that happen. Or, what I can't even write about, The Holocaust. Read Elie Wiesel's Night. We live in a world where death is written into the very letters of the language we use. Death is the lynchpin of the mechanism of creation.

That's not under debate. But Christians have a choice. When grace allows, we can look back at Jesus and forward to Jesus, and we can see that one day, death will be no more. Death is and should be a foreigner to us, and we don't accept its grinding inhuman say in things, but we trust that God will work through us and despite us to do something about it. This universal, ingrained death in the universe is an enemy and will be defeated. I wonder, as a chemist, does this mean that one day the degrading force of entropy be no more, and the laws of Thermodynamics will be rewritten? Or will entropy itself be transformed, redeemed, or reversed?

I just know that some things will be thrown away, but many things will be remain, changed in an instant of recreation. In the meantime, we create and nurture life. The Christian response is creative hope in the face of uncreation. And so I try my best to fix my proteins and make them work better, yes, evolving them by my (students') own hands into something different, hopefully better. I teach undergrads in the process so they can go on and do greater things. That is my calling to follow Jesus by, yes, fixing proteins. And, more importantly, by teaching.

In the face of all this, the last word is Jesus, the king on the cross at the center of creation, summing up and bringing together all things to himself, a man dying and God giving life, the root of the tree of life with water and blood flowing out, like on that church mosaic in Rome. I'll finish with a quote from Denis Alexander at the 2007 Edinburgh ASA/CIS conference, himself quoting Diogenes Allen from Princeton Theological Seminary:

‘Through Christ it is possible to understand how the Father’s love is present in all things, even in suffering. Suffering can be regarded as a mark of our distance from God because we are subject to the cosmos simply by being creatures. Yet, depending on a person’s response to suffering, a person can be in contact with God through their suffering and in suffering. To be in touch with the reality God has made, even when it is a painful touch, is to have indirect contact with him who is above it and who is above all else, love. Insofar as it is contact, it is good; insofar as it is painful, it is not. But what a difference when the same pain results from the grip of a friend, and not the mindless grip of nature’.
It was evening, and it was morning. The fifth day was done.

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