If you’ve ever seen pictures of–or better yet, handled–staurolite, its appearance can be somewhat unsettling. This mineral has a propensity to form what are known as twinned crystals–two distinct crystal lattices that nonetheless share a common region in a particular shape. For those who know ancient Greek, the name staurolite gives the shape away: stauros translates to “cross”, and lithos to “rock”. It just so happens that this mineral tends to form twinned, perpendicular, cruciform crystals—in other words, crosses. See the image above for an example.
Even when one knows that staurolite is a naturally-formed mineral, when holding a symmetrical one it is difficult to not see it as a human artifact. Our minds intuitively “know” that symmetrical, right-angled structures don’t just happen by chance. This isn’t random, we infer—and we are correct. After all, humans frequently make crosses for all sorts of purposes, whether architectural, artistic, or religious. If we don’t understand the physical and chemical processes that formed what we are holding, we might logically conclude that the non-randomness that we detect is the result of human agency.
Design and information
In this series of posts, we’ve explored a similar issue with respect to biological information. Intuitively, we recognize that biological information—gene sequences and the biochemical structures and functions they produce—are not random. They interact with one another, and, to echo the words of Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe, they are “parts arranged for a purpose.” As such, Behe and others infer from this non-randomness that there is agency at work to produce the effect they observe.
As we’ve seen in this series, however, there is another way to look at biological information—that it is the result of what we would call “natural” processes. We’ve seen the evidence that new, functional biological information is readily found in even random DNA sequences—so easily found, even, that it is more probable to find a functional DNA sequence in a random pool than it is to roll a seven with a pair of dice. That is highly counterintuitive, to be sure, but it is what we observe. As such, there is good reason to infer that the functional information we observe in present-day organisms was formed through similar processes.
We’ve also examined the evidence that biological information may have had a chemical origin at the beginning of life on earth—and seen that, though this is an ongoing area of research and much remains unknown, there is good evidence that biological information did indeed arise from chemical interactions.
In C.S. Lewis’s famous book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan speaks of a “deeper magic” of which the Witch is unaware, because as a created being, she cannot understand things which extend beyond the beginning of time itself. In this context, Lewis is using “magic” not in the sense of spells and incantations, but rather of the fundamental properties and ordered structure of Narnia woven into its very nature by the Emperor Over the Sea (i.e. the Narnian way of referring to God the Father, even as Aslan represents God the Son). In this way, Lewis envisions God creating and endowing the cosmos with its coherent properties in his abundant love and under his sovereignty.
Though Lewis was thinking primarily about resurrection and redemption here, I’ve often thought that his idea of a “deeper magic” resonates in the science-faith area as well. How are staurolite crystals formed? By direct human fashioning? No, we’ve learned that they are formed by a deeper magic than that—by processes that are humbling and awe-inspiring in their time and scope. The iron, silicon, and aluminum found in them, for example, was formed in stars, and scattered to the cosmos in supernovae before it became part of our planet. The crystal lattice of staurolite depends on the interactions between the atoms that make it up–interactions that rely on the deeper magic of physics and chemistry that I, as a biologist, can only vaguely appreciate. The formation of crystals in the earth’s crust depends on geological processes with enormous timescales.
When God makes staurolites, it takes a long time—but they are no less beautiful for that process and history. So too, in my mind, for the wonders we see in biology: they too depend on deeper magic, and it calls us to wonder and praise.