A Molecular God

I read an article recently describing new discoveries in cellular structure. Scientists had never understood how a bag of jelly like an amoeba could creep around and stalk prey. It has neither bones nor muscles; nothing to push against, and nothing to push with.

But recent improvements in microscopy have revealed that all cells in fact have both. Tiny spicules, each a single elongated protein molecule, form an elaborate framework just inside the cell wall. Lying alongside each spicule is another long protein, its ends clutching two points on the network. But like a muscle, this molecule can move when stimulated. When the proper trigger molecule brushes against it, it restructures its atomic configuration and curls, drawing the spicule mesh tighter and changing the shape of the cell.

But amoeba crawl purposefully along by first extruding and then occupying a bulge, or pseudopod. How can a rigid framework accomplish this? It turns out that this spicule network is portable. The spicules on one side of the cell break away from the mesh and float free until needed again. The rest of the mesh contracts, squeezing the protoplasm out through the soft side, forming a pseudopod. The mesh then reforms inside the bulge and the process repeats itself.

This discovery set me to musing. It seemed the furthest reach yet into the ancient line of research that can best be summarized, “How do we work?” Over the centuries this field has vastly altered our image of ourselves. It was amazing enough when advances in anatomy, genetics, and geology taught us that we were part and parcel of the animal world, not floating somewhere above it, not quite angels. But this sudden demotion left us feeling like meat machines. Where is the soul amidst all that plumbing? For the first time, the very existence of a soul was openly doubted.

Then we learned that we were not a single large animal, but are made up of trillions of tiny cells, each not very different from the teeming one-celled beasties that make up most of the biosphere. Now we’re not even a smart ape; we’re more like a coral reef, a colony of totally mindless little bags of pond water. The oft-sung heart is not the seat of love, but a knot of manic muscle cells. And that last retreat of the soul, the mysterious and unknowable brain, what is it? A loose mass of cells, each specialized so that when a neighbor dumps a load of molecules on it, it dumps its own. Not the sort of thing a guy could really identify with

But even then we could still erect a self-image we could learn to live with. After all, we’re not just some floating cloud of cells like plankton, each engaged in an eternal battle-to-the-death with every other. If such a tiny creature can be said to have any consciousness at all, its total experience must be “EAT! LIVE!” But our ancestral plankton discovered that by cooperating, their individual chances of survival were improved (that’s why they’re still here). Cooperation meant each cell could specialize as no solitary animal could afford to do. And so the whole organism has become something infinitely more than a mere assemblage of protozoa.

There is no reason for one paramecium to assist another, but in a multi-cellular organism all share a common interest. Each member still has its own individual drive to live, but it is braided inextricably with that of all its fellows by the simple fact of common survival or none. Each is dedicated to helping its fellows to survive, but through self-interest, not altruism. Couldn’t this parallel will of trillions upon trillions of living things form something greater than the sum of its parts? Couldn’t it differentiate and become specialized as well, in the same way and for the same reasons that the physical organism has? Could this ever-more complex collective mind become something more, something self-aware? Could it in fact be us? If so, the mystery of life is neatly explained. No need now for soul or God.

But these newest findings are disturbing. The bits that make us alive are much smaller than we’d thought. The cells don’t have wills either. They’re just a bunch of molecules jiggling around bumping into one another. That leukocyte doesn’t desire to go over and gobble that bacterium; a receptor was just triggered by a whiff of bacteria, causing muscle molecules to kink and drag the cell in that direction. And all the molecules in all our cells are just such knee jerks. Hard to see where we live in that.

And the news isn’t likely to improve as science probes ever deeper. Beyond molecules and atoms is only the cold world of quarks and probability waves and things that only exist if they are watched. We’re not likely to find any place we could call home down that road. And looking the other way, up the scale of size, there’s the attractive theory that we are not individuals at all. It proposes that every person, every organism, is a cell in the body of one being, a great animal called Gaia, with Earth for a skeleton, the seas for blood, and us for mind.

This is a comforting thought, but ultimately unsatisfying. If Gaia exists, we can never know what it is like, for we can only experience being our part of it. Gaia is reduced to something like a wider vision of human civilization, something we are undeniably a part of, but with which we can never personally identify. Civilization is capable of achievements impossible for a single person, but it is really no more wondrous or advanced than each of its citizens. There are those who say it is only we Westerners who do not know Gaia by direct experience. Perhaps they’re right. But I suspect that even the holiest of believers still experiences life as an individual. What then are we left with, now that the scientists are painting in the smallest details of our physical beings? The earlier discoveries made religion seem quaint and unnecessary, but now we are forced back to it by science. The world’s best thinkers and researchers have studied it in great detail for centuries, and the results are in: Yes, the religions were right, we are a miracle.

We can believe what most people have always believed: that God made us and God moves us. Science is only learning how He made us and how He moves us; it does not alter the fact that He does. If anything, seeing the incredible detail only increases our awe and wonder at His achievement.

But I remain doubtful. Is it God then pushing and pulling the molecules? Why? So we can exist? Why? So we can know Him, for some mysterious purpose only He can imagine? A circle of Why’s. How can we feel what we feel, think what we think, if we are indeed just atoms rubbing together, even if God Himself is doing the rubbing?

Does any alternative remain? The fact of our existence seems impossible to reconcile with what we’re made of. Is what we know as consciousness, as ourselves, simply what it feels like to be a complex hydrocarbon? The idea is more shocking the more you think about it. We’re not talking intellectual theories here. If you can accept that life is only interactions of atoms, just who the hell is reading this right now?

copyright 1995 by Brian K. Crawford