Law, Chance, and Opportunity in Nature

Law, Chance, and Opportunity in Nature

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Metanexus 2001.07.28 3844 words.

Law, Chance and Opportunity in Nature: Insight into Natural and HumanCreativity by Pauline Rudd is today’s topic. Rudd’s June 6th, 2001, lectureat a Science and the Spiritual Quest Program of the Center for Theology andthe Natural Sciences titled The Natural Sciences and the Human Quest forMeaning: The Cosmos, Evolution, and the Limits of Knowledge held at GeneralTheological Seminaryin New York City.

And, according to Dr. Rudd, Nature is characterised by order, patterns,organisation, creativity and opportunism. Humans observe natural order,impose order, embark on design with a sense of purpose, and are creative andopportunistic. God is defined as creator – but in what sense? Is God also adesigner, purposeful and opportunistic? To what extent can God, Nature andhuman beings work co-creatively together?

Now those are some real humdinger questions! Then again, humdingers are thebest kinds of questions. We learn best and most, I suspect, when we arepushing the limits of the envelope of conventional thought. So please enjoyher essay on the subject, and engage her and yourself in the attempt toprovide some worthy answers to those questions.

Dr. Pauline Rudd is a University Research Lecturer and Senior ResearchFellow in the Glycobiology Institute in the University of Oxford. With hercolleagues, she has pioneered the development of novel technology for therapid, sensitive analysis of sugars attached to glycoproteins. Dr. Rudd hasworked in many different biological systems carrying out basic research intoglycoproteins involved in heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, hepatitis,prion diseases, and inflammation. Currently, her particular interest is inthe role of glycosylation in antigen recognition in both the cellular andhumoral immune systems. She has published over 70 scientific papers andspoken at numerous meetings in the United States, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong,China and Taiwan as well as throughout Eastern and Western Europe.

Dr. Rudd has recently been privileged to take a short Sabbatical at TheScripps Research Institute in San Diego, CA and is a visiting Professor atShanghai Medical University. She has been committed to integrating thespiritual and scientific journeys for many years, becoming a lay member ofthe Community of St. Mary the Virgin, Wantage, Oxfordshire while readingChemistry at London University. In 1997-8 she was a participant in the’Science and the Spiritual Quest’ programme organised by the Centre forTheology and the Natural Sciences. In 1999/2000 her speaking engagementsincluded the opening lecture at the Chautauqua Institution season, Buffalo,NY, as well as lectures at several colleges and universities in both theUnited States and England.

Speaking of Science and the Spiritual Quest, the Harvard Conference onScience and the Spiritual Quest: The Quest for Knowledge, Truth, and Valuesin Science and Religion held on October 21 – 23, 2001 at Harvard MemorialChurch, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts and will include a livenational telecast Monday, October 22, 2001 from 3:00 PM – 9:00 PM, EDT.

The conference is presented by Science and the Spiritual Quest, a program ofthe Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in partnership withDialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, a program of the AmericanAssociation for the Advancement of Science. Co-Presenters are the EpiscopalCathedral Telecasting Network and the Center for the Study of WorldReligions, Harvard University Divinity School.

This Harvard Conference will bring together leading scientists from aroundthe world to explore the interface between contemporary science and thegreat religious and spiritual traditions.For conference information and registration, visit the SSQ website at:www.ssq.netFor details on how to view the satellite or webcast broadcast, or call 1-800-559-3286.For media information or SSQ scientist interviews, call Silas Deane at LogicMedia Group,, 615-301-8313 or FAX 615-301-8001.

Science and the Spiritual Quest, 2400 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94709-1212TEL: 510-848-2355FAX: 510-848-2592EMAIL: ssq@ssq.netWEB:


— Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Law, Chance and Opportunity in Nature: Insight into Natural andHuman CreativityFrom: Pauline RuddEmail: <>

Law, Chance and Opportunity in Nature: Insight into Natural and HumanCreativity

Nature is characterised by order, patterns, organisation, creativity andopportunism.

The order we observe in the nature, such as the Fibonacci patterns insunflower heads, may be fundamental and restricted, given the parametersthat delineate our Universe and world. Many different arrangements of thesame basic structures are manifest in biology. For example glucose residuescan be linked in different ways, in open structures to form pollen tubes orin stacks as they are in potatoes. However, the combinations are stillrestricted and only some of the possible combinations of the material in theUniverse are actually observed. Organisation is required for living thingsto function and only few of the possible combinations of structures can giverise to a living organism which can replicate. For example the hepatitis Bvirus has 4 genes, which give rise to some 20 proteins, althoughtheoretically more could be expressed. Evolution provides manypossibilities, and Nature builds on what is successful. However, evolutiondoesn’t prescribe for the future. If mutations do not work i.e. cannot bemade sense of, or do not give rise to a functioning organism they will notsurvive. The natural world has developed over many millennia in such a waythat different species can adapt to their environment and survive alongsideeach other. This implies organisation at many levels because to survive andflourish organisms depend on co-operation, co-ordination and communicationboth within themselves and with their environment.

Nature is a great experimentalist- nature keeps changing things within atthe genome level and without at the environmental level. There is a greatpanoply of permutations and combinations and possibilities. A few mutationswill survive because they are functionally useful and at best provide theorganism with opportunity to develop in new ways. Other mutations, such asin the prion protein which give rise to spongiform encephalopathies, willsurvive because the organism can function at least for a while, but sincethe mutated or disordered proteins are not functioning in harmony with theirsurroundings, they eventually lead to disease and death. It does not seemthat there are any ethical restrictions on Nature.

Genes represent opportunity or potential not inevitability. There is roomfor many alternatives to be tried – so random mutations, (caused eg byradiation from solar bodies) at the level of the gene may result in theexpression of different proteins which may give a particular advantage to agroup of individuals within a species in a particular environment eg sicklecells protect against malaria.

Once some parameters are established then the possibilities are restricted –
for example the salinity of the sea, the composition of the atmosphere, andthe components of the soil restrict the possible forms of life which cansurvive. As soon as these are defined the possibilities are restricted justas when an artist makes the first brushstroke or the sculptor the firstmarks with the chisel.

There doesn’t appear to be any long term linear aim in the natural world,perhaps because Nature itself needs to be flexible and responsive tochanging environmental conditions within and beyond the world. Biologicalevolution seems to be more like a kaleidoscope where the same material iscontinuously re-assembled into different forms of life. Every now and then acataclysmic event allows things to reshuffle, to begin over again – afterthe dinosaurs, after the ice ages, sometimes even after wars. Unless manturns out to be the exception, although in the short term Nature movestowards increased complexity, in the long term things don’t seem to bemoving purposefully towards a clear objective, they just become different.

Humans observe order, impose order, embark on design with a sense of purposeand are creative and opportunistic.

Twentieth century science, which we might characterise as an enterpriseinvolving ‘description which leads to prediction and control’, works, atleast to a first approximation, because the material of which the naturalworld is composed behaves in a predictable manner. Newton could only derivehis laws of motion because this is the case. At the molecular level, modelscan be used for prediction because nature provides us with structurallyrelated families of molecules / protein domains/ lectins- predict how theywill function once one is understood. Nature repeats things- for example ina family of adhesion molecules the same binding site is located at differentdistances from the cell membrane by putting in extra domains – thus patternemerges by repetition. The same protein domains are used over and over againand the same structure may serve different functions depending on itsenvironment.

Modern biology provides a basis for understanding the living world becauseit allows us to make predictions which are, in general, more reliable thanour intuitive reactions and certainly more testable. In addition, itprovides experimentally derived data bases which everyone can use as astarting place for new research.

Thus the natural order we recognise in biology – which has been selectedfrom an infinite number of possibilities- survives because it is has becomeuseful for functionality. For example, there is complementarity betweenparticular bacteria and different blood group sugars so that our blood groupplays a role in determining the flora in our gut.

A reductionist view of Nature has served us well in our physical andchemical analysis of the world, but we know, that although it is stillnecessary to study small parts of things because we do not have thetechnology to do otherwise, it is no longer enough. In Biology we need newideas so we can deal with complexity. Even at the molecular level we aredealing with complex sequences of events in systems where many otherprocesses which might affect each other are happening simultaneously. Anexample is the complement which deals with bacteria which invade our bodies.We do not yet know where to begin to unravel such complexity. In the evenlarger view, when we come to dealing with something as complex as food webs,we can only make the most simple predictions because we have yet to developthe mathematics required to deal with the complexity.

Order may not always be the fundamental property it seems. It may besomething we project onto our surroundings -an optical illusion- like theconstellations that help us to establish our location in the universe. Weimpose pattern or form on vague shapes- the rocks in the desert, those facesin the stones at Avebury. We do this because it is a short cut to evaluatingor transmitting information. Sometimes we see different orders in the samedata as in Escher’s drawings.

Human beings are very good at pattern recognition and at designing modelswhich allow us to explain and predict. They do not even have to befundamentally true if they allow us to predict- when the model fails to liveup to experimental data the model is changed for a better one.

Design is a concept associated with human beings. Purpose is a concept whichenables sentient beings to make sense of their lives. Design and purposeimply that an informed selection from many possible alternatives has beenmade by intelligent beings with specific motives, with an endpoint in sightand with the capacity to build on experience, to predict and to relatechoice to outcome. Thus with sufficient information, humans can buildinanimate structures by design because we can imagine or predict outcomes,so while things might not always work out as we plan, generally we do nothave to try out each possibility.

Why do we do need to design things with a purpose? The awareness whichhumans have of self leads to fear – fear of pain, non-being, non-survival.Fear stems from a feeling of being out of control. We are at the mercy ofcosmic events that we cannot regulate. Therefore our best hope for survivallies in our ability to predict and control as many local events as we can.We seek to be more and more in control of our futures rather than leavingthem to chance. If our purpose is to increase both the quality and length ofour lives, we may do this more successfully if we use our knowledge to planand design things which enhance the body or provide harmony for the spirit.

Living things are not designed in the sense that word generally applies tohuman endeavour. Using the word design in connection with Nature impliesthat there is intention or purpose before an organism evolves and theconscious control of options.

Indeed there is control in Nature- the physical nature of the components ofthe Universe (eg gravity) allows some structures to emerge but not others.Not everything is possible. There are sets of building blocks eg at theatomic level and at the amino acid level. However, there does not appear tobe any further constraint. Living things are a result of an immenselycreative process far, far beyond anything we have attempted. In Nature,anything that arises spontaneously is tested. The screening process issurvival. Nothing is precluded in advance. Nature is opportunistic and freeto respond to changing conditions. One way in which we have imitated natureto some extent is in the search for new drugs based on combinatorialchemistry where every conceivable permutation is tested without bias.

Man is creative, not only in his response to the physical world, but also inthe world of ideas. This by no means suggests that man’s predisposition todesign and live purposefully is inferior to Nature’s profuse creativity. Itis complementary, for we have fertile, creative imaginations which are thepre-cursers of design and purpose. We depend on the natural world, of whichwe are a part, to bring our creative ideas to reality.

In the scientific enterprise, we not only test, describe and report, weinvent new ways to do this. We also use the existing material on earth tocreate new materials, new cells, and new organisms to test our ideas. Wealso dream and imagine because we can only test what we can imagine.

Creative artists use natural materials to express their deepest experiences,musicians use sound and finely tuned instruments, and poets use words andpens. There is an almost limitless number of ways to arrange words use paintor combine musical notes, but not everything makes sense and if creativityis to result in productivity we have to place restrictions on ourselves tocreate a story or a tune. We do this intelligently – it is not random in thesense that genetic mutations are random – they occur and nature sorts outthe viable from the non-viable.

Academics use words and ordered, rational thinking to express concepts andideas, including that of God, and in a way, like the natural world, suchcreative ideas evolve. Dark ages when whole sets of ideas are apparentlylost may be the mind equivalent to the whole scale extinction of life forms-a way of shuffling and re-dealing the cards.

We re-interpret God in each generation – each generation re-creates God inits own image- we struggle to view God and relate to Him in ways which areconsistent with our understanding of the world, even though we know this tobe limited. God is not constrained by us – we cannot expect to understandhim once and for all- indeed we cannot even do that with the natural worldwhich is more open to our senses.

Today we seem to need a God to whom we can relate with parts of our beingwhich are not accessible to other people or even to ourselves. Maybe we needto justify our decisions to ourselves, maybe we need some inner confidenceto survive in this universe which might seem quite terrifying if we feltourselves to be alone. Maybe we need something to replace the security wefelt before birth or as small children. So to some extent at least weproject our own needs and ideals onto the concept of God which we obtainthrough our personal experience and interaction with Being beyond ourselves,if we have such experience.

Could we with certainty distinguish a God of our own constructions arrivedat by the shifting and turning of ideas about God from the conviction thatthere truly is a reality that represents some kind of ultimacy and mysterythat may somehow satisfy a human longing for completeness and fulfilment? Ata personal level often these two aspects of the immanent yet transcendentGod are integrated in a way which enables us to translate religiousexperience into something meaningful for everyday life.

These inaccessible areas of ourselves include the unformed, yet to bearticulated and, even further away, yet to be acted upon ideas. It seemslike an infinite progression – our notions of God are generated at one levelfrom the history and culture of our environment, at another in the centre ofout own inaccessible being where creativity also begins. As individuals weassimilate these ideas, we create new ones of our own using our personalwealth of inner experience. When we can express these ideas we consciouslyuse them to develop our ideas of God which then modify our deepest thoughts.Thus the cumulative richness of our culture combined with the depths of ourpresent experience provides new threads of wisdom in every generation.

God is defined as the creator, but in what sense? Is God also a designerwith purpose?

Why did God create an evolving Universe? If God’s purpose is to makeeverything perfect why didn’t he create the world perfect from thebeginning? Surely because this would be incompatible with an evolvinguniverse that has a beginning. Biological evolution is integrated with thephysical evolution of the world.What we interpret as ‘design’ in the Universe may be an intrinsic propertyof Nature, it does not necessarily imply the direct intervention of asentient being such as we understand sentience. We may ascribe purpose toour experience but it does not follow that God necessarily also does this.

When we design or create we try to avoid being non-productive – we don’twrite down random letters and then pick out the ones that happen to bewords. We recognise order- for example out of the billions of combinationsof notes we select some as being harmonious and tuneful. Why does Nature/Godwork on the random principle if there is a pre-conceived design? Certainlyit seems he is not interested in efficiency!

Co-creativity and partnership between God, Nature and Man

Perhaps some answers lie in the idea of partnership or dance and a role forNature, including Man, to work co-creatively with God. Partnership like thedance is not just one sided. It involves each partner putting the otherfirst, respecting the other and extending to them trust and freedom to makeinformed choices. Partnership involves trust, freedom and relinquishingtotal control. We cannot control God and if we wish to be responsibleindividuals then we do not want God to control us either. As we mature, werecognise that we are in a partnership with a God who may be unchanging, butwhom we experience in different ways as we change- as the monk reciting therosary remarked to a critic – the prayers don’t change, but I do.

Control may satisfy our need for security, but it doesn’t really fit withour observance and experience of nature, or indeed with experience of ourselves at the level of intentional action. It appears, instead, that thereis openness, a range of possibilities within nature. If we see God assomeone who designed everything once and for all at the beginning ofcreation then we miss the majesty of the possibility of creation itselfbeing creative as it responds in harmony with changes to itself. Indeedcannot God’s involvement with us be such that together we can attain realnovelty, contingency and opportunity that preserves the integrity of life inthe process?

In some measure ‘freedom’ applies to the whole scale of things- at somelevels it may mean the probabilities that atoms will collide and form bonds;at other levels probabilities can be skewed by conscious choices. The morecomplex the organism the more important is the need for responsible informedchoice, not only for the survival of the individual but for the survival ofthe group which sustains the individual. Though they may restrict ouroptions, genes do not ultimately control us.

Why should the Universe have any ‘intentional purpose’? Why should what isarrived at by design be better than what happens though combinations ofprobabilities and possibilities? Design which implies a defined purpose withno room for opportunistic development does not seem to reflect what we seein the world. The world is full of opportunism at every level. Even humansdo not design their own lives except in a limited way – we respond toopportunities. Isn’t what we observe more like God as an artist, having somekind of vision but then working with the material of creation to allow it tohave a life of its own, standing back, withdrawing even, to allow it toreveal itself. Many creative people recognise that they reach a point wherethe music, the painting, the sculpting, the characters in a novel take on alike of their own. The same is true in science- there are these greatmoments where you stand back listening to the symphony, watching the sceneunfolding before you, knowing that all the preparation and data collectionhas been essential but that alone it does not constitute the event you areexploring.

When we make gardens, new materials or new genes we work with Nature andpotentially with God, using both our creative imaginations and our abilityto design.

While design has to do mainly with control, creativity involves a responseto the environment and to circumstance. We design gardens, we breedracehorses and maybe now we are on the brink of being able to alter or evendesign genomes. However, just because we plant the seeds or geneticallyengineer the DNA does not mean that we completely control any of thesethings because just like Dolly the sheep, or quintuplets all living thingsdevelop in response to their environment so neither clones nor quintupletsare exact replicas.

A world where we could design control everything would surely not bedesirable, even if this was some kind of dream of mankind. Design can bethought and looked for by us for the wrong reason–a need for control, orfor certainty–but it may foreclose on mystery and the real contingencywhich combines with our intentions. We can design a garden to perfection- wecan eliminate pests, we can trim everything to within an inch of its life,but in so doing we may miss the rare beauty that only chance and opportunismcan bring.

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