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What mysterious properties do the Oikopleura dioica have to challenge God and cause such religious tremors?
Some popularizers of science know very well that using God’s name in vain in their articles is a proven, effective way of attracting a wider audience, even if the reference is totally unnecessary or unrelated to the issue in question.
That’s because, deep down, people are interested in everything related to God, whether they believe in his existence or not.
In this respect, a recent article published in the Spanish newspaper El País on June 13th 2016 and titled “The little bug standing up to God” caught my attention. Without blushing, the author blurts this out for starters: the microscopic plankton, Oikopleura dioica, ‘puts human beings where they belong: with the rest of animals’. Not only that, but it also ‘makes religious discourse tremble’. Take that! Apparently, nowadays this is what ‘spreading science’ consists of.
What mysterious properties does this tunicate barely measuring three millimeters have to challenge God and cause such religious tremors? It’s not about what it has, but about what it doesn’t have. It turns out that most animals use retinoic acid -a vitamin A derivative- to regulate morphogenesis, that is, what the cells of an embryo must do at each moment during its growth from embryo to adult.
This acid activates the genes needed to form the limbs, the heart, the spine and the ears of the newborn. Well, it’s been discovered that the Oikopleura dioica doesn’t have this retinoic acid; what’s more, it doesn’t even have the gene regulatory cascade needed to produce it. How are then its organs built? At the moment, nobody knows, although it’s obvious that there must exist some other biochemical mechanism, different from the one we know in the rest of living beings. We have to keep investigating.
Does this prove that God doesn’t exist, or that all religions are false? In Spain, the popular way of describing this fallacy -non causa pro causa- is: 'confusing speed with pork fat'. What does the Creator’s speed have to do with the fat of Oikopleura? Doesn’t the incredible diversity and complexity of life, increasing with every new scientific discovery, tell us clearly that there must be an original intelligence? Believers are often accused of wanting to see God everywhere. But, what should we say about the obsession some researchers show who approach nature seeking reasons to finish with God’s existence?
The Oikopleura dioica has a mouth and an anus, but also a brain and a heart, even if very reduced. It can live in almost all temperate and warm seas. It’s a tunicate, like the Mediterranean red sea squirts, but smaller. Instead of being attached to substratum, it roams freely, without a set course, following the currents. This species has been known since the mid-19th century. Then it was already known that it endured a wide range of temperatures and saline concentrations. Zoologists have never missed the fact that they are singular organisms; this intuition has now been confirmed by genetic studies. They are so far apart from other organisms, lacking 30% of the genes common to the rest of organisms, that finding that they have different biological mechanisms is not surprising, either.
The research team which has discovered the absence of these genes in Oikopleura dioica has followed the Darwinist approach when assuming that, half a billion years ago, the last common ancestor between this tunicate and humans must have had said genes that supposedly link us, but were lost gradually. Certainly, this is assumed without proof because the script calls for it. Conversely, it could be set out in different terms: did Oikopleura really lose 30% of its genes? Or is it that, maybe, it never had them? Is there a possibility that both it and its congeners were designed this way, roughly with the same genome it has today, evolving through time but always around a certain structural and genetic plan? I know this contradicts the prevailing paradigm. Nevertheless, when you don’t have conclusive proof, isn’t it better to leave all questions open?
It’s obvious that this little aquatic animal, even if differing genetically in such a substantial percentage, has survived successfully, winning the battle of natural selection. Today, it inhabits the oceans in a proportion of up to twenty thousand individuals per cubic meter of water. Such success leads our biologists to a quite unusual conclusion: inferring that the loss of genes is a driving force behind evolution. How is it possible that eliminating genes results in more effectiveness and complexity in species?
Even Darwin himself would turn in his grave. He claimed that biologic evolution gradually moves forward, from simple to complex: from inorganic matter to organic macromolecules, from the unicellular organism to the astronaut orbiting Earth. To lose something, you must have it in the first place.
Where did this genome come from, which was lost afterwards? Saying that the loss of genes might have been essential both for Oikopleura and for humans, and that it might have made us more intelligent - besides going against common sense - does not explain the source of the original genetic complexity, which still requires an intelligent design.
Meditating on the reduced genome this plankton animal possesses, the article concludes that there aren’t superior or inferior animals, since we are all built of the same Lego pieces, only set up differently. Cristian Cañestro, the biologist, concludes: ‘religion has had a bad influence on us, we used to think that we were at the apex of evolution. We are not. We are at the same level the rest of animals are’. Currently there’s a tendency to confuse the essence of human beings. The fact we are made out of atoms and genes doesn’t mean we can be reduced to just that. I don’t know of any Oikopleura who’s put artificial satellites in orbit around our green and blue planet, or written anything similar to El Quixote, or composed cantatas like Bach’s. What I know, though, is that all these plankton organisms are there, like unconscious, giant spermatozoa, swarming adrift around the world’s oceans and seas.
Fortunately, God is beyond such criticism. No little bug, theory or human discovery, rare as they might be, will ever be able to oust Him. He is the necessary, irreplaceable source of existence, nothing would be without his provident sustenance. Neither plankton, nor biologists, nor the universe. If our hearts keep beating, that’s because the Creator hasn’t closed His hand yet. The cosmos can’t have created itself from nothing.
Physicists’ nothingness is not God’s nothingness. Thus, the cause of existence of the universe, and that of the beings in it like ourselves, is not a question science can deal with. Only philosophy and theology can offer some answers. However, many don’t want to accept this and, like children, keep throwing little bugs at God.
Antonio Cruz is a biologist, theologian and author of several books.