Dr. Phillip Bishop is professor of exercise physiology at the University of Alabama. Bishop has served as a visiting scientist in the NASA Exercise Countermeasures Program at Johnson Space Center, Houston.
What are you doing right now? If your first answer was, "nothing" you are badly mistaken. Right now while you sit quietly, a myriad of wonderful events are taking place necessary for your survival. Right now your heart is beating. If you're in average physical condition, it beats between 60 and 70 times per minute, 93,000 times per day, 655,000 times per week, 34 million times per year, and 2.4 billion beats in the average lifetime. What's so amazing is that, most of the time, it fuels itself, paces itself, repairs itself, and alters itself in response to lifestyle changes, with no conscious effort on your part. In addition to your heart, your liver is detoxifying your blood, your brain is storing away information, cells are being formed and cells destroyed, energy is being used and produced, and many other tasks vital to life and function all carry on in a wonderful, harmonious way. Thomas Jefferson may have had similar thoughts in mind when he observed, " No knowledge can be more satisfactory to man than that of his own frame, its parts, their functions, and actions." In an earlier era, St. Augustine noted, " Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the oceans, at the circular motion of the stars, and pass by themselves without wondering." In deference to Jefferson's hypothesis and Augustine's criticism, this essay will discuss three topics arising from even a cursory examination of man's physical form and function: 1) the complexity of man and what it suggests about man's origins, 2) the efficient and versatile operation of man compared with machine, and 3) the depth of our ignorance about how man's physiological systems operate.
Within man's span of abilities, he can run more than 26 miles at less than 5 min per mile, he can jump over three feet higher than his own stature, he can create an artificial heart, he can explain some of the workings of the chromosome. Yet, Man is one of the slowest of the fast animals, and one of the weakest of the strong animals. Despite his superior intellect, man does some stupid things (consider chronic use of tobacco for one), and seems doomed to repeat the same mistakes periodically. Let's examine man's function in detail.
The Complexity of Man and Man's Origins
Your eyes, your ears, your heart, each of these together with their intricate function should inspire awe. The heart of man, from a functional viewpoint is a miracle of performance. Through a complex nervous and hormonal feedback regulation system, the heart and circulatory system maintain the exactly correct rate and output to supply the correct blood flow for both the marathoner and the couch potato. The parts of you that are functioning at any particular time receive a share of blood in proportion to their need, and those that are resting quietly receive their carefully metered due. Your nervous system too is marvelously complex. It has the ability to communicate the feel of pain resulting from intense pressure, yet adapts appropriately to the pressure of sitting or standing without distracting neural traffic. A nervous system just like yours precisely controls the muscles of the concert pianist playing Chopin, the baseball slugger making contact with 98 mph fastball, and the gymnast performing a triple somersault to a precise landing.
Your red blood cells which "incidentally" happen to be the ideal shape for transporting oxygen, are manufactured and destroyed at an incredible rate. Approximately 10 million red blood cells are made every hour, and an equal number destroyed. If either supply or destruction becomes out of synchrony by as little as 1%, before long, your life ends due to anemia, or polycythemia, which is to say, your blood gets so thin than oxygen transport is insufficient or it gets so thick that it can no longer circulate. Blood clotting is similarly complex requiring coordinated function of at least 11 chemical factors. Should blood clot too readily or should clots which are formed fail to dissolve, you die. Should it clot too slowly, again the result is death. Our body contains hundreds of complex feedback loops whose precision and reliability are vital to life. Even the most talented design engineer would be reluctant to undertake such a complicated project. Too, the margin for error isn't very great. Without knowing it, we tread a very narrow path where the smallest error produces death. Fortunately, the vast majority of the time, we are not penalized for our ignorance.
So we're complex, so what? So, we're so complex that our bodies reflect a system containing an abundance of information. We're so complex it seems highly doubtful that we are the product of chance errors of our forebear's DNA. Even some of the earliest dinosaurs were terrifically physiologically complex because of their immense size, but that's another issue.
Let's take a moment and consider the implications of assuming man's creation occurred by pure chance. If chance DNA errors were the source of life, it seems only logical that the more opportunities for favorable mutation the higher the statistical probability for further development. The larger the population and the greater the turnover, the larger the gene pool. Man is a slow producer with a relatively small population in comparison to most small animals. Were chance mutations responsible for development, shouldn't mice or fruit flies be running the world instead of man?
Our very existence seems more an affront to a "Survival of the Fittest" evolutionary scenario. Man's unimpressive hair covering would have restricted early man to the warmest climes. Likewise, man's kidneys are relatively poor water conservers compared to most animals suggesting man was restricted to a warm and wet environment. Man's claws are unimpressive, and his running speed could hardly serve as an effective escape mechanism. Man's teeth aren't especially good at capturing or killing game. Relative to most animals, man's digestive ability is inefficient. Even man's greatest ability, his intellect, would not have done the earliest man a great deal of good in the harshest of survival conditions. How much good would your intellect do you in a tropical wilderness without food, clothing, shelter and specific training is survival? If survival of the fittest were the rule in the earliest days of man, how did we ever make it?
Efficient and Versatile Operation of Man Compared with Machine
Instead of rapt appreciation of the marvel of our own creation and function, Augustine's complaint of lack of consideration of man seems amply evidenced. Man's problem historically has been that we seem too much impressed with what we ourselves create, and too little impressed with what has been created within us. But lets look at the basic issues. Let's compare what we have made with what has been provided us. Since circulatory function has been our theme, a dramatic place to look is the artificial heart. There is probably no fool so bold as to suggest that the Jarvic 7 or any other artificial pumper is remotely as good as the heart with which the average person was born. I know of no marathoner who feels their time would improve with an artificial heart. Even something relatively simple like false teeth are a sad comparison to the natural teeth provided us. Take a good look at your hands. Yes, the hands with which you floss your non-false teeth, the hands that play the guitar, the hands which type a blazing 20 words per minute. What's man's most successful replacement for the hand? A hook has historically been our best substitute. As much as we are loathe to admit it, God's design is far superior to man's design.
Another perspective on this issue may be instructive. Imagine a mechanical engineer, or even a team of engineers, were tasked with developing a robot which could lift 500 pounds. Imagine that they were separately tasked with designing a robot to play Chopin. Either task, if unrestricted by too many specifications, could be easily accomplished. However, ask the team to design a machine with the simultaneous capability to do both tasks, and restrict their machine weight to 250 lbs, and require that the device be adaptable to a variety of similar tasks, and the engineering team would probably collectively throw in the towel, even if their budget were unlimited. Yet, we have simply asked for a very crude replication of former football player Mike Reid. Not to say we have not made great strides in robotics and artificial intelligence, but we are still a long way from replicating man's capacity for creativity, self repair, self programming, and a myriad of other human capabilities which have somehow miraculously been neatly packaged in a highly durable, mobile, bundle weighing typically under 150 pounds and composed of less than $5 worth of raw material.
Though man may take justifiable pride in many magnificent engineering feats, it's hard to reconcile man's great egocentricity in comparison to what was created within the human frame, totally independent of man's contribution. In fact, man's pride in his accomplishments should be tempered by man's acknowledgement of our own ignorance about how physiological systems do work. That issue will be briefly considered in the next section.
Our Ignorance about How Our Physiological Systems Operate
We are very ignorant about nature in general, and about the human body in particular. Oh, we know a few things, but what about those basic issues like, "what causes us to fatigue?'. How does a baseball fielder know where to move to catch a fly ball? Why do organisms die? If you will leaf through a good human physiology book you will see that the end of each section is more or less concluded by saying, "... and we don't know how it works beyond this level...". We're learning, and perhaps there will inevitably be one more level of understanding to be attained. But, as smart as we think we are, as much as we think we've learned, we have to admit it has taken a long time, and a great deal of effort to learn what we know, and despite of our knowledge, we still do some incredibly stupid things. Education seems no substitute for humility and common sense. Speaking of common sense, it seems that many of us resemble the foolish fisherman. If he fails to catch a fish, he presumes that proves there are no fish, rather than proving he is an inept fisherman. Despite the ample evidence of our ignorance, we seem to suggest that our inability to use natural processes (i.e. science) to establish that God was the Supernatural Creator, in fact proves that there was no Creator. Alas, but humility has never been man's strong suit.
How is it that we are more impressed with the violin than with Strativarius himself? How can we marvel at physiology, acknowledge its complexity, and assume we are the products of random chance? William Paley once put forth the illustration that if we were walking along and suddenly came upon a watch, we would assume that indeed there was a watchmaker. We seem perfectly willing to examine our form and function, which is imminently more complex than a timepiece, and yet assume we have no Creator. Our basic failure seems to have much in common with the Biblical account of Adam's fall in Eden. Adam was tempted to "...become like gods...". Adam premised his elevation to god- status on indulging in the fruit. Modern Adam premises his elevation to the highest status by indulging in self-assurance that God is non-existent. To acknowledge that man was created, is to acknowledge the existence, at some point, of a Being higher than man. And for some Adams, that is simply too humbling.