by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, April 2006
The first draft of The Origin of Species was in 1842. We are now approaching the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of that book by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The full title was The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859. In our day two huge model shifts allow us to do an update of that very great book. We agree to ignore the alternative title as too racist for comfort. But for Botany, Zoology, Anthropology, Sociology, and Theology "natural selection" is still at the heart of scientific discussion.
Darwin could only work by observing the animals and plants that he encountered in his voyages. But scientists can now set out the gene structure of each species. In some cases the DNA shows that a particular animal belongs to a different family from what zoologists had assumed from the shape of their skeletons. But generally this makes little difference. Cats, leopards, lions and tigers are still felines.
The evolution of computers offers us another model to see what makes one species of animal different from another. My first two computers used DOS for their operating system. I then moved up to Windows, and I now work with Windows XP. Some of my friends prefer a Mac, and I am told that Linus is far superior and costs nothing. And new operating systems are being designed every year.
It is never the shape of the box that counts. The Compaq Presario tower on my desk is about the same size and shape as my original Kaypro twenty years ago. But what the new operating system can do is awesomely different. It must feel insulted that I only use a tiny fraction of its power. All I do is process words, send and receive e-mail, check favorites on the world-wide web. I never download any of the thousands of other kinds of software that are available.
There is ruthless natural selection as every three of four years computer users buy the best operating system for their purpose. The old system goes to the garbage dump and is lost for ever.
What is impressive about animals and plants is that there is an astonishing stability in the operating systems encoded in their DNA. From generation to generation each species transmits to its offspring exactly what is needed for its own kind of life. The transmission is done in various ways. Some plants do it by subdivision. Others produce seeds for the wind to move across the landscape. Birds and reptiles lay eggs. Mammals put sperm into ova.
As a result termites, spiders, ants, birds, fish, mammals, continue unchanged over hundreds of generations. For two or three million years hominids have used the same operation system to walk, run, hunt, eat, digest, have sex, produce the 900 ingredients of mother’s milk, rear offspring.
In a previous article titled "Software for Genesis Man" I suggested that humans were given the software needed to function in the image of God comparatively recently. This enabled them to communicate with God, make moral judgments, pray for others, exercise the freedom to choose among hundreds of lifestyles.
Einstein said that "The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that we can understand it." It seems that no other animal is able to think about its own creation , ask about the meaning of life, or imagine the resurrection body we will need for life after death.
The explanation given in the first book of the Bible (Genesis 1:26, 27) is that God decided to give us what it takes to explore every area of his creation. Paul prayed that we may have "the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of the Messiah that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:18). Bill Gates would be hard put even to guess at the architecture of the billions of bytes that were needed to enable us to do this. In our very long hominid history it seems this happened comparatively recently, perhaps only about 4000 years ago.
If Darwin was now armed with our knowledge of DNA and the computer science of operating systems, and a computer with a big enough memory, how would he update his book? The DNA of every species of plant and animal life would be set out in a classification system. The origin of every species could be dated in a vast evolutionary chart. Just as there is a survival of the fittest among computers he could document how and why species survived in their struggle with one another. But questions remain. Can other species develop software ? And we would want to ask him what he thought about mindless or intelligent design.