Assassins Roam Our Highways 02/22/2009 Feb 22, 2009 — Slinking surreptitiously through our blood streams, the assassins prowl about, looking for their targets. These are not terrorists or vigilantes. They have a license to kill. Be glad they are there; they have saved your life many times. They are called natural killer cells. PhysOrg reported on work going on at Howard Hughes Medical Institute to understand this part of our immune system (see prior work reported 08/05/2005). Natural kill (NK) cells are usually the first responders. They get a “license” to kill in the form of a molecular tag. Scientists do not yet fully understand, the article said, how NK cells recognize friend from foe, and how they remember an infection to speed up their response the second time. What scientists do know is that once they find the bad cells, they can poke holes in their membranes and inject poisons into them, neutralizing the invaders.
Personifying cells is a useful pedagogical aid, but can be misleading. It’s fun to turn cells into good guys and bad guys. The scene is like the action miniseries 24, with Jack Bauer playing the NK cell against the foreign terrorists, the disease germs. Cells, of course, have no brains and personalities. The forces at work between agonists and antagonists in a cell do not have moral overtones. The reality, nonetheless, is amazing. It is instructive in two ways. First, the presence of molecular tags as codes that grant privileged access is a hallmark of intelligent design. The NK cells are robotic, in the sense of operating on design principles to perform a function. Second, the need for destructive mechanisms (in this case, agents that can poke and poison a harmful invader), might inform theodicy. We know that some pathogenic bacteria sport needle-like machines that inject toxins into healthy cells, causing disease (e.g., the Type III secretory system, TTSS; see 10/11/2005 and 11/30/2006, bullet 5). Suppose these were originally created for benign purposes. Is it possible they have gone awry, and like the robot cowboys in Westworld, have turned their guns against the visitors? Gun advocates are quick to point out that guns are not intrinsically evil; it depends on how they are used. The same is true for cellular mechanisms that have the power to dismantle other cells. Suppose they originally provided environmental information to organisms migrating into new habitats, or worked with the host immune system like cooperative intelligence agents in friendly countries, only to find themselves at war after a falling out of diplomatic relations. There are many push-and-pull forces at work in the machinery of life. All it takes is for the balance to shift, and disasters can happen. The competing forces might drift further apart in an escalating war: the human immune system vs. the invaders run amok (see 02/18/2009). If God designed everything to be originally good, but gave man a choice to trust Him or not, why should He maintain the order of a creation that rejected Him? Should a software designer continue to support an installation of his product for a customer who violated the license agreement? No; if bugs arise through mutations, a designer would be under no obligation to fix them, even if the software was mostly robust and able to handle a wide range of contingencies. A programmer would even be justified in coding booby traps for violators. This simplified analogy cannot answer all questions about the origin of natural evil, obviously, but it might provide a heuristic model to incorporate into a larger theodicy. What’s remarkable is how many systems continue to function as designed in a world under judgment for rebellion against its Maker. One creationist biology professor remarked, “The surprising thing is not that we get sick. It is that we are ever well.” The happiness we do enjoy are indications of God’s common grace to the undeserving (see Acts 14). The evolutionist is in no better position to explain the observations. Darwinians personify the world while denying the existence of personhood. In Darwin’s world, everyone is selfish. There are no good guys and bad guys; just random organisms, each looking out for number one. In their Hobbesian war of all against all, some organisms, whether bacteria or humans, band into confederations to trade security for freedom. It’s the defectors that spoil the game and cause trouble. David Sloan Wilson thinks evolutionary game theory provides an elegant solution for the way the world works (12/21/2005). Is it really a better scenario than the Biblical account? Its glaring weakness is that it provides no explanation for the specified complexity of codes and networks that permeate biology. Even Richard Dawkins expresses staggering amazement at life’s “appearance” of having been designed for a purpose (09/12/2004). All he can say is: stuff happens, and we were lucky. His NK cells have saved his life many times, but he has no one to thank but Lady Luck for the good health he usually enjoys in his democratic society. Someone needs to warn him that if you want to play with Hobbes instead of Calvin, best beware Leviathan. Dawkins, Wilson and other atheistic evolutionists freely invoke axioms of morality, while denying the foundations for morality. They cannot produce documentation for their right to shoot down intelligent design, so they steal the credentials of theists, and obtain their weapons on the black market: truth, logic, and virtue. They take good, designed weapons and turn them against the source of the design. A license to kill is a good thing in the hands of an honest cop or certified espionage agent. When the bad guy steals the gun, though, watch out. That’s true in philosophy as well as in cell biology and civilization.