OF MIRACLES AND WONDER
MORE INCREDIBLE THAN THE SUPERNATURAL
Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury, challenges the concept of miracles as we know them. But all is not lost: the world’s true wonders are becoming more and more accessible – all you need is a microscope.
More people than ever believe in miracles. Even though religious attendances are falling, belief in the inexplicable is seeing a revival. We shouldn’t be so easily duped says Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury. As a stalwart rationalist, Daryl nevertheless believes in the miraculous and the wonderful. However, the miracles he believes in are probably not the ones you’re thinking of…
Flick through the pages of a typical tabloid and it won’t be long before you are confronted with a headline that screams ‘miracle’. If it’s not an advert for some ointment or pill regime claiming to cure everything from chilblains to cancer, it will be a story of an event that purports evidence of divinity. Such claims should be examined with a sceptic’s eye – because one man’s miracle is a wise man’s science. First of all, let’s get something out of the way:
there is a place where you will most definitely find a miracle – in this popular understanding of the term. It’s in a dictionary, where it’s defined as ‘an extraordinary and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws’ and is therefore often ‘attributed’ to some form of divine agency. So miracles really do happen? Not so fast! The word ‘attributed’ is key here, because at a glance it may suggest causality, something that believers in miracles take as a given. However, ‘attributed’ simply means ‘considered’ or ‘regarded’, and it underlines the relative nature of what is considered a ‘miracle’. Just because some people may attribute something to divine intervention doesn’t make it a reality, just as some religious fundamentalists attributing a catastrophic event to, say, homosexuality definitely doesn’t make it so.
Furthermore, believers in miracles may point to the phrase ‘not explicable by natural or scientific laws’ as meaning that such events are somehow ‘bigger’ than science, but they will pooh-pooh ‘ghosts’ and ‘ghouls’ as trivial and purely ‘supernatural’. This is ironic because the word ‘supernatural’ is similarly defined as ‘beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature’ – so all ‘miracles’ are supernatural! It’s not a casual connection. Believing in miracles is normally supported by logic similar to that supporting the belief in the supernatural: because ‘science can’t explain everything’, supernatural events must be possible. This is terribly flawed logic. It’s a little like saying if you take everything out of your fridge and observe that it’s empty, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a unicorn in there. So there’s no such thing a miracle? That’s not entirely true if you dig deeper into the word ‘miracle’ for its root meaning. Its origin can be traced back to the Latin phrase ‘miraculum’ meaning ‘object of wonder’. Now, that should resonate with scientists! Carl Sagan once wrote: “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up [and] you don’t have to exaggerate. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” It’s no coincidence, then, that Richard Dawkins’ autobiography is titled ‘An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist’.
Many people don’t realise it, but science is driven by this thirst or appetite for wonder. As it progresses, science finds explanations for things formerly considered not explicable by the laws of nature; and in the process, these ‘laws of nature’ are adapted. Also within the realms of science – specifically when investigating the very small and very large scopes of the natural world – the laws of nature as we know them can have a nasty habit of being completely flipped on their heads. The result: we discover things that really are – in the true sense of the word – miraculous.
The late paleontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould, writing in The Panda’s
Thumb (1980), tells the fascinating story of magnetotactic bacteria – microscopic aquatic organisms that ‘eat’ strings of cubed particles of iron minerals to create tiny internal compasses (mini-magnets, as it were) so that they can navigate by the Earth’s magnetic field. What is truly – and here’s that word – ‘miraculous’ is that the size of the cubed particles that the bacteria choose to ingest, roughly 500 angstroms (an angstrom is one ten-millionth of a millimetre),
is exactly the correct size to achieve the desired result. Somehow the bacteria ‘know’ that if the particles were any smaller, they would simply be ineffective, and if any larger they would cancel each other out. Staying with bacteria, the American neurobiologist Debra Niehoff has a fascination with E. coli
– not because it’s known as a little critter that can cause a nasty upset tummy, but because of its incredible arsenal of seemingly humanlike skills, specifically its capacity to dance and communicate. The laws of nature are different down in the gut. For one, what we imagine as easily flowing liquids are (for bacteria) highly viscous, not unlike treacle. To counter this, as Niehoff explains in her book The Language of Life (2005), E. coli have developed a skein of spinning filaments, called flagella, that are powered by a ‘gearbox of proteins’ that spin the flagella like a rotor at more than 100 revolutions per second, allowing it to churn its way through the ‘gloopy’ liquids in the gut. But that’s not all: when the rotor spins clockwise, the flagella each stroke to their own beat and E.coli spins and tumbles; but then it switches, the rotor spins counterclockwise, and the flagella spiral into a single tail, giving it a smoother, more direct thrust forwards when needed. Recent studies of E. coli have also found that they have a tendency to ‘chat’ amongst themselves. This hadn’t been noticed before because bacteria are normally grown in labs in flat petri dishes, away from the hazards of their ‘natural’ environment. However, when examined under natural conditions, E. coli display remarkable survival skills, not least the capacity to communicate with each other (via receptors) through a set of complex interchanges. A chemical ‘chatter’ of enzymes and proteins gives E. coli the capacity to hunt for food as a group instead of as individuals. Yes, just like dolphins. The thought of bacteria communicating goes against our understanding of the laws of nature – that communication between living organisms is the sole preserve of those with at least some measure of a brain. As such, the fact they can do this falls squarely within the realm of a miracle. So, if you are looking for evidence of real miracles, you need nothing more than an appetite for wonder… oh yes, and a powerful microscope.
ABOVE: A transmission electron micrograph of E. coli showing its