Bill Bryson has written a book entitled, The Body. Fundamentally, the book is a celebration of the complexity and capacities of the human body. Bryson is a good researcher and writer, and he flavors the rapid pace of the book with regular quips and humor. I found myself celebrating along with him, and I think most readers would join in the celebration. The first segment of this article is merely a selection of quotes from the book. Amazing facts, mostly.
Bryson does not contain himself to all that is amazing about the body, however. Especially in the closing chapters of the book he addresses such matters as disease, medical shortcomings, and aging. It is only fair that he do so; our amazing bodies are subject to failure and, as the Bible puts it, corruption.
I am less pleased with Bryson’s Darwinian presumptions that surface throughout the book. Many writers cannot hope to be published without expressing such assumptions, of course, but Bryson’s reputation should shield him from that sort of conformity requirement. He may be a true believer. In contrast, find Darwinism increasingly perplexing, that is, increasingly in conflict with scientific findings, even as the scientific community seems stubbornly attached to the theory. The complexities and capacities of the human body emphasized in this book only makes Darwinism more difficult to defend. The second segment of this article is a critique of statements in the book that express Darwinian assumptions.
“No matter what you pay, or how carefully you assemble the materials, you are not going to create a human being. You could call together all the brainiest people who are alive now or have ever lived and endow them with the complete sum of human knowledge, and they could not between them make a single living cell, never mind a replicant Benedict Cumberbatch.”
“The most remarkable part of all is your DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid). You have a meter of it packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.”
“A morsel of cortex one cubic millimeter in size—about the size of a grain of sand—could hold two thousand terabytes of information, enough to store all the movies ever made, trailers included, or about 1.2 billion copies of this book. Altogether, the human brain is estimated to hold something on the order of two hundred exabytes of information, roughly equal to ‘the entire digital content of today’s world,’ according to Nature Neuroscience.”
“The brain is often depicted as a hungry organ. It makes up just 2 percent of our body weight but uses 20 percent of our energy. In newborn infants, it’s no less than 65 percent. That’s partly why babies sleep all the time—their growing brains exhaust them—and have a lot of body fat, to use as an energy reserve when needed.”
“For each visual input, it takes a tiny but perceptible amount of time—about two hundred milliseconds, one-fifth of a second—for the information to travel along the optic nerves and into the brain to be processed and interpreted. One-fifth of a second is not a trivial span of time when a rapid response is required—to step back from an oncoming car, say, or to avoid a blow to the head. To help us deal better with this fractional lag, the brain does a truly extraordinary thing: it continuously forecasts what the world will be like a fifth of a second from now, and that is what it gives us as the present.”
“Much as we all appreciate a pert nose or gorgeous eyes, the real purpose of most of our facial features is to help us interpret the world through our senses. It’s curious that we always speak of our five senses because we have way more than that. We have a sense of balance, of acceleration and deceleration, of where we are in space (what is known as proprioception), of time passing, of appetite. Altogether (and depending on how you count them) we have as many as thirty-three systems within us that let us know where we are and how we are doing.”
“Your visual field is surprisingly compact. Look at your thumbnail at arm’s length; that’s about the area you have in full focus at any given instant. But because your eye is constantly darting—taking four snapshots every second—you have the impression of seeing a much broader area.”
“As the acoustics scientist Mike Goldsmith has put it, ‘If we could hear quieter sounds still, we would live in a world of continuous noise, because the omnipresent random motion of air molecules would be audible. Our hearing really could not get any better.’”
“The fact is that odors and flavors are created entirely inside our heads. Think of something delicious—a moist, gooey, warm chocolate brownie fresh from the oven, say. Take a bite and savor the velvety smoothness, the rich heady waft of chocolate that fills your head. Now consider the fact that none of those flavors or aromas actually exist. All that is really going in your mouth is texture and chemicals. It is your brain that reads these scentless, flavorless molecules and vivifies them for your pleasure. Your brownie is sheet music. It is your brain that makes it a symphony.”
“The heart has no time for distractions. It is the most single-minded thing within you. It has just one job to do, and it does it supremely well: it beats. Slightly more than once every second about 100,000 times a day, as many as 3.5 billion times in a lifetime, it rhythmically pulses to push blood through your body—and these aren’t gentle thrusts. They are jolts powerful enough to send blood spurting up to three meters if the aorta is severed.”
“You discard about a hundred billion red blood cells every day.”
“Perhaps the most wondrous feature of the liver is its capacity to regenerate. You can remove two-thirds of a liver and it will grow back to its original size in just a few weeks. ‘It’s not pretty,’ the Dutch geneticist Professor Hans Clevers told me. ‘It looks a bit battered and rough compared with the original liver, but it functions well enough. The process is something of a mystery. We don’t know how a liver knows to grow back to just the right size and then stop growing, but it is lucky for some of us that it does.’”
“Cartilage is remarkable, too. It is many times smoother than glass: it has a friction coefficient five times less than ice. Imagine playing ice hockey on a surface so smooth that the skaters went sixteen times as fast. That’s cartilage. But unlike ice, it isn’t brittle. It does’t crack under pressure as ice would. And you grow it yourself. It’s a living thing. None of this has been equaled in engineering or science. Most of the best technology that exists on Earth is right here inside us. And everybody takes it almost completely for granted” – Dr. Ben Ollivere
“‘Bone is stronger than reinforced concrete, yet light enough to allow us to sprint.” – Dr. Ben Ollivere. “All your bones together will weigh no more than about twenty pounds, yet most can withstand up to a ton of compression.”
“All of these thing—muscles, bones tendons, and so on—work together in a deft and splendid choreography. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in your hands. In each hand you have 29 bones, 17 muscles (plus 18 more that are in the forearm but control the hand), 2 main arteries, 3 major nerves (one of which, the ulnar nerve, is the one you feel in your elbow when you hit your ‘funny bone’) plus 45 other named nerves, and 123 named ligaments, all of which must coordinate their every action with precision and delicacy. Sir Charles Bell, the great nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon and anatomist, thought the hand the most perfect creation in the body—better even than the eye. He called his classic text The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design, by which he meant that the hand was proof of divine creation.”
“No one knows why we walk. Out of some 250 species of primates, we are the only ones that have elected to get up and move around exclusively on two legs. Some authorities think bipedalism is at least as important a defining characteristic of what it is to be human as our high-function brain.”
“Despite the vast differences in heart rates, nearly all animals have about 800 million heartbeats in them if they live an average life. The exception is humans. We pass 800 million heartbeats after twenty-five years, and just keep on going for another fifty years and 1.6 billion heartbeats or so.”
“In one well-known experiment cited by the British academic Steve Jones, a test subject ran a marathon on a treadmill while the room temperature was gradually raised from minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit to 131 degrees Fahrenheit—roughly the limits of human tolerance at both extremes. Despite the subject’s exertions and the great range of temperatures, his core body temperature deviated by less than one degree over the course of the exercise.”
“We now know that inside and outside the cell are charged particles called ions. Between them in the cell membrane is a kind of tiny air lock known as an ion channel. When the air lock is opened, the ions flow through and that generates a little buzz of electricity—though ‘little’ here is entirely a matter of perspective. Although each electrical twitch at the cellular level produces just one hundred millivolts of energy, that translates as thirty million volts per meter—about the same as in a bolt of lightning. Put another way, the amount of electricity going on within your cells is a thousand times greater than the electricity within your house. You are, in a very small way, exceedingly energetic.”
“In breathing, as in everything in life, the numbers are staggering—indeed fantastical. Every time you breathe, you exhale some 25 sextillion (that’s 2.5 x 1022) molecules of oxygen—so many that with a day’s breathing you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived.”
“If you are an averagely sized adult, you will have roughly twenty square feet of skin, but about a thousand square feet of lung tissue containing about fifteen hundred miles of airways. Packing such a lot of breathing apparatus into the modest space of your chest is a nifty solution to the very considerable problem of how to get a lot of oxygen efficiently to billions of cells.”
“A twenty-week old fetus will weigh no more than three or four ounces but will already have 6 million eggs inside her. That number falls to 1 million by the time of birth and continues to fall, though at a slower rate, through life.”
“The simple fact is that medical science alone cannot do it all—but then it doesn’t need to. Other factors can significantly affect outcomes, sometimes in surprising ways. Just being kind, for instance. A study in New Zealand of diabetic patients in 2016 found that the proportion suffering severe complications was 40 percent lower among patients treated by doctors rated high for compassion. As one observer put it, that is ‘comparable to the benefits seen with the most intensive medical therapy for diabetes.’”
Interactions with the Evolutionary Assumptions
“In 1961, Leonard Hayflick, then a young researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, made a discovery that nearly everyone in his field found impossible to accept. He discovered that cultured human stem cells—that is, cells grown in a lab, as opposed to in a living body—can divide only about fifty times before they mysteriously lose their power to go on. In essence, they appear to be programmed to die of old age.”
Evolutionary theory says that our bodies are designed for the purpose of survival (though the theory never tries to explain why organisms favor “survival” over inorganic contentment). With this assumption it explains that we are no longer needed for the activity of corporate survival once we reproduce and then support our progeny until they are able to reproduce. This does not explain why we would be “programmed” to die, though. There is no evolutionary disadvantage in organisms living forever, while you would have to think that experience would only provide for greater survivability. Christianity says that we are under the curse of death. It appears that the great Programmer meant what he said.
“We are the only creatures that cry from feeling, as far as we can tell. Why we do so is another of life’s many mysteries. We get no physiological benefit from erupting in tears. It is also a little odd surely that this act signifying powerful sadness is also triggered by extreme joy or quiet rapture or intense pride or almost any other potent emotional state.”
I’ve read many far-fetched evolutionary “explanations” for organic phenomena. I appreciate that Bryson doesn’t try to concoct something here. For me, emotions are physiological expressions of powerful thoughts. When you are made in the image of God, relationships and grand concepts can become exceedingly important. People are passionate because God is passionate. Humans are designed to be rich in emotion and rich in means for expressing it.
“Perhaps nothing is more unexpected about our brains than that they are much smaller today than they were ten thousand or twelve thousand years ago, and by quite a lot. The average brain has shrunk from 1500 cubic centimeters then to 1350 cubic centimeters now. That’s equivalent to scooping out a portion of brain about the size of a tennis ball. That’s not at all easy to explain, because it happened all over the world at the same time, as if we agreed to reduce our brains by treaty. The common presumption is that our brains have simply become more efficient and able to pack more performance into a smaller space, rather like cell phones, which have grown more sophisticated as they have contracted in size. But no one can prove that we haven’t simply grown dimmer.”
Brains shrank suddenly and universally? I can’t say I have a theory to explain this phenomenon but it runs contrary to the idea that humans are the product of an evolution that has made us ever more complex, ever more capable, and ever smarter. (This is an assumption of evolution and if ever there was a narrative that sounds like a fairy tale, this is it. The only real difference is that most people recognize a fairy tale when they hear it.) The data and general physics (second law of thermodynamics) suggest that decay is the rule rather than a process of growing complexity. We imagine we are getting smarter, but that is an illusion generated by the human capacity to accumulate knowledge generation-to-generation. Each generation may, in fact, be getting more stupid. (That would explain a lot.) Would a better scientific assessment of the history of the world be the sudden arrival on the scene of various life forms at different points in time, followed by the slow decay of those life forms from the time of their emergence? Such a perspective seems to better match the evidence.
“What is surely most curious and extraordinary about our brain is how largely unnecessary it is. To survive on Earth, you don’t need to be able to write music or engage in philosophy—you really only need to be able to outthink a quadruped—so why have we invested so much energy and risk in producing mental capacity that we don’t really need? That is just one of the many things about your brain that your brain won’t tell you.”
Mr. Bryson asks the question but he leaves the answer as a mystery. He only hints that his observation flies in the face of evolutionary expectations.
“Within a week [of conception] the zygote has produced ten or so cells known as pluripotent stem cells. These are the master cells of the body and one of the great miracles of biology. They determine the nature and organization of all the billions of cells that transform a little ball of possibility (known formally as a blastocyst) into a functioning and adorable little human (known as a baby). This moment of transition, when cells begin differentiating, is called gastrulation and has been described many times as the most important event of your life.”
The amount of design built into all organisms on earth is astonishing. The amount of design built into humans is beyond belief…and beyond our understanding. Evolutionary theory continues to insist that complex organisms have self-constructed to degrees that are still well beyond human comprehension. This perspective is much like the odds of an asteroid crashing into the earth, and after the dust has settled, finding itself in the shape of a grand cathedral, adorned with statues, gargoyles, stain glass windows, carved doors, and plumbing.
“Cancer is the price we pay for evolution. If our cells couldn’t mutate, we would never get cancer, but we also couldn’t evolve. We would be fixed forever. What this means in practice is that although evolution is sometimes tough on the individual, it’s beneficial for the species.” – Olaf Heidenreich
This is classic evolutionary dogma. The fact that cancer is as common as grass and advantageous mutations are virtually unknown (except for in viruses), hardly seems to give evolutionists pause. What also doesn’t seem to give pause is that it is likely for mutations to take place that do harm but that don’t immediately impact survivability. This means that the overall effect of mutations is the weakening of any and all organisms…which is consistent with the second law of thermodynamics.
“Your bones are by no means evenly distributed. You have fifty-two in your feet alone, double the number in your spine. The hands and feet together have more than half the bones in the body. Where you have lots of bones isn’t necessarily because there is an urgent need for bones to be in one place rather than another, but because that’s just where evolution left them.”
I called in this quote simply because it represents one of my pet peeves about evolutionary ideology. Many writers will ascribe to evolution…exactly nothing. What insight is brought to the table by saying that what we are looking at is a complete puzzle but evolution is responsible for it. Bryson has noted, and I quoted him above, the amazing strength of bones. Here it seems to be too much trouble to consider the range of capacities provided by the human skeletal structure. It’s a denial of clear design and a claim that the skeleton is an arbitrary structure. Perhaps he is trying to say that numerous skeletal designs are evident in the animal kingdom, but the functional specificity of the various skeletons is clearly critical to each specific species, and the amazing functional designs are also everywhere apparent. Skeletons, like everything else in the human body, are anything but random.
At any rate, the mindless giving of praise to the god Evolution is ubiquitous in the writings of those who profess the ideology and very often the rationales for doing so are either absent or contortionist. My cynical take on this is that scientists today cannot hope to be published if they don’t hold to the party line of evolution, so it is necessary to routinely squeeze in an evolutionary chorus. It’s hard to think Bryson would have difficulty being published in any case, but I still am inclined to think that, even for him, it’s just easier to be scientifically lazy and stay seated on the band wagon.
“Three-quarters of men and half of women don’t break any bones at all in old age, and three-quarters of all people go through the whole of life without any serious problems with their knees, so it is not all bad news. Anyway, as we are about to see, when you consider how many millions of years of risk and hardship our forebears went through to get us comfortably upright, we really don’t have much to complain about at all.”
This is another mindless nod to evolution. Bryson is trying to be cute, of course, but he is also describing a way that evolution does not work. If evolution is happening, it is always through a process that reduces risk and hardship, because high risk translates to high mortality. He argues that humans were once climbing about in safe trees but then decided to come down and stand up so they could take a better look around. It doesn’t make evolutionary sense that creatures would change from relatively safe habitats to habitats that are much more dangerous. Evolutionary arguments are frequently circular. They will say, “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s as plain as day that evolution favored humans over apes. Just look at how the world is populated.” Well, of course, the world favors humans over the apes but the important question remains: Did humans evolve from apes? There is no scientific evidence to establish the linkage. There is a yawning gap. Just as there are many yawning gaps in the evolutionary process. In fact, the fossil records are increasingly clear that the gaps will not be bridged.
“The bottom line in either case is that we don’t know why allergies exist at all. Dying from ingesting a peanut is not something that confers any obvious evolutionary benefits, after all, so why this extreme sensitivity has been retained in some humans is, like so much else, a puzzle.”
True, unless the process of evolution that we are observing is the process of decay.
The very celebration of the wonders of the body makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. If humans are an astonishing work of engineering, so what? What does it really signify if I have the privilege to read such a book as “The Body” and learn about how complex the body is. Shall I give glory to the apathetic universe? How will it matter if my time of enjoyment is like the flower that blooms and then quickly loses its petals? Do I not, even as I bask in the glory of being human, feel the weight of knowing that all will be lost? Is not the dawning of each new day a growing burden, as I feel the steady loss of physical and, perhaps, mental capacity? Is not the shadow of death enough to drain all joy from my soul?
I think so. I think it is impossible to celebrate the doctrines of scientific materialism. I will not hesitate to say that those who insist otherwise are either idiots or charlatans…or both.
But, on the other hand, believing that the wonders of the human body are the gifts of a benevolent Creator gives me cause to be filled with delight and hope. In fact, it is the message of the Gospel that says that God desires our good and that he offers a resurrection into incorruptible bodies. Take all the good things from “The Body” and take away all the diseases and elements of aging. Now that is something worth celebrating.