Going on the NUMMI plant tour in Fremont, CA reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where visitors to the island were driven past various dinosaur displays. Seated in the front seat of a tram with about seven other coworkers my mind struggled to take in the immensity of detail being presented to me. Giant robotic arms were visible over compartmentalized barriers as they swung into action constructing components that would be used in an automotive assembly line. Self guided robots could be seen shuffling along magnetic strips carrying materials to different locations of the facility while sparks flew into the air past enclosures. The tour guide explained that this auto manufacturing plant was unique in the world as it represented a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors. In this facility Pontiac Vibe’s and Toyota Corolla’s were manufactured on the same assembly line! I thought it was interesting how two completely different vehicles with different specifications and ‘personalities’ as it were could be manufactured on the same line using a similar process.
In order for both vehicles to be manufactured on the same line there needed to be enough compatibility between their basic frameworks for the process to move forward. Toward the beginning of the process both models were more generic in structure but became more specialized with each stage of manufacturing. This is the brilliance of the assembly line technique, as it allows vehicles ranging from cars to tanks to planes to be manufactured on similar lines with very little need to modify the line itself. The technique itself is so efficient that it could be argued that its use in World War II for the construction of military vehicles allowed us to win the war. There are some aspects of this manufacturing technique however that can give the final product some mysterious attributes.
Have you ever wondered why people have tailbones and men have nipples? These are qualities that aren’t really functional, and may inspire imaginations about humanity’s distant past where we ran around as tailed unisex creatures. These ‘vestigial elements’ however are really just the product of our own manufacturing process! In the same way you may have noticed some empty spaces on your vehicle’s dash board or door handles and wondered what ‘could’ have been there. Those empty spaces are there because the assembly line your car was manufactured on was adapted to produce more than one model of car. As the vehicle progressed along the assembly line it hit various checkpoints that signaled for it to be manufactured in one way or another according to the final model. The ‘blank spaces’ in your car are simply the remnants of that checkpoint!
The same is true for our own embryonic development. We all begin somewhat generically in our own ‘manufacturing process’ and various chemical signals along that process trigger different developmental pathways. Just like the assembly lines used to manufacture a multiplicity of different vehicle types, embryonic development is very similar across widely varying species from fish to humans. This however speaks more of the efficiency of the process than of common descent. In the case of gender development, the presence of nipples in men is somewhat like one of those empty spaces in your car’s dashboard with little functionality and represents a checkpoint in the developmental pathway. The presence of tailbones in humans could be compared to the remnants of scaffolding used to construct the individual during development.
As efficient as assembly lines are however, they are not immune to errors. If one of the robots on the assembly line fails to properly tighten a single bolt, then an entire build of vehicles can be compromised! Of course there are quality control personnel constantly monitoring the machinery to prevent this from happening, but mistakes can and will happen. Most of the time those mistakes will be either irrelevant or dangerous – but it is possible that a mistake will have some beneficial qualities. Life is no different, and over the years of our existence we have accumulated mistakes in our own manufacturing process that account for various diseases and susceptibility to cancers. Sometimes however a mistake will have a beneficial side effect as in the case of sickle cell anemia. Those with this condition suffer with symptoms of anemia, but also have the benefit of not being able to contract malaria. Thus many populations that have been seriously affected by malaria also have a high prevalence of sickle cell anemia.
Life like everything else is subject to breaking down and failure over time. As time continues genetic diseases and disorders unfortunately will only become more common. Oftentimes it is easy to focus on all of the disorders and disfigurement in life and forget the beauty and order that went into its creation. Death is a reality that we are all accustomed to, but it was never meant to be part of creation’s order. Scripture tells us that nature was subjected to death unwillingly, and that it ‘groans and travails in pain’ waiting for the day of its redemption. But it is not just nature than is in pain, “but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” –Romans 8:23
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