Thinking About The Complexity of Life

Life. It’s really something, isn’t it? We’re still trying to figure it out. What we do know for sure it that life comes from life. It’s precious, because if it becomes extinct, it’s gone forever. Life is extremely rare in the universe. Ours is the only planet out of trillions of galaxies where we know for sure that life exists. Life is also astonishingly complex. Science has finally mapped the human genome, but how did molecules so complex come to exist? What was the origin of the first cell?

an amino acid monomer

Although Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he didn’t really deal with the origin of life itself. In 1922, however, the Soviet biochemist Aleksandr Oparin published a theory for the origin of life with the Russian Botanical Society. He proposed that living organisms might have assembled themselves in a methane atmosphere, as molecules became monomers and monomers became polymers and polymers became cells. The idea grew in popularity, climaxing in Stanley Miller’s experiment in 1952, in which he produced amino acids in the laboratory. Amino acids are needed to make DNA, but they are still a far cry from living cell.

The very next year after Miller’s experiment, in 1953, Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. Life, we learned, is not merely based on special chemicals that replicate themselves, but on information, like a computer program, that controls everything that happens within a cell. That discovery revolutionized our understanding of life, and we’re still trying to just understand what makes things living.

DNA, a polymer

DNA is more advance than any software program ever written by man (p 12) and denser than the most advanced computer chip (p 97). Understanding this, Sir Fred Hoyle compared the origin of life to a tornado sweeping through a junk yard and assembling a 747. If one cell is complex like a commercial airliner, as he suggested, then the human body is complex like 30 trillion commercial airliners flying together in formation.

Both plant life and animal life are based on cells. Cells consist of DNA, RNA, proteins, ribosomes, and many components that work closely together to perform vital functions. Just consider proteins. A minimally complex cell needs at least 250 proteins, each of which has about 150 amino acids. The probability for creating a functional protein out of 150 amino acids is about one in ten to the 164th power. So the probability for the chance formation of 250 proteins is about one in ten to the 41,000th power; that is, 1 followed by 41,000 zeros.

That number is a trillion, trillion, trillion, saying a trillion every second for an hour, when every time I say a trillion, it means multiplying the results by a trillion. Every scientist knows, or should know, how really complex life is. But we don’t often stop to consider that there’s not enough time and matter in the entire universe to account for the formation of life by random collisions.

In fact, there are only 10 to the 17th seconds since the Big Bang, and 10 to the 80th particles in the entire universe. The number of molecular collisions happening in a prebiotic pond during a very limited period of time would have been insignificant compared to the complexity of life. The statistical, mathematical probability for the formation of life by random acts is zero. It’s scientifically impossible.

Let me show you what this looks like on a more observable scale. Here is a bottle of, let’s say, 2000 beans. The probability of blindly selecting a particular bean is one out of 2000, which is not good odds. You wouldn’t want to bet your life on that. However, if you could pull out a thousand beans looking for the right one, you would have a 50/50 chance of choosing the right one. You might want to gamble on those odds, but let’s demonstrate the probability of the chance formation of a protein. I’m closing my eyes and I’m going to start randomly selecting beans. Ready, go… stop! What? I didn’t have a chance to choose even one bean. That’s because the statistical probability for the random formation of life is so small that it’s functionally zero. It’s not possible that it happened.

It’s possible, but highly improbably that life came about by chance. Many scientists are still searching for a means by which matter could have self-organized. Suppose, for instance, that matter is like this magnet and has a natural affinity to snap together. That would help. Unfortunately, there is a greater tendency to push apart and break down than to self-assemble. Theoretical models that include DNA evolving first, proteins evolving first, and RNA evolving first, as well as computer simulations on natural selection, have all been vague and problematic.

Since man, with all his intelligence, has not been able to build a cell from scratch, is it realistic to think that a cell could come about without any intelligence to guide it at all? Scientifically speaking, we shouldn’t be here, but we are. Some people believe that the intelligence found in DNA, is the mark of an originating intelligence. It’s as if God placed his signature at the heart of every cell.


(This article references Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer.)

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