Speaker: The Revd Tom Stuckey, Past President of the Methodist Conference (2005)
Theme: The Power of the Cross
Dates: Friday 3 to Sunday 5 November,
How science points to the existence of God Part 2
In this article we turn to the difficulties presented by the origin of life. You may have heard of the recent claim that life has been created in the laboratory of Dr Craig Venter in Maryland, USA. This is not so, as several clear-headed Oxford biologists later affirmed. What was achieved was that the DNA of a certain simple bacterium was copied and assembled from artificially produced nucleotides. The synthetic DNA was then inserted into a cell of a different but closely related species of bacterium, where it was able to replicate itself. While this is undoubtedly a remarkable technological breakthrough, it’s not the creation of life. For that, one would have to get amino acids to combine of their own accord to produce all the proteins required, then to get them to make DNA or its functional equivalent, and then to manufacture a cell wall and all the molecular machinery and systems required to enable it to replicate. Professor Paul Nurse of Oxford commented in a Radio 4 interview that this was unlikely to happen in his lifetime. When one considers the mind-boggling complexity of cell biochemistry, with multiple hierarchies of interaction, this is something of an understatement.
Paul Davies writes in The Fifth Miracle that “The problem as far as biogenesis [the origin of life] is concerned is that Darwinism can only operate when life (of some sort) is already going. It cannot explain how life starts in the first place.” In considering the origin of life, therefore, we enter the province of chemical interactions, not biology, and thus, once again, of mathematical probabilities. Just obtaining proteins from amino acids by chance is an improbable task. Davies says that “Making a protein simply by injecting energy is rather like exploding a stick of dynamite under a pile of bricks and expecting it to form a house.” It’s been calculated that getting a small protein of just 150 amino acids in the right order is one chance in 10164. According to the calculations of mathematician William Demski, this number is far larger than the total possible number of interactions of all the elemental particles in the visible universe in the whole of its existence, which has been estimated at 10139!
Ilya Prigogine, the recipient of two Nobel Prizes in chemistry, wrote that “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.” And Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, wrote, “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Not only are the naked improbabilities hostile to a chance beginning to life, but palaeontology has shown that life emerged only about 300 million years after the earth cooled sufficiently to become hospitable to life. This is a very short time for such an improbable event. This is so great an obstacle to a purely materialistic explanation of the beginning of life, that Crick and Leslie Orgel proposed a theory called ‘directed panspermia’, the idea that life originated elsewhere in the universe and aliens then ‘seeded’ primitive organisms using space travel technology. You know scientists are in difficulties when aliens become a serious proposition.
Furthermore, making a protein is not, as many imagine it to be, merely a matter of successively sticking one amino acid onto the end of another. Most proteins must also be folded into highly specific 3-D arrangements for them to become biologically active. This doesn’t happen by chance but requires other specific molecular machinery to enable it. These too need specific proteins to fold them first. And so on. Getting all the thousands of proteins needed for even the simplest life forms is literally astronomically unlikely. The late astrophysicist Fred Hoyle has calculated this as one chance in 1040,000 . This is an utterly incomprehensibly large number. Hoyle, (who was the first to propose that the heavier chemical elements were synthesised within stars), compared the odds of producing life by pure chance as like a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and producing a Boeing 747 aeroplane. Yet the improbabilities don’t end here.
DNA and information storage
We’ve seen the sheer improbability of biologically useful proteins arising by chance. Nowhere is this improbability more stark than with the DNA molecule, the vital basis for all living organisms. Not only is it very complicated chemically, with millions of nucleotide base pairs present in even the simplest of organisms, but also DNA stores information. DNA is the repository of all the information needed for an organism to undertake its multitude of functions.
Just four types of nucleotide bases serve as the information-storing units of DNA. They aren’t strung at random along the length of the DNA strand, but have a very specific order for each organism. Rather like letters of an alphabet, they’re placed together into words. The ‘words’ are placed together to form ‘sentences’ and ‘paragraphs’ that are used in the manufacture of proteins. As in writing, it’s the sequential order of amino acids which conveys meaning, each sequence of three bases, called a triplet, coding for a specific amino acid.
The amount of information held by DNA in an organism’s nucleus is enormous, up to the equivalent of 30 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are several highly sophisticated cellular mechanisms to prevent errors creeping into the copies. Areas of the DNA strand can be sliced out and placed somewhere else, or duplicated, or cut out entirely, all of which can change the proteins being coded for. Further, it’s been shown that subsections of genes can be used in the manufacture of more than one protein. A protein can have amino acids removed or added during the translation process, which of course modifies its biological activity. Even the so-called ‘junk’ areas of DNA, which don’t contain genes coding for proteins, contain areas critically important for controlling the copying mechanism. The sophistication of the known mechanisms controlling how DNA is used is awe-inspiring, and there’s far more yet to be discovered. And the information for all of this is contained in the DNA itself.
It’s important to note that it isn’t the chemical or physical characteristics of the four DNA bases that are biologically important, but their sequence. Each triplet could, in principle, code equally well for any other amino acid, just as the dots and dashes of Morse code could be arbitrarily reassigned to different letters, as long as sender and recipient are both aware of the reassignment. Thus, the DNA code is arbitrary and independent of its chemistry. The importance of the bases lies in their assignment to specific amino acids. So here is yet another serious challenge to the Darwinist explanation of evolution. How did this specified information come into existence? The discovery of DNA was like stumbling across a large library of books on biological engineering with no known author. Is it likely that such a library came into existence by an extraordinary fluke of good luck? Common sense tells us that books on engineering require an author, because they don’t consist of random letters and words, they contain information. The question DNA faces us with, then, is how can purposeless, undirected, completely random, inorganic, pre-biotic chemical interactions produce, not only the DNA by which information can be stored, but also give rise to the information itself?
Bill Gates has described DNA as “like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” It takes about 50,000 highly intelligent and highly educated employees for Microsoft to develop and maintain its Windows software. It stretches credulity to breaking point to believe that the information contained by DNA could have arisen through natural processes by pure chance. Paul Davies writes that “At first sight this appears to make the genome [an organism’s total genetic make-up] an impossible object, unattainable by either known laws or chance.”
Furthermore, that chance could produce meaningful information goes against everything that’s known about codes and communication. There are many codes in existence. A code is a system which involves a communicator and a receiver, using some sort of system to transfer information from one to the other. Many animals use codes, from as simple as a tail being wagged, to the complexity of bird-song, to the vastly more complex human language. Human beings have devised many codes. Spoken languages, written languages, Morse code, semaphore, musical notation, maps, binary computer code and so on. All are symbols to convey information and meaning. You’re currently reading a code of certain symbols represented by ink printed onto paper. But the meaning isn’t the symbols themselves. Their semantic meaning is conveyed by the order in which they’re arranged, an order which both you and I know the code for - English. The point of significance is that, without exception, every code we know of has its origin in a mind. Since DNA is a code containing specified information, it’s not unreasonable or irrational to conclude that DNA also has its origin in a mind. But whose?
I’ve attempted in this article to show how Darwinism doesn’t provide the answer to life, the universe and everything that most people suppose, but that biology is faced with several highly significant problems to which Darwinism is not a sufficient answer. Evolutionary and other scientists are well aware of the difficulties, and aware of the theological implications of them - that there might be a supernatural intelligent Designer governing the universe. However, for many the theological answer is one that cannot be allowed. C.S. Lewis, in The Funeral of a Great Myth, cites Professor D.M.S. Watson, who confessed that evolution “is accepted by zoologists, not because it is observed to occur or... can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” Such a response reveals that, for some at least, it’s ideology, not science, which is the driving force of atheism.
In contrast, ID is the response of those who are willing to take seriously the theological implications of the science. ID theory isn’t founded on religion, but on the scientific evidence. ID itself doesn’t claim that science proves the existence of God, only that the evidence doesn’t permit a Darwinian answer to evolution. Stephen Meyer writes in Signature in the Cell, “there is an obvious distinction between what advocates of the theory of intelligent design think about the identity of the designing intelligence responsible for life and what the theory of intelligent design itself affirms. Just because some advocates of intelligent design think that God exists and acted as the designer does not mean that the theory of intelligent design affirms that belief.” (Emphasis his). Furthermore, some ID proponents, such as Behe, are not anti-evolutionists. In fact they accept the principle of descent with modification. What they question is the adequacy of Darwinism to be the sufficient cause of evolution.
What biology faces us with, then, are two major questions: firstly, whether natural mechanisms are sufficient to explain the start of life, the genesis of DNA, and for giving rise to the information DNA contains; secondly, whether mutation and natural selection are sufficient to explain evolution. As things stand, the answer appears to be unlikely. The probabilities are hugely stacked against it. To give the opposite answer, probably, is to make naturalistic causes the object of faith. Christians need to be aware that, as John Lennox says in God’s Undertaker, not all the statements of scientists are statements of science. Some publically influential scientists have crossed the line from science into scientism, which is the faith that science is the sole source of truth about reality, and has the potential of eventually answering every question of existence. As Christians, we ought to respect faith, and respect those who search for truth in science, but we should be aware that science has its limitations. Science can only provide answers to questions about the material world. Yet what is so fascinating at the present time is that, even with this limitation, science is pointing in the direction of the existence of a governing Intelligence behind the universe.