15 Answers to John Rennie and Scientific American’s Nonsense--Argument #08
||Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.
8. [Creationists suggest that] mathematically, it is inconceivable that anything as complex as a protein, let alone a living cell or a human, could spring up by chance.
Once again we ask, why is it that Mr. Rennie concentrates solely on creationists in his accusations, when his own evolutionary colleagues are the ones who have been saying the same thing for so long?
Over the years, investigators have elucidated quite successfully what are known today as the “laws of probability.” Building upon the work of such men as Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician and scientist, others forged the principles that are employed today on a daily basis in almost every scientific discipline. George Gamow was one such individual (1961). Emile Borel was another. Dr. Borel, one of the world’s foremost experts on mathematical probability, formulated what scientists and mathematicians alike refer to as the basic “law of probability,” which we would like to discuss here.
Borel’s law of probability states that the occurrence of any event, where the chances are beyond one in one followed by 50 zeroes, is an event that we can state with certainty never will happen, no matter how much time is allotted and no matter how many conceivable opportunities could exist for the event to take place (1962, chapters 1 & 3; see also 1965, p. 62). Dr. Borel, ever the practical mathematician, commented that “the principles on which the calculus of probabilities is based are extremely simple and as intuitive as the reasonings which lead an accountant through his operations” (1962, p. 1). While the non-mathematicians among us might not agree, we nevertheless have an interest in the principles involved—and for good reason. As King and Read stated in their excellent work, Pathways to Probability:
We are inclined to agree with P.S. Laplace who said: “We see...that the theory of probabilities is at bottom only common sense reduced to calculation; it makes us appreciate with exactitude what reasonable minds feel by a sort of instinct, often without being able to account for it” (1963, p. 130).
With this in mind, it is interesting to note from the scientific literature some of the probability estimates regarding the formation of life by purely mechanistic processes. For example, Dr. Morowitz himself estimated that the probability for the chance formation of the smallest, simplest form of living organism known is one chance in 1x10340,000,000 [that is one chance out of 1 followed by 340 million zeroes] (1968, p. 99). The size of this figure is truly staggering, since there are supposed to be only approximately 1080 elementary particles (electrons and protons) in the whole Universe (Sagan, 1997, 22:967).
The late Carl Sagan estimated that the chance of life evolving on any given single planet, like the Earth, is one chance in 1x102,000,000,000 [that is one chance out of 1 followed by 2 billion zeroes] (1973, p. 46). This figure is so large that it would take 6,000 books of 300 pages each just to write the number! A number this large is so infinitely beyond one followed by 50 zeroes (Borel’s upper limit for such an event to occur) that it is simply mind-boggling. There is, then according to Borel’s law of probability, absolutely no chance that life could have “evolved spontaneously” on the Earth.
Consider, further, these facts (after Morris and Parker, 1987, pp. 269-273). If we assume the Universe to be 5 billion light years in radius, and assume that it is crammed with tiny particles the size of electrons, it has been estimated that conceivably 10130 particles could exist in the Universe. Every structure, every process, every system, every “event” in the Universe must consist of these particles, in various combinations and interchanges. If, to be extremely generous, we assume that each particle can take part in 1020 (that is a hundred billion billion) events each second, and then allow 1020 seconds of cosmic history (this would correspond to 3,000 billion years or 100-200 times the current maximum estimate of the age of the Universe), then the greatest conceivable number of separate events that could take place in all of space and time would be:
10130 x 1020 x 1020 = 10170 events
Why is this the case? Allow Dr. Gamow to explain: “Here we have the rule of ‘multiplication of probabilities,’ which states that if you want several different things, you may determine the mathematical probability of getting them by multiplying the mathematical probabilities of getting the several individual ones” (1961, p. 208). Or, as Irving Adler has suggested: “Break the experiment down into a sequence of small steps. Count the number of possible outcomes in each step. Then multiply these numbers” (1963, pp. 58-59). In order for life to appear, one of these events (or some combination of them) must bring a number of these particles together in a system with enough order (or stored information) to enable it to make a copy of (reproduce) itself. And this system must come into being by mere chance.
The problem is, however, that any living cell or any new organ to be added to any existing animal—even the simplest imaginable replicating system—would have to contain far more stored information than represented even by such a gigantic number as 10170. In fact, Marcel E. Golay, a leading information scientist, calculated the odds against such a system organizing itself as 10450 to 1 (1961, 33:23). Frank Salisbury set the figure at 10415 to 1 (1969, 1971). If we take Dr. Golay’s figure, the odds against any accidental ordering of particles into a replicating system are at least 10450 to 1. This is true even if it is spread out over a span of time and a series of connected events. Golay calculated the figure on the assumption that it was accomplished by a series of 1,500 successive events, each with a generously high probability of ½ (note that 21,500 = 10450). The probability would have been even lower if it had to be accomplished in a single chance event! It is very generous, therefore, to conclude that the probability of the simplest conceivable replicating system arising by chance just once in the Universe, in all time, is:
When the probability of the occurrence of any event is smaller than one out of the number of events that could ever possibly occur—that is, as discussed above, less than 1/170—then the probability of its occurrence is considered by mathematicians to be zero. Consequently, it can be concluded that the chance origin of life is utterly impossible. Why so? Gamow, using simple coin tosses as his example, explained the reason for such a principle holding true.
Thus whereas for 2 or 3, or even 4 tosses, the chances to have heads each time or tails each time are still quite appreciable, in 10 tosses even 90 per cent of heads or tails is very improbable. For a still larger number of tosses, say 100 or 1000, the probability curve becomes as sharp as a needle, and the chances of getting even a small deviation from fifty-fifty distribution becomes practically nil (1961, p. 209).
Coppedge, in speaking to Gamow’s point, observed that:
Probability theory applies mainly to “long runs.” If you toss a coin just a few times, the results may vary a lot from the average. As you continue the experiment, however, it levels out to almost absolute predictability. This is called the “law of large numbers.” The long run serves to average out the fluctuations that you may get in a short series. These variations are “swamped” by the long-haul average. When a large number of tries is involved, the law of averages can be depended upon quite closely. This rule, once called the “law of great numbers,” is of central importance in this field of probability. By the way, in the popular sense, probability theory, the laws of chance, and the science of probability can be considered to be simply different expressions for the same general subject (1973, pp. 47-48).
Henry Morris, in the section he authored for What Is Creation Science?, wrote:
The objection is sometimes posed that, even if the probability of a living system is 10-280, every other specific combination of particles might also have a similar probability of occurrence, so that one is just as likely as another. There even may be other combinations than the one with which we are familiar on earth that might turn out to be living. Such a statement overlooks the fact that, in any group of particles, there are many more meaningless combinations than ordered combinations. For example, if a system has four components connected linearly, only two (1-2-3-4, 4-3-2-1) of the 24 possible combinations possess really meaningful order. The ratio rapidly decreases as the number of components increases. The more complex and orderly a system is, the more unique it is among its possible competitors. This objection, therefore misses the point. In the example cited above, only one combination would work. There would be 10280 that would not work (1987, pp. 272-273, emp. added).
Other writers have made the same point. Wysong, for example, concluded:
When trying to determine whether the desired results will happen, always consider that the fractions used in probabilities carry two stories with them. One tells you the chance of something happening, and the other tells you the chance that that same event will not happen; i.e., if the odds are one in ten (10%) that a certain event will occur, then likewise the odds are nine to ten (90%) that it will not. Who could reasonably believe that a coin will turn up heads 100 times in succession, when the odds for it happening are:
and the probability that it won’t is:
The probability that the event will not happen is what we must believe if we are concerned about being realistic (1976, pp. 80-81).
It is not just the extreme improbability that causes us to doubt the chemical-evolution scenario; the ordered complexity of life causes us to doubt it even more. Comments from evolutionists already have been documented that show there is no known mechanism to account for items like the genetic code, ribosomes, etc. That being true, it is astonishing to read Carl Sagan’s section on the origin of life in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In discussing the bacterium Escherichia coli, Dr. Sagan noted that this one “simple” organism contains 1 x 1012 (a trillion) bits of data stored in its genes and chromosomes, and then observed that if we were to count every letter on every line on every page of every book in the world’s largest library (10 million volumes), we would have approximately a trillion letters. In other words, the amount of data (information) contained in approximately 10 million volumes is contained in the genetic code of the “simple” E. coli bacterium! Yet we are asked to believe that this marvelously complex, extremely information-rich organism came about through purely chance processes. R.W. Kaplan, who spent years researching the possibility of the evolutionary origin of life, suggested that the probability of the simplest living organism being formed by chance processes was one chance in 10130. He then stated: “One could conclude from this result that life could not have originated without a donor of information” (1971, p. 319).
Creationists suggest that “donor” was the Creator, and that the evolution model cannot circumvent basic laws of probability. Evolutionist Richard Dawkins once observed: “The more statistically improbable a thing is, the less we can believe that it just happened by blind chance. Superficially the obvious alternative to chance is an intelligent Designer” (1982, p. 130, emp. added). It is not “superficial” to teach, as creationists do, that design implies a Designer. Nor is it superficial to advocate that our beautifully ordered world hardly can be the result of “blind chance.” Even evolutionists like Dawkins admit (although they do not like having to do so) that the “obvious alternative” to chance is an intelligent Designer—which is the very point creationists have been making for years.
In his Scientific American article, Rennie stated:
Chance plays a part in evolution (for example, in the random mutations that can give rise to new traits), but evolution does not depend on chance to create organisms, proteins or other entities. Quite the opposite: natural selection, the principal known mechanism of evolution, harnesses nonrandom change by preserving “desirable” (adaptive) features and eliminating “undesirable” (nonadaptive) ones. As long as the forces of selection stay constant, natural selection can push evolution in one direction and produce sophisticated structures in surprisingly short times.
As an analogy, consider the 13-letter sequence “TOBEORNOTTOBE.” Those hypothetical million monkeys, each pecking out one phrase a second, could take as long as 78,800 years to find it among the 2613 sequences of that length. But in the 1980s Richard Hardison of Glendale College wrote a computer program that generated phrases randomly while preserving the positions of individual letters that happened to be correctly placed (in effect, selecting for phrases more like Hamlet’s). On average, the program re-created the phrase in just 336 iterations, less than 90 seconds. Even more amazing, it could reconstruct Shakespeare’s entire play in just four and a half days (2002, 287:81-82, parenthetical items in orig.).
Mr. Rennie was willing to confess that “chance plays a part in evolution.” But then he went on to suggest that “evolution does not depend on chance to create organisms, proteins or other entities” because “natural selection…harnesses nonrandom change.” Whoa! Even his evolutionist colleagues do not agree with him on this important point. Henry Gee (chief science writer at Nature) wrote: “[W]e also have good reason to suspect that to use natural selection to explain long-term trends in the fossil record may not be a valid exercise, because natural selection is a random, undirected process, unlikely to work in the same direction for long” (1999, p. 127, emp. added). Creationist Bill Hoesch stated regarding Rennie’s claim:
To claim that natural selection is governed by something other than chance is to suggest it is somehow a directed process. What shadowy entity would he propose? “Selective forces” are ultimately subject to either chance or intelligence. Rennie can’t have it both ways (2002, emp. in orig.).
No, he cannot. The raw material on which evolution allegedly works happens to be random genetic errors (i.e., mutations). As Sarfati noted: “If evolution from goo to you were true, we should expect to find countless information-adding mutations. But we have not even found one” (2002a, emp. in orig.). Natural selection is not some kind of “conscious” mechanism that “knows” what it is doing.
Furthermore, let’s examine Rennies idea whereby a computer is instructed to randomly select letters, and than eventually sequences the phrase: “Tobeornottobe.” By Rennie’s his own admission, this computer simulation required an intelligent programmer (Richard Hardison) who first told the computer how to recognize “correctly placed” letters. In other words, the program places letters into thirteen blank spaces at random. That sounds fair enough. But the computer is pre-programmed to select a letter when it moves into the “correct” (read that as pre-programmed) position. In other words, it “knows” that the first letter is “T” long before “Tobeornottobe” ever occurs. But wait! Evolution does not have the benefit of such intelligent programming—unless Mr. Rennie is ready to accept the fact that an intelligent Designer played a significant role in creation. And, other factors play a part in the “success” of these computer programs. In addressing this matter, Jonathan Sarfati wrote:
These computer programs have been widely popularized by the atheist Richard Dawkins, but are a lot of bluff. Such simulations as Dawkins, and now Rennie, propose as “simulations” of evolution work towards a known goal, so are far from a parallel to real evolution, which has no foresight, hence a “Blind Watchmaker.” The simulations also use “organisms” with high reproductive rates (producing many offspring), high mutation rates, a large probability of a beneficial mutation, and a selection coefficient of 1 (perfect selection) instead of 0.01 (or less) which parallels real life more accurately. The “organisms” have tiny “genomes” with minute information content, so are less prone to error catastrophe, and they are not affected by the chemical and thermodynamic constraints of a real organism.
Also, when it comes to the origin of first life, natural selection cannot be invoked, because this requires a self-reproducing entity. Therefore chance alone must produce the precise sequences needed, so these simulations do not apply. And a further problem with the alleged chemical soup is reversibility, intensifying the difficulty of obtaining the right sequence by chance (2002a, emp. in orig.).
In discussing the same type of “monkey analogy” that Mr. Rennie employed, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe commented:
No matter how large the environment one considers, life cannot have had a random beginning. Troops of monkeys thundering away at random on typewriters could not produce the works of Shakespeare, for the practical reason that the whole observable universe is not large enough to contain the necessary monkey hordes, the necessary typewriters, and certainly not the waste paper baskets required for the deposition of wrong attempts. The same is true for living material (1981, p. 148).
Creationist Duane Gish posed the following question along the same lines: “What would be the probability of one unique sequence of 100 amino acids, composed of 20 different amino acids, arising by chance in five billion years?” He, too, then used a “monkey analogy” (again, the same type of monkey analogy to which Mr. Rennie referred).
A monkey typing 100 letters every second for five billion years would not have the remotest chance of typing a particular sentence of 100 letters even once without spelling errors. In fact, if one billion (109) planets the size of the earth were covered eyeball-to-eyeball and elbow-to-elbow with monkeys, and each monkey was seated at a typewriter (requiring about 10 square feet for each monkey, of the approximately 1016 square feet available on each of the 109 planets), and each monkey typed a string of 100 letters every second for five billion years (about 1017 seconds) the chances are overwhelming that not one of these monkeys would have typed the sentence correctly! Only 1041 tries could be made by all these monkeys in that five billion years. There would not be the slightest chance that a single one of the 1024 monkeys (a trillion trillion monkeys) would have typed a preselected sentence of 100 letters (such as “The subject of this Impact article is the naturalistic origin of life on the earth under assumed primordial conditions”) without a spelling error, even once.
Considering an enzyme, then, of 100 amino acids, there would be no possibility whatever that a single molecule could ever have arisen by pure chance on the earth in five billion years (1976, 37:3, parenthetical items in orig.).
And that is exactly our point.