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Not a Chance

Dean Overman

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If you think life could have arisen by accident, you haven't done the math.

Many people today believe that life on Earth originated as a result of random accidents. Most of us vaguely recall having heard of scientific experiments involving mixtures of inanimate materials that are said to be similar to the "prebiotic soup" that existed before life began. The mixtures are hit with an electrical spark that simulates a lightning strike, and amino acids...building blocks of life...result. So we're assured that a similar accidental transformation long ago caused life to originate from non-living matter.

But in fact, recent discoveries in molecular biology, particle astrophysics, and the geological records raise profound doubts about all this. Three questions should be investigated: (1) Is it mathematically possible that accidental processes caused the first form of living matter? (2) If accident is mathematically impossible as the cause of the first form of living matter, are other popular scenarios that matter "self-organized" into life plausible? (3) Is it mathematically possible that accidental processes caused the formation of a universe that is compatible with life? In examining these questions, I will use the widely accepted scientific definition of life, which holds that living matter processes energy, stores information, and replicates.

To answer the first question...the likelihood that random accidents turned inanimate matter into living matter...I will address only the molecular biological aspects. Consider a calculation by the famous (atheist) scientist Sir Fred Hoyle. Hoyle understood that even the simplest living cells are extremely complex, containing many nucleic acids, enzymes, and molecules all joined together in a very precise sequence. He calculated the odds of each of 20 amino acids appearing in the correct sequence to form an enzyme as 1 chance in 1020. Since the simplest living cell requires 2,000 functioning enzymes, the odds against the amino acids appearing in the correct sequence for a living cell were equal to 1 in 1020 5 2,000...or 1 chance in 1040,000. This number is a 1 followed by 40,000 zeros. Because mathematicians normally regard a chance of 1 in 1050 as mathematical impossibility, Hoyle concluded that life could not have appeared by earthbound random processes, even if the whole universe consisted of prebiotic soup. His collaborator Chandra Wickramasinghe put it more dramatically: "The chances that life just occurred are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing 747."

Read the entire article on the American Enterprise Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 18-Aug-05



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