Tag Archives: Protein

The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Some atheists who don’t understand the fine-tuning argument like to assert that the constants and quantities that are fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex, embodied life can be changed arbitrarily, and life would still exist as it does now. They say that maybe we would have a ridges in our foreheads like Klingons, or maybe we would have longer ears like Vulcans or maybe green skin like Orions. The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence. Are atheists right to ground their rejection of a cosmic Designer in science fiction television shows? What does the peer-reviewed research say?

The fine-tuning argument

First, let’s review the structure of the fine-tuning argument.

The argument goes like this:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
  2. It is not due to law or chance
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design

Although each permutation of values for the constants and quantities is equally improbable, the vast majority of the permutations will not permit life.

Let’s review:

  • Life has certain minimal requirements; long-term stable source of energy, a large number of different chemical elements, an element that can serve as a hub for joining together other elements into compounds, a universal solvent, etc.
  • In order to meet these minimal requirements, the physical constants, (such as the gravitational constant), and the ratios between physical constants, need to be withing a narrow range of values in order to support the minimal requirements for life of any kind.
  • Slight changes to any of the physical constants, or to the ratios between the constants, will result in a universe inhospitable to life.
  • The range of possible values spans 70 orders of magnitude.
  • The constants are selected by whoever creates the universe. They are not determined by physical laws. And the extreme probabilities involved required put the fine-tuning beyond the reach of chance.
  • Although each individual selection of constants and ratios is as unlikely as any other selection, the vast majority of these possibilities do not support the minimal requirements of life of any kind. (In the same way as any hand of 5 cards that is dealt is as likely as any other, but you are overwhelmingly likely NOT to get a royal flush. In our case, a royal flush is a life-permitting universe).

Now let’s see a specific example: carbon and oxygen formation.

Carbon is that element that can serve as a hub for larger molecules, and oxygen is also a vital element, since it is a component of water, which is required for life (universal solvent). Both are required for complex life of any imaginable kind.

Now for the study.

Here is an article on Science Daily about the fine-tuning argument.

It says:

Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They’ve found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.

Both carbon and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we’re all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an excited state of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy — measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 electron volts) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.

NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of elementary particles called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles’ energies.

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

[…]The researchers’ findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

There are many, many other examples of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities to permit complex, embodied life. And, as we’ll see below, this evidence is admitted by atheists.

Atheists agree: the fine-tuning is a fact

Let me give you a citation from the best one of all, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is an atheist and a qualified astronomer. He wrote a book called “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe”, (Basic Books: 2001). In it, he discusses 6 numbers that need to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe.

In chapter 1, Rees writes:

Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe — not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people. The properties of atoms — their sizes and masses, how many different kinds there are, and the forces linking them together — determine the chemistry of our everyday world. The very existence of atoms depends on forces and particles deep inside them. The objects that astronomers study — planets, stars and galaxies — are controlled by the force of gravity. And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang.

[…]This book describes six numbers that now seem especially significant.

[…]Perhaps there are some connections between these numbers. At the moment, however, we cannot predict any one of them from the values of the others.

[…]These six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator?

There are some atheists who deny the fine-tuning, but these atheists are in firm opposition to the progress of science. The more science has progressed, the more constants, ratios and quantities we have discovered that need to be fine-tuned. Science is going in a theistic direction. Next, let’s see how atheists try to account for the fine-tuning.

Atheistic responses to the fine-tuning evidence

There are two common responses among atheists to this argument.

The first is to speculate that there are actually an infinite number of other universes that are not fine-tuned, (i.e. – the gambler’s fallacy). All these other universes don’t support life. We just happen to be in the one universe is fine-tuned for life. The problem is that there is no way of directly observing these other universes and no independent evidence that they exist.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Discover magazine, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

The second response by atheists is that the human observers that exist today, 14 billion years after the universe was created out of nothing, actually caused the fine-tuning by going back in time and causing the universe to be fine-tuned. This solution would mean that although humans did not exist at the time the of the big bang, they are going to be able to reach back in time at some point in the future and manually fine-tune the universe.

Here is an excerpt from and article in the New Scientist, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

…maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation… observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now. If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.

So, there are two choices for atheists. Either an infinite number of unobservable universes that are not fine-tuned, or humans go back in time at some future point and fine-tune the beginning of the universe, billions of years in the past. I think I will prefer the design explanation to those alternatives.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Can naturalism account for the origin of the 20 amino acids in living systems?

Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?
Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?

The origin of life

There are two problems related to the origin of the first living cell, on naturalism:

  1. The problem of getting the building blocks needed to create life – i.e. the amino acids
  2. The problem of creating the functional sequences of amino acids and proteins that can support the minimal operations of a simple living cell

Normally, I concede the first problem and grant the naturalist all the building blocks he needs. This is because step 2 is impossible. There is no way, on naturalism, to form the sequences of amino acids that will fold up into proteins, and then to form the sequences of proteins that can be used to form everything else in the cell, including the DNA itself. But that’s a topic for a separate post.

Today, let’s take a look at the problems with step 1.

The problem of getting the building blocks of life

Now you may have heard that some scientists managed to spark some gasses to generate most of the 20 amino acids found in living systems. These experiments are called the “Miller-Urey” experiments.

The IDEA center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains a few of the main problems with step 1.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere,11, 12 however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing).15, 16 The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.11

Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:

Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days20 (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments19).

Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:

We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).20, 21, 22 This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years,23 and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.15

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,”24 destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years.20, 25 This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.

Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.

Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming.

Usually when you hear the origin of life debated, they sort of skirt about the problem of where the amino acids come from, but there is no reason not to make that an issue. The naturalist has to explain how the first living cell could come about naturalistically.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

 

Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (30 MB)

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.

Topics:

  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of bases that code for proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein
A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone
Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

New software calculates the probability of generating functional proteins by chance

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Here’s an article sent to me by JoeCoder about a new computer program written by Kirk Durston.

About Kirk:

Kirk Durston is a scientist, a philosopher, and a clergyman with a Ph.D. in Biophysics, an M.A. in Philosophy, a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering, and a B.Sc. in Physics. His work involves a significant amount of time thinking, writing and speaking about the interaction of science, theology and philosophy within the context of authentic Christianity. He has been married for 34 years to Patti and they have six children and three grandchildren. He enjoys landscape photography, antiques of various types, wilderness canoeing and camping, fly fishing, amateur astronomy, reading, music, playing the saxophone (alto), and enjoying family and friends.

Kirk grew up on a cattle and grain farm in central Manitoba, Canada, where he spent countless hours wandering around on his own in the forest as a young boy, fascinated with the plants and animals that are native to that region of the province. Throughout his teen years he spent six days a week in the summer working as a farm hand with cattle and grain. He left his father’s farm at the age of 19 to go to university.

Canada? Can anything good come out of Canada? Oh well, at least he’s not from Scotland. Anyway, on to the research, that’s what we care about. Code!

Summary of the article:

  • Biological life requires proteins
  • Proteins are sequences of amino acids, chained together
  • the order of amino acids determines whether the sequence has biological function
  • sequences that have biological function are rare, compared to the total number of possible sequences
  • Durston wrote a program to calculate the number of the probability of getting a functional sequence by random chance
  • The probability for getting a functional protein by chance is incredibly low

With that said, we can understand what he wrote:

This program can compute an upper limit for the probability of obtaining a protein family from a wealth of actual data contained in the Pfam database. The first step computes the lower limit for the functional complexity or functional information required to code for a particular protein family, using a method published by Durston et al. This value for I(Ex) can then be plugged into an equation published by Hazen et al. in order to solve the probability M(Ex)/N of ‘finding’ a functional sequence in a single trial.

I downloaded 3,751 aligned sequences for the Ribosomal S7 domain, part of a universal protein essential for all life. When the data was run through the program, it revealed that the lower limit for the amount of functional information required to code for this domain is 332 Fits (Functional Bits). The extreme upper limit for the number of sequences that might be functional for this domain is around 10^92. In a single trial, the probability of obtaining a sequence that would be functional for the Ribosomal S7 domain is 1 chance in 10^100 … and this is only for a 148 amino acid structural domain, much smaller than an average protein.

For another example, I downloaded 4,986 aligned sequences for the ABC-3 family of proteins and ran it through the program. The results indicate that the probability of obtaining, in a single trial, a functional ABC-3 sequence is around 1 chance in 10^128. This method ignores pairwise and higher order relationships within the sequence that would vastly limit the number of functional sequences by many orders of magnitude, reducing the probability even further by many orders of magnitude – so this gives us a best-case estimate.

There are only about 10^80 particles in the entire physical universe – 10^85 at the most. These are long odds. But maybe if we expand the probabilistic resources by buying more slot machines, and we pull the slot machine lever at much faster rate… can we win the jackpot then?

Nope:

What are the implications of these results, obtained from actual data, for the fundamental prediction of neo-Darwinian theory mentioned above? If we assume 10^30 life forms with a fast replication rate of 30 minutes and a huge genome with a very high mutation rate over a period of 10 billion years, an extreme upper limit for the total number of mutations for all of life’s history would be around 10^43. Unfortunately, a protein domain such as Ribosomal S7 would require a minimum average of 10^100 trials, about 10^57 trials more than the entire theoretical history of life could provide – and this is only for one domain. Forget about ‘finding’ an average sized protein, not to mention thousands.

So even if you have lots of probabilistic resources, and lots of time, you’re still not going to get your protein.

Compare these numbers with the 1 in 10^77 number that I posted about yesterday from Doug Axe. There is just no way to account for proteins if there is no intelligent agent to place the amino acids in sequence. When it comes to writing code, writing blog posts, writing music, or placing Scrabble letters, you need an intelligence. Sequencing amino acids into proteins? You need an intelligence.

How likely is it for blind forces to sequence a functional protein by chance?

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

How likely is it that you could swish together amino acids randomly and come up with a sequence that would fold up into a functional protein?

Evolution News reports on research performed by Doug Axe at Cambridge University, and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Molecular Biology.

Excerpt:

Doug Axe’s research likewise studies genes that it turns out show great evidence of design. Axe studied the sensitivities of protein function to mutations. In these “mutational sensitivity” tests, Dr. Axe mutated certain amino acids in various proteins, or studied the differences between similar proteins, to see how mutations or changes affected their ability to function properly.10 He found that protein function was highly sensitive to mutation, and that proteins are not very tolerant to changes in their amino acid sequences. In other words, when you mutate, tweak, or change these proteins slightly, they stopped working. In one of his papers, he thus concludes that “functional folds require highly extraordinary sequences,” and that functional protein folds “may be as low as 1 in 10^77.”11 The extreme unlikelihood of finding functional proteins has important implications for intelligent design.

Just so you know, those footnotes say this:

[10.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004); Douglas D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol. 301:585-595 (2000).

[11.] Douglas D. Axe, “Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 1-21 (2004).

And remember, you need a lot more than just 1 protein in order to create even the simplest living system. Can you generate that many proteins in the short time between when the Earth cools and the first living cells appear? Even if we spot the naturalist a prebiotic soup as big as the universe, and try to make sequences as fast as possible, it’s unlikely to generate even one protein in the time before first life appears.

Here’s Doug Axe to explain his research:

If you are building a protein for the FIRST TIME, you have to get it right all at once – not by building up to it gradually using supposed Darwinian mechanisms. That’s because there is no replication before you have the first replicator. The first replicator cannot rely on explanations that require replication to already be in place.