Yale University computer science professor takes a look at protein formation probabilities

How did life begin?
How did life begin?

When I was in graduate school, we studied a book called “Mirror Worlds”, authored by famous computer science professor David Gelernter at Yale University. This week, I noticed that Dr. Gelernter had written an article in the prestigious Claremont Review of Books. In his article, he applies his knowledge of computer science to the problem of the origin of life.

Evolution, if it is going to work at all, has to explain the problem of how the basic building blocks of life – proteins – can emerge from non-living matter. It turns out that the problem of the origin of life is essentially a problem of information – of code. If the components of proteins are ordered properly, then the sequence folds up into a protein that has biological function. If the sequence is not good, then just like computer code, it won’t run.

Here’s Dr. Gelernter to explain:

How to make proteins is our first question. Proteins are chains: linear sequences of atom-groups, each bonded to the next. A protein molecule is based on a chain of amino acids; 150 elements is a “modest-sized” chain; the average is 250. Each link is chosen, ordinarily, from one of 20 amino acids. A chain of amino acids is a polypeptide—“peptide” being the type of chemical bond that joins one amino acid to the next. But this chain is only the starting point: chemical forces among the links make parts of the chain twist themselves into helices; others straighten out, and then, sometimes, jackknife repeatedly, like a carpenter’s rule, into flat sheets. Then the whole assemblage folds itself up like a complex sheet of origami paper. And the actual 3-D shape of the resulting molecule is (as I have said) important.

Imagine a 150-element protein as a chain of 150 beads, each bead chosen from 20 varieties. But: only certain chains will work. Only certain bead combinations will form themselves into stable, useful, well-shaped proteins.

So how hard is it to build a useful, well-shaped protein? Can you throw a bunch of amino acids together and assume that you will get something good? Or must you choose each element of the chain with painstaking care? It happens to be very hard to choose the right beads.

Gelernter decides to spot the Darwinist a random sequence of 150 elements. Now the task the Darwinist is to use random mutation to arrive at a sequence of 150 links that has biological function.

[W]hat are the chances that a random 150-link sequence will create such a protein? Nonsense sequences are essentially random. Mutations are random. Make random changes to a random sequence and you get another random sequence. So, close your eyes, make 150 random choices from your 20 bead boxes and string up your beads in the order in which you chose them. What are the odds that you will come up with a useful new protein?

[…]The total count of possible 150-link chains, where each link is chosen separately from 20 amino acids, is 20150. In other words, many. 20150 roughly equals 10195, and there are only 1080 atoms in the universe.

What proportion of these many polypeptides are useful proteins? Douglas Axe did a series of experiments to estimate how many 150-long chains are capable of stable folds—of reaching the final step in the protein-creation process (the folding) and of holding their shapes long enough to be useful. (Axe is a distinguished biologist with five-star breeding: he was a graduate student at Caltech, then joined the Centre for Protein Engineering at Cambridge. The biologists whose work Meyer discusses are mainly first-rate Establishment scientists.) He estimated that, of all 150-link amino acid sequences, 1 in 1074 will be capable of folding into a stable protein. To say that your chances are 1 in 1074 is no different, in practice, from saying that they are zero. It’s not surprising that your chances of hitting a stable protein that performs some useful function, and might therefore play a part in evolution, are even smaller. Axe puts them at 1 in 1077.

In other words: immense is so big, and tiny is so small, that neo-Darwinian evolution is—so far—a dead loss. Try to mutate your way from 150 links of gibberish to a working, useful protein and you are guaranteed to fail. Try it with ten mutations, a thousand, a million—you fail. The odds bury you. It can’t be done.

Keep in mind that you need many, many proteins in order to have even a simple living cell. (And that’s not even considering the problem of organizing the proteins into a system).

So, if you’re a naturalist, then your only resources to explain the origin of life are chance and mutation. As Dr. Gelernter shows, naturalistic explanations won’t work to solve even part of the problem. Not even with a long period of time.  Not even if you use the entire universe as one big primordial soup, and keep trying sequences for the history of the universe. It just isn’t possible to arrive at sequences that have biological function in the time available, using the resources available. The only viable explanation is that there is a computer scientist who wrote the code without using trial and error. Something that ordinary software engineers like myself and Dr. Gelernter do all the time. We know what kind of cause is adequate to explain functioning code.

9 thoughts on “Yale University computer science professor takes a look at protein formation probabilities”

  1. It’s truly amazing how many miraculous “scientific” fairy tales I once believed in on sheer say-so-ism. I guess there’s a reason for it:

    “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories because we have a prior commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.” — Darwinist Richard Lewontin, Harvard University

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  2. Sure, but you do agree that all of science has philosophical axioms as its foundation? You cannot ground science on science because there can be no scientific proof that science is the best, most worthy, most moral, most scientific or most rational explanation for existence.

    I’ll give you an example. I was a Carl Sagan atheist. His 7 main books formed my “bible.” However I also happened to be one of those rare atheists that believed that ripping the arms, legs, and heads off of innocent defenseless babies in the womb (or out) was not only objectively immoral but a definite crime against humanity. I based this on the settled science that the human in the womb was human. Eureka!

    Imagine my surprise when sometime around 1990, my lord and savior Carl Sagan wrote an article for Parade Magazine “justifying” 1st trimester abortions based on “science!” I had never seen so many basic logical flaws in his works before. (I do now, obviously.) Why, some sort of miracle must have been happening in his mind between 1st tri- and 1st tri+. Not to mention that the trimester classification is mostly arbitrary based on 9/3=3. (But we sciency folks know it’s not really 9 months, right?)

    So that was when the scales started to come off my eyes and I realized that even a “great scientist” like Carl Sagan had philosophical and political underpinnings that drove his “scientific” results.

    So, science cannot ground itself. Philosophy trumps science. And God trumps philosophy. I do think that it’s that last statement of mine that is in play in the quote of interest but I do appreciate the distinction you brought to it, for which I thank you very much.

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    1. Sorry, I was replying to a gentleman who had blogged elsewhere on the quote I supplied. I couldn’t see his comment after I commented. Hopefully he is receiving this.

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        1. Right, I was going to comment that his was a distinction without a difference but I’m not completely sure that’s true.

          We just don’t want to fall for the old scientism fallacy that science grounds everything because it clearly cannot do so. That was my main point, and believe me, I tried that route with all of my degrees, LOLOL.

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          1. Excellent. I cannot wait to get this post I’m planning written for you. It’s about a woman in the church who had an abortion and then advocates for democrat policies as “Christian” because Christianity is about compassion and non judgment. When presented with the Bible and science she dismissed them both and said that her christian parents and church leaders agree with her so that’s all she cares about – their approval of her and her own good feelings.

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          2. Oh, how awful!

            I saw a similar thing with a post-abortive woman from a conservative Assembly of God church. She clearly had never repented of her abortion since she was always framing herself as the “victim” and the pastor and his wife were encouraging her in that mentality. One time I mentioned to her that “abortion is murder” and she went unhinged. Truly repentant post-abortive women always reply “yes it is and the worst kind too!”

            One of my favorite sayings is that “good philosophy and good science will lead you to the Good God and His Good Book.” That’s essentially the order that it went for me, although there was still the question of if authentic Christianity existed in America. I’m not 100% sure why I needed that last assurance except for the fact that my understanding of Christianity was an active, life and culture changing one and the churches did not seem to demonstrate that. I guess I was making sure that I was converting to authentic Christianity versus churchianity, although this was definitely God ensuring this and not me consciously.

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          3. Right! Feelings and emotions change. Peer approval is only valid if your peers are Christ followers. Even then, it has to take 2nd place to Truth and the Bible.

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