Tag Archives: Origin of Life

Dr. Walter Bradley lectures on scientific evidence for the creation and design of the universe

Dr. Walter L. Bradley
Dr. Walter L. Bradley

This lecture is special to me, because I bought a VHS tape of it from Access Research Network just after I started working full-time, and watched it a million times. A lot of people come to their convictions about God’s existence because of parents or church or intuitions, but for me it’s all about the scientific evidence. This lecture changed my life. I wish more people taught their children about this evidence! This lecture was delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

About the speaker:

Dr. Bradley received his B.S. in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin.

Dr. Bradley taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines before assuming a position as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1976.

During his 24 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University and as Director of the Polymer Technology Center, and received five College of Engineering Research Awards. He has received over $4,500,000 in research grants and has published over 140 technical articles and book chapters. He has also co-authored “The Mystery Of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies.

He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Baylor University.

The lecture: (63 minutes lecture, 25 minutes audience Q&A)

Summary slide:

This slide summarizes the content of the lecture
This slide summarizes the content of the lecture

Introduction:

  • At the beginning of the 20th century, people believed that the progress of science was pointing away from an intelligent Creator and Designer, and towards naturalism
  • A stream of new discoveries has shifted the support of science towards theism, and away from naturalism
  • Richard Dawkins, an atheist, says that nature only has the appearance of design, but that if you look closer, naturalistic mechanisms can account for the appearance of design
  • When deciding between design and apparent design (“designoid”), it matters whether you think there is an intelligence there to do the designing

Evidence #1: The Big Bang:

  • an eternal “steady state” universe is more compatible with naturalism, but a created universe is more compatible with a Creator
  • In 1929, Hubble used telescopes to observe that the light from distant galaxies was redshifted. The further away galaxies were, the faster they were moving away. Therefore, space is expanding in all directions, suggesting an explosive origin of the universe
  • In 1965, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation matched a prediction of the Big Bang cosmology, and of the creation event
  • In 1992, the COBE space telescope allowed us to test four specific predictions of the Big Bang model, especially the predictions for light element abundances (hydrogen and helium), which matched the predictions of the creation model

Evidence #2: Simple mathematical structure of the physical laws

  • the simple mathematical structure of natural laws allows us to understand these laws, make discoveries, and engineer solutions to problems
  • early scientists saw the mathematical structure of the universe to mean that nature was designed by an intelligent to be understood
  • the fundamental equations of the laws of the universe can be easily written on one side of one sheet of paper
  • Eugene Wigner’s famous paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences” makes the point that this simple structure is an unexpected gift that allows is to do science

Evidence #3: fine-tuning of the physical constants and quantities

  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stars that provide energy within specific ranges for long periods of time
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need planets with stable orbits that will not suffer from extreme temperature swings as it varies in distance from its star
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stable atomic structure
  • in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need to have chemical diversity and correct relative abundances of each element
  • organic life has minimum requirements: process energy, store information, replicate, and you can’t fulfill those functions if there is only one element, e.g. – hydrogen
  • the energy level from the photons from the sun have to match the energy levels of the different elements in order to drive the chemical bonding needed for life
  • These requirements for life of any imaginable type depend on the values of the constants and quantities. The constants and quantities cannot vary much from what they are, or the universe will lose the characteristics (above) that allow it to support complex life of any imaginable time
  • For example, ratio of strong force to electromagnetic force:
    – if 2% larger, then no stable hydrogen, no long-lived stars, no compounds containing hydrogen, e.g. – water
    – if 5% smaller, no stable stars, heavy hydrogen would be unstable, few elements other than hydrogen

Evidence #4: initial conditions for habitability

  • Universe: expansion rate of the universe must be fast enough to avoid a re-collapse, but slow enough to allow matter to clump together and form stars and planets for complex life to live on
  • Planet: right distance from the star to get the right climate
  • Planet: right mass to retain the right atmosphere

Evidence #5: origin of life and information theory

  • It’s possible to explain every process in an automobile engine using plain old naturalistic mechanisms – no supernatural explanation is necessary to understand the processes
  • But the existence of engine itself: engineering all the parts has to be explained by the work of an intelligence
  • Similarly, we can understand how living systems work, but the existence of the living systems requires an intelligence
  • Even the simplest living system has to perform minimal function: capture energy, store information and replicate
  • Living systems are composed of objects like proteins that are composed of sequences of components complex such that the order of the components gives the overall structure function
  • Developing the components for a simple living cell is very improbable – even given the large number of galaxies, stars and planets in the universe, it is unlikely that complex, embodied life would exist anywhere in the universe

Evidence #6: more initial conditions for habitability

  • Location within the galaxy: you need to be away from the center of the galaxy, because the explosions from dying stars, and excessive radiation will kill life
  • Location within the galaxy: you need to be close enough to the center in order catch the heavy elements you need for life from the explosions of other stars
  • Location within the galaxy: the best location is between two arms of  a spiral galaxy, where you can get the heavy elements you need from dying stars, but without being hit with explosions and harmful radiation
  • Star mass: determines rate at which the sun burns, determines the energy level of photons that are used to drive chemical bonding reactions, determines the length of time the star will be stable
  • Star mass: star mass must be the correct value in order to allow liquid water on the planet’s surface, while still preserving stable orbit

I wish there was more curiosity about science in churches, and young Christians understood how critical science is for grounding the rationality of the Christian worldview. We need to be training up more scientists who think about the big questions, like Dr. Walter Bradley.

Stephen C. Meyer and Doug Axe discuss 5 major problems with macro-evolution

Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed
Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed

The host of the Cross Examined radio show Dr. Frank Turek talks with Stephen C. Meyer and Doug Axe about a recent conference of Royal Society scientists discussing the problems with the theory of macro-evolution.

The MP3 file is here.

Summary:

  • about the Royal Society conference
  • the main topic was whether naturalistic mechanisms can produce new body plans and new organ types
  • no one disputes micro-evolution: beaks changing size, antibiotic resistance
  • many of the naturalistic scientists admitted the problems with current naturalistic theories, but they don’t want to embrace the need for a designer
  • none of the proposals that were debated solved the real problems with macro-evolution
  • Problem #1: the sudden origin of body plans in the fossil record
  • Problem #2: the origin of information (e.g. – in protein molecule)
  • Problem #3: need for favorable early mutations (for body plans)
  • Problem #4: the problem of epigenetics
  • Problem #5: the universality of the design intuition

Some of these problems have actually gotten worse for naturalistic evolution as our scientific knowledge has grown.

If you want the two best books on intelligent design, get Dr. Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” and “Darwin’s Doubt”. I should note that Dr. Meyer is not a young Earth creationist, and has defended the Big Bang cosmology as a solid evidence for a Creator of the universe. Being in favor of an old universe and an old Earth is compatible with being opposed to evolution – because of scientific reasons.

Does the Miller-Urey experiment tell us anything about how life originated on Earth?

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

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

  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 atheist all the building blocks he needs. This is because step 2 is impossible. There is no way, on atheism, 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 tomorrow’s topic.

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.

Now keep in mind that even if you get the building blocks, you are left with the sequencing problem. Like the letters of the words in this blog post, the building blocks of life also need to be put in a meaningful sequence in order to do work in a living system – but that’s another topic for another day.

John Lennox and Paul Davies discuss aliens and the origin of life

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

An amazing debate about the origin of life and the cosmic fine-tuning between a Christian and a materialist agnostic. John Lennox is AWESOME in this debate, and he only talks for a tiny part of the debate. He’s very gracious, and focused the discussion on the areas that we care about. Paul Davies is an EXCELLENT scientist and well aware of what Christians believe. This is a great debate, very easy to listen to. Justin, the moderator, does a great job controlling a fantastic discussion.

Details

What does it take for life to get going in our universe? Is there intelligence in the stars or right under our nose? Renowned astrophysicist Paul Davies chats to Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox.

A popular science author, Davies is also the Chair of the SETI post detection task force. His latest book “The Eerie Silence” which marks SETI’s 50th anniversary examines the likelihood of the universe producing life elsewhere.

John Lennox is a Christian Mathematician and philosopher. He is the author of “God’s Undertaker: has science buried God?” and has debated Richard Dawkins on several occasions.

Davies’ work on the fine tuning of the universe for life has been sympathetic to theism. In this programme Lennox challenges Davies to look to design not just in cosmology but in the cell. They also chat about what the discovery of ET would mean for Christian theology.

Summary

Justin:

  • Is there meaning in the universe?

Paul:

  • We have no evidence for or against intelligent life elsewhere in the universe
  • The vastness of the universe makes me think there is life elsewhere
  • Humans are capable of observing and understanding the universe
  • It seems the universe has the ability to create observers to understand it
  • If one species has this ability, then we should expect others to do it

John:

  • The fact that we can observe the universe and do science has cosmic significance
  • Our rare habitable planet and our ability to do science is suggestive of purpose
  • So science itself points to an extra-terrestrial intelligence: GOD
  • The complexity of life and consciousness itself points away from atheism
  • Monotheism gave birth to science
  • Human minds capable of doing science are not compatible with atheistic materialism

Justin:

  • Why do you say that either we are the only life or there are many different kinds of life?

Paul:

  • There are lots of factors that have to be met to have a site for simple life
  • These are related to the fine-tuning of cosmic constants, e.g. gravitational force
  • But there are also factors that have to be met for originating intelligent life
  • Things like convergence, self-organization, etc.
  • So the cosmic requirements and evolutionary requirements are different
  • Darwinian evolution doesn’t solve the problem of the origin of life
  • 50 years ago, skepticism about alien life existing anywhere was excessive
  • Today, credulity about alien life exiting everywhere is excessive
  • The naturalist is searching for a process that creates life easily

John:

  • Paul agrees that there is no theory for a naturalistic origin of life
  • This is fatal for the idea that life can emerge elsewhere in the universe
  • We have not discovered any law that produces life without an intelligence
  • Consider the method used by SETI used to detect an alien intelligence
  • Why can’t this method be applied to the origin of life on Earth?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created specified complexity (functional information)?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created epigenetics and protein folding?

Paul:

  • Darwinian evolution can add new biological information after life begins

John:

  • Darwinian evolution assumes a mutating replicating life form to act on

Paul:

  • You can’t generate specified complexity by using physical laws
  • You can’t generate specified complexity by chance
  • At this point we are guessing as to how life might have formed

John:

  • Why do we have to rule out an intelligent cause a priori
  • If you can recognize an intelligence in outer space, why not in living systems?

Paul:

  • I don’t mind the word “intelligence”, it’s the word “signal”
  • I oppose the idea that God or aliens manipulated physical stuff to create life
  • It’s an “ugly explanation and very unappealing both theologically and scientifically”
  • I prefer the idea that the universe has processes to self-organize and create complexity
  • When it comes to supernatural meddling by God, “I don’t want that”
  • If I were God, I would create the universe so that I would not have to intervene
  • I think God would be more clever if he did not have to intervene
  • My preferences about what is “clever” determines what scientific conclusions are allowed

John:

  • Humans already have experience with their non-material minds to move atoms (matter)
  • If God is a mind, then there is no reason why he cannot move atoms (matter)

Paul:

  • My mind is physical, so are you saying that God is physical?
  • If God intervenes in the universe, then what is he doing now?

John:

  • There is a distinction between acts of creation and providential upholding the universe
  • God is also speaking to people and drawing humans toward him
  • God is spirit, not material

Paul:

  • How can a non-physical entity cause effects on the physical world?

John:

  • What science reveals that there is information needed for the origin of life
  • Information requires an intelligence to create it, just as with human who write books
  • That’s not God of the gaps – it’s an inference based on what we know today

Paul:

  • We may be able to explain the origin of life later, using matter, law and chance
  • What you’re saying is that God tinkers with the genome
  • If you say that God intervened once, then he intervenes all the time, everywhere!
  • I don’t want a God who tinkers in the genome
  • if God could intervene in the universe that would remove its intelligibility

John:

  • Look at the cover of this book – when I read words, I infer an intelligence
  • There are bad gaps that the progress of science closes
  • There are good gaps that science opens, showing the need for intelligence
  • On the one hand, you say we have no theory of the origin of life
  • On the other hand, you know that an intelligent designer wasn’t involved
  • If we don’t know how life began, why do you rule God out a priori?

Paul:

  • What scientists want to do is to explain the universe without involving God
  • naturalists want to use science to discover only materialist explanations
  • The purpose of SETI is to prove that there is other life in the universe
  • This would then show that there is a naturalistic way of making life
  • I agree that information in living systems is real hard to explain materialistically
  • I believe in the power of emergence
  • We might discover laws that prove that complexity can emerge without intelligence
  • The discovery of alien life would help to show that no intelligence is needed to make life

Justin:

  • What sort of cosmic fine-tuning is needed at the Big Bang for life to occur?

Paul:

  • It’s true that the universe appears extremely fine-tuned for life to exist
  • The typical answer from naturalists is that there is a multiverse
  • But the multiverse “falls far short” of providing a good answer to the fine-tuning
  • It’s irrational to appeal to massive numbers of unseen universes to explain fine-tuning
  • The design and purpose seen in the universe may be due to God or it may be emergent

John:

  • The fine-tuning is real and the multiverse is a desperate attempt to evade the creator
  • Sir Martin Rees (an atheist) says he “prefers” the multiverse to a designer
  • Scientists are not supposed to prefer anything except what is true

Justin:

  • Would the discovery of aliens hurt Christianity, because of the belief in the uniqueness of humans?

Paul:

  • Christians believe that Jesus came to save HUMANS specifically, not animals or aliens
  • If we were to discover intelligent aliens, it would challenge traditional religions
  • What will God do with alien races? Multiple incarnations? Or just preach the gospel to them?

John:

  • We don’t know if the aliens exist, first of all – it’s speculative
  • The Bible teaches that humans bear the image of God
  • We just don’t know whether alien species are also made in God’s image

New study: first life pushed back earlier, leaving less time for naturalistic magic

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Whenever you discuss origins with naturalists, it’s very important to get them to explain how the first living organism emerged without any help from an intelligent agent. The origin of life is an information problem. A certain minimal amount of biological information for minimum life function has to be thrown together by chance. No evolutionary mechanisms have the potential to work until replication is already in place.

Evolution News reports on a new study that makes the window for naturalistic forces to create the first self-replicating organism even smaller.

Excerpt:

A paper in Nature reports the discovery of fossil microbes possibly older, even much older, than any found previously. The lead author is biogeochemist Matthew Dodd, a PhD student at University College London. If the paper is right, these Canadian fossils could be 3.77 billion years old, or even as old as — hold onto your hat, in case you’re wearing one — 4.28 billion years.

From the Abstract:

Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite–haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils.

This new paper is interesting to compare with a paper from last year, Nutman et al., “Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures,” also in Nature, which found microbial structures that are a bit younger.

But the “microbial structures” from Nutman et al. 2016 are different from these new “microfossils” presented by Dodd et al. 2017. In Nutman et al., they only found stromatolite-type structures rather than actual microfossils. Some stromatolite experts were a bit skeptical that what they found were really stromatolites.

But the new paper by Dodd and his colleagues, “Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates,” seems to offer potential bacteria-like microfossils. They are tiny black carbonaceous spheres and “hematite tubes” which the authors think are biogenically created. We’ve seen more convincing ancient microfossils, but these aren’t bad.

According to Dodd et al., these new finds would be the oldest known microfossils, if that is in fact what they are. Very interesting. If so, that just keeps pushing unquestionable evidence of life’s existence on Earth further and further back, which leaves less and less time for the origin of life to have occurred by unguided chemical evolution after Earth became habitable.

If they are in fact 4.28 billion years old, then that would mean there was life very, very early in Earth’s history — as Cyril Ponnamperuma said, it’s like “instant life.”

Instant life is “rational” for naturalistic fideists, but for evidence-driven people who understand the long odds on generating even a simple protein by chance, it’s irrationality.

Let’s recall exactly how hard it is to make even a simple protein without intelligent agency to select the elements of the sequence.

The odds of creating even a single functional protein

I’ve talked about Doug Axe before when I described how to calculate the odds of getting functional proteins by chance.

Let’s calculate the odds of building a protein composed of a functional chain of 100 amino acids, by chance. (Think of a meaningful English sentence built with 100 scrabble letters, held together with glue)

Sub-problems:

  • BONDING: You need 99 peptide bonds between the 100 amino acids. The odds of getting a peptide bond is 50%. The probability of building a chain of one hundred amino acids in which all linkages involve peptide bonds is roughly (1/2)^99 or 1 chance in 10^30.
  • CHIRALITY: You need 100 left-handed amino acids. The odds of getting a left-handed amino acid is 50%. The probability of attaining at random only L–amino acids in a hypothetical peptide chain one hundred amino acids long is (1/2)^100 or again roughly 1 chance in 10^30.
  • SEQUENCE: You need to choose the correct amino acid for each of the 100 links. The odds of getting the right one are 1 in 20. Even if you allow for some variation, the odds of getting a functional sequence is (1/20)^100 or 1 in 10^65.

The final probability of getting a functional protein composed of 100 amino acids is 1 in 10^125. Even if you fill the universe with pre-biotic soup, and react amino acids at Planck time (very fast!) for 14 billion years, you are probably not going to get even 1 such protein. And you need at least 100 of them for minimal life functions, plus DNA and RNA.

Research performed by Doug Axe at Cambridge University, and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Molecular Biology, has shown that the number of functional amino acid sequences is tiny:

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. 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.”

The problem of forming DNA by sequencing nucleotides faces similar difficulties. And remember, mutation and selection cannot explain the origin of the first sequence, because mutation and selection require replication, which does not exist until that first living cell is already in place.