Intelligent Design, The Science of it All

Something New to Contemplate

Something New to Contemplate

It is only recently that some defenders of evolution have tried to divorce the origin of life from consideration.  It is probably because the hope of finding an answer is rapidly fading, as one scientific discovery after another of sophisticated machinery in even the simplest living cells makes the problem of a naturalistic origin ever more difficult.  Popular articles on origin-of-life research have often portrayed the field as constantly advancing and quickly converging on a purely Materialistic Naturalism explanation for the origin of the first autonomous cell.  This creates an important proposition that atheists must believe.  That is life came from non-living chemicals, a process called chemical evolution or abiogenesis (Abiogenesis, biopoiesis, or informally, the origin of life, is the natural process by which life arises from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds.)  Every so often, the lame stream media headlines trumpet the latest and greatest solution, even though specialists in the area know that they are not even close to solving this problem.  Moreover, they never ask, why is this theory replacing the other theory that we highlighted and headlined a year or so ago.

Common arguments about the origin of life have traditionally focused on the unlikelihood of life forming by chance.  I myself have promoted this concept and of course have had others say, “It just had to happen once” as naive as that statement is.  Perhaps most famously, physicist Fred Hoyle calculated the probability of a cell coalescing to be roughly 1 part in 10 to the power of 40,000.  He compared this probability to the chances of a tornado plowing through a junkyard and assembling a jet airplane.  Now, I am not happy with that analogy because it takes us away from the concept of a cell that we should be dealing with.  So let us go with the smallest human protein which is made up of 44 amino acids (Human protein Q6YH21, a collagen-like molecule associated with acetylcholinesterase in skeletal muscle, has a variant gene NM_080542, which encodes for the shortest protein in the human body).  If we have 20 of each of these 44 amino acids floating in a solution it would be similar to these 880 amino acids suspended in Lake Erie (to want to make it turbulent).  Well, not quite, we need to shorten it by about 2 square miles.  Lake Erie is 116 cubic miles in volume, so that comes out to 1.277 x 10^24 gallons or 1,277,295,890,000,000,000,000,000 gallons.  So cut out 6 cubic miles and redo the math.  In addition, we would want these amino acids to randomly form together so the lake has a lot of waves and currents and tides.  The interesting thing is we are assuming that the necessary molecules have already formed into the amino acids and that the protein molecule will form randomly and properly and be folded correctly into this protein.  This event happens hundreds of thousands of times every minute within each cell of your body.

It is possible, we might get a protein to form, but it is highly improbable.  Plain and simple. So you understand the difference between possibility and probability now?


Closely linked to  the concept of probability is that of entropy, since probability is proportional to the number of configurations (N) in which some state could occur, and entropy is proportional to the log of N.  As an example, the number of ways water molecules can arrange themselves in the solid state is much smaller than the number ways in the liquid or gas states, so ice is the state with the lowest entropy.  Due to this connection, the probability argument is restated that nature tends to move from states of lower entropy to higher entropy, which simply means that nature moves towards states that are highly probable.  This tendency is known as the second law of thermodynamics.

Analogously, some systems do, in fact, naturally move from states of higher entropy to those of lower entropy (i.e., seemingly low probability) if the lower-entropy states are highly biased to occur.  Such a bias is created by a second driving tendency.  Namely, nature tends to move from states of higher energy to those of lower energy.  For instance, rocks roll downhill, since lower altitude corresponds to lower gravitational energy.  Likewise, molecules of water attract each other, so ice is a lower energy state than water or gas as a result of more hydrogen bonds forming on average between neighboring molecules. At low enough temperatures, this attraction overcomes the tendency to move toward higher entropy resulting in water freezing.  We will come back to the  water later.

Jeremy England, a physicist from MIT had a brainstorm of an idea that life is very good at increasing the entropy of its surroundings: life absorbs energy and dissipates it as heat, and this by definition increases the surroundings’ entropy. In addition, of course, if something can self-replicate, then it will generate more energy dissipaters.

However, even in these cases of locally decreasing entropy, the second law of thermodynamics is not violated, for the changes are always exothermic — heat is released. The heat leaving the local system (e.g., a cup of freezing water) and entering the surrounding environment increases the latter’s entropy by an amount greater than the entropy decrease of the local system. Therefore, the total entropy of the universe increases. The problem for all theories of origin of life now becomes quite evident. The simplest functional cell compared to its most basic building blocks has both lower entropy and higher energy.

Natural systems never both decrease in entropy and increase in energy at the same time.  Therefore, the origin of life through purely natural processes would seem as implausible as water on a hot summer day spontaneously freezing or a river flowing unaided uphill for thousands of miles.  Physicists and chemists (in order to try to explain what they cannot calculate) often combine entropy and energy (or enthalpy) together into what is called the free energy of a system. The change of free energy is always negative for spontaneous changes (e.g., wood burning or ice melting in summer), and it directly relates to the total increase in entropy of the universe.  The challenge for the origin of life is then explaining how billions of atoms could spontaneously come together into a state of significantly higher free energy.

Various calculations have been done, all using different variables and the probability has always been essentially zero.  At face value, this thermodynamic analysis for the origin of life would seem to negate any possible materialistic solution to the problem.  Theorists have long recognized one remaining loophole (but remember, these are theorists- a person concerned with the theoretical aspects of a subject).

Most calculations have assumed that the system was in a state near equilibrium.  However, many argue that the origin of life took place in a system strongly driven away from equilibrium.  This would be a pond subjected to intense sunlight or the bottom of the ocean near a hydrothermal vent flooding with its surroundings superheated water and high-energy chemicals.  These settings are commonly referred to as non-equilibrium dissipative systems.  Their common characteristic is that classical thermodynamics breaks down, so the previous analyses do not completely hold.  Instead, principles of non-equilibrium thermodynamics must be applied, which are far more complex and less well understood.  Moreover, the energy from these outside sources is hoped to enable the free-energy barrier to be overcome.  Therefore, scientists are relying on less than scientific methods to prove their points.

However, such appeals to non-equilibrium systems do little to solve the basic thermodynamic problems.  First, no system could be maintained far from equilibrium for more than a limited amount of time. Any progress made toward forming a cell would be lost as the system reverted toward equilibrium (lower free energy) and thus away from any state approaching life.

This has been extensively promoted as a ‘groundbreaking idea’ about why we have life.  Despite the hype, nothing is being offered to explain how life could have evolved from lifeless chemicals; still a massive unsolved hurdle.

The input of raw solar, thermal or other forms of energy actually increase the entropy of the system, thus moving it in the wrong direction.  For instance, the ultraviolet light from the sun or heat from hydrothermal vents would be more likely to break apart  complex chemical structures than form them.

In non-equilibrium systems the differences in temperature, concentrations, and other variables act as thermodynamic forces which drive heat transfer, diffusion, and other thermodynamic flows. These flows create microscopic sources of entropy production, again moving the system away from any reduced-entropy state associated with life. In short, the processes occurring in non-equilibrium systems, as in their near-equilibrium counterparts, generally do the opposite of what is actually needed.

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