Dr. George Church, a pioneering molecular geneticist at Harvard/MIT, informed us in a Sciencexpress article in August of 2012, that the digital-information storage capacity of DNA is “very dense.” How dense? One gram of DNA can store 455 exabytes of information. For those readers like myself whose eyes glaze over as soon as computer nerds start talking about bytes and RAM’s I will put it in simple layman’s terms. One gram of DNA – the weight of two Tylenol – can store the same amount of digitally encoded information as a hundred billion DVD’s. Yes, you read correctly, I said a hundred billion DVD’s. Every single piece of information that exists on the Earth today; from every single library, from every single data base, from every single computer, could be stored in one beaker of DNA. This is the same DNA/Genetic Information/Self-Replication System that exists in humans and in bacteria (which are the simplest living organisms that exist today and have ever been known to exist). In short, our DNA-based genetic code, the universal system for all life on our planet, is the most efficient and sophisticated digital information storage, retrieval, and translation system known to man.
Dr. William Thorpe, a zoologist, wrote the following in 1974, an era when computer-science students at the University of Illinois (like myself) were still typing out IBM punch-cards that had to be fed into huge main-frame computers, when cell phones, I-Phones, and I-Pads were science-fiction like dreams to the average person: “The most elementary type of cell constitutes a mechanism unimaginably more complex than any machine yet thought up, let alone constructed, by man.” The only thing that has changed since then is that the wonder and awe elicited by the astounding molecular machinery contained in the simplest living things has increased exponentially. Thorpe’s feelings are echoed by molecular biologist, Richard Strohman, who wrote in 2004: “Molecular biologists and cell biologists are revealing to us a complexity of life that we never dreamt was there. We’re seeing connections and interconnections and complexity that are mind-boggling. It’s stupendous. It’s transcalculational. It means that the whole science is going to have to change.”
Where did the dazzling DNA-based genetic system and its accompanying molecular machinery come from? In other words, how did life begin? Dr. Iris Fry, a prominent (non-believing) philosopher of science who teaches at the Technion Institute in Haifa and Tel-Aviv University explains to us that Origin of Life researchers have adopted two approaches to answering this profoundly challenging question. It is important to note that she describes both, not as scientific positions (because scientists have no real clue as to how life arose), but as philosophical positions. From an article entitled, “Are the Different Hypotheses on the Emergence of Life as Different as they Seem?”:
“This paper calls attention to a philosophical presupposition, coined here “the continuity thesis” which underlies and unites the different, often conflicting, hypotheses in the origin of life field. This presupposition, a necessary condition for any scientific investigation of the origin of life problem, has two components. First it contends that there is no unbridgeable gap between organic matter and life. Second, it regards the emergence of life as a highly probable process.”
Dr. Fry makes it very clear that this “philosophical presupposition” is not based on evidence and is non-falsifiable:
“The various principles of continuity might indeed push forward the experimental investigation of the emergence of life; as such they do represent the heuristic [educational] advantage of the continuity thesis. However, the decision to adopt the continuity thesis is a philosophical one…and this decision does not depend on the success of a specific experimental program, nor can it be revoked on the basis of its failure.”
Translation: Unless one assumes a priori, the existence of an – as yet unknown – set of coherent, ordered physical laws and processes that inevitably lead from non-life to life, there really isn’t any point to a scientific investigation of the origin of life. In that sense, the “continuity thesis” pushes forward experimental investigation of the matter. However, the decision to adopt such a position is not based on any experimental evidence or a particular experimental program, and that failure of any particular experiment or avenue of investigation will not invalidate this decision. In short, it is a position that is based on a decision, not evidence, and cannot be falsified by experimentation. What do we generally call a decision that is (a) not based on evidence, (b) is adopted because it advances an agenda (in this case justifying scientific investigation of the origin of life), and (c) cannot be falsified through experimentation? It is self-apparent that Dr. Fry has mistakenly and unjustifiably dignified this position by describing it as philosophical. In fact, such a position is nothing more than an article of faith, as so clearly stated by Nobel Laureate, Dr. Harold Urey: “All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.”
She then goes on to describe the “rival” hypothesis, espoused by – among others – Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick and Jacque Monod, and biologist Ernst Mayr:
“In addition I identify the rivals of the [continuity] “thesis” within the scientific community – “the almost miracle camp.”…This camp regards the emergence of life as involving highly improbable events…The basic philosophical assumption underlying the “almost miracle” notion becomes apparent, once we learn that for Crick, the emergence of life was “a happy accident.”
Upon careful examination, however, it becomes clear that Dr. Fry has also seriously erred by describing the “almost miracle” camp as a philosophical position. Please bear with me as I elaborate. Dr. Jacque Monod, “one of the most pronounced representatives of this position” claims that the origin of life is not so much a “problem” as a “veritable enigma.” As Dr. Monod explains in his classic work, Chance and Necessity, there are no chemical or physical laws that determine any particular order of amino acids to build the first proteins (all amino acids can link together equally well) and similarly there are no chemical or physical laws that would determine the sequences of nucleotides that code for these proteins in DNA. The only option left for him is chance. He acknowledges that the random probability of such a system coming into being is “virtually zero.” Luckily for us, he writes, “Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.” Monod himself admitted how distasteful to him as a scientist was his “casino” conclusion, for he acknowledged that “science can neither say nor do anything about a unique occurrence. It can only consider events which form a class whose a priori probability, however faint, is definite.” Renowned philosopher of science, Karl Popper, agrees with Monod that life could only emerge from inanimate matter by an extremely improbable combination of chance circumstances and admits that the origin of life becomes “an impenetrable barrier to science.”
In the same vein, Ernst Mayr asserts that “a full realization of the near impossibility of an origin of life brings home the point how improbable this event was.” Finally Francis Crick, who together with James Watson was awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA in 1953, writes in his book Life Itself that an honest man armed with all the knowledge and evidence available to us now could only state “in some sense the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to been satisfied get it going.”
In other words, Mayr, Crick, Popper, and Monod do not describe the origin of life as being “almost a miracle” based on philosophical considerations. Their conclusions are reasoned, logical, scientific statements based on examination of the available evidence. In short, one of the positions taken by Origin of Life researchers as described by Dr. Fry – that life inevitably must emerge from non-life under the right conditions – is an article of faith. The other position, that the emergence of life is “almost a miracle” is a reasoned conclusion based on evidence. The proponents of the “almost miracle” camp implicitly showcase their narrow mindedness by not considering the obvious alternative to a lucky break in the “Monte Carlo casino” game: Intelligent Design. If the probability of life emerging randomly is “virtually zero” as Monod puts it, then it is virtually certain that it did not emerge by chance; it is virtually certain that it emerged through Intelligent Intervention. Of course, if an individual is emotionally or psychologically disturbed by that obvious conclusion, they are free join the “article of faith” camp. Although such a position is anti-scientific, the Constitution of the United States of America protects the rights of an individual to believe any article of faith he or she desires, and I am prepared to vigorously defend their right to do so.
One of the prominent, outspoken members of the anti-scientific “article of faith” camp for the origin of life, is evolutionary biologist, Dr. Jerry Coyne, of the University of Chicago. In a 1/14/13 post on his popular Why Evolution is True blog, Dr. Coyne writes: “How the unique properties of life originated from inert matter is still one of the great unsolved problems of biology…Perhaps we’ll never know precisely how life began, for it happened in the distant past and involved chemical reactions that could not fossilize.” Hmmm, if it is such a great mystery, how does Dr. Coyne know that it involved chemical reactions that could not fossilize? As I said, he is a card-carrying member of the “article of faith” camp. Coyne continues: “But I have confidence [that] life originated naturally and not through God’s fiat [and] that we will show this was possible within 50 years or so by demonstrating the evolution of life-like systems in the laboratory under primitive earth conditions.” Coyne clearly mischaracterizes his position on the subject by writing that he has confidence that life originated naturally – by his own admission, origin of life is an unsolved mystery and there is no evidence to support his contention – rather, he has faith that life originated naturally. It is also worth noting that on an earlier blog post dated 3/7/11, Coyne wrote that, “Nope, we don’t yet understand how life originated on Earth… and we may never understand how life originated on Earth, because the traces of early life have vanished…I’m pretty confident that within, say, 50 years we’ll be able to create life in a laboratory under the conditions of primitive Earth.”
That was nearly two years ago Dr. Coyne; that is to say we are now at 48 years and counting. Dr. Robert Shapiro (1935-2011), Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at NYU, was gutsier about his predictions. He wrote in 2006, that the origin of life problem would be solved scientifically within 5 years! It really does seem that atheistic science is sinking in the quicksand. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, only a few minutes away from the Hyde Park neighborhood where the University of Chicago is situated. From my current residence in West Rogers Park I can be in Hyde Park within a half-hour. Dr. Coyne, when you feel you are in it up to your neck, I’m always nearby to throw you a rope.
Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.