Not a Chance
By Dean Overman
people today believe that life on Earth originated as a result of
random accidents. Most of us vaguely recall having heard of scientific
experiments involving mixtures of inanimate materials that are said to
be similar to the "prebiotic soup" that existed before life began. The
mixtures are hit with an electrical spark that simulates a lightning
strike, and amino acids—building blocks of life—result. So we’re
assured that a similar accidental transformation long ago caused life
to originate from non-living matter.
But in fact, recent discoveries in molecular biology, particle
astrophysics, and the geological records raise profound doubts about
all this. Three questions should be investigated: (1) Is it
mathematically possible that accidental processes caused the first form
of living matter? (2) If accident is mathematically impossible as the
cause of the first form of living matter, are other popular scenarios
that matter "self-organized" into life plausible? (3) Is it
mathematically possible that accidental processes caused the formation
of a universe that is compatible with life? In examining these
questions, I will use the widely accepted scientific definition of
life, which holds that living matter processes energy, stores
information, and replicates.
To answer the first question—the likelihood that random accidents
turned inanimate matter into living matter—I will address only the
molecular biological aspects. Consider a calculation by the famous
(atheist) scientist Sir Fred Hoyle. Hoyle understood that even the
simplest living cells are extremely complex, containing many nucleic
acids, enzymes, and molecules all joined together in a very precise
sequence. He calculated the odds of each of 20 amino acids appearing in
the correct sequence to form an enzyme as 1 chance in 1020.
Since the simplest living cell requires 2,000 functioning enzymes, the
odds against the amino acids appearing in the correct sequence for a
living cell were equal to 1 in 1020 × 2,000—or 1 chance in 1040,000. This number is a 1 followed by 40,000 zeros. Because mathematicians normally regard a chance of 1 in 1050
as mathematical impossibility, Hoyle concluded that life could not have
appeared by earthbound random processes, even if the whole universe
consisted of prebiotic soup. His collaborator Chandra Wickramasinghe
put it more dramatically: "The chances that life just occurred are
about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and
constructing a Boeing 747."
To appreciate the size of 1050, consider that if you assume the Big Bang occurred 15 billion years ago, only 1018 seconds have occurred in all of time. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated to be only 1080. Physicist Paul Davies has equated the odds of one chance in 1060
as equal to the odds against hitting a one-inch target with the random,
unaimed shot of a rifle bullet from a distance of 20 billion light
years. One chance in 1040,000 is far beyond mathematical possibility.
Actually the odds of life forming by random processes are even
worse, for several reasons. First, scientists are discovering many
reasons to think that conditions on Earth were not as the prebiotic
soup experiments assume. Second, there is absolutely no physical
evidence for the existence of either the prebiotic soup or many of the
substances the experiments produced. In fact, evidence of prebiotic
soup that should have been left behind in geological records does not exist.
Third, even if amino acids did form in an ancient prebiotic soup, there
are still astronomical odds against those amino acids joining together
to form even very short proteins, much less the dna found in all life.
Worst of all, recent discoveries in the fossil records reveal that
only 130 million years were actually available for life to appear on
Earth by accidental processes. The Earth formed about 4.6 billion years
ago, but was too torrid to support life until about 3.98 billion years
ago. Fossil records discovered recently (particularly in the Istaq
complex in Greenland) show life existed at least 3.85 billion years
ago. That means only 130 million years were available for random
processes to form the first living matter, not the billions of years we
once thought. This makes the odds even more remote that accidental
processes would have produced the first form of living matter. Chance
had no chance to form life.
Our second question concerned the plausibility of current theories
that matter "self-organized" itself into life according to the laws of
physics and chemistry. To understand the idea of
self-organization, we must recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics,
which requires that any system near equilibrium will always move toward
disorder (also known as entropy). Yet sometimes an energy flow can
cause disordered inanimate matter to organize spontaneously into an
ordered system. Consider this example: Picture a bathtub filled with
water where the water molecules are in equilibrium—warmer water is
mixed evenly with cooler water so that the water molecules are all at
an even temperature and distributed in a totally random, unordered
manner. Pulling the drain plug allows the force of gravity to move the
water from this chaotic, random state of equilibrium into an ordered
vortex. This example demonstrates how an energy flow (such as that
derived from the force of gravity) can move a system away from
equilibrium and cause the spontaneous creation of order.
Could a similar sort of self-organization create life? Well, living
matter must contain sufficient complex information (or instructions) to
be able to maintain and replicate itself. Here information theory is
useful, because it allows us to quantify the amount of information in
living and non-living matter in terms of bits and bytes.
The enormous information in living matter involves irregular,
flexible patterns, while inanimate matter never rises above simple,
repeating patterns in its information content. A quartz crystal, for
example, has simple order and replicates, but it has very little
information content and is not alive. By contrast, dna exists in all
living matter and contains a vast amount of information that allows
organisms to replicate and maintain themselves, that is, to live. The
dna for even the smallest single-celled bacterium contains over 4
million instructions. These instructions are encoded in dna’s four
"bases"—the rungs of the famous double helix ladder of dna that are
denoted A, G, C, T. The bases act like a four-letter alphabet for the
genetic process. This process, like the English language, consists of a
code. Acting like sentences, dna instructions pass on the information
needed to form a protein or some other necessity that the living
organism needs in order to replicate or maintain itself.
The problem with self-organization theorists is that the mechanisms
they claim could create life lack any plausible method of generating
the sort of information dna contains. Their scenarios only describe the
formation of order, not complex information. They like
to use the term "complexity" in their work, but all they mean by it is
highly organized, intricate patterns, which is not a definition capable
of distinguishing quartz crystals from rhododendrons or amoebae.
Self-organization scenarios claim that the laws of physics (and the
laws of chemistry they produce) caused the formation of living matter.
But this idea faces a grave obstacle—the simple mathematical fact that
the genetic information contained in even the smallest living organism
is much larger than the information content found in the laws of
physics, as Hubert Yockey, a Manhattan Project physicist, noted in Information Theory and Molecular Biology. Where
did the greater information content of life come from? This fundamental
difficulty has not been addressed by the theorists of self-organization.
Even if we ignore this fundamental mathematical fact, there is also
the problem that the laws of physics only produce regular patterns.
dna—life—requires an irregular pattern to transmit information through
the genetic code. To use an analogy to the code in our written English
language, if I type the letters "abc" repeatedly for 1,000 pages, I
would have a highly ordered, regular, predictable pattern such as a law
of nature would produce. But I would have conveyed very little
information. The Oxford History of the American People, on the
other hand, has an irregular pattern in its alphabet letters, and it
conveys a large amount of information. Similarly, dna varies its
letters A, C, T, G in order to transmit the genetic code.
Flexibility and the lack of a regular, predictable pattern in dna
argue against the existence of an inherent law that controls the
operation of dna. A physical law produces a regular, predictable
pattern, such as the law of gravity produced in the ordered vortex of
water in our bathtub example. If dna were caused by such a law, it
would have a simple repeating sequence (like abcabc) without much
information. And dna would not be capable of transmitting millions of
instructions, as it does in even the simplest living organism.
The Oxford chemist Michael Polanyi recognized this in 1953. Just as
the information contained in a poem is not determined by the chemicals
in the pen used to write the poem, so the information in the genetic
code, although encoded in a four-letter alphabet, is not determined by
the chemical elements of that alphabet.
One can only speculate whether an adequate self-organization theory
will ever be discovered. At present we must conclude that the
information content required in the simplest living form of matter
could not have arisen only from the laws of physics and chemistry.
Let us turn to our third question, which involves particle
astrophysics and the likelihood of a universe forming in such a way as
to be compatible with life. Many proponents of chance as the cause of
life proposed their theories when the universe was believed to be in a
steady state and infinitely old. In an infinite, ageless universe,
anything can happen, but now scientists view the universe as young,
expanding from a definite beginning, and approximately 15 billion years
Contemporary physics has also discovered that the physical universe
appears to be precisely fine tuned in numerous ways that accommodate
the formation of life. At the very outset of the Big Bang, the mass of
the elementary particles, the strength of the four forces, and the
values of the fundamental constants were very precise. Imagine that you
are selecting the values for these natural quantities by twiddling a
vast number of knobs. You would find that almost all knob settings
would render the universe uninhabitable. All these many knobs would
have to be fine tuned to enormous precision if life is to flourish in
|A BEAUTIFUL UNIVERSE
John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist at Cambridge, writes in Beyond Science that
it is mathematics which gives us the key to unlock the
secrets of nature. [The Nobel-laureate physicist] Paul Dirac spent his
life in the search for beautiful equations. That is a concept not all
will find immediately accessible, but among those of us who speak the
language of mathematics, mathematical beauty is a recognizable
quality.… Time and again we have found that it is equations with that
indispensable character of mathematical beauty which describe the
nature of the physical world. If you stop to think about it, that is a
very significant thing to have discovered. After all, mathematics
arises from the free rational exploration of the human mind. Yet it
seems that our minds are so finely tuned to the structure of the
universe that they are capable of penetrating its deepest secrets.
In fact, our universe is so remarkably fine tuned to allow for the
origination of life that one may think of it as a finely sharpened
pencil standing vertically on its graphite point in a precarious
balance. Any deviation in a myriad of physical values would cause the
pencil to tilt, fall, and preclude the formation of life. The fine
tuning is exactly what is required not just for one reason, but for two
or three or five reasons. Accidental processes could not plausibly tune
these fundamental astrophysical values first one way and then another
to satisfy conflicting requirements for the development of life.
There are many examples of this extraordinary fine tuning, but consider only a few:
• Fine tuning in the formation of carbon. Life would be
impossible without carbon, and yet because of the precise requirements
for its existence, the carbon atom should be very scarce. The formation
of a carbon atom requires a rare triple collision known as the triple
alpha process. The first step in this process occurs when a helium
nucleus collides with another helium nucleus within a star. This
collision produces an unstable, very ephemeral isotope of beryllium.
When the unstable, short-lived beryllium collides with a third helium
nucleus, a carbon nucleus is formed. Astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle
predicted the resonances (or energy levels) of the carbon and oxygen
atoms. The resonance of the carbon nucleus is precisely the right
resonance to enable the components to hold together rather than
disperse. This resonance perfectly matches the combined resonance of
the third helium nucleus and the beryllium atom. Hoyle admitted that
his atheism was dramatically disturbed when he calculated the odds
against the precise matching required to form a carbon atom through
this triple alpha process. He said the number he calculated from the
facts is so overwhelming as to put almost beyond question the
conclusion that a superintellect had monkeyed with the laws of physics.
• Explosive power of Big Bang precisely matched to the force of gravity. Physicist
Paul Davies calculated that the matching of the explosive force of the
Big Bang and gravity had to match to one part in 1060. If the explosive
force were only slightly higher, the universe would consist of gas
without stars or planets. If the force were reduced by one part in a
thousand billion, the universe would have collapsed back to a singular
point after a few million years.
• Fine tuning in the strong and weak nuclear force. The
strong force which binds the particles in an atom’s nucleus must be
balanced with the weak nuclear force to a degree of one part in 1060.
If the strong force were any weaker, atomic nuclei could not hold
together and only hydrogen would exist. If the strong force were only
slightly stronger, hydrogen would be an unusual element, the Sun would
not exist, water would not exist, and the heavier elements necessary
for life would not be available.
• Fine tuning of electromagnetic force and ratio of electron mass to proton mass and proton mass to neutron mass. Any
deviation in the strength of the electromagnetic force would also
preclude the molecular formation necessary for life. The
electromagnetic force must be precisely balanced with the ratio of
electron mass to proton mass. The proton is 1,836 times heavier than
the electron. This fundamental ratio must be very finely adjusted to
make life possible. Moreover, the mass of the proton and the mass of
the neutron are meticulously balanced. The emergence of life depended
on an astounding precision among the masses of these three particles.
• Fine tuning of the order at the initial Big Bang. The
Second Law of Thermodynamics requires that disorder in the universe
tends toward a maximum. Because the universe could not have been
dissipating from infinity or it would have run down, it must have had a
beginning—a very highly ordered beginning. If the Big Bang is regarded
as only an impressive accident, there is no explanation why it produced
a universe with such a high degree of order, contrary to the Second
Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose calculated that at the very
beginning of the Big Bang, the precision required to set the universe
on its highly ordered course in which life could develop was
staggering: "an accuracy of one part in 1010123." Penrose adds, "This
is an extraordinary figure. One could not possibly even write the
number down in full, in the ordinary denary notation; it would be 1 followed by 10123 successive 0s! Even if we were to write a 0
on each separate proton and on each separate neutron in the entire
universe—and we could throw in all the other particles as well for good
measure—we should fall far short of writing down the figure needed."
• Fine tuning in the precision between counter-intuitive abstract mathematics and the physical world. An
accidental universe cannot explain the astounding agreement between
abstract mathematics and the laws of the physical world. Abstract
mathematics have predicted counter-intuitive phenomena to a remarkable
precision. For example, the agreement between the counter-intuitive
theory of general relativity and the physical world has been confirmed
by experience to more than one-trillionth of a percent. Precision to
this degree cannot be explained by chance alone. Similarly, the
strange, unseen, counter-intuitive subatomic world of quantum mechanics
matches the predictions of abstract mathematics to a remarkable degree.
Our minds seem to be finely tuned to the structure of the universe.
This fine tuning cannot be understood as a curious spin-off from the
need of our ancestors to dodge a wild animal.
Because the mathematical probabilities against life arising by
accident are so overwhelming in our universe, some scientists are
attracted to the concept of an "oscillating" universe in which, crudely
put, there is an infinite cycle of Big Bangs and Big Crunches as the
universe expands and contracts. This would permit an infinite number of
beginnings. Since infinity can be used to explain almost anything, a
person displeased with the unlikeliness of an accident causing life to
form may grasp at any opportunity to bring infinity into the picture.
Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, however, have demonstrated that the
gravitational force in a collapsing universe would produce a Big Crunch
that would be totally chaotic, and the entropy at the Crunch would be
so large that it would preclude another expansion.
There are other abstruse theories that try to concoct similar
scenarios in which the universe didn’t begin in the Big Bang but
somehow always existed. Those who put such theories forward implicitly
recognize that if the universe did have a beginning and did arise out
of nothing, then something must have caused it. I deal with these
theories in my book A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, where I show that they suffer from the same sort of physical and logical difficulties as the oscillating universe theory.
In sum, the case against chance as the cause of life is satisfied
completely by the probabilities involved in the fine tuning of particle
astrophysics. When one couples these probabilities with the molecular
biological probabilities we’ve considered, the compounded calculation
wipes the idea of accident entirely out of court.
Nor does a plausible self-organization theory exist. The answer to
the question of life’s formation will not be found in the laws of
physics and chemistry, because life transcends those laws in the vast
information it possesses and in the irregular flexible patterns it uses
to convey this information. The physical sciences, in short, lead us to
conclude that life is more than a physical thing, which means we should
be open-minded about the possibility that other fields of study can
teach us something about the origin and meaning of life.
Dean Overman is a lawyer who has taught at the University of
Virginia and served in the Ford administration. The author of several
books, he was appointed as a visiting scholar at Harvard for the
purpose of writing his latest book, A Case Against Accident and Self-organization.
THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1998