This new video from the Discovery Institute is a clear and concise explanation of why we should doubt the power of random mutations and natural selection to build new, functional information content in DNA. Here are some excerpts, but watch the whole video (below) to see the helpful way they illustrate the truth of this:
According to modern evolutionary theory, new proteins and new forms of animal life arise through random genetic mutations, sifted by natural selection. But in an alphabetic text or a section of computer code, random changes typically degrade meaning, or functionality, and ultimately generate gibberish.
STEPHEN MEYER: “As we've come to appreciate the digital or typographic character of genetic information…it raises some really interesting questions about the efficacy of that mutation-driven mechanism…. If you start making random changes to a section of computer code, you're much more likely to degrade the information that's there already than you are to come up with a new operating system or program.” …
Scientists in the 1960s didn't know how many of [the possible arrangements of amino acids] were actually functional…. That didn't stop evolutionary biologists from speculating. Many argued that there must be a high proportion of functional sequences among all possible sequences so that a random search for a new functional sequence would have a high probability of success.
STEPHEN MEYER: “The way they did that is to say, well maybe biological sequences are…not nearly as picky about which characters are where as written language is or as computer code is…. Maybe proteins don't really care which amino acid is where and there’s a great deal of variability, and therefore you can have the same function performed by a huge number of protein chains and a huge number of genes.”
But recent experiments in molecular biology and protein science have replaced speculation with data. These experiments have established that DNA-based sequences capable of making functional proteins are, in fact, extremely rare among the vast number of possible sequences….
For even a single functioning protein fold to arise, the mutation selection mechanism would have time to search just a tiny fraction of the total number of relevant sequences—one ten-trillion-trillion-trillionth of the total possibilities. It follows that it is overwhelmingly likely that a random mutational search would have failed to produce even one new functional protein fold in the entire history of life on Earth.
[I]t insults our intelligence to be enjoined to believe, now that we have split the atom, discovered the Higgs Boson, and sent a probe to Pluto, in the veracity of a supernatural account of the origins of our cosmos.
What’s your response to this objection? Give us your ideas in the comments below, and we’ll hear Tim’s response on Thursday.
The origin of life is a mystery that has plagued origin of life researchers trying to find a naturalistic explanation. Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of the DNA molecule, said, “The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”
These are very telling words from an atheist. Of course, when Crick speaks of the beginning of life from non-life as almost a miracle, he is speaking of the incomprehensible improbability of getting the first life by chance.
What exactly are some of these conditions that had to be satisfied? Allow me to demonstrate. But to do this, you need to understand a little bit of biology.
All living things are made of cells. The simplest forms of life have only a single cell, while human beings have over one hundred trillion cells. Next, all cells are made of proteins. Proteins perform specific functions in each of our cells. Some act like tiny machines, while others act as structural components. Finally, each protein is made of a chain of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. They join together into long chains that eventually fold into the functional protein.
Scientists believe the simplest form of life has a minimum of 250 to 400 proteins, and each protein is made of (on average) 300 to 400 amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids that make up all of life.
What I would like to do is calculate the probability of building one functionalprotein with only 150 amino acids by chance alone. But right out of the gate we encounter our first problem. It turns out that amino acids come in two forms: left-handed and right-handed. However, all of life is composed of left-handed amino acids. If one right-handed amino finds its way into your amino acid chain, then our protein is ruined. This is a well-known problem in biology called the chirality problem.
You might be thinking, what’s the probability of getting 150 left-handed amino acids in a row? Given that the odds of getting a left-handed amino acid are 50%, the probability of getting 150 left-handed amino acids is (½)^150 or 1 chance in 10^45. This is the same probability of flipping a coin 150 times in a row and getting heads every time.
There’s another problem. Imagine you get all 150 left-handed amino acids in one place. You still need to bond them together with peptide bonds. However, not all bonds are peptide bonds. In fact, molecular bonds are grouped into two categories: peptide and non-peptide. The odds of getting a peptide bond are also 50%. Therefore, the probability of getting 149 peptide bonds between adjacent left-handed amino acids is (½)^149, or again 1 chance in 10^45. This is the same probability of flipping a coin 149 times in a row and getting heads every time. We could call this the bonding problem.
But wait, there’s more. The final problem is even more daunting than either the chirality problem or the bonding problem. It’s called the sequence problem. Amino acids are like a 20-character chemical alphabet. Each amino acid must be in a specific order, or we don’t get an amino acid sequence that folds into a functional protein. So, the specific order of the individual amino acids matters. Information scientists refer to this as specified complexity, or specified information.
At each site you have 20 different amino acids to choose from. When you do the math, there are 10^195 total possible ways one can construct a protein composed of 150 amino acids. The question is, how many of those arrangements are actually functional? Doug Axe at Cambridge University has determined that the probability of getting a functional protein from all of the total possible proteins is 1 in 10^74.
Think of it this way. Using the letters G, O, and D, you can create 27 possible three-letter words. However, only four make an actual meaningful sequence (i.e. DOG, GOD, GOO, ODD). That means if you put these letters in a bag and drew three at random, the odds of picking an actual three-letter word out of all the possible three-letter words are approximately 1 in 7.
Taking these three problems together, we can calculate the probability of building our very modest functional protein to be 1 in 10^164. Remember, this is only one protein, and life requires hundreds of proteins.
Here is an analogy to help you appreciate this incomprehensible improbability. Imagine I put all the elementary particles in the universe in a jar—that is, every proton, neutron, and electron goes into a universe-sized jar. Next, I mark them all blue except for one green particle. Finally, I blindfold you, put a gun to your head, and ask you to pick out the green particle, or I pull the trigger.
The odds of picking the green particle while blindfolded are 1 in 10^80. Of course, the odds of picking any particle are the same. However, it is vastly more probable that you would pick a blue, life-prohibiting particle than the one, green, life-permitting particle.
To make this analogy even more accurate, you would have to pick that green particle, twice in a row, blindfolded. If you indeed picked the green particle twice in a row, the rational person should conclude that you cheated. You peeked. You designed the outcome for your survival. Design is the best explanation. In the same way, the best explanation of the origin of the first protein and of life is a Designer.
Is it any wonder that the famous atheist, Antony Flew, upon learning about this information came to believe in God? In a letter in the August-September issue of Britain’s Philosophy Now magazine, Flew wrote, “It has become inordinately difficult even to begin to think about constructing a naturalistic theory of the evolution of that first reproducing organism.”
A common question that comes up after I give my talk titled Why I Am Not an Evolutionist is, “If there are so many good scientific arguments against evolution, why is it so widely believed?”
I recently came across an article by Dr. William Lane Craig where he responds to this exact question. In his brilliant response he makes two key observations, which I will highlight here.
First, Dr. Craig points outs that the mainstream acceptance of the theory of evolution is not for scientific reasons; it’s accepted for philosophical reasons. More specifically, it’s believed because of a commitment to methodological naturalism. Craig says:
I think the short answer is that it’s the best naturalistic theory we’ve got. If, as a result of methodological naturalism, the pool of live explanatory options is limited to naturalistic hypotheses, then, at least until recently, the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution driven by the mechanisms of genetic mutation and natural selection was, as Alvin Plantinga puts it,the only game in town.” [Emphasis mine.]
Methodological naturalism simply means that scientists must assume philosophical naturalism—only natural causes exist—when doing science. Of course, this assumption excludes all supernatural explanations a priori. Therefore, for anyone holding to methodological naturalism, creationism and intelligent design are not on the table as possible explanations. Even if all the scientific evidence pointed away from evolution and towards intelligent design, they would still need to cling to the theory of evolution because it’s the only possible naturalistic explanation. It’s the only game in town.
Second, Craig offers a helpful reminder. He says, “It’s helpful to remind ourselves that the word ‘evolution’ is an accordion word that can be expanded or contracted to suit the occasion.”
Evolution is an equivocal word. This means that it can have more than one meaning. For instance, it can mean anything from simple, biological change over time—change in allele frequency—to universal, common descent of all organisms from a single, common ancestor. The former is accepted by virtually everyone, including the staunchest young earth creationist. The latter, on the other hand, has many highly qualified biologists questioning whether the mechanism of natural selection acting on random mutations is up to the task.
So when the question arises as to why evolution is so widely believed, we need to find out what the questioner means by evolution. In one sense, evolution is believed because it’s true; organisms change over time. In another sense, it’s believed because it’s the only theory in play given their commitment to methodological naturalism.
So while evolution in an innocuous sense is well-established, belief in evolution in [other senses] is not universal among scientists, and the dominance of neo-Darwinism heretofore is due to the constraints of methodological naturalism and the want of a better naturalistic alternative.
In this short video from the Discovery Institute, Paul Nelson follows the development of a C. elegans worm from one cell to an adult, showing how “even these little worms, a millimeter long, humble little creatures out there in the compost heap…carry the signal of design unmistakably.”
The successful creation of a live C. elegans requires many intermediate cell divisions, yet the temporary cells created by these intermediate cell divisions play no functional role in the adult worm whatsoever. Instead, they merely serve as stepping stones in a long journey that will eventually reach a functional organism at its conclusion. But natural selection can’t select a future function; it can only select features that are advantageous already.
If something's going to function in natural selection, it's got to function now, at this particular moment in time—not five minutes from now, half an hour, a week, a thousand years. So a process that lacks foresight in principle cannot build a[n] unfolding trajectory, an unfolding lineage [of intermediate cells], where you need to know the target. That's the fundamental difficulty for any undirected process of evolution.
What natural selection and other undirected natural mechanisms cannot achieve, intelligent agents can. Intelligent agents are able to foresee distant functional goals. Intelligent agents can coordinate and choreograph the assembly of many separately necessary parts to achieve a functional end.
When I look at animal development, I see a trajectory. It’s, in a sense, the quintessential end-directed or teleological process in nature. You’re pulling back that bowstring, and you’ve got a target over there fifty yards away, and you want to put that arrow right in the middle of that target. You need to know what you're aiming at and why, and for that you need a mind.
In a conversation on Edge.org, historian Yuval Noah Harari discussed how society may change in the future due to advances in technology. He foresees a time of social change and unrest when the elite can afford advanced medicine (possibly even achieving eternal life on earth, he says) and the poor are left farther and farther behind. He compares his predicted social problems to the upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution:
What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant [in dealing with the results of the Industrial Revolution]. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur'an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur'an. You had religious movements all over the world….
Eventually, people came up with new ideas, not from the Sharia, and not from the Bible, and not from some vision. People studied industry, they studied coal mines, they studied electricity, they studied steam engines, railroads, they looked at how these developments transformed the economy and society, and they came up with some new ideas.
New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.
When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive….
[T]he assumption, deeply ingrained in our intelligentsia, that everything depends on finding the most modern and “scientific” alternative to older verities has been tested repeatedly — with mostly dire results. The 19th-century theories that cast themselves as entirely new and modern were the ones that devastated the 20th century, loosing fascism and Marxism on the world.
Which makes Harari’s concluding provocation feel like an unintended warning: “In terms of ideas, in terms of religions,” he argues, “the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East.” It’s in Silicon Valley that people are “creating new religions” — techno-utopian, trans-humanist — and it’s those religions “that will take over the world.”
He could be right. But if those new ideas are anything like the ones that troubled the 20th century, we may find ourselves looking to older ones for rescue soon enough.
I posted a quote last week from an atheist who warned that science can be used to promote a wide variety of values: “There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley [who argued for eugenics based on science].” Anyone looking to technology to lead our society as a “new religion” will eventually find it can’t be counted on to create and uphold beliefs in intrinsic human value, universal human rights, or even compassion. By its very nature, it’s not capable of that.
Humanity is what it is. Read Shakespeare and you’ll find you can relate, even though he lacked your technology. Even if I didn’t think Christianity is true, it would still seem to me that wisdom about ethics and human flourishing is more likely to reside in the time-tested ideas that built thousands of years of civilization than in something brand new.