The Origin of Life
Explaining how life began is the biggest unsolved question in science today.
The raging water screamed down the narrow canyon in torrents. The dark rocky landscape was momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightening followed by rolling thunder. But there were none to observe it; not an animal, bird, insect nor any living organism. The world was lifeless, as was the entire universe.
And then, something remarkable happened: life began. A mix of lifeless chemicals became alive. But how? This is the biggest unsolved question in science today. Scientists have a well formulated theory that explains much of the mystery of how the universe began, but when it comes to the origin of life, they do not have a clue.
Scientists have many (conflicting) ideas of the circumstances surrounding the origin of life, but there is no scientific theory of how it actually began. For example, one idea is that a mix of lifeless molecules in a warm pond spontaneously sparked life, perhaps precipitated by a stroke of lightening. This ignores the fact that a stroke of lightening is more likely to destroy any organic compound that might be present rather than make it come alive. Another idea is that life began near deep sea thermal vents. All these ideas, each without evidence, address the question of where life might have formed and what the required energy source might have been, but they do not address the question of how did lifeless molecules become a living organism? That is the ultimate mystery.
One of the things that I discovered early in my research on this topic was a website for the “Origin of Life Prize” (the web site no longer exists). There was a $1,000,000 prize offered to anyone who could come up with a scientific theory describing in detail how life began. The website explained that the prize was suspended on October 26, 2013 because over a period of thirteen years, since the prize was first announced in the prestigious scientific journals Nature and Science, not a single submission was approved by the screening judges to be passed on to higher level judges. The website goes on to say that all origin-of-life literature either “ignored” the key issue or “deliberately swept it under the rug”. The key issue described by the website was “How did pre-biotic nature prescribe or program the first genome” [italics mine]. The genome is the DNA of an organism. It is essentially a list of instructions, much like a computer program, that encodes every detail of a living thing. This would include the kind of organism (e.g., an E. coli bacterium, a rose, a monarch butterfly, a crocodile or a human) as well as specifics such as color, size, strength, intelligence, etc.
The structure of DNA consists of a sequence of smaller molecules called base pairs or nucleotides that are linked together to form a long molecular chain, sometimes billions of base pairs long. In most cases, two such molecular chains are linked together to form a double helix. The choice of specific base pairs and the order in which they are linked is critical for this long molecule to define a living organism. If the sequence of base pairs is random, the results will be a molecule that does not define anything, much like a random sequence of letters contains no information. Even if only one base pair out of billions in the DNA of an organism is incorrect, the resultant organism is likely to be fatally flawed. This is substantiated by the fact that a multitude of serious or fatal diseases (e.g., ovarian, colon and breast cancer, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease and certain types of diabetes) are caused by a single error in the human genome, which is over 3 billion base pairs long.
It follows that the key question concerning the origin of life is, how did a meaningful DNA form spontaneously from a random selection of base pairs, even assuming the base pairs were somehow available in the environment? Clearly, it is theoretically possible that the required base pairs could link together in the correct order to form the DNA of some viable organism just by chance. The issue is, what is the probability of that happening somewhere in the universe any time since creation?
Many comments made by highly regarded scientists indicate that the probability of DNA forming spontaneously is very small. Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle is reported to have compared this probability to “the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boing 747.” Similarly, Belgian biochemist and Nobel Prize laureate Christian René de Duve, when referring to the spontaneous genesis of RNA (similar to DNA but with only a single chain of base pairs), called for a rejection of events with such miniscule probabilities that they may be called miracles and are not amenable to scientific inquiry. Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the helix structure of DNA referred to the origin of life as “almost a miracle.”
Consider this: If I were to mix up a very large pot of alphabet soup (the kind that you might find in a commercial kitchen) and pour it out onto the floor, what is the probability that thousands of letters would line up in a long linear sequence? And that the letters would form correctly spelled words? And that the sequence of words would have correct syntax and make sense? The probability of this all occurring is clearly exceedingly small and it is theoretically (but impractically) computable. With DNA, we are dealing with thousands to billions of “letters” and minute errors are usually fatal!
It seemed that in order to really understand the problem of DNA forming spontaneously, I would have to accurately compute the probability of such an event taking place by chance. Fortunately, having worked for the US Department of Defense as a Senior Cryptologic Mathematician for 28 years, I possessed the necessary skills to make such a computation. I started by considering the virus Phi-X-174 which infects the E. Coli bacteria. Its DNA has a little more than 5,000 links (base pairs) and it is the shortest, meaningful DNA known to exist. It is also simpler than most DNA because its structure forms a single helix (like RNA) instead of a double one.
In addition to calculating the probability of the DNA of Phi-X-174 assembling itself by chance, it was also necessary to account for the fact that potentially, other similarly small and viable DNA might theoretically exist, even if they are not found on Earth or anywhere else. Furthermore, such a spontaneously created DNA would have many places in this vast universe where it might have had its genesis, and much time to do so; according to the latest science, some 13.8 billion years. The calculation yielded a probability that is incredibly small; it has 3,999 zeros to the right of the decimal point! This probability far exceeds any standards of significance used in any of the sciences. It is as unlikely as a person playing Russian roulette 50,517 times and surviving! (Russian Roulette consists of spinning the cylinder of a six-chamber revolver containing one bullet, pointing it at one’s head and pulling the trigger.) Would anyone believe that someone had done it and survived? Would any sane person try it? After all, the odds of surviving only six trials are about two to one. Imagine what the odds are after 50,517 trials! (If you are having trouble imagining it, you are not alone. The odds would be represented by the word “trillion” written 333 times followed by “to 1”.) These odds are the same odds as the DNA of Phi-X-174 or a similarly sized viral DNA forming spontaneously anywhere in the universe since the beginning of time.
It is important to note that DNA, by itself, is totally nonfunctional. It is like a phone app without a phone. In most natural environments, it cannot even maintain its complex structure before disassembling. In a living cell, the DNA is protected inside the nucleus. In a virus, it requires a sheath of proteins to protect it and to insert it into a living cell so that it can reproduce. For Phi-X-174, this protective sheath consists of 192 proteins made up of 42,276 amino acids (the simple building blocks of proteins). Were we to include the required genesis of this sheath in the calculation of the probability of the DNA of Phi-X-174 forming by chance, we would have to include another infinitesimally small factor; one with 26,589 zeros to the right of the decimal point!
The probability of the origin of life having been a natural chemical event is so small, that it tells us that it is illogical to assume that it was. Yet, DNA-based life does exist!
For all practical purposes, the spontaneous formation of the simplest viral DNA anywhere in the universe since the beginning of time is impossible. This is true even without accounting for other factors that make the probability even smaller, such as the fact that DNA cannot possibly form inside stars, on planets that are too close to a galactic center or in the intergalactic medium. This conclusion prompted organic chemist and molecular biologist Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith to write, “But, you may say, with all the time in the world, and so much world, the right combination of circumstances would happen sometime? Is that not plausible? The answer is no, there was not enough time, and there was not enough world”.
The scientific question concerning the origin of life thus remains. There is no scientific answer to the question, nor can there be, because it represents an intractable mathematical conundrum. The probability of the origin of life having been a natural chemical event is so small, that it tells us that it is illogical to assume that it was. Yet, DNA-based life does exist! Our conclusion is that it did not happen by chance. The only alternative is that it happened by design.
In 1952, American chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey built a chamber that contained a simulated pre-biotic atmosphere within it. They passed electrical sparks through this mixture of chemicals to simulate lightning and were successful in causing the spontaneous formation of amino acids, the simple building blocks of proteins. Two years later, American biologist and Nobel Prize laureate George Wald wrote an article in Scientific American expressing the view that it was just a matter of time before the fundamental structures of life, such as RNA, DNA and proteins, would be spontaneously created in simulated pre-biotic conditions in a laboratory as well. In the article, Wald wrote that the hero of the origin of life was time. Since life had billions of years to develop, what we would consider impossible based on our everyday experience, is not only possible, but even probable or “virtually certain” and that “Time performs the miracle.”
Wald’s expectations that proteins, RNA or DNA would be produced spontaneously in pre-biotic conditions in a laboratory were not met. This was so even though the experiments were arranged so as to vastly reduce the time that would normally be required for the desired result. Sixty-two years after writing that article, no one has succeeded. In 1979, an introduction to a collection of Scientific American articles entitled Life: Origin and Evolution which included Wald’s article, stated that although his article was stimulating, it was “one of the very few times in his professional life where Wald has been wrong”. After much of a life time analyzing the molecular structures of living organisms, Wald had a change of heart. Writing in the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry in 1984, he explained that “with some shock to my scientific sensibilities”, he had concluded that a magnificent “mind” had created the universe and life. Perhaps it was the realization that there was not nearly enough time, nor enough space in the universe to spontaneously produce anything resembling the simplest viral DNA.
But what kind of “mind” can Wald be referring to? If it existed before any life and before the creation of physical reality, then it is not a physical being or mind as we know it. Rather, it must be the supreme Intelligence ̶ the Creator that created both a universe that is designed to support the existence of life, as well as life itself.
This article is adapted from the book, The Cosmic Puzzle: A Scientific Investigation into the Existence of God by Harold Gans (Feldheim Associates, 2020). Click here to order.