Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Origins of Life

The Origins of Life
One reason why I know there is a God active in our world.
by Dr. Gerald Schroeder

Three facts, agreed upon by skeptics and believers alike, cry out for explanation: the existence of our universe; the existence of life having arisen from seemingly non-living, inert matter built of protons, neutrons and electrons; and the emergence of consciousness, sentience, self-awareness in that life which has arisen from the seemingly non-living, inert matter.

So unlikely are those last two facts that Richard Dawkins, the most quoted and outspoken of skeptics, attributes the origins of life and consciousness to "luck" (The God Delusion; Bantam Press 2006; London; p. 141). His conclusion for the source of that luck: the laws of nature are fine tuned for favoring life (ibid; p145, 146). In truth, the laws of nature are ideal for supporting life though this tells us nothing regarding the parameters required for the start of life.

Torah obviously attributes the explanation for all three facts, as well as for the fine tuning of the laws of nature, to the will and wisdom of our Divine Creator. Science opts for the luck of the draw. It is well to recall that the late Francis Crick who shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Wilkins for their discovery of the structure of DNA, attributed the possible origin of life on earth to the deliberate seeding of life on earth, so unlikely and so rapidly was the appearance of life on earth. He termed the process directed panspermia. Crick shortly before his death described his life philosophy as an agnostic with a prejudice toward atheism. For Crick, as with Dawkins, there seems to be no logical solution to the puzzle of life's origin.

Let's investigate what it takes to make life in our magnificent universe.
Our cosmic genesis in a nut shell:

Big Gang creation of energy >> matter >> life >> brain >> mind & sentience
How could the energy of the big bang become a sentient mind? A study of the origins of sentient life does not start with a search for the clues on planet earth. That is far too far along in the saga. A proper study begins, exactly as does the Bible, with the very beginning, with the big bang creation of the universe.

The most fundamental issue in the God/no God debate is existence of a universe. We would do well to ponder the puzzle of why there is existence. Unfortunately, by the time we are old enough to even contemplate the wonder of existence, we've been around so long that we just take the fact of existence for granted. But think about it. Why is there anything? Why is there a universe within which life may or may not have evolved, developed, rather than nothing? It has been said quite accurately that the difference between nothing (as before the big bang creation) and something (the existence of our universe) is infinite.

"Even if we scientists eventually attain a ‘theory of everything,' we will still be left with the question of ‘why?'"
In a refreshing expression of intellectual honesty, Nobel laureate and theoretical physicist, (and marvelous human as well) Steven Weinberg, an avid atheist who unabashedly states that "the moral influence of religion has been awful" and further that any "signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden," also tells us that even if we scientists eventually attain a ‘theory of everything,' "we will still be left with the question of ‘why?' ... So there seems to be an irreducible mystery that science will not eliminate" [1].

Once past the conundrum, or more candidly stated, once we decide to ignore that deepest of puzzles, we can concentrate on the big bang creation. Just what did the big bang produce?

Science posits that the big bang was the beginning of time and space. But what about matter? That is considerably more enlightening, literally. The big bang did not produce matter as we know it, not any of the 92 elements such as carbon and oxygen, and not the protons, neutrons or electrons that would eventually combine to make the atoms of those elements. By a fraction of a microsecond following the creation, the primary material product of the big bang was concentrated as exquisitely intense energy. There are many types of energy, but the form most manifest microseconds after the creation was electro-magnetic radiation -- in simplistic terms, something akin to super powerful light beams. Then, within the first few moments following the creation, as the universe raced outward, stretching space, a transition took place, a transition the basis for which was discovered by Albert Einstein and quantified in that most famous of equations, E = mc2, of energy condensing into the form of matter. A minute fraction of those light beams of energy metamorphosed and became the lightest of elements, primarily the gases of hydrogen and helium. Over eons of time, mutual gravitational forces pulled those primordial gases into galaxies of stars. The immense pressures within the stellar cores crushed the nuclei of hydrogen together, fusing them to form heavier elements and in doing so, releasing the vast amounts of energy we see as starlight. These forces of fusion coupled with those of stellar explosions, supernovae, yielded the 92 elements that eventually on planet earth became alive and sentient. All this built of the light-like energy of the creation. Now that is a cause for wonder.

Light beams became alive, and not only became alive, but acquired the ability to wonder, became self-aware. The wonder is not whether this genesis took six days or 14 billion years or even eternity. The wonder is that it happened. Of that fact there is no debate in science. According to our best understanding of the universe and equally according to the most ancient commentaries on The Book of Genesis, there was only one physical creation. Science refers to it as the big bang. The Bible calls it the creation. Every physical object in this vast universe, including our human bodies, is built of the light of creation.

To elucidate the awesome and humbling implications of this incredible transition of light into life, consider the following better understood transition. In one hand I hold a clear glass jar containing the gas oxygen. In my other hand I hold a jar of hydrogen gas. I study the chemistry of these two gases and discover that under the correct conditions, they can combine to make water, H2O. Water neither looks nor acts like oxygen and hydrogen, but it is. When we drink water we are drinking hydrogen and oxygen in a very special combination. In parallel, we humans and all the matter we see about us may not look like the condensed energy of the big bang creation, but we are.

We humans and all the matter we see about us may not look like the condensed energy of the big bang creation, but we are.
Einstein's famous equation does not mean that the energy disappears and matter takes its place. No, not at all. What that equation states is that energy can change form and take on the characteristics of matter, just as the hydrogen and oxygen remain hydrogen and oxygen even as they change form when they combine to form water. We are made of the light creation, and no scientist will argue against this. It's not new age talk, or guru wishing. It's established scientific reality. We, our bodies, were part of the creation.

The discoveries in the 1970's by Elso Barghoorn of Harvard University demonstrated that life began as early as can be geologically recorded. The oldest rocks that can bear fossils already have fossils of microbes, some caught in the act of mitosis, cell division. By the time that the earliest layers of sedimentary rock appeared on earth, nature had already invented life with its ability to survive and reproduce, to store and decipher information. DNA, with its potential to condense a vast molecular library of information within microns of space, was in place and operating. This extraordinary feat of invention and fabrication is recoded in those ancient sediments.

On the primordial, pre-biotic Earth, there were likely vast numbers of molecules forming and disintegrating. One of them succeeded in climbing the ladder of complexity and became alive. And most wondrous of all, tucked within that fecund molecule that eventually led to the first life, following a myriad of unimagined mutations, was the ability to reproduce. Not only to reproduce, but to do so with some variations in structure. Identical reproduction yields stasis, as a copying machine. What was needed and that which nature produced was a molecule that could reproduce and change, somehow borrowing resources from its immediate environment, until it became a cell. But reproduction is purpose driven, the continuation of the line. That pre-biotic molecule, whether by design or by dumb luck, had purpose within from its inception.

Life appeared with purpose already as part of its birthright.
Logically, the first compound that would eventually lead to the earliest life must have had the ability to reproduce. If it did not, then as its molecular machinery degraded, it would disintegrate. Any beneficial mutations that might have accumulated during its span of existence would have been lost and the trek toward cellular life would then have had to begin again, de novo. Life appeared with purpose already as part of its birthright. This simple undisputed fact is extraordinary.
Even the so-called simpler forms of life, such as microbes, are overwhelmingly complex. The mechanisms of cellular function when studied in detail are not only mind-boggling. They are essentially identical in all forms of life, be it animal, plant, bacterial or fungal. The likelihood that this complexity could have been chanced upon even once is vanishingly small. Having it arise independently twice by chance is essentially an impossibility. All life must have had a single common origin. But what was that origin?

Could that miraculous flow from inanimate matter to the incredible intricacy of life have been the result of purely random events? Is the incredible not necessarily the impossible?

The pitfall in answering the question lies in the misplaced assumption that chance random events can produce the ordered complexity of life.
It is time to lay to rest the misguided, but popularly believed un-truth that in our world, gradual, step by step random mutations could have climbed the mountain of improbability and produced the magnificent abundance of the Earth's biosphere. To accomplish this goal requires a modicum of elementary arithmetic, some basic high school level biology and a touch of astronomy. But it is worth the effort to bury once and for all the ill-conceived, but often unquestioned assumption that random mutations produced life or anything even tenuously related to life.

Stephen Hawking in his A Brief History Of Time, the most widely sold science book ever written, taught the world about the potential power of random events to produce meaningful complex order, such as is found in a work of literature. "It is a bit like the well known hordes of monkeys hammering away on typewriters. Most of what they write will be garbage but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare's sonnets." It is a compelling adage but totally off base at least within our universe, and it is life in our universe about which we are concerned. I am surprised the Prof Hawking would have let this slip occur.

I don't know many sonnets. In fact when I thought about this, I only knew the opening line of one, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." There are a bit fewer than 500 letters in that sonnet [All Shakespeare's sonnets are about the same length; all by definition 14 lines long.] Can we get a sonnet by chance? If Hawking says so, it must be true.

But is it?

Let's consider 500 grab bags each holding the 26 letters of the English language. I reach into the first bag blindfolded and pull out a letter. The likelihood that it will be ‘s' for the first letter of the sonnet is one chance in 26. The likelihood that in the initial two draws from the first two bags I will get an ‘s' and then an ‘h' is one chance in 26 times 26. And so on for the 500 letters. Neglecting spaces between the words, the chance of getting entire sonnet by chance is 26 multiplied by itself 500 times. That seems as if it may be a fairly big number. And it is. Surprisingly so. That number comes out to be a one with 700 zeroes after it. In conventional math terms, it is 10700 or 10 to the exponent power of 700.

Chance does not produce intelligible text and certainly not a sonnet, not in our universe.
To give a sense of scale for reference, the known universe, including all forms of matter and energy, weighs in the order of 1056 grams; the number of basic particles in the known universe is 1080; the age of the universe from our perspective of time, 1018 seconds. Convert all the universe into micro-computers each weighing a billionth of a gram and run each of those computers billions of times a second non-stop from the beginning of time and we still will need greater than 10500 universes, or that much more time for even a remote probability of getting a sonnet; any meaningful sonnet. Chance does not produce intelligible text and certainly not a sonnet, not in our universe.

So why do persons, without questioning, accept that chance can do it all? The reason is distressingly simple. If you are fed from your earliest learning the saga that unguided random reactions produced life, then arguing from the major to the minor, certainly you'll believe the un-truth that sonnets will come popping out of your random letter generator.
A proverb that is actually true, and is worthy of repeating, states: the song a sparrow learns in its youth is its song for life. And we humans, at our deepest emotional level, are not so very different. That which you learn in your youth is with you for life. And we all learned that Darwin got it all right, not withstanding that the article in the world's premier peer reviewed science journal, Science, "Did Darwin get it all right?' had the subtitle that unfortunately he did not. [2]

And yet here we are on a beautiful Earth brimming with life. From the scorching 100o C plus waters of thermal vents to the frigidity of the Antarctic ice, from Sun-soaked Saharan deserts to the blackness of the oceanic abyssal depths, life has staked out its habitat. Life is hearty. It has proven itself to be so. But by random reactions it did not start.

Statistics reveal the numerical paucity for randomness being the source of the stable order evidenced in life. The Torah brings the same information in the subtle wording of "And there was evening and there was morning," the closing phrase of each of the six days of the first Genesis week. Since the Sun is mentioned only on day four (though the ancient commentaries tell us that the Sun was there earlier but only became visible in the sky on the fourth day), Nahmanides realizes that there must be a deeper meaning to the words, evening and morning. Evening means sunset. Morning means sunrise. No Sun, no sunset and no sunrise. So how can the Bible justify the statement that "there was evening and there was morning" on those earlier days prior to the Sun being mentioned on day four?

Almost a millennium ago, Nahmanides brought the solution to the quandary. As the Sun sets, he teaches, vision becomes blurry, mixed. Accordingly, he teaches that the root or implied meaning of the word usually translated as evening, erev, is mixture, chaos. The implied meaning of the word usually translated as morning, boker, is just the opposite. As the Sun rises, vision becomes clear, orderly. Individual objects and colors can be discerned. The implied meaning of boker has within it the concept of order. The flow in simple terms is from PM to AM. But in deeper meaning, a far more significant truth is taught, six times over, at each day's conclusion. There was a remarkable flow, contrary to that which is normally observed in an unguided nature. Normally, in all events, order degrades to disorder. That is why leaves decay on the ground and a cup of hot tea becomes cool as it remains on a table. But in this particular part of the universe, the opposite occurred and the Torah emphasizes this six times over in the subtle language of "And there was evening and there was morning." Chaos gave way to order. The ordered complexity of life arose from a mix of rocks and water and a few simple molecules, and even more remotely from the chaotic burst of energy that marked the big bang creation, an energy brimming with potential, only awaiting the organizing realization at the word of God. "And God said, let there be ..." In this part of the universe chaos gave way to life.

And if the materialist view of the world is correct, it did it via random reactions. We've already discussed the extremely thin assumptions required to account even vaguely for the start of life. The starting of life likely has vastly different physical and chemical requirements than those needed to sustain that life following its inauguration. Can random mutations actually have produced the ordered complexity of life, or even a viable protein in our universe that is so well designed for sustaining life?
But let's be more conservative in our quest and accept that somehow life started and now we need that early form of life to mutate and climb step by step the fabled mountain of improbability.

Mutations that are to be passed on to the next generation must occur in the genetic material, that is the DNA of the reproductive line. That mutation would then result in a variant (mutated) protein which might produce a new effective organ, say a system leading to a kidney or the precursor of a pump that might develop into a heart. The neo-Darwinian concept of evolution claims the development of life resulted from random mutations on the DNA that yielded these varied organic structures. Some of the variations were beneficial, some not. The rigors of the environment selected for the beneficial changes and eliminated those that were detrimental.

It's a persuasively devised theory but let's look at that process rigorously, especially with the insights of molecular biology.

The building blocks of all life are proteins. And proteins are precisely organized strings of amino acids. Information held on the DNA determines which and in what order the amino acids are formed to yield the end-product, the protein. If the DNA mutates, we get a different amino acid and hence a different protein. And now comes the problem of random mutations in the theory of neo-Darwinian evolution.

The genetic system of all life is totally coded. An example of code would be the Morse code sounds, ‘dot dot dot dash' which look, sound or seem nothing like the letter ‘V' for which they code. If you did not know that this sequence of sounds, ‘dot dot dot dash,' represented a ‘V' you'd not have even a hint as to its meaning. That is one purpose of a code. And so it is with the information encoded on the DNA chromosomes. The data on the strands of DNA (the chromosomes) in our cells contain that crucial amino acid and protein building information as assorted groupings of four different nucleic acids. Nucleic acids have absolutely zero physical resemblance to either amino acids or proteins. The information is totally coded.

In nature, this lack of similarity between code and final product ensures that there is no logical feedback from protein or amino acid to the assumedly random mutations on the DNA. Information flow is one way: DNA to amino acid to protein. New mutant variations of proteins arise through mutations (changes) in the sequencing order of the nucleic acids on the DNA with no physical hint of the final protein product. These random, unguided mutations are the determining factors in gain or loss of that next generation.

In all known life, there are primarily 20 different amino acids. Stringing these twenty amino acids together in varied sequences produces varied proteins, just as intelligently stringing together the 26 letters of the English alphabet in varied sequences will produce varied sentences and sonnets. Scientific literature suggests that all of life is made from varied combinations of several hundred thousand proteins. Humans have in the order of 80,000 proteins. [The estimated number of proteins in humans varies among laboratories reporting their results.] Other forms of life have different numbers of proteins. But all life, whether animal, vegetable, microbial or fungal, draws from the same ‘bag' of functional proteins. That being the case, it is not surprising that we humans contain some of the same proteins found in plants and animals that are very different from us. Proteins, other than those within the cluster of those used by viable life, can form by mutations on the DNA sequencing of nucleic acids. Cells actually have a highly sophisticated mechanism that checks for mutations early in the molecular progression that leads to protein formation. Upon discovery of a mutation, the molecule is either sent back for revamping or destroyed. But some mutations slip by the check post. These may be either useless, neutral, adding no selective advantage for survival, or lethal. A painful example of a mutation leading to a lethal protein would be a mutation that becomes a precursor for cancer.

So we have these few hundred thousand proteins that are viable in life. Others appear not to be. But let's say we are off in our estimate. In place of a few hundred thousand viable proteins, let there be 100 million or billion or even a trillion viable proteins.

And now to the crucial numbers.

Let me be transparent. I am not debating how a fin could mutate and eventually become a foot. Fins and feet have many structural elements, especially bones, in common. With a stretch of imagination, we can envision a series of changes, such as sequence repetitions, that would morph a fin into a foot. But how do random mutations initially produce the genetic information that would lead to the molecular structure of any sort of bone? Or muscles that eventually become the pumps that are prelude to a heart?

The total number of possible combinations is 20 times 20 times 20 repeated 200 times. The result is 10 260, a one with 260 zeros after it.
Proteins vary in length from strings of a few hundred to a few thousand amino acids. Consider a relatively short protein, such as 200 amino acids long. Into each of the 200 spaces along the protein any one of the 20 amino acids found in life can fall. That means the total number of possible combinations is 20 times 20 times 20 repeated 200 times. The result is 20 to the power of 200 or ten to the power of 260 (10 260), a one with 260 zeros after it; or a billion billion billion repeated 29 times. From this vast biological grab bag of options, we are told that nature by random chance mutations has been able to form the few hundred thousand proteins useful to earthly life and upon which nature could exert its selective pressures.

Let us assume that the entire hydrosphere, all of the approximately 1.4 x 10 21 liters of water in all the oceans and icebergs and lakes on earth, was imbibed in biological cells each weighing a billionth of a gram. We would have had 10 33 cells reproducing, mutating, actively moving this grand process of evolution. If each cell divided each and every second since the appearance of liquid water on earth some four billion years ago, the total number of mutations, or stated another way, the number of evolutionary trials, would be 1050. While vast, this number pales when compared with the 10 260 potential failing options for a single protein. Hitting upon the useful combinations did not, and could not, and will not happen by chance. And every biologist enamored with neo-Darwinian evolution knows this truth.

The first form of life, a microbe, mutates and either advances or perishes as it starts to climb the mountain of improbability by random mutations on the DNA that in time will by lead to kidneys, bones, liver, heart, eyes, brains, mind, sentience. It has to choose randomly from the vast hyperspace of biological possible combinations, the tiny fraction that are beneficial or at least neutral. Clearly there must be other factors that limit the types of mutations that can occur. There are, but not as randomly as the materialist biologist would have it. And that is the entire point. Nature is skewed toward life.

And that is exactly what one of the most widely used biology textbooks, Biochemistry, by D. Voet and J. Voet, states, though in subtle wording. "Keep in mind that only a small fraction of the myriads of possible peptide sequences are likely to have stable conformation. Evolution has, of course, selected such sequences for use in biological systems." Just how did ‘evolution' become so clever that it could ‘of course select' from the ‘myriads' of failures the few that function?

In the March 2008 issue of Scientific American, Jon Seger, professor of biology at the University of Utah tells us how, of course following the central dogma of Darwinian adherents, and neglecting the statistical improbability of it being driven by random mutations: "Within a population, each individual mutation is extremely rare. ...But huge numbers of mutations may occur every generation in the species as a whole. [That is because each member of the population may only have a few mutations, but when multiplied by the total number of mating members, the total number of mutations per generation can be very large.] ... The vast majority of the mutations are harmless or at least tolerable and a very few are actually helpful. These enter the population as exceedingly rare alternative versions of the genes in which they occur. ... Very small effects on survival and reproduction may significantly affect the long term rates at which different mutations accumulate in particular genes. They just accumulate where needed, first one, then another and another over many generations. Although getting two or more new cooperating mutations together in the same genome may take time, they will eventually find one another in a sexual species [and since by getting together they provide an advantage over the former configuration, the organism with this new advantage will now flourish relative to the less adapted neighbor], assuming they are not lost from the population."
All that Professor Seger wrote is largely true. Indeed "the vast majority of the mutations are harmless or at least tolerable," though many may be lethal. But even if none were lethal, the problem is not the ultimate "natural selection" according to the rigors of the natural environment, selection between good and better, strong and stronger, more fertile and less fertile. Those selections are at the final stage of the process. And we see it verified each time as a strong lion vanquishes or kills a weaker competitor for the right to fertilize the females of the pride. But first nature must produce those variations of advantage via random mutations of the nucleic acids on the genome that change the chain of amino acids that form the protein that alters the viability of the "animal."
The statistically unrealistic possibility that the fabrication of viable proteins could have occurred by unguided random mutations is simply ignored. That life developed from the simple to the complex is, in my opinion, a certainty. What drove that development is the central debate.
Simon Conway Morris is professor of evolutionary palaeobiology at Cambridge University and Fellow of the Royal Society of England. He is arguably the world's leading living paleontologist. In his book, Life's Solutions, Conway Morris states the conundrum perfectly: "The number of potential ‘blind alleys' is so enormous that in principle all the time since the beginning of the universe would be insufficient to find the one in a trillion trillion solutions that actually work.... Life is simply too complex to be assembled on any believable time scale. ... [E]volution [has the] uncanny to be ability to find the short cuts across the multidimensional hyperspace of biological reality. ..."

That life developed from the simple to the complex is in my opinion a fact revealed both in Genesis, Chapter One and by the data held in the fossil record. But how nature discovered the short cuts that produced the development of life, the flow from the simple to the complex, eludes the effectiveness of random mutations in the genetic material.

Noble laureate, Professor of Biology, Harvard University, the late George Wald, may have provided us with the answer to the wonder of life in an essay he wrote titled "Life and Mind in the Universe" for the 1984 Quantum Biology Symposium:

"It has occurred to me lately -- I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities – that both questions [the origin of consciousness in humans and of life from non-living matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself." [3]

The opening word of the Bible, b'raisheet, holds the answer to the conundrum of life and mind in our universe. B'raisheet in its simple sense translates as ‘In the beginning of.' But in the first sentence of the Genesis, there is no object in the Hebrew text for the preposition ‘of.' We would read "In the beginning of God created the heavens and the earth." In the beginning of what? So the Greek and the Latin merely deleted the ‘of' which of course is ridiculous and borders on the heretical, as if these ancient translators felt they could better state the facts than did the Bible.

Wisdom is ubiquitous, the substrate of every particle of the world and most evident in the brains and minds of humans as we puzzle over our cosmic origins.
The penultimate interpreter of the Hebrew Text, Rashi, almost a thousand years elucidated the subtlety of that opening word. The compound nature of B'raisheetholds the clue. Referring to information brought in the almost two millennia old Jerusalem Translation of the Bible into Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew, he brings the answer. B'raisheet is a compound word meaning [B'] with or using [raisheet] a first cause of wisdom God created the heavens and the earth. That the ‘first cause' is defined as wisdom arises (as Rashi pointed out in his commentary on Genesis1:1) from Proverbs (8:12, 22 –24). "I am wisdom. ... God acquired me [wisdom] as the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old. I [wisdom] was established from everlasting, from the beginning, from before there ever was an earth. When there were no depths I [wisdom] was brought forth ..."

Wisdom, the totally metaphysical emanation from the Creator, yielded the big bang creation of the physical universe within which we dwell.

With wisdom (Proverbs) and mind (Wald), or in the language of quantum mechanics, information (J.A. Wheeler), being the essence of existence, the puzzle of the origin of sentient life able to be aware of the wonder of its own existence is solved. Wisdom is ubiquitous, the substrate of every particle of the world and most evident in the brains and minds of humans as we puzzle over our cosmic origins.

The success of life is indeed ‘written into the fabric of the universe.'
Our cosmic genesis in a nut shell

God >> wisdom >> big bang creation of energy >> matter >> life >> brain >> mind & sentience
Concisely stated, the wisdom of God embedded in the energy of the big bang creation laid the basis for that seemingly inert energy to metamorphose and become alive. And not merely alive, but even more than that. Alive and brimming with the sentient awareness of being alive. As Prof Wald stated so well, "It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself."

Adapted from Dr. Schroeder's recent book, God According To God (HarperCollins, 2009)

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