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Wednesday, September 16th 2009


Regularity Emerging out of Chaos

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: headachy

Been working hard--much more than either June or I should--on getting the house put together again. But there is definite progress. The library is up; the study is semi-organized; the living room is now a dining room; the bedroom is upstairs again. I trust that a number of folks reading this will remember the appropriate song from my performing days. And keep in mind the last line of each verse: "As long as she keeps changing things, I know she cares."

We're excited that tomorrow honorary family member Joy M., who is taking a short break from the Philippines, will come and spend a few days.

I just finished reading Origins of Life by Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross (NavPress).  This is the book I've been needing for quite a while.  The authors lay out all of the current theories concerning the natural (i.e. not brought about by any intelligence) emergence of life itself and basically show how the theories of various scientists have been scientifically shown to be insufficient by other scientists.  It has given me a good sense overall where science is these days with regard to this issue.

A long, long, time ago, when taking Zoology 1 as a freshman Zoology major at the University of Maryland, one of the first assigned readings was an article by George Wald in Scientific American, in which he pontificated,

"The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at least once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event, or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at-least-once. And for life as we know it, with its capacity for growth and reproduction, once may be enough.     

"Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the "impossible" becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles."    ("The Origin of Life," Scientific American , August 1954,  p.48 )

One of the first lectures in the same course extolled Stanley Miller's famous experiment in which he recreated what some people thought earth's ancient environment might have been like, with just the right kind of elements and plenty of artificial lightning.  At the end of a week there were some amino acids present, one of the building blocks of life.  

Let me (not the book by Rana and Ross) tell you that George Wald's probability calculation is just plain wrong.  This notion that, given a virtually infinite amount of time, anything that can happen is bound to happen does not work.  Period.  I know that a lot of people say it, but it's not true.  The set of real numbers is not closed. Consequently, there is always room for novelty, and the occurrence you might wish to happen could just as easily be delayed an "infinite" amount of time.

Then, on the factual side, the book made me aware that there is nothing like 2 billion years available for life to emerge on earth.  Wald couldn't have known yet, but the available time period is much, much shorter than naturalistic scientists had been counting on.  So as not to spoil the book, I won't tell you how much of a window was available.  But I was genuinely surprised.  

What I also learned from the book was that Stanley Miller's amino acids were very nice amino acids.  They catapulted him to fame so that some fifty years after his discovery people still mention him.  But they also were very lazy amino acids that did not turn into peptide chains, proteins, cells, RNA or DNA, or anything else that would have made them "step one" in the incipience of life.  In fact, it appears that all similar experiments, no matter what specific theory they are intended to undergird, have hit a dead end.  Some particular substance may have been found or produced, but it turns out to be either inviable or inert. It's as though I was going to make bhryani rice and all I had was a handful of cloves.  

A third (and we'll make this the last) thing I took away from the book is the complexity of a cell membrane.  You can't just have a knot of DNA and some mitochondria and call it an organism.  They must be held together, and that's the job of the membrane.  And the membrane is not just a piece of plastic wrap; it has organic functionality all of its own.  

The book requires some small, but definite, preparation in understanding chemical (and to some extent biological) terminology.  So, it may not be one that you would just hand out to all comers at your church's Christmas dinner.  However, with a minimum of scientific knowledge (by that I mean nothing more than, say high school chemistry), it is an invaluable aid in understanding the ongoing discussion between naturalists and advocates of intelligent design.  If the mere thought of science doesn't send you off screaming, you should read this book.

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