Monday, October 30, 2006

Origin of life quotes by J.B.S. Haldane

Errors corrected: "we should need 1011 simultaneous trials" should have been 1017 and "The earth's surface is 5 x 1015 cm2" should have been 1018. Also minor textual errors corrected.

Thanks to Denyse O'Leary for her quote on the origin of life by the late Darwinist mathematician- geneticist, John Burdon Sanderson (J.B.S.) Haldane,

[Graphic: J.B.S. Haldane, Britannica Concise]

in the late leading origin of life theorist Sidney W. Fox's book, "The Origins of Prebiological Systems and of Their Molecular Matrices" (1965). I was going to post the quote with its full reference to the comments on Denyse's blog, but I noticed that there were other great quotes by Haldane in the same chapter by him, as follows.

This first quote below from 1963 (20+ years before the ID movement began) by Haldane, one of the giants of Neo-Darwinism, that the inference to "an organism ... produced ... by an agent, natural or supernatural, at least as intelligent as ourselves, and with a good deal more knowledge" (my emphasis) solely from the evidence of nature, alone shows that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific hypothesis:

"If the minimal organism involves not only the code for its one or more proteins, but also twenty types of soluble RNA, one for each amino acid, and the equivalent of ribosomal RNA, our descendants may be able to make one, but we must give up the idea that such an organism could have been produced in the past, except by a similar pre-existing organism or by an agent, natural or supernatural, at least as intelligent as ourselves, and with a good deal more knowledge." (Haldane, J.B.S., "Data Needed for a Blueprint of the First Organism," in Fox, S.W., ed., "The Origins of Prebiological Systems and of Their Molecular Matrices," Proceedings of a Conference Conducted at Wakulla Springs, Florida, October 27-30, 1963, Academic Press: New York NY, 1965, p.12).

Again Haldane confirmed in the next quote below that intelligent design is a legitimate scientific explanation with his, "How much smaller may the first natural organism have been? If this minimum involves 500 bits, one could conclude either that terrestrial life had had an extraterrestrial origin (with Nagy and Braun or a supernatural one" (my emphasis):

"The first enzyme very possibly contained the sequence Asp-Ser-Gly, which is part of the active centers of phosphoglucomutase, trypsin, and chymotrypsin. Ribonuclease contains 124 amino acid residues. If all were equally common, this would mean 540 bits. The number is actually a little less than that. This number could be somewhat reduced if some amino acids were rare both in the medium and in the enzyme. I suggest that the primitive enzyme was a much shorter peptide of low activity and specificity, incorporating only 100 bits or so. But even this would mean one out of 1.3 x 1030 possibilities. This is an unacceptable, large number. If a new organism were tried out every minute for 108 years, we should need 1017 simultaneous trials to get the right result by chance. The earth's surface is 5 x 1018 cm2. There just isn't, in my opinion, room. Sixty bits, or about 15 amino acids, would be more acceptable probabilistically, but less so biochemically. I suggest that the first synthetic organisms may have been something like a tobacco mosaic virus, but including the enzyme or enzymes needed for its own replication. More verifiably, I suggest that the first synthetic organisms may be so constituted. For natural, but not for laboratory life, a semipermeable membrane is needed. This could be constituted from an inactivated enzyme and lipids. I think, however, that the first synthetic organism may be much larger than the first which occurred. It may contain several different enzymes, with a specification of 5000 bits or so-about the information on a page of Chamber's 7-figure logarithm tables. This should be quite within human possibilities. The question will then arise: How much smaller may the first natural organism have been? If this minimum involves 500 bits, one could conclude either that terrestrial life had had an extraterrestrial origin (with Nagy and Braun) or a supernatural one (with many religions, but by no means all)." (Haldane, Ibid., p.14).

It is noteworthy that Haldane's "minimum" of "500 bits" is the same value (but presumably independently arrived at) as William Dembski's "universal probability bound" of 10-150, beyond which something would have to be the product of intelligent design (see his "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information" and also `tagline' quote below).

Now here is Denyse's quote. This is another show-stopper for a naturalistic origin of life, showing that "half-live systems" (even if there were such things) would be worse than useless because they would not be "capable of reproduction" and would prematurely catalyse reaction which would then "have made conditions less favorable for the first living organisms":

"I may be converted in the course of the meeting, but when writing this paper, I am by no means attracted by the theory of a period of many million years of biochemical evolution preceding the origin of life. It seems to me that any half-live systems-for example, catalysts releasing the energy of metastable molecules such as pyrophosphate or sugar-would merely have made conditions less favorable for the first living organisms, by which I mean the first system capable of reproduction. A protein capable of catalyzing such reactions would not multiply in consequence, any more than an enzyme does." (Haldane, Ibid., p.15).

That is, "the first living organisms" i.e. "the first system capable of reproduction" would have to arise from non-living chemicals complete in one single-step jump, as Richard Dawkins himself admits in the quote below when he says that "life began when both DNA and its protein-based replication machinery spontaneously chanced to come into existence" (my emphasis)!

Stephen E. Jones, BSc. (Biology).

"The French mathematician Emile Borel proposed 10-50 as a universal probability bound below which chance could definitely be precluded-that is, any specified event as improbable as this could not be attributed to chance. [Borel, E., "Probabilities and Life," Baudin, M., transl., Dover: New York, 1962, p. 28] Borel based his universal probability bound on cosmological considerations, looking to the opportunities for repeating and observing events throughout cosmic history. Borel's 10-50 probability bound translates to 166 bits of information. In The Design Inference I justify a more stringent universal probability bound of 10-150 based on the number of elementary particles in the observable universe, the duration of the observable universe until its heat death and the Planck time. [Dembski, W.A., "The Design Inference," Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK, 1998, pp.209-210] A probability bound of 10-150 translates to 500 bits of information. Accordingly, specified information of complexity greater than 500 bits cannot reasonably be attributed to chance. This 500-bit ceiling on the amount of specified complexity attributable to chance constitutes a universal complexity bound for CSI. If we now define CSI as any specified information whose complexity exceeds 500 bits of information, it follows immediately that chance cannot generate CSI. Henceforth we take the `C' in `CSI' to denote at least 500 bits of information. Biologists by and large do not dispute that chance cannot generate CSI. Most biologists reject pure chance as an adequate explanation of CSI. Besides flying in the face of every canon of statistical reasoning, pure chance is scientifically unsatisfying as an explanation of CSI. To explain CSI in terms of pure chance is no more instructive than pleading ignorance or proclaiming CSI a mystery. It is one thing to explain the occurrence of heads on a single coin toss by appealing to chance. It is quite another, as Bernd-Olaf uppers points out, to take the view that `the specific sequence of the nucleotides in the DNA molecule of the first organism came about by a purely random process in the early history of the earth.' [Kuppers, B-O., "Information and the Origin of Life," MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 1990, p.59] CSI cries out for explanation, and pure chance won't do it. Richard Dawkins makes this point eloquently:

We can accept a certain amount of luck in our explanations, but not too much.... In our theory of how we came to exist, we are allowed to postulate a certain ration of luck. This ration has, as its upper limit, the number of eligible planets in the universe.... We [therefore] have at our disposal, if we want to use it, odds of 1 in 100 billion billion as an upper limit (or 1 in however many available planets we think there are) to spend in our theory of the origin of life. This is the maximum amount of luck we are allowed to postulate in our theory. Suppose we want to suggest, for instance, that life began when both DNA and its protein-based replication machinery spontaneously chanced to come into existence. We can allow ourselves the luxury of such an extravagant theory, provided that the odds against this coincidence occurring on a planet do not exceed 100 billion billion to one. [Dawkins, R., "The Blind Watchmaker," Norton: (New York, 1987, pp. 139,145-46]

Dawkins is right. We can allow our scientific theorizing only so much luck. After that we degenerate into handwaving and mystery. A probability bound of 10-150, or a corresponding complexity bound of 500 bits of information, sets a conservative limit on the amount of luck we can allow ourselves (certainly more conservative than the one Dawkins proposes here). Such a limitation on luck is crucial to the integrity of science. If we allow ourselves too many `wildcard' bits of information, we can explain anything. (With as little as five dollars and twenty wildcard bits of information anyone can walk up to a roulette table in Las Vegas and leave a millionaire.)" (Dembski, W.A., "Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1999, pp.166-167. Emphasis original)


Avatar said...

It's very informative. Thanks for writing this article.

JBS said...

I have heard about JBS Haldane but not much. After reading your blog, I wanted to read more about him. I want to thank you for these kind of article.

Pete Milne said...

Steven, are you saying that biochemistry is showing, almost conclusively, that life could not have started by chance? Common sense tells me this but it would be great if this is statistically almost certain. I an not a Christian but there must be a Creator of some type? !

Stephen E. Jones said...


>Steven, are you saying that biochemistry is showing, almost conclusively, that life could not have started by chance?


>Common sense tells me this but it would be great if this is statistically almost certain.

It IS. Even arch-atheist Richard Dawkins admitted that there had to be a minimum level of complexity before his `Blind Watchmaker' could work, and that would require the "random thermal jostling of atoms and molecules" which "resulted in a self-replicating molecule." But the improbability of that, Dawkins concedes, if is of the order of "1 in 100 billion billion" (1 in 10^20):

"So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! ... in this chapter we are asking how improbable, how miraculous, sheer unadulterated miraculous luck, that we are allowed to get away with in our theories, and still say that we have a satisfactory explanation of life? ... There are probably at least 10^20 (i.e. 100 billion billion) roughly suitable planets in the universe. ... Let us, for the sake of discussion, entertain the alternative assumption that life has arisen only once, ever, and that was here on Earth. ... if we assume...that life has originated only once in the universe, it follows that we are allowed to postulate a very large amount of luck in a theory, because there are so many planets in the universe where life could have originated. ... let us put an upper limit of 1 in 100 billion billion for the maximum amount of luck that this argument entitles us to assume. ... the probability that a typical planet will spontaneously generate a self-replicating molecule. Or, to put it another way, how long would we have to wait before random chemical events on the planet, random thermal jostling of atoms and molecules, resulted in a self-replicating molecule? ... even if the chemist said that we'd have to wait for a 'miracle', have to wait a billion billion years - far longer than the universe has existed, we can still accept this verdict with equanimity. There are probably more than a billion billion available planets in the universe. If each of them lasts as long as Earth, that gives us about a billion billion billion planet-years to play with. That will do nicely! A miracle is translated into practical politics by a multiplication sum." (Dawkins, R., "The Blind Watchmaker," 1986, pp.141-145. Emphasis original)


Stephen E. Jones said...


But, ignoring Dawkins' verbal sleight of hand ("roughly suitable planets", "available planets"), his "upper limit" estimate of 1 in 10^20 for the random origin of a self-replicating molecule is hopelessly unrealistic. As biophysicist Harold J. Morowitz pointed out, even with all the chemical and physical prerequisites of life available close together in a life-sustaining environment (which itself would be a miracle), the chance that the simplest form of life, a bacterium, would spontaneously form by chance is of the order of 1 in 10^100,000,000,000:

"This probability analysis agrees with a calculation done by biophysicist Harold Morowitz. He conducted a thought experiment in which he broke every chemical bond in the bacterium E. coli and then let those bonds re-form randomly. He assumed that none of the relevant atoms escaped and no contaminant atoms interfered. Morowitz performed this calculation in an attempt to dimensionalize the magnitude of the problem researchers face as they attempt to account for life's beginning through natural means. He determined the likelihood that E. coli would randomly re-form is on the order of one chance in 10^100,000,000,000. [Morowitz, H.J., "Energy Flow in Biology," 1969, pp.5-12] If all the matter in the observable universe were somehow converted to life's building blocks and were then brought to bear on E. coli formation-being allowed to attempt combination a million times a second for the entire duration of the universe's existence-the odds of generating this bacterium change to about one chance in 10^99,999,999,916 (an imperceptible change). [Shapiro, R., "Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth," 1986, p.128] Such a number implies that neither enough matter nor enough time in the universe exists for even the simplest bacterium to emerge by undirected chemical and physical processes." (Rana, F.R. & Ross, H.N., "Origins of Life: Biblical And Evolutionary Models Face Off," 2004, p.164).

>I an not a Christian but there must be a Creator of some type? !


In the mid-1960s, when I was a teenage atheist, from looking up one night at the Milky Way, an overwhelming conviction came over me that there MUST be a God. Then I later thought that if there is a God, He would likely have revealed to mankind who He is, and it seemed to me that the Bible is the best candidate. From reading the Bible I became a Christian.

The Bible says "seek, and you will find" (Mt 7:7). The corollary is that if you don't SEEK God, you won't find Him. I sought God nearly 50 years ago and proved that His promise to be found by me was true. You can too.

Stephen E. Jones
Policies Those comments I consider off-topic, offensive or sub-standard will not appear. As this blog is now inactive (see "my last post to this blog"), I am not debating comments under posts on it. So each individual will normally be allowed only one comment under each post and any response by me will normally be only once to that individual under that post. So further comments under that post by that individual (or if anonymous whom I assume is that individual) normally won't appear.

Stephen E. Jones