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The Beginning Of Life

In 1953 one of the most exciting discoveries in all of science was accomplished by a 23-year-old graduate student, Stanley L. Miller, at the University of Chicago. He filled a sealed glass device with methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water, believed to be key elements of the primeval earth, and electrified the contents with sparks simulating lightning. Within a few days the water and glass were colored with a red slime that Miller found was rich in amino acids, the basic components of life. Much of the scientific world was stirred by news of this finding, and it was assumed that in a few years scientists would be able to recreate life in a test tube. But such has not been the case.

In spite of all of science's advances, no one has ever been able to create out of non-living matter a life form which could replicate itself under conditions which could possibly have existed millions of years ago on earth. Fred Hoyle, the noted British astronomer, has said that "the spontaneous emergence of a single-cell organism from the random couplings of chemicals," even over millions of years, "is about as likely as the assemblage of a 747 [jet plane] by a tornado whirling through a junkyard."1

Ever since Darwin speculated that life began as organic compounds accumulated in a "warm little pond," the possible conditions suggested for the beginning of life have included the condensation of chemicals in the atmosphere, hydrothermal vents deep in the sea, volcanic eruptions, and even the surface of fool's gold, iron pyrite. But none of these theories have been widely accepted.

Given all the advances of science such as genetic engineering and organ transplants, it is quite possible that humans with sufficient knowledge and determination will be able someday to create life out of non-living substances. What is highly improbable, virtually impossible, is that life could have begun by chance or accident. The odds against it are overwhelming. Life could only have begun by being caused, determined. In other words, life is the result of the reality of order.

The Improbable Order of Life

A brilliant analysis of the significance of order in living things is Rupert Reidl's Order In Living Organisms cited earlier. Remember, the greater the order, the greater the improbability that that order occurred by chance.

Reidl uses an example of the U.S. telephone system, that is, all the telephones in the country and their connecting links and switches. Assuming for the sake of illustration that there are 100 million telephones in the whole U.S. system, the improbability that such a system could have been linked together by accident or chance is roughly equal to a number followed by a thousand million zeros. Remember that only six zeros equals one million, and we are talking about a thousand million zeros. This is a number beyond comprehension. And yet the improbability of any known biological system emerging by chance or accident is very much greater than this.2

Why is the number necessary for life so enormous? Because many billions of atoms and molecules must be arranged in a very specific structural form (order) to support even the simplest forms of life. For small bacteria, it has been estimated that the number of necessary atomic positions is somewhere between 5 X 1010 and 1013 bits (a bit, again, being a binary digit, a yes-no decision). Remember, these numbers refer to the correct order – the total number of tries to reach this level of order by chance is again much greater than we can imagine.

To support human life, it is estimated that the correct number of atomic and molecular positions is 2 X 1028 bits. This is an amount of information which far exceeds the content of all the libraries on earth. And again, the possibility of human beings evolving by chance is so incredibly remote as to be virtually impossible. We are not talking about metaphysics here – we are talking about scientific, mathematical calculation of fairly high precision. The instructions necessary to create a human being are greater than all the information in all the libraries on earth. Now imagine – what is the probability that all that information in all those libraries was assembled by chance? You can see when it comes to the order of life, the amount of information required to create it is mind-boggling; the idea that it occurred by chance is truly absurd.

Order And The Genetic Code

Now, here is another important fact: All human life is created by instructions in the genetic code, but this code has only 105 to 106 bits of determinative information. How can this possibly be? This question has puzzled biologists for many years. Reidl and others are beginning to unravel the answer, and the answer is order, order arranged in the form of code that can best be thought of as information. Reidl's definition of order as law multiplied by number of instances suggests his answer: Some of the order in the genetic code is in the form of law or instructions.

It is not accurate to say that one gene determines eye color and another gene determines hair color, and so on. It is more like some of the genetic information is in the form of, "when creating the eye, color it blue." We might say some of the information has something like the form of verbal commands (one of the meanings of "order"), while other information is more like nouns and adjectives.

Qualitative Analysis of Living Order

Reidl is the first person to develop a qualitative analysis of order in living organisms. The numbers in the preceding section are quantitative, developed by other researchers. What can we say about the qualities of living order? Here is Reidl's answer:

(1) "The qualitative aspects of order is contained in the law content" (Ibid., pg. 31). This has to do with the pattern of order which is present in each case. For example, the series "1 2 3 4 5" has a pattern which can be described as "start with 1 and add 1 to each preceding number until you reach 5." As we will explain in a subsequent chapter, a pattern is a profoundly important type of order, the key to understanding all living things including the intricate workings of the human brain.

(2) "Every law content must contain an irreducible essence," that is, a basic amount of information which cannot be reduced without losing the meaning of the law. This law content corresponds to a type of pattern. Part of Reidl's genius is to show that the living order in the world "contains only a small number of well-defined basic patterns" (Ibid.), which we will explore subsequently.

(3) "The common quality of all patterns is the ‘identicality of their individualities.’" Another way of saying this is that there is an identical quality behind the minor individual differences. As Reidl explains (pg. 31): "Thus, if after the message '1 2 3 4' we again receive '1 2 3 4' we say: 'That is the same.' We ignore the circumstances that the second message arrives at a different time, is on another part of the sheet of paper, the molecules of printing ink are totally different, and so forth." It is our ability to describe two different things as "the same" or "identical" that is the key to understanding patterns, which is the key to perceiving the order in life.

How Is Evolution Possible?

Evolution is much misunderstood by the average person. Most people generally accept that men and apes have similar ancestors, that amphibians existed before mammals, etc. But the mechanism of evolution is taken for granted, when in fact it is a matter of great debate among scientists.

Here is the amazing truth: The mutations by which evolution supposedly occurs "are seen as random and purposeless accidental changes," and the process of selection consists of the effect of "the changing environment on the survival and prospects of reproduction of single individuals" (Reidl pg. 60-61). But the mutation always occurs before the favorable effect of selection. The environment never causes the mutation! Mutations are accidental, and those which are not favorable for adapting to the environment result in the death or lowered survival rate of the changed organism.

As Reidl asks, "If all this is true, where does the orderliness and directionality of evolution arise from?" (pg. 61). Biologists have puzzled about this for more than 100 years, often wondering about an "internal principle" in addition to the principles of mutation and selection. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle suggested an internal principle of "entelechy" which guides the organism to realize its end purpose.

Some thinkers have suggested that the apparent orderliness of nature is really just a projection of human thought patterns. Certainly "the obvious agreement between the patterns of man's logic and the supposed orderly patterns in man's environment" (pg. 63) is at least an amazing coincidence. Reidl and others now believe (and this is a point we will come to again) that the same principles of order that we perceive in the world around us are exactly the same principles of order that cause our brains to function as they do. For insight into this phenomenon, Reidl cites information theory:

Insights From Information Theory

"All systems that treat information, whatever field they may cover, fulfill both in themselves and between each other, the laws of information theory and thermodynamics. This holds also for the total system that includes the individual systems, i.e., for the physical universe in which entropy increases unceasingly. Followed back into the past there must have been at the beginning of all happening a condition of least entropy, and therefore of highest regularity and highest information." (pg. 64)

Now you of course recognize that this brilliant German scientist is saying virtually the same thing suggested earlier in this book about the conditions of order which must have existed at the moment God created the universe. And now Dr. Reidl pauses to quote from the Bible as indeed some others have, awed by the significance of information theory and order. The Greek word for information is "logos." And the Gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men."

This is indeed a stunning insight. The Bible says that the same "Logos" or information that is responsible for all creation, for the order of the universe, is the "logos" we find in the order of life, and in the Godhead or Trinity.

The Principle Of Order In Life

As we stated in our section on general system theory, the law of entropy applies to closed systems but not to open systems, and all living organisms are open systems, exchanging matter and energy with their environment. All life forms on earth are directly or indirectly dependent on the sun's energy for warmth. Other forms of energy come from ingesting matter such as food which can be biochemically converted to release energy. What most distinguishes a living organism from a dead one is its ability to store energy. Prigogine and Stengers referred to life forms as "far from equilibrium." Rupert Reidl says "order can be described as the tension between storage and random distribution of energy, between an improbable condition of balance [among the living parts] on the one hand, and the greatest mixture of component parts on the other" (pg. 67).

The throughput of energy in a living system allows "the building-up of systems that we call ordered" (pg. 67), through what some call information and what Reidl calls determinacy. "A steady throughput and the steady selection of more stable conditions necessarily cause a steady increase in order" (Ibid.). In other words, as organisms develop more capability to store and process energy, they evolve to higher levels of order. This "drive for order" is the long-sought "internal principle" of evolution!

DNA: The Key To The Order Of Life

The biological form that allows this increase in order or information is the key element of genetic material, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is a very long chain of complex molecules called nucleotides, specifically guanine, adenine, cytosine and thymine, commonly identified by their first letters as G, A, C and T . DNA thus functions almost exactly like a punched tape used in teletype transmissions. "The code is read off in groups of three nucleotides (triplets) beginning from a fixed starting point. This gives definite codons [i.e., words] with 4 X 4 X 4 = 64 possible combinations. The decoding mechanism recognizes most of these combinations as meaningful triplets and translates them into the 20 different amino-acids. This is rather like translating the three Morse symbols [dot, dash and pause] into letters. To complete the analogy, an amino-acid can act as a starter and a meaningless codon necessarily functions as a terminator." (Ibid., pg. 68).

All genetic code of all living organisms functions this way, a powerful indication of the common ancestry of all life forms. Yet Reidl reminds us again, "Despite much search, no mechanism has yet been found by which the decisions in the genome [set of chromosomes] could be informed about an adaptational demand, however pressing. This preposterous and indeed unbelievable and catastrophic circumstance (catastrophic for the billions of organisms removed by selection) fueled [controversies among biologists] for decades. However, it now seems that such retrospective action has never been possible. Genome decisions cannot be meaningfully influenced by the environment" (pg. 68).

In the eyes of faith, one may believe that God has been responsible for the evolution of life. But in the eyes of science, one can only see that mutations are accidental. So the question becomes, as Reidl notes, how often do mutations happen, how great are the prospects of success and what are the effects?

If a mutation causes a major change, the resulting organism will almost certainly not survive. And mutations do not occur very often – Reidl says scientists generally agree on average one mutation occurs in every 10,000 cases of reproduction. This means if a certain feature needs to change in order for the species to better adapt to the environment, the change is highly improbable until there have been 10,000 reproductions!

And the chances of this change being favorable are very slight. "Improvement by mutation is as unlikely as the enhancement of a good poem by a printer's error" (pg. 69). Furthermore, each gene causes effects in multiple features, and each feature is influenced by multiple genes. So a favorable adaptation by chance mutation depends "not merely on a happy accident, but on an accumulation of happy accidents" (Ibid.).

The Value Of Redundancy

You will recall from our discussion on information theory the importance of redundancy in protecting the information content of complex systems, that is, in reducing the possibility of error or miscommunication. Redundancy is also a protection for the genetic code. Without redundancy in the form of "rules" or "instructions," the genetic code of DNA would have to be approximately 40,000 times longer than it is, Reidl estimates (pg. 71).

Systemization In Living Organisms

The process by which instructions in the DNA code influence one another like electric switches in a computer, that is, the redundancy which reduces the length of the code, is what Reidl calls systemization. "The individual types of genetic switching action necessary for systemization have been mainly studied in very lowly organisms. Their presence in all other organisms is assumed, however, and is gradually being proved" (Ibid., pg. 73).

A good example of how systemization occurs in the genetic system can be seen in the way the DNA code leads to the production of proteins within the cell which are essential to life.

The DNA code series "are sent out from the nucleus into the cytoplasm [the fluid body of the cell outside of the nucleus] by the thread-like molecules of messenger RNA. These again are copies (transcriptions) which reproduce in large numbers the information contained in individual pieces of DNA. (The copying process moves at about 30 nucleotides per second which ...corresponds roughly to the rate of human speech or of typing by a good typist.)" (Ibid., pg. 75)

The instructions for creating proteins are then copied from messenger RNA to ribosomal RNA. The messenger RNA threads are pulled through the ribosomes with the help of transfer RNA. "The proteins are crocheted together, amino acid by amino acid" (Ibid., pg. 76). The process bears a striking resemblance to an assembly line in a manufacturing plant. You can see why the suggestion that all this could have evolved by chance is ridiculous – and we are still referring to individual cells here, not more complex organisms!

Instructional Codes In DNA

But only a small percentage of DNA is actually required to produce proteins. Some of the genetic material functions as switches, turning various protein productions on and off. As Jeremy Campbell notes (Op. Cit., pg. 130), "It is clear from the elaborate ways in which living creatures are transformed from embryo into adult according to an exquisitely subtle timetable of development, that a very complex system of controls and rules, a genetic grammar, must exist.... In the parlance of mathematics, some parts of the DNA message may behave more like an algorithm than a cookbook recipe or the tape in a tape recorder."

An algorithm is a rule for solving a certain type of problem, especially one that occurs often. A common example is the procedure for finding the greatest common denominator, the largest number which will divide evenly into a group of whole numbers. An algorithm is a helpful way to solve a particular kind of situation or problem which is frequently encountered.

"The algorithm," Campbell says in reference to DNA, "would be a kind of program, instructing certain combinations of genes to turn on or turn off at specific times, and it would be stored in the DNA text as information" (Ibid.). An algorithm can compact information, as the example we noted earlier, where a sequence of numbers such as "1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ..." etc. could be created by a rule that says "start with 1 and add 1 to each preceding number."

Campbell reports that "Murray Eden, the MIT engineer who tried to simulate the evolution of humans on a computer using the classical forces of natural selection acting on random mutations of genes, found that there would not have been nearly enough time in evolution to bring human beings onto the scene. He concluded that algorithms must impose constraints on the chance mutations in the symbols of the DNA message, since the constraints of natural selection alone do not seem powerful enough." (Ibid., pg. 131).

Rules Protect DNA Integrity

In other words, as DNA evolved to include "rules" (order) that allowed ever higher life forms, these rules also served as a protection for the existing DNA code. Only mutations which improved on the rules would thus have been accepted – mutations which "broke the rules" were not accepted into the code. This explains the beauty and continuity of evolution, and why the genetic code never produced four-headed monsters or flying purple cows.

"Mammals possess a DNA text thirty times as long as that of a sponge," Campbell notes (pg. 133), "but the extra length does not consist of genes which code directly for proteins. It has been estimated that scarcely more than one percent of mammalian DNA is of that type....

"In the final evolutionary advance which led to the appearance of humans, mutations in structural genes do not become increasingly frequent, as traditional evolution theory would predict. Just the opposite is the case" (pg. 134).

The more complex the DNA structure in an organism, the more resistant it becomes to change. If we consider evolution as the process by which God populated the earth with all manner of living things, we might consider the increasing resistance of DNA to change as the result of God saying "this is good," which is what the Genesis account of creation in fact claims.

Mutations Decrease With The Advent Of Man

Campbell tells of the work of Morris Goodman, a professor of anatomy, who also developed a computer model to simulate the process of evolution. This model showed that rapid changes in DNA due to mutation slowed dramatically during the past hundred million years, especially during the period when apes and humans split into separate evolutionary paths.

Goodman believes that this deceleration reflects the fact that the complex development of the child in the womb needs to occur in a stable environment. "A great variety of gene activity, producing a wealth of different proteins inside the womb, would be dangerous, perhaps fatal" for the developing human embryo (Ibid., pg. 135). And yet once the child is born, it needs a highly complex immune system to cope with the threat of disease. So now the gene system switches on the development of the immune system, "with its tremendous built-in range of information about harmful foreign bodies" (pg. 136).

All of this is an awesome display of the order of life.

Conservative And Dissipative Structures

Structures which are relatively fixed and have a minimum of free energy such as DNA, enzymes and organelles are described by Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler as "conservative structures" ("Laws of the Game: How the Principles of Nature Govern Chance," 1981). "The invariance of the genetic program is a concrete expression of these rigid conservative forces. And occasional variations, or mutations, are nothing more than 'misreadings' that occur as the result of thermal fluctuations at this level. These misreadings are preserved by means of identical reproduction, and if they proved to be advantageous, they will be selected. This is the fundamental process that makes evolution possible" (pg. 78).

Conservative structures represent a precise balance of order and energy. Once we move up to a living organism such as a cell, this balance becomes much more complex, requiring a constant inflow and metabolism of energy for the organism to survive. Eigen and Winkler call these more advanced structures dissipative. The spatial and temporal order in dissipative structures arises "solely from the properties of the reactions inherent in the system. This order is maintained by a steady flow and dissipation of energy, i.e., by the intake in substances rich in energy and the discarding of substances low in energy" (pg. 96).

"From the combination of the transport of matter and of synchronized, periodic transformations, (dissipative structures) form spatial patterns similar to standing waves [like the ripples on the surface of water formed by the impact of a stone]. They cannot be produced simply by adding together their subordinate structures. In morphogenesis [structural changes in the evolution or development of a life form], dissipative structures are responsible for determining and spatially organizing the elements of conservative structure, specified by the genetic program of the cell. As patterns of stimuli in the network of the nerve cells, dissipative structures represent more than the sum of the informational elements they contain and are therefore a material correlative of a gestalt" (pg. 98).

Order And Energy: A Balance For Life

What Eigen and Winkler are saying here is, first, that dissipative structures control the movement or activity of conservative structures. Inside the central nervous system, about which much more will be said, the dissipative structures are responsible for recognition of forms in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This tendency to recognize whole forms rather than parts is called gestalt, German for form. It is also extremely important that, at a very basic biological level, Eichen and Winkler and their colleagues explain how order and energy control life forms to account for information, which also explains how both the reproduction of life and our own knowledge are possible. As they go on to say:

"Dissipative processes direct and synchronize how information stored in conservative structures will be elicited from them and guarantee the functional effectiveness of that information. The fact that spatial and temporal patterns can be translated into the abstract language of an informational program is evident in the material self-organization of living organisms as well as in the make-up of our ideas" (pg. 101).

In summary then, all life forms exist and remain alive because of a precise balance between order and energy. That order is so intricate it could not possibly have evolved by chance, again pointing to a Creator God of supreme intelligence. The highest form of life, of course, is the human being, and the most distinctive part of the human being is the brain. Let us turn to a closer examination of that incredible organ and its own abilities to use biochemical energy to perceive order through the amazing process known as pattern recognition.

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