September 24th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Shorten takes low road to defeat marriage plebiscite

CANBERRA OBSERVED Plebiscite debate will be civil despite "Shrill" Bill

ENVIRONMENT More pseudo science from climate

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Memo to Shorten, Wong: LGBTIs don't want it

U.S. POLITICS Trumping the elites like shooting fish in a barrel

SOCIAL POLICY Guidelines turn shows of displeasure into "violence"

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject heavy-handed Beijing

EUTHANASIA Senators, take your marks for the race to the bottom

PHILOSOPHY Life: a miracle by any reasonable calculation

MILITARY HISTORY The capture of the old German lines at Pozieres

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS South China Sea powder keg may blow anytime

MUSIC Messiaen reaches to where the shadow falls

CINEMA Atonement for blood debts: Blood Father

BOOK REVIEW Freedom as a weapon to destroy freedom

BOOK REVIEW There and back again


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Life: a miracle by any reasonable calculation

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, September 24, 2016

An atheist once challenged me to give an example of a verifiable miracle in the real world. My reply was: “You’re standing in one.”

The improbability of a technological civilisation is only the tip of a pyramid of improbabilities so extreme that they may be called miracles.

As our knowledge of the formation of the universe increases, the more improbable does it seem that stars and planets, and elements such as carbon, could have formed at all. Extremely small variations in gravity and other forces would have made their formation impossible. If the Big Bang itself had been either a little stronger or a little weaker, life would not have been possible.

Bertrand Russell referred with contempt to human beings as “little lumps of impure carbon” crawling purposelessly about with delusions of grandeur. But modern cosmology shows us the processes by which carbon and other elements came into existence – before we consider the creation of life or intelligence - are matters for awe. Carbon atoms, according to our present state of knowledge, have had to pass through the life cycles of several different stars.

If the initial explosion of the Big Bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 10 to the 60th power (1060), the universe would have either quickly collapsed back in on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. If gravity had been stronger or weaker by one part in 10 to the 40th power, stars like the sun could not exist.

Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, has written: “Reduction of the rate of expansion by one part in 1012 at the time when the temperature of the universe was 1010 degrees Kelvin would have resulted in the universe’s starting to recollapse when its radius was only one-3000th of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000 Kelvin.”

Hawking concludes that life is possible only because the universe is expanding at just the rate required to avoid collapse.

At an earlier time, even more remarkably: “We know that there has to have been a very close balance between the competing effect of explosive expansion and gravitational contraction which, at the very earliest epoch about which we can even pretend to speak (called the Planck time, 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang), would have corresponded to the incredible degree of accuracy represented by a deviation in their ratio from unity by only one part in 1060.”[1]

Since life began Earth has possibly suffered several near “extinction events” from meteor strikes. According to one widely accepted theory, the “dinosaur-killer” impact of about 65.5 million years ago filled the atmosphere with ash and dust for about a hundred years (from a relatively small meteor or asteroid about 9.5 kilometres across), leaving a black line (the K-T Boundary) in sedimentary rock strata so pronounced that it is instantly recognisable to geologists and paleontologists and is used as a dating tool. The energy released would have been equivalent to that of several million nuclear weapons.

One theory is that this impact, which killed off almost all the reptiles, cleared the way for mammals. Another possibility is that there were major volcanic eruptions in the Deccan Plateau in India, and another is sudden climate change. In any event, life apparently went to the edge of extinction, making the rise of the mammals possible.

If the sun were either a little hotter or a little cooler, or a little closer or a little further away, life also would be impossible. Water, for some reason, behaves differently from other substances in that it occupies a larger volume as a solid than it does as a liquid. If it did not, ice would not float, and the ice fields would be at the bottom of the oceans, again probably making life on Earth impossible.

Carbon should not behave as it does. The temperature of the sun is thousands of degrees, that of outer space very nearly Absolute Zero. Yet life with any degree of complexity seems only possible on Earth within a very narrow and particular range of 100 degrees Centigrade – the boiling and freezing points of water. An atmosphere with oxygen is necessary for animals, and with carbon dioxide for plants.

If the Earth were closer to the sun, even if the sun were cooler than it is, solar tidal forces would make life impossible. Significantly more or significantly fewer volcanoes would result in an unbreathable atmosphere. If Earth had no tectonic plates it might have no mountains or continental masses thrust up by plate collisions and would be covered by sea to a uniform depth, so that even if intelligent life somehow evolved, technology would be impossible – metals could not be smelted under water.

The pre-conditions for life – this list is certainly not exhaustive – are profoundly improbable. Even given those pre-conditions, life itself, beyond the very simplest forms, is profoundly improbable. We have no words to express the degree of improbability adequately.

Author Bill Bryson has expressed the point eloquently in his popular A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson writes that there may be as many as a million types of protein in the human body, and each is a miracle. Proteins should not exist. To make a protein you need to assemble amino acids in a particular order. To make collagen, a common type of protein, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence, but in fact it makes itself, spontaneously, without direction. As Bryson puts it, the chances of a 1,055-sequence molecule like collagen spontaneously self-generating are nil.

As a way of approaching a concept of the numbers and chances we are dealing with, he asks us to visualise a standard Las Vegas slot machine but broadened to about 27 metres, to accommodate 1,055 spinning wheels instead of three or four, and with 20 symbols on each wheel (one for each common amino acid).

How long would you have to pull the handle before all 1,055 symbols came up in the right order? Effectively forever. Even if you reduced the number of spinning wheels to 200, which is actually a more typical number of amino acids for a protein, the odds against all 200 coming up in a prescribed sequence are a larger number than there are atoms in the universe.

There are several hundred thousand types of protein, perhaps a million, each unique and vital; and to be of use, a protein must not only assemble amino acids in the right sequence, it must then engage in a kind of chemical origami and fold itself into a very specific shape.

Even having achieved this structural complexity, a protein cannot reproduce itself without DNA, while DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume that they arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other?

As Bryson puts it, DNA, proteins, and the other components of life couldn’t prosper without some sort of membrane to contain them. No atom or molecule has ever achieved life independently: “It is only when they come together within the nurturing refuge of a cell that their diverse molecules can take part in the amazing dance that we call life. Without the cell, they are nothing more than interesting chemicals. But without the chemicals, the cell has no purpose.”[2]

Attempts to illustrate the improbability of life have exercised the ingenuity of several scientific writers. Celebrated astronomer and astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle – who first unraveled the mystery of carbon synthesis – wrote in a famous example in 1983 in The Intelligent Universe of the chances, not of life arising, but merely of the enzymes necessary for life being formed naturally.

747 parts awaiting assembly.

He asked the reader to imagine a junkyard containing all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the junkyard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small, Hoyle says, as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole universe. It has been alleged by some opponents such as Richard Dawkins that this illustration is fallacious. Anyway, the degree of improbability is very great.

While amino acids can be produced fairly easily in a modern laboratory, Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe came up with a figure on the chances of randomly shuffling amino acids producing life: one in 10 to the power of 40,000 (1040,000).[3] By way of comparison, the number of subatomic particles making up the entire universe (believed to be about 13 billion light years across and comprising at least 100 billion galaxies) has been calculated as 1081, itself a figure inexpressibly far beyond imagining.

It is, however, a modest figure compared with that calculated by Paul Davies, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, on the chances of a soup of compounds such as might have existed on the primordial Earth giving rise to life – of the complexity of a small virus – by random chance after a billion years.[4] Davies adds: “Changing from a virus to some hypothetical simpler replicator would improve the odds considerably, but with numbers like these, it doesn’t change the conclusion: the spontaneous generation of life by random molecular shuffling is a ludicrously improbable event.”[5]

Einstein remarked: “God does not play dice.”[6]



[1] John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (Random House, New York, 1989), p22.

[2] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (Black Swan, London, 2004), pp351-353.

[3] Time, January 18, 1982.

[4] Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint (Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1989), p118.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the Present (Picador, London, 1993), p159.

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