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Minimal Complexity Relegates Life Origin Models To Fanciful Speculation

Review Of The Ninth Chapter Of Signature In The Cell by Stephen Meyer
ISBN: 978-0-06-147278-7; Imprint: Harper One

Former Nature editor Philip Ball once commented that ‘there is no assembly plant so delicate, versatile and adaptive as the cell” (1). Emeritus Professor Theodore Brown chose to wax metaphorical by likening the cell to a fully-fledged factory, with its own complex functional relationships and interactions akin to what we observe in our own manufacturing facilities (2). In recent years the seemingly intractable problem of explaining how the first cell came into existence through chance events, otherwise known as the ‘Chance Hypothesis’, has become more acute than ever as scientists have begun to realize that a minimum suite of functional components must exist for cells to be operational. Stephen Meyer’s summary of the current state of this so-called ‘minimal complexity’ research is profoundly insightful:

“The simplest extant cell, Mycoplasma genitalium – a tiny bacterium that inhabits the urinary tract requires “only” 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions and 562,000 bases of DNA…to assemble those proteins…Based upon minimal-complexity experiments, some scientists speculate (but have not demonstrated) that a simple one-celled organism might have been able to survive with as few as 250-400 genes” (p.201).

For renowned biochemist David Deamer the first cell would at the very least have needed a polymerase enzyme to transcribe from a template such as DNA, a constant source of supplementary materials notably nucleotides, amino acids and ATP and enzymes that faithfully carry out DNA replication during cell division (3). To suppose that even a hypothetical first cell would just come together from a gimish of prebiotic compounds undergoing continuous destructive dilution is to appeal to the miraculous (4). Attempts to reconstruct such a cell start off from a fairly elaborate point of departure in which enzymes and other catalysts are already present and functional (5).

Just how important these functional enzymes are was brought to bear in a study led by University of North Carolina biochemist Richard Wolfenden (6). Wolfenden’s team was able to demonstrate how a reaction with a half life of 2.3 billion years occurred in milliseconds when supplied with the necessary enzymes. Such spectacular differences are not uncommon. As Wolfenden remarked:

“What we’re defining here is what evolution had to overcome…the enzyme is surmounting a tremendous obstacle, a reaction half-life of 2.3 billion years…Without catalysts, there would be no life at all, from microbes to humans. It makes you wonder how natural selection operated in such a way as to produce a protein that got off the ground as a primitive catalyst for such an extraordinarily slow reaction.” (6)

Through a molecular technique known as random mutagenesis, scientists have now quantified the amino acid sequence variability that functional proteins can tolerate. Worthy of note in this field is the work of former Cambridge biochemist Douglas Axe whose data forms a pillar for the case that Meyer presents in his book. Using locally-randomized sequence libraries of a portion of the antibiotic resistance enzyme β-lactamase, Axe calculated that somewhere between 1 in 1050 and 1 in 1077 150 amino acid-long protein folds form configurations with a β-lactamase function (7). Of these one in 1050 to 1 in 1074 form folded structures that might perform any number of alternative functions (7).

Based on the structural requirements of enzyme activity Axe emphatically argued against a global-ascent model of the function landscape in which incremental improvements of an arbitrary starting sequence “lead to a globally optimal final sequence with reasonably high probability” (7). For a protein made from scratch in a prebiotic soup, the odds of finding such globally optimal solutions are infinitesimally small- somewhere between 1 in 10140 and 1 in 10164 for a 150 amino acid long sequence if we factor in the probabilities of forming peptide bonds and of incorporating only left handed amino acids.

In a 1981 legal challenge involving the Arkansas Board Of Education, astronomer Chandra Wickramasinghe appeared for the defense as an expert witness. Taking on the dogmatic neo-Darwinist view on the origins of life, Wickramasinghe unwaveringly proclaimed that the probability of obtaining the information necessary for making the simplest cell by chance was 1 in 1040,000 (8). These estimates not only exceeded by many powers of 10 the total number of atoms available in the universe but also closely matched the minimal complexity predictions discussed above. By pulling together these probabilistic threads of evidence in Signature In The Cell, Meyer has relegated naturalistic life origin models to little more than fanciful speculation. His piece-by-piece dismissal of the chance hypothesis is beautifully executed as is the personal narrative that interconnects the various portions of his scientific story.

Additional Literature Cited
1. Philip Ball (2001) Life’s Lesson In Design, Nature, Vol 409 pp. 413-416
2. Theodore Brown (2003) The Art of the Scientific Metaphor, The Scientist, Volume 17, Issue 21, p. 10
3. David Deamer, Jason Dworkin, Scott Sandford, Max Bernstein, Louis Allamandola (2002) The First Cell Membranes, Astrobiology, Volume 2, pp. 371-381
4. Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen (1984) The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories, Published by Lewis and Stanley, Dallas, Texas, pp.42-68
5.Tamsin Osborne (2008) ‘Artificial Cell’ Can Make Its Own Genes, New Scientist,1 April, 2008, See http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13568-artificial-cell-can-make-its-own-genes.html
6. Without Enzyme, Biological Reaction Essential To Life Takes 2.3 billion Years: 2008 UNC Study, See http://www.med.unc.edu/www/news/2008-news-archives/november/without-enzyme-biological-reaction-essential-to-life-takes-2-3-billion-years-unc-study/?searchterm=Wolfenden
7. Douglas D. Axe (2004) Estimating the Prevalence of Protein Sequences Adopting Functional Enzyme Folds, Journal Of Molecular Biology, pp. 1295-1315
8. See Chandra Wickramasinghe’s testimony at http://www.panspermia.org/chandra.htm

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22 Responses to Minimal Complexity Relegates Life Origin Models To Fanciful Speculation

  1. Very, Very, interesting post; The quietness of any responses from materialists is strange. Have materialists finally conceded this point on the origin of life and admitted teleology is required for it. Surely there is a “just so” story out there somewhere ready to met this challenge.

  2. ba77:

    The quietness of any responses from materialists is strange.

    Yes, surely two hours is more than enough time for them to read and respond to this post ;)

  3. They already have: it’s called “naturalized teleology”. This is the second best idea humanity has ever had.

  4. Here is a cool article that just came out in GN magazine:

    10 Ways Darwin Got It Wrong
    excerpt: As molecular biologist Jonathan Wells and mathematician William Dembski point out: “It’s true that eukaryotic cells are the most complicated cells we know. But the simplest life forms we know, the prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria, which lack a nucleus), are themselves immensely complex. Moreover, they are every bit as high-tech as the eukaryotic cells—if eukaryotes are like state-of-the-art laptop computers, then prokaryotes are like state-of-the-art cell phones… There is no evidence whatsoever of earlier, more primitive life forms from which prokaryotes might have evolved” (How to Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist (or Not), 2008, p. 4).

    These authors then mention what these two types of cells share in terms of complexity:

    • Information processing, storage and retrieval.
    • Artificial languages and their decoding systems.
    • Error detection, correction and proofreading devices for quality control.
    • Digital data-embedding technology.
    • Transportation and distribution systems.
    • Automated parcel addressing (similar to zip codes and UPS labels).
    • Assembly processes employing pre-fabrication and modular construction.
    • Self-reproducing robotic manufacturing plants.

    So it turns out that cells are far more complex and sophisticated than Darwin could have conceived of. How did mere chance produce this, when even human planning and engineering cannot?
    http://www.gnmagazine.org/issu.....-wrong.htm

  5. “naturalized teleology” is not even a second-rate idea. The very idea of it is nonsense. The materialists are always trying to get something for nothing (“free” design, for example). But we live in a finite universe so this will never happen.

    And what was the best idea humanity ever had??

  6. tgpeeler said

    “And what was the best idea humanity ever had??”

    Pumpkin cookies with chocolate chips and macadamia nuts.

  7. Can it be said to be a prediction of ID that any minimally complex form of life will exhibit irreducible complexity?

    Can this prediction be falsified?

  8. Mung @ 7

    Can it be said to be a prediciton of Evolutionism that ALL minimally complex forms of life will NOT exhibit irreducible complexity?

    Can this prediction be falsified?

  9. In a 1981 legal challenge involving the Arkansas Board Of Education, astronomer Chandra Wickramasinghe appeared for the defense as an expert witness. Taking on the dogmatic neo-Darwinist view on the origins of life, Wickramasinghe unwaveringly proclaimed that the probability of obtaining the information necessary for making the simplest cell by chance was 1 in 1040,000 (8).

    And how many biologists or evolutionary theorists have argued that even the simplest cell sprang into existence fully-formed? Anyone? BuellerAgain77?

    It’s the good old Hoyle Fallacy again.

  10. Spontaneous generation was eviscerated in the 19th Century by Louis Pasteur.

    Mysteriously and unimaginably, Darwinists still believe in this preposterous fantasy.

    Just add time and chance…

  11. Seversky, since it is now commonly accepted that the entire universe has a sudden transcendent origin, (Big Bang), why do you have such a hard time accepting the simple premise that life could also have a sudden transcendent origin? Especially since that is what the evidence indicates!

    First and foremost, we now have concrete evidence for photosynthetic life suddenly appearing on earth, as soon as water appeared on the earth, in the oldest sedimentary rocks ever found on earth.

    Scientific Evidence For The First Life On Earth – video
    http://science.discovery.com/v.....dence.html

    Dr. Hugh Ross – Origin Of Life Paradox – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHEl9PZW4hc

    Materialists have tried to get around this crushing evidence for the sudden appearance of life by suggesting life could originate in extreme conditions. Yet they are betrayed once again by the empirical evidence:

    Refutation Of Hyperthermophile Origin Of Life scenario
    Excerpt: While life, if appropriately designed, can survive under extreme physical and chemical conditions, it cannot originate under those conditions. High temperatures are especially catastrophic for evolutionary models. The higher the temperature climbs, the shorter the half-life for all the crucial building block molecules, http://www.reasons.org/LateHea.....iginofLife

    U-rich Archaean sea-floor sediments from Greenland – indications of >3700 Ma oxygenic photosynthesis
    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2004E&PSL.217..237R

  12. Seversky is it really that unreasonable of a proposition for you to accept that appearing “instantaneously” especially since the odds of life forming by material processes are “astronomical?

    In fact Seversky, Hoyle’s 1 in 10^40,000 number has actually been revised upwards:

    The probabilities against life “spontaneously” originating are simply overwhelming:

    Signature in the Cell – Book Review – Ken Peterson
    Excerpt: the “simplest extant cell, Mycoplasma genitalium — a tiny bacterium that inhabits the human urinary tract — requires ‘only’ 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions (562,000 bases of DNA…to assemble those proteins).” ,,, amino acids have to congregate in a definite specified sequence in order to make something that “works.” First of all they have to form a “peptide” bond and this seems to only happen about half the time in experiments. Thus, the probability of building a chain of 150 amino acids containing only peptide links is about one chance in 10 to the 45th power.
    In addition, another requirement for living things is that the amino acids must be the “left-handed” version. But in “abiotic amino-acid production” the right- and left-handed versions are equally created. Thus, to have only left-handed, only peptide bonds between amino acids in a chain of 150 would be about one chance in 10 to the 90th. Moreover, in order to create a functioning protein the “amino acids, like letters in a meaningful sentence, must link up in functionally specified sequential arrangements.” It turns out that the probability for this is about one in 10 to the 74th. Thus, the probability of one functional protein of 150 amino acids forming by random chance is (1 in) 10 to the 164th. If we assume some minimally complex cell requires 250 different proteins then the probability of this arrangement happening purely by chance is one in 10 to the 164th multiplied by itself 250 times or one in 10 to the 41,000th power. http://www.spectrummagazine.or.....ature_cell

  13. Seversky is it really that unreasonable of a proposition for you to accept for life appearing “instantaneously”, especially since the odds of life forming by material processes are “astronomical?

    In fact Seversky, Hoyle’s 1 in 10^40,000 number has actually been revised upwards:

    The probabilities against life “spontaneously” originating are simply overwhelming:

    Signature in the Cell – Book Review – Ken Peterson
    Excerpt: the “simplest extant cell, Mycoplasma genitalium — a tiny bacterium that inhabits the human urinary tract — requires ‘only’ 482 proteins to perform its necessary functions (562,000 bases of DNA…to assemble those proteins).” ,,, amino acids have to congregate in a definite specified sequence in order to make something that “works.” First of all they have to form a “peptide” bond and this seems to only happen about half the time in experiments. Thus, the probability of building a chain of 150 amino acids containing only peptide links is about one chance in 10 to the 45th power.
    In addition, another requirement for living things is that the amino acids must be the “left-handed” version. But in “abiotic amino-acid production” the right- and left-handed versions are equally created. Thus, to have only left-handed, only peptide bonds between amino acids in a chain of 150 would be about one chance in 10 to the 90th. Moreover, in order to create a functioning protein the “amino acids, like letters in a meaningful sentence, must link up in functionally specified sequential arrangements.” It turns out that the probability for this is about one in 10 to the 74th. Thus, the probability of one functional protein of 150 amino acids forming by random chance is (1 in) 10 to the 164th. If we assume some minimally complex cell requires 250 different proteins then the probability of this arrangement happening purely by chance is one in 10 to the 164th multiplied by itself 250 times or one in 10 to the 41,000th power. http://www.spectrummagazine.or.....ature_cell

  14. BA77,

    In following a metaphysic that is not falsifiable, then arguments from improbability are meaningless.

  15. Upright your link reminds me of this quote:

    “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
    Max Planck

  16. Ha! Yes…But lets all hope that Allen lives a full life with his wife and children though.

    (and figures it out before he’s dead)

  17. Just add time and chance…

    Time adds consistency, and chance adds flavor. What it is that adds the nutritional value of this gruel has yet to be specified.

  18. Can it be said to be a prediction of ID that any minimally complex form of life will exhibit irreducible complexity?

    Can this prediction be falsified?”

    We could find a life form that is not irreducibly complex.

  19. Mung asks:
    “Can it be said to be a prediction of ID that any minimally complex form of life will exhibit irreducible complexity?

    Can this prediction be falsified?”

    It can to be said to be irreducibly complex and seeking to see if it can be falsified is the foundation of a null hypothesis:

    William Dembski calls the DNA, RNA, Protein interlock problem : “Irreducible Complexity on steroids”.

    The Capabilities of Chaos and Complexity: David L. Abel – Null Hypothesis For Information Generation – 2009
    To focus the scientific community’s attention on its own tendencies toward overzealous metaphysical imagination bordering on “wish-fulfillment,” we propose the following readily falsifiable null hypothesis, and invite rigorous experimental attempts to falsify it: “Physicodynamics cannot spontaneously traverse The Cybernetic Cut: physicodynamics alone cannot organize itself into formally functional systems requiring algorithmic optimization, computational halting, and circuit integration.” A single exception of non trivial, unaided spontaneous optimization of formal function by truly natural process would falsify this null hypothesis.
    http://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/10/1/247/pdf
    http://mdpi.com/1422-0067/10/1/247/ag

    Three subsets of sequence complexity and their relevance to biopolymeric information – David L Abel and Jack T Trevors:
    Excerpt: Genetic algorithms instruct sophisticated biological organization. Three qualitative kinds of sequence complexity exist: random (RSC), ordered (OSC), and functional (FSC). FSC alone provides algorithmic instruction…No empirical evidence exists of either RSC of OSC ever having produced a single instance of sophisticated biological organization...It is only in researching the pre-RNA world that the problem of single-stranded metabolically functional sequencing of ribonucleotides (or their analogs) becomes acute.
    http://www.biomedcentral.com/c.....2-2-29.pdf

    As well there is a One Million Dollar Prize to offered for anyone who falsfies this prediction!

    “The Origin-of-Life Prize” Oct. 2009 ® (hereafter called “the Prize”) will be awarded for proposing a highly plausible mechanism for the spontaneous rise of genetic instructions in nature sufficient to give rise to life.
    http://www.us.net/life/index.htm

  20. Seversky,

    If the cell didn’t spring into being fully formed, and the science says that most of the molecules would chemically break down very rapidly unless protected inside of a cell, what do you propose?

    Remember, pre-biotic natural selection is a contradiction in terms…

  21. 21

    I must say that with this Chapter, several before it, and the following 3 chapters, we get the real meat of Meyer’s book.

    It’s interesting that we’re covering the book one chapter at a time, when his argument overall is found in several chapters, which really can’t be separated in such a way without losing some momentum in the overall argument.

    Start with the chapter on the inability of chance to account for complexity – i.e., the number of dice rolls necessary for chance processes to approach the complexity of the cell would outnumber the particles in the universe several fold, etc.. – combined with the pattern of Darwinian arguments failing to address and/or explain the necessary pre-existence of complex specified information to account for the DNA enigma, and the recognition that all current popular Darwinian arguments and models presume the existence of such information without accounting for it, are staggering blows to the whole Darwinian paradigm.

    The only explanation that accounts for the DNA enigma is purposeful design. That we see evidence of complexity developing out of human purposeful design is revealing. We are well past the genesis of a strong evidential hypothesis for design. All the inferential evidences bearing in on these issues point strongly to purposeful design, and not to anything else.

  22. Mung @ 7

    Can it be said to be a prediction of ID that any minimally complex form of life will exhibit irreducible complexity?

    Can this prediction be falsified?

    There’s kinda no need for a prediction after thoughtfully considering the terms you’re using:

    “minimally complex”

    “irreducible complexity”

    :P

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