The Illusion of Inevitability

24 10 2009

Your dog died.  I’m sorry.  It was minding its own business, sniffing a hydrant, distinguishing between the various flavors of urine, when along came a car and smacked into your poor doggy’s rear end.  Granted, it had stopped sniffing to chase a squirrel past a car, but we can hardly blame the dog.  The impact caused a loss of blood, which starved the brain cells of oxygen.  The lack of oxygen caused the electron transport chain to come to a screeching halt.  This resulted in diminished ATP, the fuel of the cell.  Without ATP, the enzymes in the brain cells stopped working.  Cell membranes leaked, unhindered, resulting in a battery drain, which meant no more electric signals and no brainwaves.  Without ATP, the means for importing new energy sources was lost, anyway, so the situation was rather hopeless.

All of that technical jargon means nothing to you, though.  All you know is that your dog is dead.  You dug your hole, and you buried Fido a foot or two under the dirt.  I would have you know that a dead dog is not so very different from a live one.  What is the difference?  A little higher ATP-to-ADP ratio…a mended artery and little blood, and you’re good to go.  All of the machinery is still there.  The enzymes are out of gas, and the lines need to be primed, but the decay has not even touched the animal.  Not even oxidation has reached the workings.  If only they could find a way to prime a brain cell…but, alas, there is no such technology.  A dead dog is 99.9999% of what a live dog is, minus a few minor repairs and stitches, but that doesn’t help you, any.

How complex is an animal, anyway?  The human cell contains about six billion base pairs of DNA.  Base pairs are like letters.  Genes are like words.  The entire work of human design is described in six billion letters, then.  This amounts to about 35,000 genes, but only 1.5% of DNA encodes for protein.  The rest of it is called “junk DNA” by people too proud to admit that they have no idea what it does.  Originally, all DNA was regarded as unimportant trash, so this is not surprising.  Scientists know everything that matters, and everything else is random junk, until some brainiac figures out what it really does, and then that part is extremely important while the rest of it is still just “junk.” 

But I digress.  One and a half percent of that DNA amounts to forty-five million base pairs, times two.  We’ll exclude the redundant second chromosome.  Now, considering that each base pair has four options to choose from, our total level of complexity is four to the power of 45,000,000.  That’s four times four, forty-five million times.  The calculator on my computer is capable of working with some pretty large numbers, but this one is too much for it.  After a short search, I found one that claimed to be able to work massive numbers, and it gave me a result that can best be described as the digit four, followed by 27,092,699 zeros.  In the interest of sanity, I’m going to refrain from typing it out.  That number represents the complexity of a single DNA strand, relative to its basic building blocks.  The DNA is 4,000,000,0…(27 million zeros) times higher in design than its components.   Now, the real interest here, is in the enzymes.  The enzymes are a chain of amino acids (I know I’m over-simplifying), whose order is determined by the order of the DNA.  For now, we’ll ignore the fact that the enzyme complexity is increased several times by its tertiary and quaternary structure.  I don’t care.  What’s a few more orders of complexity to the behemoth number we’ve already got?  Therefore, the enzyme complexity is about equal to the DNA complexity.  Granted, each cell has multiple copies of each enzyme.  Granted, it probably couldn’t survive without multiple copies.  Granted, the sum total of the cell complexity is several times greater than the complexity of one set of each enzyme.  The best estimate is that 4, followed by 27 million zeros is a gross understatement.  A living cell is really many orders of magnitude more sophisticated than that, relative to its basic components.  We’ll make this a concession to the fact that we’re working with a human cell, which is more complex than a basic microbial one.

Miller and Urey did us all a favor by pretending that the ancient Earth had all of the right attributes to make the basic building blocks in the first place.  Zap and boil some inorganic compounds, and soon we have five of the necessary twenty-two amino acids needed to make enzymes.  Granted, we’d be in a fix if we ever wanted the remaining amino acids, but someone recently re-performed the experiment and arrived at all twenty-two amino acids.  Pardon me, while I make a simple gut reaction:

Dirty liars.

Well, we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the other amino acids were in levels too low to detect.  Now, let’s clarify by saying that the Miller-Urey primordial ooze is basically just a small cup of tar.  Supposedly, a grand total of two percent was composed of the simplest amino acids.  The remainder seventeen molecules were hiding in there somewhere.  With a two percent purity, and only five twenty-seconds of the amino acids being properly represented, we arrive at the conclusion that the basic building blocks of life, with no assembly attempted, are still 220 times further down the road toward life than the primordial ooze, itself.

Therefore, the jump from primordial ooze to living cell was an increase in design by 9,000,000,0…(27,092,701 zeros.  We gained two more zeros from the earlier number) times.  Now, here’s where it gets interesting.  They tell us that the universe is billions of years old.  However, life formed only 500 million years after Earth formed.  That means that simple chemicals increased in design complexity by 5,000,000,0…(27,092,685 zeros) times per second!

You try writing the number 5, followed by 27 million zeros.  Let’s see how far you get.  The number is too big to write, but that’s the number of times more complex per second that primordial ooze would have to increase to arrive at life by its deadline of a scant 500 million years.  That’s amazing.  Compared to that, your dead dog is only negligibly dead.  The difference between a dead dog and a live one isn’t worth mentioning, if chemicals can, by chance alone, increase in design that fast.  What’s that sound?  It sounds like a muffled wumfing, or woofing, or something like that.  whoa, dang, I think you just buried your dog alive!

It’s the principle that keeps people gambling.  Las Vegas keeps getting rich off of people who go there to get rich.  It’s the illusion of inevitability.  People think that billions of years are a long time.  With enough time, everything seems possible, or even inevitable.  Sooner or later, a freak chance is going to throw something together and call it life.  Each pull of the handle brings the slot machine closer to barfing its bowels all over the gambler.  It’s just a matter of time.  Yet, if gamblers could make a living off of gambling, then no casino could survive.  If it were simply a matter of playing long enough, then everyone could strike it rich in Vegas.  They can’t.  The longer they play, the more heavily the law of averages weighs against them, until a net loss is inescapable.  Time is on the side of the casino.  That’s why they can afford to keep their doors open.  The more you play, the more you lose.

Every year of the Earth’s existence is another pull of the slot machine handle.  Some day, people think, it would have to get lucky and barf out a wretched lucky monster.  Sooner or later, they say, life was bound to happen.  But increased time only increases the effect of the law of averages, which tends, irresistably, to tear things down.  The odds against even the simplest life form crawling out of primordial tar is so bad, that I can’t even fit the entire number on a single sheet of paper.  If all of the letters in this post were converted to the digits of a number, that number would be embarrassingly dwarfed by the number that represents the odds against life forming all by itself on earth.  Even if we jump-start the process with all of the biomass on Earth, all 1,250,000,000,000 tons of it, equal to about 280 trillion tons of primordial ooze, we still get no spontaneous generation.

Sorry Fido.  See you next life.  If the atheists were right, and you could spontaneously improve yourself at the rate of 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,0…blah, blah blah times per second, you might have a chance.  You’re so tantalizingly close, but yet so far.

Life just doesn’t work that way.





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