The Improbability of Earth
By Ian Wishart
“Banishing the One Creator God, they would then end up with what has been described as the ultimate in polytheism – a universe in which every particle has god-like capabilities”
Professor John Lennox, God’s Undertaker
Galileo’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun is often cited as a turning point, the moment that science trumped religious belief for the first time. Its significance, according to atheists, is that it showed the Earth was not the centre of the solar system, let alone the universe, and that really we inhabit an insignificant speck of rock, three planets out from the sun, in a forlorn and minor arm of an inconsequential galaxy in a far-flung corner of the cosmos.
Some scientists – the late Carl Sagan, for example – are so certain that we are not unique, and that the universe must be teeming with life that they set up projects like SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which harnesses the power of millions of home computers over the internet to number crunch radio telescope data in the hunt for intelligent messages from outer space.
As anyone who has seen Star Trek or Star Wars knows, the appeal of other civilizations in far off places is at the core of modern science fiction, touching as it does on the deep human need to explore, seek out new frontiers and to boldly go where no man has gone before! Well, you get the picture. In a sense, our search for aliens is a reflection of our deeper search for meaning and truth in the universe. What is life for, if not to seek out the unknown?
What most people don’t appreciate, however, is that our location appears to make us unique in the universe. If the earth was not placed precisely where it is in space, none of you would be here, let alone reading this book.
Romantic as science fiction is, there are growing signs that the universe is not teeming with life, and that we may indeed be alone. Part of this is because of the brick wall evolutionary biology has hit in trying to find out how life arose on earth. As I explained in my earlier book, Eve’s Bite, experiments to create life from scratch have failed. The best that science appears able to do is cobble together components of existing life forms to create new hybrid organisms. Creating life from a puddle, even with the best amino acids, electricity surges and ideal conditions, has flopped. Various alternative theories have been put forward, such as life arising elsewhere in the universe and arriving here either on a comet or via aliens “seeding” Earth (panspermia theory); or alternatively the “RNA World hypothesis”, which suggests that RNA molecules might have powered primitive life forms on our planet before evolving into DNA life.
The problem with panspermia theory is that if life is too complex to have arisen on the planet most suited to sustaining life (Earth), then how likely is it to have arisen somewhere else in the universe and survived millions of years of cosmic radiation while being transported here on a comet? And how did it survive the journey from its own planet onto a comet in the first place?
Christopher Hitchens, in God Is Not Great, says “Francis Crick even allowed himself to flirt with the theory that life was ‘inseminated’ on earth by bacteria spread from a passing comet.”
Not so fast, Hitch. In an interview with Bible Code author Michael Drosnin, Crick denies the comet idea:
“I called,” writes Drosnin, “the most eminent authority in the world, Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate biologist who discovered the double helix, the spiral structure of DNA. It was one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. As Crick himself declared in the first moment of revelation, ‘We’ve discovered the secret of life’.
“ ‘Is it possible,’ I asked Crick, when I reached him at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, ‘that our DNA came from another planet?’
“ ‘I published that theory twenty-five years ago,’ said Crick. ‘I called it ‘Directed Panspermia.’
“ ‘Do you think it arrived in a meteor or comet?’ I asked.
“ ‘No,’ said Crick. ‘Anything living would have died in such an accidental journey through space.’
‘Are you saying that DNA was sent here in a vehicle?’ I asked. ‘It’s the only possibility,’ said Crick.
“I asked him to explain his theory of the genesis of DNA. The DNA molecule, Crick said, was far too complex to have evolved spontaneously on Earth in the short time between the formation of this planet 4 billion years ago and the first appearance of life 3.8 billion years ago.
“ ‘But it is unlikely,’ said Crick, ‘that living organisms could have reached Earth as spores from another star, or embedded in a meteorite.’ Therefore, said Crick, there was only one possibility:
“ ‘A primitive form of life was planted on the Earth by an advanced civilization on another planet – deliberately…all life on Earth represents a clone derived from a single extraterrestrial organism.
“ ‘We know very little about the origins of life,’ said Crick, ‘but all of the new scientific discoveries support my theory and none disprove it.
“ ‘There has been one big change since our theory was first published’, he told me. ‘We now know that other stars do have planets. So it certainly is possible that an advanced technological civilization existed elsewhere in the galaxy even before the Earth was formed’.
“Crick was more certain than ever. ‘DNA was sent here in a vehicle,’ he said. ‘By aliens’.”
Three things emerge from this fascinating discussion between Crick and Drosnin. Firstly, suggestions in some quarters that Crick had backed away from his “aliens theory” appear to be wrong. Secondly, Crick destroys any possibility of random life traveling here on a comet. Thirdly, his thesis requires there not only to be aliens, but for the aliens to specifically choose Planet Earth on which to seed new life. Anyone care to run the probability calculations across that one?
RNA theory has difficulties too, such as RNA’s vulnerability to breaking down in sunlight and water. RNA life forms would find it hard to go outside on a fine day, or a rainy day, and probably any day in between.
As acclaimed DNA chemist Robert Shapiro noted earlier this year, RNA is not what many are still cracking it up to be.
“The hypothesis that life began with RNA was presented as a likely reality, rather than a speculation, in journals, textbooks and the media. Yet the clues I have cited only support the weaker conclusion that RNA preceded DNA and proteins; they provide no information about the origin of life, which may have involved stages prior to the RNA world in which other living entities ruled supreme. Just the same, and despite the difficulties that I will discuss in the next section, perhaps two-thirds of scientists publishing in the origin-of life field (as judged by a count of papers published in 2006 in the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere) still support the idea that life began with the spontaneous formation of RNA or a related self-copying molecule.”
Citing the 1986 study by Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert that ushered in the RNA hypothesis, Shapiro now says:
“Enormous obstacles block Gilbert’s picture of the origin of life, sufficient to provoke another Nobelist, Christian De Duve of Rockefeller University, to ask rhetorically, ‘Did God make RNA?’”
Some scientists, he notes, still appeal to the “prebiotic soup” idea, that enough amino acids existed on primitive earth that can be forced in the lab to combine.
“It mattered little if kilograms of starting material were required to produce milligrams of product,” remarks Shapiro wryly of the experiments. “The point was the demonstration that humans could produce, however inefficiently, substances found in nature. Unfortunately, neither chemists nor laboratories were present on the early Earth to produce RNA.”
He describes in his paper the huge lengths scientists are still going to in a bid to make the base ingredients bind in the lab, and the ridiculous claims they then make in science journals like Nature about how it might have happened on primitive earth.
“The exceptionally high urea concentration was rationalized in the Nature paper by invoking a vision of drying lagoons on the early Earth. In a published rebuttal, I calculated that a large lagoon would have to be evaporated to the size of a puddle, without loss of its contents, to achieve that concentration. No such feature exists on Earth today.
“The drying lagoon claim is not unique. In a similar spirit, other prebiotic chemists have invoked freezing glacial lakes, mountainside freshwater ponds, flowing streams, beaches, dry deserts, volcanic aquifers and the entire global ocean (frozen or warm as needed) to support their requirement that the “nucleotide soup” necessary for RNA synthesis would somehow have come into existence on the early Earth.
“The analogy that comes to mind is that of a golfer, who having played a golf ball through an 18-hole course, then assumed that the ball could also play itself around the course in his absence. He had demonstrated the possibility of the event; it was only necessary to presume that some combination of natural forces (earthquakes, winds, tornadoes and floods, for example) could produce the same result, given enough time. No physical law need be broken for spontaneous RNA formation to happen, but the chances against it are so immense, that the suggestion implies that the non-living world had an innate desire to generate RNA. [Author’s emphasis] The majority of origin-of-life scientists who still support the RNA-first theory either accept this concept (implicitly, if not explicitly) or feel that the immensely unfavorable odds were simply overcome by good luck.
“Many chemists, confronted with these difficulties, have fled the RNA-first hypothesis as if it were a building on fire. One group, however, still captured by the vision of the self-copying molecule, has opted for an exit that leads to similar hazards. In these revised theories, a simpler replicator arose first and governed life in a “pre-RNA world.” Variations have been proposed in which the bases, the sugar or the entire backbone of RNA have been replaced by simpler substances, more accessible to prebiotic syntheses. Presumably, this first replicator would also have the catalytic capabilities of RNA. Because no trace of this hypothetical primal replicator and catalyst has been recognized so far in modern biology, RNA must have completely taken over all of its functions at some point following its emergence.
“Further, the spontaneous appearance of any such replicator without the assistance of a chemist faces implausibilities that dwarf those involved in the preparation of a mere nucleotide soup,” warns Shapiro.
“The chances for the spontaneous assembly of a replicator in [such a nucleotide soup] can be compared to those of [a] gorilla composing, in English, a coherent recipe for the preparation of chili con carne. With similar considerations in mind Gerald F. Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute and Leslie Orgel of the Salk Institute concluded that the spontaneous appearance of RNA chains on the lifeless Earth “would have been a near miracle.” I would extend this conclusion to all of the proposed RNA substitutes that I mentioned above.”
Shapiro’s ‘solution’ to this dilemma is a relatively new theory called metabolistic evolution based on small molecules. This is the idea that chemicals can metabolise in rocks or similar compartmentalised structures that might, just might become self-replicating by virtue of environmental actions like heat, tides, rock-falls etc that allow the chemicals to leach from one compartment to another. These would be entirely different lifeforms to those on earth today. Experiments have so far failed to produce these either, and Shapiro concedes that even if it can be done, that would not explain the emergence of RNA and then DNA and the path to life as we know it. In short, there’s no guarantee that such a process would throw up DNA lifeforms at all.
Yet, if such an explanation for origin of life were credible, wouldn’t we be seeing rival life forms on earth all around us, based on non-DNA structures? We don’t, of course, and I suspect it is simply more clutching at straws. If Shapiro and the leading biochemists have to redefine the search for life to include rocks, then frankly it is not that inspiring.
“A highly implausible start for life, as in the RNA-first scenario, implies a universe in which we are alone,” he acknowledges. In short, none of the scientific theories about life’s origin are anywhere near remotely convincing, so from a biological point of view the possibility of meeting wise and advanced aliens is getting more unlikely by the day.
When you take into account what you saw in the previous chapter – that scientists are now admitting the universe seems mysteriously fine-tuned to support life – what you’re about to read is, frankly, stunning. You see, whilst the universe is finely tuned for life, it appears to be finely tuned specifically to support life on Earth.
It is not until you see the astrophysics evidence, about the conditions necessary for life on Earth, that you begin to appreciate why our third rock from the sun is anything but insignificant.
Take the moon. Contrary to popular belief, the moon has not always been in our skies. According to the best scientific theories to date, the moon was formed during a gigantic game of cosmic skittles that was crucial to giving us a breathable atmosphere. As astronomer Dr Hugh Ross points out, the general “rule of thumb in planetary formation is that the greater a planet’s surface gravity and the greater a planet’s distance from its star, the heavier and thicker its atmosphere.” Earth, he says, “departs dramatically from that rule”.
In theory, our atmosphere should be even heavier and thicker than Venus’, but instead it is forty times thinner. The solution, says Ross, lies with the moon. As he points out, the moon is 250 million years younger than Earth, based on the composition of moon rocks brought back for analysis. It is made from a different kind of rock to those found on Earth, meaning the two bodies could not have been formed together. Furthermore, we know from measuring the moon’s orbit that it was once much closer to Earth than it now is.
“The moon’s movement away from Earth and the measured slowing of Earth’s rotation imply some kind of collision or near collision more than 4 billion years ago,” writes Hugh Ross.
“Only one collision scenario fits all the observed Earth-moon parameters and dynamics: a body at least the size of Mars (nine times the mass of the moon and one ninth the mass of Earth) and possibly twice as large made a nearly head-on hit and was absorbed, for the most part, into the Earth’s core.
“Such a collision would have blasted almost all of Earth’s original atmosphere into outer space. The shell of cloud or debris arising from the collision would orbit Earth and eventually coalesce to form our moon.”
It was this singular, unrepeated event (our very own, localized ‘Big Bang’), scientists argue, that stripped the dangerous gases out of our atmosphere and left us with air and water vapour. With the atmosphere now much thinner, light could reach the surface of the planet for the first time, and the absorbtion of the rogue planet into Earth’s core increased our gravity enough that we could hold onto the water vapour in our atmosphere (molecular weight 18), but not so much that it would keep dangerous levels of the lighter ammonia (molecular weight 17) or methane (mw 16) in the atmosphere. Both of those gases now eventually dissipate off into space (methane in the atmosphere takes about 8.5 years to go, partly by reacting with oxygen and hydrogen to create water vapour, and partly by stratospheric loss).
Putting this known scientific event up against the creation story in Genesis, there is a remarkable harmony.
“1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth became formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
While most modern Bibles translate Genesis 1:2 as “the earth was formless”, the nuance of the original Hebrew is “became”. The sequence then is clear: Earth and the heavenly bodies were initially created, then something happened that made the planet “formless and empty” which – you could easily argue – would certainly be the result of a Mars-sized object slamming into us. The huge explosion of debris into near-Earth orbit would certainly account for the “darkness”. The moon, of course, had not yet been formed (being 250 million years younger than Earth).
“3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
The significance of Genesis 1:3-5 can easily be overlooked, but when you examine the scientific effect of the collision, you may see the biblical passage in a new light (no pun intended). Day and night are relative to an observer, they only exist if a planet rotates on its axis. Mercury, for example, does not rotate, and one side of the planet is continually burning in the sun’s heat while the other side is perpetually in the dark and cold. The moon, likewise, does not rotate relative to us. Earth, on the other hand, was left spinning like a top after the collision – we know this because the Earth is now slowing down.
Thus, the collision that led to the eventual creation of the moon also set Earth spinning, thereby creating the effect of “day” and “night” and providing inspiration for the poetry in Genesis.
Significantly, it is not until a few verses later (Gen 1:16) that the moon is officially “made” – the Hebrew word implying ‘formed from existing materials’ rather than “created” from nothing, which is used in Genesis 1:1. The scientific theory – that the moon formed from the debris left orbiting Earth – dovetails with the language used in this passage. The creation of the moon after the Earth is something the ancient Hebrews could not have known scientifically – it is a recent discovery.
All of this is merely an aside, however, setting the scene for the scientific evidence about the unique events that allow life to exist on earth.
Had the Mars-sized object not slammed into Earth, we wouldn’t be here. According to Dr Ross, the collision between the mystery planet and Earth also “boosted the iron content of Earth’s crust [so much] as to permit a huge abundance of ocean life”, iron being crucial to biological life, particularly in the marine food chain.
The collision created a phenomenon known as plate tectonics. You probably learnt about this in school or on the Discovery Channel – it’s the theory that continental plates float on a sea of volcanic magma, occasionally releasing the tension when they collide with another plate, creating volcanoes and earthquakes. No other planet in the solar system has active plate tectonics like Earth. Instead, the predominant form of crust renewal involves entire continental plates tipping up and sinking back into the magma in their entirety. Such destruction on Earth would take all life with it. In contrast, earthquakes and volcanoes seem a small price to pay for our relative stability.
Astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez sums it up pretty succinctly:
“Earthquakes destroy property and kill many people every year; nevertheless, they benefit both our planet’s habitability and scientific discovery. Without earthquakes, we probably wouldn’t even be here and, if somehow we were, we would know far less about Earth’s interior structure,” he writes in The Privileged Planet.
Through measuring the pressure waves created by earthquakes, which reverberate around the planet “like a hammer hitting a bell”, says Gonzalez, scientists have been able to create a map of the type of rock the waves are passing through, “like a geological CAT scan”. It is this data, recorded by seismographs, that allowed scientists to figure out the boundaries of the various continental plates.
Of course, the current layout of the world is a relatively recent phenomenon. Originally, it appears all land existed in one giant mass, the most recent manifestation being “Pangaea” around 1.1 billion years ago through to 200 million BC.
Pangaea was surrounded on all sides by one giant ocean that covered the whole planet. Again, purely as an aside, Genesis (written about 3,500 years ago) records that on the primeval Earth there was one place for all the land, and the rest was ocean:
“9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.”
Pangaea eventually broke up, the southern half forming Gondwana – the prehistoric continent that included modern Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, Arabia, South America and Antarctica.
It was through one of the earthquake wave “CAT scans” just mentioned that scientists were able to confirm that a core of liquid iron is still spinning inside the planet, independent of the planet’s own rotation. It is this spinning iron core that creates Earth’s magnetic field. And by measuring the impact of that magnetic field on rocks, this has allowed science to trace the positions of the various continents over hundreds of millions of years.
We wouldn’t have a spinning iron core, however, if the mystery planet had not collided with Earth just after it was created. And without a spinning iron core, you and I wouldn’t be here.
The reason for this is actually quite simple. It is Earth’s strong magnetic field that shields the planet from much of the most damaging cosmic radiation. The field holds in place what scientists call the “Van Allen belts” – a series of highly charged energy fields. In essence, the Earth’s magnetism traps these radioactive particles and energy streams before they can hit the planet. Without the magnetic field, life on Earth would be nuked, day in, day out. Venus, again, is a good example. It is spinning so slowly that it has almost no magnetic field. The solar radioactivity rips into Venus 24/7 like a hot knife into butter.
So far in this chapter, then, you’ve seen how a cosmic road accident had to happen in order for you to live: it ripped away the thick, poisonous primitive atmosphere and left us with air and water vapour, it gave us the mineral iron essential for life to grow, it gave the planet a spinning iron core which generates magnetism to protect us from lethal radiation, it gave us night and day to balance out temperatures, and it gave us relatively gentle earthquakes and volcanic activity rather than the wholesale destruction of entire continents. This is on top of the unknown series of coincidences that fine-tuned the universe to support life.
Critics will no doubt argue that it doesn’t support the idea of God, because if God existed he could have done it right first time. Yeah, he could. But the ability to sling the occasional lightning bolt or play ten-pin bowling with planets might actually have given the deity some enjoyment – which is surely as good a motive as any other. It is also entirely possible that God did it this way deliberately to leave his fingerprints visible – to help scientists come to the conclusion Paul Davies reached in that extract last chapter when he said, “Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix…”
Strongly agnostic cosmologist Stephen Hawking agrees that the universe does indeed have this appearance.
“The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron …. The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
Agnostic scientist Robert Jastrow summed up the views of many of his peers a few years ago in his book, God and the Astronomers:
“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
But wait, as the TV hucksters say, there’s more!
Let’s return to the role of the moon in all this. There is no other grouping in the solar system, or indeed the known universe so far, that is similar to Earth and its moon. Unlike the relatively tiny moons of other planets, our moon is effectively a sister planet to Earth. Without the moon, you wouldn’t exist either.
Our moon is big enough to create a tidal pull on Earth. It is the motions of the tides on the world’s oceans that allowed life to survive. Without tides, the oceans would be dead, stagnant millponds. The smashing of waves on the shore releases oxygen and in turn releases shorebound nutrients and minerals into the oceans. Much of our planet’s life exists in that complex intertidal region of the seashore.
The moon generates around two thirds of the total tidal energy on Earth (the sun being responsible for the final third). The tidal currents in the ocean also impact on Earth’s weather patterns.
“If Earth lacked such lunar tides,” says Gonzalez, “Seattle would look more like northern Siberia than the lush, temperate, ‘Emerald City’.”
Nor is it just tides. Because of its size, the moon has been able to hold the Earth in a steady 23.5 degree tilt on its axis. If you look at a globe of the Earth, the tilt is what puts the planet slightly on its side as it orbits the sun. It is the tilt that gives us summer or winter.
Twenty-three degrees is, according to Guillermo Gonzalez, pretty much the optimum number for sustaining life on Earth.
“A larger tilt would cause larger climate fluctuations, [hotter summers, colder winters]” he writes in The Privileged Planet. “At present, Earth tilts 23.5 degrees and it varies from 22.1 to 24.5 degrees over several thousand years. To stabilize effectively, the moon’s mass must be a substantial fraction of the Earth’s mass. Small bodies like the two potato-shaped moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, won’t suffice. If our moon were as small as these Martian moons, Earth’s tilt would vary not 3 degrees but more than 30 degrees.
“That might not sound like anything to fuss over,” says Gonzalez, “but tell that to someone trying to survive on Earth with a 60 degree tilt. When the North Pole was leaning sunward through the summer half of the year, most of the Northern Hemisphere would experience months of perpetually scorching daylight. High northern latitudes would be subjected to searing heat, hot enough to make Death Valley in July feel like a shady spring picnic. Any survivors would suffer viciously cold months of perpetual night during the other half of the year.”
A smaller tilt would reduce seasonal differences and produce less rain, creating drier, desert areas.
You know the drill by now: In other words, without the moon, you would not be here to read this.
Up until now we have dealt only with the Earth/moon dynamic. It isn’t the only one. Earth is thundering around the sun at an incredible 110,000 km/h. During a 24 hour day, while you work, eat, sleep and read this book, all of us have traveled a further 2.5 million kilometres through space. It has been this way since Earth began, a silent, epic mission through the darkness as the planet carries its valuable cargo around the sun.
According to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and its subsequent modifications, the sun acts like a fat guy sitting in the middle of a trampoline, and creates a big “dip” in the fabric of space time. Earth is circling around the edge of the dip at speed, never getting close enough to fall in or far enough to fly away. It just so happens that our planet exists in what astrobiologists call “the Goldilocks zone” – the narrow orbit band around a sun where a planet is capable of sustaining liquid water, and hence life. Too close, and the water burns off in the heat, like Venus. Too far away and it becomes ice, like Mars. Just right, however, and water becomes the backbone of life.
Atheist fundamentalist Richard Dawkins, in his recent book The God Delusion, tries to address some of these problems by disarmingly conceding the point. Yes, he admits, we appear to live on a unique planet. Yes, the moon is crucial for the existence of life. Yes, we inhabit the Goldilocks zone.
“Earth’s orbit,” he agrees, “is so close to circular that it never strays out of the Goldilocks zone.”
Faced with all of this, Dawkins tries to convince readers that despite everything having to be “just right”, science still has a natural answer.
“The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it.”
Simple, really. Using Dawkins’ logic you can wave all the unlikely pre-conditions aside, put it down to blind chance, and say ‘well, here we are then, so it must have happened naturally’.
Richard Dawkins’ fatal mistake here is the assumption that his very existence and ability to ponder the probability of it all, proves in itself a natural first cause. He offers no hard evidence in The God Delusion to support this, and instead wades deeper into error when he tries to link it to the origin of life issue.
Readers of my earlier book, Eve’s Bite, will remember I tackled Dawkins on this in the chapter, “The Dawkins Delusion”. It is worth a brief expansion here.
“Just as we did with the Goldilocks orbits,” writes Dawkins, “we can make the point that, however improbable the origin of life might be, we know it happened on Earth because we are here.
“Again, as with temperature, there are two hypotheses to explain what happened – the design hypothesis and the scientific or ‘anthropic’ hypothesis. The design approach postulates a God who wrought a deliberate miracle, struck the prebiotic soup with divine fire and launched DNA, or something equivalent.”
The scientific approach, argues Dawkins, is statistical. “Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers.” So Dawkins himself plucks a large number out of the air – declaring a “one in a billion” chance of life arising on a planet like Earth naturally. Based on his own guesstimate that there are a billion billion planets in the Universe, he proudly states that “even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets – of which Earth, of course, is one.”
This argument, incidentally, is also at the heart of Dawkins’ previous bestseller, The Blind Watchmaker.
Using that logic, Dawkins tells his readers the science is settled. Clearly Earth is one of those billion planets in the universe where life has arisen, no need to invoke God. Case closed.
He would be right, if the probability was truly a one in a billion chance. It isn’t.
Israeli biophysicist Dr Lee Spetner, in his book Not By Chance, tackled Dawkins on this soon after The Blind Watchmaker was released.
“[Dawkins] noted that the origin of life may be highly improbable at any one place at any one time. Yet, it had a lot of time and space going for it, and that would be enough to make it more likely than not. He, therefore, advised us to try to change the way we look at probabilities. We must stop thinking of the relatively large probabilities with which we are used to dealing. We should, instead, try to think of the very small probabilities that might suit a hypothetical alien being who lives millions of years.
“Dawkins’ advice,” continues Spetner, “shows that he didn’t understand probability.”
Dawkins suggestion was that an alien who lived for a hundred million years and played many hands of the card game, bridge, may well live long enough to see a ‘perfect’ bridge hand where each player was dealt thirteen cards of the same suit.
“They will expect to be dealt a perfect bridge hand from time to time, and will scarcely trouble to write home about it when it happens,” Dawkins says in his book.
“He’s wrong,” states Spetner. “One can easily calculate the chance of Dawkins’ alien experiencing a perfect bridge hand at least once in his lifetime. The chance of getting such a hand in one deal is 4.47×10-28. If the alien plays 100 bridge hands every day of his life for 100 million years, he would play about 3.65×1012 hands. The chance of his seeing a perfect hand at least once in his life is then 1.63×10-15, or about one chance in a quadrillion.”
Based on the known requirements for the Goldilocks factor, scientists have been able to factor more than a hundred critical factors that allow life to exist on Earth. If any one of those factors was missing, we wouldn’t be here. They ran those factors through the probability computations. The chance of life spontaneously arising on any planet in the universe is not one in a billion, as Dawkins offhandedly suggests. It is in fact one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion. In the high stakes card game between scientists “invoking large numbers”, Dawkins lost.
Do you now see the dangers of Dawkins’ throwaway “Suppose…”?
Dr Lee Spetner simply shakes his head, sadly.
“Dawkins’ error is one that evolutionists often make. Many of them have fallen into that trap. They think the Earth’s age [only 4.5 billion years] is long enough for anything to have happened.
“The events necessary for cumulative selection [Darwinian evolution] are much too improbable to build a theory on. The events needed for the origin of life are even more improbable.
“Dawkins did not make a convincing case for the spontaneous origin of life…but his failure to convince is not surprising. Even the army of research scientists working on the problem for the past generation have not succeeded.”
Another whose voice has been heard on the odds against life arising spontaneously is former Yale professor Harold Morowitz, described by his peers as “one of the world’s seminal thinkers about the origin of life within the context of the physics of our universe”. A specialist in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Morowitz once ran the numbers on the “shake and go” theory of generating life: that you can throw a whole bunch of amino acids together under the right conditions and, hey presto, you’ve created Frankenstein’s Amoeba.
As Morowitz pointed out, if you broke open the simplest living cell known to exist today, and broke every chemical bond within it so that you were left with its individual ingredients, the odds in favour of that cell putting itself back together again would be only one chance in 10100,000,000,000. To put that figure in perspective, there haven’t even been that many nano-seconds on the clock since the dawn of time nearly 14 billion years ago.
With odds this remote, explains Hugh Ross, “the time scale issue becomes completely irrelevant. What does it matter if the earth has been around for 10 seconds, 10 thousand years or 10 billion years? The size of the universe is of no consequence either. If all the matter in the visible universe were converted into the building blocks of life, and if assembly of these building blocks was attempted once every microsecond (1 millionth of a second) for the entire age of the universe, then instead of the odds being 1 in 10100,000,000,000 they would be 1 in 1099,999,999,916.” [my emphasis]
Now for the sake of scientific accuracy, that’s not an estimation about the spontaneous generation of life randomly, but it is an estimation of whether the known chemical ingredients of a living cell – every ingredient needed – could re-combine from scratch. Clearly the answer is an emphatic no, never, not in a billion universes.
As Morowitz himself wrote in his study, “A number of authors on the origin of life have missed the significance of vanishingly small probabilities. They have assumed [like Richard Dawkins] that the final probability will be reasonably large by virtue of the size and age of the system. The previous paragraph shows that this is not so: calculable values of the probability of spontaneous origin are so low that the final probabilities are still vanishingly small.”
Picking up on the theme is the aforementioned Robert Shapiro, an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, specialising in DNA, at New York University:
“The answer computed by Morowitz reduces the odds of Hoyle [1 in 1040,000] to utter insignificance: 1 chance in 10100,000,000,000…. This number is so large that to write it in conventional form we would require several hundred thousand blank books. We would enter `1’ on the first page of the first book, and then fill it, and the remainder of the books, with zeros. … The Skeptic will want to rewrite Professor Wald’s conclusion: Improbability is in fact the villain of the plot. The improbability involved in generating even one bacterium is so large that it reduces all considerations of time and space to nothingness. Given such odds, the time until the black holes evaporate and the space to the ends of the universe would make no difference at all. If we were to wait, we would truly be waiting for a miracle,” says Shapiro.
A molecular biophysicist by profession, Morowitz, is pretty clear on what the science tells him:”
“Life is too intricate to have random origins. There are laws of physics and chemistry at work that governed the process. We may not yet know all of the hows, but for a scientist, answering these questions is a continuum of discoveries.”
On the basis of the evidence in front of scientists at present, the chances of life arising naturally anywhere in the universe, without divine intervention of some kind, are currently statistically classed as “impossible”.
There are other factors however, that suggest the universe was designed deliberately for us to discover it, now, at this precise moment in history. These are factors that go beyond the Goldilocks conditions necessary to preserve or nurture life. What I’m talking about is the difference between spending your life in a cave, or being sufficiently inspired to fly to the moon.
In The Privileged Planet, Guillermo Gonzalez and his co-author Jay Richards make the striking suggestion that Earth has deliberately been given a birds-eye view of the Cosmos, solely so that humanity can discover the fingerprints of God. We are the only planet we know of with a fully transparent atmosphere. Since the first humans wandered the Earth, we have had the chance to look at the stars and the sun and wonder. We take it for granted, but in a random universe it could easily have been different. We could have been on a planet with massive cloud cover and never seen the moon or the stars. Think of the impact on our human culture. Would we have built rockets to fly to the moon if we didn’t know it even existed? Would we even have flight, if it was too cloudy for planes to land and take off safely?
Excessive cloud cover and reduction in sunlight would reduce agriculture and plant activity, meaning less food for humans and animals and consequently a more peasant-like existence – hardly the kind likely to develop high technology solutions.
The stability of our orbit and clear atmosphere allowed the ancients to tell the time with sundials, mark off the seasons, keep accurate records of historical events, and navigate by the stars – critical for any attempt to cross and explore the oceans successfully.
Most of our major modern scientific discoveries owe their existence to scientists who were able to use unique attributes of the Earth/moon relationship (eclipses, planetary motion, gravitational pull) to test theories against. No other planet in our solar system, and indeed no other planet that we know of in the universe, is such an ideal lab for scientific discovery as Earth is.
The significance of this is quite simple. Earth could just as easily be a barren rock, and all of its great features for scientific experimentation and observation would be wasted. Not only is it the ultimate all-round viewing platform, but it happens to have exactly the people on board who can make the most of it.
Perched on the outer arm of the Milky Way, Earth has a unique window on the universe. Because of our positioning, our telescopes and equipment have been able to discover fundamental secrets of the universe, looking back through time itself to see light left over from the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Had Earth been positioned closer to the centre of the Milky Way, there would be too much light pollution from other stars for us to see that far into the past. Only here, where we now speed through space, is it possible.
“If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God,” exclaimed Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist and cosmologist George Smoot at the 1992 news conference to announce his team had photographed the background radiation from the Big Bang for the first time.
And here’s how the science journal, Discover, described the fallout of that news conference and the chaos of the Big Bang that our scientists have only been able to study because of Earth’s unique location:
“Some 15 billion years ago, everything in the known universe was crowded into an infinitely dense and hot point that violently exploded. At that time the four forces of nature that govern the universe today – gravity, electromagnetism (which sparks lightning bolts and directs compass needles), and the strong and weak forces which hold atoms intact – were welded together by the unimaginable heat into a single unified force.
“By 10-43 second the universe had cooled to 100 million trillion trillion degrees. Gravity became a distinct force, but matter remained an indistinguishable soup of collisions more energetic than anything witnessed in the universe today.
“After a mere 10-34 second the temperature had dropped to a billion billion billion degrees – cool enough for the first wisps of matter to coalesce. Quarks (black), the building blocks of protons and neutrons, emerged, as did electrons (pink) and similar indivisible particles. As the first pieces of matter formed, the charged conditions also created their antimatter counterparts. At this point the strong force, which holds protons and neutrons together, split off. Three distinct forces – gravity, the strong force, and the electroweak force – began pulling and pushing at the primordial bits of matter.
“By 10-10 second the electromagnetic and weak forces had separated. From that moment on, the four forces began shaping the universe.
“At 10-5 second the universe had cooled to a trillion degrees. When quarks crashed into one another now, they stuck together. At the lower temperatures, particles that rammed into the newly formed protons (blue) and neutrons (green) could no longer knock them apart. Antiquarks also came together and formed antiprotons. For every 10 billion particles of antimatter, the universe contained 10 billion and 1 bits of matter. In the still-dense broth of the early universe, flecks of anti-matter and matter collided, annihilating each other in a flash of particles of light called photons (purple). By now the energy level of the universe was too low to build new quarks and antiquarks, so virtually all antimatter was destroyed, leaving only a fraction of the original mass of the universe. The resulting photons ricocheted around, unable to escape the dense environment.
“One second after the Big Bang, electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, similarly annihilated each other; because electrons slightly outnumbered positrons, only electrons were left.
“One minute after creation, the now relatively sluggish neutrons and protons banged into each other, stuck together, and formed the nuclei of helium, lithium, and heavy forms of hydrogen. After this brief instant in time, the temperature fell below a billion degrees and the density of the ever-expanding universe was too low for such nuclei-forming collisions to occur again. (Billions of years would pass before stars forged helium into heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen – the building blocks of life.)
“When the universe was 300,000 years old and 3,000 degrees hot, the assembled nuclei captured electrons as they whizzed past and formed the first atoms. As electrons were constrained to orbiting atoms, the photons that the electrons had once interacted with began to streak the universe with light. Because the atoms were unevenly scattered throughout the expanding cosmos, the photons emerged in a rather spotty pattern seen today as slight variations in the microwave background radiation – the afterglow of the decoupling of energy from matter.
“After one billion years or so, the pull of gravity had caused atoms to coalesce into clouds of gas. Galaxies formed as the nascent clouds continued to swirl together, perhaps around bits of very dense but undetectable dark matter. In another billion years the galaxies themselves began to group together into superclusters and gigantic structures – bubbles of space with walls of thousands of galaxies surrounding voids millions of light-years across.
“After 3 billion years the stars began to shine. Earth and our solar system formed 10.4 billion years after the Big Bang. After basking for another 2 billion years in the light of our nearest star, our planet sprouted its first traces of life.”
You’ll recall how many ancient tribes believe the earth emerged from water, and Genesis talks about the spirit of God hovering above the waters. What science now knows is that those gas clouds that congealed to become our solar system were comprised of hydrogen, helium and a large amount of “water vapour”.
Little wonder that Nobel Laureate George Smoot was overcome when asked to describe the significance at the news conference to announce all this.
“If you look at what most cosmologists were saying, about half or two-thirds were in some sense mystical or religious: it’s the Holy Grail of cosmology, it’s the birth of the universe, the handwriting of God. It’s the natural description,” he told Discover magazine.
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins tries to suggest that scientists don’t really mean ‘God’ when they mention him: “Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking, and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the language of religious metaphor.”
Much as Richard Dawkins would hate it, George Smoot couldn’t avoid the overtly Christian analogy.
“There is no doubt that a parallel exists between the big bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing,” says Smoot.
Stephen Hawking was equally impressed, calling it “the most important discovery of the century, if not of all time.”
Robert Wilson, one of the pioneers on Big Bang work, told an interviewer, “Certainly there was something that set it all off. Certainly, if you are religious, I can’t think of a better theory of the origin of the universe to match with Genesis.”
Allan Sandage, an award winning cosmologist who even has an asteroid named after him, says God is definitely part of the scientific equation.
“We can’t understand the universe in any clear way without the supernatural.”
Henry Schaeffer III, recognized as one of the world’s leading computational quantum chemists, says the evidence reinforces his belief in Intelligent Design theory:
“A Creator must exist. The Big Bang ripples (1992) and subsequent scientific findings are clearly pointing to an ex nihilo creation consistent with the first few verses of Genesis.”
As if to reinforce the claim that our entire universe is geared towards giving humans a bird’s-eye view of the majesty of God, here’s one other point: Not only are we living in a particular place that makes observation of all this possible, we are living in a particular time that makes it possible. The history of the universe will only be visible in space for a brief period. On current scientific data, the expansion of the universe is mysteriously accelerating, instead of slowing down, throwing many previous assumptions and calculations out the window. If humanity had come into existence a million years from now, there’s a very good chance future scientists could never discover what we are currently observing. In other words, we have ringside seats to a one-time-only performance.
Regardless of what Richard Dawkins tries to tell you, a growing number of scientists are getting that gnawing suspicion that the God of Genesis did indeed build the universe and is having a little fun at their expense by gently reminding them who’s boss.
And speaking of building, think about this. Roughly 70% of the human body is composed of water, which itself is a molecule combining two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. All the hydrogen in your body – all of it – was created in that first minute of the Big Bang. We’re not talking ‘descendants’ of those original hydrogen atoms – we’re talking the very same atoms you just read about. You, I and everyone else are built from 15 billion year old bricks forged in the fire of the most unique event in history.
We are, indeed, children of the universe.
 One wit has even postulated that science fiction is really nothing more than the Christian Left Behind series for atheists: apocalyptic writing where aliens, rather than gods, come to save humanity from themselves. http://www.brucebethke.net/leftbehind_4_atheists.html
 The Bible Code 2, Michael Drosnin, W&N Publishing, 2002, p. 144. Interview of Crick by phone on October 27, 1998. Incidentally, don’t be fooled by The Bible Code – the book itself is rubbish in my view
 A New Zealand born scientist named Ross Taylor, working for NASA during the Apollo missions, was given the task of analyzing moon rocks to determine their origin. Taylor is widely regarded as the father of the “giant impact” theory that is now considered the most likely explanation of lunar creation
 Scientific studies such as Scrutton and Wells’ work in 1963 and 1964 on fossil corals suggest the Earth had a 22 hour day 370 million years ago, and may originally have had a 14 hour day. As a rule of thumb, the steady-state Atomic Clock requires the insertion of a `leap second’ roughly every 1.5 years to keep pace with the slowdown in the Earth’s rotation
 In sharp contrast, the planet Venus is rotating so slowly that it takes nearly a Venusian year to have just one day and night there. The slow spin makes Venus utterly hostile to life, and the surface temperature (because of the thick atmosphere and long day in the sun) is a blisteringly fatal 480ºC
 It is a process known as stagnant lid convection. Because the crust is thicker than Earth’s (our crust is thin thanks to the collision), it builds up heat underneath that eventually flips the continent like a lid on a boiling pot. Venus, again, is a good example. Its surface totally regenerates over a period of time.
 At this blistering speed – around 50 times faster than a bullet from a gun – the chances of a Mars-sized object just happening to collide with Earth by accident in this huge expanse of space are even more remote. And to give you some idea of relativity here, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is screaming through space at 600km per second, or 52 million km a day, fuelled by the force of the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Some other bodies in the universe are moving much faster again, still speeding away from the centre of the Big Bang at a mind-ripping 48,000 km per second – which is fast enough to travel from Earth to the Sun in less than an hour
 Endorsed as “extremely thorough and compelling” by the late Nobel Prize winning biologist, Professor Christian Anfinsen. See pages 164-166
 The Creator and the Cosmos, Hugh Ross, Ph.D. Navpress, 2001. p. 195
 Ibid., p. 204
 Interestingly, Richard Carrier of the website Infidels.org has tried to suggest that Morowitz was not talking about the origin of life: “This statistic is laughable not only for its outrageous size, but for the mere absurdity of anyone who would bother to calculate it – but what is notable is that it has nothing to do with the origin of life.” (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/addendaB.html#Morowitz). Having read Carrier’s attempts to evade the issue, however, I don’t think he has factored in Morowitz’s very explicit comments above. Nor does Carrier appear to have understood the science in Morowitz’s paper, as he misquotes it.
 Energy Flow in Biology, Harold Morowitz, Ox Bow Press, 1979, p. 12
 Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, Robert Shapiro, Summit: New York NY, 1986, pp.125-128. Shapiro argued that protein must be the answer, protein must be capable of generating RNA and both RNA and protein work together to create DNA. Except, this provides no explanation as to how random chemicals could assemble in such a way as to encode intelligent crucial information capable of being read and understood by humans the same way we read an encyclopedia.
 http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/8808/ Morowitz describes his own beliefs as ‘pantheist’ – that God is Nature. He currently theorises that Nature requires life to arise in order to soak up excess energy in our biosphere. The process remains frustratingly elusive, however
 The `-‘ indicates this is a fraction of a second, in this case a one million trillion trillion trillionth of a second after the Bang began, or thereabouts
 God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? by John Lennox, Lion, 2007, p29 cited