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Is Life by Design, Chance, or Miracle

Page history last edited by Audrey Zimbelman 15 years, 6 months ago

Summary of Today's Topic


Despite the very small probability of life arising on Earth, it has been the belief of exobiologists that life is inevitable under the right conditions. The "right conditions"  are similar to primordial Earth. This view can be described as deterministic: where life is able to develop, it will, giving hope to the search for life on other Earth-like planets.


There still exists a very low probability of the conditions of life arising elsewhere, but four main beliefs can be summed up:

  • Life cannot emerge again.
  • High number of planets, suns, etc allows for life elsewhere.
  • Life probably will not be found in "human" scales of time.
  • Life must be caused by a deity/designer.


     The formation of proteins is not exactly random due to the laws of chemistry, in which some are favored over others.  Amino acids must be hooked together to form proteins.  Using factorials to show the chances of the necessary proteins coming together, the odds of life emerging decrease rapidly.  Sydney Fox, in his soup of 20 amino acids, supported the fact that certain combinations are favored over others due to the laws of Chemistry.  It's not completely random. This can be related to the probability in poker of getting a Royal Flush. The combination is favored, but the probability of getting it still remains the same as getting other hands that aren't as good.


     Richard Dawkins, in a chapter called Origins and Miracles in his book titled The Blind Watchmaker speaks entirely in terms of probabilities, and these probabilities placed on a scale of how imaginable they are. He asked the question, "What is the largest single event of sheer naked coincidence, sheer unadulterated miraculous luck, that we are allowed to get away with in our theories, and still say that we have a satisfactory explanation of life?" (pg 141) His entire chapter is devoted to answering that question, which he answers quite convincingly that we should be able to get away with enormous single events of sheer naked coincidences.


     Dawkins wrote about the DNA & protein sequence having the chicken & egg problem as to which one emerges first.  Glasgow chemist Cairns-Smith presents a theory that gets around this problem. In it, crystals create themselves, forming spontaneously under chemical law and replicate themselves with all the same arrangements of molecules.  This is the case for snowflakes, for example.  Mutations, or flaws, can be replicated in the crystals as well.  A successful crystal would reproduce more while an unsuccessful crystal wouldn't.  This model presents clay as the scaffolding for which DNA & RNA formed the first living things. 


     Also according to Dawkins, the creator must at least be as complex as what has been designed.  This however, is untestable and it solves no problems according to natural law to say that the creator made everything; this is the basis of Dawkins' atheistic view.  If you say that the creator made DNA and RNA but don't explain where the creator comes from then you still have not solved the problem of the origin of life according to Dawkins.  He believes that there should be a system that uses natural law to explain the origin of life and that that system will be the only correct one.  He believes that the only correct theory will be the type of theory that is improbable to our minds because we can not conceptualize numbers large enough for this delimma.


     Dawkins says that miracles are not by a deity, but rather happen by extraordinary luck. In regards to this, Dawkins seems to refer to there being a finite amount of "luck" in the universe, and states that if we save this "luck" for things that are very statistically unlikely, it is more likely that life will emerge.  There is no precise line, according to Dawkins, between something that is highly improbable and something that is miraculous. He uses the example of a statue waving.  This he says would not be a miracle, but rather, an extremely unlikely event of all of the molecules shifting at the same time. He expresses the need for luck in getting from one step to another in the development of life because of the low probability.  As time goes on, though, once you get cumulative selection started, only a small amount of luck is needed in subsequent evolution of life and intelligence.  This shows that Dawkins is a deterministic evolutionist.


Dawkins's arguments against design theories are compelling and present a valid claim removing such theories from "natural law" explanations of the origin of life.  In other words, Dawkins attempts to prove that no design theory can be satisfactory in solving the problem of the origin of life in a naturalistic setting.  However, very few (if any) design theories make any assumptions about being consistent with natural law, hence the supernatural aspects.  Thus while Dawkins's arguments are valid, they are not necessarily groundbreaking and will probably serve to change the minds of very few.

Primary Sources


http://www.richarddawkins.com/ - A pretty interesting website on Dawkins that goes over his different books. There is also a video of him speaking at a college (although irrelevant to our discussion of plurality) which is amusing to watch.


http://www.answersingenesis.org/docs/264.asp - An argument against Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker.



Key Terms, Definitions, and People


Miracle - a highly improbable event; For instance, being struck by lightning at the very moment that you say you will be.


Scale of Improbabilities - a measure of how factors affect the probabilities of certain events occurring in comparison to others.


Relevant Links

Richard Dawkins' homepage- information about all of his books and dvd's and other various information that relates to him and his work.  


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