A Question For Those Who Acknowledge Evolution

If you don’t believe in the process of evolution as an explanation for the development of life on earth, you can stop reading right about here. Really, there’s nothing to see here…

For those who do take evolution at face value, I have a question that I would like your help with.

Ready? Here we go…

On one hand I hear and read science oriented people talk about evolution. Sometimes they will be asked a simple question about the current lack of new life forms or the observable presence of transitional forms. Generally at this point the discussion turns to statistics and probabilities and they will usually talk about the incredible odds on life having every started the evolutionary process at all let alone for that to be an ongoing experience here and now. Sometimes they will point to micro-evolution (ie. people getting shorter, taller, losing wisdom teeth, etc.) but these are not transitional forms.

Then, on the other hand, when I read or hear other science oriented people talking about life in the universe they’ll, in the absence of data, will turn to statistics and probabilities and insist that it’s highly probable that life has sprung up in some other part of our universe.

So here’s my deal – which is it? Life springing up is highly likely or it’s not? And if it is, why don’t we see new forms or transitional forms here and now where conditions have already been proven to support life? Or are these two branches of science completely at odds in the way they use statistics and probabilities? If it’s not highly likely, why do we talk about life beginning on other planets as if it is?

Please feel free to link some articles/sites/books that could shed some light and offer as complicated an explanation as you’d like! Similarly, feel free to explain to me why my question makes no sense or is a ‘bad question.

Note: this is a real question, not a veiled shot at evolution or in support of “intelligent design/creationism”. Looking for an answer here, not an argument.

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About brianmpei

Stumbling towards what comes next.
This entry was posted in evolution, faith, Meaning, questions, Reflective, tradition, truth. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to A Question For Those Who Acknowledge Evolution

  1. Neil says:

    That’s why evolution is called the “damned” science. Depending on the parameters of the study, the assumptions used in gathering and accessing the data and the limitations implicit in the conclusions drawn…you can make numbers say whatever you want them to say.

    I personally believe in limited evolution. After all, each dog that exists today, came from the two that went into the ark with Noah. One can, therefore, easily see the multiple changes that are permittable within the boundaries of genetic propriety. Changes in the genetic material, within each “kind” (according to the Bible) are permitted and obviously do occur. But as you say, although the changes happening within various species do occur, changes that result in new creatures or drastic improvements within a species do not. In fact, insects caught in amber, dated to be 200 million years old are no different in appearance or DNA from those that exist in the wild today.

    And even if statistically a viable human being could be formed by chance from systematic evolution, one would still be left with a dead body. All the proteins, basic building blocks, DNA, etc exist within a dead person, and yet that person still does not exhibit life, the spark of being. And no amount of evolution can create that.

    • brianmpei says:

      I’m not thinking so much of a human being as I am life in a more general sense. And evolution, despite the press, doesn’t really teach that a monkey became or becomes a man. Evolution would basically agree that things reproduce after their kind. (Other than one ‘sub-theory’ it wouldn’t suggest that dinosaurs give birth to, say, chickens.) But it would expand, thanks to a nearly infinite amount of time, the number of genetic changes that lead us off in all sorts of directions.

  2. Dan says:

    Life springing up is highly likely or it’s not?

    We have a rough idea of what conditions we think are needed for biogenesis to occur. But this idea of necessary pre-requisites for life is based on our close observations of life/non-life on only one planet – this one, and our distant observations on only a few others.

    And if it is, why don’t we see new forms or transitional forms here and now where conditions have already been proven to support life?

    (I did a strikeout of the transitional forms because that doesn’t appear to be applicable to the rest of your question)
    However proto-cellular life might arise from life-like organic chemistry, it doesn’t make sense that it would work very well at first. Add on to that the fact that bacteria are so ubiquitous on Earth and so good at gobbling up organic chemicals as nutrients, any new-forming proto-cells would almost certainly be a bacteria’s dinner real fast. And if this happens all the time on other planets, proto-cells would be too small to notice from Earth and thus we can’t rule them out even as close as Mars.

    If it’s not highly likely, why do we talk about life beginning on other planets as if it is?

    From astronomers’ current estimates of the number of planets in the universe, there are probably trillions. So even if life is so improbable as to occur on only one planet in a million, that’s still probably millions of planets with life. Thus, from what little we do know, it appears that it’s extremely probable at least a couple other planets in the Universe harbor life.

    • brianmpei says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful answer.

      First, I’ve got to learn how to do the strike out thing.

      Second, your explanation of the presence of aggressive bacteria – life – now being the enemy of new life certainly makes sense. Most of my studies have been in human evolution and I’ll clearly have to do some reading. How did we get around the bacteria to begin with?

      Third, I keep getting stuck on the stats. Here’s how somebody else described it:
      ““At present, Earth is the only example we have of a planet with life. If we learned the planet would be habitable for a set period and that we had evolved early in this period, then even with a sample of one, we’d suspect that evolution from simple to complex and intelligent life was quite likely to occur. By contrast, we now believe that we evolved late in the habitable period, and this suggests that our evolution is rather unlikely. In fact, the timing of events is consistent with it being very rare indeed.”

      Prof Watson suggests the number of evolutionary steps needed to create intelligent life, in the case of humans, is four. These probably include the emergence of single-celled bacteria, complex cells, specialized cells allowing complex life forms, and intelligent life with an established language.

      “Complex life is separated from the simplest life forms by several very unlikely steps and therefore will be much less common. Intelligence is one step further, so it is much less common still,” said Prof Watson.

      His model, published in the journal Astrobiology, suggests an upper limit for the probability of each step occurring is 10 per cent or less, so the chances of intelligent life emerging is low – less than 0.01 per cent over four billion years.

      Each step is independent of the other and can only take place after the previous steps in the sequence have occurred. They tend to be evenly spaced through Earth’s history and this is consistent with some of the major transitions identified in the evolution of life on Earth.”

      – Science 2.0 http://www.science20.com/news_releases/the_mathematical_probability_of_life_on_other_earth_like_planets

      Thanks again for your insights!

      • Dan says:

        I’m glad to answer thoughtful questions. 😉

        The estimates that you cite, however, are pure conjecture.

        Oh, and for the strikeout – just put “strike” or “/strike” between the html carrots “”. (see below the space to add a new comment on this page, there are example HTML tags)

      • Dan says:

        Dang, the html code “ate” the “<" and it's reverse that I tried typing.

  3. I believe in evolution and not Evolution…. I believe there is far too much science to prove we were created by God or if you wish, a higher power. I believe since creation though there is evidence of evolution in humanity. Not from animals, but humanity itself evolving. The Kingdom itself is evolving and progressively coming to earth as it is in heaven. So yes I believe in evolution of some sorts. You want to pick a fight with me, well do you punk? Make my day! 🙂

    • brianmpei says:

      Haha! I won’t get into the discussion on how God created us through the process of evolution…I’ll just say that I believe in an expanding universe because my close seem to be getting too small…

  4. Neil G says:

    I misquoted my first comment above, the other day. I meant to say that a fellow commented that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. The problem is that stats can be used to justify just about anything, depending on the questions asked, the tests being run and the assumptions used on the test.

    A small case in point. Today when I woke up, I noticed that the day had turned light outside which told me that in my sleep, the sun had once again come up on PEI. If the evolutionists are correct and the earth is indeed 4 billion years old, then this same event has occurred for over 1.2 trillion consecutive days in a row. So what are the odds that the sun will come up tomorrow. Actually, just 50%. You see the test is will the sun rise. It either will, or it will not. Only two conditions, and therefore the probability is 50% for either event. However, realistically…will the sun come up tomorrow all things being equal? Most definitely. Why?

    A little investigation will show that statistics, by its very nature in being testable, precise and logical, falls far short of reality because it fails to use a few other tried and true methods to determine event probability.

    Given that the sun has come up for 1.2 trillion times in a row; given that all the conditions that made it rise today (space-time placement, quantum mechanics, Newtonian laws of physics and motion, composition of sun and earth, etc), will be exactly the same tomorrow; given that if all natural conditions remain the same, then the outcome must be the same as well…I can accurately predict that the sun WILL come up tomorrow. Now, granted, I could die and not see the sun, the sun could go supernova, the earth could be hit by an asteroid and fly off into outer space, etc. So the probability will not be 100%…but based on what has happened before, it must be more than 50%!

    Statistics ignores past history; ignores mitigating factors such as human nature, outcome bias and more; completely sets aside outside influences and factors other than blind chance that could effect the final outcome.

    My 2 cents

    • Dan says:

      Neil,
      It either will, or it will not. Only two conditions, and therefore the probability is 50% for either event.

      That’s pretty stupid, as you say. But the problem is not with statistics itself as you say, it’s with the amount of data you have to crunch the numbers, and more importantly, it’s about the corroborating data to offer a testable explanation. For instance, for your sun analogy, you have a testable hypothesis why the sun will “come up tomorrow”: centripetal force (in reality, it won’t “come up,” we will be the ones moving, but you get the point). Centripetal force can be tested.

      Unfortunately for the origin of life, we have a rough idea of the variables for what conditions probably influence biogenesis, and an outline of probable chemistries involved, but only for Earth. It’s kinda difficult for us to infer the likelihood of life arising on planets that aren’t identical to Earth – we have no data to run statistics or lab experiments with.

      No data = bad statistics.

      • brianmpei says:

        So then those who would use statistics to say there must be life on other planets is really pure conjecture? I’m not opposed to life on other planets in principle but the use of statistics to insist there must be doesn’t make sense for exactly the reason your a citing here.

        I also struggle with statistics about origins – as per Neil’s use of Twain’s quote – because it seems to rely on constants over such a long period of time that constants seem – heehee – statistically impossible. I remember in University looking at contaminated remains and the crazy dating results that they gave us.

        It’s not unusual for different branches of science to disagree with each others results or presuppositions. I think what you’re saying here is the key, evolution looks at a great deal of observable data and extrapolates. Theories about life on other planets looks at extremely limited data and supposes.

  5. Dan says:

    Brian,
    “So then those who would use statistics to say there must be life on other planets is really pure conjecture?”

    Yes exactly. All you have to go on is the knowledge that (1) life seems to persist in the most extreme environments (microbes bolted to the outside of the International Space Station were recently found to still be viable, or alive, after 553 days in space (in the news), (2) organic molecules are known to be found (albeit in trace amounts) on asteroids, and (3) how simple it is for organic molecules to form under a growing range of conditions. As persuasive as that alone is to suggest the plausibility for biogenesis, it gives you zero information with which to estimate frequency of occurrence, strictly speaking.

  6. Neil says:

    Dan,

    Even if our data is fairly good, the odds of such an event as life forming totally by blind chance, are simply astronomical.

    Small case in point. Most protein have between 500 to 10,000 amino acids in each string in a certain specific order. For protaic strings, there are 20 amino acids to choose from to put into the string. Therefore the odds of one protein (lets use one 100 amino acids long for the sake of calculation) forming strictly by chance are:

    20 times 20 times 20….100 times/divided by 100 = about 10 to the power of 130
    (1 followed by 130 zeros). Is it reasonable to assume that one protein like this could form by chance in this universe. We can calculate the odds again fairly simply.

    My only assumptions would be these: 1) scientists estimate 10 to the power of 22 stars in the observable universe. I’ll multiply this by 1,000 to make it 10 to the P25. I’ll also put 10 planets around each of these stars. That’s 10 to the P26 planets.
    2) Now, I’ll put in each of these “earths” an ocean the same size as our own (estimated by Scientific American to have 10 to the P46 molecules in it) filled with only amino acids. So that’s 10 to the P72 amino acids in all the universe in my scenario. 3) now, time. I’ll assume that the universe is 14 billion years old and that every second, a new 100 long protein will attempt to be formed by chance from my amino acid soup. In other words, since 100 is P2, every second that the universe is around, 10 to P72 divided by 10 to P2, or 10 to P70 chains will form in my universe. So the total number of proteins formed on all these “earths” in the whole universe for all time would be 10 to P70 times seconds in one year (about 10 to the power of 8) times 14 billion years.

    Works out to around 10 to P88. But the number of possibilities for that protein is 10 to P130, so the probability of forming a specific given protein in 10 to P88 tries is 10 to P42 (1 followed by 42 zeros).

    To put that into perspective, the odds of a chimpanzee typing the total collected works of William Shakespeare by hitting each key on a standard MS computer keyboard in the proper order all the way through is about 10 to P30. So this example with the protein is 10 to P12 (a thousand trillion times less likely to occur),

    And this is for a single protein.

    And even if one could be formed (’cause there is that one chance, out of all those odds)
    I’d still be left with something I can find in any energy drink. But not living.

    My faith can’t handle the degree of belief I’d need to trust creative evolution. Theistic evolution, I can handle.

    • brianmpei says:

      What if the chimp used a Mac? 😉

      Couldn’t resist…

    • Dan says:

      Neil,
      You only prove my point by resorting to a thought experiment because you have no data to back it up. Worse, you build a straw man by claiming that anyone is arguing against you in saying that “new 100 long protein[s] will attempt to be formed by chance from my amino acid soup” under any conditions. The monkeys-typing-Shakespeare argument is a classic straw man.

    • Dan says:

      Brian,
      The real question is not whether “new 100 long proteins can form by chance,” it’s whether something akin to the reverse Citric Acid Cycle could form under conditions of a reducing atmosphere. (Reverse, that is, relative to today’s Citric Acid Cycle which functions in an oxidizing atmosphere provided a source of energy, such as pyruvic acid). All of the chemicals necessary to start this are commonplace, you just need an input of energy. We have a limited idea of where that idea could have come from – derived from the examples of photosynthesis and chemosynthesis here on earth – and we have no way of ruling out other possibilities.

      From the reverse citric acid cycle, you’d have the start of a metabolism capable of producing all of the ~500 amino acids, nucleotides, lipids, vitamins, co-factors, etc., needed to produce the kind of life that we see today. All you need is a reverse citric acid cycle (plus energy source, mentioned) that, basically, produces errors every now and then to produce that chemical diversity.

      Things like RNA-enzymes or true proteins could come later. They’re add-ons to the metabolism needed to sustain life anyway.

      So does this prove abiogenesis: no. But it’s the most plausible scenario that I’ve yet heard of… it certainly rises far above the crude “god did it” failsafe of religion.

  7. Neil says:

    …then it gets worse. I counted the keys on my MS (69) and my MAC (84). 🙂

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