Chapter 1: Proteins and Time
Design or Chance
I lived in Italy for 34 years, and could often spot Roman ruins, even at a distance while driving down the freeway at Italian speeds. The most massive Roman amphitheaters were basically one brick on top of another. Roman bricks are flat, about an inch thick and a foot long. Their design is very simple, and objects with simple designs are more apt to happen by chance than those that are more complex. However, in spite of the simplicity of the bricks, they, and the huge complex structures the Romans built from them, are obviously products of intelligent design.
What clues can help determine whether cells and the things they are made of were designed by an intelligent Creator or fell together without any intelligent input?
Is the Cell Simple?
Once, when my boys were little, they called me over to look in their toy microscope. As I shared their excitement at the sight of some single celled creatures, little blobs moving around in a drop of water, my thoughts turned to the microscopes of Darwin's time. I realized that scientists in those days must have thought that blobs like these really were simple.
Evolutionists notice that all cells have more or less the same basic parts and conclude that they all evolved from one first cell. There is another possibility, the one that comes to mind when we notice that thousands of different Roman structures, from amphitheaters to aqueducts, are made of bricks stacked one on top of another. They did not evolve one from another, they were all products of intelligent design.
Even the simplest cell is millions of times more complex than the Roman Coliseum. Its complexity makes it difficult to believe that there was no intelligence involved in its production.
When proposing the spontaneous appearance of the first cell, many "science" books still talk about the apparently simple blobs that people could see in the primitive microscopes of long ago. Is it possible that they want to avoid facing the problem of how the fantastic complexity of even the simplest cell could have come about?
The Origin of Life
For years, those who believed that the first life formed with no God involved taught that simple chemicals became concentrated in the ocean, making an organic broth of ever more complex chemicals out of which life emerged.
Some call this idea "chemical evolution." This is a straightforward term which brings to mind simple chemicals developing into more complex chemicals, and ties the formation of the first life to the rest of the theory of evolution. "Abiogenesis," however, is now the preferred word for this theory. It is a bit confusing because the word is made up of three Greek roots: "not," "life," and "generate," which would seem to mean, "There is no spontaneous generation of life." It is used today to mean just the opposite: "The production of living organisms from non-living matter."1
The theory that life began when proteins, DNA, and RNA were formed by chance, or by some sort of chemical evolution and somehow got together, has been taught to enough generations that not only atheists accept it, but many who believe in God feel this must be the way He created life.
Let's dive in and examine the steps in the formation of the first life as taught to the last few generations. Then we will examine the more recent variations of the theme.
Amino Acids, the Building Blocks of Proteins
Proteins, the main ingredients of living things, are made of amino acids. Stanley Miller's experiment in 1953 became famous because it showed a way in which amino acids could be formed apart from already living cells. (See Figure A.) It was hailed as a way that life could have begun without a Creator, and is still honored by most biology texts. If amino acids could be formed apart from cells, why not protein, DNA, and everything else a cell needs?
Miller's first step was to create an atmosphere containing the chemicals of which amino acids are composed. He then passed a spark through his chosen atmosphere. Small amounts of amino acids were produced.2
Does this mean life could form?
There were problems:
Only around half of the twenty amino acids from which proteins are formed were produced.
A much larger quantity of other chemicals, mostly useless tars, was also formed.
Had there been oxygen in the atmosphere it would have combined with the other chemicals in the atmosphere so that no amino acids would have formed. Some researchers think oxygen was there all along:
"But many researchers now hold that the ancient Earth's atmosphere, compared with the earlier view, had more oxygen and less hydrogen-as the atmosphere does today. Amino acids don't form as readily under that condition as they did in the 1953 experiment, and when they do form, they tend to break apart."3
After the first spark had produced amino acids, additional sparks would have broken them down again. To prevent this, Miller built a trap into the apparatus to take newly formed amino acids out of the cycle and save them from destruction. The trap is usually more or less ignored, but its presence means Miller's experiment does not show what might happen in nature. The trap ensured the survival of amino acids. In nature, where there is no trap, if any amino acids were created, the quantity which survived would have been negligible. That is why Miller included the trap.
Many books suggest the contrary, that in nature, lightning passing through the right atmosphere would have formed enough of the necessary amino acids to combine to make all the essential proteins of the first living cell. At the same time, DNA and/or RNA were imagined to have formed and to have gotten together with the proteins. The first living cell is claimed to have been the result, but was that possible?
One huge problem is that amino acids produced like this will not work in living things. Amino acids come in two forms called right and left-handed because one is a mirror image of the other. Proteins which contain all left-handed amino acids will connect correctly with the surrounding proteins. However, if a right-handed amino acid is included, the shape of the protein is changed and the protein will not work in a living cell. If proteins were first formed of the R and L mixture of amino acids produced in Miller's experiment, it would have been impossible for them to connect to one another.
To understand this, think of a jigsaw puzzle already put together and lying on a table. Take one piece out of the middle, turn it upside down and try to fit it back where you took it out. It won't fit because what should be at the right end of the piece is now at the left and vice versa. Even one right-handed amino acid changes the shape of the protein in which it is found. In the place where that acid is found, the protein sticks out where it should dip in and in where it should stick out.
Whenever amino acids are formed outside of living cells, they are always half left-handed (L amino acids) and half right-handed (D amino acids). The mixture is called a racemic mixture. Both L and D amino acids take part equally well in ordinary chemical reactions, but in living organisms the shape is so important that only proteins made entirely of L amino acids will connect properly, and they never happen in nature outside of living cells.
People who believe life started without a Creator seldom mention this problem, but here it is from a scientist who claims to have found crystals which will separate small amounts of amino acids to an "exciting" 55 to 45 percent mixture:
"The puzzle is that amino acids, the constituents of proteins, occur in two chemically identical forms that have structures mirroring each other like two gloves. Most chemical processes yield left-and right-handed amino acids in equal amounts yet life forms contain left-handed amino acids almost exclusively."4
Since it would take 100% left-handed amino acids to make a useful protein, Gorman's percentages (55% to 45%), though slightly better than the usual fifty fifty, would not help make proteins. The importance he attributes to even a small increase in the percentage of left-handed amino acids helps you understand that living things need left-handed amino acids.
It gets worse. Pure left-handed amino acids spontaneously become "racemic." That is, after they have been made in cells or in labs, they start switching back to their natural state, which is half left and half right-handed. One at a time, they switch from their current handedness and become a mixture of both left and right-handed amino acids.
Over the years, schoolbooks have made it sound like amino acids such as those produced by Miller's experiment would have come together to make proteins. By doing this, they have helped convince millions of students that life formed with no Creator. But should our schools be leading students to believe things that are untrue to favor one religious belief over another? Certainly the faith that proteins suitable for life could be formed by a mixture of right and left-handed amino acids is not sustained by the observations or experiments of science.
To sum things up, schoolbooks that report on Miller's experiment usually withhold the following vital evidence:
Miller's experiment produced only about half of the amino acids used by the proteins of living things.
Amino acids produced like this are mixed right and left-handed. They cannot be used to form proteins that will work in cells.
The fact that Miller became famous when he was able to make half of the necessary amino acids under conditions which might have occurred in nature, attracted other scientists to try the next step: putting amino acids together to make proteins, the main ingredients of living cells.
…not one of the complex proteins of living things is ever formed under conditions similar to those in nature except by already living cells.
Since no way has been found by which nature could ever provide all left-handed amino acids, scientists purchased all twenty types of fresh left-handed amino acids from chemical supply houses. They then made the perfect organic broth themselves. However, the amino acids would not link together to form proteins. In spite of the tremendous rewards that await the winner, not one of the complex proteins of living things is ever formed under conditions similar to those in nature except by already living cells.
Today, most school biology books still use Miller's experiment to help convince kids that life could have formed by natural causes. But I found a biology textbook which admits that amino acids in an organic broth could not get together to form proteins:
"Scientists have not been able to cause amino acids dissolved in water to join together to form proteins. The energy-requiring chemical reactions that join amino acids are reversible and do not occur spontaneously in water. However, most scientists no longer argue that the first proteins assembled spontaneously. Instead, they now propose that the initial macromolecules were composed of RNA, and that RNA later catalyzed the formation of proteins."5
I would like to say that it was for the sake of honesty and truth that these authors have finally revealed the fact that amino acids won't form proteins in water, but they clearly state the reason: "most scientists no longer argue that the first proteins assembled spontaneously. Instead, they now propose that the initial macromolecules were composed of RNA, and that RNA later catalyzed the formation of proteins." Most of the books I have examined are not yet openly admitting that proteins "do not occur spontaneously in water." In fact, many lead the reader to believe the opposite.
For years creationists were almost alone in objecting to this untruth being taught as science. They were joined, however, as far back as 1981 by a well known scientist who believes in evolution and is one of the top men in first life research. He wrote:
"Since science has not the vaguest idea how (proteins) originated, it would only be honest to admit this to students, the agencies funding research, and the public."6
Proteins, like houses, do not build themselves. A cell, however, would be better compared to a city than a house because, just as it takes many houses to make a city, the simplest of cells are composed of at least hundreds of proteins. Proteins, like houses, soon break down, so even if some proteins could build themselves (which they cannot) a concentration of all the needed proteins could never build up.
In addition, their left-handed amino acids switch toward half left and half right-handed even after they have been made into proteins. To function in a living cell, each protein must have its own peculiar three-dimensional shape. Usually if even one right-handed amino acid is included, it changes the shape of the protein enough that it cannot function properly. In a living cell a protein in which an amino acid has switched handedness is chopped up and replaced with a new one. If the impossible had happened, and a first protein had built up, some of its amino acids would have switched to right-handed while it was waiting for the other proteins to form. As soon as the first amino acid had switched, the protein in which it was found would have become useless.
The spontaneous formation of proteins, which for years was taught in school textbooks, among other places, was unscientific. It proposed not just one, but a long series of chance happenings that could never happen:
The amino acids formed by passing a spark through the correct atmosphere would be suitable for making proteins (all the essential types, and all left-handed).
These amino acids would come together to form an organic broth from which proteins would form.
The first proteins, once formed, could wait millions of years for the formation of the remaining proteins necessary to form a cell.
The ocean would allow the right proteins to concentrate in one place and not wash them apart. (Or, as some claim, the entire sea would have been filled with organic broth).7
DNA and/or RNA would also form in nature and get together with all the necessary proteins. A cell wall would form around them.
A schoolbook stated one reason why proteins are not formed in nature outside of cells: "The energy-requiring chemical reactions that join amino acids are reversible and do not occur spontaneously in water." Another reason is that to form proteins, the amino acids must be linked together in a particular order. Let's use a gold chain as an analogy. Gold, like amino acids, can be found in nature, yet even though the links of most gold chains can be inserted in any order, chains made of many links of gold are never produced by the random forces of nature. Proteins are much more difficult because their amino acids must be linked together in a particular order, and that order is different for each protein. DNA not only tells the cell how to link amino acids together, but also specifies the order in which each amino acid must be linked.
Some claim that proteins can form because amino acids have a natural tendency to link up in a particular order. This idea is in error because in that case only that one protein could be produced. It is only by following the instructions in DNA that the amino acids can link in the right orders to form each of the different proteins.
Why did anyone believe that cells could evolve from proteins when not even one of the proteins of living things can be made by chance? Parents and children trusted schoolbooks which manipulated the evidence to support a a philosophic/religious viewpoint which was based on a faith commitment, not on scientific evidence. When it became obvious that no scientific solution to the problem of protein formation would be found, a psychological solution was seized upon.
Billions of Years
In the past, many people were convinced that the first life could have been formed by chance because the time available was so incomprehensibly vast. The famous Harvard biology professor George Wald popularized this idea in 1955 with his famous quote:
"Time is the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years… Given so much time the 'impossible' becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs miracles."8
To understand probabilities, we often use the illustration of flipping a coin. If you want a penny to come up heads a thousand times in a row, there will be more chance of it happening if you flip it for two billion years than if you flip it for an hour. Wald has something like this in mind.
Time, however, does not increase the chance that the penny would turn into a nickel, a dime, a quarter and a silver dollar which would then sprout wings and fly off together into the sunset doing aerobatic stunts in a tight formation. Time does increase the probability of something happening if it can happen, but the statement "time itself performs miracles" is false. Wald understood that if one took the evidence at face value, it would be impossible not only for chance to put together a first cell, but even for it to put together any one of the many necessary proteins. To keep from resorting to God, he needed to find something else which could do miracles. His quote, "time itself performs miracles" seemed to explain how things that could not happen without miracles could have happened. His whole statement seemed possible because part of the statement was true.
If someone says that a frog turned into a prince, we immediately recognize it as a fairy tale. But when respected teachers and textbooks tell us that in many millions of years frogs did in fact turn into princes, the idea somehow sounds scientific. Billions of years are even better. This book, however, is not concerned with how convincing billions of years can be made to sound, but with, "Could they perform the miracle of life?" Evaluate the evidence for yourself.
If amino acids and other chemicals produced in nature did not break down but accumulated to form an organic broth, in time the chemicals that are produced more easily and those that break down more slowly would have predominated. Consequently, some of life's most necessary chemicals would have been rare or non-existent.
Outside of living cells, all left-handed amino acids do not form under natural conditions; much less get together to form proteins. They do, however, switch spontaneously to a useless mixture of left and right-handed.9 This fact is sometimes used to help police identify a body if they need to know its age at the time of death.10 Unlike the proteins in the rest of our bodies, those in our teeth are not eliminated when one of their amino acids turns right-handed. Because of this, right-handed amino acids build up in teeth, and the percentage that have changed to right-handed can be measured. Professor Ohtani, one of the world's foremost experts in forensic medicine, referring to aspartic acid, the amino acid which changes from left to right-handed most rapidly, writes that at 37 degrees Celsius (body temperature), "it will take about 17 years to change 1% of L-aspartic acid into D-form." (D stands for right-handed).
He believes the ocean temperature at the time life formed might have been quite cold, around 15O C. He says that at this temperature "…it is calculated that it takes 75,188 years to change 1% of the L-form aspartic acid into D-aspartic acid…"11
Not 1%, but just one right-handed amino acid in a protein usually blocks that protein's biological activity, so if by some miracle the ocean started out full of all left-handed amino acids, in a relatively short time far too many amino acids would have become right-handed to permit the formation of proteins.
A Mammoth Disappointment
I still remember the dramatic announcement that an entire mammoth, reported to have lived between ten and twenty thousand years ago, had been found frozen in Siberia. Its huge tusks, shown sticking out of a great block of ice, were flown by helicopter to a place where scientists could work on the beast. Freezing is the method used in laboratories to preserve cells for artificial insemination, and it was hoped that, frozen as it was, at least some of its trillions of strands of DNA would have been preserved intact. Then perhaps the animal could be cloned, or a sex cell would be found which could be bred with a modern elephant.
After the very hopeful first announcement, not much was said in America, so I quote from The Moscow Times:
"Those reports have subsequently been proven false. The block actually contains only scattered remains, including bones, fur and tissue. Scientists say the find holds nothing especially valuable, and certainly nothing that could be cloned. 'Elementary knowledge of physics rules that out.' For cloning to work, Tikhonov said, it is necessary to find an intact cell containing a whole segment of DNA. Since water makes up around 80 percent of cells, frozen cells necessarily expand and rupture. 'It's impossible to find an intact cell in a block that has been frozen more than 1,000 years.'"12
The mammoth was a big disappointment for those who believed that frozen DNA would last for very long periods of time.
Scientists can, however, study DNA even when it is quite old using a method called gene amplification. They only need to find pieces long enough to contain around 140 base pairs (rungs of the DNA ladder).13 (By way of comparison, a human cell contains around three billion base pairs of DNA). A strand of DNA is incredibly thin, so after a cell dies, its DNA soon breaks into shorter pieces. RNA breaks down even more rapidly.
Scientists needed a way to determine whether DNA found in old specimens like the mammoth, dinosaurs, etc. had come from the specimens themselves, the hands of the people who had handled them, or bacteria from ground water which had passed through, etc. It was discovered that the amino acids in proteins break down from all left-handed to right and left-handed at about the same rate that the DNA strand breaks into pieces. Therefore, if some of the amino acids in the proteins of an old specimen have already become right-handed, and complete strands of DNA are found, they they are not from the specimen, but are recent arrivals.14
Amino acids and DNA are always breaking down, but it happens more rapidly in the presence of both water and heat.15 Seeds that need to keep their DNA intact until the next spring or longer, often have a natural waterproof coating.
The "organic broth" from which the first cell is claimed to have come is mostly water. This would speed up the breakdown of DNA, RNA, amino acids, and proteins. It would be one of the worst places to try to build up a concentration of these substances. If, over billions of years, a protein molecule could have formed, it would have broken down long before the hundreds of other proteins needed to form a cell could have formed.
Stanley Miller, writing about the hot water vents in the ocean floor where many claim the first life formed, states:
"Submarine vents don't make organic compounds, they decompose them. …the entire ocean goes through those vents in 10 million years. So all of the organic compounds get zapped every ten million years. If all the polymers and other goodies that you make get destroyed, it means life has to start early and rapidly. If you look at the process in detail, it seems that long periods of time are detrimental, rather than helpful."16
Wald thought that two billion years had been available to make "the impossible possible." However, as more fossils have been found, animals that once fit neatly in a particular evolutionary segment of time are often found also in older or younger strata and less and less time (if any) remains for evolution.
A modern Nobel prize winning evolutionist explains that fossils of advanced forms of life have been found in strata dated three billion years older than Wald thought possible.
"Advanced forms of life existed on earth at least 3.55 billion years ago…. On the other hand, it is believed that our young planet, still in the throes of volcanic eruptions and battered by falling comets and asteroids, remained inhospitable to life for about half a billion years after its birth… some 4.55 billion years ago. This leaves a window of perhaps 200-300 million years for the appearance of life on earth…. It is now generally agreed that if life arose spontaneously by natural processes… it must have arisen fairly quickly, more in a matter of millennia or centuries, perhaps even less, than in millions of years."17
His point is important. Evolutionists believe that a half billion years were needed for the earth to accumulate enough meteorites, etc. to arrive at about its present size and then cool sufficiently for life to form. Evolutionists in Wald's time believed that after two billion years of abiogenesis or chemical evolution, the first life formed in or slightly before the Cambrian period which they date at a half billion years ago. Radioactive dating now puts "advanced life forms" already on earth 3.5 billion years ago; three billion years before Wald had thought. What were these "advanced life forms like?" "…surprisingly similar to modern organisms…"18 Many scientists believe that for the animals that left these fossils to have developed to their "advanced" stage they must have already evolved for millions or billions of years. Because they demonstrated this "advanced" stage of evolution, de Duve says the window of opportunity for chemicals to get together and form life was very short, "more in a matter of millennia or centuries, perhaps even less, than in millions of years."
The Rare Earth, a more recent book which also supports rapid formation of a first cell, estimates the cooling time a bit longer and cuts around 200 million years off the time de Duve thought might be available:
"By about 3.8 billion years ago that heavy cosmic bombardment ended, and by 3.5 billion years ago we find the first fossilized evidence of life."19
On page 57 these authors say:
"The oldest fossils that we do find are from rocks about 3.6 billion years of age, and they look identical to bacteria still on Earth today."
The oldest fossils that have been found looked like fully evolved modern bacteria, not like they would still need billions of years to get to that stage.
On page 87 these authors say "These first fossils are filamentous…" which means organized into a ribbon like shape.
Since evolutionists think that much time would have been required after life started to evolve to this stage, even schoolbooks now state that the first life would have to have arisen rapidly:
"Soon after the earth's surface cooled, life arose in the ancient seas. The first organisms to appear on the planet were bacteria…."20
Pushing the formation of life back when the water had not had much time to cool reminds us that the warmer the water, the more rapidly the chemicals from which cells are made would have broken down.
A college level biology text published in 1979 shows what evolutionists thought at that time:
"The other important requirement for the origin of life is plenty of time. The events necessary for the beginnings of life were extremely unlikely."21
Unlikely events might be more likely to happen in lots of time but modern books say this "important requirement" could not have been met. Does that mean abiogenesis was testable and has been shown to be false? No. Those who believe in abiogenesis have simply dropped "plenty of time" as an "important requirement for the origin of life." Now they just say that it happened rapidly.
It would be difficult to test in a laboratory a "miracle" which happened because it had two billion years. Things that happen rapidly, however, should be easier to check out. Scientists, in fact, have dedicated themselves to doing tests, hoping to show that the first life could have come about with no intelligent design. So far they have only shown that it could not have happened in the ways they thought were most likely and checked out first. Since they are gradually eliminating the best possibilities, could we again say that the idea is testable and is being shown to be false? Some say, "No! We will always be able to think of some other way it might have happened." They are making their hypothesis untestable and taking it out of the realm of science.
You may have believed that life began spontaneously from organic broth in two billion years. But such an idea has been abandoned as a mistake. Are you able to work up the same faith that the "impossible became possible," and then evolved to look identical to bacteria still on earth today in only "millennia or centuries, perhaps even less," the time de Duve suggests, or "rapidly" as other authors express it?
1Random House Webster's College Dictionary, 2000, p. 3.