Can Life Be Merely An Accident?

Updated on October 11, 2022
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By Robert Piccioni, Ph.D. physicist, author, and educator

Can it really be true, as science has claimed for many decades, that the very first life began with a random chemical reaction? Recent scientific discoveries prove such an accidental origin is extraordinarily improbable. In fact, it’s less likely than drawing the ace of spades 118,000 times in a row.

The idea that life arose from simple chemistry gained credibility in 1952 with an experiment by Urey and Miller. They filled a flask with the “right” gases and used electric arcs and temperature cycles to simulate lightning, day and night. Soon, a murky sludge appeared that contained amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and a small step toward life. By tweaking their recipe, it seemed something might eventually crawl out. After 60 years of tweaking, nothing has ever crawled out.

Nonetheless, eminent scientists declared that however improbable, random chemistry would eventually produce life; time itself would perform the “miracle of creation.” While most scientists shared that view, some disagreed. Sir Fred Hoyle said accidentally creating life was as likely as assembling a 747 with a tornado whirling through a junkyard.

No one had enough data for a rigorous analysis—not until now.

With modern telescopes, we now know the age and size of our universe and its carbon content. AccLife-Cover72dpi3x4.7The world’s foremost genomist, J. Craig Venter, reported that the simplest, self-sustaining, self-reproducing life requires 460,000 nucleotide base-pairs. Now we can do the math.

No one knows how many times the right molecules actually reacted with the possibility of creating viable DNA. But, we can compute the maximum number of reactions that could possibly have occurred. If that maximum number is insufficient to randomly produce life, the actual number of reactions is also insufficient.

What is that maximum number? Let’s be extremely generous. Assume: (1) every carbon atom in the observable universe is in base-pairs; (2) all base-pairs exist in ideal habitats; and (3) all reacted a billion times per second from the Big Bang until today. There can’t be more base-pairs, no better environment, no faster reactions, and no more time.

BobIzzyWhyEven in this wildly optimistic scenario, we can expect from random chance only one molecule with the right sequence of 230 base-pairs, 1/2000th of what Venter deems minimal for life. And even this would occur only once in the entire expanse and history of our universe. Since the number of sequences increases exponentially as the molecule grows, to get the right sequence of 231 base-pairs, just one more, we would have to wait 24 billion years; 232 base-pairs would take 91 billion years.

Expressed another way, the maximum number of reactions is a vast number—it has 102 digits. But the number of combinations of base-pairs in the simplest life is a fabulously vaster number—it has 203,621 digits. The odds of life arising through random chemistry is 203,512 factors of ten worse than winning it all in Power Ball.

The English language cannot adequately describe how many trillion of years are needed to produce the DNA of the humblest life.

Any other idea for the origin of life must be more likely than accidental chemistry.

I am a well-credentialed, dyed-in-the-wool scientist, who frequently lectures at universities and speaks to diverse audiences, both scientific and religious. For 50 years, I believed science’s theory of an accidental origin of life. After doing the math, my views changed substantially. The origin of life is much more profound than anything currently known to science.

Robert Piccioni has a B.S. from Caltech, a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford, and taught at Harvard. Robert teaches at the Osher Institute at UCLA and CSUCI, where adult students voted him “Teacher of the Year”. He’s the award-winning author of ten books, including Amazon’s highest-rated popular physics book.

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