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a review by Gert Korthof
11 Sep 2000 (update 16 Sep 2001)
The Origin of Life
"The genes found today cannot have arisen randomly, as it were by the throw of a dice" (2)and Richard Dawkins and others. The important thing is that the details are crucial. The problem is that people like Overman narrow down the problem of the origin of life to their favourite riddle and stick to it.
I will not go into further details here. It has been done in other places and by other persons (7),(4). I will only state here that mainstream scientists accept that life somehow arose in a natural way. They are not interested in the kind of riddles presented by Overman. Mainstream scientists are hardly interested to know the information content of life or seem to be interested in the distinction order/complexity (a very important distinction for the critics of evolution) (11). Of course Overman knows what mainstream scientists think. He seems to have only one explanation for the fact that he belongs to a minority: mainstream scientists have a 'materialistic bias'.
Despite shortcomings and misunderstandings critics such as Overman highlight real problems in Darwinism. Problems sometimes described, nearly always de-emphasised or completely ignored in evolution textbooks. Problems often exaggerated by critics. It is a fact that the 'information gap' between life and non-life exists and does not get proper attention from mainstream science. So the benefit of reading the critics (not necessarily lawyers!) is that one learns about the problems in a scientific theory. And that has educational, scientific and entertaining value.
What is fine tuning?The universe appears to be precisely fine tuned for the formation of life (p103). An example Overman gives of a fine tuned value: The emergence of life depended on the precision among the three masses: the proton mass (938.28 MeV), the electron mass (0.51 MeV) and the neutron mass (939.57 MeV). (p. 137-38). Were these values different then atoms could not exist. And further: "The proton is 1836 times heavier than the electron" (p. 137).
What is fine tuned for what?"The universe appears to be precisely fine tuned for the formation of life". What is exactly "the universe"? Everything? 75% of the visible universe is hydrogen; 24% is helium and only 1% consists of heavy elements which life is built of. Is this observation predicted by the Fine Tuning theory? Is the universe fine tuned for the production of hydrogen and helium? More remarkably, our universe is made up of only 4% ordinary matter; the rest is a mixture of cold dark matter and an exotic 'dark energy' (14). Hardly a universe fine tuned for us. Does the Fine Tuning theory predict the production of:
In describing the goal of fine tuning Overman does not go further than: 'fine tuned for life'. However fine tuning for life would still be true if humans never emerged. There are no parameters uniquely fine tuned for humans. So again Fine Tuning does not discriminate between 'life' and 'humans'. Any fine tuning needs at least an additional intervention to create humans. It seems that thousands of further interventions are necessary to produce millions of biological species (6). This is not a parsimonious theory. So it follows that fine tuning on its own is not enough. In general: fine tuning creates necessary, but not sufficient conditions. It doesn't need much cosmological knowledge to see that particle physics is not enough to guarantee the origin of our solar system and our Earth and our Moon with all the properties they have (9).
Fine tuning is not only insufficient, a number of facts contradict fine tuning for life on Earth. I mention only the fact that the Earth's surface was sterilized by asteroid impacts during the first 500 million years of the earth's existence. Additionally, our Earth is endowed with favorable as well with unfavorable conditions for life. For example the eruptions of super-volcanoes beneath Yellowstone National Park and Sumatra almost destroyed (human) life on Earth. Furthermore the finite span of life of the sun (in some 5 billion years the Sun will swell to become an ordinary red giant) is not compatible with enduring fine tuning for life. If fine tuning was an intentional act by an intelligent being, how to explain these facts?
Creating a home for lifeOverman overlooked the fact that Fine Tuning the physical constants for life is not enough to create a habitable planet. If the universe were Fine Tuned for producing habitable planets, we would expect all planets to be habitable. However only 1 per cent of the Milky Way's stars have habitable planets. Clouds of dust and gas must have the right mixture of heavy and metallic elements if they are going to create Earth-like planets. If this 'metallicity' is too low, any rocky planets that formed would be small and the gravity of a small planet would be too weak to retain a viable atmosphere (12). So fine tuning for life is one thing. Fine tuning for suitable planets for life is another thing. It is absent. More than 99% of the planets of the Milky Way are not suitable for life. Additionally, multicellular terrestrial life depends on a stable climate. A stable climate depends on the stability of the Earth's axis and this in turn depends on the presence of our moon. The origin of our moon was a catastrophic collision with a large Mars-sized planet. A very lucky accident.
Fine Tuning and the Origin of lifeOverman is not aware of an inevitable tension between his Fine Tuning and the way he describes the Origin of Life. This tension arises from contradictory conditions that enable and disable the origin of life. For example the spontaneous generation of the biological amino acids requires an atmosphere without oxygen and certain critical ratios of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. However oxygen was likely present in the early earth's atmosphere. "The presence of even a small amount of oxygen would prevent the formation of amino acids and nucleotides". (p. 41) Remarkably the atmosphere of the early earth seemed to be fine tuned to prevent the spontaneous origin of life!
Additionally, the fact that both L- and D-amino acids are produced in equal proportions is a hindrance for the spontaneous origin of life. Overman is aware of this fact (p44). Again this is opposed to fine tuning which is supposed to enable the origin of life.
There is another contradiction between an evolutionary cosmology and a non-evolutionary biology. Remarkably Overman accepts an evolutionary cosmology: "After about 7.5 billion years our sun, earth and solar system emerged out of the Milky Way galaxy." (p126). By observing the way Overman describes fine tuning, we get additional hints about the relation of fine tuning and evolution:
" fine-tuning involved in spelling out the conditions that have permitted our evolution" (p173)
From all this I would conclude that according to Overman:
When discussing the problems of the origin of life Overman forgets everything about fine tuning. It seems a perfect challenge for an Intelligent Fine Tuner (IFT) to fine tune the conditions of the earth for the spontaneous origin of life, but nothing of the sort is considered by Overman. Has life been created irreducible on purpose? Overman is so naive in forgetting all these inconsistencies.
Information and the Origin of Life
Polanyi and the irreducibility of lifeOverman quoted two articles of Michael Polanyi(1967,1968), former professor of chemistry and of Social Studies. Polanyi pointed out that whereas the base pairing ability (A-T and C-G) is fully determined by the laws of chemistry, the DNA base sequence in DNA is not determined by laws of chemistry. Thanks to this fact DNA is able to form every conceivable sequence of bases of any length and any composition. Polanyi seems to be the first who formulated this non-trivial insight. This is not obvious to some scientists (10). Probably the misunderstanding is caused by his focus on the chemical necessity of the Watson-Crick base pairing, which is the basis of the double helix, but has nothing to do with the information contents of DNA. Information is in the sequence. A well-known feature of DNA, its mutability, could not exist if the sequence were a chemical necessity, because mutations change the sequence. (Mutability of the sequence is one of the foundations of neo-Darwinism). Even the ability to form a sequence is determined by the laws of chemistry. However the sequence itself is not determined by chemical laws. Of course this does not contradict the laws of chemistry!
Before the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, Erwin Schrödinger(1944) proposed in What is Life? that the hereditary molecule must be an aperiodic crystal. Polanyi pointed out that these properties of DNA fulfil the definition of the technical concept of information: a linear arrangement of symbols, where 'symbols' stand for the 4 bases in DNA. So far I agree. I also agree that the linear arrangement of symbols is unique to life, not found in chemistry and physics.
Another way of expressing this insight is by the concepts order - complexity. The order of a crystal is explained by chemical necessity, while complexity (=information) of DNA cannot be explained by chemical necessity.
But then Polanyi takes a further step and called this property "Life's irreducible structure" and concluded to "Life transcending physics and chemistry". I am fairly certain that Polanyi meant that life can not be explained by chemical and physical laws alone. People seem to be impressed by this kind of irreducibility. I agree with physical irreducibility but this certainly does not imply that life is unexplainable. We simply need biological laws to explain life. And for practical reasons alone biological laws cannot be fully reduced to chemical laws. The concepts 'left', 'right' are present in chemistry and biology. On the other hand, the concepts 'female', 'male', 'father', 'mother' are biological concepts, that cannot be reduced 1:1 to chemical concepts, because there are no female or male molecules. No reason to worry. Life and biology just happens to have features like reproduction and sex that are absent from chemistry. No reason to declare sex supernatural. No reason to call information supernatural either. Creationists like Overman, Dembski, Behe are attracted to irreducibility. Especially when irreducibility is applied to the origin of life: if life is irreducible to physics, then how can life originate from physical non-life? In their hands Polanyi's 'irreducible' becomes 'unexplainable' becomes 'supernatural'. Information in DNA can be explained in terms of the uniquely biological concepts 'mutation' and 'natural selection'.
Polanyi makes two further comparisons of life and human artefacts: books and machines. The structure of a machine is in harmony with the laws of physics but cannot fully be explained by the laws of physics. The letters in a book are physical objects (ink) but the words and sentences cannot be explained physically. Nothing wrong with that, except that creationists can't resist to conclude from the comparison that life is an artefact too. Polanyi himself does not draw religious conclusions from his philosophy (14), but certainly Overman and Dembski are doing this. It can't be a coincidence that William Dembski was the director of the Michael Polanyi Center.
Order and Complexity confusionSome critics attack Overman's order/complexity distinction or its importance. There is nothing wrong with the distinction. It is based on Kolmogorov-Chaitin complexity and is called 'algorithmic complexity' (5). A pattern has a low complexity; random sequences have the highest complexity. Only when using 'order' as opposed to 'chaos', it is legitimate to say organisms have 'order'. In all other cases 'order' has lower information content than 'complex'. It's remarkable that Overman knows all this without the benefit of reading Dembski (1999). (but Dembski (1994) is absent too). He must have extracted this from Yockey (1992). On the other hand it shows that Dembski (1999)'s originality is not in the idea that the information content of the genome could not have arisen by chance, but his elaboration of the idea.
ConclusionOverman collected facts from the literature that support fine-tuning and the impossibility of spontaneous origin of life. Oddly enough, he did not attempt to connect fine-tuning and the irreducibility of life. He would have discovered that his evolutionary cosmology sharply contrasts with his non-evolutionary view of life. So his world view consists of two contradictory components and that makes his world view as a whole inconsistent and powerless. Remarkably the words Overman uses do suggest an evolutionary origin of life. Especially the lack of a theory to explain the million of biological species hides the fact that his fine-tuning (natural law) is not enough and many additional 'interventions' are needed. Among the 'interventions' not mentioned are many planetary variables that cannot be set in advance. The need for 'interventions' increases as a consequence of his rejection of the standard Darwinian explanation for the information in life. At the same time the irreducibility of life, if true, makes a complete physical fine-tuning for life impossible. This again makes further 'interventions' necessary. So fine tuning could be the most parsimonious theory because it postulates only one unique event in time: the specification of the initial conditions of the universe. However subsequent 'interventions' destroy that beautiful parsimony. The result is an extremely unparsimonious theory. Theistic evolutionists belief that God created the laws of nature and the laws of nature created life. A theory that doesn't need interventions.
Overman's consistent use of the word 'accident' instead of 'random event' suggests that random events are bad (car accidents!). But random events could bring us luck (lottery!). Is life an accident? Life is neither an accident nor an intended result, but a possible outcome of existing physical conditions.
Postscript[16 June 2003]
Overman did not write about his faith, and why he wrote this book (except the curious and mysterious 3-page chapter about ethical implications). However, he wrote an approving blurb for the book "Mere Creation. Science, Faith & Intelligent Design" edited by William Dembski (1998), demonstrating the link with the intelligent design movement.
Postscript 2[3 Jul 2013]
In 2008 Overman published A Case for the Existence of God thereby confirming his belief in God.
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|Copyright ©G.Korthof 2000.||First published: Sep 11 2000||updated: 2 Apr 2004 Further Reading: 3 Jul 2013|