What are the odds? – Evolution (Part 1)

I majored in Biochemistry and minored in Physics.  I studied Biology at a molecular level, which is something most Biologists don’t do, and happens to be the level at which evolution is theorized to take place.  There are two theories pertaining to evolution; naturalistic evolution and theistic evolution.  When I use the word ‘evolution’ I’m referring to naturalistic evolution.  This form of evolution assumes that all progression, from no living things at all, to a collection of amino acids, to single celled organisms, all the way to humans, happened completely naturally, by chance, without any outside interference.  This is the form of evolution proposed by Darwin.  It is the theory of evolution taught in schools and will typically be the form of evolution referred to when you hear it discussed.

Many people believe in evolution because it makes sense to them.  Humans tend to believe the things we understand, and disregard things we don’t understand.  When elementary, middle and high school students are shown a series of pictures of organisms that change slightly, and are told that it is an example of evolution, it makes sense to them.  When they are told that mutations give organisms new traits that make them better adapted to live and so they survive and reproduce, that makes sense.  It sounds nice and reasonable.  So they believe it, they grow up and graduate from High School, and pretty soon most people believe in Evolution.  High School students don’t know what it means for a mutation to occur.  They don’t know how complicated life is at a molecular level.  They don’t know many of the pictures of evolving organisms they saw in their high school textbooks were just artist renditions of what Biologists think happened.  They aren’t taught that the theory of evolution is simply that; a theory.  They don’t know how unscientific the theory is.  So I’m going to explain these things that aren’t taught in high school, and show why a detailed explanation makes evolution seem a much less likely explanation for the origin of life.

There are two ways that data are stored; either analog or digital.  Analog means streamlined.  Digital means it is divided into fundamental units.  The easiest way to picture this is to think of a digital clock and a clock with hands that sweep around.  They both give the same information; the time.  However, one does it in units.  It shows a series of numbers that indicate the hour, minutes and seconds.  An analog clock shows the time by the position the hands are in.  A major difference between analog and digital information is that using an analog storage system gives you infinite possibilities.  In other words, there are infinite combinations.  It is kind of hard to grasp.  Again, picture a clock with the hands.  You can put the hands in any combination and they will convey a different time.  You can move the hands the slightest bit and they will convey a different time.  You may not be able to see the difference; if you look at a clock and it looks like it says it’s 2:30:00, and the second hand moves one angstrom, it’s still going to look like it’s 2:30:00.  Analog is limited by the sensitivity of the instruments you use to measure it.  With a digital watch the information stored is limited to a specific number of possibilities.  12 different hours, 60 different minutes and 60 different seconds; a digital watch can only convey 43,200 combinations of times.  If you have a digital watch that measures hundredths of seconds this number goes up.  Research laboratories may need to measure millionths of seconds, or even smaller units than that.  However, there is always a limit when using digital measuring techniques.

An analog clock, on the other hand, has infinite combinations.  Despite there being infinite locations the hands can be in, all of the locations can be covered.  So just picture the second hand. In 60 seconds it travels completely around the clock.  In that 60 seconds the hand covered infinite distinct positions.

All living organisms store information in digital and analog forms.  There are 20 amino acids, which make up DNA and proteins in our bodies.  DNA and proteins store most of the information for building life.  The information in DNA is mostly digital; the information in proteins is digital and analog.  Amino acids are arranged in a certain order.  The order indicates specific information.  Think of the alphabet; there are 26 letters, when you put them in a specific order they mean something.  That is how DNA stores information.  Proteins also convey information, but they convey information (and work) by the shape they are in.  You can picture a triangle; pretend the shape of the triangle conveyed different information.  If one corner was really pointy it would mean something different than when all the corners are the same angle.  Or you can picture the clock with the second hand again.  Every position the hand is in conveys something different.  Proteins convey their information by the shape they are in, but they are also made of amino acids and the order of the amino acids is important as well.  Proteins ‘do’ everything in a cell; proteins transport, they build, they divide the cells, they replicate DNA.  Without proteins, cells wouldn’t ‘do’ anything, and so they wouldn’t be alive.

Pretend the following line is a strand of amino acids meant to form a protein:


The order of the amino acids (letters) in the line is very important for conveying what the protein should do.  The shape is also important.  So imagine the line was tied in the shape of a bow.  This could mean that the protein helped to build cell walls.  If it wasn’t in the shape of a bow it wouldn’t do anything.  If it was tied in a different shape, like a figure 8, it might help relicate DNA.  If it were a perfect circle it might transfer chemicals into the nucleus of the cell.  The point is, the shape is important.  If it were in a figure 8 it could be a figure 8 with the ends of the strands in the very center, or the ends of the strands could at the ends of one of the loops, or they could be anywhere in between.  If the ends of strands were at the center it would help replicate DNA by dividing the strands.  If the ends of the strands were at the very top of the figure 8 it would help replicate DNA by bringing the matching amino acids to bind to half of the strand.  And if the ends of the strands were at the very bottom of the figure 8 it just wouldn’t work.  The location of each amino acid within the shape is also important.

Now, imagine that instead of being 91 amino acids long, it is several thousand amino acids long.  Remember that each of the amino acids can be one of 22, and it is important that each one is the right one.  I think it is easier to picture a pearl necklace, with each pearl being one of 22 colors, and the pearl necklace is several thousand pearls long.  Instead of a figure 8, imagine dropping the pearl necklace into a glass.  It clumps up into a certain shape.  How many times would you have to drop the pearl necklace into the glass before it had formed every shape possible?  The answer is infinity; a shape is an analogue form of storing data, there are infinite shapes the pearl necklace can take.  It doesn’t have to just be a glass, either, you could just drop it in a pile on the floor (also an infinite number of times) or into a bowl, or clump it into a sphere.  The pearl necklace can take infinite shapes, and in each of these shapes the location of each pearl is important.  Imagine you had dropped it into a groove of a figure 8, so it would stay in the same shape, but you could slide it so the pearls would move along the grooves until every pearl had been in every location.  You pinch the pearl in the center where the necklace crosses, then slide it around one loop until it is at the center again, then slide it around the second loop until it returns to where it started.  Also, each amino acid pearl can be rotated.  Imagine you put a dot on each pearl.  The dot could be facing up when you look down into your figure 8 groove, or it could be facing down, or to the left or right.  Each pearl can be spun into several directions, which is also important for making sure the protein has the right function.  It is easiest to picture in a figure 8 shape, but most proteins are more closely shaped like a pearl necklace clumped into a sphere.  So, if you could clump it into a sphere and it would keep its shape while you slid one pearl completely around until it returned to its original spot, that would be a more accurate portrayal of a protein and the potential shapes it can take to portray information.

So, what are the chances that you could just randomly build a specific protein?  Lets say you want a protein that can build a cell wall.  Because right now we’re at the beginning of Earth; there are no living things, just a pile of amino acids.  In order to build a living thing we need to start with a cell, and to build a cell we can start with a cell wall (technically it’s a membrane, but it is the outer ‘wall’ of the cell).  We can use statistics to calculate your chances.  We can make it an easy protein.  It is only 51 amino acids long.  You could choose from one of 22 for the first amino acid, and pick another one for the second, and another one for the third, until you get to 51.  We can calculate the number of possible combinations: it is 22^51, or 22 times 22, 51 times.  So your chance of getting the right combination is 1/22^51.  We can pretend you got it right.  After all, one in 22^51, or 2.91 e67, isn’t a horrible chance.  (I’m sorry, that was sarcasm.  1 in 22^51 is an atrocious chance.  If your odds of winning the Publisher Clearing House $1,000,000 jackpot are 1 in 1,75O,OOO,OOO, you would win 16600000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000, or 1.66 e56, times before coming up with the right combination for the protein.)

Actually, we can do a few more quick comparisons to try to put proteins sizes into perspective.  If you try to calculate 22\^400 (for an average protein), you probably can’t.  Your computer probably can’t calculate it, and your calculator probably can’t either.  If you type it into a good calculate, it will tell you the answer is ‘infinity’.  The answer, of course, isn’t actually infinity; it’s just very, very large.  The answer is 6e536.  Which is 6 with 536 zeros after it.  That is just 22\^400, which is smaller than many proteins. Insulin, the first protein to be completely sequenced, is 51 amino acids long.  Hemoglobin is 141 amino acids long.  The average yeast protein is 466 amino acids long.  The largest proteins in the human body are about 27,000 amino acids long.  But, single celled organisms wouldn’t have proteins that large, so for the purposes of demonstrating how absurd the theory of evolution is, larger proteins are irrelevant.  For convenience sake we can use 2.91e67, the chances of randomly getting the sequence for insulin right.  To compare that number to something you might begin to comprehend, the estimated number of stars in the universe is 1 e21, or 1000000000000000000000.  That is a very large number, but it doesn’t come close to 2.91 e67.

I don’t want you to forget where I’m going with this.  We’re trying to make one protein out of amino acids.  A relatively small protein made out of only 51 amino acids, which will perform one specific job in helping to build a single-celled organism.  The amino acids need to be in a specific order, and the chances of the amino acids randomly binding into the correct order is the inconceivably large 2.91 e67.  You can’t even say the chance is astronomically large, because we’ve compared it and it blows ‘astronomically’ out of the water.  Once the amino acids have bound in that particular order, it needs to fold into the right shape so it can perform the right function.  There are infinite shapes it could take, and in each shape there are infinite locations for each amino acid, as well as several directions each amino acid could face.  Proteins are the basic, fundamental working unit of a cell.  Without proteins DNA would be useless, because the proteins are what read and follow the directions on DNA.

Now I’m going to explain a few things about statistics and probabilities.  You have probably learned basic statistics at some point, and some of it is intuitive.  If you have a box with a blue marble and a red marble, and you randomly pull one out, you have a 1 in 2 chance of getting the red marble.  There are two marbles, you are grabbing one of them.  Another way of writing that is 1/2 chance.  Your probability of picking the red marble is 1/2.  Now, if you had a box with 6e536 marbles, and one of them is red, your chances of picking the red marble are 1/6e536.  That number is very, very close to zero, but it isn’t zero.  That is the probability of a protein being formed with the amino acids in the correct order to perform a specific needed function.  There is a non-zero probability of it happening.  However, there are infinite shapes it could fold into.  Because there are infinite shapes, the probability of it folding into the right shape is 1/∞, which is basically zero.  Technically it is not zero; the limit of 1/n as n approaches infinity is zero.  Which means 1/∞ is basically zero.

Now, we know that, even though there are infinite shapes an amino acid can take, they can go through all these shapes in less than an infinite amount of time.  After all, an analogue clock travels through infinite possible combinations in just twelve hours.  So how long would it take a protein to do the same thing?  In 1969 Cyrus Levinthal calculated that the average protein would have to sample 1×10 e143 different conformations (shapes) if it were to just randomly wander through every three dimensional shape.  If it took just a nanosecond, 1 e-9 seconds, in each conformation, it would take 3×10 e126 years.

3 with 126 zeros, years.

Interestingly, the universe is only thought to be 1.4 x 10e10 years old.  That’s 14000000000 years the universe has existed.  One protein would take 3000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 years to randomly wander through every shape.

Very interesting.


About whyimconservative

I'm a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom with a Biochemistry degree living in Austin. I love my kids, my husband and my country. I want to explain why I'm conservative.

Posted on June 10, 2011, in Evolution and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. You make the common logical fallacy that since something is unlikely to happen, then if it happens it couldn’t have happened in the unlikely circumstance.
    Say for example, i flipped an ordinary coin up in the air 30 times in a row and each time it landed heads. You’d assume that something was wrong with the coin, or that I could at will flip the coin the way i wanted, because the probability that could just happen are 9.31 × 10-10, it’s really unlikely. So it just couldn’t happen.
    But if I asked every single person in the world to flip a coin 30 times in a row, then it isn’t unusual when someone gets 30 heads in a row (or 30 tails in a row for that matter), even though if you asked one person to do it, you’d say it’s nearly impossible, even though it’s pretty easy to recreate

  2. no, i understand it just fine. You just make a couple of false assumptions (which is ok, people make false assumptions all the time). So it isn’t your conclusions that are wrong, but your premises are errant, therefore the conclusions you have drawn are without meaning.
    for example, there aren’t any proteins that have one conformational shape that makes them functional. Take hemoglobin for example, the hemoglobin molecule that exists in your body moves about and changes its conformational shape, much in the same way that you or I move around, we are not rigid beings but there is a fluidity about us. Therefore if you want to view it from an analogue analogy, as you liked to, that means that your hemoglobin molecule can assume billions upon billions of different shapes (as they are only slightly different) but remain functional. In addition there are dozens of different hemoglobin molecules that function perfectly well, the one I have is in fact a few amino acids different than the one you have but that is ok because there is redundancy in nature.
    To follow through with your calculations then, the number crunching wouldn’t be 1 in a very large number it would be several hundred billion into a very large number. That is why evolution takes such a long time and doesn’t happen right before our eyes (except for certain bacteria and viruses that accumulate drug resistance and so forth).

    But you don’t need to make a mathematical argument for why you don’t like the idea of evolution, the honest reason is that you came to a religious conclusion that evolution is incompatible with your conception of God. And once you came to that religious conclusion you have back tracked to why you don’t believe in evolution, when in reality you didn’t start out thinking evolution might be right but instead had concluded why evolution must be wrong and then started to look for evidence to support that claim. And that’s ok.

    • You keep referring to false premises. Is it possible that you read my post with a false premise in your mind; that you know more about the topic than me, the university Physics professor, P-Chem PhD and multiple medical students who reviewed it? It seems as though if my conclusions could be so easily dismissed, one of them might have noticed. I listed my credentials at the beginning, you are welcome to share yours. The fact that you compared (1/2)^30*(6*10^9) to (1/infinity)*(1/10^270), or even (1*10^9/infinity)*(1/10^270) as you say is the case is amusing, and shows that you really just don’t grasp the point I’m making. There is no reason to bring religion into it; you base your conclusions on the false the assumption that you know my religion. Did Dawkins and Crick also come to their conclusions based on a primitive belief in God? Or are you also more enlightened than them? You really do prove an excellent point for me. The schools are turning out students so convinced of evolution, that anyone who proposes fallacies within that theory are immediately dismissed. Even if all they are saying is that it is such a shaky theory that the mere mention of other theories should not be cause for lawsuits. If any alternate theories can be so easily dismissed, the mention of them should not be threatening to your belief in evolution.

  3. that’s an interesting argument you make. I have a PhD in physical chemistry, therefore my work as a statistician shouldn’t be questioned, also I had medical students look it over.

    • Yes, it’s called “peer review”. A scientist writes an article, then other scientists in relevant fields read it. If it contains any “glaringly obvious fallacies” those are caught and corrected before the article is published. It’s not an ‘argument’, that’s just how it works. It’s a process scientists are familiar with.

  4. Now increase the probability of said protein configuration coming together by the number of molecules in the primordial soup that could start a chain of genes…….and it becomes more probable. Weight of the biomass on earth…and some of these component molecues come in on comets formed in space from the same sources that formed the solar system. Maybe then the probability of a precursor gene that is functional becomes greater than one as evidenced by the existance of life here.

    • I tried to do those calculations once, but they’re pretty complicated. Something could become more probable when you have a whole lot of them, sure, but more probable is still pretty meaningless when you start with zero. You have a lot of random proteins, but you need the right ones in the right conformation in the same place at the same time. All I dealt with is the probability of making one working protein. You start introducing other factors and it becomes less probable, not more.

  5. Wow OMG Great discourse.

  6. Evolution depends on RANDOM Mutation?
    The red fox, the arctic fox, the polar bear, the grizzly bear, are all suited for the environment each is in.
    The skunk has a set of scent glands that has a way to turn inside out and make a directed squirt at an intruder’s face, and with this enviable “Mace”- like weapon it also has a distinct black and white marking every living thing can recognize instantly as a warning.
    Unlike most potential prey-size animals it is also very slow moving.
    Random mutations all happened to come together and produce this?
    The digestive system of a mere human is has the ability to recognize if you are eating fat laden food or vegetables and adjusts accordingly. A little bile for this, hydrochloric acid for that, and nutrients are absorbable and used for energy and structure. Amazing.
    Now I’m just a regular guy, and I may not have the ability or the time to do all the math myself, but I’ve always been a bottom line kind of guy, and consider myself one who sees the ”big picture” better than most allow themselves to.
    In every instance I’m recollecting, including the poison arrow frog, the lion, naked mole rat, etc., it seems that the idea of evolution depending on random mutations for the characteristics of all life is overwhelmingly preposterous.
    In order for the multiple characteristics and abilities of the animals I’ve mentioned to come to fruition though random genetic mutation seems much more like smoke and mirrors, trying to excuse a lack of proof, and a basic throwing up of hands because a mechanism for causation cannot be observed, than does the “Intelligent Design” explanation.
    I see why I have always felt this way, because from an objective position – all that we see on this planet seems a little too cleverly put together to be just a series of trillions of coincidences.
    By the way, we all are amazed when we see an eclipse of the Sun, right? Well, I’m sure that the Ph.D.’s in the room know that in order for this to be observable on Earth the Sun has to be exactly 400 times the Moon’s diameter, and in addition, exactly 400 times as far away. That means the Sun and Moon appear to be precisely the same size when viewed from Earth.
    Quite a feat by anyone’s standards.
    When asked, a scientist said this was purely by chance. Random coincidence. How could he possibly know that? The answer is he doesn’t. It’s just a big guess, based on lack of any other explanation that he would be willing to entertain.
    By comparison, Intelligent Design sounds more plausible, and is even more rational. Heck at least it makes sense! More logical than claiming “Random Luck!”
    Like the earth having a magnetosphere to protect us from solar flares, amazing as well, but just happened to be there. Sure it did!
    With all the trillions of random mutations, and random coincidences I guess that “random” just means “Luck”, or that because the mechanics of the “coincidences” can’t be observed, that there cannot be a “guidance” directing the changes necessary for life to continue all around us.
    To me, having a lack of knowledge, then substituting “random”, “luck” and “coincidence” as the main theory behind the physics of why this world exists as it does seems like grasping at straws.
    I believe that the scientific answer lies in “intelligent design”. It just seems as I go through life, there are just too many miracles to justify saying “We just happen to be very fortunate”.
    Not much seems to happen on Earth without painstaking effort made to get something changed, built or designed.
    That being the case, if you stand back and look at this world, it just makes sense that it too takes effort and design to make changes for the world to be livable and changes for life to live in it successfully.

  7. I am a retired (after 30 years of practice) ER doctor, and know absolutely nothing about statistics, physics, and little about biochemistry, but i understood , in general terms, the point you’re making. i gather that, because of the lack of plausibilty, you don’t BELIEVE in the theory of evolution.
    that’s the problem with the BELIEVERS, there is no other possibilty but randomness.
    so when you watch a video** displaying the complex symbiotic relationship between a fig and its pollinater, the fig wasp, and ponder the large number of variables that must be all in place in order for those interactions to have occured the first time that they did—- you can explain it away by saying “through the marvel of coevolution” nothing to see here– move on !!

    ** Queen of trees– PBS

  8. Riveting discussion for a geologist who knows very little about the micro-scale of things. Quantum physics, and the micro-life sciences surely shows us how incomplete our understanding of anything is.

  9. Adaptations within a species are indeed necessary for survival and also the ONLY “evolutionary” process that has ever been recorded – Darwin’s finch beaks for instance. This adaptation in no way indicates that a small bacteria eventually produced a blue whale as evolution preaches. That is not just a stretch – it’s ludicrous. Darwinism is not simply a religion, it is a cult. I don’t care what degrees are speaking here: if you defend evolution, you have been brainwashed.

  10. for Kevin

    do you remamber what Dana Carvey aka “The Church Lady” on SNL used to say ?

  11. for Oke E Doke

    You betcha’!
    AND every time I talk to someone about the improbability of random mutations vs. an intelligence designing and guiding mutations in order to achieve desired results, I get the same reaction any other cult would give me if I questioned their philosophy.
    I understand natural selection. I understand evolution too but I don’t understand how a scientist, when asked about something he cannot prove, or even observe for that matter, (causation of the gazillion original mutations to make even a single trait) claims that the definitive answer is “random coincidence”, and then proceeds to claim that any other hypothesis is incorrect?
    As whyimconservative says, the numbers just do not support “randomness”. I consider myself spiritual, but if the evidence said otherwise, maybe I could support at least part of their claims.
    The evolutionists are so protective of their theory because they cannot afford to have the improbability of random mutations scrutinized much. I believe that’s why they get angry instead of seriously looking scientifically at the probability that something, be it God, a consciousness, or even a priority program exists – which causes mutations – mostly when and where they are needed.
    Just because they can’t see it now does not mean it does not exist at all…

  12. for kevin
    many years ago, when i started my practice in family medicine, i subscribed to the New England Journal of Medicine. every 2-3 months there was an article written b y a Dr Lewis Thomas, who apparently was a somewhat famous biologist. it was called Notes of a biology watcher, in which he commented about things he observed in nature.
    he was interviewed one time by a columnist from a popular science magazine, who noticed that Dr Lewis had a rather large beetle encased in plastic, sitting on his desk. when asked about it , he said “why, that is a “mimosa girdler” beetle”
    this beetle crawls out to the end of a branch of the mimosa tree, deposits her eggs, then comes back about a foot, and chews off the bark, causing the distal 12″ to die, and fall to the ground. this provides nourishment for the newly developing beetles. of note also, is the fact that a “pruned” mimosa tree lives much longer than an unpruned one.
    paraphrasing Dr Lewis—- evolution must come up with an explanation for this type of mutually beneficial behavior ———— IT ACTS AS THOUGH IT WAS PLANNED !!!

    and that’s how it should be taught in school. their answer for these kinds of problems? it’s the marvel of co evolution. and we are the dumb ones !!!

  13. For Oke e Doke

    You have come up with a series of jaw – dropping examples of symbiotic relationships and have added the facts of cooperation behavior, in addition to specific single physical traits that are balanced to keep life moving forward. These beautiful examples of life helping other life exponentially compound the the numerically odd fact that they ever happen at all.

    Something tells me that Dr. Lewis Thomas was of the same opinion as anyone who would stand back and look objectively at not only all random mutations of single traits, but take in the entire world and the infrastructure it takes to support it. Because to me, it seems all part of the same mechanism. If I’m right, something or someone wants it to work, and directs it so it will work, even though there is trial and error, everything seems to be driven and designed. I have my own belief in God and faith mixed into my current opinion but before I had that faith, even as a child I reasoned that something was making the world the way it was, and it wasn’t random coincidence!

    The more I learned about the mechanisms we do understand, the less likely random coincidence became logically and numerically reasonable

    . Sooo, if anything, “science” has taught me that it is much more likely that there is a God directing life and everything that supports it, rather than nothing at all.

    • Scientists like Einstein felt the exact same way. They used the study of science as a way to understand God. Now people want to use science to disprove God, and it just doesn’t work. The ironic thing is that they think it does; that somehow finding that everything in this world is incomprehensibly complicated and intricate somehow lends proof to their side and makes anyone with faith look like a fool.

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