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Creation 17(2):14–15, March 1995

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Cheating with chance


Flickr/J.J. Verhoef lightning

The argument from probability that life could not form by natural processes but must have been created is sometimes acknowledged by evolutionists as a strong argument.1 The probability of the chance formation of a hypothetical functional ‘simple’ cell, given all the ingredients, is acknowledged2 to be worse than 1 in 1057800. This is a chance of 1 in a number with 57,800 zeros. It would take 11 full pages of magazine type to print this number. To try to put this in perspective, there are about 1080 (a number with 80 zeros) electrons in the universe. Even if every electron in our universe were another universe the same size as ours that would ‘only’ amount to 10160 electrons.

These numbers defy our ability to comprehend their size. Fred Hoyle, British mathematician and astronomer, used analogies to try to convey the immensity of the problem. For example, Hoyle said the probability of the formation of just one of the many proteins on which life depends is comparable to that of the solar system packed full of blind people randomly shuffling Rubik’s cubes all arriving at the solution at the same time3—and this is the chance of getting only one of the 400 or more proteins of the hypothetical minimum cell proposed by the evolutionists (real world ‘simple’ bacteria have about 2,000 proteins and are incredibly complex). [Note added 2013: see update to How simple can life be?] As Hoyle points out, the program of the cell, encoded on the DNA, is also needed. In other words, life could not form by natural (random) processes.

Evolutionists often try to bluff their way out of this problem by using analogies to argue that improbable things happen every day, so why should the naturalistic origin of life be considered impossible? For example, they say the odds of winning the lottery are pretty remote, but someone wins it. Or, the chances of getting the particular arrangement of cards obtained by shuffling a deck is remote, but a rare combination happens every time the cards are shuffled. Or the arrangement of the sand grains in a pile of sand obtained by randomly pouring the sand is extremely complex, but this complex and improbable arrangement did occur as a result of random processes. Or the exact combination and arrangement of people walking across a busy city street is highly improbable, but such improbable arrangements happen all the time. So they argue from these analogies to try to dilute the force of this powerful argument for creation.

You probably realize there is something illogical about this line of argument. But what is it?

In all the analogies cited above, there has to be an outcome. Someone has to win the lottery [note added Feb 2013: even with lotteries where the prize jackpots if no-one gets the exact set of digits drawn, the number of digits to guess is adjusted in line with the number of tickets likely to be purchased to make sure that there will be a winner frequently and there are always lesser prizes for getting less than the full set of digits]. There will be an arrangement of cards. There will be a pile of sand. There will be people walking across the busy street. By contrast, in the processes by which life is supposed to have formed, there need not necessarily be an outcome. Indeed the probabilities argue against any outcome. That is the whole point of the argument. But then the evolutionist may counter that it did happen because we are here! This is circular reasoning at its worst.

Note several other things about these analogies:

In the processes by which life is supposed to have formed, there need not necessarily be an outcome.
  • Creationists do not argue that life is merely complex, but that it is ordered in such a way as to defy a natural explanation. The order in the proteins and DNA of living things is independent of the properties of the chemicals of which they consist—unlike an ice crystal where the structure results from the properties of the water molecule. The order in living things parallels that in printed books where the information is not contained in the ink, or even in the letters, but in the complex arrangement of letters which make up words, words which make up sentences, sentences which make up paragraphs, paragraphs which make up chapters and chapters which make up books. These components of written language respectively parallel the nucleic acid bases, codons, genes, operons, chromosomes and genomes which make up the genetic programs of living cells.
  • The order in living things shows they are the product of intelligence. The result of the lottery draw is clearly the result of a random selection—unless family members of the lottery supervisor consistently win! Then we would conclude that the draw has not been random—it is not the result of a random process, but the result of an intelligent agent.
  • The arrangement of cards resulting from shuffling would not normally suggest anything other than a random process. However, if all the cards were ordered by their suits from lowest to highest, we would logically conclude that an intelligent agent arranged them (or ‘stacked the deck’ in card-playing parlance) because such an arrangement is highly unlikely from genuine shuffling—a random, non-intelligent process.
  • The arrangement of the sand grains in a pile would not normally suggest it resulted from intelligent activity rather than natural processes. However, if all the sand grains were lined up in single file, or were in a neat rectangle, we would attribute this to an intelligent agent, or a machine made by an intelligent agent, as this would not be likely from a natural process.
  • The arrangement of people crossing a busy street would not normally suggest anything other than a random process. However, if all the people were ordered from shortest to tallest, or some other ordered arrangement, we would suspect that an intelligent agent was responsible for putting them in this order—that it did not result from chance. If 20 people were arranged from shortest to tallest, the odds of this happening by chance are less than one in a billion, billion (1018), so it would be reasonable to conclude that such an ordered arrangement was not due to chance whereas there would be nothing to suggest intelligent involvement if there was no meaningful pattern to the arrangement of people.

Many scientists today claim that an invisible ‘intelligent cause’ is outside the realm of ‘real’ science. These scientists have redefined science as naturalism (nature is all there is). However, scientists recognise the evidence for an invisible intelligent agent when it suits them. For example, forensic science determines if past events were the result of accident or plan and purpose (‘Who done it?’). The Piltdown ape-man fraud was discovered, after some 40 years, when researchers had the opportunity to examine the original bones and not just replicas, and they noticed file marks on the teeth.4 Such marks do not happen by natural processes and the researchers recognised the involvement of a human (intelligent) agent—a hoaxer.

Likewise, United States taxpayers are spending millions of dollars yearly in funding the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). If those listening hear a radio signal with random noise, it is clearly the product of a natural process, but if there is a pattern such as ‘dah-dah-dah-dit-dit-dit-dah-dah-dah’, it will be hailed as evidence for an intelligent, although invisible, source.

If such evidence indicates an intelligent source then surely the incredible amount of information on the DNA in living things, equivalent to a library of a thousand 500-page books in a human being,5 shouts creation by a Creator! The more we know about the biochemical workings of living cells, the stronger the evidence becomes for the intimate involvement of a creator. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made and no amount of illogical and irrelevant analogy will counter the clear evidence for this.


  1. D.A. Bradbury, ‘Reply to Landau and Landau’, Creation/Evolution 13(2):48–49, 1993. Return to text.
  2. ibid. Return to text.
  3. F. Hoyle, ‘The big bang in astronomy’, New Scientist, 92(1280):527, 1981. Return to text.
  4. M.L. Lubenow, Bones of Contention—a Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1992, pp. 39–44. Return to text.
  5. M. Denton, Evolution: Theory in Crisis, Burnett Books, London, 1985, p.351. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

J. D.
Since information is not random does it logically make sense to say that random processes can produce information ?

Surely regardless of probability no random process can produce highly organised information structures, be it natural language or dna.

Surely if a random process did produce a meaningful sentence for instance it would not be a random process anymore, but a structured one.

A process is either random or structured but surely it cannot be both ?
Don Batten
Certainly if we define information in the sense of the information theorist Dr Werner Gitt, a random process cannot create information. See Without Excuse from the CMI webstore.
Stephen D.
Thanks CMI! The "god of this world has blinded their eyes". I find it very difficult that people are so blind as to accept that a plastic lego block has such an obvious design, and incredibly complex life... just happened.
When I hear " evolution did this" or "evolution did that" , I want to scream out " So, who IS evolution?"
God has been replaced by an all-powerful evolution... who only needs a few million years to do anything and everything!
Geoff C. W.
"By contrast, in the processes by which life is supposed to have formed, there need not necessarily be an outcome. Indeed the probabilities argue against any outcome."
Wouldn't there be a multitude of outcomes occurring all the time, and what we rather need to say is that probability says that there would not be an outcome that would promote life?
Also, could it not be argued that not all the possibilities need to be tested before a life-promoting outcome is achieved? Couldn't one say that the 'right' combination could be achieved within the first minute, just as I could throw ten sixes on my first ten throws of a die? (At least on average, the sought-after combination would occur, I believe, after only half the possibilities had been tested. I know that doesn't make much difference, but I thought it might be worth a mention).
P.S. It's interesting to consider asking evolutionists if they would be prepared to bet on a worm winning a horse race. The odds would be very high, but it could happen... for example, all the horses could be struck by lightning, and the worm could eventually make its way around the track by chance.
But would they bet their life on it, because that's what they're doing?
P.P.S. Isn't the probability of an omnipotent, omniscient God creating something that has no other logical cause equal to 1? If I see a soft drink can in the bush, I can be near enough to certain that it came from a can manufacturer. And that's just a can. In fact more simply, if I saw three sticks arranged like an arrow on a cleared bit of ground in the bush, I would be fairly certain that it had been put there by someone.
Don Batten
"... we rather need to say is that probability says that there would not be an outcome that would promote life?"
I thought that this was implied in the argument.
And of course the nature of probability is such that an improbable outcome could theoretically occur with the first trial; the likelihood of that happening is the probability figure.
And yes, evolutionists 'bet' on abiogenesis but in their daily lives reject far better odds on all manner of things.
Detecting design is discussed in Is the design explanation legitimate?
Kirk M.
The odds of life occurring randomly are overstated even is this article. Once the odds of the chance formation of a simple, functional single cell have been overcome, that basic block of life needs to reproduce, introducing yet another immense battle against the odds. Failing this, the cell eventually dies out, the slate has been wiped clean, and the battle against virtually infinite odds begins anew.

So what, truly, are the odds of a functional, self-reproducing, single cell forming by chance from lifeless matter?
Don Batten
See my response to Bart W. above (posted after you submitted your comment).
I must say, though, that the point of this article is not so much the actual probability for physics and chemistry alone giving birth to life, but some of the dodgy arguments used to try to circumvent this powerful argument (and other probability arguments).
Narindra R.
Saying that given enough energy and chance proteins in a primordial soup can merge into a cell is akin to saying that there's a chance for a squashed fly to be brought back to life when hit by a lightning bolt.
Hans G.
Ok, we are just here, pooofff....life began. No purpose, no meaning, nobody there who wanted it and when the sun runs out of fuel, the earth and everything on it is gone too. At the last all life vanishes with the collapse of the universe and a new one could start.
Why should we listen to the evolutionists or naturalists? Who cares what evolutionists (?) in any previous universe were thinking?
So Mr. Evolutionist, whatever you scientifically find out about your theory will be lost and nobody is left to care about it. Why do you persist and even accept cheating with this theory?
Barton B.
Isn't the probability of a simple cell forming by random processes actually 1 in 10 to the 340,000,0000th power?
Don Batten
This figure is given in the educational video, The programming of life, which can be purchased from the CMI webstore. Biophysicist Harold Morowitz is given as the source for this figure. Morowitz apparently also came up with a figure of 1 in 1010,000,000,000 (published in Energy Flow in Biology, Academic Press, NY, 1968). This was the probability of a bacterium being assembled by chance from a broth of all the basic building blocks (e.g. obtained by heating a brew of living bacteria to kill them and break them down to their basic constituents). As an atheist Horowitz argued that therefore life was not a result of chance and posited that there must be some property of available energy that drives the formation of entities that can use it (aka life). This sounds much like the idea of Gaia, which attributes pantheistic mystical properties to the universe. Anything but believe in a supernatural Creator, it would appear.

The different probabilities calculated arise from the difficulty of calculating such probabilities and the differing assumptions that are made. If we make calculations using assumptions that are most favourable to abiogenesis and the result is still ridiculously impossible, then I think that it is a more powerful argument than using more realistic assumptions that result in an even worse result for the materialist (because the materialist can argue against some of the assumptions with the latter approach).
murk P.
Since reasoning about anything, but in this case chance, only works if there is order, it's futile to try to ascribe chance as foundational. The atheist must hold that anything is possible. The only way he can know this is if there are limitations to possibility (logic, uniformity, validity of induction, reliability of reason and senses, and so on). Thus he has a contradiction problem. He also must invoke the absurd concept that there is no chance that chance is not behind it. He rests on the law of chances :) (again contradictory)

To invoke probability presupposes uniformity of nature - so much for chance. It gets worse: probability cannot therefore support uniformity since it rests on it. How does one who denies His maker know this? All worldviews not based on Christ end up in skepticism. God made it so plain - to attempt to deny His clear revelation to all people, one has to assume Him first.

A small child can only slap his father in the face, if the father supports him on his lap. (CVT)
Tyler C.
In 2005 a biochemist by the name of George Javor published a book on creationism. In it he described what he thought was the inadequacies of the probability argument. His reasoning goes something like this:

If you put a drop of organic solvent on a living cell the membrane of the cell is breached and the cell dies. All the chemistry is essentially still there but there is no life. The reason he said that is that life on the cellular level is what he called a dynamic non-equilibrium steady state. That means that all the processes in the cell are in constant motion where one process feeds the next, then the next, etc. and eventually circles back in a sort of feedback loop that supports the first processes. As long as the environment can support life's needs the cell will continue to live but when the membrane is breached or the cell runs out of food the processes begin to fail and the support mechanism cascades to a halt. He called that death on the cellular level.

The problem is that even though one may assemble all the chemicals together life still doesn't exist until all the processes are in the state of non-equilibrium - a condition that I can't even imagine happening by chance considering the hundreds of thousands of processes within the cell.
Chris M.
Dear Don, These are excellent points. No doubt they have been presented often on CMI's web-site, but when they are hammered out point by point, again and again, it certainly helps us.
I wish there was more feedback from the U.K. though. But I'm afraid both Attenborough and BBC/Wellcome Trust seem to carry the imagination of the populous with their origins dogma. So it's a good antidote to come to CMI.
I do wonder, how did Fred Hoyle and no doubt other cosmologists do their maths to come to such unimaginably large figures?

Wishing you all well in Christ's cause.
Don Batten
Thanks Chris.
You are right about Attenborough and Co. They just assume 'evolution' every time they open their mouths in public. They don't even try to prove it. It is a clever indoctrination strategy to always talk as if what you are saying is self-evidently true and does not need to be defended or proven. Then the listeners do not engage their brains; exactly what is needed for mind control.
Please see Russell Grigg's series on creation.com on Attenborough's latest efforts, beginning here.
Hoyle's calculations might have gone something like this: Assume only 200 proteins are needed for life (it is up to 387 plus RNA entities at last count; in the article "How simple can life be?" linked from my article). Assume only 220 amino acids are needed on average to be in the correct positions for the proteins to function adequately (some require many thousands, not hundreds). Assume that only the 20 amino acids necessary for life are present in the hypothetical primordial soup (at least 40 would be present, if 20 were). Assume that proteins, which are polymers of amino acids, will form without a cellular environment and without the normal cellular machinery that makes this happen. Note that here are many assumptions here in favour of 'life' forming. The probability of such a cell forming with those assumptions would be: ((1/20)^220)^200 = 10-57245 which is very close to Hoyle's figure. He might well have made even more assumptions about how 'simple' the proteins could have been and also factored in the need to make the DNA. The probability for getting the DNA code for those proteins and ribozymes, etc., is much worse than the probability for getting the proteins (which includes the ones needed to read the DNA to make more proteins), so he would have had to have made even more favourable assumptions about the number and size of proteins to account for the DNA as well in his 57,000 figure. And we have not even mentioned cell membranes, etc.
So it is fairly clear that Hoyle overstated the probability of life forming from chemicals from what we know today.
Robert B.
I've never heard the probabilistic arguments address the steep chemical barriers against the formation of many REQUIRED life compounds.

If all the molecules of gas in a roomful of air just happened to collide in such a way that they all were gathered into the lower third of the room, wouldn't that improbable situation explosively revert to something more probable?

Versions of Psalms from "Monkeys with Typewriters" wouldn't detonate whenever a word was formed but isn't that the situation with many of the compounds in life?

I heard that ATP, the universal molecule of metabolism, is virtual rocket fuel that CANNOT exist outside of a living cell and its complex biochemical machinery to keep it in check.

Don't certain things in the cell involve chemical energy thresholds that are uncrossable without pre-existing life?

Don Batten
I would recommend Dr Carl Wieland's talk Understanding the Law of Decay for clarifying the probability arguments about randomness of gases, etc.
The formation of ATP and many other necessary chemicals are huge problems for materialists. And without enzymes, which only come from living cells, some reactions necessary for life are so slow that they will never happen, even given billions of years. For a summary of some of the insurmountable problems for abiogenesis, see 15 loopholes in the evolutionary theory of the origin of life: Summary.
Joseph M.
Maybe creationists should be tackling probabilities from a different starting point. Shouldn’t a comparison be made between the probability of life forming by natural processes and the probability of life forming through intelligence means?

I am not a mathematician but is it possible to calculate probabilities on intelligence forming life given the type of complexity; the order of things; the parallel of things, etc.?
Don Batten
Once you factor in intelligence, then the impossible can become probable or even certain, depending on what event we are talking about. Intelligent design is the antithesis of chance and when we see events that defy a chance explanation we can quickly, intuitively, logically deduce that intelligence was involved. For example, if you were given a hand of 10 cards which turned out to be all hearts from Ace down to 5, you would wonder if intelligence might have been involved in dealing you those cards. If this happened three times in a row, the conclusion would be inescapable.
These types of logical conclusions are made daily in our lives; distinguishing chance processes from intelligence. It is only when it comes to concluding that the intelligence involved must have been much greater than ours (God) that people get weak in the knees and start babbling irrationally with nonsense such as 'given enough time anything is possible' and such like
How could anyone calculate the probability of something happening when intelligence is involved; how could that be done when the intelligence of God is obviously huge but non-quantifiable? Experts once said that heavier than air flight was impossible, but they underestimated the intelligence of the Wright Brothers (and others who contributed).
Alan H.
My hero on the research into Infinite Improbability is not Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins or Sir David Attenborough. That accolade belongs to Douglas Adams and his book Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. While Douglas Adams was writing a science fiction comedy, the others sadly are serious! Of course in the spirit of evolutionary process the Infinite Improbability Drive appeared by lucky chance out of thin air, from the book:-

"The infinite improbability drive is a wonderful new method of crossing interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. It was discovered by lucky chance, and then developed into a governable form of propulsion by the Galactic Government's research center on Damogran."

...Another thing they couldn't stand was the perpetual failure they encountered while trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralyzing distances between the farthest stars, and at the end of the day they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.

Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning in this way: If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, it must have finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out how exactly improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea... and turn it on!

He did this and was rather startled when he managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator."

Don Batten
Jeff M.
A cell is a very complex thing. No one in their right mind would expect it to spring out of nothing. It's the same with the empire state building (or, in case you say that has a designer - a sand dune). They are built from smaller blocks.

That was Hoyle's mistake.

At any rate, I am prepared to accept (not believe) the evidence (not "evidences") of many years study by many people much more intelligent than I am which suggests life's origin in slime (or whatever). We may never know (so what) for sure but I prefer my view to the simple rather sweet, I guess, decision to leave it all to the Bible.

Miracles anyone?
Don Batten
I was not aware that the Empire State Building built itself from randomly throwing blocks together. Hurricane?
But this also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of a living cell; it is not just an assemblage of similar blocks.
The only ‘mistake’ that Holye made was to overstate the probability of life forming. From what is known today, the probability of it happening is even worse. As the article said, even the formation of one average functional protein is beyond possibility, even given billions of years of experiments (see the calculations in Who created God?
I don't know of any evidence that life came from slime. Your “(or whatever)” gives it away. You will believe anything, even the impossible, rather than believe that God was responsible. BTW, you don't have to read far in the secular literature on the origin of life to see that the researchers have little idea of how life could have formed. It is such a problem that some atheists are trying to claim that evolution does not include the origin of life (they don't want to have to defend the idea).
“Miracles anyone?” Yes, indeed, atheists have to believe in miracles such as the origin of the universe from nothing with no cause and the origin of life without adequate cause. The Christian at least has an adequate cause for such things. It takes enormous ‘faith’ to be an atheist; if you think about it.
Alan J.
Purely out of moronic interest, how do we know "there are about 10^80 (a number with 80 zeros) electrons in the universe"?
Don Batten
We don't 'know', but it is a figure that cosmologists have come up with that is widely accepted. If they are under-estimating it by a factor of 1000, it would make it 1083 atoms.
The figure is just to illustrate just how ridiculously long the odds are against the origin of a cell by chance. As I said, even if every one of those atoms were another universe just like ours, we 'only' have 10160 atoms. The number is still insignificant compared to the odds of getting a cell. Even one average-sized protein is a huge problem.
Robert S.
Chance is not a living thing; it is a non-entity. Something that is not living cannot impart life.

Chance can only exist and operate as a 'cog' in an already established system and only within that systems' established physical laws.

"But time and chance happen to them all." Ecclesiastes 9:11
graham P.
D. K.
What an incredible enjoyment to read. Only Christ Himself is more enjoyable!
Don Batten
Just a 'slight' bit of hyperbole here! :-)
Sam H.
YEC is satan's best kept secret. If Adam and Eve weren't real then man isn't fallen then Jesus wasn't God. 'Evolution': the lie.

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