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This article is from
Creation 23(4):42–43, September 2001

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Rob Shenk, wikimedia Raptor_jet

Copy challenge
Can evolution even begin to explain the near-miracle of even the simplest reproduction?


Scientists at the University of California in Berkeley have embarked on a research project to create an artificial ‘housefly’ that can fly around in dangerous or small spaces, such as collapsed buildings, and send back sensory information on what it finds. In studying the way that houseflies accomplish their amazing aerobatic feats, one worker remarked that ‘they are the most skilful flyers on the planet’.1 

Indeed, man’s attempts to imitate nature show up the huge gap that lies between us and our Creator. It is only when we start to come close to such feats as flying that we begin to understand the vast achievements of our Creator God.

The Berkeley team hope to have a flying prototype ready within a couple of years. They have already solved a number of problems such as finding materials that are strong, flexible and light enough to endure the huge forces that are involved in flying. But the navigating challenge is looming rather larger. It looks simple enough, once you can fly, to zoom around wherever you want. But appearances are deceptive, and several more years of research will be required to solve the navigation problem.

But even a flying, navigating, sensing and communicating artificial housefly comes nowhere near to the real thing. Until we can make an organism that can reproduce itself (either sexually or by making a copy of itself), we won’t even come close to appreciating what the Creator has done.

Reproduction goes on zillions of times every day all around us, but few have any idea of the complexity that is involved in accomplishing it. Bacteria can reproduce a complete copy of themselves in about 20 minutes. Generation time in humans is about 25 years2 (which raises the question–what advantage would bacteria gain by evolving into creatures such as us?).

No process of reproduction could ever have come into existence in a piecemeal, stepwise fashion.

Darwinian evolution is said to occur via a long series of small changes, but we will see that no process of reproduction could ever have come into existence in a piecemeal, stepwise fashion.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s imagine that reproduction requires just 10 biochemical steps.3 Now imagine the primordial proto-organism that has somehow managed to create itself out of primordial soup (an impossibility, but let’s imagine it anyway). If it then managed to gain just one of the reproductive steps, it would fail to reproduce and would die without leaving any offspring; life would never have started on the Earth. Suppose it gained two of the required steps. Again, it would still fail to reproduce. Even if it were to gain all 10 steps, the process would still fail unless all the steps were in the right order.

Now it is surprisingly difficult to get even a simple 10-step process right, because there are many ways of getting it wrong!

In a sequence of 10 steps there are 10 possible positions for the first step to occur in (but of course the ‘first’ step must be in the first position for the process to work—a one-in-ten chance). Then there are nine possible positions for the second step to occur in, and so on. So there are 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 3,628,800 possible ways of arranging 10 items; 3,628,799 of the ways are wrong, and only one is right. So the chance of getting it right first time is just one chance in 3,628,800!4

But even in a bacterium, one of the simplest forms of life on Earth, there are large numbers–many more than 10–of steps involved in reproduction. In Haemophilus influenzae, for example, there are 87 genes (‘sentences’ of genetic information encoded on DNA that carry the instructions to specify one particular protein) that deal with just the process of replicating the DNA alone,5 without regard to all the other cellular machinery that is needed for reproduction.

Of course, each gene is itself not just a one-step object, but consists of thousands of chemical letters, also in a specific sequence. But even ignoring this, the chance of getting just 87 steps in the right sequence is only 1 in 10170, a number so large that scientists have no use for it (there are only about 1080 atoms in the whole known universe).

public-domain-images.com house-fly

And once you manage to reproduce the DNA, you have to untangle it in order to pull the two copies apart! DNA molecules are very, very long and are packed in supercoils into a very tiny space in the chromosomes of the cell nucleus. A special enzyme6 is required to untangle the two copies of the DNA. If this enzyme (topoisomerase) is not present, or is produced too early or too late in the process, it would not do its job and the cell would die without reproducing. The right enzymes have to be produced in the right place, at the right time, or the whole process fails.7

So you can see, even from this very brief analysis, that unless the reproductive system was designed as a whole, and was intact to start with, having all the parts present and working, and in the correct sequence, then the proto-organism would have failed to reproduce itself and life would never have started on Earth. The reproductive process could never have come into existence in a stepwise, piecemeal manner as Darwinian evolution requires.

The fact that living things do exist and reproduce themselves in an extraordinarily diverse number of ways can only mean one thing–they were designed from the beginning to do what they do. And what they do, they do exceedingly well. A dramatic testimony to the wisdom, power and skill of their Creator.

References and notes

  1. Quantum, ABC-TV (Australia), 2 March 2000. Return to text.
  2. The average generation time. Women physically mature at around 15 years of age and generally remain fertile into their 40s, while most men retain the biological capacity to father a child well beyond middle age. Return to text.
  3. In reality, there are many more than 10 ‘steps’ involved in reproduction, all of which are dependent on other processes occurring simultaneously (and beforehand, and afterwards) elsewhere in the organism–the situation is especially complex for multi-celled plants and animals. Return to text.
  4. For similar examples, see Perloff, J., Tornado in a Junkyard: The relentless myth of Darwinism, Refuge Books, Massachusetts, pp. 67—70, 1999. He cites one authority giving the chances of producing the necessary building blocks for a cell one-tenth of the smallest known to man as being less than one in 10340,000,000, or 10 with 340 million zeros after it. Return to text.
  5. Fleischmann R.D. et al., Whole genome sequencing and assembly of Haemophilus influenzae Rd, Science 269(5223):496—512, 1995. Return to text.
  6. Strick, T.R., Croquette, V. and Bensimon, D., Single molecule analysis of DNA uncoiling by a type II topoisomerase, Nature 404 (6780):901—904, 2000. Return to text.
  7. This demonstrates that both the DNA and enzymes (proteins) must have been functional from the beginning, otherwise life could not exist. To get around this difficulty, some evolutionists have proposed that the first life was based on another molecule, RNA, which they say could function both like DNA and act as an enzyme, and so make copies of itself. However, other evolutionists admit this is merely wishful thinking, contrary to all experimental evidence. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

Jackson C.
Evolutionists keep saying that all of this can happen because... there is enough time.
John S.
Thank you for a wonderful article. I never knew the numbers but always wondered about the likelihood of a cell coming to life out of a pool of chemical goo and then being able to duplicate (tear itself in two) and survive the ordeal. Just like I thought, it is more than astronomical.
Joseph M.
What makes the challenge worse than any probabilities, is how can physical chemicals produce "meaning" in the 10 biochemical steps outcome? At the nucleotide sequencing level in DNA-->mRNA why would chemical u's be forced to follow c's or a's follow g's to give "meaning" (UCU - Serine, CGA - Arginine)? Especially when constraints such as natural selection knows nothing about "meaning" at the nucleotide sequencing level in DNA? What probabilities can be formulated for "meaning" steps, that is, a codon table holding code information that has "meaning" for the production of proteins (i.e. polypeptide code chains)?

Turning chemical garbage into coded information that makes sense is not a deterministic physical outcome (or we would observe new information with meaning occur daily solely from physicality). We don't see this so it must mean that this is outside the realm of physical probabilities. So the question is what turns chemical garbage into meaningful coded information that both living organisms and computer systems rely on?

Once chemical garbage turns into "meaning" then purpose and action are derived. An intelligent spiritual entity is the only reasoned inference that can bridge the huge impossible chasm between meaning and physicality.

Genesis 2:7,8,19 "... And the Lord God formed man ..."
Geoff C. W.
And why would a two-sex system evolve for reproduction. This horrendously multiplies the odds against its success. Not only would there have to be a male/female pair produced, with all their different but compatible bits, but they would have to be produced at the same time and in the same place. And even if that were to occur, THEY WOULD HAVE TO KNOW WHAT TO DO!

This reminds me of the first verse of an old song that my dad used to sing - in part. We had to get his brother (our uncle) to fill in the third sentence for us, as dad always censored it:

Adam was the first man,
This we do believe.
He roamed around the Garden
All day long with Eve.
He had no one to show him how,
But soon he learnt the way...
And that's the only reason why
We're singing here today!

Now to see what the CMI censors will do with it.
Hans T.
It seems to me like this is attempting to explain how simple bacteria could spontaneously arise, rather than how a self-replicating molecule could arise from ordered chemical reactions. Even simple modern bacteria would surely be much more complex than what scientists propose the first proto-life would have looked like. If these hypotheses are correct, which I'm not saying they are, then reproduction would have been there right from the beginning, and any modern DNA replication would have been improvements on that first basic replication, would it not? It seems to me then to be rather futile to make a point about modern DNA replication being so and so improbable, when this is not what any of the current hypotheses are claiming actually came first.

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