Hawking claims that life can form by chance

Aliens probably do exist says top cosmologist


Photo NASA Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking was, for thirty years, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, and is one of the world’s foremost cosmologists. He regularly features in popular science television programmes, and his phenomenally successful book, A Brief History of Time, has over nine million copies in print.1 His latest book The Grand Design declares that no creator was necessary (see detailed refutation).

In one of his most recent broadcasts, Stephen Hawking’s universe,2 he unequivocally subscribes to the view that extraterrestrials are probably common place. Since our galaxy is just one of 100 billion, he argues, “the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.” Indeed, he claims, “Stars Wars and Star Trek … may be closer to reality than we think … in our vast, ancient universe, almost any form that is physically possible is likely to exist or have existed somewhere.”

Hawking offers two explanations as to how life might have begun on Earth. The first is that this happened by accident—that random collisions of amino acids in a primordial soup, over millions of years, just happened to produce the right combination of molecules. This he describes as “the ultimate, lucky break that started the chain of life.” In making this statement, he demonstrates that he is unaware of the simple chemical fact that amino acids in a soup would not spontaneously link up; rather, any chains would break down—see Origin of life: the polymerization problem. Furthermore, there are other components of any primordial soup that would block chains from growing or destroy the amino acids. But this article is concerned mainly with his probability fallacies.

Although he accepts that the chance of life arising spontaneously is very small, he does not feel that this is a problem for this theory. “It’s like winning a lottery” he claims. “Although the odds are astronomical, most weeks, someone hits the jackpot.”

The second explanation he gives is panspermia—that life was seeded on earth by asteroids—a view shared by fellow atheist Francis Crick (see Designed by aliens? Discoverers of DNA’s structure attack Christianity). However, as we have pointed out many times before, all this does is transfer the problem of life’s origin to another time and place in the universe. See also Panspermia theory burned to a crisp: bacteria couldn’t survive on meteorite.

Given Hawking’s mathematical background, his treatment of the probability of life beginning in the way he suggests is astonishing. Moreover, his confusing the issue with a lottery beggars belief.

Given Hawking’s mathematical background, his treatment of the probability of life beginning in the way he suggests is astonishing. Moreover, his confusing the issue with a lottery beggars belief. In a typical lottery, with say a million participants, where each person buys just one ticket and the winning number is drawn from the numbers purchased, the probability of a particular participant winning is one in a million. However the probability that there will be a winner is one (a guaranteed certainty!). There is no certainty that life will arise from a pool of amino acids. Hawking is really just ‘cheating with chance’. Other lotteries are organised slightly differently, and it is possible that the winning number will not have been purchased. However, the fact that “most weeks, someone hits the jackpot” shows that there is still a high probability of someone winning.

For life to begin through the random shuffling of chemicals in a primordial soup, many exceedingly unlikely events must take place. Not just one, but many particular combinations of molecules must be formed. The probability of just one protein forming from amino acids is tiny. The probability of many forming is too small to be considered credible. Let’s have a look at a few simple calculations.

As everyone knows, the probability of tossing a coin and it landing ‘heads up’ is 1 in 2 (i.e. 0.5). The probability of two coins landing ‘heads up’ is 1 in 4 (i.e. 0.52 = 0.25). The probability of three coins landing ‘heads up’ is 1 in 8 (i.e. 0.53 = 0.125). The probability of a hundred coins landing ‘heads up’ is 0.5100, that is around 1 in 1030. (1030 is 1 followed by 30 zeroes.) A similar calculation might be made for amino acids forming proteins (the building blocks of life).

Chirality diagram
Diagram of chirality.

Amino acids (except the simplest, glycine) come in two forms—‘left-handed’ and ‘right-handed’. This is known as chirality (see diagram, right). For a number of amino acids to form a functional protein, they must all be like-handed (or homochiral). In actual fact, proteins in living organisms have all left-handed amino acids. For a short protein of only 100 amino acids, the probability of this occurring is the same as a hundred coins landing ‘heads up’, i.e. 1 in 1030. (The homochirality problem is even more acute for RNA and DNA, which contain all right-handed sugars. One wrong-handed molecule can disrupt replication by terminating the growing chain.)

The minimum number of proteins required to assemble a working, self-replicating cell is estimated to be at least 387 (see How simple can life be?). Let us be particularly generous to evolution theory and say that only 300 are required. What is the probability of 300 amino acid chains arising with the characteristics outlined above? Again, the calculation is easy. It is 1 in 10(30 x 300), i.e. 1 in 109,000.

But what about Hawking’s point that our galaxy is just one of 100 billion? Given the many, many billions of planets that exist and the alleged 14 or 15 billion years that the universe has been around, surely it’s reasonable to believe that life evolved on at least a few of these planets?

Let us do some more basic calculations. 1 in 109,000 is the probability of tossing a set of 29,897 coins and all of them landing ‘heads up’ (because 0.529,897 = 10–9,000, i.e. 1 in 109,000). Supposing every atom in the universe (of which there are an estimated 1080) turned into a machine capable of tossing a set of 29,897 coins all at once, a billion times each second. How many sets of 29,897 coins could we toss in the alleged 15 billion years the universe has existed?

The answer is 1080 x 15 x 109 x 365 x 24 x 60 x 60 x 109 = 5 x 10106, say 10107.

The chances of achieving something with a probability of 10–9,000 when 10107 attempts are made is 10–9,000 x 10107 = 10–8,893, i.e. 1 in 1 followed by 8,893 zeroes. This is such an unimaginably small fraction that the idea of proteins forming by random collisions of amino acids to form a living, self-replicating cell may be seen to be utterly, utterly implausible.

Evolutionists themselves have admitted that ‘The activation of amino acids and the formation of peptides under primordial conditions is one of the great riddles of the origin of life.’

Moreover, this is just the beginning of the problems for these kinds of origin of life scenarios.3 For example, not only do the amino acids have to be like-handed, they must bond to each other in a particular way—that is, they must form ‘peptide bonds’. Even in a specially prepared protected environment (in a test tube), experiments indicate that there is only a 1 in 2 chance of this happening with each amino acid. Hence, the probability of 100 amino acids coming together by chance, all having the same handedness and all forming peptide bonds, is around 1 in 1060.4 Chemists who make proteins actually block non-peptide reaction sites with “protecting groups”, then remove those after the reaction (and they exclude water and any alkali).5 The primordial soup didn’t have such helpful chemists around. Indeed, evolutionists themselves have admitted that “The activation of amino acids and the formation of peptides under primordial conditions is one of the great riddles of the origin of life.”6

Furthermore, there are any one of 20 types of amino acid that could assemble themselves in any of the 100 positions along the chain. Hence, there are 20100 = 10130 ways that the protein could form. Only a very small fraction of these would form the functional proteins needed to get the simplest biological cell going.7 Further to this, a self replicating cell would require other complex molecules such as RNA/DNA—and there are similar problems with handedness, as mentioned above, as well as with linking up at all, let alone in the right way, and obtaining the right sequence (see Evolutionist criticisms of the RNA World conjecture). No wonder the Nobel Prize-winner, Jacques Monod, argued that the probability of life emerging by random processes is so small that it might be considered to be “zero”.8

Hawking’s conviction that evolution is true appears to be more intuitive than scientific. “In such a massive place as the cosmos,” he opines, “we only have to look at ourselves for proof that extremely unlikely things can and do happen all the time.” In other words, whatever the difficulties in explaining evolution, the existence of humans is proof that it can happen. Talk about begging the question!9

Many evolutionists have now abandoned pure chance as an explanation for life’s origin. They tend to favour the idea that currently unobserved natural laws exist which caused functional proteins and RNA/DNA molecules to form. They believe that, if they continue their research, they will discover these laws.10 But this is a faith, as evolutionary information theorist Hubert Yockey admitted. Of course, belief in biblical creation is also a faith. However, unlike Hawking’s origin of life scenarios, Christianity is supported by real historical evidence.

Published: 13 October 2010


  1. Radford, T., How God propelled Stephen Hawking into the bestsellers lists, guardian.co.uk, 31 July 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/jul/30/stephen-hawking-brief-history-time. Return to text.
  2. Stephen Hawking’s universe, part 1, Channel 4, UK, 18 September 2010. First shown on Discovery. Return to text.
  3. Sarfati, J., By Design, ch 11, Creation Ministries International, 2008. Return to text.
  4. See Lennox, J.C., God’s Undertaker—has science buried God? pp. 120–121, Lion Hudson, Oxford, 2007; Meyer, S.C., The signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for intelligent design, p. 206, HarperCollins, New York, 2009. Return to text.
  5. Personal communication from J. Sarfati, Ph.D. (Chemistry). Return to text.
  6. Huber, C. and Wächtershäuser, G., Peptides by activation of amino acids with CO on (Ni,Fe)S surfaces: implications for the origin of life. Science 281(5377):670–672, 1998. Return to text.
  7. According to the molecular biologist, Douglas Axe, less than 1 in 1074 of the all possible amino acid sequences would produce the required proteins. Cited by Meyer, S.C., The signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for intelligent design, p. 210, HarperCollins, New York, 2009. Return to text.
  8. Popper, K.R., Scientific Reduction and the Essential Incompleteness of all Science; in Ayala, F.J., and Dobzhansky, T., eds, Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, Macmillan Press, London, p. 270, 1974. Return to text.
  9. “Beg the question” does not mean “raise the question”; rather, it is an informal logical fallacy whereby a conclusion to be proved is assumed in the premise, aka circular reasoning. The question should be whether life arose by chance, but Hawking ‘begs’ (assumes) that humans arose by chance, and then uses the existence of humans as proof of the affirmative. Return to text.
  10. Davies, P., The Fifth Miracle, Penguin Books, London, UK, ch. 10, 1999. Return to text.

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