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How Simple Can Life Be?

by Jonathan Sarfati

In Darwin’s day, many people swallowed the theory of spontaneous generation—that life arose from non-living matter. It was somewhat easier to believe because the cell’s structure was almost unknown. Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s popularizer in Germany, claimed that a cell was a ‘simple lump of albuminous combination of carbon.’1 (Haeckel was also a notorious fraud—he forged embryonic diagrams to bolster the erroneous idea that the embryo’s development recapitulated (re-traced) its alleged evolutionary ancestry)2.

But modern science has discovered vast quantities of complex, specific information in even the simplest self-reproducing organism. Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, containing 482 genes comprising 580,000 bases.3 Of course, these genes are only functional with pre-existing translational and replicating machinery, a cell membrane, etc. But Mycoplasma can only survive by parasitizing more complex organisms, which provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. So evolutionists must posit a more complex first living organism with even more genes.

More recently, Eugene Koonin and others tried to calculate the bare minimum required for a living cell, and came up with a result of 256 genes. But they were doubtful whether such a hypothetical bug could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment.4

Yet even this ‘simple’ organism has far too much information to be expected from time and chance, without natural selection. The information theorist Hubert Yockey calculated that given a pool of pure, activated biological amino acids, the total amount of information which could be produced, even allowing 109 years as evolutionists posit, would be only a single small polypeptide 49 amino acid residues long.5 This is about 1/8 the size (therefore information content) of a typical protein, yet the hypothetical simple cell above needs at least 256 proteins. And Yockey’s estimate generously presupposes that the many chemical hurdles can be overcome, which is a huge assumption, as shown by many creationist writers.6

NB: natural selection cannot help, as this requires self-replicating entities—therefore it cannot explain their origin.

[Update 14 February 2006: follow-up research led by Hamilton Smith at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville reveals that the minimum genome consists of 387 protein-coding and 43 RNA-coding genes (Nature 439, 246–247 (19 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439246a; Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103:425–430, 2006].


  1. Cited in M.J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, The Free Press, New York, 1996, p. 24. Return to text.
  2. R.M. Grigg, ‘Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit’, Creation 18(2):33-36, 1996. Return to text.
  3. A. Goffeau, ‘Life With 482 Genes’ Science, 270(5235):445-6, 1995. Return to text.
  4. W. Wells, ‘Taking life to bits’, New Scientist, 155(2095):30-33, 1997. Return to text.
  5. H.P. Yockey, ‘A Calculation of the Probability of Spontaneous Biogenesis by Information Theory’, J. Theor. Biol., 67:377-398 , 1977. Return to text.
  6. C.B. Thaxton, W.L. Bradley & R.L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Philosophical Library Inc., New York, 1984; W.R. Bird, W.R., 1991; The Origin of Species: Revisited, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, Vol. I Part III, 1991; S.E. Aw, ‘The Origin of Life: A Critique of Current Scientific Models’ Journal of Creation (TJ), 10(3):300–314, 1996; J.D. Sarfati, 1997 ‘Self- Replicating Enzymes?Journal of Creation (TJ) 11(1):4-6, 1997; Origin of Life Q&A. Return to text.