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Wonders of Life—Part 1: How life first began

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Published: 30 March 2013 (GMT+10)
Wonders of life

Professor Brian Cox is a particle physicist at Manchester University in the UK, and is widely tipped to succeed David Attenborough as the BBC’s top presenter of popular science TV programmes.1 It is a position for which he has all the ‘right’ qualifications. In the 1990s, he played keyboards for the pop group D:Ream; he is considered the best looking physics professor around; and, most importantly, he has no time for the God of the Bible. As a ‘Distinguished Supporter’ of the British Humanist Association, he gave their 2010 Voltaire lecture entitled, The value of big science. In this he claimed that science and the wonders it reveals are enough to satisfy human ‘spiritual longings’ and to provide purpose and meaning to life. There’s no need for anything ‘imaginary’ he argued, which clearly includes God.

Wonders of Life2 is the title of his latest documentary series; and little attempt was made to hide its underlying objective. Although, for many years, BBC nature programmes have peddled the evolution story, this latest series unequivocally promotes the naturalistic world-view as ‘scientific’, with statements about evolution prefixed by phrases like, “We know” and “What’s certain”. As I watched each programme, however, I had a growing sense that, when it came to biology and evolution, Cox was simply parroting what he had been told to say.3 For example, one editorial error made clear that he was unable to distinguish between a crocodile and an alligator. See clip below.

This clip features Professor Brian Cox and is taken from the second episode of the BBC series, Wonders of Life. According to Cox, a particle physicist, the mammalian ear clearly evolved from the reptilian ear. However, he appears unable to distinguish between a crocodile and an alligator.

It was difficult to miss the religious fervour with which Cox presented his material, a sense much enhanced by the brilliant filming and carefully chosen background music. His worship of the material world was evident from his use of phrases like “most wonderful of all” and his reveling in the belief that “we’re connected to every single thing that’s ever lived”. He spoke of Hubble’s telescope as being situated on “hallowed ground” and referred to the universe as being an “almost life-like system”. The title of the third programme celebrated nature’s variety and its “endless forms most beautiful”.4 Cox described the butterfly as a “wonder of nature” whose biology is “hard-wired to the heavens” and rejoiced in the uniqueness of life, which, he said, makes it “indescribably valuable.” There was perhaps even a hint of biblical language when he spoke of “a time when the world was empty”.5

Cox’s religion was clearly intended to rival ‘unscientific’ Christianity. His early assertion, that “energy is eternal”, was a clear rejection of the Christian doctrine of the eternal nature of God and the temporal nature of the creation. Having consistently dismissed the need for a creator, and argued that the origin of living things can be explained by the laws of physics, he said, “I think they’re no less magical for that.”

The first in the series, What is Life? is subtitled, Cox journeys to South-East Asia to understand how life first began. Its tone was evident from the beginning, as ‘scientific beliefs’ were compared with the superstitions of a remote group of people living in the Philippines. Cox’s own beliefs about the origins of the universe and life, however, appear to be no more scientific than theirs. Early on in the programme, he drew an astonishing conclusion from the first law of thermodynamics. “The fact that energy is neither created nor destroyed has a profound implication,” he claimed. “It means energy is eternal. The energy that’s here now has always been here.”

Is energy or God eternal?

Cox presumably believes that all the energy of the universe existed before the alleged ‘big bang’. But how can he know this? And how can he know what physical laws existed before the universe came into being? Moreover, his interpretation of the first law of thermodynamics appears to ignore the implications of the second law of thermodynamics. Let us consider these carefully:

First law: The total amount of mass-energy is constant.
Second Law: The amount of energy available for work is running out, or entropy is increasing to a maximum.

The second law tells us that energy inexorably loses its usefulness. This is why our universe is moving, irreversibly, towards ‘heat death’, a uniformly cold, silent, lifeless cosmos. If Cox holds that the first law has always been operating (i.e. from eternity), surely, he must accept that the same is true for the second law; otherwise he is being selective and only accepting facts that suit his argument. Together, the first and second laws imply that energy cannot have been around forever, because if it had, there would be no energy around today that is available for work.

Instead, the laws of thermodynamics indicate that both the universe and its usable energy came into being a finite time ago; it was ‘wound up’ at its beginning and is now ‘running down’. Moreover, the fact that it must have been wound up points to a creator, as ‘nothing’ can neither create a universe nor wind it up. See also, If God created the universe, then who created God?

Can energy produce life?

Cox then made the equally unscientific assertion that transfer of energy led to the origin of life. Light from the sun, he claimed, together with proton gradients—chemical energy generated by conditions similar to those produced by volcanoes today—drove the processes that created life. This may have happened, he said, in hydro-thermal vents, deep in the ocean, which are rich in the right raw materials, such as hydrogen, carbon dioxide, iron, nickel and sulphur. He fails to mention, however, that these same harsh conditions would destroy the very building blocks needed to produce the basic molecules for life.

According to Cox, the view that proton gradients fuelled life’s origin is substantiated by the fact that virtually all known life uses these to produce energy today, in the cells’ mitochondria. Radically different life forms, he said, from bats to plants to bread mould, all share a common ancestor and, in all probability, that common ancestor was something that lived in those ancient undersea vents four billion years ago where naturally occurring proton gradients provided the energy for the first life. Cox also showed how other organisms, even some jellyfish, are powered by energy from the sun, using photosynthesis, and explained how all this naturally produced energy is used to build and maintain the highly complex structures we see throughout the living world today. “Living things,” he said, “can be explained by the laws of physics.”

The reality, however, is that while the workings of living things can, manifestly, be explained by science, their origins, equally manifestly, cannot. Organisms live and reproduce by carefully directing energy using sophisticated machines. Mitochondria, for example, contain machines that produce useful ‘energy units’ called ATP. The right things have to happen at the right time and in the right way because undirected energy, like the proverbial6 ‘bull in a china shop’, is destructive. Undirected energy would cause the molecules needed for life, such as DNA, RNA and proteins, to break down and fall apart, rather than be built up. Living things carefully direct the use of energy using highly complex software programs encoded in their DNA. Without the highly sophisticated machinery and control systems required for photosynthesis, for example, exposing a plant to strong sunlight would simply burn it to a crisp.

Proteins cannot assemble themselves

Proteins, the main components of living organisms, have to be very carefully assembled from up to 20 different amino acids. Proteins made up of chains of randomly assembled amino acids would be useless. The cells of plants and animals are able to correctly assemble proteins because the information defining their structures is stored in their DNA, together with the software that controls the operation of the assembly machines. Moreover, since both the machines that enable the DNA to be read and the assembly machines themselves are made of proteins, it is necessary to have proteins in the first place to make proteins!

In Cox’s primordial hydro-thermal vents there were no DNA/RNA information molecules and no machines to make proteins. Furthermore, there are no observed natural processes that appear remotely capable of generating the information needed to produce useful DNA/RNA or protein molecules. Leading origin of life researcher, Professor Paul Davies comments,

“ … . where did the very peculiar form of information needed to get the first living cell up and running come from? Nobody knows … .”7

“No known law of nature could achieve this.”8

Cox’s conclusion to this part of the programme was most misleading. “We’ve developed a quite detailed understanding of the underlying machinery that powers … life on Earth,” he said; and “… it is certainly safe to say that there’s no mysticism required; you don’t need some kind of magical flame to animate these little machines. They operate according to the laws of physics.” Indeed; and we don’t need mysticism to explain how the television operates either. Cox’s argument is like saying that the laws of physics can explain how TVs arose from all their various components. It is certainly true that scientists, more and more, can explain how living organisms work; but, in the context of the programme’s subtitle, Cox journeys to South-East Asia to understand how life first began, Cox surely gave the impression that science can also explain life’s origin. The reality, however, is that his ‘add energy to create life’ scenario has no scientific basis whatsoever.

DNA – evidence of evolution?

The final part of the program dealt with DNA, which Cox implied was a relatively simple code. Nothing could be further from the truth. DNA is so complex that the world’s top geneticists are beginning to admit that it may be the end of the century before we understand it.9 Some biologists have suggested that we may never get to the bottom of it.10 Given that we know so little about DNA, how can evolutionists possibly argue that science has shown that it evolved? How can they ‘know’ that natural processes are capable of producing something when they don’t even understand how it works?

Cox also presented the old canard that similarities between the DNA of humans and apes provided evidence for evolution and, again, showed an astonishing ignorance of the facts. Referring to humans and chimpanzees, he said, “If you compare our genetic sequences you find our genes are 99% the same.” This is very slack, indeed inexcusable; five years ago, even knowledgeable evolutionists wrote papers referring to “the myth of 1%” difference.11

In reality, if we consider just the Y chromosome, we find chimps have only two-thirds as many distinct genes or gene families as the human Y chromosome and only 47% as many protein-coding elements as humans.12,13 According to current estimates, if the two genomes are compared (that is including the non-protein coding regions) there appears to be between 81 and 87% similarity. Does this, then, mean we are between 81 and 87% ape? Well, we share 50% of our DNA with a banana.14 Does this mean we are 50% banana?

Can evolution be seen in our genes?

Cox also claimed that the evolutionary story can be seen in genes. “Our DNA,” he said, “contains the fingerprints of almost four billion years of evolution.” He then drew a diagram supposedly showing how differences between the DNA of various animals confirm the evolutionary family tree. The more distantly related humans are to an animal, he argued, the greater the differences in DNA. Needless to say, he didn’t mention that such differences would also be predicted by the creation model, as the greater the differences in anatomy, the greater the differences we would expect to see in the DNA! Nor did he mention how proteins, specified by genes, exhibit a highly ordered pattern of diversity, with each type of organism isolated, distinct and unlinked by intermediates.15 How does evolution explain this?

Watching programmes such as this is very reassuring for creationists. The BBC appears determined to affirm the evolutionary world-view as fact and have considerable resources with which to present the most convincing and up-to-date arguments. If this is the best they do, then we clearly have nothing to fear.

Wonders of Life – Part 2: Endless forms most beautiful responds to the equally unscientific arguments presented by Professor Cox in Wonders of Life, Episodes 2-5.

References and endnotes

  1. In fact, Attenborough himself said, "If I had a torch I would hand it to Brian Cox." Plunkett, J., Sir David Attenborough passes natural history crown to Brian Cox, The Guardian, 30 January 2013; guardian.co.uk/media/2013/jan/30/david-attenborough-brian-cox, last accessed 25 March 2013. Return to text.
  2. Wonders of Life, BBC 2. (1) What is Life?, first screened 27 January 2013; (2) Expanding Universe, 3 February 2013, (3) Endless Forms Most Beautiful, 10 February 2013; (4) Size Matters, 17 February 2013; (5) Home, 24 February 2013. Return to text.
  3. Subsequently, I came across a recording of an interview in which Cox admitted that his knowledge of biology had not, until recently, progressed beyond what he learnt at school in the 1980s: This Morning, ITV, 31 January 2013; itv.com/thismorning/showbiz/professor-brian-cox-wonders-of-life, last accessed 25 March 2013. Return to text.
  4. Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species, 1st ed., 1859, p. 490. Return to text.
  5. Genesis 1:2. Return to text.
  6. Mythbusters episode 85 showed that real bulls are not so destructive, Discovery Channel, 2007. Return to text.
  7. Davies, P., Life Force, New Scientist, 1:27–30, 18 September 1999. Return to text.
  8. Davies, P., The Fifth Miracle, Penguin Books, London, UK, p. 100, 1999. Return to text.
  9. Maher, B., ENCODE: The human encyclopaedia, Nature, 5 September 2012; nature.com/news/encode-the-human-encyclopaedia-1.11312. Return to text.
  10. Baker, S., Could this be the death of Darwinism?, Evangelical Times, November 2012; evangelical-times.org/archive/item/5855/Scientific–including-creation-/Could-this-be-the-death-of-Darwinism. Return to text.
  11. Cohen, J., Relative Differences: The Myth of 1%, Science 316(5833):1836, 29 June 2007 | DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5833.1836. See also Anderson, D., Another evolutionary ‘truth’ now conceded to be myth: Evolutionists abandon the idea of 99% DNA similarity between humans and chimps, creation.com/similarity-myth, 10 August 2007. Return to text.
  12. Catchpoole, D., Y chromosome shock, Creation 33(2):56, April 2011. Return to text.
  13. Carter, R., The chimpanzee Y chromosome is radically different from human; creation.com/chimp-y-chromosome. Return to text.
  14. nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/evolution/what-is-the-evidence/morphology/dna-molecules/index.html. Return to text.
  15. Denton, M., Evolution a Theory in Crisis, Adler & Adler, Maryland, USA, ch. 12, 1986. Return to text.