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Wonders of Life—Part 1: How life first began


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.

Readers’ comments

Mike J.
1. “Living things,” he said, “can be explained by the laws of physics.”

I wonder if Cox thinks explanation itself can be explained by the laws of physics? (can the managerial decisions of the BBC? can atheism? can anti-creationism? can philosophy? can the musings of a physicist?)

2. "...there's no mysticism required..."

Here Cox caricatures the idea of creation. The creationist claims that intelligence, mind, creativity and purpose are required... not "mysticism.'' As these factors are required to produce a TV camera, so they were required to produce living organisms. There's nothing ''mystical'' about intelligence and creativity; even if we don't fully comprehend them.

Shaun P.
I tweeted Prof. Brian Cox the link to this article and asked him if he'd care to respond to CMI. He replied: "Not really. It's drivel. Not a lot else to say. If you are interested, there is much more detail in the Wonders of Life book."

Thanks for your very important ministry.
Peter H.
i think it an interesting observation that life could not form in the harsh conditions of these deep sea vents (as if it could form even in more favourable conditions!) yet extremophiles exist and thrive in such environments.presumably they would not have been able to do so had they not been designed and previously equipped with such amazing capacity.
Dominic Statham
Indeed. Organisms can live and reproduce in these harsh conditions because they have the machinery and software which enable them to do so.
William L.
My 9-year old can distinguish an alligator from a crocodile.

It appears to me that the supply of "scientific data" supporting the evolution model is waning. The creators of this show and their ilk seem to be grasping for straws. It should be obvious that science points to The Creator. Actually, God did say that He leaves man no excuse for disbelieving. So, I shall rephrase. It IS obvious that science points to The Creator.
Seathrun MacE.
Tim W., South Africa, rightly quotes Proverbs 9:10 and Psalm 111;10 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." He could also have quoted Proverbs 1:7 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction."

I have often thought that this latter verse means that there can be no true education in schools that ignore God and that such education as is given in such schools is likely to lead students into the most foolish ways of thinking. After all, most early pioneers of universal education in Europe believed not in "three Rs" - Reading, wRiting and 'Rithmetic - but, as one writer has said, in "4 Rs" - Reading, wRiting, 'Rithmetic and Righteousness! (Perhaps the fourth R should be Revelation - the whole of God's written Word - knowledge of which should lead to Righteousness anyway.) And - before anyone mocks - look at the way these early pioneers in the 18th and 19th centuries successfully laid the foundation for the education systems of the 20th and 21st centuries!

God bless your vital work.
Diane W.
In the UK we have laws now to prevent our children and young people hearing the truth of God and His Creation in our schools. God is relegated to myth and our children are now fed a diet of evolution with no way to hear the other side of the arguement (unless they come from a Christian family). Coupled with this is our own Dr Cox and his quite depressing programmes spouting what I can only describe as 'evolutionary clap-trap' full of alarming jumps of his imagination plus downright falsehood .... all this funded by the BBC with enough money to make sure the programmes delight the eye and 'tickle' the senses with beautiful backdrops and music. I am sad for our youth here in the UK - Christians need to be fully aware of the implications of this situation and make sure their children are taught at home to counteract this. My son debates confidently with his non-Christian friends and some get to hear about God for the first time this way - a real joy to see! Thank you Dominic for this well timed article! Keep up the good work everyone at CMI - your role is so crucial in the present times.
Aleksandar K.
Is this hydro-thermal vents thing the latest hype among evolutionists? Do they really have nothing better to offer than to ignore basic laws of organic chemistry?
Hans G.
As soon as I see him on TV I switch to an other channel ... This Mr. 1% human lulls his 99% monkeys into an evolutionary sleep ...
P. T.
When I read your article, considered Cox's credentials to succeed Attenborough, and pondered the 'science' that Cox is promoting to the public, I could cry. How can the British scientific establishment permit such deception and dishonesty? How can they permit teaching and brainwashing people with such half-truths and lies? I and many others thank the living God for you all at CMI who devote so much of your lives to researching and publishing scientific truth and encouraging us to be critical thinkers instead of blind, brainless, manipulated sponges (as I once was, but not any longer, thanks to CMI) - grist for the mill of academic arrogance and pride. It is agonising to consider the millions of people who unwittingly take in all the deception as daily bread when in fact it is poison with eternal consequences. May our living God mightily use and bless your ministry to turn the tide in favour of His truth!
Peter H. W.
Thank you for this article Dominic. I watched to the programme and it made me squirm! Endless 'hand waving' statements were made, masquerading as so-called 'scientific fact'. One of these stood out, although there were many others. Brian Cox said " .....evolution found an ingenious way of...". These kind of repeated assertions are, of course, never a substitute for explanations of the precise mechanisms involved. The real evidence has been concealed for far too long by the BBC.
Joseph Allen K.
In debating Darwinian evolution, I have found that the most effective arguments are the ones based on the SCIENTIFIC METHOD.

• Step one is to establish common ground by defining SCIENCE: Science is by definition a body of knowledge that has been established by means of, and only by means of, the Scientific Method.

• Step two is to agree on the Scientific Method as used in in Biology: hypotheses proven/disproven by means of designed, replicable experiments.

• Step three is to state the 2 basic HYPOTHESES of evolution: (1) Life-less matter was somehow transformed into living uni-cell organisms, and (2) Uni-cell organisms somehow evolved into multi-cell organisms.

• Step four is to get the Darwinists to agree that the 2 basic hypotheses of evolution have NOT yet been established by means of the Scientific Method.
Dominic Statham
You say "the 2 basic hypotheses of evolution have NOT yet been established by means of the Scientific Method". I would suggest they never will be either!
Den B.
I watched the program and, thanks mostly to the reading I have done from your organisation, could see through its veneer of plausibility. Extremely distressing, however, was the thought that millions will be lapping up the deceit without challenge. Therefore I have to respectfully disagree with the concluding comments of your article. This level of propaganda consumption gives us much to be concerned about. Thanks for all your work and may the creator God bless us all in our efforts to oppose these lies.
Dominic Statham
I take your point about the seriousness of the matter and that these kinds of programme have far reaching influence. I make more of this in the conclusion to Part 2.
Tim W.
Ah yes, the Unwatchable Professor Brian Cox: every programme of his that I've struggled to sit through seems to distil as follows: middle-aged man genetically bred for maximum Granny-appeal travels at enormous expense to exotic locations around the world and stares dewy-eyed into the middle distance, looking thoughtful and spouting Forrest Gump-level philosophy. And this passes as popular-level science programming!

And surely his "interesting" take on thermodynamics can only mean one of two things: He is either lying in order to promote his philosophy above real science, or he genuinely believes matter/energy is eternal and hasn't worked out the consequences relating to the Second Law, as you mentioned. Even if we cut him some slack and acknowledge that maybe he's just reading from someone else's script, that still reflects very badly on his integrity, so there's really no excuse at all for his making such statements. Whichever way you look at it this surely makes him a Very Bad Scientist doesn't it?

Psalm 111: 10 and Prov 9: 10; "The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom" - Cox is the end result of defying this statement. I very much fear for future science education, at least in the West.
Andrew S.
It sounds like Cox's language is chosen to appeal to new-age / Hindu / Buddhist/ post-modern / emergent church people with phrases like “we’re connected to every single thing that’s ever lived” and “energy is eternal”. If so, it may explain his sloppy approach to truth since relativism sets a low standard for truth and precision.
P. I.
Thanks for this excellent article Dominic. I too was astounded when Cox announced that energy is eternal! ... The BBC seems to become more atheistic with each passing year and are misleading millions with eternal consequences. Keep up the good work at CMI!
Michael M.
Ten years ago a builder delivered a pile of bricks, sand, cement, timber and other building materials to my house. A few days later he returned and using these materials he built an extension to my house - a new kitchen. Without the intervention of an intelligent being I would now be looking out of my window at a pile of bricks, sand, cement etc. No amount of sun, wind, rain or any other natural force would have done the job. A creation requires an intelligent creator. It makes no sense to believe it can happen by itself.
Chuck J.
These shows break my heart for the poor inquisitive minds who are mislead by them. However, there is hope as I was once among them. Praise God, and thank you for your service on the front lines.
Terence W.
It is so gratifying to read a good, well planned dissection of an overtly anti-Christian worldview. It was not only simple enough for any layman, but dealt with the underlying assumptions that the secular world tends to make.

I do, however, find it amusing that a particle physicist is currently the BBC's spokesman on biological evolution. I am quite sure that the BBC is simply opening itself up to more criticism from qualified biologists who actually know the depth to which the complexity goes.

Thanks for a great article.
Robert M.
Another awesome article. Thanks guys!
P. B.
... Truly God has confounded the "wisdom" of the "wise" and made nothing the things humans think are great. Even science falls victim to hubris when God is left out of the picture.
Robert S.
The science described in the program seems more like opening a crate marked "technical equipment" but finding instead that it is full of stuffed toys.

The presenter of the program is engaging in, and is also trying to convince others to engage in the idolatrous pagan practice of, “worshiping and serving the creation rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
The religion being promoted has Unbelief towards the Creator as its chief spiritual idol, and the creation itself as its physical idol, with the whole thing being disguised behind the good name of science.

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