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February 20, 2006

The Miracle of Life

comoconserve.jpg So, I went to the Como Conservatory today. After all this cold we've been having, it was nice to see things green and alive again. If you are feeling in the dumps and you are sick of winter, I must suggest going to the Como Conservatory to brighten your outlook on life. The smells, the freshness, the humidity ... it is all just wonderful.

Anyway, as I was walking through the Conservatory I was struck with the diversity of life in this relatively small, enclosed space. So many different types of trees, plants, and flowers, and as you walk through it you suddenly realize that the variety in the Como Conservatory is really just the tip of the iceberg. It is amazing to think about.

And to stay with the sci-fi theme, why is Earth the only place that we've found so far that has life, and furthermore why do we have life so abundantly? We don't have just a few bacterium struggling to survive on the tip of a comet, we have so many species of life we can't even name them all, and we are still discovering new ones. Again, life is amazing.

Again, these thoughts got me to thinking about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything which coincidentally has a fascinating chapter on this miracle we call life. When you really think about it, the life we have on this planet and the immense variety should make your head explode with wonder. Especially when you consider how difficult it is to even create a simple protein:

Proteins are what you get when you string amino acids together, and we need a lot of them. No one really knows, but there may be as many as a million types of protein in the human body, and each one is a little miracle. By all the laws of probability proteins shouldn’t exist. To make a protein you need to assemble amino acids (which I am obliged by long tradition to refer to here as “the building blocks of life?) in a particular order, in much the same way that you assemble letters in a particular order to spell a word. The problem is that words in the amino acid alphabet are often exceedingly long. To spell collagen, the name of a common type of protein, you need to arrange eight letters in the right order. But to make collagen, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. But—and here’s an obvious but crucial point—you don’t make it. It makes itself, spontaneously, without direction, and this is where the unlikelihoods come in.

The chances of a 1,055-sequence molecule like collagen spontaneously self-assembling are, frankly, nil. It just isn’t going to happen. To grasp what a long shot its existence is, visualize a standard Las Vegas slot machine but broadened greatly—to about ninety feet, to be precise—to accommodate 1,055 spinning wheels instead of the usual three or four, and with twenty symbols on each wheel (one for each common amino acid).1 How long would you have to pull the handle before all 1,055 symbols came up in the right order? Effectively forever. Even if you reduced the number of spinning wheels to two hundred, which is actually a more typical number of amino acids for a protein, the odds against all two hundred coming up in a prescribed sequence are 1 in 10260 (that is a 1 followed by 260 zeroes). That in itself is a larger number than all the atoms in the universe.

And this is just proteins. Think about when you connect them all up, stick DNA into the equation, and get plants, and animals, and all the other variety of life we have on this planet. How does your eyelash know to become an eyelash? How does a human embryo know to create a kidney or a pancreas? As Bryson suggests, we shouldn't even be here. How did this happen? Why did it happen?

Feel free to surmise your own reasons. I'm not here to get into an argument. I think we can all agree, though, that life on this planet is a miracle, plain and simple, regardless of how it happened. I choose to rejoice in it.

Posted by snackeru at February 20, 2006 8:20 PM | Books | Stuff I wonder about


I agree that life and its diversity on this planet is amazing, but his discussion of collagen is misleading - collagen didn't spontaneously come into existence and start making collagen babies with itself - it's a result of evolution, and it doesn't exist independently. So that big number doesn't really tell you anything about the way the world actually works. Evolution beautifully takes care of the problem of how replicators lead to more complex replicators. But the question of how the first replicators came into existence is not solved (I don't think), although I'm sure it's being heavily researched. I have a lot more I want to say but this is already too long, I guess I should just get my own blog :).

Posted by: Tim M at February 21, 2006 9:05 PM

Actually, Tim, you should read the rest of the book/chapter I got this from. Bryson is not promoting Intelligent Design. He is, like me, just writing about how amazing life is. The rest of the chapter this comes from discusses some of the things you mention.

Posted by: Shane at February 21, 2006 10:24 PM

Yeah I know he's not a ID proponent, I'm just saying that huge number and slot machine example don't have any real meaning, and can actually embiggen people who already have sympathy for ID propaganda. Can I assume, then, that immediately after this quoted section, he explains why it's a bad example? Cause I guess my beef is with you, then, for ending the quote where you did and not with the explanation :).

Posted by: Tim M at February 21, 2006 11:28 PM

Maybe I just wanted to get a rise out of you. Mission accomplished!

Posted by: Shane at February 22, 2006 8:16 AM

Ever look at a tree growing out of a crack on the side of mountain? How does it survive? Did you stare in wonder during 'March of the Penguins' as thousands of small birds literally stood around in sub-zero temperatures for weeks on end?

I think if there's anything to take out of our world it's that, life will find a way. Nature is a demanding labratory that is always changing and adapting, because constant survival dictates those changes. Aside from the fact that it's not just one slot machine, or trying to arrange those proteins in the correct order once but an occurance happening multiple times all over the world/galaxy, we begin to see how life creates itself. Where the building blocks come from, that's a different question.

Getting a bit long winded here but it seems that many things happen to organisms because survival dictates a need to adapt. They want to change. They want to survive and flourish. This constant struggle, or perhaps arms race of adaption, can answer lots of 'why' questions about our natural world today.

A very interesting post Shane... by the way, what's all this mystery you've been alluding to lately? Shutting down the Greet Machine? Say it ain't so! If you can, let us know what's going on.

Posted by: Andy at February 22, 2006 4:25 PM

Glad you liked the post Andy. I can tell you are quite the philosophical dude. Thanks for adding to the discussion. "Where the building blocks come from, that's a different question." So true, so true.

I will be writing more about my mysterious musings a little later. I have come to the conclusion, though, that the Greet Machine will live on. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

Posted by: Shane at February 22, 2006 7:11 PM

I can't believe it, my co-worker just bought a car for $57775. Isn't that crazy!

Posted by: Betsy Markum at May 23, 2006 1:50 AM

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