Everyone must at some point wondered why am I here? Why do we exist? What is life? How did it come about? Religion offers a ready answer to these questions. Most religions postulate an intelligent creator that made the universe and everything in it, including everything living, including humans. But is that the real answer? Is that the truth?
No, it isn't. The answers provided by religion are thousands of years old. They were devised by people, just like you and me, who wanted answers, but lacked our modern understanding of the physics of the universe. When the bible was written it wasn't even known the earth revolved around the sun. Not everyone believed the world was a ball. Gravity was not understood. The theory that matter was made of atoms had not gained widespread acceptance. Biology had not been invented, microscopes didn't exist. The nature of the neurons in the brain, or of any cell in the body for that matter, was not known. Nor was the existence of cells known either.
Out of this ignorance, people came up with answers to the questions posed above. It's only natural that the answers they came up with were hamstrung by the scientific knowledge of the time. To postulate an invisible, all powerful, all knowing entity (god) that created everything is as good an explanation as any. Such explanations had already been popular and common for thousands of years anyway. For humans, any explanation can often be better than no explanation at all. The certainty of a divine creator causing all our reality to come into existence can be more comforting than admitting, "We just don't know how all this came about."
In light of this awareness, I want to present my answers to the above questions. First let's toss out all the answers provided by religion. Let's toss out all the gods. There is no god. There never was one. There never needed to be. There is no intelligent designer of everything around us. There never was, there never needed to be. As to why the universe exists, I've explored that already in this other essay, go ahead and read that now, it's good background for the rest of this essay.
Let's start with Life. What is Life? Clearly a rock is not alive, but an amoeba is. An amoeba is a single celled animal that can consume nutrients from its environment, move around, and split into two amoebas when conditions are right. That's what reproduction is. Where there was 1, there are now 2. Rocks don't reproduce by themselves. More rock is produced by natural processes of the earth, but it's not the rocks doing it on their own, taking energy and nutrients from their environment and turning them into more rocks.
Life is just whatever is able to duplicate itself. The duplication need not be perfect. All that matters is that life creates more life, on its own. Life is reproduction. The purpose of life is merely to reproduce. Now, I don't mean that the purpose of a person's life is to just have as many children as possible. I mean that all life is just trying to accomplish one goal, the goal of making more copies of itself.
If some entity can make copies of itself, then naturally the copies can make copies of themselves. And the copies of copies make more copies. We have a situation of exponential growth. The number of instances of these copies is growing, and the rate of growth is itself growing. Exponential growth is really explosive in its effects. Think of the power of compounding interest, how over time a small amount of money, earning interest, can balloon into a fortune eventually. OK, nevermind that the value of the currency can be diminishing just as fast or even faster than the growth in the amount, or that taxes are constantly sucking away value. In theory compound interest gives rise to an explosion in the amount of money over time.
Exponential growth continues until something stops it. Imagine E Coli cells grown in a nutrient solution. One cell becomes two, those two become four, and so on. Doubling every so often, in a period measured in hours. Eventually something runs out. Maybe it's water. Maybe it's food. Maybe there are no longer enough nutrients of some kind to allow for more E Coli to be made. Maybe there isn't enough space to expand into. Something always eventually halts exponential growth. Something always runs out. The exponential growth can be followed by a fast collapse, where perhaps huge numbers of individuals die of starvation or whatever. The resources locked up in the bodies of the dead individuals can then be returned, and perhaps utilized by the survivors.
So a new phase of exponential growth might begin again and numbers start to rise. There might be another collapse. Anything can happen. Maybe some equilibrium can be achieved where the number stays fairly constant -- as many new individuals are being created as are being destroyed.
Amoebas are ridiculously complicated structures, compared to the simple minerals in rocks. There are amazingly intricate molecules in even the lowly amoeba. There are long coils of the DNA molecule which encodes the instructions for the machinery of the cell. There are proteins which perform the task of interpreting the DNA instructions. There are protiens that form the cell wall of the amoeba, separating its inside from the outside world. There are proteins that allow substances to pass through the cell wall, say to allow food to enter and waste to be expelled. There are even what could honestly be called other living organisms inside the amoeba itself! These are the mitochondria. These are simpler organisms that live inside all cells and help with energy production. They are adapted to the conditions inside cells, and they cannot function outside. They reproduce on their own using their own mechanisms, utilizing the resources available inside cells. The instructions for their machinery are not present in the DNA of the host cell itself.
The mitochondria are more like useful house guests, ones that visited and decided to stay forever. They eat your food, use water, but you find they are quite useful, they keep the house clean, do the dishes, vacuum, whatever. So in the end you end up glad they're around. The mitochondria facilitate the production of energy in the cells, so that energy production can be greatly accelerated. A cell could perhaps survive without mitochondria, but everything would be slowed down as other means of energy production and conversion, which are much slower, become the main power source in the cell.
Fancy that, life existing inside other life! It's a common theme. There are useful bacteria that live inside animals, helping with digestion. There are also harmful unwanted guests that can cause sickness and disease or even death, like the malaria cell. It's all life. It's all doing its thing, trying to make copies of itself. It doesn't matter whether the individual's environment is a forest or city, or an animal itself. As long as the environment allows for some form of life to come along and exploit it to make copies of itself, there is a chance of it happening.
Indeed almost everywhere we look we find life. Life seems infinitely adaptable. There are microbes that exist down on the bottom of the ocean where geothermal vents are constantly spewing forth sulfur and other substances, that don't derive any energy from the sun at all. There is life high up in the upper atmosphere. There is life on and within the polar ice caps. Life seems to have no trouble exploiting any environment that can possibly be exploited.
All around us we see life. Yet even the simplest forms, such as the virii that themselves have no metabolic activity at all and almost no moving parts, are loaded with complexity. As scientists have learned more and more about the machinery of life, they've been learning more and more about all the complex, intricate details. And they are very, very complex and intricate. This begs the question of how did all this complexity get started in the first place?
There is a common story that you might have heard. A scientist is arguing against the possibility of random chance giving rise to the complex machinery of life. The argument goes something like this: "The random organization of atoms and molecules into the complex machinery of even a simple cell is vastly more unlikely to have occured by chance than the random chance assembly of a Boeing 747 occuring as a result of billions of years of shaking machine parts in a large container. The amount of time that would have to pass before random chance could assemble the structures we find is vastly beyond the age of the universe. Therefore life itself is impossible. And therefore life had to have been created by god."
Get it? A "scientist" sees how ridiculously complicated a cell is, and so proves that an intelligent designer (god) had to exist to create it. Thus we find the ancient easy answer of religion asserts itself in the minds of even modern, scientifically minded people. I wonder why such "scientists" stop there. If the cell was so complex it had to have been designed by a god, then how did the god come into existence? If they even ask that question, they probably immediately respond with, "God is sufficient unto Himself, he has always existed and always will exist. He had no Creator."
How convenient this argument is. How utterly useless also. How hopelessly outdated. Yet there it is. And in the world today so many will still make that same argument. I've never understood how a person can claim to be a scientist, to be a student of the Scientific Method, to be faithful to the ideals of forming theories then divising experiments to try to disprove them, can when it comes to some arbitrary question like, "How did it all come to be?" they resort to an answer that is essentially, "A miracle happened!"
Yet there we are. And we wonder why the world is like it is. If even our scientists cannot shake off the shackles of ancient dogmatic religious beliefs, how can our collective knowledge hope to advance? The answer is it does advance, only not as fast as it could, and along with the knowledge comes a lot of misinformation mixed in, such that it gets harder and harder to separate out the two. Our so-called experts hold in their heads a mish-mash of information, some True, some False, yet they believe it all to be The Truth. And moreover they're not always even looking for the Falsehoods they believe to be true. So we have a situation where false knowledge can continue to exist and thrive.
But that's not the point of this essay. I want to delve into a scientific exploration of how life came to be, how this seemingly impossible complexity could arise without an intelligent designer. For I see no need at all to give up and just say, "God created it all." I'd rather proceed under the assumption that life is the natural, inevetable result of the physics of our universe, and that there is no need to postulate an intelligent designer.
I've gone a bit into the complexity of living organisms. We can all agree that there are some horrendously complex structures that are present in life, and that they appear to be absolutely necessary for life to function. How could this complexity have arisen? I agree that the complexity we observe could not have occured through random chance in any reasonable amount of time, out of nothing. It is simply too complex. But nevertheless the complexity is real and all around us. So how did it come to be?
The answer is that the high levels of complexity we see all around us did not exist in the first forms of life to have come into existence. The complexity we see is itself the product of small, incremental evolutionary steps occuring over a great deal of time. Evolution is all around us. We see evolution occuring in animal species today. We see it in the world economy, in the creation of new businesses, new products, new infrastructure. As new entities are introduced into the environment, their very existence changes the environment and allows for still newer entities to arise to exploit the new conditions. The existence of the personal computer and its widespread popularity allows the existence of the software industry. The existence of a software industry allows for the existence of word processing software like Microsoft Word. This allows for the industry of desktop publishing to exist, and anyone can now be an author... Each new entity allows for something new to exist that exploits the new environment that results.
Each of these new entities adds to the complexity of the environment. The complexity constantly increases. Yet every incremental increase in complexity itself makes sense, it is understandable, it is viable. The complexity of the modern world with the personal computer having existed for 30+ years did not occur in an instant. It occured gradually over time. The complexity of modern cellular life did not come into existence in an instant. It occured gradually over time.
The physics of our universe is wonderfully rich in what is possible. There are some 92 naturally occuring elements, many of which have some slight variations (I'm speaking of nuclear isotopes where atoms of the same atomic number have different numbers of neutrons). These 92 elements occur in different amounts. They have unique properties. They interact in a fantastic number of different ways. They form stable compounds when mixed together. The compounds themselves can be very complex, as in the long molecules of sugar or fat. They can be very simple, like the individual atoms of helium which are stable all by themselves and don't really interact with anything else.
Atoms combine to form molecules. There is an infinite number of possible molecules that can be formed from the 92 naturally occuring elements. As an example, if you ask, "How many possible molecules can exist with exactly one atom?" the answer is clearly 92, you're just describing the elements. Not all elements are stable when they're just a single atom. For example we never find oxygen atoms alone for any length of time, they combine with other oxygen atoms to form the most stable oxygen molecule, comprised of 2 oxygen atoms. Ditto for the hydrogen atom. If you ask, "How many possible molecules can exist with exactly two atoms?" the answer is 92 times 92, or 8,464. Not all of these combinations "work". But a lot of them do. As you keep adding more and more elements, the number of possible compounds and their possible arrangements explodes. Because you can always keep adding more and more atoms to molecules, the numer of possible molecules is infinite.
Molecules can interact with other molecules to form still more molecules. These interactions can release energy. They can also absorb energy. Whatever the chemical reaction, there is a set of chemicals that must be brought together. After they react, there is a set of chemicals left over. The reaction can often proceed both ways. Meaning the products can reverse the reaction and produce the initial ingredients. The existence of still other molecules in the vicinity of the reacting chemicals can affect the rates of reaction. Meaning you can have a big mixture of the ingredients, all nicely mixed up and ready to react, and it starts reacting, but perhaps the reaction proceeds very slowly. If you mix in some other inocuous molecule that doesn't itself take place in the reaction, the reactions that do occur can be greatly sped up. Sometimes by a factor of millions or more. These "helper" molecules are called catalysts.
A checmical reaction can proceed both ways, as mentioned earlier. Products can become ingredients, ingredients can become products. The very concept of which are the ingredients and which are the products are in fact somewhat obscure and arbitrary. Realistically, in the absence of any catalyst, for any chemical reaction, one could proceed under the assumption that the products and the ingredients are determined by whichever reaction is more likely. For example, two hydrogen molecules (each with 2 hydrogen atoms) combine with one oxygen molecule (itself with 2 oxygen atoms) to produce two molecules of water, each a combination of 1 oxygen atom and 2 hydrogen atoms. A substantial amount of energy is released in this reaction. This reaction tends to proceed in the order just presented with great ease. However some tiny amount of water molecules can react to become the original hydrogen and oxygen molecules. It would naturally require energy to be consumed for this to occur. It's not likely, but it does happen with some measurable frequency.
Without the presence of catalysts, reactions have their characteristic rates. Each direction has its own rate, whether it is the rate of ingredients becoming products, or products becoming ingredients. The temperature of the environment affects the reaction rates. Usually heating things up makes reactions go faster. But an interesting thing about catalysts is that the right catalyst can actually reverse the tendency of a reaction! That is, with the right catalyst, products are more likely to become ingredients. This is really an amazing thing, but the physics of our universe allow for it. Catalysts themselves are pretty amazing. Just by their presence they can alter the way other chemicals behave. Now it is important to note that while the catalyst, by definition, cannot itself take place in the reaction, in reality it often does take place. The key thing is that after the reactions have completed, the catalyst must end up right back where it started.
Specifically a catalyst may work by first reacting with some of the products, forming chemical compounds. Then those compounds react with some of the other products, freeing up the catalyst and at the same time yielding the ingredients. The catalyst can undergo chemical activity of its own, but in the end it has to end up unchanged in its original form. That's the definition of the catalyst, it gets in, does its thing, then gets out.
Now it turns out if you happen to mix up naturally occuring elements and molecules in an environment of some heat and some energy, say as light streaming down from the sun or electrical discharge like lightning, you'll get all sorts of chemical activity going on. Water is naturally produced by hydrogen and oxygen interacting. Lots of other molecules naturally come about. They persist. They naturally build up and concentrate in some places. By their very existence and tendency to concentrate, they affect the environment. They are the environment, or at least some aspect of it. Such an environment has all the ingredients necessary for evolutionary processes to occur.
I've used the words, "evolutionary processes" and "evolution" before without having explained them. By evolution I merely mean life itself adapting to the changing environment in such a way as to become more effective at making copies of itself. That's all evolution is. Life that cannot adapt to the changing environment often dies. Often it can go on existing but is unable to make copies of itself. Life that can adapt makes more copies of itself. Evolution is just nature's way of enforcing survival of the fittest.
If you mix a variety of the 92 naturally occuring elements together and maintain them in an environment that might have existed in the early days of the earth's existence, you find naturally there are all sorts of chemical reactions going on. All sorts of more complex chemical products will appear. Some of these behave as catalysts. You'll find there is a constant cycle of change, of birth and death, of briefly achieved equilibrium replaced by further activity and ever greater variety. Practical considerations limit how long one can continue such an experiment and go on observing how things evolve, but it is clear things continue to become more and more interesting as time goes by. Periods of stability punctuate what appears to be an inexorable march to ever greater complexity.
Now consider in this environment that there could naturally come to pass that a chemical product was formed that is able to act as a catalyst for formation of more copies of itself. I personally have not studied enough chemistry to cite an example. However I find it perfectly believable that a simple molecule can be formed through random chance that acts as a catalyst for its own formation. Once one of these molecules exists in the environment, it will serve to catalyze the formation of more molecules identical to itself from the available ingredients of the environment.
Is this not life? Do we not see all that life requires, that an entity make copies of itself? Would such a molecule not experience exponential growth just as life does? As more and more copies of the molecule trigger the formation of still more copies, each constantly triggering the formation of still more... eventually this manic growth will proceed at an ever increasing pace until something gives. Perhaps one of the required ingredients is entirely consumed. Perhaps the available energy has been exhausted. Maybe there is no more room to expand into. Whatever.
But we now have a different environment than what we started with. And it is filled with huge numbers of molecules that act as a catalyst for their own formation. We have a new situation that itself can permit the appearance of some new molecule, perhaps itself built from these self-catalyzing molecules. We have a new environment, so new possibilities have opened up.
I want to mention a key facet of the activities I'm describing here. It is that the conditions represent a state of unstable equilibrium. When things are at equilibrium, things come to a stop (at least they appear to). Things are in balance. Equilibrium is where activity appears to have stopped. An example is a marble sitting in a chinese wok. The wok has a curved surface like a bowl and the marble is dropped inside it. The marble will roll around, losing energy to friction with the air and the wok, until it eventually comes to a stop at the lowest point in the wok. It has now achieved equilibrium. And in particular, it has achieved stable equilibrium. The "stable" means that if something happens to perturb the state, the system will tend to return to the equilibrium condition. For example, if I reach in and flick the marble, it will roll around a bit but then settle back down at the bottom of the wok.
It is stable because the shape of the wok tends to drive the marble back to the center, the lowest point. There are systems all around the modern world that are examples of stable equilibrium being achieved. The thermostat in a heating system strives to achieve stable equilibrium. When the temperature drops too low, the heater and fan are activated, which heats up the room. The temperature rises, and the temperature detector that noticed the temperature had fallen too much turns off, deactivating the heater and fan. The machinery of the thermostat has acted in such a way that it turns itself off. By its own activity it eliminates the very conditions under which it is called into action.
Another example is the small windmill that is placed at right angles to the large windmill. The goal of a large rotating windmill is to have the most wind blowing through the large windmill. This means it must face the wind head on. The smaller sideways windmill becomes active if the wind is coming from another direction. In that event the small windmill starts to rotate and it is geared such that it rotates itself and the larger windmill to face the wind head on. And when it does so, it no longer is receiving any direct wind, so it stops spinning. By its own actions it has turned itself off.
These are examples of stable equilibrium. The opposite situation is (you guessed it) unstable equilibrium . Now, in this situation, the mechanisms that are activated by a move away from equilibrium will tend to increase the system's departure from equilibrium. An example of this is if we turn the wok over and very, very carefully (if it is even possible) balance the marble on the exact highest point of the wok. At that point it can be in equilibrium, where there is nothing at all tending to push it sideways in any direction. But if we come along and give it a tiny push, it is now no longer on the top, flat point and instead is on a slope, which it then rolls down, picking up speed. As it moves further from the top point the curve away from horizontal gets more and more pronounced, so it is moving down a steeper and steeper slope, so it is accelerated faster and faster. Eventually it falls off the wok entirely. So unstable equilibrium is where any perturbation from equilibrium tends to move the system even further from equilibrium.
Now my point of introducing stable and unstable equilibrium is to convey the critical essence of equilibrium in an environment where life is present. Such an environment, at equilibrium, is inherently unstable. If some new life comes about that starts reproducing, its numbers will grow exponentially (as life is wont to do) and push the system out of equilibrium. It may achieve a new equilibrium for a while, but at the very least the initial equilibrium is destroyed. The environment has been modified. The conditions of the environment gave rise to life that modified the environment (by its own existence and growth) until the environment has been altered.
As such no environment is really static and unchanging. Any period of equilibrium is temporary, until something new comes about to change the environment. As such we won't ever see an environment that is capable of supporting life existing for endless eons of time eithout change. It is simply too unstable. Now an interesting sidenote is that the new life, by its very nature, will tend to eliminate the conditions in the environment that permit it to enjoy exponential growth. So in a sense the life itself is a mechanism that exhibits characteristics of stable equilibrium. All life will grow exponentially until it is unable to do so for whatever reason. And then anything goes, all imaginable scenarious are possible as to what happens next.
Now these constantly occuring periods of life coming about that cancels out its own optimum environment are associated with an ever increasing level of complexity. Each new "life" that has arisen pops up, enjoys its day in the sun, then fades. Yet usually they never fade away completely. They often persist in some amount. Each is there, latent, waiting for the conditions to come about for it to grow exponentially again. And if by chance an instance of life is able to survive for a time with a less than optimum environment (one that doesn't permit it to reproduce), at least it is still there, contributing its bit of complexity to the environment as a whole. Inexorably the level of complexity of the environment keeps increasing, as each new lifeform is added.
Personally I find it very easy to accept the possibility that over billions of years this natural process could give rise to all the amazing complexity we see around us, without any intelligent designer ever being involved. The complex modern cells we're familiar with could have been the natural descendents of far more simple "cell-like" lifeforms. At any point in their history the natural introduction of some new component could have allowed for a renewed period of exponential growth. As such what we see around us, seemingly in vast quantities, are just the end result of billions of years of life struggling to make copies of itself. We most commonly happen upon the most successful lifeforms, the ones that are able to proliferate so well that they're easy to find.
But there is nothing that prevents the possibility of other, less successful forms of life still being around, still alive, still there. These lifeforms could be very old, indeed ancient, in fact the ancestors of today's cells. They could be far simpler than modern cells. Yet under the right conditions they can still reproduce and grow exponentially. But perhaps in their case the conditions are very rare indeed, and perhaps the best growth rate they can achieve is still ridiculously slow compared to what modern cells can manage. So perforce they're far more rare, harder to find.
The cell wall of animal cells is usually composed of large numbers of identical proteins, themselves built up of stands of amino acids (which are simple, building block molecules that snap together to form complex molecules with unique characteristics). The DNA in modern cells tells the machinery of the cell how to put amino acids together in just the right order to form useful (to the cell) protein molecules. The cell wall is made of just such protein molecules. They usually end up being long and narrow, like a toothpick. The surface of their sides (not the ends) usually likes to connect up with other copies of itself, they form natural sheets. And the ends are usually slightly different such that one end likes to associate with water, and the other end doesn't. As such since cells are mostly water surrounded by the cell wall, the proteins of the cell wall itself tend to orient themselves so the water-liking end is pointing inside the cell, and the water-disliking end is pointing outside.
These cell wall proteins are not especially complex, as cellular proteins go. The cell wall is itself not especially complex. But we can see that large numbers of such proteins would naturally tend to form sheets. And if by some chance such a sheet happened to close in on itself, it would form a balloon. A container with a definite inside and an outside. If such a container is especially large, any slight jarring would tend to rip it apart and disrupt it. Large balloons are therefore somewhat fragile. But smaller ones are stronger, more able to withstand sheering forces. For every cell wall protein there is likely an ideal "size" for a balloon made of it. Any larger and it will tend to break apart into smaller bubbles. Any smaller and perhaps it is too small to support all the machinery that allows for it to reproduce, or perhaps the internal forces prevent it from being stable until its size increases and it becomes stable (the tip of the proteins towards the inside is closer to the center of the sphere" than the outside, and as such the total surface area they are packed into is smaller, and so naturally the interior tips are pressed closer together, and the outer tips are pulled more apart, and this gives rise to stresses within the wall itself).
It seems to me possible that balloons, or bubbles, made up of such proteins as exist in cell walls, including a definite inside and outside, could naturally form in an environment where there are lots of those proteins present. And they would tend to fall within a range of stable sizes. Perhaps through chance one such balloon happened to form while enclosing enough other molecules of various kinds to permit it to be more stable than others. Whereas other inferior bubbles are less stable and break up, this one could persist for longer periods. Over such a longer lifespan, perhaps still more random chance changes could have occured where proteins are forced into the interior, and some confer some benefit. Perhaps such a precursor cell could arise that has within it enough complexity to persist, and to trigger the growth of more of the cell wall proteins, and so eventually it peels open and breaks apart and then settles back to become essentially two similiar copies of its original structure, each with the ability to eventually split and become two. It has become life as we know it.
I want to come back to the subject of chemicals that catalyze their own formation. This topic was introduced to me in the book Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop. In that book there is a chapter called "Secrets of the Old One" and it goes into the work of Stuart Kauffman, where he worked out the idea of autocatalytic sets. I described above a single compound that catalyzed its own formation, but the concept as Kauffman envisioned it was that there was a closed group of compounds, say A, B, C, D, etc. that each catalyzies the successive member. So A catalyzes the formation of B, B catalyzes the formation of C, and so on. Kauffman thought that if the loop was closed, such that at some point one of the products catalyzed one of the earlier members, the set as a whole would be autocatalytic and would end up reproducing just like life itself. Every compound in the set would be increasing in concentration, and one could consider the set as a group as a living entity.
Now it occurs to me that as the number of different compounds goes up, the likelihood of a closed autocatalytic loop appearing gets higher and higher. The reason being that each catalyst can increase the production of a variety of products (not necessarily just a single one). The web of compounds that catalyze others can appear as a tree, at each node one could put a compound, and then have nodes joined to it that represent the compounds it catalyzes. The tree will continue to get bigger and bigger, as each new node will have the chance of acting as a catalyst for even more nodes. This tree of possible compounds can continue on indefinitely, reaching infinite size. If at any point a compound catalyzes any previously existing compound there is a chance a loop will form. As the number of compounds increases, since there is a finite, nonzero chance a compound can act to catalyze an earlier compound, the probability approaches certainty that at some point an autocatalytic loop will form.
This can be compared to a game that can be played with a group of schoolkids in a class, say of 30. Everyone names their birthdate, and there is a better than 50/50 chance that there will be two members that have the same birthday out of 365 days of the year. The reason being as each new birthday is added, in order to avoid a duplicate birthday it has to avoid matching a growing number of birthdays. Eventually the odds win, and there is usually an overlap.
Now, there is another interesting book called The Eighth Day Of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson. That book goes into the amazing work done in the 1960's and 1970's to work out the machinery inside the living cell, the structure of the DNA molecule, and the way the triplets of DNA base pairs are read out to control the construction of proteins built up from the amino acids. The components of DNA come in 4 types, which can be abreviated A, T, C and G. DNA comes in pairs of mating strands. One strand has a long, long sequence of A,T,C and G bases, and the other strand has a matching strand. Every A on one strand mates with a T on the other. Every C on one strand mates with a G on the other. So the two strands of DNA are redundant, each one is a mirror image of the other.
Since the bases come in 4 types (ATCG) and they're interpreted in sets of 3, for each set of three (triplet) there are 64 possible combinations. These combinations code for which of the 21 amino acids are to be used for a protein being built up, or for various other "punctuation" symbols the machinery knows how to respond to, such as START or END. A lot of the 64 combinations code for the same amino acid, often the 3rd base pair can be any of the 4 and the same amino acid is chosen.
The book describes the work of unravelling the mystery of the complex machinery inside cells that reads the DNA and assembles the proteins. Some scientists even had to work out that there were triplets of DNA base pairs being considered, and not pairs or sets of 4 or anything else. The intricacy of these mechanisms is truly one of the most beautiful things about life itself, and yet as intricate as it is, there is no necessity for it all to have been designed by an intelligence. It could (and I believe did) all come about as a natural outcome of the laws of physics of our universe. Yet that does not take away any of the beauty of it.
The work of unravelling the mysteries of life was intricate, complex, ingenius, painstaking, tedious and above all difficult. It wasn't accomplished by religious zealots. The people that did it didn't throw up their hands and say, "I'm going to stop trying to figure this out, this stuff was a miracle made by God." They believed that understanding and comprehension were possible, and they kept pursuing both until they found them. To me nothing cheapens the beautiful work of scientists than a hopelessly ignorant zealot spouting off on the Glory of God.
There is a quote I like by Douglas Adams: Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
When I learn about these wonderful details of life and how it works, I can't but perceive the beauty in it. To me it seems unbearably shabby to rob it of its beauty and claim it was all designed by a miraculous being known as God. To me that is an obscenity. It is a failure of imagination of the worst kind. It is a willing, happy, joyous return to the ignorance of the past. It is nothing holy at all, it is a disgusting, despicable rejection of the true beauty of our universe, replacing it with something unspeakably vile and corrupt. For the lies of religion are in direct conflict with the principles of Science and Truth.
Having come this far I want to end on this thought. Since there was no intelligent designer for the life we are and know, what can be said of the question, "What is the meaning of life?" The answer is clear. There is no meaning intrinsic to it. There is no higher purpose. Life exists because it can. Since there is no intrinsic meaning to it coming from an intelligent designer, it is up to each of us, as individuals, to decide on our own what is meaningful. It is not sufficient to simply accept the voice of the majority, especially when it has in all likelihood been brain washed and programmed by generations of religious dogma. It is our duty to think as individuals and make up our own minds what our own, individual purpose is, if there need be any at all. I decide what is important to me. You decide what is important to you.
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