On 747s, Tornadoes, and Junkyards

The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein. – Sir Fred Hoyle

This is a perfect analogy. But not for what it is intended for. It suggests choosing a ridiculous hypothesis (random chance) for how a 747 might be produced and it compares that to an opinion on how probable life might have originated in the same way. Its a ridiculous hypothesis because like almost everything else in the universe random chance is not what is responsible for assembling 747s. We know this because we happen to know how 747s are put together.

Short Answer: Yes, correct.  747s by random chance is ridiculous. And so is suggesting that life came about by random chance. That is why there are no serious proposals in science that suggest pure random chance for the origin of 747s, of life, or of much of anything else for that matter.

Consider that random chance is also a bad hypothesis for why things fall to the ground when you drop them. We happen to know why that happens, too.  Most processes in the universe involve some degree of chance and some degree of necessity to one proportion or another.   The falling stuff example would be a highly determined processes such as gravity attracting things with 100% probabilty (the opposite of random chance).

Although we don’t have a comprehensive testable hypothesis for how life first began there there no serious proposals that it happened by pure random chance.  So what the 747/tornado/junkyard analogy is perfect for is showing why it is a waste of time choosing a really bad hypothesis for how one thing came about as analogy for how something else might have come about. It is astronomically unlikely that either 747s or life originate through pure random chance.

The formal name for this deceptive form of argument is called a Straw Man Fallacy, where one misrepresents one’s opponent’s position (usually by replacing it with a ridiculous one) and argues against the the Straw Man version rather than your opponent’s actual position.

The 747/junkyard argument is a perfect analogy for why straw man arguments are considered a fallacy.  In this specific case of life and 747s by random chance it is informally called Hoyle’s Fallacy (sometimes called the Junkyard Fallacy) named after Sir Fred Hoyle who first proposed it.  Hoyle was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning astronomer, but in his later years he seemed to subscribe to some unusual notions such as life on Earth being seeded by aliens from somewhere else (Panspermia).  

Science accepts nothing merely on authority, even the authority of Nobel Prize winners, especially when they are outside their field of expertise. There is no excuse for logical fallacies even from Nobel Prize winners. Don’t be Fred Hoyle (at least in this respect, however, I would surely praise you winning a Nobel).  Don’t use false analogies that employ straw man arguments.  If you are a Christian advocating for a miraculous origin for life, a string of logical fallacies is unworthy of your apologetics.

But isn’t life arising from non-life unlikely?

Well yes, it is downright miraculous in my personal opinion.  We surely don’t see it happening all the time. We don’t know how many times life may have got started on Earth. It may have gotten started a number of times when conditions were really harsh and changing on Earth, and did not survive. And it may have started a number of times after our current life on Earth began but entered a world already full of very hungry organisms well adapted by being as badass as they can be.

One thing we do know is that the more we look for the first signs of life in the fossil record the farther back in time we find evidence of first life.  At the moment, it seems that life got started very quickly after conditions were condusive for it, probably in about 300,000 years.

Haven’t scientists calculated the odds of life forming and found it impossible?

Well, some people have offered their calculations on that.  In fact Hoyle himself calculated it as one chance in 1040000.  That doesn’t look good for the home team, does it?  But here is the problem with those kinds of calculations.  Remember that Hoyle assumed that the process was random chance.  So there should be no surprise that he gets a number that looks to be impossible.

Why is that important?  Because if you don’t know the process by which something rare happens, you have no basis to calculate how unlikely it is.  For example, consider a scientist from 150 years ago trying to calcualate the odds of a tornado forming. If he chooses random chance as the cause, he might try to calculate the odds of each molecule in a huge column of air all starting to move in the same circular direction by random chance or accident.  The number of molecules would be astronomically big, so the calculations would have to show that the chances are astronomically small.  So small, in fact, that the frequent occurance of tornadoes might move him to conclude that they are acts of a vengeful God.

But these days we know how tornadoes form.  Storm fronts cause temperature inversions where warm air is below a layer of cold air.  The rising warm air currents affect all the molecules at once, creating air vortices.  If you understand how that works, you would perform a very different calculation and find that tornadoes are rather likely occurances in storm fronts.

Sure, we know how tornadoes form but we don’t know how life first began.

That is correct.  But that is the only difference. In one case we know how it happens and in the other case we don’t.  But in our ignorance of the unknown case that does not mean that calculations assuming pure random chance are any more meaningful than in the case where we are not ignorant.  It simply is a really bad assumption.  Almost nothing we know about happens by pure random chance.

In the study of logic we call this Argument From Ignorance Fallacy.  It means that using our ignorance for how something happens is not something that can be appealed to to support an otherwise unsupportable hypothesis.  (e.g. We don’t know how tornadoes form, so they must be acts of God.)

Isn’t it unusual that we don’t know how life began?

Not really.  Consider that modern science only got started a few hundred years ago with methods formalized by Newton. Consider that it was only in my lifetime that we figured out the double helical structure of DNA.  And it is only in the last few decades that we have been able to sequence the information in the whole genome of an organism.  There is nothing simple about living organisms and we have just scratched the surface of how biology works in general.  It is not unusual that we are still working on figuring out how life got started to begin with.

Now consider that at any point in history there is a long list of things about nature that we have not yet figured out.  That list might seem to get shorter, but usually figuring out something new adds more questions to the list.  Scientists see this not as something alarming or demotivating.  They understand that this list is basically what you might call “job description”.  There is nothing more exciting to a scientist than a new frontier of challenges to work on.

There is nothing we should read into our current ignorance about various things in nature except that those things are challenging, complex, and interesting.  Life might be the most complex thing in the universe, in fact.  (As a physicist by training, it certainly seems that way to me. We know much more about how stars work than we do how all of biology works.)

But how do we know that life began by some natural process?

We don’t.  As I said before, we don’t have a comprehensive testable hypothesis for the origin of life.  We look for a natural origin because that is what scientists do.  In fact science can only confirm or reject hypotheses that are testable.  It cannot deal with untestable opinions or personal beliefs.

Also, most religious groups, including most Christian denominations don’t see natural processes as being something that conflicts with God’s providence over those processes. For them the question is not did God create life, but how did he create life?  And so they accept that the scientific method is the best way to determine that.

But related to the previous question, our ignorance of how something works or how something began is not a good argument for it not happening by a natural process.  The only thing it is a good argument for is increased funding in that area of science.

Do we know anything about the origin of life?

In fact the field itself, called abiogenesis (meaning a non-biological origin of life), is vigorous, exciting, and rather productive in one sense.  Every day a new finding suggests ways that bits of the life processes might have got started. And every day we find out more about what in nature might have given rise to various metabolic processes and organic molecules. It has become clear that

The big problem in solving the abiogenesis problem is that we might end up knowing a handful of ways to get life started, but not having enough information to know which one was the one that was the cause of the life we have on Earth.

A few of the researchers into the origin of life happen to have produced a number of highly accessible books in the popular press for the lay reader. Nick Lane, for example, is a well respected researcher in the field and manages to write for the lay reader in ways that make the work come alive (no pun intended).

 

 

I have been involved in science and engineering since probably before you were born. I am interested in writing about science, its conceptions and misconceptions.

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