Have you met Luca?

I don’t mean in the flesh; Luca has been dead and gone for a long time. But have you heard of him? An important individual was Luca. I am descended from him, and so are you. And everyone else, and everything else that is alive today. Luca is not really a him. Luca is really LUCA, which stands for Last Universal Common Ancestor. Luca lived about three and half billion years ago, and although we don’t know everything about it, we do know a lot. By definition, Luca was the organism from which all current living organisms are descended. There would have been other kinds of life around, but they didn’t last. Only the descendants of LUCA are on earth today.

We know a lot about LUCA because there are many characteristics that all current life forms share, and these are therefore characteristics that LUCA must have had.

LUCA was a small single-celled organism, with a plasma membrane. It had a cytoplasm with many proteins, each composed of either 16 or 20 amino acids arranged in a specific order as a linear polymer. The proteins made up all the structures of the cell, and, as enzymes, catalyzed all the required chemical reactions that allow life to exist. All of these proteins were produced within LUCA by a complex process that all cells today still share. The process starts with a double strand of DNA, which contains a sequence of bases arranged in a manner that codes for each of the proteins. Every group of three bases (a codon) stands for a particular amino acid. As is still true today, there were four kinds of bases, and so there were (and are) 64 possible codons, which means that some amino acids can be coded for by two, three, four or even six different codons. The specific genetic code, which is the identification of which codons code for which amino acids, is the same for you and me, oak trees, elephants, most bacteria, and LUCA[i]. (But we are all different because our DNA sequences are different, much as this blog post is different from the last one because of the sequence of the specific words, even though it’s written in the same language.

In order for this sequence to be translated into the correct proteins, LUCA used an incredibly complex molecular process that (with the rare exceptions mentioned) has not changed in any form of life for three and a half billion years.

The coded sequence is copied from one part of the DNA (called a gene) into a long stretch of RNA (the messenger RNA, or mRNA), which then interacts with another form of RNA called a ribosome. In the ribosome each codon of the RNA (which is the same as the codon on the DNA) is “read” one at a time. The reading process is both chemical and mechanical, and quite fascinating.

Since amino acids and nucleotide bases do not interact chemically, two different adapter molecules are required. One of these is a form of RNA called transfer RNA (tRNA), and there are different specific molecules of this kind of RNA for each amino acid.

There is also a group of enzymes called amino acyl tRNA synthetase (aaRS); again, different ones for each amino acid. The aaRS enzymes have binding sites for one and only one amino acid, and the same enzyme molecule has another binding site specific for the unique shape of the tRNA that has the anticodon for that amino acid. The enzyme then does the actual translation of the nucleotide-based code into the correct protein structure by joining the amino acid to the proper tRNA. The entire process has the technical name translation. Once bound together, the happy couple of tRNA and amino acid goes off to the ribosome, where the tRNA binds to the mRNA, and its amino acid is added to a growing chain making a new protein. This extremely ingenious and complex machinery operates in all living cells, and was present in LUCA as well.

We don’t know how LUCA got to be able to do this, or what happened before LUCA. In this sense, LUCA is like the big bang is for physics. Of course, we know that time existed before LUCA, and probably life did also, but what kind of life was it? And we have no idea how that life was able to produce a genetic code, and the mechanism for protein production that uses the code.

In fact, the same kind of mystery applies to all of the biochemical machinery found in all living cells. These include the mechanical wheels that produce the energy molecule ATP from sunlight or food, the membrane machines that selectively move molecules in and out of cells, the error correction systems, and a host of metabolic pathways by which all cells make the material they need.

Will we discover the answers to these mysterious origins some day? I believe we will, but not until we begin to explore new ways of thinking about biology, and the still unknown laws that control the truly miraculous processes of life.

[i] The rare, slightly different variant code that occurs in a few species of bacteria and protozoa evolved from the original LUCA code as well.)  

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Life and Light

There are some really strange things about the universe that science has uncovered in the past century, and among the strangest is the behavior of tiny particles such as protons and photons. Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon where two particles seem to be instantaneously linked, even if they are light years apart. Einstein originally called this spooky action at a distance, but it is real and demonstrable. However, it is so strange and so outside all of our logic and scientific understanding that it has been called “The God Effect” (1). Indeed, the concept of a simultaneous linkage between two particles independent of distance does seem to be supernatural.

One of the biggest mysteries in biology has long been the detailed mechanism of photosynthesis. In graduate school for biochemistry, I remember lots of holes in our knowledge of how sunlight could interact with stuff in green leaves to eventually produce sugar and chemical energy. And I found it quite difficult to fully understand the bits that were known.

Almost all life on earth depends on photosynthesis either directly or indirectly—without photosynthesis, animals would have nothing to eat—and it was photosynthesis that gave rise to oxygen gas in the atmosphere, which is required for large, complex animals like us to exist.

Since my graduate student days, we have learned a lot about how photosynthesis works to convert light energy to chemical energy. One stubborn mystery was how the process is able to convert light energy to chemical energy at such high efficiency, losing very little of it as heat. This is the only energy conversion process we know of with such high efficiency.

For the past decade or so, experiments (2) have indicated that photosynthetic bacteria and plants achieve this incredible feat by the use of quantum entanglement. When a photon strikes certain pigments associated with some enzymes in the chloroplast (the precise details are extremely complicated), electrons are elevated to a higher energy state, and then go through all possible pathways simultaneously (which is how entanglement works) to find the most efficient route to achieve the chemical reduction of the next protein in the electron transport chain that leads ultimately to conversion to chemical energy.

This is quite remarkable. First it had been assumed that many of the strange behaviors of particles related to quantum theory would not occur in “real world” situations, only under highly controlled laboratory conditions.  But these experiments suggest that quantum entanglement, besides being an esoteric, almost metaphysical property of particles in labs, is probably the most important physical phenomenon we know of when it comes to life. It isn’t a rare thing in the real world at all—rather, it is happening trillions and trillions of times per nanosecond everywhere on Earth. And it is critical to all life on the planet. No entanglement, no life.

If quantum entanglement really does defy all of our notions of normal cause and effect and suggests the existence of phenomena beyond our current understanding, I think it’s pretty interesting that life on earth is totally dependent on the reality of this quite remarkable, even “godly” effect.

1 The God Effect: Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon by Brian Clegg Link

2 “Untangling the quantum entanglement behind photosynthesis.” Science Daily, Science News, May 11, 2010 Link.

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Absence of Holly

No tree. No presents. No bells and no holly. The house was dark when Tommy got home. It was Christmas Eve, but there was no sign of that in the house. Just another stupid day, as his father always said. That’s how it had been for the past 12 years, a silent night indeed, a silent and dark night, without lights. If carolers had come by (they hadn’t for years) they would have gotten yelled at and told to scram. No one left casseroles or presents for Tommy at the door anymore.

His dad wasn’t home. Tommy went to the refrigerator, took out a carton of milk and drank for a while. The he rummaged around, found some donuts, a hunk of cheese, a half bag of Doritos, some sliced ham, two bananas, a leftover chicken leg, and some gummy bears. Dinner.

Tommy went to his room and fired up his computer, checked out some Facebook pages, and then saw a chat request from Bonnie. He answered and went live with the web cam. There was Bonnie, sitting on her bed, with April next to her.

“Hi, Tommy,” they said in unison.


“Is your Dad home?”

“Nah, he’s working late tonight. He always takes the late shift on Christmas Eve.”

April said, “Your dad is such a scrooge. Why does he hate Christmas so much?”

Bonnie gave her a dirty look but didn’t say anything.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s ’cause of my Mom.”  

“Oh my God, that was so long ago”

“Yeah, well. Whatever.”

Bonnie asked, “Are you all alone there, Tommy?”

“Yup. Why, you wanna come over?” He was joking but he realized they might not get that. In fact, Bonnie whispered to April, who giggled.

“I’m kidding,” he said, and Bonnie looked down for a minute, and then smiled and said,  “I know, no company allowed on Christmas.”

His cell phone rang. It was his dad. “I gotta go,” he told the girls. “Bye, Tommy,” said Bonnie, “Bye, Tommy,” said April. He didn’t respond because he was talking to his Dad.


“Hey kiddo. Are you home?”


“Did you get something to eat?”


“What did you eat?”


“Hmm. So how was your day? Did you get to meet Patrick?”


“Good. Look, Tommy, I’m going to be pretty late tonight. I know school is closed tomorrow, so you can stay up late. But not too late, OK?”


Tommy went into the living room, switched on the TV, turned the volume down a bit,  plugged in his iPod earphones, and started surfing around the internet. Everything he saw was about Christmas. He was used to that. His dad used to leave plenty of non-Christmassy DVDs around. War movies, TV series, gangster films, stuff like that. Nowadays he tended more to streaming older comedies, non-Christmas themed. Tommy was checking out a YouTube video that he and Patrick had made a week ago when his cell buzzed again.

He looked at it. The screen said “Bonnie.” He answered it. “Hello.”

“Hi Tommy. Look, my Mom sent me out to get some stuff from the store and I’m right around the corner. How about if I stop over for a second. You know, just say hello. I won’t even come in, and your dad won’t even know.”

“I guess it’s OK. He’s working late tonight so… yeah. OK”.

The knock on the front door came within five minutes.

Tommy saw Bonnie standing on the porch wearing her red coat. Her car was parked at the curb. There was no one in it. Tommy held the door open and Bonnie walked in. She took off her coat. She sat down on the sofa. Tommy didn’t know what to say. “Where’s April?” he asked. That wasn’t the right thing to say, apparently, since he saw Bonnie’s chin move in a way that seemed a tad defensive.

“Why, would you rather that she came?”

“No, no, not at all. Just you know, you were with her before and I don’t know, I just wondered…” He stopped.

Bonnie patted the space next to her. “I won’t bite you, come on and sit down.” He did. Then he jumped up again. “Do you want anything?”

“No, thanks,” she said in a voice that sounded odd, almost dreamy. “I’m fine.” Tommy sat back down, and then they were kissing. He didn’t know how that happened. Her lips were soft and delicate, and he reached up with his hand and touched her hair. It was smooth and silky. He didn’t know how to stop kissing her, but she did. She smiled and pulled away a little.

“Do you like me, Tommy?” He couldn’t answer her—his throat wasn’t working. So he nodded his head. She smiled at him and took something from somewhere. It was a red and green wrapped box. “I brought you a gift.”  Tommy shook his head. “No gifts on Christmas, I promised my Dad.”

“I won’t tell him if you don’t.” she laughed with that silver laugh she had. Tommy took the present and started carefully unwrapping the paper.

Bonnie laughed again. “No, silly, just rip it off”. Tommy gulped, then did as she suggested. He opened the white box. Inside was a red and blue scarf. Tommy stared at it. He looked up at Bonnie, and saw tears in her eyes. “Merry Christmas, Tommy”, she said. He couldn’t speak.

And then he heard the steps at the door and his dad’s throat being cleared.

“Oh no”, he whispered to Bonnie. “You better hide, I’ll…”but she smiled and put her finger to his lips. “Its OK, Tommy, your dad knows I’m here.”

What?? He was confused and then his Dad was standing in the living room. Smiling.

“Hi, Tommy. Hi, Bonnie.”

“Hi,” said Bonnie. “Merry Christmas.” Tom flinched a bit and muttered something, but then he smiled again. “What you got there, son?

Tommy held out the scarf without a word. He was trying to figure out how to explain it without admitting it was a gift.

His Dad came over and took it from him. “Very nice,” he said, his voice a bit choked. “Nice job, Bonnie.”  Tommy was even more confused, especially since now Bonnie had tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Do you remember, Tommy?” his Dad asked him.

He nodded. The last Christmas present he ever got was also a scarf. A lot smaller, but the same colors, red and blue. He was a little kid, and he thought it had come from his Mom. And then there were no more Christmasses.

Tommy looked at Bonnie, and then at his Dad.

“Dad, did you know Bonnie was here? Did you tell her about the scarf?”

Tom cleared his throat again.

“I don’t care for Christmas very much. All that fake joy and commercialism. And to celebrate what? A myth, a legend.  And all those pagan rituals, like the tree. Everyone pretends that everything is just fine. It’s a requirement to be happy, even if you don’t feel like it. No, I really do not like Christmas at all.”

He seemed tired and he sank into a chair.

“But I do remember what your mother told me once, about Christmas, Tommy. I didn’t care for it much when she was alive either. And she told me that Christmas is not about religion or shopping or shiny lights. Its about love.”  He stopped and put his hand over his face for a moment.

“Yeah, I told Bonnie she could come over tonight, and I mentioned the scarf to her. I love you kid. Merry Christmas.”

Tommy sat still on the sofa, with tears in his eyes, and Bonnie’s hand on his shoulder. He looked at his dad and noticed that next to the chair there was a package that was half open. Inside he could see a wreath of holly.

“I love you too, Dad. Merry Christmas!”

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I believe in a God who answers prayers, and who interacts with me on a personal level. I also believe that God is the creator of all that exists. We don’t know how God created our universe, or even what that universe is composed of (one universe, or many independent ones). We don’t know if life arose from natural processes on Earth, arrived here on a meteor from some extraterrestrial source, or was a creation by God. We don’t know where our souls come from, a natural product of evolution (like our bodies) or breathed into the first human by God. There are so many things we don’t know.

But there are also many things we do know. We do know that life began as single cells, and that evolution by natural selection led to all the species that have ever existed. We know a lot about how life works, and we can worship the creator of such majesty, even if all the intricate, amazing details of biological function are natural results of adaptive evolution. From science we have learned the mechanisms of how the world works. From faith we learn about the agency that created those mechanisms.

The big question we are faced with is where is God? Did God create the universe and withdraw? Does God play a role in the history of life and our planet, in order to further His purposes? Did God intervene in the world?

We cannot find the answers using the human tools of knowledge – scientific investigation and analysis. We might get some clues this way, we might see some pointers, but not enough to be sure. No, the path to truth does not lead through our human knowledge but only through God.

So let us see what God has said and done. We know that God came to walk among us in the form of a man. Christ spent over 30 years amongst us, and the last two or three in active ministry. What did Christ, God incarnate, do during that time? Did He create any new species of animal or plant? No, He did not. He spoke of plants, flowers, birds and animals, but He created no new ones. Did Christ reshape any geological features of our landscape? Did He water the desert, lower any mountains, widen the Jordan River? No, He did not. Did he overturn any of the laws of man or nature? No, he left man and nature to continue as they had been.

Did he change the course of history? Not during his lifetime; that took some time, but eventually everything in the world of humanity changed beyond comprehension.  

So what sort of miracles did the Lord do, in his time on Earth? He healed the sick, turned water into wine, calmed the seas, raised the dead, cast out demons, made the blind see. But when challenged by Satan to turn stones into bread for His own sustenance, he refused. Christ performed his miracles, showed his Godhead, only for the benefit of individuals or collections of people, not for glory, not to demonstrate his powers, not to win converts. And what did God tell us, when he preached His sermon, and spoke to us in parables, and stories? He told us to believe, to help each other, to love each other and to love Him. To have mercy, to be forgiving, to find the Kingdom of Heaven in ourselves and each other and in Him.

All that He did and said, all of these miracles, and all of His teaching, all of His ministry to the poor, the outcasts, all of His parables and mercy were directed to one object – His love for His people, us. Jesus Christ, the living God came to us for our sake, to heal us, to redeem us, to sacrifice himself for us. He came to Earth to speak directly to us; he bent His laws of nature for us, for our sakes, to cure us, to help us, to show His love for us, and not for any other purpose. 

So I can believe that Christ hears my prayers, answers me in dreams, and in visions and in miraculous events, even if He does not intervene in His own Creation for any other purpose. Our God is not an absent God, nor does he deny us the freedom to make our own choices. And yet, when we need Him to, God intervenes for us. For me and for you and for all.

I did not always believe this to be true. As an agnostic, and even when I began believing that God might be real, I wondered why so many of my prayers and wishes were not being answered. Looking back now, after the passage of many decades, I can see a pattern that was not clear at all when I first prayed to God for professional success, a happy marriage, good health, and occasionally even survival, for myself or others I loved. And that pattern is that all of those things were indeed granted to me. Some took a lot of time, some required considerable effort and sometimes courage on my part. But here I am today, healthy, happy, alive and about as successful as I would want to be, and I know all of it is due to the grace of God, who always answers prayers, in His own time, and in His own way.

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Genes and Behavior

Towards the end of my academic career, I was appointed to be an academic member of an NIH Special Review Committee tasked with evaluating about a half dozen grant applications submitted in response to a “Request For Applications (RFA)” from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). An official at this agency was interested in the burgeoning field of behavioral genetics, and by issuing the RFA, the NIMH was hoping to stimulate some interesting and useful research in the subject.

I remember being quite unimpressed with any of the proposals, and as it turned out, my views were shared by the rest of the committee. We recommended none of them for funding. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall that all of the proposals seemed very speculative and contained some major unproven assumptions, not much supporting preliminary data, and very weak hypotheses. In all my years as a reviewer, and my subsequent six years as Division Director for Physiological and Pathological Sciences  at the NIH Center for Scientific Review, where thousands of grant applications passed through each year, I have never experienced such a dismal result in the peer-review process.

At the end of the meeting, the official in charge of the (now defunct) program asked us what the problem was. I was the first to respond, and I said that none of the applications were meritorious enough to be considered for funding, because the field was just too immature and the data already gathered were not at all convincing that there was in fact any real connection between any gene or gene variant and human behavior. Another issue brought up by several members of the committee was the implicit racial bias related to the search for genes that “make people violent.”

Of course, that was many years ago, and in the interim, more research has been done. I am sure if the meeting were to be held now, there would be some worthwhile projects proposed. In fact, while I am not at all in the loop anymore, I fully expect that many grants in behavioral genetics have been funded. The field is certainly not dead, and papers are being continually published. But I remain skeptical in general, and especially with respect to the issue of genetics and moral values. Here’s why.

I still think that the connection between genetics and moral behavior is less than straightforward to say the least. There is of course, no question that genes play a role in behavior throughout evolutionary history. Evolution is all about population survival, and the beneficial effects of certain behaviors like individual sacrifice for the sake of a community cannot be denied. But for most animals where individual sacrifice is known, such as with bees, this has nothing to do with a high moral value. A bee’s self-sacrifice for the good of the hive might appear to be result of a laudatory impulse on the part of individual bees, but it is nothing of the sort. No bee decides, in a moment of supreme valor to give her life for the good of the hive. There is no moral imperative acting here—only the evolutionary pressure that produces an appearance of high altruism.

The same is obviously true for the evolution of viruses, bacteria, and various animal and plant predators and parasites. No viruses (such as COVID) decided to be “good” and target the upper respiratory tract rather than the lungs. Increased transmissibility and decreased host mortality is a well-known and very frequent evolutionary strategy for infectious, lethal viruses, and the resulting good news for humans is simply an accident.

While these are extreme examples, the same sort of thing applies to a large extent (though admittedly not entirely) to behavioral traits coded for by human (as well as other animal) genes. For example, increased empathy might be expected to result in behaviors that are more “morally good” according to many human cultures. But a careful examination of the literature shows this is not always the case. Genetically determined reactions to a scene of violence, such as various autonomic reactions, as well as changes in empathy, may lead to various behavioral outcomes.

It is very well known that both emotions and behaviors are multigenic and often involve highly complex gene-environment interactions. All of this makes prediction of anything to do with moral actions based on genotypes of one or a few genes extremely difficult. One particular genetic variant in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is an example of this complexity. One paper describes a behavioral phenotype (tendency to post-partum depression) in which the A allele appears to be dominant, whereas another paper, which discusses a different behavioral phenotype (increased empathy) for the same gene, finds the G allele to be dominant. The two alleles at this locus have also been associated with a variety of other individually tested behaviors. All the studies concur that this polymorphism is in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, meaning that selection pressure for either allele is currently absent, and the gene probably was never a target for natural selection.

Returning to the issue of moral choices, the very fact that there is no single objective morality for all human cultures is strong evidence against an evolutionary genetic connection. There are only very small differences in allele frequencies of some of these genes in different ethnic groups, and these differences are generally not meaningful. During the grant review meeting I mentioned above, we examined one application that hypothesized that different frequencies of a particular polymorphism in a neurotransmitter gene could make African Americans more violent than European Americans. Preliminary evidence was nonexistent and the proposal was considered by the whole committee to verge on outright racism..

This does not mean that there are no genetic correlates with human acts of moral good or evil. All humans (except for rare variants like psychopaths) recognize the inherent good in caring for children, in love, and in doing kindness to kin and relatives. And all recognize that doing harm to these people is bad. There is no question that these moral understandings and resulting behaviors are of evolutionary origin, since the same behaviors are seen in many mammalian and other animal species.

But we only need to think of moral values in modern cultures that extol the killing of “enemies,” the mistreatment of people with sexual or other non-conforming phenotypes, the subjugation of women, and so on, to see that once we go deeper than fundamental common values, we find purely cultural determinants of morality, with no genetic influence at all.

Cultural evolution (which includes good explanations for different human moral codes) is fundamentally different from biological evolution, which depends on genetic variation. For morality, it is memes, not genes, that count. The uniquely human brand of cultural evolution has given us fire, shelter, the internet, and everything else that makes us more than just another ape, including the moral choices we make.

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Tomorrow is Halloween.

Seventy five years ago, on a dark and stormy Halloween night at about 3 AM, a baby was born. To the surprise of all, the baby was a boy. This was surprising because the mother and all her cousins and all her aunts and her grandparents had had only girls. Everyone in the extended family figured this newborn would be a girl also. The parents had even chosen a name – Sarah, commemorating one of the mother’s aunts who had recently passed on.

Imagine the confusion when little Sarah turned out to be, um someone else. The parents actually had two immediate worries. First was what to name this kid. But the second worry was more serious, and distracted them (at least that’s my theory) from the first concern. The baby was not well. A diagnosis of infant diarrhea was pronounced, which at the time was considered a serious illness with no known cause or cure. There was a high rate of infant mortality associated with this illness, and so the parents (especially the mother) were very upset. When they were pressed for a name, they quickly conferred. In order to continue to honor the noble departed Aunt Sarah, the name should start with an S. Well there are certainly plenty of S names for boys. Steven, Scott, Simon, Sam, Sherman, Sidney, Sal, Sean, Silas, Sebastian, Seth, Stanley, and so on.

“We’ll call him Seymour”, they decided.

So, baby Seymour survived his first week of life starting on that Halloween, and is still alive and kicking and writing silly blog posts 75 years later. And never, ever speaks that name out loud, and forbids anyone else to do so.

People (including my wives) have asked me why I hate my name. Some have told me that Sy is not much better. I disagree. I just checked the internet for boys’ names starting with S. In addition to those listed above, the list of 100 names includes such gems as Sultan, Shai, Savion, Stryker, Slade, Salem and Syncere.

You know what name is NOT listed? Yup, SEYMOUR. Why not? Because it’s a terrible name. Sometime after I was born, the name fell into disuse, and the last recorded boy named Seymour was born in 1956. (I read this somewhere, but don’t expect a reference). 

The only popular reference to the name can be found in the lead character of the show and film  A Little Shop of Horrors, and in the song “Suddenly Seymour” from that show. In other words, a joke inside a joke.

So, not only was I born on Halloween, (meaning everybody was out tricking or treating and couldn’t come to my birthday party) I had this joke of a name, and was born unhealthy. Does this post sound a tad grumpy? Well, see how you feel turning 75. Anyway, Happy Halloween.

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The Fundamental Mystery of Life

The fundamental scientific problem with a comprehensive solution to the origin of life is not how the basic building blocks of biochemicals (amino acids, nucleotides, fatty acids) were formed, although there are still many unresolved questions about how conditions on the young earth could allow for the spontaneous, undirected synthesis of most of these compounds. It also isn’t about how such building blocks could come together to form peptides, oligonucleotides, and lipids, or even how these molecules could eventually produce the long polymers (proteins, nucleic acids, glycans, etc.) necessary for life as we know it. There are many problems yet to be worked out, but I do not consider any of these chemical synthesis problems to be a fundamental mystery because each of them may very well have an answer that is just beyond our current chemical understanding.

That is not the case for the actual fundamental mystery of abiogenesis. Even if all the difficulties with a chemical evolution approach to a natural synthesis of any of these chemical components of life are eventually solved, that mystery will remain.

That mystery (and I use the term mystery rather than problem or obstacle on purpose) is this: how is it possible for any of these biomolecules to gradually form complex systems by the standard evolutionary method of natural selection (the way all of biology works), when all such systems (which include highly accurate self-replication, highly efficient energy conversion, an inherited informational system, and complex functional membranes) are required to allow for the existence of this gradual evolutionary process of refinement or optimization.

In other words, since evolution by natural selection requires these systems to be at least close to their present levels of complexity and sophistication, such sophistication cannot be explained by an evolutionary process and could only be explained by purely chemical forces or random chance, neither of which is remotely feasible.

Mixing together strands of DNA, as many protein- or RNA-based catalytic polymers as you like, all the lipid and protein components of membranes, and all the molecules required to convert solar energy into the kind of chemical energy that can be used by cells does nothing but makes these molecules sit there in the test tube. The answer to this dilemma is that life as we know it could not have suddenly appeared in this way, but must have started out as a much simpler, more basic system of primitive systems that slowly and gradually improved and were selected for by…. Oh, wait. I just said that such selection cannot happen until those systems are already quite advanced. So, no. That doesn’t work. You begin to see why I call this the fundamental mystery?

Now you might say to me, “how do you know this is true? How do you that your premise about requiring a high level of sophistication and complexity is really a requirement for any kind of selection in the evolutionary sense? Do you have any evidence for this?

So glad you asked. As a matter of fact, I do. And it has been published in two peer-reviewed papers in the mainstream literature—to no fanfare and almost no notice. That doesn’t concern me, since the purpose of publishing scientific work (as opposed to a mass market book, for example) is not get lots of attention, but to establish a scientific finding that can be referred to when needed. And it is now needed.

I talked about the first paper in a blog post from November 2020, shortly after the paper was published:

Since then I have published a second paper in a new journal called BioCosmos, which used the results of the first paper to produce phase-transition diagrams illustrating the impossibility of a smooth, continuous transition from low-accuracy cell self-replication to high-accuracy replication. In this paper I also theoretically derived the same equations relating survival probability and replication accuracy (measures of fitness) to growth constants that came out of the empirical simulation experiments described in the first paper.

So, yes, there is evidence for my claim. And I am confident that if anyone looked, they would find the same empirical and theoretical evidence for the impossibility of gradually evolving energy conversion, membrane composition, and informational systems as well.

Where does all this leave us? Whenever science encounters a seemingly insoluble mystery (like the constant speed of light or the quantum nature of atomic orbital energies), the only way forward is to find an entirely new way of approaching the issue. I think its time to start doing exactly that.

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The Choice is Yours

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born to a virgin. He healed the sick, performed many miracles, preached a gospel of love and redemption from sin, was crucified, and was resurrected on the third day. He rose up to Heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He is the light of the world and the savior of all who seek him. His followers wrote books about his works and teachings and formed a new religion through which all of mankind can find salvation and life everlasting.

Jesus of Nazareth was a minor preacher, whose message, similar to those of other self-styled messiahs at the time, was recorded by one or two followers. He was killed for being rebellious, and his body may or may not have been stolen, or he never actually died and simply escaped after being taken down from the cross, injured but still alive. Paul started a religion based on this figure (who might not even have been real), and the New Testament was composed much later by unknown adherents of the Christ cult started by Paul.

Which version is true? We cannot know. One can find evidence for both scenarios. One can find even more evidence that is consistent with either scenario. The events happened a long time ago, but that isn’t why we can’t be certain about what happened. Even if we were living 100 years after the events, we would have about as little proof, either way, as we have now. Even if we were alive in Palestine during Christ’s mission, we might be uncertain. We know that not everyone was convinced by the words and deeds of Christ—as recorded in the Gospels.

Christ refused to perform miracles to prove that he was the Messiah. When people asked for “a sign,” he grew angry and refused, calling them a wicked and unfaithful generation. Why? I mean if I present a finding that I claim to be true, and a colleague says, “prove it,” I will show the data of the experiments which provide strong evidence that what I claimed is true. Wouldn’t you do that? So why didn’t Christ win over the Pharisees during his interrogation with a nice miracle? Why is it so difficult to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that Christ, was a real figure, that He walked among us, was the Son of God, and that He rose from death? In fact, why doesn’t God simply appear on TV and tell all the atheists that they are wrong, and everyone better get with the program and start worshipping?

Why can’t we prove or disprove any of this religious stuff?

The answer is, because if we could, if proof in either direction were possible, if an argument on one side could not always be countered by an equally valid argument on the other side, than the title of this article would be false. You would not have a choice.

You are allowed to choose to accept God or not. You cannot choose to believe in gravity, or the motor vehicle bureau, or perpetual motion machines, or phlogiston, or the internet. But when it comes to God, the choice is yours. And it always will be. This means that discussions of proof and evidence go nowhere, and it’s why I do not consider myself to be an “apologist.” The power to choose is a gift. Accept it and use it well.  

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The Biggest Loser

I remember a conversation I had in high school with a girl who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a scientist. She said she would rather do something that involved working with people. I had many opportunities to remember that conversation during my scientific career, and thought of it every time it was once again proven to me that a life in science involves working (and dealing and talking and cooperating, and struggling)  with people far more than most careers.

This tends to be especially true during that mid-career phase when a rising scientist has had some degree of success, is spending a lot less time in the lab, and a lot more time supervising grad students, post docs and technicians, going to meetings and conferences, arranging collaborations, and trying to raise one’s standing in the community. Specific goals, such as gaining tenure and promotions, getting grant support, having papers published and receiving invitations to speak at symposia, all involve a huge degree of engagement with peers, supervisors, supporters, and a whole host of other scientists. At this stage, the phrase “It’s who you know, more than what you know” begins to take center stage in the aspiring scientist’s mind.

I was smack in the middle of that scientific version of social climbing when I was invited to be a member of the program committee for the annual conference of a very large scientific research organization. I was thrilled to accept. Scanning through the list of names of other members of the committee, I recognized more than half of them. A few I already knew, more I had heard of, and would love to get to know. The rest were in other fields, but all were at least at my level of accomplishment, and most were much higher.

This conference was a chance for me to meet and try to impress some bigwigs who might act as a reference for my upcoming tenure application. The first event of the conference that I had high hopes for was a dinner for the entire program committee on the evening before the conference was to start. I entered the large hall a bit early (a mistake I have made many times) and sat at a table. Soon, crowds of people began filing in, and I could see many of the people I was hoping to meet, as well as the few I already knew. None of them came to my table.

Before long everyone was seated at other tables. Several people had eventually come to my table, starting with an older, dowdy looking woman, who I assumed was somebody’s wife. She asked me if she might sit down, and mentioned that some others might join her. I almost said no, in my vain hope that some of the people I was interested in might still join me. But instead a group of grad students who didn’t even belong at this exclusive dinner for committee members sat down, and before I could protest at their presence, one of them said they had been invited to this high level gathering by their advisor.  Some other nondescript men and women of various ages and appearances came over, including a man dressed with a clerical collar, who I thought had wandered into the wrong ballroom.

Soon the waiters began distributing the appetizer course, and everyone got silent. The man in the collar said “If I may…” and began to recite what I could only imagine was grace. I was at that time still a fervent atheist, and had never actually experienced anyone saying grace in real life, but I had seen it done in films. I was shocked and horrified. This was a scientific conference for God’s sake (no pun intended). Who were these people?

Some of them bowed their heads during the brief prayer, and then resumed talking and eating. Recovering from my shock, I looked around the room to see if there were any free spaces at nearby tables. There were none I could see, and I slipped into a funk, cursing my luck for having ended up at a table of losers. As I was brooding, the Asian fellow on my left introduced himself and held out his hand.

“Hi, I’m Ray Hong” he said. I shook his hand and said the first thing that came to my mind “Oh, you have the same name as the guy from Yale who just published that paper in Nature on…” and at that moment my eye caught sight of his nametag that read “Raymond Hong. Yale”. I looked up at his face. He smiled. “Yup, that’s me”.  I gulped. This guy had just published a breathtaking piece of work that would revolutionize several fields of research related to my own. I was stunned. I introduced myself and he smiled and asked me how I knew Margaret. I was about to ask him who Margaret was, when we were distracted by the chair of our committee, several tables over who asked for attention and proceeded to make an announcement that I could not concentrate on. When he finished, Ray was talking to the woman on his other side, and I heard one of the grad students say “Here comes Art”. I looked over and saw a distinguished looking gray-haired man approaching our table. I had seen his photo on the cover of a major publication recently. I asked one of the students “Is that Sir Arthur Bonneville?”

“Yes” she said, “He’s our advisor”. He was also  a world famous researcher who had come to Harvard from Oxford and was rumored to be in line for a Nobel. I felt myself starting to sweat. He came over to the table and walked straight over to the older woman who was beaming at him. “Maybe he’s the husband” I thought. But no. When close enough he held out his hand and said in a perfect British accent, “Margaret, how lovely to see you”. I could only think “Who the hell is Margaret” and put my question into words to the same grad student.

She looked at me with an air of amusement. “Margaret Hutchinson” was her answer. I felt the room starting to spin, and took a deep breath. Margaret Hutchinson was the previous year winner of the Nobel for Medicine and Physiology. 

As the evening continued, and I learned more about my dinner companions,  it dawned on me that the only loser at that table was me.

Scientists like to say that no matter how much we know, we are still always students trying to learn the secrets of nature. I learned a lot that day, and I learned even more about that day when a decade or more later I read the Gospels for the first time. And just yesterday, I read aloud as the Liturgist at our church the Gospel of Luke 14:7-14. Where Jesus says “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place.”  At that table, there several people far more distinguished than I, and the lesson of that passage was one I have already learned from direct experience.

Jesus Christ, who I had finally came to believe was the incarnation of the Lord God, creator of everything, sat down to eat with illiterate fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, losers all, who ended up changing the world and the lives of all who know Him. Even me, the biggest loser of them all.

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News and an Explanation

The news is good!! I have signed a contract with the publisher of my first book, the award winning The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Kregel, 2019) for a second book. Also, the first book, which had been sold out for over two months is back in stock in all formats, which now also includes an audiobook version. The long delay in availability was partially caused by supply chain and shipping problems due to… yup, the pandemic, which continues to wreak various kinds of havoc in our lives.

The deadline for getting the final manuscript to the publisher is in September, so while I am excited about this whole enterprise, both my wife (editor extraordinaire) and I are working hard on finishing the final draft. And thus the explanation for why I will be neglecting this blog probably until October. I wanted to post this to reassure readers that I have no intention of abandoning the blog, not after the amazing, affirmative response you all sent me in July about keeping it going. Thank you for that.

So, pray for us as we try to make magic out of words, and reach the deadline with a manuscript worthy of my readership, and the trust of my publisher. Meanwhile God bless you all, and see you in October.

PS. To subscribe to my monthly newsletter containing more information about both books as well as gift offers, please see my website at sygarte.com.

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