Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (4) November 2022

What is Life?  Scientific Indication for God

Dr Peter Williams

Peter WilliamsDuring the past two centuries there have been astonishing advances in physics, chemistry and biology at the molecular level. Molecular biology arose initially from X Ray crystallography and organic chemistry, and then the invention of the first electron microscope in 1932. The foremost theory of biology even today remains Darwinism, and the data for this was initially observational, based on classification of species and the geolog­ical record, showing a progression of life forms from about 4 billion years ago until the present. This does confirm a ‘tree of life’ and modern genetic analysis can be traced back through species to a hypothetical cell, the last universal common ancestor (LUCA).

Since Darwin published ‘The origin of Species’ in 1859 there has been an increasing tendency to a naïve assumption: the body is formed of cells which gradually evolved from supposedly simple chemistry to complex structures. This mechanistic view is now challenged by the calculations of intelligent information flow in a cell. Each cell is carrying out countless trillions of purposive mo­lecular interactions every second, far beyond human comprehension. The simple observational naturalism of Darwin is dead as a dodo.

Mechanism was not embraced by the pioneers of modern particle physics: James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Walter Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger believed in the influence of a mind, or creative being, involved in the physical laws of the Universe.

In a series of lectures at Trinity College Dublin (1943), Schrodinger posed the problem “What is No3 Life”, from the viewpoint of a physicist. He was the first to think deeply about the idea that quantum processes must affect biological matter, although with the lack of information at that time he thought it unimportant to genetics except at reproduction. Schrodinger was inclined to eastern non-dualistic thought and believed that mind, consciousness, matter and energy were intertwined. He stated that because he could order the movement of his limbs and carry out conscious functions, consciousness is primary and matter secondary (1).

In 1952 Miller and Urey obtained three of the amino acids used in life - aspartic acid, glycine and alpha-alanine, and other biochemicals, by passing high voltage electric sparks through reducing gases, thought at that time to resemble the early earth volcanic atmosphere. A year later Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin started to unravel the mysteries of genetics with the discover of the DNA double helix. This led to an assumption that DNA was the basis of life, analogous to the instruction tapes in computer science which was advancing rapidly particularly after the work of Alan Turing.

So called molecular evolution has had a large hold on evolutionary thought in the 20th Century until recently, but now the formidable scientific objections to the chance formation of life are more apparent. Miller-Urey type experiments using various mixture of reducing volcanic gases have produced only 9 of the 20 amino acids used in life, always in a racemic mixture of left and right-handed isomers. A multinational study from Tokyo (2019) (2) showed that there are 2000 or so suitable amino acids for life, and of these an optimal subset of 20 is used from a possible 1048 sets. No experiments have been able to preferentially separate the isomers in early earth simula­tions, yet in life only the L handed isomer is used. Geo-physical early earth simulations in 2020 question the existence of a reducing atmosphere necessary to obtain the amino acids (3). Peptide bonding is not common in such simulations. Polypeptide assembly of any length requires ribosomes, DNA, RNA and a functioning cell, or industrial laboratories.

There is no geological evidence for an amino acid rich environment before Cambrian fossils are found, and no evidence for asteroid bombardment containing biochemical material on any scale. The specimens are very rare. Astrobiology does not confirm a Universe with large quantities of amino acids or other biochemistry, so it is not evidence-based science to postulate a seething primordial organic environment on earth.

And so, there is a complex chicken and egg situa­tion, with no provable early earth scenarios which can form RNA, DNA or polypeptides, let alone at the same time and place in quantity. As Professor R. Krishnamurthy from Scripps Institute writes: “There are varied views about how the molecules of life may have appeared on early Earth. Nowhere is this divergence more acute than in the origins of DNA/RNA and has be­come a matter of constant deliberations... each of these investigations...are partly based on scientific facts and the remaining filled with extrapolated scientific imaginations about the early Earth sce­narios and the availability of source materials that could/would lead to the building blocks of, and eventually to, DNA and RNA.” (2019) (4).

However, the mathematics and chemistry of protein assembly rules out any mechanistic method of forming life because of the statistical enormity of the task. It is quite simply impossible.

One of the smallest genomes in free-living bacteria has been found in Pelagibacter ubique in which the average protein length is about 280 amino acids. The mathematical problems in forming such a minimal cell are astonishing and simple combinatorial statistics alone are enough to verify the ultimate failure of in vitro synthetic evolutionary biochemistry on the prebiotic earth, or even in laboratory simulations. The argument often given is that given infinite multiverses life must occur eventually, but this is specious as is any argument invoking infinity. We do not have infinite time.

A polypeptide only 3 amino acids long has 20^3 = 8,000 possible combinations. One average protein therefore has 20^280 possible combina­tions =10^364. By comparison the number of atoms in the Universe is estimated to be about 10^80. There are 3.15x10^16 seconds in a billion years. There is not enough time in the 4 billion year history of life on earth to obtain the lucky correct configuration of just one such protein at trillions of combinations per second. The 3D configuration of each protein is essential for function and because of complex covalent bonding it is not determinable by unguided reactions without computers until the final amino acid is locked in. The protein chain does not form itself, it is manufactured for specific purposes. What evolutionary scenario can achieve intelligent purpose from inanimate material?

DNA/RNA must switch its program each time to change just one amino acid in a protein, which can radically alter its 3D function, and requires pre-existing intact ribosomes, themselves proteins. Even the simplest prokaryotic ribosomal subunit is a complex of ribosomal RNA and 19 proteins. This ribosome could not form in any primitive earth biochemistry scenario, except in a Precambrian synthetic laboratory under carefully regulated conditions governed by intelligence. Foreknowledge of its function is necessary, in the same way as the manufacture of any component of a complex machine.

The minimum definition of life requires a cell, whereas hypothetical self-replicating molecules are biochemistry and there is a vast chasm between them and an intact cell. Mycoplasma for example contains some 600 billion atoms, and everything is in integrated purposive motion guided by an unknown force which we may as well still call the anima.

So molecular biology it is not confirming any verifiable hypothesis for self-forming life: there is no mechanism for discriminatory assembly of a cell or even meaningful DNA sequences without intelligent input. A sober examination of the mathematics, lack of necessary components in number, time constraints, temperature regulation on the early earth and suitable stable environment rules against it. The experimental simulations are the results of human scientific ideas, not random events on a primitive planet.

So then the crucial question of Schrodinger: what is life, the anima, which coordinates and activates the integrated and purposeful movement of molecules within cells, between cells, between organs? DNA is an instruction tape but not a life force. The information flow in a mammalian cell is beyond comprehension, as are the homeostatic mechanisms needed to regulate its 100 trillion atoms in real-time with everything in flux. (5) How is the DNA itself instructed to produce the right number and variety of proteins for a cell or body? How is overall homeostasis regulated in machinery as complex as multicellular organisms? How is it that our minds can partially understand this complexity and its mathematics? As Carl Sagan wrote "The information content of a single cell has been established as around 1012 bits, comparable to about a hundred million pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

Schrodinger was as qualified as any scientist in history to pose his question ‘What is life?’. He didn’t have an answer in science then, we don’t have one now. However, as all speculation about this goes on in our minds and not in the external world of space-time, he realised that there is a spiritual/philosophical answer, which is up to each of us to discover (or not). Reality is not something external to us, we are part of it. There is certainly no evidence to exclude a supernatural designer, which to the contrary is the only possible explanation for life, intelligence and consciousness. It is justified belief.


1.Erwin Schrodinger What is Life? (1943) Epilogue



4.Ramanarayanan Krishnamurthy (2018)

5.It is recommended to watch dynamic animation videos of cellular activity such as those by Drew Berry: 322s

6.Carl Sagan "Life," Encyclopaedia Britannica:22, 1997, p964-981.

Dr Peter Williams MBBS PhD
is an Associate in Informatics at the University of Sussex. He was previously a GP and Trust Physician in Gastroenterology. He retired in 2013.