What experiments were you conducting at the Medical Research Council Centre that ultimately led to your ouster in 2002?
I was working on a class of proteins called enzymes. Proteins are the molecules responsible for most of the cellular activities of life, and they consist of long chains of amino acids. I was testing the idea that was prevalent at the time that proteins can do their function even if you monkey with their amino acid sequences. Now, that turns out to be true to a degree, but if you push that to its limit, you ruin them. And that gives you a probabilistic problem for evolution because in order to find one of these working sequences you have to imagine a blind unguided search landing on an extremely rare functional sequence.
Well, my Journal of Molecular Biology paper published in 2004 came up with the number of one in 1074. And then if you need a particular function, it’s going to be even worse. I estimated it to be about one good sequence in 1077 sequences. So, roughly, one in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion – which is not very good odds.
Why is your research problematic for evolution?
Because if evolution is unguided, then the whole process has no idea what sequence it needs in order to get to a particular function. Yet somehow it ends up finding these functions. Well, that’s only plausible if the targets are large enough that a blind staggering walk can land on them. But if the targets are one in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion small, then no blind search is ever going to find them.
Wouldn’t proteins develop properly just by accident given enough time, say 15 billion years, which is what scientists estimate the age of the universe to be?
If you have ten billion chances for a one-in-ten-billion event to occur, then it could very easily occur. But when you have a number like 1074, it turns out that even when you take into account the age of the earth, that’s not enough to solve this problem.
Do you reject the entire theory of evolution? Or just the notion that it was unguided?
I’m not arguing against common ancestry or some form of descent with modification. What I’m saying is that accidental processes cannot possibly have invented these things.
You write that the limits of natural selection are actually well known to scientists and are not terribly controversial.
There’s nothing controversial about saying that natural selection has been proven to be much less potent than Darwin thought it was. There have been mathematical challenges to natural selection since the 1960s. For example, Motoo Kimura, a great Japanese population geneticist, among many others, showed that it’s far from a sure thing that a more genetically fit individual will give rise to a more genetically fit species. More often than not, that more genetically fit individual will die and not have progeny. So it’s a very hit-and-miss thing. But very few people take that conclusion to the extent that I have and say the entire theory is false.
One popular response to any type of design argument for the existence of God is to posit the existence of trillions upon trillions of parallel universes. If there are these alternate universes, it isn’t surprising that eventually one of them would contain working proteins – as well as plant, animal, and human life. How do you respond to this argument?
If there’s an infinite number of universes and it’s physically possible for everything we see here to evolve – and I don’t grant that – the question would then be: Why are we in that special universe? We should find ourselves on a minimal planet where there’s nothing except that which is necessary for us to think. Instead we find ourselves in a rich biosphere with biological diversity beyond our wildest imagination.