Words: Genetic and Linguistic Problems for Evolution

In 1934, just before his death, the eminent Russian psychologist, Lev S. Vygotsky, 1 concluded his book on Thought and Language with a quotation from Faust which insisted that, "In the beginning was the deed." According to Vygotsky, the word came later, crowning the deed. What he had in mind, of course, was the development of intelligence in children. He was not concerned with the ultimate question of how there came to be order in the universe, yet it is the fundamental faith of science that there is order in the universe, and obviously it had to come to be by some means. Vygotsky boldly asserted that order arises from action rather than words. He left God out of the picture and committed himself to the evolutionary doctrine of secularism. One of the Hebrew Psalmists wrote, "Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, 'He won't call me to account'?" (New International Version, Psalm 10:13). Within a few months after Vygotsky concluded his book, he died. He never saw his thirty-fifth birthday.

Secularists often pay homage to blind chance as the source of the order that science finds in the physical and biological world. Yet they often lament the fact that evolutionary wisdom is not maintaining itself, but systematically destroying the very order that it is supposed to have created. Bertrand Russell 2 wept as eloquently as any atheist who ever wielded a pen over the crumbling temple of evolutionary grandeur. He wrote, "All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and … the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins. (Russell, 1917).

One can only wonder at the logic of a doctrine which sees chaos as both the beginning and end of the marvelous order that science finds in the universe. How is it that the selfsame principles which supposedly led to the order, are also those which are certainly and permanently destroying it? Vygotsky insisted that actions preceded the formative power of the word, but action without a plan is like a ship without a rudder. There is no reason to suppose that such action could ever result in the order that we find in the universe.

To illustrate the severity of the logical problem for evolutionism, consider the origin of the genetic code. Until 1966 it was more or less popular to poke fun at the notion that the formative power of the "word" was fundamentally involved in the origin of order and particularly of life. After 1966, however, with the unraveling of the dictionary of correspondences between the bases in the nucleic acids and the amino acids of the proteins (that is, "the genetic code"), the formative power of sign-functions began to have a more respectable scientific status. The opening of John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word," came to have a more scientific ring to it.

Even as early as 1963 and 1964, Hinegardner and Engelberg 3,4 published arguments in Science showing the extreme implausibility of the claim that the genetic basis of life had evolved in a step by step fashion. The difficulty was that the minutest sorts of changes in the dictionary of correspondences between the words of the nucleic acids and the words of the protein language would be lethal to all living things. Because of the apparent universality of the code (see Clark, 5 Ycas, 6 and Woese, 7), very minute changes in the code would have devastating effects to all living organisms. This may be why F.H.C. Crick 8 (who shared the Nobel prize with J.D. Watson for work on the structure of DNA), commented in 1966 that he was thinking of offering an annual prize for the worst paper published on the topic of the origin of the genetic code. It seems that in Crick's view, there are far too many who are willing to offer untestable, unscientific claims about how the code came to be.

From a purely logical point of view, the problem is one of words and numbers. There are too many intricacies. As Woese, Ycas, Clark and other biologists have been pointing out for some years now, every living cell consists largely of long biological texts. The most basic of these are written in the nucleic acid language. These basic texts are translated into another library of texts in the language of the proteins. Underlying this whole process is the dictionary of correspondences between the two types of texts known as the genetic code.

The code itself may be regarded as part of a grammatical system governing the meaning of strings of words in the nucleic acid language. The nucleic acid texts in their turn are on the one hand the output of the deeper biological grammar, and on the other they are themselves a kind of grammar governing the strings of words that are used to form the texts of the protein language. Similarly, the protein texts have a dual aspect. On the one hand, they are texts output by the nucleic acid "grammar" and on the other, they themselves serve a grammatical function in constraining the structure and metabolic functions of the cell. The problem for an evolutionary explanation is how such intricate order could arise by pure chance.

The difficulty can best be appreciated perhaps by examining more closely the linguistic analogy—an analogy which has been proposed unflinchingly by biologists (though it is viewed with some trepidation by many linguists). How is it that such intricately and delicately ordered strings of words got strung together just as they are in order to specify precisely the sorts of biological order that we find in the earth today? The difference between an ant and a human being is apparently determined entirely by the strings of words, and their order, written in the long linear texts of the nucleic acid macro-molecules.

Suppose that we set aside the equally puzzling problems of how the texts are read, copied, and translated from nucleic acid language into protein language, and simply ask how the texts came to be written in the first place. The difficulty is something like explaining the origin of a library of books. The problem is the words and their orderliness. To obtain a book there must first be an intelligence.

Consider the existence of this line of symbols. Beginning with the word "Consider," it has 47 printed symbols in it (counting the spaces between words as symbols). Suppose we ask, "What is the probability of such a line of text coming to be by pure chance?" For the sake of argument, let us assume that chance produced a thousand typewriters and that each began to crank out lines of text at a rate of a million characters per second.

An ordinary standard typewriter has 44 symbols in lower case and 44 in upper case plus the space bar. (We will ignore paragraphing, subtitles, and other elements of text that would have to be taken into account in a more complete theory of printed text.) Therefore, on the first strike, the probability of hitting a capital "C" is one in 89 (44 + 44 + 1 = 89). The probability of hitting the letters capital "C" and then lower case "o" would be one in 89 x 89, or one in 7,921. As we continue to increase the length of the string of characters, the probability of obtaining the desired element by chance decreases as the exponent of 89 increases. The probability of obtaining the 47 characters of the opening sentence of this paragraph in precisely that order would be one in 8947. On the average, a thousand typewriters churning out text at a million characters per second each (for a total of one billion characters per second) would require 8.9 x 1039 seconds to obtain this one 47 character sequence.

It is difficult to appreciate just how large a span of time this is. If the generous value of 20 billion years is taken as an estimate of the age of the universe (following evolutionists), there are only 6.3 x 1017 seconds in all the time from the hypothetical "big bang" until now. This value falls short of the required amount of time by a factor of 1.4 x 1022. That is to say, the amount of time would have to be increased by about fourteen billion trillion times greater than the number of seconds in the supposed age of the universe (according to recent evolutionary doctrine). Therefore, we must conclude that a particular string of only 47 typewritten characters could never be obtained by chance.

The problem for an evolutionary explanation is, of course, far worse than I have suggested in this rather trivial example. The difficulty is not to explain any string of a mere 47 significant elements, but to explain texts that consist of many millions of such elements. That is, the example of the typewritten string of 47 characters is a reductio ad absurdum. If chaos cannot produce order of such minuscule proportions, how can it be expected to blindly generate all of the order that scientists find in the universe?

If the meaningfulness of experience itself is a miraculous thing, what about man's ability to talk sensibly about experience? Natural discourse logically exceeds the complexity of any knowledge expressible in it. Any knowledge which can be expressed must be less abstract and less complex than the language in which it is expressed.

So we see that in its humblest forms, life is dependent on words, and in its most exalted form, again it is words that bestow distinction. A question of paramount scientific importance is how words come to be strung together in such intricately organized ways either in the biology of the species or in the discourse of ordinary human beings. To posit intelligence in human beings is to suggest an image of God: for if human discourse requires intelligence, how much more must the library of genetic texts that give man this capacity require an Intelligent Creator!

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse (New International Version, Romans 1:20).


1. Vygotsky, Lev, Thought and Language, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1961 ed., 1934.
2. Russell, Bertrand, Mysticism and Logic, London: Allen and Unwin, 1917,
3. Hinegardner, T.T. and J. Engelberg, "Rationale for a Universal Genetic Code," Science, V. 142, 1963, 1083-1085.
4. Ibid. Comment on a criticism by Woese, V. 144, 1964, p. 1031.
5. Clark, Brian F.C., The Genetic Code, London: E. Arnold, 1977.
6. Ycas, Martynas, The Biological Code, Amsterdam: North Holland, 1969.
7. Woese, Carl R., "The Genetic Code: The Molecular Basis for Genetic Expression," New York: Harper and Row, 1967.
8. Crick, F.H.C., "The Genetic Code—Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow," in Quantitative Biology, V. 31, 1966, pp. 3-9. Paper presented at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium.

* Dr. Oller is Professor of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. His Ph.D. is from the University of Rochester.

Cite this article: John W. Oller, Jr., Ph.D. 1981. Words: Genetic and Linguistic Problems for Evolution. Acts & Facts. 10 (2).

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