Creation and Evolution (Part 16)

August 05, 2013     Time: 00:17:09

We’ve been talking about the Doctrine of Creation and particularly the creation/evolution controversy. Last time I argued that even if the natural scientist has to work within the constraints of methodological naturalism, no such constraint governs the work of the systematic theologian. Therefore, the systematic theologian is free to pursue theological hypotheses as well as naturalistic ones in trying to understand the origin of life and of biological complexity. As Christians, we want to have a theology, or worldview, that takes account of and integrates both the biblical data and the scientific evidence in the most plausible worldview possible. And there is no reason that we should be constrained by naturalism in crafting such a worldview.

Origin of Life

We want to turn now to the subject of the origin of life. What does the scientific evidence indicate about how life originated on this planet? Earlier in discussing the fine-tuning of the universe, we saw that in order for life to exist anywhere in the universe there has to be these exquisitely finely tuned constants and quantities present in the Big Bang as initial conditions. These initial conditions are required for the existence and evolution of life anywhere in the cosmos. In the absence of the fine-tuning of these initial conditions, there would not even be galaxies, there wouldn’t be stars, there wouldn’t be planets where life could evolve and exist! But, even given those exquisitely fine-tuned initial conditions, that is no guarantee that life is going to evolve somewhere in the cosmos. Those conditions are necessary for life to originate but they are not sufficient. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the existence and evolution of life. In order for life to originate somewhere in the universe, other conditions have to be in place and these also turn out to be astronomically improbable.

If you are like me, you were probably taught in high school or in grade school that the way that life originated on earth is through chemical interactions in the so-called “primordial soup.” Chance chemical reactions in the early oceans, perhaps fueled by lightning strikes, originated living organisms. Back in the 1950s, a graduate student named Stanley Miller was able to synthesize amino acids in the laboratory by passing electric sparks through a methane gas in one of his experimental apparatuses in the laboratory. He was able to obtain amino acids by electrical charges passed through the methane gas. Now, amino acids aren’t alive but proteins are made out of amino acids and proteins are found in living things and so the hope was that somehow the origin of life might be explained on the basis of these chemical reactions. You might be saying to yourself that that seems like a pretty big extrapolation – he was able to get amino acids, amino acids make up proteins, proteins are found in living things, therefore living things can be explained through chemical evolution. I would agree with you – I think that is a pretty big extrapolation and is really something that goes so far beyond the evidence as to be a non sequitur. But, nevertheless, that is what most of us were taught, right? In the primordial soup that covered the earth, in the warm oceans or else perhaps in pools that were isolated, through lightning strikes and chemical reactions, somehow primitive life was birthed and formed.[1]

What you may not know is that all of these old chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down and are now widely rejected by the scientific community. This point was documented very well in a book several years ago called The Mystery of Life’s Origin by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olson.[2] They point out that there probably never even was such a thing as the primordial soup because the natural processes of destruction and dilution that would go on in the oceans would have prevented the chemical reactions that supposedly led to life. You see, Miller’s experiments were performed in a highly controlled laboratory environment in a little glass enclosed artificial environment where the natural processes of destruction and dilution could be screened out and so would not come into effect. But of course in the primordial oceans of the earth, these kinds of destructive processes would not be screened out and they would have prevented the chemical reactions that would supposedly have led to the formation of life.

Thaxton, Bradley, and Olson also point out that thermodynamics poses an insuperable problem for these chemical origin of life scenarios because there just isn’t any way to harness the raw energy of lightning or the sun in order to drive chemical evolution forward. There just isn’t any mechanism that would take this raw energy and transform it and harness it in such a way as to forward chemical evolution toward life. Moreover, they point out that there is no way in nature to preserve any of the products of chemical evolution for the supposed next step in the process. A scientist like Stanley Miller can artificially isolate the products of the first chemical development – he can isolate those little amino acids that have been formed in his flask and then subject them to a second step. But in the primordial seas there wasn’t any way of collecting and isolating and preserving any of the products of chemical evolution for the supposed next step. So the same processes that formed these substances in the first place would almost immediately destroy them again.

Finally, the last point that they make is that it was originally believed that literally billions of years were available for life to originate through these chemical processes. Given billions of years there would be in the oceans billions and billions of chances for life to originate in the primordial soup. The problem is that we now have fossil evidence of life that goes back as far as 3.8 billion years. Life has already existed on this planet from 3.8 billion years ago. Now, when you think that the age of the earth is somewhere around 5 to 6 billion years old, then that means that the window of opportunity between the time that the earth cooled down enough and the seas formed and the appearance of the first life is being progressively closed. This window of opportunity for life to originate is getting narrower and narrower. You have to have the earth cool down, form the oceans, and then you have this increasingly narrowing window of opportunity before we already have life on earth.[3] In fact, Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen estimate that this window of opportunity is probably only about 25 million years in duration during which life had to originate by chemical evolution. That is far too short a time for these naturalistic scenarios to occur by chance. There would need to be some sort of miraculous intervention in order for life to originate in so relatively short a time.

So, for all of these reasons and more, these old chemical origin of life scenarios have broken down. Instead today there is a plethora of alternative speculative theories with no consensus on the horizon. I am not going to survey these, but if you are interested in seeing a very, very nice survey, take a look at the Wikipedia article on origin of life[4] and it will describe many of these different speculative scenarios about how life originated on this planet, none of which has shown to be tenable. Steve Meyer, in his recent book Signature in the Cell,[5] says that the odds of getting even a single, functioning protein molecule by chance (remember, that is not even alive! We are not talking here about a cell, he’s talking about a single functioning protein molecule) the odds of this are about one chance out of 10164. This is just an inconceivable number. He says that is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the possible particles in the universe. So take all of the particles in the universe and you go pick out one – what are the odds you are going to get just that one? Well, they are 1084 higher than the odds for a single protein molecule. This is on page 212 of Signature in the Cell in case you are interested.[6] He goes on to say,

Protein function depends upon hundreds of specifically sequenced amino acids, and the odds of a single functional protein arising by chance are prohibitively low, given the probabilistic resources of the entire universe.[7]

So given not just the probabilistic resources of earth’s primordial oceans, but the probabilistic resources of the entire universe, the odds of getting a single functional protein molecule are prohibitively small. Therefore, some theorists today are wondering whether we will ever really be able to discover the answer to how life on this planet originated. In an article in Cell Biology International, Trevors and Abel say “New approaches to investigating the origin of the genetic code are required. The constraints of historical science are such that the origin of life may never be understood.”[8] We may never know the answer.

The origin of life on earth thus remains inexplicable as current science stands today. Francis Crick, who was the co-discoverer of DNA, once said that the origin of life on the earth is “almost a miracle.”[9] In fact, Crick was driven to the position that the origin of life on earth is so improbable that it probably didn’t originate here. He thinks that it was probably seeded from some other planet elsewhere in the universe where life originated and then life came here already formed. So life didn’t evolve on this planet through chemical evolution; it came full-formed from some other planet elsewhere in the universe.[10] But, of course, that just pushes the question back a notch and leaves you wondering where that extraterrestrial life came from! Of course, that is an unfalsifiable hypothesis – we have no way of verifying or falsifying that.

As I said earlier, the Bible doesn’t say how life originated. It just says “God said let the land bring forth vegetation” and “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.”[11] The Bible isn’t a science book. It doesn’t tell us what means God used to create life or if he used any means at all rather than miraculous intervention. But I think we can certainly say safely that the origin of life on this planet is consistent with, in Francis Crick’s words, “a miracle.” That is to say, it is an event which was supernaturally brought about by God. Minimally we can say that the science and the Bible are not in contradiction on this issue. Indeed, if anything, I think that science is clearer that the origin of life is due to some sort of supernatural designer or miraculous intervention than the Bible is. So, on the basis of modern science, one might well conclude that the origin of life requires some sort of supernatural designing intelligence and creator.

Next time we will begin to look at the origin of biological complexity. How did that simple, unicellular first organism evolve into the complex, rich diversity of life forms that we see today?[12]



[1] 5:20

[2] Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, Roger L. Olson, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (Dallas, Texas: Lewis and Stanley, 1984). You can download a free PDF version of this book at http://themysteryoflifesorigin.org/ (accessed February 10, 2013).

[3] 10:01

[4] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_life (accessed February 10, 2013).

[5] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[6] “Making that calculation (multiplying the separate probabilities by adding their exponents 1045+45+74) gives a dramatic answer. The odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a prebiotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10164. . . . consider that there are only 1080 protons, neutrons, and electrons in the observable universe. Thus, if the odds of finding a functional protein by chance on the first attempt had been 1 in 1080, we could have said that's like finding a marked particle – proton, neutron, or electron (a much smaller needle) – among all the particles in the universe (a much larger haystack). Unfortunately, the problem is much worse than that. With odds standing at 1 chance in 10164 of finding a functional protein . . . the probability is 84 orders of magnitude (or powers of ten) smaller than the probably of finding the marked particle in the whole universe. Another way to say that is the probability of finding a functional protein by chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.” (Meyer, Signature in the Cell, p. 212.)

[7] Ibid., p. 273.

[8] J. T. Trevors, D. L. Abel, “Chance and necessity do not explain the origin of life,” Cell Biology International, (Volume 28, Issue 11, November 2004), pp. 729-739. A copy of the article can be accessed at http://www.cellbiolint.org/cbi/028/0729/0280729.pdf (accessed February 10, 2013).

[9] “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that, in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, (Simon & Schuster, 1981), p. 88.

[10] 14:57

[11] cf. Genesis 1:24 and Genesis 1:20

[12] Total Running Time: 17:09 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)