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Origins of Life

By marklang, Member of Delve into Jesus since 4/3/2007

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When Darwin's Origin Of Species was published in 1859, it was expected to give naturalists a powerful weapon in their fight to show that life did not require a creator. However, in the nearly century and a half since that book was published, naturalists have yet to explain the origin of life itself. As chemistry and biology progressed and advances were made, the complexity of the cell and the nature of DNA suggest more strongly than ever that life could not have arisen spontaneously.

The naturalist's most powerful weapon, evolution, is of no value to them in this area, for evolution depends on cellular division and reproduction, which of course depends on cells and DNA. So, any attempt use evolution to explain the development of the cell or DNA presupposes the very things it is trying to prove. In other words, only life can evolve, but we are trying to explain life itself and so evolution can be of no help.

This was less of an issue in Darwin's day when DNA was unknown and the cell was not well understood and assumed to be fairly simple. It was not much a problem to imagine that cells just spontaneously developed from a swamp of chemicals. Today, we know how complex the cell really is and the issue of how it came into existence can no longer be ignored.

The Complexity of The Cell

One of the problems with evolution is that it can only take us back so far. It can explain changes that arise from mutations of cells, but it offers no insight into the origin or nature of cells themselves. In Darwin's time, cells were not understood to have the vast complexity that we are able to observe today. Even the simplest cell is incredibly complex - a tiny, delicate factory where many parts work together to accomplish the amazing tasks of growth and reproduction.

Michael Denton, an Australian microbiologist, explains: (quotes are taken from Denton's book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Great Britain, Burnett Books, 1985.)

Even the simplest cell, "contains thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the nonliving world." (p. 250)


"To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers (twelve and a half miles) in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the port holes of a vast space ship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity (p.328). Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which -- a functional protein or gene -- is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man?" (p. 342)


What about the Miller Experiment?

The Miller (or the Urey-Miller experiment) was an experiment conducted by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago in 1953 in which the two scientists attempted to simulate the atmosphere of the early earth in order to show that such an atmosphere was conducive to producing the building blocks of life. By exposing their hypothetical atmosphere to electrical current, Miller and Urey were able to produce some basic organic compounds and amino acids. Ever since, naturalists have been pointing to the Miller experiment as proof that life needs no creator and can arise spontaneously if the conditions are correct.

There are two serious problems with the Miler experiment. The first is that scientists no longer believe that the early earth's atmosphere was anything like what Miller and Urey envisioned. When the experiments are conducted in a mixture which is a more likely representation, no amino acids are produced. Instead, a combination of formaldehyde and cyanide result, both of which are averse to living cells. For this reason alone, Dr. Jonathan Wells has suggested that the Miller experiment should be relegated to nothing more than a footnote in modern biology text books.

The bigger problem is that even if Miller and Urey were correct that amino acids arise spontaneously, naturalists have greatly overstated how far this would take us in explaining the origin of the cell. The creation of amino acids is only the first step in a very complicated process. Cell creation requires the right kinds of acids in the right amount to link up and produce a protein molecule. Next, it requires hundreds of proteins in the right combination to create even the most basic living cell.

If we use the analogy of a computer as a living cell, what Miller and Urey asserted is that they proved silicon could arise spontaneously. Its absurd to leap from that to say that transistors or circuits could result spontaneously, let alone an entire computer. Yet, still to this day naturalists would say that once you've got the silicon, you've explained the computer. However, as Michael Denton described above, even the most powerful computer ever developed by man lacks the complexity of a single living cell.

Could it be random chance at work?

Thomas Huxley popularized the idea that almost anything is possible given enough time, and billions of years certainly seems like a long time. However, when we look at the numbers, the odds quickly fall away into the realm of impossibility. Huxley is reported to have said that six monkeys, typing away for millions of years, could reproduce all the works in the British Museum. Scientist Duane Gish put this idea to rest when he calculated that 6 billions planets, covered every square inch with monkeys, each typing 100 letters per second for 5 billions years could not be expected to reproduce even the first paragraph of a single volume in that museum. Yet, Huxley's exaggeration has captured the imagination of the public for over a hundred years.

Let's take a closer looks at the odds for proteins and amino acids. Even if we assume that the first living cell was crude and primitive, there is a certain level of complexity that is required in even the simplest building-block protein molecule. At least 75 amino acids are necessary, and given the number of ways in which they can combine, the odds of these amino acids coming together by chance is given as 10130. Now, while the time between the creation of the earth and the emergence of life seems massive to us, the numbers don't stack up. Even a trillion years (which is several orders of magnitude more than the earth has actually existed), at 1012, is a tiny number compared to the probability listed earlier of 10130. To imagine just how big that number is, you could try a million combinations per second for a trillion years and still only be in the vicinity of 1030. It's a staggering level of improbably, and time is simply not going to be able to overcome it. But remember, even if those amino acids did come together, all we would have is a single protein, not even a functioning cell!

Life is More than the Sum of it's Parts.

Last but not least, in the midst of all this talk about chance and odds, there remains a larger problem. If all the proteins necessary to create a cell come together in the right way and in the right proportions, it is not automatic that the cell will suddenly come to life. We can kill an organism, and within moments of its death, before the body has begun to decay, it has everything necessary for life, yet, it is no longer alive and there is nothing we can do to change that fact. We imagine stories like Frankenstein where we can "zap" the inanimate material and bring it to life, but it's never been done and never been seen. Clearly, there is something more to life than assembling the parts. Scientists cannot begin to understand the fundamental "essence" which makes something alive, let alone explain it's origins.

For this reason, scientists have by-and-large rejected the idea of life emerging by chance even though it is still a popular notion in the mainstream media. Though there is disagreement on it's nature, most scientists agree that some force or outside influence would be necessary to bring the chemicals together in the correct combinations.

Information and DNA

In the preceding section, we talked about how unlikely it would be that the elements - the ingredients - of a single protein molecule could ever come together by chance. It was clear from that discussion that something outside the system would be required to bring the necessary elements for life together in just the right way. That "something" is DNA, and it's origins are even more intriguing and mysterious than the origins of the cell.

Information

We know that every living being is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other elements, so in one sense, we can visualize how those elements might have combined to create life. Despite the odds and lack of evidence, naturalists have held onto the notion that "they just combined somehow." But how can we explain the emergence of something so intangible as information?

Information is the means of communication between a sender and a recipient. There must be an agreed upon set of rules for how communication will take place, known as grammar and syntax. It can be very simple, such as to nod when we mean yes and shake our heads when we mean no. It can be very complex, such as sign language, English or Russian. In every case, the sender and recipient of the information must conform to these rules, otherwise the communication is meaningless.

Without the intervention of a conscious, intelligent, living being, nature is capable of creating only two types of patterns - random and repetitive. Neither can convey information, for if I repeat the same word or sentence over and over, or if I call out random words, I cannot communicate my meaning to anyone. Only intelligence can create information; random or repetitive processes cannot.

What distinguishes information from any other type of pattern is that if the recipient and sender both agree on the grammar and syntax, then the information has the potential to be acted upon by the recipient. I can be asked to get milk from the store, or I ask my computer to get my stock quotes. However, if I hear random words or pound repeatedly on the same key on the keyboard, no meaningful result can occur.

In order for something to create a message which conforms to the rules of communication, it must be intelligent or have been programmed by some intelligence. Communication is impossible without a comprehension of the rules, and comprehension implies knowledge, understanding and sentience.

What does this have to do with the cell?

In the same way that computers operate in binary language or that we communicate using 26 unique letters in our alphabet, DNA has it's own language written in 4 letters - A,G,C and T. These letters combine to form instructions for creating every cell in our bodies. The long sequence of DNA has been compared to computer code, while others have likened it to a recipe. If amino acids are the ingredients, DNA contains the instructions for combining the ingredients into something meaningful.

Is DNA really information? If so, it has to pass three tests - it's not random, it's not repetitive and it can be acted upon by a recipient to produce a meaningful result. Science is in agreement that DNA is neither random nor repetitive, but who or what is the recipient? The recipient is the factory inside the cell that accepts the information inside DNA and uses that to determine how to make proteins. Like a tiny computer, the factory follows the program and manufactures each protein precisely according to the instructions it is given. This is information in every sense of the word, and the amount of information contained within each of our cells in staggering - equivalent to about 100 million printed pages.

Where Did the Information Come From?

We won't revisit the "chance" theory, for the odds that even the simplest DNA could have combined randomly in a meaningful way make the odds we looked at earlier seem like a safe bet. Instead, we'll look at another idea popularized by naturalists.

The idea is that the the chemicals have some natural affinity or self-ordering properties which make it inevitable that the "letters" of the DNA code would come together the way they do. It's true that in nature, many chemicals have affinities that cause them to combine into patterns. However, these patterns always fall into one of the two categories we looked at earlier - random or repeated - and neither random nor repeated sequences of letters in the DNA could ever produce a consequential results.

A further problem is that the letters in the DNA code do not demonstrate any particular affinity for one another, only for the backbone to which they are attached. Without any attraction to each other, there could never be any natural tendency to create even a repeated pattern, let alone a meaningful sequence.

Dr. Stephen Meyer likens this to the magnetic letters that some of us have on our fridge. The magnets are attracted only to the fridge while they lay flat against the metal, not to each other. They cannot "self-order" and have no tendency to form words when no one is looking. When you see a word spelled out on the fridge, it's a foregone conclusion that someone placed the letters in that pattern.

Is it not a forgone conclusion, then, that DNA, the "language of God" as it's been called, is similarly the result of intelligence?

 

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