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Origins of Life – Was Your Science Teacher Wrong?!?

February 15, 2012

I have always found intriguing the question: How did life begin to exist on earth?  As a child I thought like most children and answered questions simply and without much thought or investigation.  I thought that with God, all things are possible and life could easily be created by Him.  It did not bother me to think this way because I was taught, as other Christians are, that life arose when God spoke it into existence.  That, “In the beginning”…God created everything on earth.  However as I progressed in school it became increasingly more difficult to accept the origin of life as an act of God because of what I was learning in my science textbooks.  Instead of God creating life, I was being taught that life arose naturally through chemical processes.  That on the very early earth existed a sea of chemicals and gases and after a period of time these chemicals combined via lightning and presto! We have the first life.

Charles Darwin himself speculated about this when he said in 1871 that in a “warm little pond of chemicals sunlight might have brought about the reactions necessary to produce the first living thing.”1  From then on, evolution by natural selection took over and all the life forms on earth developed slowly.

Could this be true I thought? Was God the creator of all life like it states in the Bible?  Or is the real explanation of how life arose due to chemicals and random chance like my textbook read?  The theological implications of a random chance origin of life is damaging to the faith and worth noting.

For instance, I have talked to many students and read papers from other Christians scientists that admit that the findings in science pertaining to the origin of life and subsequent evolution lead them far away from their faith.  They thought that since God did not create life, than God must be out of a job.

Scholar Patrick Glynn described his path to atheism this way,

I embraced skepticism at an early age, when I first learned of Darwin’s theory of evolution in, of all places, Catholic grade school.  It immediately occurred to me that either Darwin’s theory was true or the creation story in the book of Genesis was true.  They could not both be true, and I stood up in class and told the poor nun as much.  Thus began a long odyssey away from the devout religious belief and practice that had marked my childhood toward an increasingly secular and rationalistic outlook.”2

I would agree with Glynn’s statement to an extent.  That if the Bible teaches us that God created life and we find the opposite, I would find it difficult to trust the Bible with other events.  In other words, if we discover a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life that does not involve the creative powers of a divine being, than why does the Bible say that God is our Creator?

In this post I will discuss briefly one reason why I maintain my belief that there is no naturalistic or scientific explanation of the origins of life despite what I learned in school.  I encourage all Christian parents to discuss this with their children BEFORE they learn it in school so that they may have their minds and hearts prepared when challenged.

As Solomon the wise king wrote for us in Ecclesiastes 12:1,

“Remember your Creator

in the days of your youth,

before the days of trouble come…”

BIOLOGY 101 – Quick overview of Life vs. Non-Life

First we should discuss what differentiates a non-living thing (or inorganic matter) from a living thing (or organic matter)?

Biologically, living systems distinguish themselves from nonliving things by:

processing energy, storing information and replicating.

These are very complex operations that are required for an organism to be able to eat, move, reproduce, and survive through generations.  However, before a living organism can perform these complex operations, a certain level of chemical complexity must be present.

Chemically speaking we are taught, like many students in organic chemistry, that all life forms on this planet contain the element Carbon.  Carbon plays a key role in life because it links together other elements (like Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen) to form large and complex molecules called organic compounds.

Some examples of these complex organic compounds found in living systems are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.  These 4 compounds are absolutely essential in the formation and maintenance of life forms on Earth.

How did non-life become life?

Now we know some of the essential elements that are needed for the formation of life but how did it come together to become life?

I was taught in high school and college that the primitive Earth was covered with pools of chemicals and had an atmosphere that was conducive to the formation of life.  With energy supplied by lighting, chemicals in this “primordial soup” over a period of billions of years linked together and simple life forms emerged.  From there, evolution took over.

But what evidence do scientists have to back up this claim?

Here is where I would like to talk about the famous experiment that was conducted by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in 1952.  This experiment, known as the Harold-Urey experiment, attempted to prove that with the right conditions and enough time, non-life could produce life.  How?

Miller took gases which were believed to represent the major components of the early Earth’s atmosphere and put them into a closed system pictured below.

First Miller combined the gases methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O) in the glass bulb.

Next he ran a continuous electric current through the system, to simulate lightning storms believed to be common on the early earth.

Lastly he collected the water droplets and ran an analysis of the experiment by a process  of chromatography.

Results:  At the end of one week, Miller observed that as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. 2% of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids which are used to make proteins. Perhaps most importantly, Miller’s experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids, which are essential to cellular life, could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on the early earth.3

Chemist William Day said, “the experiment showed that this first step in the creation of life was not a chance event, but it was inevitable.” 4

Astronomer Harlow Sharpley said Miller had proven that “the appearance of life is essentially an automatic biochemical development that comes along naturally when physical conditions are right.” 5

It seems as if this were an open and shut case to the origins of life.  But is it really?

In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,

until someone comes forward and cross-examines. – Proverbs 18:17

In our culture, only one side is given the opportunity to speak in public schools.  Hence, everyone thinks that experiments like the one above are compelling.  But once the cross examination begins, the story begins to look a little different.  Now begins the cross examination….

Stanley Miller has been quoted saying of his own work on the origins of life that,

The problem of the origin of life has become much more difficult that I, and most other people, envisioned.” 6

Problems With the Miller-Urey Experiments

1)  The experiment used the WRONG gases

The Miller-Urey experiment attempted to simulate the early earth atmosphere by using the gases methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O).  The problem with this, however, is that there is a substantial and growing body of criticism that shows that these type of experiments fail to plausibly reproduce conditions on an early earth.   Senior research scientist at NASA wrote in a published article that, “In fact a consensus has developed since the late 1970’s that the early earth’s atmosphere never contained significant amounts of ammonia, carbon dioxide and water vapor.”7

For instance, methane was one of the gases Miller used and the only source of energy that was added was electricity to simulate lighting.  But what about the other energy sources present during that time like ultra violent radiation?  “Methane subjected to UV radiation would have been converted to higher-molecular weight hydrocarbons, forming an oil slick up to ten meters deep.” 8 There is just no way that life could naturally develop under such conditions.

2) No evidence for the primordial soup

Although scientists in their different fields debate what their thoughts are of an early earth, not one solid piece of evidence has ever been put fourth to conclude that there even was a “primordial soup”.  I think it is more proper to say that we just don’t know what the early earth looked like and continue our search instead of running with assumptions.  Especially when dealing with an issue that runs as deep as this one.

3) Life Was NOT Produced In the Miller-Urey Experiment

The third problem with this experiment is that life was not produced!  Amino acid were.  From what we know today about molecular genetics and the cell, the formation of a few amino acids is light years away from forming life.  Its not even in the same galaxy.  For example if I put forth a brick and said, “Look!! I now have everything I need to build the White House!”  You may think I am insane.  Why?  Because we all know that it takes much more than just one brick to make the White House.  It takes a blue print (like DNA), many intelligent minds, physical labor, and many many more bricks.  For instance, a typical single protein is made up of a chain of 445 left-handed amino acids and scientists estimate that 238 proteins would be the absolute minimum number that would be needed to form life.  By these numbers it would take one hundred and six thousand left-handed amino acids perfectly arranged to make a single cell.  Coppedge, in his book, Evolution: Possible or Impossible, makes several probability calculations concerning life coming about by chance. Giving evolution all kinds of concessions, he comes up with the probability for the first cell to evolve by accident as one chance in 10^29345. It would take an 80-page book just to print that number! In comparison, the number of inches across the known universe is 10^28.

     4) The Experiment Was Designed!

The last thing about this experiment that I would like to point out is that IT WAS DESIGNED!!  It not only took the presences of the various physical chemicals but the presence of an agent or mind that caused the experiment to occur.  Without the scientists, no experiment and no amino acids.  This hardly represents a blind random chance origin as predicted by some scientists.  In fact, if someone were to tell me in the future that scientists had made life in a lab and asked me if that shook my faith, I would probably respond by saying that the experiment proves my point and not theirs.  That it takes simple intelligence to create simple life and supreme intelligence to create all life as God did.

“For the foolishness of God

is wiser than man’s wisdom…”

1 Corinthians 1:25

We have seen thus far why Miller made the statement that, “the problem of the origin of life has become much more difficult that I, and most other people, envisioned.”

Others have also commented on the present state of origin of life research:

Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA wrote, “The origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going.” 9

Klaus Dose, a prominent evolutionist, shares his disillusionment:

“More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.” 10

The late Robert Sharpio, skeptic and former professor emeritus at NYU, argues strongly that

“All current theories are bankrupt and that we need to find a new and more fruitful paradigm to guide our search for a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.” 11

As we have seen in our brief discovery it is very clear that we are not as certain about the origins of life as our science textbooks lead us to believe.  This is only one example of how students can be easily mislead down a road of misinformation if we do not sit down and discuss these topics with them.  In doing so we may in fact re-affirm what we have always thought, that with God all things are made and sustained.  My question is, what other scientific discoveries or theories are our kids learning that as Sharpio put it, “are currently bankrupt”?

{1} F. Darwin, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton, 1887), 2:202.

{2} Patrick Glynn, God: The Evidence, 2-3

{3} http://www.chem.duke.edu/~jds/cruise_chem/Exobiology/miller.html

{4} William Day, Genesis on Planet Earth (East Lansing, Mich.: House of Talos, 1979), 7.

{5} Quoted in: S. Tax ed., Evolution After Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 1:57

{6} – J. Horgan, “In the Beginning…” Scientific American, February 1991.

{7} – Levine, Photochemistry of Atmospheres.

{8} – Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, Mystery of Life’s Origin, p. 43.

{9} F. Crick, Life Itself (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981).

{10} Klaus Dose, “The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers,” in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 1988, pp. 13,348.

{11} Sharpio, Origins

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One Comment
  1. calvin permalink

    Faith and Science are separate and distinct disciplines. Each can and should inform the other. Science is to be challenged with further facts and superior logic. I submit that Faith can and should be too. Some scientists cross the line to challenge faith but they are leaving the realm of science and entering into the realm of philosophy. Stephen Hawking has asserted on more than one occasion that the result of some of his postulates is to negate the existence of God since the logical result would mean that God wasn’t necessary to the Origin of the universe. The noted Evolutionist Richard Dawkins also commonly interprets the latest finding in his field to support his proudly held atheism. That is his faith. That is not science.

    At the same time many reactionaries in the religious world attempt to twist science to support their too rigid faith. Those who insist for example that the huge body of evidence which recognizes the age of the universe to be in the billions of years rather than a few thousand years are in this category, as are those who insist that dinosaurs were on the ark with Noah and his family.

    The conclusion to me is that we must teach our kids to learn and continue to learn; to think for themselves and to recognize the bright line between facts and conclusions drawn from those facts. In your brilliant essay you point out the flaws in the experiment devised by Miller and by doing so point out that any conclusion to be drawn from the results are absurd in trying to understand the Origin of Life question. The fact of the matter is: the only question about the origin of life science can shed any light on is that of the method by which God created life. For that matter, science is incapable of proving or disproving His existence.

    We don’t know and will never know the answer to many of the Big Questions. That doesn’t mean we can stop pondering. But we need to be honest about what is faith and what is science. Truth and science can’t disagree for any length of time.

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