How the Microbe got his DNA

By Jeff Laird

A recently-published study on deep-sea hydrothermal vents all but knocks out one of the more popular theories of abiogenesis, the natural and unguided beginning of life from non-life. That's not the slightest bit surprising, or concerning, to most people. Then again, abiogenesis is an absolute requirement for worldviews such as atheism. Once again, the evidence just isn't in favor of that particular worldview. Historically, it never has been, despite claims to the contrary.

Ultimately, there are only two possibilities for the origins of life: either abiogenesis or some form of Creation / Intelligent Design. The view that life was created, in some way, shape, or form, is supported in multiple ways, such as logical arguments for God's existence, the reliability of the Bible, evidence for design in nature, and so forth. Scientifically, an especially powerful indicator is the impossibility of life coming from non-life. Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes famously said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Like it or not, reason and evidence better support purposeful creation than naturalistic abiogenesis.

Naturalism has no remotely plausible explanation for how life could have originated on earth "naturally." There are plenty of imaginative assumptions, but no actual substance to support them, a point on which even many atheists would agree. The above study is another example of how speculative theories of abiogenesis just don't hold up. So far as reason, evidence, and supportable science are concerned, life beginning without purposeful intervention is simply impossible.

Every theory of abiogenesis includes a significant episode of "it just happened...somehow," without any plausible reason to believe it actually could happen. This makes the idea of life coming from non-life, without purposeful intervention, an atheistic fable: a just-so story. It fits perfectly with Rudyard Kipling's list: "How the Leopard Got His Spots," "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin," "How the Whale Got His Throat," and now, perhaps, "How the Microbe Got His DNA."

A counter-example often cited is the famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1952. This is typically used as an anecdote "proving" that nature can produce the basic components of life. This is misleading, however, because the full details of the experiment strongly contradict the concept of abiogenesis. Miller-Urey did generate amino acids by subjecting chemicals once thought to be part of earth's atmosphere to a cycle of heat, pressure, and electrical sparks. The conditions were deliberately tuned to make amino acids more likely to form, which is normal for any such experiment. However, certain substances, such as oxygen, which should have been part of that "natural" environment, were excluded specifically because they would interfere with amino acid production. That is, conditions were compromised in order to get the desired result. This not only stacked the deck, it enhanced the basic argument behind intelligent design, far more than naturalistic abiogenesis.

At best, Miller-Urey showed that highly specific environmental conditions might theoretically produce some of the simpler molecules found in living things. This is interesting, but only as meaningful as saying that tornadoes passing through junkyards sometimes poke loose nails through wooden planks. That's a far cry from concluding that a whirlwind can build a two-story house out of a scrap heap. For life to form, naturally-formed amino acids have to undergo further reactions, form significantly more complex structures, and arrange into a functional, replicating, sustaining system.

What's almost never mentioned by the pro-abiogenesis crowd is that Miller-Urey didn't just produce amino acids. A significant proportion of the resulting slime was biologically deadly, composed of poisonous substances, including "wrong-handed" proteins. All life on earth is composed of "left-handed" polymers, a property known as homochirality. Like opposite poles of a magnet, right-handed and left-handed polymers tend to bond, making any process which produces both hostile to the formation of life as we know it. Looking back to the tornado analogy, the same forces which drive the nails simultaneously rip down walls. The proposed environment is actually more destructive than creative.

In other words, the setting represented in the Miller-Urey experiment could not possibly have allowed for the development of life. In fact, the combination of substances produced would have made formation of the necessary molecular structures physically impossible. For "life" to exist, one needs these building blocks to have a defined structure that allows for replication, something most of the resulting chemicals would actually disrupt. On top of that, the conditions Miller-Urey simulated never actually existed on earth, beyond even the removal of oxygen, something later scientists would confirm.

Abiogenesis would require a large quantity of the right molecules, in a precise form, in precise proportions, in a precise arrangement, in a precise sequence, capable of surviving in the environment which created them, naturally and automatically combining into something self-sustaining and self-replicating. Even strongly non-theistic or atheistic scientists, such as Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, have said the chances of life developing by natural means, even under impossibly ideal conditions, is so "outrageously small" that even an entire universe of "organic soup" could not reasonably be expected to produce it. Scientific research has done far more to support this stance than to refute it.

It bears repeating that Miller-Urey, and other experiments after it, all required intelligent, purposeful arrangement of conditions just to obtain a fraction of the raw materials necessary life. Making a third visit to our tornado-stricken junkyard, belief in abiogenesis on the basis of experiments like Miller-Urey is like throwing some hardware in the path of a twister, after removing all of the cinder blocks that could damage a board, later finding one or two boards stuck together, and concluding that tornados can and will produce load-bearing roof trusses. Given these obstacles to naturalistic origins for life, creation and intelligent design should be seen as necessary, natural counter perspectives, worth considering at the very least.

That doesn't stop a common loop of circular logic from playing out over this concept. Those who believe in abiogenesis point to life as an example of nature creating something of specified complexity without design, but that's just assuming their own conclusion: "We know complex life can come from natural causes, because natural causes created complex life, so we're justified in saying that there's a way for complex life to come from natural causes." There is no observational evidence suggesting mindless nature has, or can, produce self-replicating organisms from scratch. In fact, evidence and experience suggest exactly the opposite.

The origin of life has no plausible natural genesis, and yet it exists. That's not a "proof" that God created life, or an appeal to the "Gaps" fallacy. On the contrary, belief in abiogenesis, in the face of modern science's demonstration of its implausibility, is just atheism of the gaps: "there's a non-God explanation out there, we just haven't found it yet."

Intervention is needed, at least, to arrange the conditions for that first formation of life, if not to form it directly. Combine that with inspired scripture, proven reliable and confirmed through miracles, which says that God created life, and one has more than enough cause to consider creation or intelligent design as reasonable alternatives, and naturalistic abiogenesis as an unreasonable theory.

Image: Kersley Fitzgerald

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Published 9-29-2014