Life. How did it begin?
I think it is a normal human curiosity to ask this question at one point. We always ask, “Where did I come from?” This curiosity and desire to know has even been questioned within the scientific fields. We want to know. So, how did life really begin? There are mainly only two possible explanations: life originated from lifeless particles, possibly from a primordial soup, or by an intelligent creator.
The Primordial Soup
A widely accepted theory of the origin of life on earth lies within chemical evolution, or abiogenesis. The theory states that around 3.8 billion years ago, early Earth was cooling down, did not possess an oxygen rich atmosphere, and had an ocean. Life originated from lifeless particles and chemicals within this ocean, often called the “primordial soup.” This soup contained the necessary components that, when energy was applied, would form into the first cells and first life. This event remains within the realm of historical science, since no human would have been around to witness such an event. However, some have attempted to recreate the “primordial soup” in a lab to see if this theory would indeed form life.
Miller and Urey
In 1953, two scientists, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, conducted an experiment in an attempt to provide evidence for abiogenesis. The experiment was a series of apparatuses and tubes filled with water and the proposed gases of earth’s early atmosphere. These gases were thought to be ammonia, methane, and hydrogen. A metal coil would keep the water boiling, and an electric shock acted as lightning for the system. The gases would then condense and pass through a “U” shaped trap before going through the cycle once more. Soon, Miller and Urey discovered a residue forming in the bottom of the trap. They analyzed this residue to find that it was mainly made up of “an insoluble toxic carcinogenic mixture called ‘tar’ or ‘resin.'” Upon further analysis, they found a few amino acids within the residue. The amino acids were mainly glycine and alanine with amounts of “1.05%” and “.75%.”
Miller and Urey’s experiment is considered proof that life can originate from lifeless particles and chemicals if the conditions are favorable.
What Do We See?
From first glance, this experiment seems to provide substantial evidence for abiogenesis, however, as we will see, there a several reasons as to why the Miller Urey experiment falls short:
1. The Amino Acids Formed Are Not Enough for Life.
Miller and Urey did indeed show that organic molecules can be formed in their experiment, however the amino acids formed are not enough for the origin of life. Further modifications of the experiment have yielded other amino acids, however, “less than half of the amino acids required for life” for formed and these were in very small amounts.
2. Unrealistic Situation.
In order for life to function, it works on a single-molecule basis. Life is a “clean” chemistry. It is well-ordered and maintains a tidy work space, so to speak. Reactions and movement of molecules are monitored and controlled in order for a cell to function. Nature, however, is “dirty” chemistry. Concentrations of chemicals are not pure and there are many contaminants and cross-reacting components formed from reactions. So, the theory of abiogenesis states that life originated from the lifeless chemicals in nature. The environment is opposite of what life needs.
The chemicals used in the Miller Urey experiment would have been industrially made and basically pure. Not the situation we would see in nature. On top of that, the the theory does not take into account for cross-reactions. Miller and Urey saw this in the residue that was produced during the experiment. In nature, many of these cross-reactions and other products would have easily halted or gotten in the way of reactions forming amino acids. Also, the experiment assumed the oceans of the early Earth had a “10% solution of organic compounds that would be very favourable for life’s origin.” This is an extremely unrealistic situation. We could not reach this concentration in our own ocean today. In fact, this concentration has been said to be “about 100 times higher than a modern American city’s sewer water.”
3. Traps in Nature?
The Miller Urey experiment also used a “U” shaped trap in order to capture and protect the organic molecules formed. There are no such traps in nature to do this. The energy that has been proposed to form life, either UV rays, lightning, heat, etc., would easily destroy the organic molecules formed. If we are to take a look at DNA, RNA, and proteins, (Now, this would be a feat to make these molecules by chance. They take drastically more to form them.) we find that they are extremely fragile. These molecules readily degrade in nature. Proteins denature in environments of high temperatures. DNA and RNA don’t last very long, especially in water. Water would only aid in the degradation of these molecules. Without a trap, like the one used within the experiment, such molecules would not form, or at least not last very long.
4. Correct Early Earth Atmosphere?
The experiment assumed that the early Earth possessed no oxygen rich atmosphere. This was in part because of an assumption of how our atmosphere originally arose, (Which we still do not know fully) and partly because the fact that oxygen would “inhibit” the formation of the desired molecules. The assumption that the early atmosphere was made up of ammonia, hydrogen, and nitrogen is exactly that, an assumption. An assumption that is the best situation for life. However, we do not find high concentrations of nitrogen, for example, within rock layers for us to make the claim about Earth’s early atmosphere.
The Cell: A Little More Than Just Amino Acids
Producing a few amino acids is a far stretch from a single protein, let alone a self-replicating molecule (such as RNA and DNA), or even a whole single-celled organism. A protein is not simply just a bunch of amino acids thrown together. A protein not only has a unique, specific sequence of necessary amino acids, it must also be folded in a specific orientation and dwell in an environment within a specific temperature and pH range. If the sequence is to change, the protein may lost part or all function. The same goes for its shape. If the pH or the temperature is off, the protein may denature and lose function.
The specific sequence for proteins comes from the specific sequence within DNA and RNA. This sequence must be read, transferred, and read again (Translated and Transcripted) by multiple proteins and enzymes even before the new protein is folded into its desired shape. This whole process is just for a single protein. However, this cannot come about without the help of other proteins, which in turn can only arise from DNA and other proteins. It is a circular cycle that cannot arise from lifeless particles.
Also, proteins are only part of a cell. Cells have organelles, cell membranes, enzymes, etc. These must all be present for a cell to be called a “cell” and for it to function. So, giving the theory of abiogenesis the benefit of the doubt, let’s say a protein was formed randomly (So, the exact necessary sequence of amino acids were not only formed but put into place and then folded, randomly). What happens next? Well, considering there is no cell membrane to protect it, it denatures or is destroyed by some external energy or process. Let’s say a single strand of RNA is formed randomly (A strand that has a specific sequence of nucleotide bases coding for a specific protein). What happens next? Well, with no proteins to transfer the RNA and no proteins to read it or to form new proteins, the fragile RNA is destroyed by the environment around it. (Water and the energy source would readily destroy it).
(Also, the chances of just a single protein forming are astronomically small. Mathematically, its basically 0. Let alone an entire cell with all of its components forming simultaneously in the same space and coming together to form the first functional cell.)
Life From Outer Space?
Some theories, recognizing the issues of life originating in such a way, claim that organic molecules were transferred to early Earth via meteorites. Some organic molecules have been discovered within such meteorites, yes, but as with the Miller Urey experiment, the necessary amino acids and molecules are still missing. Also, proposing the origin of life from another planet does not solve the problem. It merely moves it to another location. The flaws in the theory still remain.
Another idea has been stated, however: Aliens. There has been a thought of the possibility of an intelligent race planting the first life on Earth instead of it arising by chance. Richard Dawkins himself, well-known atheist and writer of the “God Delusion,” in an interview with Bill Stein in the documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” states:
“It could come about in the following way: It could be that, um, at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization, probably evolved by some kind of Darwinian means to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded to, perhaps, this planet. Um, now, that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility, and I suppose its possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the, um, at the details of biochemistry, molecular biochemistry where you might find a signature of some sort of designer…”
“Um, and that designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. That higher intelligence would, itself, had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process.”
Mind you, we have not found any evidence for aliens or another intelligence outside of ourselves. So, proposing this idea of life being seeded on earth seems like a way of admitting the flaws of abiogenesis, but finding a way of explaining life without saying, “God.”
(This seems equivalent to saying, “Well, God did it,” but rather, “Well, we came from outer space.”)
Once again, though, this wouldn’t solve the problem. How did the alien race arise if life cannot come from lifeless particles?
A Well Guided Experiment
The Miller Urey system is heralded as proving abiogenesis, however, as we have seen, it has, in reality, shown the opposite. The experiment, even though it was guided by intelligent designers, could not form the simplest of life forms. It has shown that life, even under “favorable and proper” conditions, (pure chemistry, protection of molecules, dilution, etc.) will not form from lifeless chemicals by chance.
An Intelligent Designer and Compromise
Some creationists might still try to compromise, melding abiogenesis and creation, stating that God formed the first cell, setting evolution in motion for billions of years prior to our arrival. However, this goes against what the Biblical account teaches. The Bible teaches that, in the beginning, Adam, Eve, and everything within the garden, was perfect and without sin or blemish. There was no death or sickness. Upon Adam’s sin, death entered the world. However, compromising with Particles to People evolution (that is the belief that man arose from billions of years of evolution, beginning as a cell) teaches that death came first. (Evolution requires millions of deaths of organisms prior to us arising). If that was the case, then creation was not “good” as the Bible teaches. Why would God send suffering (death) as a form of creation from the beginning, just to then send his son, Jesus, to remove it? Why would God call death, “the last enemy” to be destroyed? The Bible teaches of a loving God who wishes to reconcile his creation to him so we may dwell with him. Compromise goes against such a teaching. Death before the fall, and abiogenesis, is not only observably false, it is not Biblical.
It is my personal belief that God created man on the sixth day, according to the Genesis account, however, I know the account within the Bible, being historical, cannot be replicated and studied, therefore I will not state that the flaws within this experiment prove God. However, it seems likely, as Dawkins thought, that an intelligent designer has been at work. We do not have evidence of an alien race, but we do have a biblical account and an abundance of evidence for events from the Biblical accounts.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Genesis 1:31 (NIV)
Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels