Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

The origin of life, part 1 of 2: the building blocks of life

The origin of life

There are two problems related to the origin of the first living cell, on atheism:

  1. The problem of getting the building blocks needed to create life – i.e. the amino acids
  2. The problem of creating the functional sequences of amino acids and proteins that can support the minimal operations of a simple living cell

Normally, I concede the first problem and grant the atheist all the building blocks he needs. This is because step 2 is impossible. There is no way, on atheism, to form the sequences of amino acids that will fold up into proteins, and then to form the sequences of proteins that can be used to form everything else in the cell, including the DNA itself. But that’s tomorrow’s topic.

Today, let’s take a look at the problems with step 1.

The problem of getting the building blocks of life

Now you may have heard that some scientists managed to spark some gasses to generate most of the 20 amino acids found in living systems. These experiments are called the “Miller-Urey” experiments.

The IDEA center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains a few of the main problems with step 1.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere,11, 12 however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing).15, 16 The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.11

Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:

Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days20 (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments19).

Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:

We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).20, 21, 22 This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years,23 and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.15

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,”24 destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years.20, 25 This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.

Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.

Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming.

The progress of science

As science has progressed, the discoveries have proved out the need for a Creator and Designer in every area – the big bang, cosmic, galactic and stellar fine-tuning, the Cambrian explosion, etc…. and even the origin of life.

“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. New lines of thinking and experimentation must be tried.”

(Dose, Klaus, “The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988, p.348.)

Meanwhile, atheists are left to have blind faith that the progress scientists have made during decades of research will be miraculously overturned by new evidence that their beloved unobservable Flying Spaghetti Monster, (peas be upon him), did it. Hey! Don’t blaspheme against the non-supernatural powers of his noodly appendage! (Two Ph.Ds in biology will not save you from the wrath of the Darwoid cultists!)

To see how bad this gets for atheists, watch this video where Dawkins says that unobservable aliens evolved somewhere else and then seeded the Earth with life. He has no evidence that these aliens did evolve (no fossil record), and even worse, he does not know whether they even exist. Nevertheless, that is the state of atheism today – an unobservable Flying Spaghetti Monster evolved somewhere else and seeded the Earth with life.

What else could have happened?

Further study

One of my favorite resources on the origin of life is this interview from the University of California with former atheist and origin of life researcher Dean Kenyon. Kenyon, a professor of Biology at San Francisco State University, wrote the textbook on “chemical evolution”, which is the view that chemicals can arrange themselves in order to create the first living cell, without intervention.

This interview from the University of California with another origin of life researcher, Charles Thaxton, is also one of my favorites.

You’ll need Quicktime to see the videos, or buy the videos from ARN. (Kenyon, Thaxton) I have both of them – they rock!

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7 Responses

  1. Stephen says:

    Two things, one a comment another a question.

    First, as a theist, I love it when atheists accuse us of having a blind faith, and then say with such assurance that science will figure it out. The God of the Gaps argument exists because theists believe we will find such a gap. Atheists believe science will answer it. They should at least be honest and claim this as the blind faith that it is.

    Second, William Lane Craig is fond of saying, “We don’t need to explain the explanation,” in response to Dawkin’s question, “Who made God?” I’m not pointing out a flaw, just asking a question that has been bugging me: Evidence for a first cause aside, why does Dawkin’s have to explain his aliens while we use WLC “no need to explain the explanation” line?

    • A Proud Canadian says:

      Because all theists that I am aware of believe that God exists eternally and thus was not caused. If He is not caused then He cannot be explained. If we believed in a God who was finite in the past then we would need to explain him (but we don’t).

  2. RickK says:

    If there is an un-caused cause, why assume it is God? Why couldn’t it just be the universe?

    How often does the “God the mechanic” argument have to fail before people accept that natural phenomena have natural causes?

    The Sun – was a god, now a ball of fusing hydrogen
    The Moon – was a god(dess), now a big round dusty rock
    The stars – were gods or spirits, more flaming gas balls
    The tides – were attributed to gods, now gravity
    The seasons – attributed to gods, now Earth’s tilt
    Earthquakes – were caused by gods, now plate tectonics
    Lightning – was thrown by a god, now static electricity
    Rain & drought – was God, now atmospheric moisture
    Health & disease – was God, now germs & genetics
    Schizophrenia – was demonic possession, now brain chemicals
    Epilepsy – was divine possession, now neurology
    Origin of species – was God, now evolution
    Identity & personality – was the soul, now neuroscience

    I could go on and on. Suffice to say the naturalist world view has a strong foundation in evidence.

    “To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”
    — Isaac Asimov

    • GerryD says:

      “If there is an un-caused cause, why assume it is God? Why couldn’t it just be the universe?”

      The argument u make is usually stated “If God created the universe who created God?” The assumption made is that everything that comes into existence needs a cause & that would be acceptible in all disciplines.
      An eternal universe has been refuted by maths and physics and cosmology. The 2nd Law of thermodynamics says that the universe is still running out of fuel” If it was infinitely old it should have reached infinite entropy.
      Alex Vilenkin, Russian cosmologist “With the proof now in place, current cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: we have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”
      and maths Hilbert, one of the greatest mathemeticians of the 20th century said, “The infinite [as in infinite past time] is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought. The role that remains for the infinite…is solely that of an idea…”
      In 2003, physicists Vilenkin, Borde, and Guth corroborated to formulate a proof that demonstrates that infinite past time is not feasible. It is known as the BVG theorem.
      As for why atheistic naturalism fails:
      •P1 Physical matter & energy is the essence from which all reality come. P2 Naturalism is the default explanation for the origin & existence of the universe. P3 If Science is defined as the study of the natural world it must ultimately be able to explain everything without recourse to a spiritual dimension. p4 there exists in the universe phenomena & questions that are metaphysical or philosophical in nature & hence beyond scienc. Therefore there exists non physical realities that cant be explained by Naturalism
      conclusion Naturalism as an explanation for a rationally intelligibl universe fails. Einstein says, “I am not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist… We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. (Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion, Princeton University Press, p44)

  3. It’s a good time to revisit this subject but some of your resources are a little out of date considering how rapidly the field of molecular genetics is moving. As you say, the more we discover scientifically, the less believable is the spontaneous chemical ‘evolution’ of life. A recent book by two atheists and evolutionists honestly underlines the serious problems facing Darwinian and chemical evolution (“What Darwin got wrong” by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, 2010). Unfortunately this book is rather technical and difficult to follow for the layman, but my own 2009 book “Who made God?” actually covers much of the same ground in a very reader-friendly way!

    • Everyone who is interested in these arguments should be buying 1 book to start. That is Edgar Andrews’ book “Who Made God?”. I give it my highest recommendation.

  4. davegosse says:

    Hi Stephen

    Lane Craig’s claim that “We don’t need to explain the explanation,” comes out of some basic philosphical principles. Among these are the idea of the impossibility of an infinite regress and the idea of a sufficient cause.

    An “infinite regress” is a series of causes and effects which goes back eternally, “Turtles all the way down…” so to speak. One example is if you want to hang a chandelier you need a fixed point to hang it from, it doesn’t matter how long the chain is you cannot hang it unless you have that fixed point. The same analogy holds in philosophy, without some fixed point the philosophy is unsupported. In philosophy we have axioms, basic beliefs, or first principles from which we reason and which support the conclusions we draw. Basic beliefs, or axioms, cannot be proved by reason (or they wouldn’t be basic) but are logically necessary for reason to flourish.

    Another basic of philosophy is the “sufficient cause” or the idea that any given cause be sufficent to account for its effect. The universe is a highly organized (fine tuned) and contingent (need not exist). The implication from science is that the universe began to exist a finite time in the past. It requires a cause that is powerul enough to account for its existence and sufficient to account for its highly organized alpha state. That cause is what we call God.

    The traditional Christian concept of God is a “simple”, but “necessary” being. Simple because God is spirit (non-material) and therefore has no “parts”. If God was a physical being then we would have to account for how all those parts that make up a physical being were arranged in the being we call God. Because God is pure spirit He can exist in a “simple” state and yet be have will and intention. It is by His will and intention that the universe began to exist. God is a “necessary” being because contingent beings (the universe and everything in it) cannot be accounted for without a sufficient cause. The chandelier has to hang from something. God is the eternal beam from which everything hangs.

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