Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Was early Earth a good place to create the building blocks of life?

Do the Miller-Urey experiments simulate the early Earth?

The Miller-Urey experiments

Biochemist Dr. Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe offers some evidence.

Excerpt:

Today, the Miller-Urey experiment is considered to be irrelevant to the origin-of-life question. Current understanding of the composition of early Earth’s atmosphere differs significantly from the gas mix used by Miller. Most planetary scientists now think that the Earth’s primeval atmosphere consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. Laboratory experiments indicate that this gas mixture is incapable of yielding organic materials in Miller-Urey-type experiments.

In May 2003 origin-of-life researchers Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano, long-time associates of Miller, wrote an essay for Science (May 2, 2003, pp. 745-746)commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Miller’s initial results.They pointed out that the Miller-Urey experiment has historical significance, but not scientific importance in contemporary origin-of-life thought. Bada and Lazcano wrote:

Is the “prebiotic soup” theory a reasonable explanation for the emergence of life? Contemporary geoscientists tend to doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition used by Miller in 1953.

In his book Biogenesis, origin-of-life researcher Noam Lahav passes similar judgment:

The prebiotic conditions assumed by Miller and Urey were essentially those of a reducing atmosphere. Under slightly reducing conditions, the Miller-Urey reaction does not produce amino acids, nor does it produce the chemicals that may serve as the predecessors of other important biopolymer building blocks. Thus, by challenging the assumption of a reducing atmosphere, we challenge the very existence of the “prebiotic soup”, with its richness of biologically important organic compounds.

For many people, the generation of amino acids from simple chemical compounds thought to be present in early Earth’s atmosphere meant that life could originate all on its own without the need for a Creator. Work done on the early planetary conditions of Earth in the intervening decades between Miller’s famous experiment and his death, however, have invalidated this famous experiment and its support for an evolutionary explanation for life’s origin, in spite of what textbooks report.

The IDEA Center has a nice summary of origin-of-life research that explains why scientists no longer accept the idea that the building blocks of life can be formed by sparking the gasses that were present on the early Earth.

Miler and Urey used the wrong gasses:

Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere, however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing). 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.

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 days (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments).

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).This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years, and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.

And there were three other problems too:

At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,” destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years. 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.

Filed under: News, , ,

Stephen C. Meyer debates Peter D. Ward on intelligent design and evolution

The speakers

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC) and a founder both of the intelligent design movement and of the CSC, intelligent design’s primary intellectual and scientific headquarters. Dr. Meyer is a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, the author of peer-reviewed publications in technical, scientific, philosophical and other books and journals. His signal contribution to ID theory is given most fully in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, published by HarperOne in June 2009.

Graduating from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, in 1981 with a degree in physics and earth science, he later became a geophysicist with Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) in Dallas, Texas. From 1981 to 1985, he worked for ARCO in digital signal processing and seismic survey interpretation. As a Rotary International Scholar, he received his training in the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University, earning a PhD in 1991. His thesis offered a methodological interpretation of origin-of-life research.

Peter D. Ward, Ph.D., is a paleontologist and professor in the Departments of Geology and Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves as an adjunct professor of zoology and astronomy. His research specialties include the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event and mass extinctions generally. His books include the best-selling “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe” (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), “Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future” (2007), and “The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?” (2009).

The debate

Here’s the video of the debate:

The debate itself starts at around 8:19, after all the moderators have spoken.

The debate is focused on disagreements about scientific evidence.

Even though Peter Ward is an atheist, he has co-written a fabulous book that I own and have read called “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe“. I really recommend getting this book, as it is a great book by two non-theists on the habitability argument. It’s sort of a secular precursor to Jay Richards’ and Guillermo Gonzalez’s “The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery“. The habitability argument is a really neglected argument, but it’s a good one.

Filed under: Videos, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

John Lennox and Paul Davies discuss aliens and the origin of life

An amazing debate about the origin of life and the cosmic fine-tuning between a Christian and a materialist agnostic. John Lennox is AWESOME in this debate, and he only talks for a tiny part of the debate. He’s very gracious, and focused the discussion on the areas that we care about. Paul Davies is an EXCELLENT scientist and well aware of what Christians believe. This is a great debate, very easy to listen to. Justin, the moderator, does a great job controlling a fantastic discussion.

The MP3 file is here.

Details

What does it take for life to get going in our universe? Is there intelligence in the stars or right under our nose? Renowned astrophysicist Paul Davies chats to Oxford Professor of Mathematics John Lennox.

A popular science author, Davies is also the Chair of the SETI post detection task force. His latest book “The Eerie Silence” which marks SETI’s 50th anniversary examines the likelihood of the universe producing life elsewhere.

John Lennox is a Christian Mathematician and philosopher. He is the author of “God’s Undertaker: has science buried God?” and has debated Richard Dawkins on several occasions.

Davies’ work on the fine tuning of the universe for life has been sympathetic to theism. In this programme Lennox challenges Davies to look to design not just in cosmology but in the cell. They also chat about what the discovery of ET would mean for Christian theology.

Summary

Justin:

  • Is there meaning in the universe?

Paul:

  • We have no evidence for or against intelligent life elsewhere in the universe
  • The vastness of the universe makes me think there is life elsewhere
  • Humans are capable of observing and understanding the universe
  • It seems the universe has the ability to create observers to understand it
  • If one species has this ability, then we should expect others to do it

John:

  • The fact that we can observe the universe and do science has cosmic significance
  • Our rare habitable planet and our ability to do science is suggestive of purpose
  • So science itself points to an extra-terrestrial intelligence: GOD
  • The complexity of life and consciousness itself points away from atheism
  • Monotheism gave birth to science
  • Human minds capable of doing science are not compatible with atheistic materialism

Justin:

  • Why do you say that either we are the only life or there are many different kinds of life?

Paul:

  • There are lots of factors that have to be met to have a site for simple life
  • These are related to the fine-tuning of cosmic constants, e.g. gravitational force
  • But there are also factors that have to be met for originating intelligent life
  • Things like convergence, self-organization, etc.
  • So the cosmic requirements and evolutionary requirements are different
  • Darwinian evolution doesn’t solve the problem of the origin of life
  • 50 years ago, skepticism about alien life existing anywhere was excessive
  • Today, credulity about alien life exiting everywhere is excessive
  • The naturalist is searching for a process that creates life easily

John:

  • Paul agrees that there is no theory for a naturalistic origin of life
  • This is fatal for the idea that life can emerge elsewhere in the universe
  • We have not discovered any law that produces life without an intelligence
  • Consider the method used by SETI used to detect an alien intelligence
  • Why can’t this method be applied to the origin of life on Earth?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created specified complexity (functional information)?
  • Why can’t an intelligence created epigenetics and protein folding?

Paul:

  • Darwinian evolution can add new biological information after life begins

John:

  • Darwinian evolution assumes a mutating replicating life form to act on

Paul:

  • You can’t generate specified complexity by using physical laws
  • You can’t generate specified complexity by chance
  • At this point we are guessing as to how life might have formed

John:

  • Why do we have to rule out an intelligent cause a priori
  • If you can recognize an intelligence in outer space, why not in living systems?

Paul:

  • I don’t mind the word “intelligence”, it’s the word “signal”
  • I oppose the idea that God or aliens manipulated physical stuff to create life
  • It’s an “ugly explanation and very unappealing both theologically and scientifically”
  • I prefer the idea that the universe has processes to self-organize and create complexity
  • When it comes to supernatural meddling by God, “I don’t want that”
  • If I were God, I would create the universe so that I would not have to intervene
  • I think God would be more clever if he did not have to intervene
  • My preferences about what is “clever” determines what scientific conclusions are allowed

John:

  • Humans already have experience with their non-material minds to move atoms (matter)
  • If God is a mind, then there is no reason why he cannot move atoms (matter)

Paul:

  • My mind is physical, so are you saying that God is physical?
  • If God intervenes in the universe, then what is he doing now?

John:

  • There is a distinction between acts of creation and providential upholding the universe
  • God is also speaking to people and drawing humans toward him
  • God is spirit, not material

Paul:

  • How can a non-physical entity cause effects on the physical world?

John:

  • What science reveals that there is information needed for the origin of life
  • Information requires an intelligence to create it, just as with human who write books
  • That’s not God of the gaps – it’s an inference based on what we know today

Paul:

  • We may be able to explain the origin of life later, using matter, law and chance
  • What you’re saying is that God tinkers with the genome
  • If you say that God intervened once, then he intervenes all the time, everywhere!
  • I don’t want a God who tinkers in the genome
  • if God could intervene in the universe that would remove its intelligibility

John:

  • Look at the cover of this book – when I read words, I infer an intelligence
  • There are bad gaps that the progress of science closes
  • There are good gaps that science opens, showing the need for intelligence
  • On the one hand, you say we have no theory of the origin of life
  • On the other hand, you know that an intelligent designer wasn’t involved
  • If we don’t know how life began, why do you rule God out a priori?

Paul:

  • What scientists want to do is to explain the universe without involving God
  • naturalists want to use science to discover only materialist explanations
  • The purpose of SETI is to prove that there is other life in the universe
  • This would then show that there is a naturalistic way of making life
  • I agree that information in living systems is real hard to explain materialistically
  • I believe in the power of emergence
  • We might discover laws that prove that complexity can emerge without intelligence
  • The discovery of alien life would help to show that no intelligence is needed to make life

Justin:

  • What sort of cosmic fine-tuning is needed at the Big Bang for life to occur?

Paul:

  • It’s true that the universe appears extremely fine-tuned for life to exist
  • The typical answer from naturalists is that there is a multiverse
  • But the multiverse “falls far short” of providing a good answer to the fine-tuning
  • It’s irrational to appeal to massive numbers of unseen universes to explain fine-tuning
  • The design and purpose seen in the universe may be due to God or it may be emergent

John:

  • The fine-tuning is real and the multiverse is a desperate attempt to evade the creator
  • Sir Martin Rees (an atheist) says he “prefers” the multiverse to a designer
  • Scientists are not supposed to prefer anything except what is true

Justin:

  • Would the discovery of aliens hurt Christianity, because of the belief in the uniqueness of humans?

Paul:

  • Christians believe that Jesus came to save HUMANS specifically, not animals or aliens
  • If we were to discover intelligent aliens, it would challenge traditional religions
  • What will God do with alien races? Multiple incarnations? Or just preach the gospel to them?

John:

  • We don’t know if the aliens exist, first of all – it’s speculative
  • The Bible teaches that humans bear the image of God
  • We just don’t know whether alien species are also made in God’s image

Filed under: Podcasts, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New study casts doubt on deep sea hydrothermal vents scenario

From Science Daily.

Excerpt:

One of the greatest mysteries facing humans is how life originated on Earth. Scientists have determined approximately when life began (roughly 3.8 billion years ago), but there is still intense debate about exactly how life began. One possibility — that simple metabolic reactions emerged near ancient seafloor hot springs, enabling the leap from a non-living to a living world — has grown in popularity in the last two decades.

[...]A central figure in this hypothesis is a simple sulfur-containing carbon compound called “methanethiol” — a supposed geologic precursor of the Acetyl-CoA enzyme present in many organisms, including humans. Scientists suspected methanethiol could have been the “starter dough” from which all life emerged.

The question Reeves and his colleagues set out to test was whether methanethiol — a critical precursor of life — could form at modern day vent sites by purely chemical means without the involvement of life. Could methanethiol be the bridge between a chemical, non-living world and the first microbial life on the planet?

[...]Instead of an abundance of methanethiol, the data they collected in the hydrogen-rich environments showed very little was present. “We actually found that it doesn’t matter how much hydrogen you have in black smoker fluids, you don’t seem to be making a lot of methanethiol where you should be making a lot of it,” Reeves says. Surprisingly, in the low-hydrogen environments, where much less should form, the research actually found more methanethiol than they had predicted, contradicting the original idea of how methanethiol forms. Overall, this means that jump-starting proto-metabolic reactions in hydrogen-rich early Earth hydrothermal systems through carbon-sulfur chemistry would likely have been much harder than many had assumed.

When I talk to naturalists, I often hear how it is not possible to claim that intelligence can be the cause of anything in nature. They claim that the progress of science has shown that we will discover a natural cause for everything. But for several areas of nature (origin of the universe, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.) where each new discovery makes a naturalistic solution less likely.

For a full evaluation of naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life, you can look at “Signature in the Cell” by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer.

Filed under: News, , , , , ,

Darwinist and atheist P.Z. Myers thinks that origin of life is part of evolution

J. Warner Wallace tweeted this post by vjtorley from Uncommon Descent.

Excerpt:

On a deeper level, however, the skeptics’ attempt to divorce to the theory of evolution from the origin of life is fundamentally flawed. “Says who?”, you ask. Says evolutionary biologist PZ Myers, that’s who – in his 2008 post, 15 misconceptions about evolution. Myers was responding to a list of common myths about Darwin’s theory of evolution, drawn up by Listverse founder Jamie Frater. For the most part, Professor Myers thought Frater’s post was excellent, but on a couple of points, he differed sharply with Frater’s responses to these myths about evolution. Frater had argued that evolution doesn’t deal with the origin of life, but PZ Myers argued that this compartmentalization of the two issues was tantamount to “cheating”:

[Myth] #15 is also a pet peeve [of mine]: “Evolution is a theory about the origin of life” is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don’t understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.

Well, there you have it. If you accept that “life is chemistry,” as any card-carrying materialist surely does, then you cannot honestly maintain that the evolution of life should be studied in isolation from the question of how it originated.

Myers is wrong about a lot, but this time he is right on the money.

Darwinists who are trying to avoid putting forward a naturalistic theory for the origin of life better think again. In order to affirm that naturalistic mechanisms can account for the diversity of life, you do have to explain the origin of life. If that is the place where an intelligent cause is needed to explain the information, then that’s enough to cast doubt on naturalism. There has to be a seamless chain of cause and effect for naturalism to be true. Any discontinuity, whether it be the creation event or the origin of life, is lethal to naturalism.

Filed under: Polemics, , , ,

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