Where Science and Faith Converge

Evolution as Mythology, Part 3 (of 5): The Myth of Abiogenesis

By - May 19, 2008

The last two articles have discussed how the theory of evolution has characteristics of a myth (which cannot be proven or disproven by the technology of the culture), and lacks characteristics of a scientific theory (which is testable and falsifiable). But technology changes, and in the latter twentieth century, it has been possible to subject parts of this theory to critical analysis—and these tests raise questions about it. This article discusses difficulties with one fundamental element of the theory:

Abiogenesis (noun): "The supposed development of living organisms from nonliving matter. Also called autogenesis, spontaneous generation."

Belief in spontaneous generation of life goes back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Proofs against it go back 450 years: particularly Francisco Redi in 1668, and Louis Pasteur in 1859. Yet in 1866, Ernst Haeckel speculated life arose from a vat of "Urschleim" (primeval slime). In the 1920s, biologists Aleksandr Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane proposed life emerged from nonliving matter in what is often called a "primordial soup." This theory cannot be disproven, but it has never been demonstrated in 80+ years (even if life is defined only as the existence of protein bodies).

No geological evidence has ever been found for a primordial soup1 —and scientists speculate that if it ever did exist, it would have dissipated quickly2—leaving scant time for life to appear. The only experimental evidence cited in 80+ years for a primordial soup is the Miller-Urey experiment in 1953, which demonstrated that elementary amino acids (building blocks of protein) could form spontaneously in what was assumed to be the atmosphere of the primordial Earth. Biology textbooks feature this experiment; but modern science believes the simulated atmosphere in the Miller-Urey experiment was incorrect.3 Similar experiments with a more realistic atmosphere have not been as successful (and/or have utilized so much operator interference that their validity is questioned).4

Origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel points out:

"The self-organization of the reductive citric acid cycle without the help of 'informational' catalysts would be a near miracle...It is hard to see how any..[of the potentially self-replicating] polymers that have been described up to now...could have accumulated on the early earth...[It is] to appeal to magic."5

Astrophysicist  Sir Fred Hoyle has said:

"If there were some deep principle that drove organic systems toward living systems, the operation of the principle should easily be demonstrable in a test tube in half a morning….No such demonstration has ever been given. Nothing happens…except the eventual production of a tarry sludge."6

Modern understanding of molecular biology allows scientists to calculate the probability of abiogenesis. Such calculations are not a proof, but since neo-Darwinism is based on random mutations, they are an important predictor of its validity. Probability was not an issue up through 1965, when scientists believed an infinite amount of time was available because the universe was eternal. But it is a critical issue now that science estimates Earth is only ~4.6 billion years old, which allows substantially less time for slow evolutionary processes to produce the planet and life we observe.

As an example, cytochrome c, a small protein found throughout the biological realm, had to appear early in the evolutionary process. Yet information theorist Hubert Yockey calculated a probability of ~10-75 to generate it spontaneously from an amino acid-rich environment.7 To put this into perspective: a 10-75 chance is less likely than winning the Powerball lottery nine weeks in a row, buying only one ticket per week!

But it gets worse. Life is composed of many more-complex molecules than cytochrome c. Murray Eden of Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculated a probability of ~10-313 to spontaneously bring polypeptide sequences together into functional proteins.8 Simple self-sustaining life requires ~1,500-2,000 gene products, and Hoyle estimated a probability of ~10-40,000 to obtain 2,000 enzymes in a random trial.9 Physicist Harold Morowitz has calculated that if a large batch of bacteria in a sealed container is heated so every chemical bond is broken, then cooled slowly to allow the atoms to form new bonds and come to equilibrium, there is a probability of ~10-100,000,000,000 that a living bacterium will be present at the end.10

How low a probability do mathematicians believe makes an event essentially impossible? Émile Borel has estimated 10-50; and William Dembski has calculated a lower limit of 10-150, based on the number of elementary particles in the universe and the age of the universe.11 Yet the probability of abiogenesis is far, far less than either figure!

Could the genetic code have been spontaneously generated? Biologists J. T. Trevors and D. L. Abel conclude:

"The argument has been repeatedly made that given sufficient time, a genetic instruction set and language system could have arisen. But extended time does not provide an explanatory mechanism for spontaneously generated genetic instruction. No amount of time proposed thus far, can explain this type of conceptual communication system. It is not just complex. It is conceptually complex." 12

These probability arguments are irrefutable. Some evolutionists offer hand-waving contrary arguments, but even Richard Dawkins admits "the probability of life having arisen by chance is as vanishingly small as the likelihood of a Jumbo Jet having being constructed by a hurricane sweeping through a scrap yard."

And these calculations do not even consider the seemingly insurmountable obstacle first discovered by Louis Pasteur. Life consists of only "left-handed" amino acids and "right-handed" sugars, but a random primordial soup would have contained equal proportions of molecules in left-handed and right-handed configurations.

Even in defending abiogenesis, biologist Francis Crick acknowledged in 1981:

"An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to be satisfied to get it going." 13

Abiogenesis is not only unproven, it is mathematically impossible. No wonder both Orgel and Crick called it a miracle. Other scenarios have therefore been suggested. Hoyle and others postulate life was transplanted from outer space14 —which moves the origins problem to another time and place. The multiverse hypothesis, proposed by leading origin-of-life researcher Eugene Koonin,15 is currently in vogue—it replaces infinite time with an infinity of universes to account for the extraordinarily improbable existence of at least one life-sustaining planet (see here).

The real answer may be that abiogenesis is the creation myth of a culture with no need for God—a culture to which physicist Lee Smolin can proclaim: "there is nothing outside the universe."16 This statement is an unsustainable myth, yet a creator is the only alternative to abiogenesis, and this undermines the mythological foundation of the faith of atheists.

The next article will continue this theme with a discussion of macroevolution, another critical part of the theory of evolution.

Dr. Hugh Henry, Ph.D.

Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.

Daniel J. Dyke, M.Div., M.Th.

Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.

Dr. Charles Cruze, Ph.D.

Dr. Charles Cruze received his Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences in 1977, and currently works in research at Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
  1. Stanley L. Miller, J. William Schopf, and Antonio Lazcano, "Oparin's Origin of Life: Sixty Years Later," Journal of Molecular Evolution 44 (April 1997): 351-53.
  2. Robert Shapiro, Origins (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 113.
  3. Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 146.
  4. Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life's Origin (Dallas: Lewis and Stanley, 1984), 66.
  5. Leslie E. Orgel, "Self-organizing Biochemical Cycles," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 97 (November 7, 2000): 12503-7.
  6. Shapiro, Origins, 208.
  7. Yockey, Information Theory, 254-55.
  8. Murray Eden, "Inadequacies of Neo-Darwinian Evolution as a Scientific Theory," in Mathematical Challenge to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, ed. Paul S. Moorhead (Philadelphia: Wistar Institute, 1967), 109-10.
  9. Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 24.
  10. Shapiro, loc cit (1986), 128.
  11. William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 5, 209, 210.
  12. J. T. Trevors and D. L. Abel, "Chance And Necessity Do Not Explain The Origin Of Life," Cell Biology International 28 (2004), 729-739.
  13. Francis Crick, Life Itself (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 88.
  14. Hoyle, loc cit (1981)
  15. Eugene V. Koonin, "The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life," Biology Direct 2:15 (May 31, 2007).
  16. Lee Smolin, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 17.

  • Evolutionary Trees
  • Macro vs. Micro Evolution
  • Speciation Events
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Transitional Forms
  • Worldviews
  • Theistic Evolution
  • TCM - Speciation
  • Naturalism
  • Atheism
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