When addressing the challenges that naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios present to their faith, Christians often point to the many problems facing origin-of-life researchers.
But just pointing out the problems with the evolutionary origin-of-life models has alienated secular scientists, and has, in fact, driven many scientists away from Christ. A new approach is necessary, one that takes into account the legitimate concerns raised by secular scientists. Christians must not only present a positive case for the supernatural origin of life but also offer their case in a scientifically testable form if their ideas are to be taken seriously by the scientific community.
A biblically based, scientifically testable origin-of-life scenario can be developed and used to make a uniquely Christian contribution to the origin-of-life question. Creation can be put to the test; creation can be science. Remarkable harmony exists between the biblical origin-of-life model and the most recent results from the origin-of-life research community. Little if any agreement can be found between the naturalistic origin-of-life scenario and the scientific data.
Importance of the Question
Abiogenesis—the emergence of life from nonliving physicochemical systems—forms the core of the evolutionary paradigm. Life must have its beginning in exclusively physical and chemical processes for evolutionists to legitimately explain life’s diversity throughout Earth’s history from a strictly materialistic standpoint. If abiogenesis lacks scientific credibility, the foundation of evolutionary theory crumbles. Moreover, if life can be shown to have a supernatural origin, then the door opens for viewing all phenomena in biology from an intelligent design perspective.
Despite the importance of abiogenesis to the evolutionary paradigm, origin-of-life researchers have failed to generate any tangible progress towards a strictly materialistic explanation for life’s inception. The origin-of-life research program first began as a scientific endeavor in the early 1950s, when Stanley Miller produced amino acids in his now legendary spark-discharge experiments.1, 2 Giddy with Miller’s accomplishment, many scientists predicted answers to the origin-of-life question within the decades to come.3 However, origin-of-life researchers are no closer to understanding the origin of life today than they were 40 years ago when Stanley Miller did his first experiments. Best-selling author Paul Davies (an agnostic) makes this point in his book, The Fifth Miracle:
When I set out to write this book, I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life’s origins . . . Having spent a year or two researching the field, I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding . . . This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna.4
Davies goes on to explain why such a mismatch persists between public perception and reality on the origin-of-life question:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There seems to be two reasons for their unease. First, they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists and their god-of-the-gaps pseudo-explanations. Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding. . .5
The “behind-the-scenes” frustration of the origin-of-life research community was clearly evident at ISSOL ’99.6 The 9th meeting of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life combined with the 12th International Conference of the Origin of Life at the University of California in San Diego in July 1999. This joint scientific meeting, held every three years, attracts the most prominent origin-of-life investigators from around the world and serves as a platform for sharing their latest findings. The mood there was grim.
The Case for a Supernatural Origin
When defending the Christian faith from the hard line of naturalism, pointing out the acknowledged problems with naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios may be important—but it is not enough. Christians must first make a positive case for the supernatural origin of life. Secondly, the case for life’s supernatural beginnings must comport with all of Scripture, not just one or two passages. And finally, for scientists to take seriously the case for a supernatural origin of life, that case must be testable. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge makes these points forcefully in his book The Triumph of Evolution and The Failure of Creationism. (In this work, Eldredge fails to demonstrate the triumph of evolution and only demonstrates the failure of young-earth creationism.7)Referring to young-earth creationists, Eldredge states,
Creation scientists have not managed to come up with even a single intellectually compelling, scientifically testable statement about the natural world. . . Creation science has precious few ideas of its own—positive ideas that stand on their own, independent of, and opposed to, counter opinions of normal science.8
So, in the end, there is as little substance in the scientific creationists’ treatment of the origin and diversification of life as there is in their treatment of cosmological time. They pose no novel testable hypotheses and make no predictions or observations worthy of the name. They devote the vast bulk of their ponderous efforts to attacking orthodox science in the mistaken and utterly fallacious belief that in discrediting science . . . they have thereby established the truth of their own position.9
Reasons To Believe scholars seek to address the important and valid points made by Niles Eldredge and other critics of creationism head-on by developing a biblically based, scientifically testable creation model—one that makes testable predictions. Creation can be tested. Creation can be science. An overview of the Reasons To Believe Creation model appeared in a previous issue of FACTS for FAITH (Q2 2000) and will be the topic of a conference on June 28-30, 2001. Numerous scientific and theological tests support that model.10
Presenting the biblical account of origins in the form of a testable creation model provides a powerful and exciting new approach to evangelism and apologetics. Offering up a testable creation model not only demonstrates the truthfulness of the Bible but also can lead to scientific advance. The standard naturalistic model and the biblical creation model for the origin of life both make predictions; thus, these predictions can be compared with some of the new major discoveries. Not surprisingly, the biblical description of the origin of life agrees with recent scientific discoveries. In sharp contrast, the most recent scientific data contradicts the predictions made by the naturalistic origin-of-life model.
Evolutionary Scenario for the Origin of Life
The textbook11, 12 or standard materialistic scenario for the origin of life begins shortly after Earth’s formation. The earth in its primordial state was markedly different than today. Evolutionary researchers take advantage of the lack of certainty about Earth’s early conditions by postulating that reducing gases—hydrogen-rich gases such as ammonia, methane, and water vapor—made up the early earth’s atmosphere. They speculate that no oxygen was present. Under these conditions energy discharges, such as lightning, propagating through the early earth’s atmosphere would lead to the production of small organic molecules, such as formaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide.
According to this scenario, these prebiotic molecules would then accumulate in the earth’s oceans over vast periods of time to form the legendary primordial or prebiotic soup. Within the prebiotic soup, again over long periods of time, the small prebiotic molecules would react to form more complex molecules, such as amino acids, sugars, fatty acids, purines, and pyrimidines. These molecules would in turn function as building blocks for the complex molecules that eventually would lead to the biomolecules found in living systems today.
This explanation for the origin of life requires that the chemical reactions taking place in the prebiotic soup eventually produce molecules with the ability to self-replicate. As their concentration increased in the prebiotic soup, the large, complex molecules would be expected to aggregate to form protocells or prebionts. Over time, through random chemical and physical events, the self-replicating molecules found in the chemical aggregates would transfer this capability to the prebionts. Evolutionary processes (e.g. natural selection) would eventually lead the prebionts to become increasingly efficient self-replicators and increasingly more complex.
Finally these prebionts would yield an organism referred to as the last universal common ancestor (LUCA). LUCA presumably resembled a modern bacterium. LUCA, then, would have given rise to the major domains of life.
Table I lists some of the most important predictions that reasonably follow from the textbook origin-of-life scenario.
Some Predictions Made by the Naturalistic (Evolutionary) Origin-of-life Scenario
- Chemical evidence for the prebiotic soup will be found in the geological record.
- Placid chemical and physical conditions existed on the early earth for long periods of time.
- Chemical pathways leading to the formation of biomolecules will be found.
- Chemical pathways that produce biomolecules would have been capable of operating under the conditions of the early earth.
- Life emerged gradually over a long period of time.
- Life originated only once.
- Life in its minimal form is simple.
Biblical Model for the Origin of Life
Genesis 1:2 provides the starting point for the biblical description of life’s beginnings:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
This passage describes the earth in its primordial state.13 According to the text, the Spirit of God was moving above the surface of the waters, so the context of this passage is the earth’s surface. Positioned on the earth’s surface, a hypothetical observer would experience only darkness. He would also note that Earth’s surface was covered entirely with water. An observer would also see Earth as unsuitable for life. The Hebrew word translated as formless, tohu, connotes a desolate wasteland.14
The Genesis 1:2 description of the earth’s primordial conditions finds remarkable agreement with the scientific description of the earth’s initial conditions. The interplanetary debris of the early solar system and thick primordial atmosphere of early Earth would keep sunlight from reaching its surface.15 Darkness would, indeed, be pervasive on the planet. While scientists debate the mechanism and timing for the formation of the earth’s oceans, consensus holds that continents did not exist when the earth formed. Early in its history Earth was, indeed, a water world.16 From the time of its formation (approximately 4.55 billion years ago) until 3.5 billion years ago, the earth experienced numerous collisions that would have rendered the earth a desolate planet largely unsuitable for life.17
Genesis 1:2 also describes the supernatural creation of the first life on Earth.18 The original language makes even more apparent than the English that the Spirit of God is doing more than simply hovering over the surface of the waters. The Hebrew word translated as “hovering,” rahap, may also be translated as “brooding.” In its only other biblical use, rahap describes the Spirit of God “protecting” the wandering nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:10-11):
In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers (rahap) over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.
Transposing this imagery onto Genesis 1:2, we see the Spirit of God “brooding” over the surface of Earth as a mother eagle, hatching and jealously protecting her young.19 As an added note, the nation of Israel is seen wandering in a land of desolation. Here, tohu is translated as howling waste, further linking Deuteronomy 32:10-11 and Genesis 1:2.
Table II lists some of the most important scientific predictions that arise from the biblical description of life’s origin.
Some Predictions Made by the Biblical Origin-of-life Scenario
- Life appeared early in Earth’s history.
- Life appeared under harsh conditions.
- Life miraculously persisted under harsh conditions.
- Life arose quickly.
- Life in its minimal form is complex.
Recent Scientific Discoveries in Origin-of-life Research
Comparing the predictions made by the two origin-of-life scenarios with the record of nature provides the best means of assessing the validity of the two competing models. Some of the most recent breakthrough discoveries in origin-of-life research specifically address predictions made by the two models.
Timing of Life’s Appearance
Origin-of-life researchers have recently uncovered unequivocal evidence that life first appeared early in Earth history, shortly after the formation of the first rocks.20-23 The oldest rocks yet discovered on Earth date at around 3.9 billion years old. Prior to this time, the earth existed largely in a molten state unsuitable for life. Researchers have identified carbonaceous deposits—deposits made up of carbon compounds such as kerogen tars, graphite and apatite—from the earth’s oldest rocks, dated at 3.86 billion years old. The chemical signature of these carbonaceous deposits indicates that they were produced as the by-product of biological activity. Fully consistent with the discovery of life’s by-products from 3.86 billion years ago is the discovery of fossilized bacteria in rocks about 3.5 billion years old.24, 25
Conditions at the Time of Life’s Appearance
Life first appeared and spent its early existence under unimaginably harsh conditions. In scientific terms, it should not have originated, let alone persisted. From the time of Earth’s formation (at 4.55 billion years ago) until around 3.9 billion years ago, the planet experienced frequent impacts.26, 27 Some of the objects (asteroids, comets, and planetesimals) striking the earth were approximately 100 km in diameter. Upon impact, these colliders liberated so much energy that, not only did water on the earth’s surface become volatilized, but rocks on the surface and subsurface melted. The giant impactor phase of Earth’s history ended around 3.9 billion years ago. However, at this time, gravitational perturbation in the solar system caused objects in the Kuiper-Edgeworth belt to rush toward the inner solar system.28 This event, termed the late heavy bombardment, led to over 17,000 collisions with the earth, destroying any life that would have been present. Finally, between 3.9 billion years ago and 3.5 billion years ago impactors still collided with the earth, though the size and frequency of impact diminished with time.29 Many of these events still would have vaporized the earth’s oceans, leading to a wholesale destruction of life. Between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago, multiple origin-of-life events must have taken place with the maximum time window between impact events, and hence for the origin of life, being 10 million years.30
Soup or No Soup?
To date, origin-of-life researchers have failed to recover any geochemical remnants of prebiotic molecules—organic molecules produced by nonbiological processes. 31 All the carbonaceous deposits recovered from the oldest rocks are, without exception, the by-product of biological activity. The “absence of evidence” for a prebiotic soup must be taken as “evidence of absence.”32
If a prebiotic soup was not present on the early earth, the existing conditions would not support the formation of prebiotic molecules. Conversely, if it is discovered that the conditions of early Earth were not conducive to the formation of prebiotic molecules, a prebiotic soup would not be found within the geological record.
Fitting with the lack of evidence for a prebiotic soup is the growing recognition that the early earth’s conditions would not have supported the synthesis of prebiotic molecules. For example, mounting evidence indicates that the early earth’s atmosphere was neutral, not reducing, composed of N2, CO2, and H2O.33, 34 Even with the absence of O2 (an inhibitor to the process of forming life molecules), prebiotic molecules cannot be produced in this type of atmosphere.35, 36 Strong evidence also has emerged that there were low, but significant levels of O2 not only in the early earth’s atmosphere, but also in the early earth’s hydrosphere.37-39 The presence of O2 would serve to inhibit the formation of prebiotic molecules.
Viability of Chemical Pathways to Life
The prebiotic soup predicted by the textbook evolutionary model did not exist on early Earth. However, even if it had existed, it could not have led to life’s beginning. Origin-of-life researchers have discovered a number of chemical routes capable of yielding many of the molecules needed to build life,40 but abiotic pathways to many other crucially important classes of biochemical compounds have yet to be discovered and may not even exist.41
Even more problematic for the naturalistic origin-of-life scenario is the recognition that the conditions of the hypothetical primordial soup and of the early earth would have inhibited most, if not all, potential prebiotic chemical routes. Many of the potential prebiotic reactions can only succeed under restrictive conditions. In most cases, it is unlikely that these conditions existed on the early earth. In some instances, the same conditions needed to drive the formation of biochemical compounds would have led to their subsequent destruction.42, 43
New evidence indicates that the transition metals and rare earth elements in the early earth’s oceans would have promoted the decomposition of what many scientists believe were key intermediate chemical compounds taking part in the most widely accepted evolutionary origin-of-life scenarios.44 The hypothetical primordial soup would have undoubtedly been a complex chemical mixture comprised of a large number of chemical species. The same chemical routes that would have led to the production of biochemical compounds under laboratory conditions would have been inhibited by other components in the primordial soup. These interfering compounds would have either terminated or redirected key steps in the prebiotic pathways.45, 46 Given the likelihood of widespread chemical interference in the hypothetical primordial soup, the success of origin-of-life researchers in preparing biochemical compounds is a false success. Origin-of-life investigators typically study potential prebiotic pathways under unrealistic, controlled, chemically pristine conditions.
Simplicity or Complexity of First Life?
New evidence indicates that life in its minimal form is chemically complex even if morphologically simple. The smallest bacterial genomes capable of independent survival include between 1500-1900 gene products.47-50 These bacteria are believed to be the oldest organisms on Earth and quite likely reflect the complexity of first life on Earth and the minimum complexity of independent life.51 The smallest known genome, that of Mycoplasma genitalium, is comprised of 470 gene products.52 However, M. genitalium is not an appropriate model for the origin of life, for it depends on host biochemistry to survive and, therefore, cannot exist independently. Nonetheless, M. genitalium is a good model for determining the bare minimum requirements for life. Theoretical and experimental work using M. genitalium indicate that life requires at least 250-350 gene products (having eliminated, in theory, genes used for parasitic interactions).53-55
Biophysicist Hubert Yockey has calculated the probability of forming a single gene product (one that is functionally equivalent to the ubiquitous protein cyctochrome C) as one chance in 1075. 56 Given this probability, Yockey calculated that if the hypothetical primordial soup contained about 1044 amino acids, a hundred billion trillion years would yield a 95% chance for random formation of a functional protein only 110 amino acids in length (a single gene product).57 The universe is about 15 billion years old. This means that less than one trillionth of the time has passed that would be needed to make even one of the 250-350 gene products necessary for minimal life, or one of the 1500 gene products necessary for independent life.
Further complicating the supra-astronomical probabilities that must be overcome for even the simplest life to arise by natural processes is the changing view of bacteria. No longer regarded as cells with a random, nondescript internal structure, bacteria are now recognized as having remarkable internal organization, both spatially and temporally, at the protein level.58, 59 This internal organization of bacterial cells is universal and is needed for their survival. This means that origin-of-life researchers must account for not only the simultaneous appearance of 250-350 gene products but also their organization inside the cell.
Biblical Description Agrees with Scientific Discoveries
Comparing the predictions of the biblical origin-of-life model with the most recent discoveries coming from origin-of-life research reveals remarkable agreement. Life originated early and quickly in Earth’s history under hostile conditions. Moreover, life as it first appeared, in its minimal form, possesses enormous complexity.
None of the predictions that come from the naturalistic model are satisfied by the most recent scientific results. From a naturalistic perspective, supra-astronomical probabilities argue against the required simultaneous assembly of the molecular components needed for life to function in its most minimal form. Perhaps most devastating of all is the absence of a primordial soup on early Earth. All origin-of-life models that appeal exclusively to natural processes have as their chief requirement a primordial soup. Even if a primordial soup existed, however, the chemical processes supposedly taking place in the soup seem incapable of producing life. In light of the most recent scientific discoveries, the comments of Paul Davies and the quiet frustration of origin-of-life researchers seem understandable.
The harmony between the Bible’s account of the origin of life and nature’s record provides powerful evidence for the validity of the Christian faith. The lack of concordance between the naturalistic model for life’s origin and the scientific data causes one of the key pillars of the theory of evolution to crumble. Once a reasonable, testable case has been made for the supernatural origin of life, the door is open to view other areas of the biological realm from a supernatural standpoint as well.
In addition to demonstrating the truthfulness of Scripture, recent discoveries show how the biblical account of origins can contribute to scientific research. By offering the biblical account of life’s origin in a form that invites scientific testing, Christians make clear that the study of creation is science. A testable creation model approach to the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the major categories of life, and the origin and spread of humanity allows Christians to make a unique contribution to the question of origins—one that allows for supernatural explanations. By offering testable models capable of making predictions, Christians can positively influence the direction of scientific research in a way that reflects their worldview and in a way that can be respected and embraced by the scientific community. Creation is science.