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Understanding the Origin of Life: What Has History Taught Us?

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)--"Darwin's Bulldog"--Caricature by "Ape" in Vanity Fair, July 24, 1869.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)--"Darwin's Bulldog"--Caricature by "Ape" in Vanity Fair, July 24, 1869.

Reading through some of Huxley’s writings caused me to pause and ask a question: After more than a century of study, trial-and-error, and free-wheeling speculation, what has history taught us about the origin of life? For an exhaustive review of this question, see Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell. But the specific question was prompted by the following passage from Huxley’s Discourses Biological and Geological: Essays (1894):

But though I cannot express this conviction of mine too strongly, I must carefully guard against the supposition that I intend to suggest that no such thing as Abiogenesis  ever has taken place in the past, or ever will take place in the future. With organic chemistry, molecular physics, and physiology yet in their infancy, and every day making prodigious strides, I think it would be the height of presumption for any man to say that the conditions under which matter assumes the properties we call “vital” may not, some day, be artificially brought together. All I feel justified in affirming is, that I see no reason for believing that the feat has been performed yet.

And looking back through the prodigious vista of the past, I find no record of commencement of life, and therefore I am devoid of any means of forming a definite conclusion as to the conditions of its appearance. Belief, in the scientific sense of the word, is a serious matter, and needs strong foundations. To say, therefore, in the admitted absence of evidence, that I have any belief as to the mode in which the existing forms of life have originated, would be using words in a wrong sense. But expectation is permissible where belief is not; and if it were given me to look beyond the abyss of geologically recorded time to the still more remote period when the earth was passing through physical and chemical conditions, which it can no more see again than man can recall his infancy, I should expect to be a witness of the evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter. I should expect to see it appear under forms of great simplicity, endowed, like existing fungi, with the power of determining the formation of new protoplasm from such matters as ammonium carbonates, oxalates and tartrates, alkaline and earthy phosphates, and water, without aid of light. That is the expectation to which analogical reasoning leads me; but I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith (pp. 255-257).

Now more than a century later, research into the origin of life has largely proceeded on this basis. Convinced that some form of abiogenesis must be true, its primary motivation has indeed not been “scientific” but rather has proceeded as an “expectation,” an act of philosophical faith. Where, it seems reasonable to ask, has this brand of philosophical faith gotten us?

Well, the short answer is not very far. Huxley’s error (indeed the error–save for a few notable exceptions–of his generation) was to grossly oversimiplify cellular life; the cell is more than protoplasm. Oparin and Haldane’s effort to create life from a prebiotic soup (a version of Darwin’s “warm little pond” of “all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts”) yielded only the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia and Stanley Miller and Harold Urey’s variation on the theme produced little more than copy for textbooks written by Darwinists eager to instill students with the “practical” benefits of methodological naturalism (in addition to Meyer, see Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution1 and Dembski and Wells’ The Design of Life).  Besides Hollywood and textbook publishers, few were convinced. Instead, we have been witness to a parade of embarrassingly desperate attempts at some–apparently any–abiogenic  alternative.  The march of speculations–hypothetical enzymes, chiral crystals, mica-sheet sandwiches, methane-belching bugs, prebiotic haze, meteorites, comets, etc., etc.–have turned what started as reasonable hypotheses worth testing (now, of course, all failed) into a cavalcade of conjectures that would be laughable if not for the painful waste of scarce financial and intellectual resources expended on their behalf.

Having given the materialists over a century to come up with an answer, perhaps we should start afresh with what we now do know: 

  • The statistical likelihood of random mutations and of life emerging from the processes of chance have been consistently shown to be not just improbable but extremely improbable (from Schützenberger and Eden in 1966 through Morowitz, Argyle, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe on  up to Meyer)2
  • Mounting evidence suggests there probably never was a prebiotic soup
  • The key to the nature of life is not found in chance and necessity but in understanding life at the cellular level as a complex information-processing system 
  • This information is not unspecified but is functionally specified
  • Efforts to explain a reasonably likely scenario for life by abiotic means have consistently failed
We should know better than to beat the dead horse of abiogenesis.  History has not been on its side ever since Louis Pasteur conducted his series of elegant and dramatic experiments between 1859 and 1864, experiments that demolished Félix Pouchet’s futile efforts to prove spontaneous generation. But why then do efforts to prove abiogenesis persist?  To begin with, it would be wrong to conclude that Pasteur’s refutation of spontaneous generation settled the matter immediately and conclusively. The fact is, the rising climate of scientism in Victorian England caused abiogenesis to die a hard death, and no one championed its cause more than Henry Carlton Bastian.  Bastian’s efforts did not entirely fall on deaf ears, and even so strongly theistic an evolutionist as Alfred Russel Wallace was, for a time, persuaded by the young Darwinist’s argument on behalf of what by then had become known as “archebiosis,” the spawning of life from inorganic materials. But Darwin and Huxley appreciated the power of Pasteur’s demonstrations and wisely steered clear of the temptation to support its alternative, instead preferring (as the above Huxley quote demonstrates) to either ignore the question altogether or push abiogenesis back into the far distant past as a singular event.3 Curiously, Darwin did vaguely address the origin question in the one last sentence of Origin, suggesting that “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator [emphasis added] into a few forms or into one . . . .”  This was largely a strategic move, however, inserted into the second and subsequent editions in order to deflect religious critics.  As Jonathan Wells has astutely noted, “Darwin’s ‘one long argument’ was not the God of traditional Christianity, but a caricature. Darwin fabricated a ‘god’ who did not exist, a deity who engaged only in arbitrary and unrelated acts of creation, then he argued against this fictional god” (see his Darwin’s Straw God Argument). 

Nevertheless, the spontaneous generation debate ultimately had profound implications for the emerging Darwinian movement. Huxley used the rift over this question within Darwinian ranks to his advantage. Bastian, once a young up-and-coming Darwinist, learned his lesson of challenging Huxley the hard way; he was essentially anathematized by the emerging arbiters of biological science. As James E. Strick points out in Sparks of Life, “Only a clear message from the powerful X Club to the young rising evolutionists, culminating in an energetic campaign by [John] Tyndall to destroy Bastian’s scientific reputation, was finally sufficient to overcome the attraction many felt to Bastian’s combination of experimental skill and rhetorical power” (p. 186). Huxley’s support of Tyndall had the net effect of reducing Bastian to a historical footnote in the history of modern evolutionary theory.

John Tyndall (1820-1896) from a caricature in Vanity Fair, 1872.

John Tyndall (1820-1896) from a caricature in Vanity Fair, 1872.

This episode is instructive. Huxley’s genius was to cast abiogenesis/ archebiosis–a notion with which, as previously noted, he had philosophical affinity–into a speculative realm, away from Pasteur’s experiments that strongly weighed against such a theory.  By doing so, Huxley brilliantly and somewhat ironically gave abiogenesis its own lease on life and rescued Darwinism from any embarrassing association with the empirically failed theory. Had Bastian not been checked and eventually upstaged Huxley’s efforts to manage the Darwinian faithful, science–not just the study of biological origins–might have been very different. Tyndall might very well have found himself the odd man out of the Darwinian fold, yet with the power of germ theory on his side (see his Essays on the Floating-Matter of the Air in Relation to Putrefaction and Infection [1881, 2nd ed. 1883]) the heuristic value of biogenesis may have been sufficient to marginalize Darwin’s materialistic evolution into oblivion despite Tydall’s own contributions to the NOMA and secularism in general. It should not go unnoticed that a biogenic understanding of life has been of far more service to medicine and its allied sciences than has abiogenesis.

Nevertheless, Huxley’s strategy was brilliant. By turning abiogenesis into “an act of philosophical faith” he pushed the origin of life by purely materialistic/naturalistic means into a speculative realm, which has served as the inexhaustible fuel behind the proliferating guesswork up to the present day. This has been possible in large part because Huxley and Tyndall allowed biology to indeed have it both ways: it could dismiss spontaneous generation as an active and demonstrable process but tacitly support it as the only reasonable inferential mechanism for the origin of life. 

Today’s origin of life researchers can make no stronger claims for abiogenesis on empirical grounds than could Huxley.  Hasn’t more than a century of this failed strategy been long enough? Hasn’t the philosophical faith of materialism premised upon the uniformity of natural causes in closed system had enough opportunities to prove its case? History and its accumulating evidence points toward the ID alternative.

Notes

1Jonathan Wells gives a telling indictment of the use of these flawed simulations in college textbooks. Yet their inclusion persists even after the publication of Icons. Peter H. Raven and George B. Johnson’s Biology (6th ed., 2001), for example, calls the Urey-Miller experiment “one of the most significant experiments in the history of science” (p. 66). Even more telling is Sylvia S. Mader’s Biology (7th ed., 2002) that declares: “Today we do not believe that life arises spontaneously from nonlife, and we say ‘life comes only from life.’ But if this is so, how did the first life forms come about? Since it was the very first living thing, it had to come from nonliving chemicals” (p. 320). In other words, we don’t believe in spontaneous generation but spontaneous generation by abiogenic means must have occurred at some point in the distant past. Why? The only conceivable answer is that the author has an a priori commitment to abiogenesis on philosophical grounds.

2In addition, see J. T. Trevors and D. L. Abel, Chance and necessity do not explain the origin of life (2004) and David L. Abel, The capabilities of chaos and complexity (2009).

 3The reasons were complex, but largely related to Darwin’s effort to distance himself from two influential predecessors to modern evolutionary thought:  First, radical Lamarckianism, that posited a bizarre form of vertebrate development spontaneously generated from parasitic worms; second, Robert Chamber’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (anonymously published in 1844 and running to 11 editions until 1860), that presented a rather muddled theory of transmutation based upon spontaneous generation. Huxley too was predisposed to oppose spontaneous generation, having savagely reviewed Vestiges in 1854. For more on this see Pietro Corsi, “Before Darwin: Transformist Concepts in European Natural History,” Journal of the History of Biology 38.1 (Spring 2005): 67-83; and Joel S. Schwartz, “Darwin, Wallace, and Huxley, and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’,” Journal of the History of Biology 23.1 (Spring 1990): 127-153.

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21 Responses to Understanding the Origin of Life: What Has History Taught Us?

  1. History has taught us that only life begets life.

  2. Great article.

    I run a small local news site. Can I reproduce this article there with a link back to UD?

    I believe the email address I have on this Word Press account is outdated. You can reply here on UD or at MountainDaily.com.

  3. “History has not been on its side ever since Louis Pasteur conducted his series of elegant and dramatic experiments between 1859 and 1864, experiments that demolished Félix Pouchet’s futile efforts to prove spontaneous generation.”

    That darn French wit! ;-)

  4. I agree with BB,

    Excellent writing Flannery.

    You pieced this together well.

    Now maybe Nakashima will understand why I mentioned Pasteur in an earlier post. I believe Pasteur gave more to science than Darwin. Certainly is responsible for saving more lives, utilizing real scientific methods.

    BB, careful. If you run this article the Orwellian Thought Police at the NCSE will hunt you down and demand your friendly paper be shut down. They cannot stand reasonable dissent and good opposing arguments to their Darwinian fairy tale beliefs.

  5. DATCG,

    We had our own ID controversy in my community a few years ago. It’s still a hot topic even though ID lost out.

    Come what may.

  6. DATCG,

    I’m probably already on Obama’s fishy site list because of what I wrote on health care.

  7. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself, ‘Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?’ And next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them, ‘What kind of evidence is there for that?’ And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say. ~ Richard Dawkins

  8. 8
    David v. Squatney

    Let me ask a parallel question:

    What has ID taught us about the origin of life?

    In particular, when did life originate? What were the first organisms? I would be interested to see Michael Behe, William Dembski, Paul Nelson, and John Sanford get together and summarize the results of ID research on these questions.

  9. Ah.. Mr. Dawkins,

    “Nobody has actually seen evolution take place over a long period but they have seen the after effects, and the after effects are massively supported.”

    He means of course the a priori assumptions that he makes.

    “It is like a case in a court of law where nobody can actually stand up and say I saw the murder happen and yet you have got millions and millions of pieces of evidence which no reasonable person can possibly dispute.”2

    And yet, in a court case Two Sides are allowed to dispute the evidence, unless of course you live in Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea… or it appears America today in relation to story telling by Darwinist. Only one side is allowed. Try to publish? NCSE fascist and Smithsonian witch hunts take place to vex and curse a man with 2 PhD’s that dare publish a paper questioning Darwinian orthodoxy.

    But they’ll accept Darwin’s bear story…

    The bear! A bear was swimming, opening its mouth wider(one can imagine) catching insect, until one day… poof! Whale! Why not? Abiogenesis is Poof!

    Until a witty little French man said, wait, wait… shall we attempt to recreate scientifically these claims?

    What did Darwin do again? Tell bear stories? And inspire Atheist to Go to Church for science sake?

    Pasteur did far more to advance science than Darwin. Why don’t the atheist celebrate him in church today?

    ———————-
    2 – Quoted on CMI, from BBC, Oct 2008.

  10. David,

    Why not ask Richard Dawkins? He said it is possible aliens, advanced civilizations seeded earth with life.

    Why not answer the real problems with Darwinism and materialist origins problems which are alwasy sidetracked or distracted from, which is exactly what you just did – distract from the story telling of Darwinist.

    Nice try.

    Frankly, I can imagine anything like the darwinist – given enough time… ;)

  11. I beg you once more to recollect that I have no right to call my opinion anything but an act of philosophical faith ~ Huxley

    We all believe, as an article of faith, that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did. ~ Harold Urey

    re Dawkins @ 7

    Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled. ~ Kenneth Nealson

  12. 12
    David v. Squatney

    DATCG,

    Why not ask Richard Dawkins? He said it is possible aliens, advanced civilizations seeded earth with life.

    Let’s ask Dr. Dawkins:

    I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar—semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett).

    It doesn’t look like he thinks directed panspermia is very likely. For the purposes of this discussion, however, let’s assume that everything the Darwinists have said about the origin of life is rubbish. Again, what are the results of ID research?

  13. What has ID taught us about the origin of life?

    Mainly that it isn’t reducible to matter, energy, chance and necessity.

    And my personal PoV is that living organisms are combination of hardware and software.

    DNA, RNA and proteins are the hardware which are directed by the software.

    The instructions aren’t the sequence but the sequence carries out the instructions.

  14. 14
    David v. Squatney

    Joseph,

    Mainly that it isn’t reducible to matter, energy, chance and necessity.

    I think this first assertion is the only claim pertaining to origins specifically. And although it is disputed by “Darwinists”, it’s true that essentially all IDers believe it (except perhaps extreme front-loaders such as Denton in Nature’s Destiny).

    Is there any chance ID will eventually be able to take a coherent position on the more pedestrian origins questions, such as when it happened, what the first organisms to be designed were, to what degree common descent is true, etc?

  15. DVS,

    Research takes resources.

    So I would expect as soon as the resources are available someone will start working on those questions.

    My personal PoV says it happened when it was designed to happen, the first organisms were what they had to be and the extent is based on the programming. ;)

  16. DATCG:

    But they’ll accept Darwin’s bear story…

    The bear! A bear was swimming, opening its mouth wider(one can imagine) catching insect, until one day… poof! Whale! Why not? Abiogenesis is Poof!

    I certainly can’t deny that the ursine hypothesis for whale origins has remained untouched to this day, thanks to the “Darwin was never ever ever wrong” principle of modern evolutionary biology.

    In fact, the hypothesis is usually phrased in just those terms, unlike all the pathetic details of ID stories.

  17. Flannery, awesome read! Thank-you for this!

  18. 18

    we have been witness to a parade of embarrassingly desperate attempts

    Huxley’s Bathybius Haeckelii was one such embarrassing (and fraudulent) attempt.

  19. DATCG,

    —–They cannot stand reasonable dissent and good opposing arguments to their Darwinian fairy tale beliefs.

    We shouldn’t belittle fairy tales by comparing Darwinism to them, there is at least some truth in fairy tales. :)

  20. re David #8.

    Regarding “what has ID taught us about the origin of life?”

    The first thing it has taught us is that life is not reducible to physics. Therefore, ANY materialistic, naturalistic, or physicalistic account of the orgin or development of life is necessarily false.

    The second thing it has taught us is that life and information are inextricably linked.

    If life and information are inextricably linked, then in order to explain life one must explain information. If one wants to explain information, one must explain langugage. If one wants to explain language then one must be able to explain symbols and rules.

    But physics has NOTHING to say about symbols (the representation of one thing for another) or rules (vocabulary, grammar, syntax). Only a mind can relate one thing, say an eagle, to another, say freedom. Or “cat” to a “certain kind of mammal.” This is painfully obvious to anyone who will think about it with an open mind for 30 seconds or so.

    Information is immaterial even though it is encoded in material substrates. Information is not located in space/time. It isn’t subject to gravity. It can’t be converted to energy. It isn’t comprised of sub-atomic particles in energy fields. It can’t do work or heat matter. Well you see the point. Since physics deals with the behavior of physical things (matter and energy) we shouldn’t even expect it to have anything to say about information. But since a materialist is wedded (disastrously) to the idea that there is nothing beyond the material world they have no recourse but to (try to) explain everything with physics.

    But that’s clearly impossible. Why would I look to the laws of physics to tell me about whether or not it is wrong to be rude to a waiter? What does physics have to say about the laws of logic? Or economic laws? Or mathematics? NOTHING. In fact, the laws of physics are written in the universal language of mathematics, which has symbols and rules.

    Reason dooms the Darwinist/materialist enterprise before it even begins. There is an immaterial world of minds, laws, information, and mathematics, to name a few, and to deny it is to be intellectually degenerate on a breathtaking scale. The idea that there is no purpose in the universe, as Dawkins and others endlessly claim, is false on the face of it. Why did he say that if he didn’t have a purpose in mind? I wish I was above name calling but sometimes things need to be recognized for what they are. I guess the kindest word to use is irrational.

    As far as first life goes, try this on for size. “In the beginning was the Word” (Information). Gospel of John. Chapter 1, verse 1.

  21. 21

    Thomas Wharton Jones was one of T.H. Huxley’s professors. He wrote a book blasting Darwin, Huxley, and especially Haeckel. Here is what he thought of Darwinism:

    The Evolution of the Human Race from Apes

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