Understanding the Origin of Life: What Has History Taught Us?
|August 18, 2009||Posted by Flannery under Intelligent Design, Origin Of Life|
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
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.
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.
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.