The Spontaneous Origin of Life

Test tubes
Test tubes
Photo by Trondheim Havn.

A little over a decade ago the Harvard University Gazette newspaper (September 12, 1996) carried an article by William J. Cromie, which began, “Jack Szostak is trying to make a living organism out of nonliving chemicals.”

Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard University, says he is trying to imagine the simplest possible system that could get life started, and then make it in his lab.

Instead of heading for the world of the nonliving, however, Szostak has hit upon the idea that the best candidate for the first organism is “a bit of ribonucleic acid (RNA) enclosed in a plain capsule.”

That sounds so scientifically romantic — just a bit of RNA and a plain, simple capsule. The article fails to mention how immensely complex both items are! For the incredible complexity that accounts for these “simple” building blocks of life, see Michael Behe, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.

In fact, Szostak doesn’t hint how such items were originally found in nature to begin the process of creating life from nonliving matter. RNA is not exactly nonliving matter and the “plain capsule” is not exactly nonliving matter. The capsule is a protective sheaf that allows good things into that first speck of life; and disallows bad things to reach that same speck. Its name is complexity — designed complexity!

The Cromie article admits that Szostak plans to skip the hard part of creating those original living molecules from plain old dead chemicals and instead start with “trillions of pieces of RNA in a solution.” Is this a cop-out or not? Can someone explain to me in very short sentences how anyone would believe that trillions of pieces of RNA were just lying around along with a jar of the perfect solution at the very site where life was about to be born?

Instead of taking seriously the nanotechnology (machines made from molecules which make life possible) involved in such an undertaking, the genetics professor decides to skip that part. But isn’t that the heart of the issue before us. Hear the counsel of Francis Crick: “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 have been satisfied to get it going.” Or how about the counsel of the president of the National Academy of Sciences who stated, “the chemistry that makes life possible is much more elaborate and sophisticated than anything we students had ever considered.”

In other words, within the same article we are told: (a) a Harvard professor is going to show the world how to make life from nonliving matter, and (b) how this same professor is going to begin his proof by bypassing nonliving matter and going directly to living matter. Am I missing something here that any semiliterate person should find suspicious?

The article concludes with Szostak’s parting shot — “If we make something everyone agrees is alive, that would provide a plausible scenario for the great event [creating life from nonliving chemicals].”

Well, not exactly Dr. Szostak! When you cash in your bits of RNA and its rich bed of information for good old dry, nonliving chemicals then we’ll tune you in again. When you explain where you found that “plain capsule” to protect that first speck of life we’ll think more seriously of your efforts.

Now this brings up another question that demands an answer. Does this whole process of creating life from nonlife require only an intelligent Harvard professor and a lab? Don’t we need to add something else to this equation, i.e., intelligence? Aren’t we getting awful close to the biblical declaration that the God of the universe (the intelligent portion) “created them male and female” (Genesis 1)? And would this not be a trillion times more difficult than creating a mere first speck of life?

David Berlinski makes this very point in his excellent response to his critics (Commentary, September 1996). Upon quoting from Raff and Kaufman, who insist that the “central and still unsolved problem is, how do genes direct the making of an organism,” Berlinski writes, “Until we know that, I, for one, would hold off on claims that ‘the origin of life and its myriad of forms must be recast as the origin of biological information.'”

But Szostak isn’t the only one seeking to create life from nonlife. In a more recent article entitled “Scientist to Create Artificial Life” (Press Association Ltd., October 7, 2007) we are told that Craig Venter, a DNA researcher, has built “an almost entirely new life form for the first time.”

What nonliving chemicals did he use? Listen carefully to the explanation — he built a “synthetic chromosome” and “implanted it in an existing living cell.” And Venter is asking this already existing, living cell to host his chromosome in order to reproduce this new life form.

Would we be downright mean to ask Venter to place his synthetic chromosome into something nonliving and then show the world how a newly created life form really looks and functions?

Now it’s true that the article says the DNA researcher was creating “artificial” life and not life itself, but the impression is certainly given that life from nonlife is right around the corner.

However, we can still safely say that nonliving chemicals without intelligence equal nonliving chemicals. We could just as honestly say that nonliving chemicals with human intelligence equal nonliving chemicals. Life comes only from life according to the Law of Biogenesis, and this demands what materialists are reluctant to admit — a living and wise God!

Behe quotes from a National Academy of Sciences booklet entitled “Science and Creationism” that admits that “many scientists” believe that God created the universe including life on Earth. That’s good! What isn’t so good is that many of these same scientists still argue that Darwin’s natural selection and genetic mutations can get us from that first speck of life to that first cell, from that first cell to multi-cells, and from multi-cells to Richard Dawkins. I don’t believe that’s possible, and it’s never been empirically proven to be possible. It is a load that natural selection and mutations cannot handle. It’s what 500 PhDs were trying to say when they did say, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” (see “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” also, for readers seriously interested in this particular aspect of the subject please consider Stephen C. Meyer’s well-written article “Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information“).

Those who argue for a materialistic interpretation of life, however, have to square their position with Michael Denton’s observations that life depends on the integrated activities of hundreds of thousands of different protein molecules. And that’s just the start. This organic book of life is written in a distinctive language — a genetic text. The late Carl Sagan, a committed materialist, admitted that each cell contains more information than the Library of Congress. Will the materialists please tell the waiting world where this genetic text came from? The Christian explanation is that it came from the mind of God. And no nonliving chemicals have yet shown us such a written text.

It should also be noted that a living being does not develop simply because of its genetic code “but because of the mysterious force we call ‘life.’ It is ‘life’ that grows and animates the being in accordance with its genetic endowment” (see Dean Davis, In Search of the Beginning).

But those seeking to create life in their labs have an additional problem. According to John Sanford’s classic Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, this problem is not just creating life from nonliving matter, but halting the decay of information that makes life possible.

If, as Carl Sagan admits, each cell contains more information than the Library of Congress, then obviously some of the information had to be available in that first speck of life as well. In fact, at one level life might well be defined as information. The book of life is the book of genetic information plus the breath of God.

But that information decays. Genomes decay. Life goes downward (the Second Law of Thermodynamics), not up, up and away toward multi-specks of life, cells, multi-cells and evidentially Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins.

Life is complex in all its aspects. There really is no “simple” speck of life or “simple” cell. There is also no empirical evidence that life emerged from nonliving matter apart from the very intelligence of God in the equation. That translates into my parting statement: spontaneous generation is a fairy-tale for grown-ups!