Did Life Just Happen?
What about the life that exists on the earth? How can one explain the origin
of hundreds of thousands of species of plants, as well as insects, reptiles,
birds, mammals, and most complex of all, humans? To the Christian, although
all this life is a thing of beauty and wonder, the explanation is no problem.
As Jesus said in Matthew 3:9, ?I tell you that out of these stones God can raise
up children for Abraham.? The Bible believer accepts this claim of Jesus without
difficulty. They would believe that God could take the matter in rocks and make
living, breathing adults out of them. He could do it even though the elemental
composition of the material in the rocks is not of the right proportion to create
organic matter. God could do that. In fact, Christians would believe that Jesus could
have made children for Abraham out of nothing at all.
In the Bible it is recorded that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast
(John 2:1-11). He created fish and bread out of nothing in order to feed several
thousand people at once (John 6:1-15). When a person who believes these Biblical
accounts looks at the astounding variety and beauty of nature, the source of it
all is obvious. It was created by God. However, this argument will probably
not be convincing to the skeptic or the atheist.
To the atheist, the existence of all this life is equally a thing of beauty
and wonder. The explanation is more problematic, however. He or she believes
that every observable phenomenon has a natural explanation, based on the laws
of nature. How such an incredible phenomenon as a living organism could just
happen by accident surely is a notion awesome to contemplate, but the atheist
is sure there is a natural explanation. For the atheist, it is simply a matter
of searching and searching until the scientific explanation for how life came to be
is found. The question to be asked in this chapter is whether or not this ?natural?
explanation is real or just an illusion.
The second argument for the existence of God begins with a simple assumption.
It will be assumed that life exists. (In case you are not sure, feel free to
pinch yourself now) Probably this assumption will not be greatly debated. It
has already been shown that life has not always existed. This is true because
if the universe has not always existed, then surely life has not always existed
either. The question, then, is how did life come about? Two possible explanations
present themselves. Either life was created by someone or something, or it occurred
by some natural process (to quote from Julian Huxley again, it ?just happened?).
The first explanation requires the existence of some supernatural power?what
we call God. The second explanation would be consistent with the atheist view.
To outline this argument:
Assumption: Life Exists.
Therefore life was either:
2) It Just Happened.
Which implies either:
1) There Is A Creator.
2) There Is No Creator.
The attempts to explain the existence of life using scientific knowledge will
be considered first. There exists a sub-branch of science dealing with questions
of the chemistry of the origins of life. The most famous experiment quoted by
scientists in the field is that of Urey and Miller, performed in 1953 and published
in Science. In this experiment, Urey and Miller prepared a mixture of methane
(CH4), water (H2O), ammonia (NH3) and hydrogen (H2) in a glass vessel. They then proceeded
to apply an electric spark to the mixture and analyzed the liquid which precipitated
out of the mixture. Upon analyzing the reaction mixture, they found that it
contained amino acids. These are fairly small molecules, although more complex than
the four substances which made up the original mixture. This result was seen
by Urey and Miller to be important, because amino acids are the building block
molecules out of which proteins are synthesized.
Urey and Miller proposed that the early atmosphere of the earth might have been
made out of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen, and that this might be the
first step in explaining how the protein molecules in the first spontaneously
generated life came to be. This experiment has been cited as the first great
discovery on the path toward explaining how life came to be. In an article in
the popular Parade magazine, Carl Sagan referred to this experiment.
From the standpoint of a 19th-century biologist, the achievement of experiments
like Urey and Miller?s is stunning.
Sagan proceeds to quote from Darwin:
?It is mere rubbish thinking at present of the origin of life,? wrote Charles
Darwin. ?One might as well think of the origin of matter.? How amazed he would
be today! There is still much to do. No one has performed such an experiment
and, at the end, discovered a creature, however simple, crawling out of the
test tube. Many mysteries remain. We don?t know how early nucleic acids ?instructed?
the formation of early proteins (a problem called the origin of the genetic
code). We don?t understand the origin of the first cell…There are scientists
who are dazzled by our deep ignorance of many phases of this subject, who despair
of our ever understanding its more complex aspects and who look longingly toward
extraterrestrial or even divine intervention (emphasis mine).
But such ideas do not solve the problem of the origin of life; they merely postpone
having to deal with it. While by no means underestimating the depth of our ignorance,
I am amazed by how much we?ve learned. Understanding the origin of life no longer
seems intractable. The progress begun by Urey and Miller stands as a landmark
of modern science and our understanding of the universe and ourselves.
This lengthy quote from Sagan is given both to give the feel for the mindset
of atheists, and to provide an example of their line of thinking which can be
referred to later. Notice that, as Sagan quotes him, Darwin believed the creation
of life as well as of the universe was beyond the realm of science. In fact, Darwin
made a rather interesting statement in his original 1859 edition of Origin of
Species. To quote:
Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which
have ever lived upon this earth have descended from one primordial form into
which life was first breathed by the Creator.
Was the discovery of Urey and Miller a ?landmark in our understanding of the
universe? as claimed by Sagan? The answer is an emphatic no. As an organic chemist,
I could have predicted before they did the experiment that an electrolyzed mixture
of methane, ammonia and water with a little hydrogen would produce a very low concentration
of amino acids. Amino acids are very stable molecules over the short run. It
could also have been predicted that if Urey and Miller continued to add the
spark and heat, the amino acids concentration would have eventually been greatly
diminished, leaving behind a polymerized mess that organic chemists affectionately
call ?tar? in the bottom of the flask. Although it was a
nice experiment, this
was no great discovery at all, because it led to results that any organic chemist
would have predicted beforehand. The question is not whether amino acids could
have been produced in some model early atmosphere. The question is whether this
is a significant step toward explaining how life came to exist on our planet.
What are Carl Sagan and others like him really claiming? They are claiming that
the chemical environment on the ancient earth allowed the right combination
of molecules to spontaneously come together and produce a living thing. It would
be worth while to go into some detail explaining what would be required in order
for this event, if it happened, to occur.
All living things (and presumably the first life) are composed of four classes
of molecules: proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids. Proteins are
very large molecules made up of many amino acid molecules bonded together. Proteins
molecules are responsible for digestion, nutrient transport, energy production,
immune system function, blood clotting, and an innumerable number of other functions
in any living thing. Enzymes, the chemical factories in cells, are an example
of a type of protein molecules.
Nucleic acids are huge polymeric molecules formed out of nitrogen containing
bases called purines and pyrimidines, connected to one another through a backbone
of sugar and phosphate units. DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) is responsible
for heredity in all living things. The discovery of its double alpha helical
structure, much like a spiral staircase, by Watson and Crick was one of the
greatest discoveries in the history of science. Nucleic acids in the form of
RNA (ribose nucleic acid) are also responsible for the synthesis of proteins.
Carbohydrates are a third category of biological molecules. They are commonly
known as sugars. They are mostly smaller molecules whose main function is as
a source of energy. Although this is the primary function of sugars, they are
also involved in a large number of other biological functions. For example, sugars
are one of the components of nucleic acids as mentioned above. Cellulose, the
main component in plant cell walls, is a sugar polymer.
Lipids are a broad class of non-water-soluble molecules. Examples would include
fats, a primary source of energy, and steroids such as cholesterol. Many steroids
are hormones, regulating numerous biological functions such as reproduction.
The atheist?s theory requires the conditions for production of all four types
of compounds to have existed on the primeval earth. In fact, purines and pyrimidines,
the building blocks of nucleic acids have been created in a separate experiment
somewhat like that of Urey and Miller. However, the primitive atmosphere required
for this experiment contained different molecules from those required to produce
proteins. Carbohydrates have also been created in a different ?primitive atmosphere.?
The conditions under which carbohydrates can be spontaneously generated require a strongly
oxidizing (oxygen-containing) atmosphere, while the conditions required for
the production of amino acids require a strongly reducing (hydrogen-containing)
atmosphere. The problem is that these two types of primitive atmospheric conditions
are logical opposites. Scientists to this day debate whether the early atmosphere
of the earth was reducing or not. One thing they would presumably be unanimous
on is that it was not both reducing and oxidizing at the same time because the two
are logical opposites!
Which is the right atmosphere? Which one actually existed? The one which would
allow amino acids would not allow carbohydrates or nucleic acids to occur. To
date, no primitive atmospheric conditions have been proposed under which lipid
molecules such as fats or steroids have been shown to be produced spontaneously
in significant concentrations. Even if this discovery were made, however, it
would not change the problem for the atheist trying to propose how the ancient
atmosphere of the earth could create these very different types of molecules.
Let it be granted that the earth could have four different atmospheres or at
least four different environments in four different places (as unlikely as that
seems). Let it be said that amino acids could be produced in one ocean, nucleic
acids could be produced in another, and carbohydrates in still another. Where lipids
could be spontaneously created, it would be hard to say, but for now let it
just be granted that lipid molecules could be spontaneously produced somewhere
on the earth. After this, all four of the basic types of building block chemicals
would have to somehow float great distances from where they were created, and
meet up somewhere. At this meeting point, all these molecules would have to
exist in sufficient concentrations and the right proportions to allow the formation
of a living thing, despite the fragility of even some of these building block
Please consider this theory even more closely. For the moment, let it be assumed
that somehow amino acids, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids could all
simultaneously be produced at different points and find their way together (as
unlikely as that seems). Even if a ?soup? containing all four types of molecules,
even in the correct proportions were to come together by some seemingly inconceivable
process, that soup would be far from being able to produce life?very far. In
fact, it would never happen. What would be the requirements to allow the simplest
living thing to be viable? The simplest living thing would have to be able to:
1. Recognize, ingest and digest food.
2. Turn that food into usable energy.
It would probably have to be able to move as well. Bacteria are the simplest
known form of life which passes this test. Therefore, they will be used for
comparison. Viruses are simpler, but they are much too simple to live on their
own. They can only exist as parasites on more complex living things. One of the
simplest types of bacteria is E. coli. Consider E. coli as a model for the simplest
possible life form. E. coli are about one micrometer by three micrometers (0.001
by 0.003 mm) in size. They contain approximately 7×1011 atoms (that is about seven
hundred billion atoms!)
An electron micrograph of two E. coli with another coming into the top left
of the photo.
The single cell of an E. coli contains about three thousand different protein
molecules, fifty different carbohydrate molecules, forty different lipid molecules
and 1000 different nucleic acid molecules, as well as about five hundred other
simple organic molecules which do not fit into any of the above categories.
The skeptic could debate this model. They could claim that the first spontaneous
life form could contain only one hundred billion atoms, two thousand different
protein molecules and so forth. This would not change any of the arguments or
Consider for a moment the amazing level of the complexity of this simplest life
form, which supposedly
was created by a natural chemical process. For example,
consider one of the basic categories of molecules: proteins. Proteins are extremely
large and complex molecules. A model of what is a relatively very simple protein molecule
is given below as an example of the complexity of protein molecules.
Figure 4.2. A model of a very simple protein molecule, representing both the
size and the geometric complexity of protein molecules.
As another example of a protein molecule, consider hemoglobin (not a protein
molecule actually present in bacteria, but one which most readers have probably
heard of). The formula of hemoglobin is C2952H4664O832N812S8Fe4. Each of the
over nine thousand atoms must be connected in exactly the right order for hemoglobin
to work. Not only that, but every atom must be in exactly the correct geometric
orientation with respect to all the others in order for hemoglobin to function. This
protein consists of four separate chains, each containing 146 amino acids. Sickle
cell anemia is caused by replacing just one of the 146 amino acids with another
one. Urey and Miller may have shown that some of the twenty naturally occurring
amino acids in proteins could be synthesized in some sort of model atmosphere. This
is a huge leap from showing how actual protein molecules with biological activity
could form, to say the least. Notice that any protein molecule has to be composed
of twenty different amino acids. It is extremely unlikely, in fact one might
claim it would be impossible, for any environment to spontaneously produce all
twenty amino acids in a proportion which would allow even a single protein molecule
to be produced. Besides, any other amino acid molecules (outside the twenty which occur
in proteins) which were spontaneously created would have to be excluded from
the proteins in the first living thing. It is extremely difficult to see how this
could happen spontaneously.
The problem of making a biologically active protein molecule is even more immense.
There is even another level of impossibility layered on top of the three impossibilities
just described (formation of four types of biological molecules, formation of
all twenty amino acids, combination of those twenty into a biologically active
molecule). In order to discuss this, the structure of nucleic acids must be described
Nucleic acids, the material out of which genes are composed, like proteins,
are extremely complex molecules. A picture of one small proportion of a single
strand of DNA is given below.
Figure 4.3. Figure (a) on the left shows all of the atoms in a small portion
of the double-helical structure of DNA. Figure (b) on the right shows the same
portion of the molecule schematically. S = ribose sugar molecule, P = phosphate
group, and C, A, G and T represent purine and pyrimidine molecules.
DNA, as discovered by Watson and Crick, has a beautiful ?double-helical? structure.
A DNA molecule is a template which cells use to manufacture proteins. The process
by which this occurs, involving RNA as well as a number of protein molecules,
is very complex?beyond the scope of this book. In order for life to have formed
spontaneously, a large number of different nucleic acid molecules, all with
the correct double helical structure would have had to form simultaneously in
the same place. Not only that, but each of these DNA molecules would have needed
to be able to successfully manufacture protein molecules able to ingest and
metabolize food, to regulate nutrient levels in the cell, and to perform thousands
of different tasks in the cell.
The formation of all these DNA molecules by random association Figure 4.4 A logical inconsistency
?for spontaneous generation of life:
two classes of molecules, both of which require the other in order
to be synthesized. Which came first, DNA or enzymes?
of the accidentally formed soup of chemicals would involve a lot of coincidence,
to say the least. In fact, the probability of even one useful DNA molecule forming
spontaneously is essentially zero as will be shown. Not only this, but there
is a logical impossibility built into this supposed formation of the first cell
by accident. In living things, the formation of DNA molecules requires protein
molecules called enzymes, while the synthesis of the enzymes required to form
the DNA molecules in the first place requires the existence of DNA molecules.
(see figure 4.4 above).
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The atheist, of course, will answer
that they both were formed at the same time. Now that is amazing! The atheist
would claim that DNA molecule A, required to synthesize enzyme B, was spontaneously
formed by a chemical accident. The problem with this is that enzyme molecule B
might be one of the proteins required for DNA molecule A to be synthesized.
This creates an apparent logical impossibility, represented by the figure below.
Figure 4.4. An illogical pair of simultaneously created molecules.
Both of the uniquely paired molecules would have to be created simultaneously
by accident, even though both are required to synthesize their partner. That
would be an unbelievable coincidence.
The atheist theory of how life came to exist requires that all three thousand
of these almost unimaginably complex and delicate biologically active protein
molecules required for the first living cell to function and reproduce itself
all just happen to be created in the same place at the same time. Not only that,
but one thousand different nucleic acid molecules would also have to show up
in exactly the same place?and not just any nucleic acids?ones capable of synthesizing
the correct proteins to produce an active cell which can eat, grow, and reproduce.
The problem of lipids and carbohydrates has not even yet been discussed, never
mind the five hundred ?other molecules? in the model E. coli cell.
One would think that scientists who believe life ?just happened? would have
a theory to explain from the laws of nature how all these incredibly complex
molecules came to exist and managed to coalesce into a living thing. This leap
in the theory from production of the simple amino acids, purines, pyrimidines
and carbohydrates to the supermolecules such as proteins, DNA, RNA and so forth
is one place where the scientists are really grasping at straws. A quote from
the book, Evolution and Christian Thought Today, by Hearn and Hendry can give a feel
for what believers in the spontaneous generation of life would say at this point.
It now seems reasonable to believe that the earth?s early atmosphere and the
constitution of its crust favored the formation of organic compounds, at least
locally, and that over the long periods of pre-biological time very large amounts
of chemical energy were accumulated in this way.
It seems highly possible, although still not clearly demonstrated, that natural
forces existed which would have favored the formation of highly complex molecules
and aggregates of such molecules, and that the chemical structures of such complexes
could have had some ability to catalyze certain types of chemical reactions. If
any of the reactions catalyzed were more favorable to the synthesis of the catalyst
than others, a mechanism such as natural selection could begin operating, even at this
pre-biological level. Gradually, this process could conceivably lead to increased
catalytic efficiency, given the randomness characteristic of molecular interactions
and sufficient time. It also seems likely that many of the metabolic reactions of
modern living things could have arisen separately in these pre-living complexes,
and that a complete metabolic machine may have appeared only after long periods
of chemical evolution of such systems. (emphasis mine)
This quote is from one of the earlier books on the subject, but it accurately
relates the heart of every theory of how this first life form ?just happened.?
This quote points out three elements necessary in any ?scientific? explanation
of the origin of life.
1. Natural selection of molecules.
2. Chemical evolution.
3. Sufficient time.
Is it reasonable for scientists to believe that molecules can undergo natural
selection? Can non-living chemicals evolve over time into more and more complex
molecules? Have these processes been observed in the laboratory? Do they agree
with the known laws of science? The answer in each case is an emphatic no! A magic
ingredient in this formula is ?sufficient time.? Does sufficient time increase
the probability of this happening? Again, the well-known laws of nature, which
any scientist is quite aware of, say no.
In order to answer the above question, refer back to the second law of thermodynamics.
This law governs what types of processes can and cannot happen. Processes which
result in a net decrease in entropy of a system and its environment do not happen.
Natural processes proceed from order to disorder. Proteins and nucleic acids are
molecules with an extreme amount of order. This would be especially true of
a protein or nucleic acid capable of some sort of biological activity. The probability
of a single active strand of DNA, which would be called a gene, being produced by
accident out of a solution, even if it contained some sort of ideal mixture
of purines, pyrimidines, deoxyribose sugar molecules and phosphate is essentially
zero. The probability of thousands of different active nucleic acid molecules being
produced together in one place is zero twice over (this is not exactly good
scientific terminology, but hopefully the point is made). The probability of
both of these events occurring, while at the same time about three thousand different
protein molecules are simultaneously being produced by chance out of some sea
of amino acids, with the enzymatic effect appropriate to promote replication
of DNA, metabolism, production of RNA, creation of cell walls, etc, is zero
three and four times over. One could go on and on with this line of reasoning,
but the point is made.
The evolutionist/atheist will cry that given sufficient time, this could happen.
That is simply not true. Time will not increase the probability. Even the building
block molecules needed to synthesize these huge molecules would not last very
long at all. For example, consider a quote from Melvin Calvin, the Nobel Prize
winner, from his book Chemical Evolution:
I should like to discuss the stabilities of these classes of molecular ?fossils.?
There are two important classes of materials that I have not yet mentioned,
namely amino acids coming from the peptides, and carbohydrates coming from various
kinds of polysaccharides. I have not described the amino acids or carbohydrates
of the mud because both of these compounds may be expected to, and do, disappear
quite rapidly. They do not remain as stable compounds for very long periods
of time in any large amounts.
Calvin is discussing studies of chemicals found in the decomposed mud below
lakes. He notes, as any chemist could have predicted, that the building blocks
required to produce life, in this case amino acids and polysaccharides (sugars),
are very short-lived. He could have said the same about the building blocks of nucleic
acids as well. The fact is that even these compounds, much simpler than proteins,
still have fairly low entropy, and, with time, decompose to more stable molecules.
These molecules simply do not last. Although the right mix of chemicals with some
energy added, such as that described by Urey and Miller, could produce a low
level of some of the amino acids, it could be predicted that these compounds
will decompose fairly rapidly to simpler molecules rather than continuously
build up over time. Simply allowing for ?sufficient time? would never allow
the concentrations of these compounds to build up to any appreciable level.
As an analogy, imagine a film of a large building being blown up, as is done
sometimes in the present day to old buildings. The viewer would see entropy
increasing at a very rapid rate! Now, imagine that film running backwards. One
would be seeing entropy dramatically decrease. In other words, it is an impossible
process. A random pile of twisted rubble made up of iron, concrete, pieces of
broken glass, plastic, styrofoam, wood, and so forth would never spontaneously
be turned into a building. Time would not increase the probability at all. In
fact, it would actually decrease the likelihood of a building forming spontaneously,
because presumably the first rain storm would scatter the stuff even more widely.
Similarly, life could not have formed spontaneously, and time would not increase the probability
of this happening.
To sum up this part of the argument, the known laws of nature simply do not
allow for life to ?just happen.? No amount of jumping up and down will change
this fact. Covering up this fact with a lot of scientific jargon does not change
the reality either. The concept of ?chemical evolution? with molecules gradually getting
more and more complex due to natural selection flies in the face of laws that
chemists know and use every day. The huge and incredibly-complex molecules required
for a living thing to function are not, never have been, and never will be produced
spontaneously. If not even one of these molecules could be produced, then surely
the precise proportion of several thousand different molecules of this type
could never be produced simultaneously and in the same place. See the appendix for a further,
more technical discussion of the relationship between the second law of thermodynamics
and the origin of life.