Prebiological Evolution

When the Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana law requir­ing balanced treatment for creation-science, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the decision because he thought that "The people of Louisiana, including those who are Christian fundamentalists, are quite entitled ... to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools." Stephen Jay Gould was baffled that a jurist of Scalia's erudition (he had held professorships at several major universities) would entertain the absurd notion that fundamentalists could have scientific evidence against evolution. Gould went looking in Scalia's opinion for an explanation, and found Prebiological Evolution it in various sentences implying that evolution is a theory about the origin of life.

In an article correcting "Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding," Gould tried to set the matter straight. Evolution, he wrote, "is not the study of life's ultimate origin, as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning." Even the purely scientific aspects of life's first


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appearance on earth belong to other divisions of science, because "evolution" is merely the study of how life changes once it is already in existence. Because he misunderstood the strictly limited subject matter of evolution, Scalia had tumbled into the misunderstanding that Prebiological Evolution it is possible to have rational objections to the doctrines of evolutionary science.

In fact, Justice Scalia used the general term "evolution" exactly as scientists use it—to include not only biological evolution but also prebiological or chemical evolution, which seeks to explain how life first evolved from nonliving chemicals. Biological evolution is just one major part of a grand naturalistic project, which seeks to explain the origin of everything from the Big Bang to the present without allowing any role to a Creator. If Darwinists are to keep the Creator out of the picture, they have to Prebiological Evolution provide a naturalistic expla­nation for the origin of life.

Speculation about prebiological evolution began to appear as soon as The Origin of Species had made its impact, with Darwin's "German Bulldog" Ernst Haeckel taking the leading role at first. Darwin himself made a famous contribution to the field in an 1871 letter:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of Prebiological Evolution ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.

Robert Shapiro observed in 1986 that Darwin's offhand specula­tion "is remarkably current today, which is a tribute either to his foresight or our lack of progress." A generation ago the field of prebiological evolution seemed on the brink of spectacular success; today it is just about where Darwin left it.

The Prebiological Evolution basic difficulty in explaining how life could have begun is that all living organisms are extremely complex, and Darwinian selection cannot perform the designing even in theory until living organisms already exist and are capable of reproducing their kind.


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A Darwinist can imagine that a mutant rodent might appear with a web between its toes, and thereby gain some advantage in the struggle for survival, with the result that the new characteristic could spread through the population to await the arrival of further mutations leading eventually to winged flight. The trouble is that the scenario depends upon the rodent Prebiological Evolution having offspring that inherit the mutant characteristic, and chemicals do not produce offspring. The challenge of chemical evolution is to find a way to get some chemical combination to the point where reproduction and selec­tion could get started.

The field achieved its greatest success in the early 1950s when Stanley Miller, then a graduate student in the laboratory of Harold Urey at the University of Chicago, obtained small amounts of two amino acids by sending a spark through a mixture of gases thought to simulate the atmosphere of the early earth. Because amino acids are used Prebiological Evolution in building proteins, they are sometimes called the "build­ing blocks of life." Subsequent experiments based on the Miller-Urey model produced a variety of amino acids and other complex compounds employed in the genetic process, with the result that the more optimistic researchers concluded that the chemicals needed to construct life could have been present in sufficient abundance on the early earth.

The Miller-Urey experiment partially validated a theoretical model proposed by Alexander Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s. The Oparin-Haldane model postulated first that the early earth had a "reducing" atmosphere made up of Prebiological Evolution gases like methane, hydrogen, and ammonia, with little or no free oxygen. Second, into this atmosphere came various forms of energy, like the electric sparks in the Miller-Urey apparatus, forming the essential organic compounds. Third, in Haldane's words, these compounds "must have accumulated until the primitive oceans reached the consis­tency of hot dilute soup." Haldane's metaphor caught the journalis­tic imagination and the "prebiotic soup" has become an element of scientific folklore, presented to the public in books and museum exhibits as the known source of early life. The fourth element in the theory was Prebiological Evolution the most important and also the most mysterious: some­how life emerged from the prebiotic soup.



The limited success of the Miller-Urey experiment occurred in the years leading up to the Darwinian Centennial celebrations in


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1959. This was the height of neo-Darwinist triumphalism, just when the literally smashing debut of atomic energy had made it seem that all mysteries would yield to the power of scientific investi­gation. In that climate of opinion, the experiment appeared to have created life by a technique reassuringly similar to that employed by Dr. Frankenstein in the movies. The 1980s Prebiological Evolution have been a period of skeptical reassessment, however, during which specialists called into question each of the four elements in the Oparin-Haldane scenario.

Geochemists now report that the atmosphere of the early earth probably was not of the strongly reducing nature required for the Miller-Urey apparatus to give the desired results. Even under ideal and probably unrealistic conditions, the experiments failed to pro­duce some df the necessary chemical components of life. Perhaps the most discouraging criticism has come from chemists, who have spoiled the prebiotic soup by showing that organic compounds produced on the early earth Prebiological Evolution would be subject to chemical reactions making them unsuitable for constructing life. In all probability, the prebiotic soup could never have existed, and without it there is no reason to believe that the production of small amounts of some amino acids by electrical charge in a reducing atmosphere had anything to do with the origin of life.

Although these objections to the significance of the Miller-Urey results are important, for present purposes I prefer to disregard them as a distraction from the main point. Let us grant that, one way or another, all the required chemical components were Prebiological Evolution present on the early earth. That still leaves us at a dead end, because there is no reason to believe that life has a tendency to emerge when the right chemicals are sloshing about in a soup. Although some compo­nents of living systems can be duplicated with very advanced tech­niques, scientists employing the full power of their intelligence cannot manufacture living organisms from amino acids, sugars, and the like. How then was the trick done before scientific intel­ligence was in existence?

The simplest organism capable of independent life, the pro-karyote bacterial cell, is Prebiological Evolution a masterpiece of miniaturized complexity which makes a spaceship seem rather low-tech. Even if one assumes that something much simpler than a bacterial cell might suffice to start Darwinist evolution on its way—a DNA or RNA macro-molecule, for example—the possibility that such a complex entity


106 Darwin on Trial

could assemble itself by chance is still fantastically unlikely, even if billions of years had been available.

I won't quote figures because exponential numbers are unreal to people who are not used to them, but a metaphor by Fred Hoyle has become famous because it vividly conveys the magnitude of the Prebiological Evolution problem: that a living organism emerged by chance from a pre-biotic soup is about as likely as that "a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein." Chance assembly is just a naturalistic way of saying "miracle."

A scientific explanation of this miracle is not absolutely necessary, because in extremis Darwinists can handle the problem with philo­sophical argument. Life obviously exists, and if a naturalistic pro­cess is the only conceivable explanation for its existence, then the difficulties must not be as insuperable as they appear. Even the most discouraging aspects Prebiological Evolution of the situation can be turned to advantage when they are viewed with the eye of faith. For example, life seems to have existed in cellular form nearly four billion years ago, per­haps as soon as the earth had sufficiently cooled. That means that the emergence of the first self-replicating molecules, and the subse­quent evolution of all the machinery of the cell, had to occur within a brief period of geological time. Far from being discouraged by the limited time available, Carl Sagan drew the conclusion that life was likely to have evolved on other planets Prebiological Evolution as well. His reasoning was that the spontaneous origin of life must be relatively easy, since it happened so quickly on the early earth.

For those not so easily satisfied, the cosmological "anthropic prin­ciple" is available to tame the unfavorable odds. This principle starts with the existence of observers—ourselves -and works backwards. If the circumstances required for life to evolve had not existed we would not be here to comment upon the matter. Those circum­stances may seem very unlikely given our limited knowledge, but we have no way of knowing how many universes there are, or Prebiological Evolution may have been. In an infinity of time and space even the most unlikely event must happen at least once, and we necessarily exist in the corner of reality where the particular set of coincidences necessary for our existence happened to occur.

Richard Dawkins, who has Darwin's own facility for turning a liability into an asset, has even argued that the improbability of the origin of life scenarios is a point in their favor. He reasons that "An


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apparently (to ordinary human consciousness) miraculous theory is exactly the kind of theory we should be looking for in this Prebiological Evolution particular matter of the origin of life." This is because "evolution has equipped our brains with a subjective consciousness of risk and improbability suitable for creatures with a lifetime of less than one century."

Dawkins is actually encouraged by the failure of scientists to dupli­cate the spontaneous generation of life in their laboratories. After all, scientists can't duplicate biological macroevolution either. If making life were easy enough that scientists could do it, then nature would have caused life to originate spontaneously on earth many times, as well as on planets within radio range. As it appears that Prebiological Evolution this did not happen, failure to duplicate the origin of life in the laboratory is just what Darwinist theory would lead us to expect.l

When it becomes necessary to rely on arguments like that one, the experimental work must be going very badly. For those who prefer to address the problem with scientific methodology instead of rhe­torical virtuosity, a way must be found to extend the concept of evolution to a level prior to the molecules of the genetic system. In contemporary organisms, DNA RNA, and proteins are mutually interdependent, with DNA storing the genetic Prebiological Evolution information and copying it to RNA, RNA directing the synthesis of proteins, and proteins carrying on the essential chemical work of the cell. An evolutionary scenario must assume that this complex system evolved from a much simpler predecessor, probably employing at first only one of the three major constituents. Which came first, the nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) or the proteins? And how did the first living molecule function and evolve in the absence of the others?

Those questions define the agenda for the field of chemical evolu­tion, where several scenarios are competing for attention. I will describe the leading candidates Prebiological Evolution only briefly, because the subject is well covered in other books and there is widespread agreement that no theory has obtained any substantial experimental confirmation.

For some time the most popular contender has been the "naked gene" or "RNA first" hypothesis, based on the premise that life began when an RNA molecule somehow managed to synthesize

1 If readers suspect that Dawkins was not being serious when he advanced this argument, they are probably correct. He concluded the passage with the following sentence: "Having said all this I must confess that, because there is so much uncertainty in Prebiological Evolution the calculations, if a chemist did succeed in creating spontaneous life I would not be disconcerted!"


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itself from the organic compounds of the prebiotic soup. RNA is the most likely candidate for the first component of the genetic system because it not only acts as the carrier of genetic information in its "messenger" role, but it also is capable of catalyzing some chemical reactions in the manner of proteins. With this versatility it is conceiv­able that RNA might have carried on the essential functions of life in a primitive manner until true DNA and proteins could Prebiological Evolution evolve.

Conceivable is a long way from probable or experimentally veri­fiable, of course. In previous chapters we saw that there is no evidence that Darwinian selection is a sufficiently powerful design­ing force to transform a molecule or a cell into an abundance of complex plants and animals, even given a few billion years. Origin of life chemists take universal biological Darwinism for granted, but they can identify plenty of problems with the proposition that a self-replicating RNA molecule could have evolved from organic com­pounds on the early earth. The obstacles to prebiotic RNA synthesis were reviewed in Prebiological Evolution 1989 in a lengthy article by G. E Joyce in Nature. Joyce concluded that RNA is "not a plausible prebiotic molecule, because it is unlikely to have been produced in significant quantities on the primitive earth." As with other once-promising models of prebiological evolution, the "RNA-first" theory cannot survive de­tailed examination.

Joyce surmised that RNA itself would have had to have evolved from some simpler genetic system which is no longer in existence. An imaginative idea about what a prebiotic genetic system might have been like has been proposed by A. G. Cairns-Smith, most recently in a Prebiological Evolution charming book titled Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. Bizarre as the idea may appear at first, or even upon reflection, Cairns-Smith thinks that clay crystals have qualities that might make possible their combination into a form of pre-organic mineral life. According to Darwinist assumptions, natural selection would then favor the more efficient clay replicators, preparing the way for an eventual "genetic takeover" by organic molecules that had evolved because of their increasing usefulness in the pre-organic process.

The imagination involved in the mineral origin of life thesis is impressive, but for my Prebiological Evolution purpose it is sufficient to say that it is altogether lacking in experimental confirmation. According to the biochemist Klaus Dose, "This thesis is beyond the comprehension of


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all biochemists or molecular biologists who are daily confronted with the experimental facts of life." That would ordinarily be more than enough reason to discard a theory, but many scientists still take the idea of a mineral origin of life seriously because there is no clearly superior competitor.

There are other possibilities, including a "protein first" scenario that had appeared to be going out of fashion, but which may make a comeback due Prebiological Evolution to the devastating criticism the RNA rival has re­cently suffered. In fact, the absence of experimental support for any one theory leaves the door open for just about any speculation other than creationism. A general review of prebiological evolution­ary theories in 1988 by Klaus Dose concluded that "At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance." Gerald Joyce's 1989 review article ended with the somber observation that origin of life researchers have grown accustomed to a "lack of relevant experimental data" and a high level Prebiological Evolution of frustration.

Prospects for experimental success are so discouraging that the more enterprising researchers have turned to computer simulations that bypass the experimental roadblocks by employing convenient assumptions. An article in Science in 1990 summarized the state of computer research into "spontaneous self-organization," a concept based upon the premise that complex dynamical systems tend to fall into a highly ordered state even in the absence of selection pres­sures. This premise may seem to contradict the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that ordered energy inevitably collapses into disorder or maximum "entropy." There is reason to believe, however Prebiological Evolution, that in a local system (the earth) which takes in energy from outside (the sun), the second law permits some kinds of spontaneous self-organization to occur. For example, ordered struc­tures like snowflakes and crystals are common. More to the point, most scientists assume that life originated spontaneously and there­after evolved to its present state of complexity. This could not have happened и "Jess powerful self-organizing tendencies were present in nature.

Starting from assumptions like that, scientists can design com­puter models that mimic the origin of life and its subsequent evolu­tion. Whether Prebiological Evolution the models have any connection to reality is another question. According to Science, "Advocates of spontaneous organiza-


110 Darwin on Trial

tion are quick to admit that they aren't basing their advocacy on empirical data and laboratory experiments, but on abstract mathe­matics and novel computer models." The biochemist G. F. Joyce commented: "They have a long way to go to persuade mainstream biologists of the relevance [of this work]."

Assuming away the difficult points is one way to solve an intract­able problem; another is to send the problem off into space. That was the strategy of one of the world Prebiological Evolution's most famous scientists, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Crick is thoroughly aware of the awesome complexity of cellular life and the extreme difficulty of explaining how such life could have evolved in the time available on earth. So he speculated that conditions might have been more favorable on some distant planet.

That move leaves the problem of getting life from the planet of origin to earth. First in a paper with Leslie Orgel, and then in a book of his own, Crick advanced a theory he called "directed pan-spermia." The Prebiological Evolution basic idea is that an advanced extraterrestrial civiliza­tion, possibly facing extinction, sent primitive life forms to earth in a spaceship. The spaceship builders couldn't come themselves because of the enormous time required for interstellar travel; so they sent bacteria capable of surviving the voyage and the severe conditions that would have greeted them upon arrival on the early earth.

What kind of scientific evidence supports directed pan-spermia? Crick wrote that if the theory is true, we should expect that cellular microorganisms would appear suddenly, without evidence that any simpler forms preceded them. We should also expect to Prebiological Evolution find that the early forms were distantly related but highly distinct, with no evidence of ancestors because these existed only on the original planet. This expectation fits the facts perfectly, because the archae-bacteria and eubacteria are at the same time too different to have evolved from a common ancestor in the time available, and yet also too similar (sharing the same genetic language) not to have a com­mon source somewhere. Those who are tempted to ridicule di­rected pan-spermia should restrain themselves, because Crick's extraterrestrials are no more invisible than the universe of ancestors that Prebiological Evolution earth-bound Darwinists have to invoke.

Crick would be scornful of any scientist who gave up on scientific research and ascribed the origin of life to a supernatural Creator. But directed pan-spermia amounts to the same thing. The same


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limitations that made it impossible for the extraterrestrials to jour­ney to earth will make it impossible for scientists ever to inspect their planet. Scientific investigation of the origin of life is as effec­tively closed off as if God had reserved the subject for Himself.

When a scientist of Crick's caliber feels he has to Prebiological Evolution invoke undetect-able spacemen, it is time to consider whether the field of prebiologi­cal evolution has come to a dead end. And yet, despite the absence of experimental success, many scientists remain confident that the problem will be solved in the foreseeable future. To understand that confidence, we need to examine the most important intellectual question in the field—the way scientists define the "life" whose origin they are trying to discover.

In Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, A. G. Cairns-Smith explains the Darwinist conception of life which underlies the field of prebiologi­cal evolution. "Life Prebiological Evolution is a product of evolution," he writes, and the indispensable element in evolution is natural selection. This means that the purpose of a living thing "is to survive, to compete, to reproduce its kind against the odds." The goal of prebiological science therefore, is to find (or at least to imagine) the simplest combination of chemicals that might be capable of competing and reproducing, so that natural selection can begin its work. In this view, natural selection is not just something that happens to life; it is the defining characteristic of life.

When "life" is defined as matter evolving by natural Prebiological Evolution selection, there is every reason to be confident of finding an evolutionary explanation for its origin. If Darwin really explained in 1859 how all the complex and diverse forms of life can evolve from a single microorganism, then surely our much more advanced science will not long be stymied at the final step. But what if Darwin was wrong, and natural selection doesn't have the fantastic creative power Dar­winists credit it with? In that case prebiological science has miscon­ceived the problem, and its efforts are as doomed to futility as the efforts of medieval alchemists to transform Prebiological Evolution lead into gold.

The Darwinistic definition of life is Cairns-Smith's philosophical preference. When he describes what he actually sees, however, he tells of something very different:

After all what impresses us about a living thing is its in-built inge­nuity, its appearance of having been designed, thought out—of hav-


112 Darwin on Trial

ing been put together with a purpose.... The singular feature is the
[enormous] gap between the simplest conceivable version of organ­
isms as we know them, and components that the Earth might reason­
ably have been able to generate…. But the real trouble arises

because too Prebiological Evolution much of the complexity seems to be necessary to the whole way in which organisms work.

Cairns-Smith also describes the "messages" contained in the ge­netic information stored in the "library" of each cell's DNA, which are transcribed and translated to direct the synthesis of proteins. His language is entirely typical of others who write about this subject: practically all stress the appearance of design and purpose, the immense complexity of the simplest cell, and the apparent need for many complex components to work together to sustain life. Everyone uses the vocabulary of intelligent communication to de Prebiological Evolution­scribe protein synthesis: messages, programmed instructions, lan­guages, information, coding and decoding, libraries.

Why not consider the possibility that life is what it so evidently seems to be, the product of creative intelligence?2 Science would not come to an end, because the task would remain of deciphering the languages in which genetic information is communicated, and in general finding out how the whole system works. What scientists would lose is not an inspiring research program, but the illusion of total mastery of nature. They would have to face the possibility that beyond the natural world there is Prebiological Evolution a further reality which transcends science.

Facing that possibility is absolutely unacceptable, however. The reason why is the subject of the next two chapters.

2 Cairns-Smith's answer is that he is inclined to the "majority prejudice," which is that the "exorcism [of supernatural forces] that Darwin initiated will continue right back to the origin of life."


Chapter Nine


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