The origin of the first cell is a major challenge for evolutionist.
The origin of the first biological cell from nonliving chemicals is the most important problem challenging the worldview of those who think life arose entirely by natural, random, and purposeless processes. That is because a living and reproducing cell is required before any sort of naturalistic evolution can get started. This origin of the first cell is often referred to as abiogenesis.
Abiogenesis is a very challenging problem that has been awaiting a solution for decades. Most textbooks pass lightly over the problem and simply leave the students ignorant of why the problem exists. Over time a few solution attempts have been advanced and one or another of these is often found in textbooks. But it is universally recognized that these attempts are woefully inadequate. For example New Scientist magazine quotes the famed professor Paul Davies saying, “Nobody knows how a mixture of lifeless chemicals spontaneously organized themselves into the first living cell.”(1) All students should be given a basic understanding of why this is and an acquaintance with the most important issues that must be dealt with by a proposed hypothesis explaining the origin of the first cells from naturally occurring nonliving chemicals.
The first cell requires a complex system of coordinated molecules that work together like the parts of a machine to metabolize the surrounding sources of energy and to regularly reproduce the system before any form of evolution can start taking place. In all known life forms the complex of machines are largely composed of proteins with a control system that enables orderly operation of the machines and the system’s self-replication. The control system is embodied in the cell’s DNA along with the specifications for the proteins. A few of the more important and essential elements of this abiogenesis problem are discussed briefly below.
Origin of proteins and systems:
Before the first cells could arise from nonliving chemicals a system of proteins must be brought together to form the components of a machine. These proteins cannot be some randomly occurring set; rather, they must be highly specific in order to work together like the parts of a complex machine to perform many necessary functions. Each of these proteins is made up of a long chain of amino acids ordered in a very specific sequence. A typical chain length is 400 specific amino acids. To have a specific sequence of amino acids occur by random processes is difficult to justify so let’s first consider a very favorable idealized case. Assume we have a beaker or vat filled with nothing but the 20 amino acid molecules needed for these proteins. If only random events are at work there will be one chance in 20400, or about 10520, of obtaining the specific protein sequence needed. This number is so large it is very difficult to comprehend. For comparison one might note that astronomers estimate that there are about 1080atoms in the observable universe. But even that is an extremely tiny number compared to 10520 ! So by random unguided processes there is no useful chance of obtaining any one specific protein. What is worse is that conservative estimates of the number of coordinated proteins needed to form the system of molecular machines in the simplest cell are at least several hundred. A 2006 estimate by Hamilton Smith at the J. Craig Venter Institute came up with a minimum size of 387 proteins.(2) At present there is no reasonable way known to overcome the immense improbability of a random unguided process producing a protein system like this even under ideal conditions.
Folding and Chirality:
The problem is actually much larger than just obtaining the necessary sequence of amino acids found in the protein chains because these chains must be folded into the correct three dimensional shape in order to function as parts of molecular machines. The necessary shape for functionality, once we have the required sequence, is most often not one of the naturally occurring shapes. In living cells there are molecular machines called chaperones that enable this folding in the correct manner and still other machines conduct the new protein to the place where it is needed. But how is this done before the first cell was complete? Further, each of the 20 amino acids naturally occurs in two different three dimensional forms or stereoisomers with a symmetry like our left and right hand. This left and right handed symmetry is referred to as chirality. However, the proteins in living systems are made exclusively of left handed amino acids! If a right handed amino acid gets into the protein chain it usually cannot fold into the correct functional shape. So this folding and stereoisomers add two additional dimensions of complexity to obtaining a system of proteins. But here is another problem: all naturally occurring chemical processes produce a fifty-fifty mixture of the two stereoisomers of each amino acid. So how did the first cells exclude the right handed amino acids molecules – fully one-half of the naturally occurring molecules?
Destructive chemical processes:
Any naturally occurring environment will be far from ideal and there will be a number of processes working against the assembly of a system of proteins with the correct sequences of amino acids of exclusively left-handed chirality all folded in the three dimensional shape that will make them functional parts of a machine. Let’s briefly consider four of the most basic natural chemical processes that are working to take protein chains apart. First if there is a large proportion of water present, like a pond, lake or ocean, then the water itself will react with the amino acid chains and break the bonds by a process called hydrolysis. Living cells have elaborate mechanisms to protect their proteins from hydrolysis but how would this work before the first complete cell? Second, if there is sunlight or lightning present then there will be substantial amounts of ultraviolet light present. The photons of UV light have enough energy that they will break down the amino acid bonds. Third, if there is any free oxygen present then the oxygen will vigorously react with the protein chains destroying them. The process of photo-dissociation due to UV light from the sun hitting water vapor molecules in the atmosphere ensures that there has always been some free oxygen present in the atmosphere. No solid consensus has been reached on the amount of oxygen present in the early atmosphere, but there is sufficient evidence in the geologic record to make some geologists conclude that there has always been some significant amount of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Fourth, in any natural environment there will be a great variety of chemicals contaminates present that will react with the amino acids as the proteins form and that will destroy the needed sequence and three dimensional shapes and eliminate any functionality.
DNA and information:
Of course all living cells have the information necessary for assembling proteins and a control system that regulates the operation of the cell’s molecular machines stored in DNA. So some biologists have conjectured that DNA and RNA came first before the cell. But that would entail all of the same kinds of problems with their assembly by natural processes as with proteins. In any case a living cell would require a complete system of information and a control system right from the start! This obviously raises the question, where did the information come from? Systems of information are never observed to arise from random processes. Some biologists insist that it must happen because, “here we are!” But they can offer no physical cause and effect hypothesis that is testable. On top of that, all of the same general kinds of destructive processes discussed above also operate to destroy DNA and RNA as well as proteins. The bottom line is that DNA requires the protection and operating machinery of a cell before it can do anything or even survive. The information content of the first cell must be accounted for in a rigorous and rational way.
These are some of the basic problems that must be simultaneously overcome to develop a potentially successful hypothesis explaining the origin of the first cells from nonliving chemical in a natural environment. No hypothesis has yet come anywhere close to overcoming these problems. Some have tried to avoid UV light and free oxygen by supposing the first cells developed deep in the oceans; but even so all the rest of the problems above still comprise an insurmountable obstacle. The bottom line is that given all the time, energy, and material in any presumed history of the universe there is no conceivable way for the origin of the first cell to occur by random unguided processes.
It is common to hear assertions that solution of the abiogenesis problem is just a matter of time, but with so many intractable problems involved it is clear that such an assertion is merely a bluff. Without a doubt anyone who makes any substantial step forward on the abiogenesis problem will win a Nobel Prize. Clearly, it will require many major steps forward to even bring a solution within sight. In the meantime everyone interested in origins or biology needs to have a clear basic knowledge of the basic difficulties involved in the abiogenesis problem in order to be considered reasonably well educated.
In contrast to the naturalist who claims that only random and purposeless processes exist, as soon as we consider the possibility that intelligence and purposeful design are involved as well as random processes, then the abiogenesis problem takes on a distinctly different light. With purposeful intelligent design involved, the high level of systematic organization and design just reflect on the high level of the intelligence and design capability of the designer involved. Likewise the above mentioned need for a source of information is solved by the involvement of intelligence in the origin of life because intelligence is the only source of information that is observed by science. Thus the science of abiogenesis clearly demands that all interested in scientific truth will give careful open minded consideration to the involvement of an intelligent and purposeful designer.
(1) Davies, P., Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Macquarie University, Sydney, New Scientist 179:32, 12 July, 2003.
(2) Smith, H. O. Essential genes of a minimal bacterium, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 103:425–430, 2006
There are many definitions of science but most are so broad that they really don’t tell us much. It is much more informative to recognize two major subdivisions of science, namely empirical science and historical science. Properly understood these categories can be very helpful for all to understand what enables the marvelous power and productivity of science and where some ideological traps exist as well. This understanding will clarify the issues for everyone and particularly for students preparing for college. The concept developed below will also help institutional leaders, parents, and students understand how science relates to faith and when to fully embrace science and when to carefully question some of the assumptions.
Empirical (or operational) science involves:
- Repeatableobservation and measurement followed by analysis, hypothesis building and testing. It is essential to note that these activities can only be done in the present.
- Empirical science is responsible for developing all of the laws of physics and chemistry and all of modern technology and medicine. No contribution to any of these things could be accepted without obtaining highly repeatable experimental results first. Repeatability of observations and measurements is the essential thing that establishes scientific facts.
- Empirical science is completely external and independent of one’s concept of who or what we are or what the distant past might have been. This is because empirical science is built on repeatable observation and measurements made by multiple observers in the present. Once we obtain repeatable empirical results, it no longer matters what our preconceptions were, what our self-concept might be, or what our concept of the past might be.
Historical (or forensic) science involves:
- Unobservable and unrepeatable events of the past. The distant past is neither observable nor repeatable so scientists must make multiple assumptions, inferences, extrapolations, and conjectures about past events.
- Trying to understand the distant past, scientists must make some assumptions about the origin conditions and about the continuity conditions that prevail over time. Then they must infer, extrapolate and conjecture what events through time might connect these assumptions to the known repeatable facts of empirical science observed in the present.
- Historical sciencetells us something about where we came from, who we are (or ‘should’ be), and where we might (or ‘should’) go from here. These are intensely interesting and often controversial issues. These issues also involve worldviews and religious positions. These issues also guide the formulation of the assumptions in the item above and quite possibly involve circular logic as well.
One Big fallacy:
People, the media, and even scientists frequently point to the marvelous success of empirical science as proof that the assumptions, inferences, extrapolations, and conjecture involved in the historical sciences are equally sound, or true. This is a major fallacy! It is totally false!
Empirical science depends only on repeatable observation, measurement, and testing. Empirical science does not depend on anyone’s concept, conjecture, extrapolation, opinion, theory, or model of the distant past. Empirical science is independent of historical science! Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves and maybe you too.
Historical science must agree with the repeatable observational facts of the present, empirical science. But historical science must add to that some additional assumptions about origin and continuity conditions trough time plus some inference, extrapolation, and conjecture about how all these work together to result in the presently observed repeatable facts of empirical science. Historical science depends on many assumptions and conjecture that are not needed for empirical science at all. Note also that these assumptions and conjectures are easily influenced by worldviews and religious concepts.
The end result is that empirical science is independent of historical science. But historical science is dependent on empirical science plus a lot of assumption and conjecture as well. So the success of empirical science in no way suggests any validity of historical science.
Remember this fallacy! Don’t be fooled! Point out the fallacy when it is committed by others.
Illustrating These Relationships
Let’s develop a picture of these relationships. We can start with a horizontal timeline. Then mark the present time with a vertical line and indicate a few points representing a few of the repeatable facts of empirical science observed in the present. Then we have a diagram like the following representing empirical science:
Next we can mark off a vertical line in the very distant past and some points to represent our origin assumptions. For example we must make some assumptions about where space, time, and matter originally come from? We will also need assumptions about continuity through time, the conservation laws of physics for example.
Next we can fill in the intervening time with the Big Bang history of the universe, the geologic column, and a branch of the evolutionary ‘tree of life’ to represent the current consensus thinking in the historical sciences.
In this diagram we can see that the repeatable observations of empirical science are determined independent of any concept of the past. But also our theories of the historical sciences, cosmology, historical geology, and evolution, are dependent on many assumptions and conjectures as well as the facts of empirical science. What is not shown in the diagram is that many of the assumptions and conjecture arises from worldview convictions such a theism or atheism. All this makes historical science fairly unstable, subject to changing assumptions, worldviews, or wholesale replacement in paradigm shifts.
However, empirical science does not depend on anything about historical science or worldview issues; it depends only on repeatable observations in the present. Empirical science has a very much more firm foundation than historical science and it is not much subject to being disproved or rejected in the future although it will be refined and expanded into areas we cannot observe or experiment with right now.
Historical science based heavily on assumptions guided by worldviews is unstable, much more subject to change. People who base their faith on such science will likely have the ‘rug pulled from under them’ leaving them doubting their own faith and generally being a poor witness.
The Christian community should be confident of empirical science and all the marvelous modern technology and medicine that results. But we should be very wary of basing our faith or Biblical interpretations on the historical sciences.
Scientists and Worldviews
In order to develop some objective idea of how wide spread theistic and atheistic worldviews are among the science community, Dr. Edward Larson, a professor of law and history, conducted a carefully designed survey of scientist1. The question he posed was do you believe in 1) a God that answers prayer, 2) an afterlife, and 3) that God guided evolution.
This question separates strong theists from others. The third part of the question is especially significant because the science establishment teaches that evolution is entirely random and purposeless.
Larson first sampled the broad scope of all scientists and found that 40% agreed while 60% did not agree with his three part question. That means that there is a large minority of strong theists among scientists who might personally question something of the conventional wisdom about evolution.
Larson also surveyed the National Academy of Sciences as leaders of the scientific establishment. Here Larson found that only 7% agreed while 93% did not. So the top of the science establishment is very heavily dominated by atheists and agnostics. Larson’s published articles suggests that a large part of the reason might be due to the fact that the NAS elects its own membership and they are naturally not likely to elect someone who is not likeminded.
The true significance of this imbalance can be recognized when one understands that these scientists at the top of the institutions also control the peer-reviewed science publications, research funding, career advancement, and the educational institutions. The result is that no scientist can carry on a productive career in the sciences without the approval of the 93% who are atheists or agnostics. In general creationists of all kinds have to largely keep their mouth shut and “stay in the closet”. As a result publication or research based on any alternate assumptions that might seem to recognize the possibility of a role for God in the history of the universe will simply receive no publication, research funding, or institutional support.
One might protest that science is a search for truth and that is correct. In fact good science should in principle carefully explore all possible assumptions and their consequences. But you must realize that the top scientists in these institutions believe they already know the truth about God; they assert there is no such thing. Nothing compatible with anything supernatural will be tolerated in the science establishment. Any such thing will likely be deliberately excluded and that has often been done.
Remember, historical science suggests something about where we came from, who we are, and what we should be. The atheists are committed to keeping anything suggesting God or anything possibly supernatural out of the picture. However, students need to learn to look for these assumptions and questions them at least in their own mind. Otherwise they are very likely to be taught to see a universe and environment that needs no God. The necessary result will be students questioning their own personal faith.
To well understand the relationship between their faith and science, students and others need to recognize the difference between empirical science and historical science so they can freely embrace and utilize empirical science, and at the same time carefully study and question the assumptions, conjectures and conclusions of historical science. It is important for students to routinely ask questions like, “How do you come to that conclusion?” or “Why do you think that is true?” Empirical science will provide answers based on repeatable observations but the historical sciences will often present assertions supported primarily by authority claims, consensus claims (the 93%), and conjectural hand waving. Recognizing these relationships will help students to not only defend and grow their faith but also represent their faith to those around them in a highly respectable way.
In contrast various parts of the Christian community seem to have come to the conclusion that the historical sciences should be accepted more or less without question. Perhaps some feel that freely accepting the historical sciences will enable students and the Christian community in general to be respected by the science establishment and that will enable evangelism of the atheists among the scientists there. Unfortunately, it seems to be that what actually happens with such an approach is that it enables the atheists to evangelize our students to the extent that 75% of them never come back to the Christian community.
The following E. J. Larson articles include information on the survey discussed above.
- The Evolution Debate, 116 Christian Century 1026 (1999)
- Scientists and Religion in America, 281 Scientific American 88 (1999)
- Leading scientists still reject God, Nature, Vol. 394 (1998) 313