Recently, I picked up the audio book version of “The Privileged Planet”, which is a book by philosopher / economist Jay Richards and astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. This book is different from books about the origin of the universe and cosmic fine-tuning. It talks about what it takes to make a habitable planet. And it talks about how the habitable places in the universe are also the best places to make scientific discoveries.
Christian scholar Jay Richards was interviewed by Brian Auten of Apologetics 315.
There are two problems related to the origin of the first living cell, on atheism:
The problem of getting the building blocks needed to create life – i.e. the amino acids
The problem of creating the functional sequences of amino acids and proteins that can support the minimal operations of a simple living cell
Normally, I concede the first problem and grant the atheist all the building blocks he needs. This is because step 2 is impossible. There is no way, on atheism, to form the sequences of amino acids that will fold up into proteins, and then to form the sequences of proteins that can be used to form everything else in the cell, including the DNA itself.
Today, let’s take a look at the problems with step 1.
The problem of getting the building blocks of life
Now you may have heard that some scientists managed to spark some gasses to generate most of the 20 amino acids found in living systems. These experiments are called the “Miller-Urey” experiments.
Miller’s experiment requires a reducing methane and ammonia atmosphere,11, 12 however geochemical evidence says the atmosphere was hydrogen, water, and carbon dioxide (non-reducing).15, 16 The only amino acid produced in a such an atmosphere is glycine (and only when the hydrogen content is unreasonably high), and could not form the necessary building blocks of life.11
Miller and Urey didn’t account for UV of molecular instability:
Not only would UV radiation destroy any molecules that were made, but their own short lifespans would also greatly limit their numbers. For example, at 100ºC (boiling point of water), the half lives of the nucleic acids Adenine and Guanine are 1 year, uracil is 12 years, and cytozine is 19 days20 (nucleic acids and other important proteins such as chlorophyll and hemoglobin have never been synthesized in origin-of-life type experiments19).
Miller and Urey didn’t account for molecular oxygen:
We all have know ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life from harmful UV radiation. However, ozone is composed of oxygen which is the very gas that Stanley Miller-type experiments avoided, for it prevents the synthesis of organic molecules like the ones obtained from the experiments! Pre-biotic synthesis is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. The chemistry does not work if there is oxygen because the atmosphere would be non-reducing, but if there is no UV-light-blocking oxygen (i.e. ozone – O3) in the atmosphere, the amino acids would be quickly destroyed by extremely high amounts of UV light (which would have been 100 times stronger than today on the early earth).20, 21, 22 This radiation could destroy methane within a few tens of years,23 and atmospheric ammonia within 30,000 years.15
And there were three other problems too:
At best the processes would likely create a dilute “thin soup,”24 destroyed by meteorite impacts every 10 million years.20, 25 This severely limits the time available to create pre-biotic chemicals and allow for the OOL.
Chemically speaking, life uses only “left-handed” (“L”) amino acids and “right-handed” (“R)” genetic molecules. This is called “chirality,” and any account of the origin of life must somehow explain the origin of chirality. Nearly all chemical reactions produce “racemic” mixtures–mixtures with products that are 50% L and 50% R.
Two more problems are not mentioned in the article. A non-peptide bond anywhere in the chain will ruin the chain. You need around 200 amino acids to make a protein. If any of the bonds is not a peptide bond, the chain will not work in a living system. Additionally, the article does not mention the need for the experimenter to intervene in order to prevent interfering cross-reactions that would prevent the amino acids from forming.
Now keep in mind that even if you get the building blocks, you are left with the sequencing problem. Like the letters of the words in this blog post, the building blocks of life also need to be put in a meaningful sequence in order to do work in a living system – but that’s another topic for another day.
Here’s a paper published in the prestigious peer-reviewed science journal Nature, entitled “The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere”. This paper is significant because it undermines naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life.
A recent Nature publication reports a new technique for measuring the oxygen levels in Earth’s atmosphere some 4.4 billion years ago. The authors found that by studying cerium oxidation states in zircon, a compound formed from volcanic magma, they could ascertain the oxidation levels in the early earth. Their findings suggest that the early Earth’s oxygen levels were very close to current levels.
[…]Miller and Urey conducted experiments to show that under certain atmospheric conditions and with the right kind of electrical charge, several amino acids could form from inorganic compounds such as methane, ammonia, and water. Several experiments have been done using various inorganic starting materials, all yielding a few amino acids; however, one key aspect of all of these experiments was the lack of oxygen.
If the atmosphere has oxygen (or other oxidants) in it, then it is an oxidizing atmosphere. If the atmosphere lacks oxygen, then it is either inert or a reducing atmosphere. Think of a metal that has been left outside, maybe a piece of iron. That metal will eventually rust. Rusting is the result of the metal being oxidized. With organic reactions, such as the ones that produce amino acids, it is very important that no oxygen be present, or it will quench the reaction. Scientists, therefore, concluded that the early Earth must have been a reducing environment when life first formed (or the building blocks of life first formed) because that was the best environment for producing amino acids. The atmosphere eventually accumulated oxygen, but life did not form in an oxidative environment.
The problem with this hypothesis is that it is based on the assumption that organic life must have formed from inorganic materials. That is why the early Earth must have been a reducing atmosphere. Research has been accumulating for more than thirty years, however, suggesting that the early Earth likely did have oxygen present.
[…]Their findings not only showed that oxygen was present in the early Earth atmosphere, something that has been shown in other studies, but that oxygen was present as early as 4.4 billion years ago. This takes the window of time available for life to have begun, by an origin-of-life scenario like the RNA-first world, and reduces it to an incredibly short amount of time. Several factors need to coincide in order for nucleotides or amino acids to form from purely naturalistic circumstances (chance and chemistry). The specific conditions required already made purely naturalist origin-of-life scenarios highly unlikely. Drastically reducing the amount of time available, adding that to the other conditions needing to be fulfilled, makes the RNA world hypothesis or a Miller-Urey-like synthesis of amino acids simply impossible.
So here’s where we stand. If you are a materialist, then you need a reducing environment on the early Earth in order to get organic building blocks (amino acids) from inorganic materials. However, the production of these organic building blocks (amino acids) requires that the early Earth atmosphere be oxygen-free. And the problem with this new research, which confirms previous research, is that the early Earth contained huge amounts of oxygen – the same amount of oxygen as we have today. This is lethal to naturalistic scenarios for creating the building blocks of life on the Earth’s surface.
The “origin of life” (OOL) is best described as the chemical and physical processes that brought into existence the first self-replicating molecule. It differs from the “evolution of life” because Darwinian evolution employs mutation and natural selection to change organisms, which requires reproduction. Since there was no reproduction before the first life, no “mutation – selection” mechanism was operating to build complexity. Hence, OOL theories cannot rely upon natural selection to increase complexity and must create the first life using only the laws of chemistry and physics.
There are so many problems with purely natural explanations for the chemical origin of life on earth that many scientists have already abandoned all hopes that life had a natural origin on earth. Skeptical scientists include Francis Crick (solved the 3-dimensional structure of DNA) and Fred Hoyle (famous British cosmologist and mathematician), who, in an attempt to retain their atheistic worldviews, then propose outrageously untestable cosmological models or easily falsifiable extra-terrestrial-origin-of-life / panspermia scenarios which still do not account for the natural origin of life. So drastic is the evidence that Scientific American editor John Horgan wrote, “[i]f I were a creationist, I would cease attacking the theory of evolution … and focus instead on the origin of life. This is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology.”3
The article goes over the standard problems with naturalistic scenarios of the origin of life: wrong atmosphere, harmful UV radiation, interfering cross-reactions, oxygen levels, meteorite impacts, chirality, etc.
Most people who are talking about intelligent design at the origin of life talk about the information problem – how do you get the amino acids to form proteins and how do you get nucleotide bases to code for amino acids? But the starting point for solving the sequencing problem is the construction of the amino acids – there has to be a plausible naturalistic scenario to form them.