The Origin of Life — Miraculous or Mundane?

At the website of a weekly newspaper called the Algemeiner Journal, described by Wikipedia as “a New York-based weekly newspaper, covering American and international Jewish and Israel-related news,” we found this interesting article by an orthodox rabbi: A Belated Reply to Dr. P.Z. Myers.

It’s a thoughtful piece in which the rabbi hopes to challenge PZ to a debate. He talks a lot about “specified complexity” and “functional complexity,” but then he gets away from that. He frames the debate by acknowledging that the universe is billions of years old, and that evolution has been occurring on Earth for a very long time, and a few other items, such as:

4. At the present time there is no conclusive evidence to support any particular scientific theory which would explain how the gap between non-organic chemicals on the early Earth and the first living bacterium was crossed.

5. The fact that at present there is no plausible scientific theory to provide a naturalistic explanation of how life emerged from non-life does not, in and of itself, mean that it did not happen and does not preclude the possibility that such a theory will be discovered in the future. Almost all origin-of-life researchers believe that one day such a theory will be discovered.

6. The fact that such a scientific theory does not exist, does not in and of itself lead to the conclusion that life was created by some sort of intelligent creator.

The ultimate question he wants to discuss is this:

What is the most reasonable explanation for the origin of life on Earth: An intelligent creator or an unguided, naturalistic process?

That’s a good question, intelligently asked, and it’s worth some thought. We have no intention of stepping on PZ’s toes here. He’s a big boy and he can certainly handle his end of this debate — if he chooses to become engaged. But whether he does or doesn’t (he may be doing so even as we speak), we thought the rabbi’s question was worthy of some attention, so we herewith offer a few thoughts that occur to us.

Our guess is that the rabbi is basing his incredulous attitude about the natural occurrence of life on his notion that it’s an unlikely and therefore (to him) an inherently incredible happening. Okay, we understand that, but does it justify even considering the conclusion that life’s origin was supernatural?

What is a supernatural event? To us, it’s something that — quite simply — cannot happen according to natural law; it requires supernatural intervention to bring it about. Scripture abounds with such events — talking serpents, Noah’s Flood, the burning bush, turning water into wine, and of course the Resurrection. Those are miracles, no question about it.

The rabbi must concede that the combining of organic molecules into a self-replicating molecule isn’t literally impossible — it doesn’t contradict anything we know about chemistry and physics. Indeed, scientists keep getting closer to producing synthetic life in the lab (see Synthesis of Self-Replicating RNA Molecules).

If the rabbi concedes, as he should, that the natural emergence of life isn’t impossible, then we’re left with two facts in his favor: (1) we haven’t done it yet in the lab; and (2) we haven’t observed it happen in the wild. Number one doesn’t prove anything, and the rabbi recognizes this. Scientists engaged in such work confidently predict that they will accomplish their goal, perhaps within a decade, or even sooner — see Venter says ‘synthetic life coming’.

As for item number two, just because we haven’t seen organic molecules self-assemble into something that could be described as life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. The circumstances may be so unusual as to be a once-in-a-billion-years event; but with all the organic material drifting around in the oceans, it could be something that routinely happens from time to time — perhaps it happens quite often. However, given all the competing life that already exists, anything new that shows up probably doesn’t have much of a future, so we’re unlikely to ever become aware of it. Whether or not totally new life sometimes develops in the murky depths, we don’t search all the millions of cubic miles of ocean for such things, so they’re never seen. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen naturally, or that it hasn’t happened.

We conclude that because the possibility of life occurring naturally is not something contrary to the laws of nature — regardless of the rarity of such an event — it’s therefore not a miracle. That being the case, there is no need to resort to the rabbi’s “intelligent creator” to account for the existence of life. This is, perhaps, an extreme example of Occam’s razor, but it’s applicable nevertheless.

We’ve said before (see Creationism’s Fallacy of Retrospective Astonishment) that everything is improbable, including our own individual existence. But no one would rationally conclude that everything is a miracle. The origin of life is no different, in principle. Thus we reject the rabbi’s question.

There’s much more to be said about this topic. We’ve obviously only scratched the surface. We’ll leave it to you to offer your own thoughts.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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22 responses to “The Origin of Life — Miraculous or Mundane?

  1. Herman Cummings

    If pastors, priests. rabbis, and “so called” Christians would stop their false (old Earth) and foolish (young Earth) teachings, and start promoting the truth of Genesis (Observations of Moses), then there would hardly be any room for the ridiculous teaching of evolution.

    Collectively, Bible believers are so “blind”, that their approach to Genesis is a joke. Instead of seeking the truth, they continue to support the current lies and foolishness of Creationism. Genesis does not have any “Creation accounts”. When you keep telling a person that their car is running out of gas, and they refuse to look at the fuel gauge and go to the gas station, you begin to wonder how “dumb” they are.

    Perhaps they are just like the Jews, who value tradition over the truth of scripture.

    I wrote the Governor, state house, every high school, the state board of education, every local school board that had a website, and every church with a website I could find in Louisiana. They ALL were too lazy to respond, and were not interested in the truth of Genesis. So blame their present state government, their atheist school board members, and their infidel clergy for refusing to have the truth taught.

    I also wrote the Missouri state Government. Not one response. Just like hypocrite clergymen, they want to teach falsehoods, rather than the truth of God’s Word to students.

    Herman Cummings

  2. Either the good rabbi is stupid (unable to understand 50 years of research into sustainable cyclic chemical reactions), or is lazy (did not bother to do the basic book work), or did both and is, therefore a typical creationist liar.

    I’ll go for Door Number 3, Alex, for 500.

  3. Your comment has nothing to do with the post, Herman. Pull a stunt like that again and you’ll be banned.

  4. Also, before I walk down to the village for a nice gourmet feast, Moshe’s article was not very thoughtful at all. Simply a rehash of Luskin which ain’t saying much. Then at the end he doesn’t even want to discuss the research, preferring to wank around in nonsense. PZ, Dawkins et al don’t “debate” creationists for just this reason. How about debating boring old self-assembling lipid membranes for a change.

  5. You’re right SC. I’ve been looking at this a lot and not only is there nothing in the physics or chemistry that suggests it’s impossible, there appear to be multiple pathways to the same compounds (depending on the conditions).

    As far as #2, well, any new organic compounds that appeared in any way on Earth would be immediately consumed by the life that already exists.

  6. Jim Thomerson

    When I taught an introductory biology course, I pointed out that we do not know how life originated. It could have been a divine intervention event, or the result of natural processes. It is not, as the rabbi suggests, a matter of the most reasonable explanation, but rather the most useful explanation. If we assume a divine event, we place it outside science. If we assume a natural event, then, even if we are wrong, we can study the matter and learn many interesting things in the process.

    I don’t like using life as a noun, as it smacks of vitalism. I prefer, when I can manage it, to speak of living things.

  7. …there is no conclusive evidence to support any particular scientific theory which would explain how the gap between non-organic chemicals on the early Earth and the first living bacterium was crossed.

    Yes there is. I get so tired of saying this, but the “theory” is chemistry. There is plenty of conclusive evidence that chemistry exists.

    It’s time for chemists to enter the fray. They haven’t before because the idiocies of “Information can’t emerge from the natural world”, “DNA is a code, it must be designed” haven’t been around that long.

    And no, the emergence of self-replicating molecules, then complex molecular systems, then living systems, hasn’t been worked on for decades without succeeding. It hasn’t been researched much at all because there is absolutely no money available for it. These days, grant proposals must have more practical applications in order to be funded. You have to already have a Nobel prize, which guarantess almost automatic approval of anything you want to do, to get funded for abiogenesis work.

  8. Garnetstar said:

    It’s time for chemists to enter the fray.

    If you’re thinking that chemists need to enter the fray in order to rebut the claims by creationists, I disagree. No one needs to enter the fray to do that. Instead, they simply need to realize that as soon as anyone uses a supernatural entity to bolster their case, that’s a nonscientific argument. Period. As soon as we get outside of the realm in which we can provide objective, measurable evidence, the scientific argument is over. From that point on, it’s a metaphysical argument or a philosophical argument or anything but science.
    In addition, both the Discovery Institute and Ham’s AiG start from the premise of “conclusion for which we need to find evidence”. Science, on the other had, uses the premise of “here’s the evidence, so what’s the conclusion”.
    Which is why we can safely ignore anything and everything in a scientific vein said by anyone who mentions, alludes to, or suggests that things happened “because God made it so”.
    However, if you want some more chemists to enter the fray simply because they have cool stuff they can share with the rest of us, by all means!

  9. Ceteris Paribus

    @Garnetstar and Gary:

    I think you are each pointing at the same problem, from different but related viewpoints.

    The heart of the problem is that, in the US at least, the high school science education curriculum is set up in exactly the wrong sequence for providing students with the tools to understand biology: Biology followed by Chemistry followed by Physics is a failure.

    It has been pointed out by many educators, for a long time, that physics should come first, to establish that the natural world operates on a handfull of basic physical laws that do not bend to the need for miracles.

    Chemistry can then pick up the ball and introduce concepts of chemistry that all chemical paths must also follow physical laws, whether the reactions are inorganic or organic.

    Then, when biology is the subject for 12th grade, the more mature students at that age are less likely to be easy prey for dogma spouting creationists. With the foundations of actual science taught earlier in physics and chemistry, biloogy students will actually be able to understand what university biologists such as PZ are trying to present.

    So yes, we do need chemists to enter the fray, and to enter it before the biologists.

    We also do need to call out that “goddidit” is not an acceptable answer in science. And if the education system can provide students with the tools to figure that out for themselves, that is exactly what more and more of them will do.

  10. Retired Prof

    Slightly off topic, but let me say how much I admire Jim Thomerson’s dislike for “using life as a noun, as it smacks of vitalism. I prefer, when I can manage it, to speak of living things.”

    Trying to understand the world by tackling the big abstractions–”life,” “consciousness,” “leadership,” “spirituality,” and so forth–almost guarantees that we will get lost in a metaphysical fog and wander aimlessly, whether musing alone or arguing with somebody else.

    Sure, metaphysics can be fun. I define philosophy as a game–one in which “persons with large vocabularies dither over the meanings of abstract nouns.” The game is useful for promoting interesting human interactions, and for raising questions that stimulate our search for knowledge. The answers, however, come from empirical investigations of the kind Gary recommends.

  11. retiredsciguy

    Ceteris Paribus: “The heart of the problem is that, in the US at least, the high school science education curriculum is set up in exactly the wrong sequence for providing students with the tools to understand biology: Biology followed by Chemistry followed by Physics is a failure.”

    I agree, but I think the curriculum is sequenced in this order because freshmen HS students don’t yet have the math to do the physics, and chemistry requires a maturity that many underclassmen don’t yet have. Perhaps the answer is a more rigorous science curriculum that includes a biochemistry class for seniors. Also, instead of having just one science course per year, how about two: general science and earth sciences during freshman year, biology and human anatomy for sophomores, physics and chemistry for juniors, and biochemistry and an advanced course in one of the sciences for seniors. I would require this for all students, not just college prep, but I seriously doubt if this would fly.

  12. retiredsciguy

    The rabbi asks, “What is the most reasonable explanation for the origin of life on Earth: An intelligent creator or an unguided, naturalistic process?”

    I think it was Carl Sagan in the PBS series Cosmos who said the problem with ascribing the origin of life to God is that it doesn’t really answer the problem, because it raises the further question of “Who created God?”

  13. As soon as someone says something as ignorant as “non-organic” chemicals there’s no point in further discussion. Of course, it’s precisely that discussion that would obliterate the subject he wants to waste everybody’s time on, namely how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

  14. @retiredsciguy -
    Myself, I don’t much care for the rebuttal “Who created God?” For one thing, that sort of question could be asked about any explanation (as long as it falls short of explaining everything, which is true of every explanation that I know of).
    I prefer to point out that designers who are, as far as we know, apt to do anything at all don’t tell us “why this rather than something else” – and when also we aren’t told what they did, when and where they did it, etc., and when we don’t have even a hypothetical example of something that they did not (or could not or would not) do – that there existence doesn’t explain anything at all. Even if we allow that it is true that God created all things, that does not explain anything about the way things turned out.

  15. TomS says:

    Myself, I don’t much care for the rebuttal “Who created God?”

    The only virtue to it is in pointing out the logical absurdity of claiming that God is the answer to any unknown cause. Such an “answer” leads to additional unknowns that can’t be answered that way.

  16. This is an interesting blog, and i sometimes wonder why it matters to any man what his neighbor believes. Then i consider the destruction of our ecosystems by people who are expecting to be rescued by their Creator after the place becomes unlivable. However, I also sometimes wonder where abstract thought comes from if we are simply material.

  17. @Gary and @Ceteris, you are both very correct.

    What I was thinking of is that with these new mantras “Life could not have started from random chemicals and DNA is information, that’s not every found in nature”, it’s chemists’ expertise that refute those. Biologists and others who have been battling aren’t as familiar with the chemistry-based arguments.

    Chemical rebuttals surely aren’t necessary (no rebuttals are), as indeed all one must do is point out the supernatural-cause problem. But chemistry arguments would provide rebuttals to those specific claims, maybe helping poor souls who are wavering between creationism and sanity and could use some information.

    Anyone know how to write something for Index of Creationist Claims on Talk Origins?

  18. Ah, Herman has arrived here. He is a notorious nut who posts vague anti-evolution/anti-creationist babble anywhere and everywhere that’ll have him. The good news is that he is a hit-and-run spammer who rarely, if ever, follows up on the same thread. Rather amusingly, he always complains about how everyone ignores his “Observations of Moses” but never quite glooms onto the obvious reason for that.

  19. “Anyone know how to write something for Index of Creationist Claims on Talk Origins?”

    Mark Isaak is the author/editor of the Index. The site gives his email as ecitonATearthlinkDOTnet. I have no idea if the email address is still good or whether the Index is still being updated.

  20. Herman Cummings

    Hi Johnpieret

    When you talk about Satan, he often shows up. So, I’m a nut? A cashew I hope. What evidence do you have to make such a claim? What is it that I am teaching, that is different from all others?

    I written challenges to (and put on the internet), the Pope, Michael Zimmerman (Evolution Letter), all rabbis of Judaism, Arch-bishops of the UK, Ken Ham (young earth), Hugh Ross (old earth), the Discovery Institute, Dr Eugenie Scott, Kent Hovind, and so called theologians across the country. I get no takers, and no responses.

    Is it because they are all “shaking in their boots”? If I’m “such a nut”, why is it that no one has “put me in my place”? Or is it that I have been given the truth of scripture, and all devils are running for cover?

    Before jumping to false conclusions, get some verifiable facts first, such as someone objective seeing my presentation and being able to “shoot it down”.

    Herman
    Ephraim7@aol.com

  21. retiredsciguy

    Herman:Is it because they are all “shaking in their boots”?

    My guess is they are all shaking their heads in disbelief. Make of that what you will, Herman. I am surprised that SC is being so tolerant.

  22. retiredsciguy says: ” I am surprised that SC is being so tolerant.”

    As long as he restrains himself, he’s like a harmless pet. If he gets out of control, then that’s it.