The Origin of Life

Did Life Arise in a Primordial Soup?

(Genesis 1:9-13)

For fifty years pop science has trumpeted that life arose by entirely natural processes through the spontaneous synthesis of chemicals in a primordial soup. The implausibility of this scenario is much less widely known, but far better established by the scientific evidence, as Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, outlines in this address. Fourth in a series on ‘Beginnings’, it was delivered at St Albans on 12 March 2000.


The Miller’s Tale

In 1950, at the University of Chicago, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student, Stanley Miller, attended a course of lectures by Nobel prize-winner Harold Urey, on the origin of the solar system. The lecturer discussed the view put forward by Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin in 1924, that the atmospheric conditions of the early Earth would have been very different from today. He commented that it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone did an experiment with the chemistry of Earth’s early atmosphere and passed energy through it.

Miller was fascinated by the suggestion. He performed a single, simple experiment. Taking the ingredients of Oparin’s suggested early atmosphere, Miller put ammonia, methane and hydrogen into a sealed glass apparatus containing boiling water, and simulated lightning with a high-voltage induction coil. Within a few days the water and glass were stained with a reddish goo. Chemical analysis showed that the goo contained amino acids - the building blocks of protein, the basic stuff of life. Miller published the results in a modest two-page article, ‘Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions,’ in the journal Science (117 [1953], pp. 528-9).

The rest is history. Miller’s experiment was hailed as providing stunning evidence that life can arise out of simple chemical reactions in a ‘primordial soup’, and found its way into science textbooks the world over.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, famous searcher for extraterrestrial life, called it ‘the single most significant step in convincing many scientists that life is likely to be abundant in the cosmos.’ Chemist William Day described it as ‘an experiment that broke the logjam’ by showing that the origin of life was not a chance event but one that had been inevitable. Astronomer Harlow Shapley told a television audience in Chicago in 1959, on the eve of the Centennial of Darwin’s Origin of Species, that the Miller experiment ‘assures us what we had suspected for a long time: that one can bridge the gap between the inanimate and the animate and that the appearance of life is essentially an automatic biochemical development that comes along when the conditions are right.’ (Quotations from Walter L. Bradley and Charles B. Thaxton, ‘Information and the Origin of Life’, in J. P. Moreland, ed., The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer [Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 1994], pp. 173-4).


In the Primordial Soup

For a couple of decades after Miller, making life looked a cinch, as easy as following a recipe in a cookbook. ‘Pre-biotic Soup. Place ammonia, methane and hydrogen in glass vessel, boil and stir slowly, zap occasionally by immersing electric beater.’

If only it were so easy. In fact there are many problems with Miller’s scenario for the origin of life (see Bradley and Thaxton, art. cit., pp. 182-8, Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution [New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996], pp. 166-70):

1. Miller used only one energy source, a spark to simulate lightning. There would have been other energy sources in the early atmosphere, including ultraviolet radiation, which would have converted any existing methane to higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, forming an oil slick not a slimy pond, hardly a promising scenario for the origin of life, as environmentalists well-know.

2. Oparin’s theory of the composition of the early universe - a reducing atmosphere of ammonia, methane, and hydrogen - has been shown by modern astrophysicists to be wrong. The early universe most likely consisted of neutral gases like nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapour - but water vapour produces oxygen which plays havoc with prebiotic simulation experiments.

3. While short wavelength ultraviolet light may help convert ammonia, methane and hydrogen into amino acids, the longer wavelengths of light in the early atmosphere would have destroyed them. Ultraviolet radiation is so lethal that it is nowadays used to sterilise counter tops and surgical instruments. The absence of organic compounds in the soil of Mars has been attributed to just such ultraviolet radiation bombarding the Martian surface.

4. Making amino acids out of ammonia, methane and hydrogen is an exothermic reaction, a reaction in which energy is released; but making them out of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water is an endothermic reaction, into which significant amounts of energy must be added. Early Earth conditions would not have provided sufficient energy for this to happen.

5. A major problem with prebiotic soup experiments is that they produce an equal distribution of mirror-image left- and right-handed molecules. Yet all biological proteins occurring naturally in living organisms contain only left-handed or L-amino acids.

6. When amino acids are joined in simulation experiments fewer than half the bonds are peptide bonds. Yet functioning protein requires that 100 percent be peptide bonds to be able to fold into the three-dimensional structures that form living organisms. If we cannot consistently produce these with all our learning and technology in a laboratory, how could they possibly bring themselves together in just a few million years in the chaotic random world of nature?

7. Finally, the prebiotic soup has never been found in the fossil record, not even in the oldest rocks on Earth, the 3.9 million year old ‘dawn rocks’ of Western Greenland. ‘Considering the way the prebiotic soup is referred to in so many discussions of the origin of life as an already established reality,’ says Michael Denton, ‘it comes as something of a shock to realise that there is absolutely no positive evidence for its existence.’ (Evolution: a Theory in Crisis [Chevy Chase, Maryland, Adler & Adler, 1986], p. 261).

One hundred and forty years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, a supposedly scientific account of origins, one might have expected evolutionists to come up with more convincing observational evidence for the spontaneous origin of life than this. But they have not, and cannot. Life is not explicable only in terms of physical and chemical processes. Origin of life hypotheses are still where they began - in the primordial soup.


Hero of the Plot?

It is often blithely assumed that the combination of time plus chance can account for the origin of life. World-famous Nobel prize-winning biologist George Wald, writing in the Scientific American in 1954, not long after the Miller experiment, argued that random processes following the physical laws of the universe can account for the spontaneous generation of life from nonliving matter. He argued that life is just an inevitable product of chemical processes. ‘Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. . . . Given so much time the "impossible" becomes the possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.’ (‘The Origin of Life,’ Scientific American, 191 [1954], p. 48).

More recently Stephen Hawking, in his Brief History of Time (1988), repeats a notion first popularised by Thomas Huxley: ‘It is a bit like the well-known hordes of monkeys hammering away on typewriters - most of what they write will be garbage, but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.’

From well-known scholars who should know better, this will not do. Darwin, perhaps, could be excused. He had no idea that a single cell has a more complex structure than the social organisation of a modern megacity. He had not the faintest inkling what a fantastically complex set of roads, pathways, delivery systems, communications, telephone networks, power stations, construction sites, manufacturing industries, factories, water reticulation, sewage systems, and civil defence capabilities the cell contains. But Darwin’s modern followers do. They know that life is so enormously complicated that it could not possibly have come about by chance. I have a chart, produced by the German firm of Boehringer in Mannheim, representing the ‘Biochemical Pathways’ of a single cell. Measuring 2.5 metres by 1 metre, printed in 12, 10 or even 8 point type, it is immensely more complex than a street map of Greater London or New York.

In 1968, Professor Harold Morowitz, a molecular biophysicist at Yale University, published a book called Energy Flow in Biology. Morowitz was concerned about the casualness with which some scientists, in their enthusiasm to demonstrate naturalistic evolution, were making unwarranted assumptions about the origin of life. Morowitz was the first to rigorously investigate the mathematical probability of such events. He computed the time required for random chemical reactions to form a bacterium - not an organism as complex as an animal or a human, not even a flower, just a simple, single-celled bacterium. Basing his calculations on optimistically rapid rates of reactions, he calculated that the time it would take for a single bacterium to form would exceed not only the 4.5 billion year age of the Earth, but the entire 15 billion year age of the universe.

Visiting Jerusalem in 1991, I met the Jewish physicist and science writer, Gerald Schroeder. He told how, on hearing the Huxley-Hawking throw-away line about typing monkeys producing a Shakespearian sonnet, he had undertaken a very Jewish experiment. He took a Shakespearian sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, which ends with the appropriate lines

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

He counted the number of letters in this sonnet. (Some of us remember that a sonnet has 14 lines, but it takes a Torah-observant Jew to discover that this one has 488 letters!) Assuming that the monkeys always hit the keys, and ignoring the spaces between the words, Schroeder calculated that the chance of randomly typing the 488 letters to produce just this one sonnet is 1 in 10690 (1 followed by 690 zeroes)!

The immensity of this number can be seen when we compare it with the age of the universe. Since the Big Bang, 15 billion years ago, there have been only 1018 seconds! ‘To write by random one of Shakespeare’s sonnets,’ says Schroeder, ‘would take all the monkeys plus every other animal on earth typing away on typewriters made from all the iron in the universe over a period of time that exceeds all the time since the Big Bang and still the probability of a sonnet appearing would be vanishingly small. At one random try per second, with even a simple sentence having only 16 letters, it would take about 2 million billion years (the universe has existed for about 15 billion years) to exhaust all possible combinations.’ (Genesis and the Big Bang [New York, Bantam, 1990], pp. 186).

Twenty five years after Wald’s article, in a special publication entitled Life: Origin and Evolution (1979), the Scientific American published a rare retraction, stating that Wald was in error. ‘Although stimulating, this article probably represents one of the few times in his professional life when Wald has been wrong.’ Since that date, to the best of my knowledge, no leading scientific journal - Nature, Science, Scientific American and the like - has accepted for publication any article based on the premise that life occurred by chance. Even for the simplest life forms this is now acknowledged to be an impossibility. (See Gerald Schroeder, The Science of God: the Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom [New York, Free Press, 1997], pp. 83-6).


Gone Offshore

The impossibility of life originating by chance on Earth explains why the latest phase in the search for life has moved offshore - to outer space. This is why Sir Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote their book Evolution from Space (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981), seriously suggesting their theory of ‘transpermia’ - that life originated in outer space and got transported here via comets, meteorites and interplanetary dust. This is why we have the enormous sums of money being spent on the SETI programme, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which former United States senator William Proxmire suggested would be better spent looking for intelligent life in Washington. This is why NASA, the United States National Aeronautic and Space Administration, has been desperately trying to discover signs of life on Mars, and drawing a blank there is now turning its attention to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

When it comes to the origin of life anything will do, it seems, however implausible, provided it does not invoke divine agency and creativity. Yet according to the measured statement of the opening chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1:9-13), it was shortly after the emergence of the early Earth that God commanded the land to bring forth the first elementary living organisms - deshe or ‘green matter’, not ‘vegetation’ as so often translated, but rudimentary unicellular organisms like bacteria and blue-green algae. The origin of life is a mystery, incomprehensible to us and inexplicable to naturalistic science. Life involves such a transcending of the purely material that it requires a creative initiative of God, just as the Bible says.


© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church