October 25, 2005

Abiogenesis: A Problem of Origins (part 2)

(Part 2 in a 3 part series)

Making Bricks

Granted, life is complex, but what is so impossible about starting life if you've got plenty of time and materials at your disposal? After all, didn't we once have a seething prebiotic soup covering our planet? Weren't the oceans a rich primordial ooze teaming with exotic chemicals derived from a mix of an alien atmosphere, abundant lightning, and solar energy? And isn't our planet billions of years old? Time plus chance are a dynamic duo. So, what's the problem?

The problem is with all of the assumptions.

The first flaw is in the myth of the prebiotic soup. The idea of a chemical "soup" is not a product of geological evidence, it was merely assumed based on its theoretical need. In order to build a thing you first need the materials with which to build it, and since life (or any meaningful precursor to it) is such a complex thing, you need a lot of materials jostling around for chance to do its work.

Unfortunately, there is no compelling evidence that our oceans, or the atmosphere with which it might interact, had the necessary composition to produce even the building blocks of the cell. It was assumed that the early earth had a "reducing atmosphere," (hydrogen, methane, ammonia, water vapor) which would enable the creation of the essential components. Instead, the evidence indicates that it was a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. There are also many strong indications that free oxygen has been present even from before the appearance of life. This would be a substantial problem in that oxygen is destructive to the molecules necessary to assemble biological life. And the greatest irony is that water — which is so necessary for life — actually interferes with the assembly of certain of these building blocks.

Regardless of the state of the earliest atmosphere, there was an extensive period of Earth's history that was unavailable for the formation of life, or at least its survival. This is due to the continual bombardment of the earth by pre-planetary materials, the scars of which can still be seen on our moon. The largest of these would have sterilized any life that might have formed, and such events did not dwindle until approximately 4 billion years ago. The interesting thing is that the earliest geological records have life arriving on the scene shortly after this time. The long period of time necessary to allow chance to work its magic has evaporated. In the words of Steven Jay Gould:
We are left with very little time between the development of suitable conditions for life on the earth’s surface and the origin of life. Life is not a complex accident that required immense time to convert the vastly improbable into the nearly certain. Instead, life, for all its intricacy, probably arose rapidly about as soon as it could.
And paleontologist Niles Eldridge goes a step farther in saying that
There is now overwhelmingly strong evidence, both statistical and paleontological, that life could not have been started on Earth by a series of random chemical reactions.... There simply was not enough time... to get life going.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that all the conditions did happen to be just as they had hoped. What is it that might be produced? Well, according to the famous Miller-Urey experiments, when energy is added to the chemical mix (hydrogen, methane, ammonia, water vapor) certain essential molecules are produced. Most notably, these include amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. And proteins are some of the most important and abundant components of the cell. This was an exciting step for origins of life research. Unfortunately, it was only a token victory.

First of all, it should be noted that proteins are made up of some 20 different amino acids, and not all of these were formed in these or subsequent experiments. Second, the energy needed to assemble amino acids is as likely to destroy them as form them, so the experiment itself must carefully take this into account. This means that the results of the experiment were a matter of human engineering — intelligent design. Third, in the presence of oxygen, there would be no results to speak of and, as stated earlier, there is substantial evidence that oxygen was present in the early atmosphere and oceans. Fourth, even though some desirable molecules were present, the vast majority of what was produced was an insoluble tar-polymer. So, to yield enough amino acids in our oceans to give "chance" a fighting chance would also mean the existence of an enormous amount of tar, which would in turn leave a distinct signature in the fossil record. There is no trace of such a thing, nor is there evidence of any other biotic precursor or byproduct in the geological strata prior to the sudden appearance of cellular life.

But again, let's assume for the sake of argument that all the essential amino acids can be formed by natural processes. We still have the problem of building proteins from these, and as theoretical physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies said:
Just as bricks alone don't make a house, so it takes more than a random collection of amino acids to make life. Like house bricks, the building blocks of life have to be assembled in a very specific and exceedingly elaborate way before they have the desired function.
If amino acids are like bricks from stirred mud, then proteins are like mansions from stirred bricks.

Part 3

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At 10/25/2005 11:55 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

This is a bit off-topic, but I have a question about an argument I've heard regarding ID.

There's this argument that you've probably heard of called the Watchmaker analogy.

Sometimes I hear the response that if it's true that everything which is complex requires a creator, then God Himself requires a creator (and that creator its creator, and so on) which leads to an infinite regress. Therefore, the argument is self-refuting.

I imagine there might be an error in their interpretation of the argument... what are your thoughts?

At 10/26/2005 10:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...

You're in luck! I've written an article to counter this very objection, which is posted on the LifeWay.com/apologetics site. It is titled: "Who Made God?"

At 10/26/2005 10:50 AM, Blogger daleliop said...

So I think you are saying that the Watchmaker argument does not claim that "everything which is complex requires a creator", but instead "everything (which began to exist) which is complex requires a creator".

I think that makes sense.

At 10/26/2005 11:51 AM, Blogger Paul said...

We've actually got a couple of different themes being dealt with here. The "watchmaker" argument is a part of the Teleological Argument, which deals with observations of specified complexity within the existing cosmos. The Cosmological Argument covers the problem of the existence of anything at all, like the universe or God, no matter how complex that thing happens to be.

Many people misunderstand the cause/effect argument. They think it is that everything needs a cause, when in actuality it is every effect that needs a cause. The universe is the kind of thing that must have an origin of necessity (based on the kind of thing it is) and which has also been demonstrated by science to indeed have one. The beginning of the universe is an "effect" that requires a cause.

At 10/26/2005 4:59 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, couldn't you also say that God's decision to create a universe is an effect, and then have to point to a cause to it?

I suppose you could say the cause for God creating the universe was a motive, desire, or inclination to create the universe, and that the motive, desire, or inclination was not an effect, but was always present in God from eternity. That would be one way of arguing that the cause of the universe was a personal being.


At 10/26/2005 9:09 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, now you've gone beyond the efficient cause to the final cause (ala Aristotle) and the driving factors beyond. Here we wrestle with issues of atemporality and God's immutability. I have difficulty thinking in terms of God pondering and agonizing, and finally "deciding" to create. I have often entertained the idea that the created order and the plan that He put into place in some way proceeds from God like and infinite ray. But I think this suffers certain philosophical shortcomings.

However, I think there are other ways of demonstrating personality in the cause. The problem with impersonal causes is that they simply happen when certain conditions obtain. For example, if you mix baking soda and vinegar you will get a chemical eruption, and it will happen immediately. If there is a natural cause, it has to be something that exists in this temporal stream. This means the sufficient conditions to cause this universe either should have obtained from infinity past (if it could ever obtain without antecedent), and we should have a dead universe by now, or it must have an infinite series of preceding sufficient causes. William Lane Craig argues that only a personal agent who can choose to create or not create can break this stalemate. Additionally, I think we can look at the resulting creation to witness the precision, beauty, and fine-tuning involved. An impersonal cause would have no conscious ability to care about any particular arrangement of the laws of physics, and there are far more arrangements that would lead to a mundane universe than would lead to complexity. Also, if it is true that an effect cannot produce something greater than its cause, then the fact of our personhood should count for something.

At 10/28/2005 1:15 AM, Blogger daleliop said...

So what does a systems engineer do, and how do you have the time to write in this blog (and keep up-to-date reading philosophy)? :P

At 10/28/2005 12:47 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Systems engineer roughly equates to "programmer," though it often involves business analysis, application architecture, project management, and technical documentation. Right now I do e-commerce development and my primary responsibility is to LifeWaystores.com, though I am just now beginning work on a new business-to-business site for our Broadman & Holman publishing division.

Of course I read whenever I have time. Most often I read essays. This is a good use of time because it allows me to quickly consume distilled information. There are countless of these freely available on the internet. LeaderU is one good repository of articles, which we've tried with some success to emulate on our apologetics site (which I maintain in my spare time). Also, I have an hour commute to work and I've found many audio resources to help make that time productive (2 total hours per day).

As far as leftover time, this is one reason I only post about once a week. Perhaps you should consider asking Sam where he gets the time to do one a day.

At 10/28/2005 1:38 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

Oh, Sam's a machine.

At 10/29/2005 2:25 AM, Blogger daleliop said...

Your new pic is nice, by the way.

At 10/29/2005 10:02 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks. That's an image I had our graphics person make for one of our apologetics articles. Represents General and Special Revelation. Seems to cover all the bases. Wish it showed up on past comments though.

At 10/29/2005 6:55 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I'm always curious to know how people who have such busy lives manage to become so well-informed and prolific. I have a good excuse. I didn't work from about 1998 until 2000. I had lots of free time, and I devoured the Bible, other books and articles. I also participated in a lot of on line discussions and debates. Most of what I've been posting on my blogs comes either from notes I have made over the years or things I've already written.


At 10/29/2005 6:57 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

By the way, Paul, I love the new picture you have.

At 10/30/2005 12:00 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I've thought about posting some old dialog excerpts myself. I've got quite a load. One's long enough to make a book, but it's mostly a debate over epistemology with a postmodern fellow. It'd probably drive all my visitors away — very tedious and ultimately fruitless.


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