November 28, 2005

Season of Skepticism

Here is my submission for this year to my church's locally authored Advent Devotional. I suppose it's more apologetic than devotional, but that's no surprise considering the source.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. —Luke 1:1-4

It's Christmas season again, and with it comes the inevitable garland, plastic Santas, and holiday sales. Judging by the TV programming, the public school music selections, and the lawns of most of my neighbors, it would seem to be a fully secularized holiday. The One whose birthday we once celebrated has become a non-value-added tradition of an unenlightened era.

But (faithful Christians aside) is Jesus fully absent from public attention? Not by a long shot! As "tolerant" and "inclusive" as this culture claims to be, Christmas seems to be the season of slander and skepticism. Perhaps you've caught one of the annual TV specials or news exposés on the "real" Jesus, where the media is very eager to "correct" our simplistic, "faith-based" view of the biblical stories. As Christians committed to the Truths that Luke and the other authors of Scripture have carefully and earnestly commended to us, such contrary claims should be cause for confusion, irritation, or outright anger. As one who has studied apologetics extensively, I've learned to smell a rat, and these spurious attacks on the historical claims of Christianity are particularly frustrating for me, since I know that people are being needlessly influenced by them.

I wish I had the space to deal with all of the modern accusations and criticisms against the Jesus of the Bible, but perhaps this is a case where teaching men to fish is more beneficial than just passing them out.

The first thing to notice is that this kind of scrutiny and criticism is reserved almost exclusively for Christianity. When have you ever seen an ABC special on the "real" Muhammad, or an interview with a New Age celebrity that asked hardball questions, or a Hollywood depiction of the early church in contrast to the excesses of paganism, or a news exposé on Christian martyrdom in the Sudan or China? My daughter once told me that she would believe Christianity to be true if for no other reason than for how it is singled out for persecution. Methinks they doeth protest too much.

Another thing to notice is that the complaints and alternate stories offered by the skeptics change with the seasons. What was in vogue to claim against Christianity one century or decade is passé the next. For instance, in the early 1900's some scholars attempted to argue that Jesus never actually existed as a historical character, but in light of the various extra-biblical Jewish and Roman documents found that reference Him, this theory has lost credibility. And it was once claimed that the New Testament was written one or two hundred years after Christ's death, thus giving quarter to myth and inaccuracy, but now even the most critical scholars accept that the documents were written in the lifetime of the apostles. Even the very first accusation against the followers of Jesus — that the body had been stolen — has fallen on hard times. If the skeptics could manage to find a criticism that worked, and stick with that, then it might be easier to take them seriously.

Archaeology is often brought to bear against various points of Scripture in what has not yet been found or what seems to be found to the contrary. For example, there was a time when the Hittite nation, the Davidic kingdom, and even Pontius Pilate were thought to be mythical. Later excavations of cities, tablets, and inscriptions have affirmed these and other points of biblical history. Because of the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, and the fact that our earliest Old Testament copies dated from a thousand years after Christ, there was once speculation that it was partially authored or tampered with by the early church fathers. But the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which date before the birth of Christ) in the 1940's put this theory to bed. Even though there are still a few open historical questions, it should be remembered that the archaeological trend is toward confirmation of the Bible.

Many of the objections to Scripture are merely based on the presuppositions of the skeptic. For instance, one of the "Christian" scholars that is regularly interviewed for these Jesus exposés is John Dominic Crossan. This fellow has gone on record as saying that he does not believe that God interferes with His creation. Consequently, he begins his analysis of the Bible with the assumption that the miracles must be mythical or allegorical, and he then sees the task of theology to peel away these "fictional" layers to get at the underlying "reality." These kinds of critics end up "discovering" a Jesus in Scripture that is made in their own image.

Conspiracy theories make up a good deal of skeptical thinking, and some of these are real doozies. It has actually been proposed that Jesus was a space alien, or the leader of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult. Only slightly more respectable are the ideas that Jesus had a secret twin brother who showed up just in time to be crucified, or that He didn't really die on the cross, He revived in the tomb and reappeared to the disciples who mistook Him for the first fruits of the resurrection. (Need I refute the idea that a scourged and crucified body could be mistaken for the "Lord of life?") Perhaps the latest theory is the re-popularized notion that the resurrection appearances were the product of mass hallucination on the part of the disciples. Now these are all interestingly imaginative theories, but unless we are given some sort of tangible evidence to the contrary, which never seems to be forthcoming, then we are justified in sticking with the unanimous testimony of those writers who had the most direct access to the facts (i.e., the authors of the Bible).

Another common ploy is to bring up meaningless associations and observations. For example, it is often noted that the story of Jesus has various similarities to other pagan mythology, or that some of the sayings of Jesus, like the golden rule, are similar to the saying of Buddha or other spiritual figures. Sometimes critics will imply that people are believers based merely on psychological "need" or because they grew up in a Christian nation. Or perhaps they will point out the numerous denominational divisions or examples of hypocrisy in the church. The world is big and history is diverse, and there are plenty of (apparent) connections to be made. But even if we grant the critics each of their observations, it is all immaterial to the point of whether or not Jesus was a historical figure who actually did those things recorded in the Scriptures.

It is probably not by force of reason that you became a believer, and without the work of the Holy Spirit even a bullet-proof case for Christianity will win no converts, but we should at least take confidence and comfort in knowing that God has not left us to the wolves unarmed.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus, thank You that You have given us such an abundant record of Your deeds and words among mankind. Thank You that we are not left to rely on our own speculations about heavenly things, and we delight that our God is a God who is sovereign over history and the men used to pen Your truths. Thank You for giving us Your Spirit to open our eyes to this truth and to hold us fast during times of trial and doubt. Thank you that we are not left unarmed to defend our conviction, but that Your words and ways have the power of truth and that history is ripe with the knowledge of it. Amen.

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November 19, 2005

"No Creed But Christ"? Christ Who?

One of Chris' recent posts reminded me of a conversation I once had on-line in a chatroom with a "pastor" who was trying to give spiritual insight to the participants. I'll try to reconstruct the conversation here:
ME: "So, what denomination do you represent?"

PASTOR: "Oh, I'm non-denominational."

ME: "So, what theological tradition do you lean towards?"

PASTOR: "I'm not into all that stuff; I find that theology and denominations divide people. I just focus on Jesus."

ME: "Hmm... Okay, here's a challenge for you: Please tell me who Jesus is and what He's got to do with me without appealing to theology."

PASTOR: "Touché"
Everyone is a theologian, whether they like it or not; everyone has beliefs about God, even if it is only "that He does not exist." But in our pluralistic and "tolerant" society people need some way to buffer the differences of opinion that they feel to be detrimental to charity and Christian unity. I see 3 ways that this is often being accomplished (or at least attempted):

1) Suppression of beliefs. If you don't discuss your beliefs with others, then there is nothing about which to disagree, right? But if you think your beliefs are actually important, then how can you stay silent? Imagine believing that the atonement of Christ is God's only provision for salvation and then hearing a fellow church member say that they think earnest Buddhists are save too or that God's mercy extends even to "good" atheists. Quibbling over non-essentials or the mysterious fringes of what God's revelation includes is certainly questionable, but if we stand up for nothing, then Christianity will come to mean everything. However, people do, in fact, make distinctions (for instance, no one would agree that a "Christian" means a "pastry chef"); many just refuse to apply their discernment to a very meaningful extent. I suspect that it is simply a lack of confidence and grounding for one's beliefs that encourages silence.

2) Diminishing terms. If we take those words that are part of the vocabulary of Christianity and detach them from their definitions, then even if we do have disagreement over the meaning of these words we at least have unity in our surface language. So unity may even be had with liberals in saying things like, "I believe in Jesus," even though some may believe He is their God and redeemer, while others may believe he is just a good moral example. Or different people may speak (without qualification) of "hearing from God," though some may find His voice in the Bible, others may be referring to their personal feelings, and yet others may actually hear audible voices (from God knows where) in their heads. The extreme end of this is that we may all speak of worshipping "God" — Jews, Christians, Muslims, New Agers, etc. — and we can all blithely imagine that we are referencing the same thing in spite of the fact that each is pouring radically different content into the 3-letter string g-o-d. In fact, the term "faith" has now become the lowest common denominator of solidarity. It is enough to simply have "faith" — never mind the object of that faith. Even Oprah and secularists can get on board with this, since they can have faith in a force, love, humanity, self, or just the winds of fortune.

3) Sheer ignorance. Many people are just not knowledgeable enough about their own denomination or religion, much less anyone else's, to see those areas of conflict between them. You can't disagree with what you don't see. So if you hear a theological liberal talking about their experience of "God," or a Mormon claiming that the Bible is "inspired," then this may sound all cozy and orthodox if you don't understand what is really meant by such language. Even worse, some may come to confuse the incidental outward trappings with the meaningful underlying differences. I once heard a newscaster condescending to explain the difference between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church merely in terms of icon use and their distinctions in making the sign of the cross. Some would even suggest that we divest ourselves of those dogmas and details which may be cause for disunity. As one fellow pointed out to me when attempting to rationalize his anemic brand of Christianity, "Didn't Jesus say that the really important thing was to just love God and your neighbor?" Sure, but now we need to know who God is and exactly what it means to love Him and other people. And the theological game is back on again.

In the end, everyone has doctrines, or at least limits to what they will tolerate in other's beliefs. While one person may draw the line at belief in a God, another may draw it at belief in a personal god, and another at Jesus as God, while yet another may draw the line at faith in this Jesus alone for salvation. It is simply a matter of knowledge and conviction that serves to set the boundaries of division and discernment. So let us give up the charade of ecumenism and get on with the tasks of study and conversation.

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November 16, 2005

NPR Exorcises Jesus from Narnia

Yesterday I was listening to NPR (National Public Radio), and they did a short segment on the upcoming Narnia movie (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). The lady setting up the piece made the most inexplicable comment. In reference to the lion, Aslan, she said that "some people take him to represent Jesus, but C.S. Lewis never made that claim," thus implying that, in her opinion, this is a spurious connection.

First of all, I think that it is the case that Lewis has formally made the connection. (I have found at least one quote to that effect in a cursory search.) He has absolutely affirmed that the entire series is Christian allegory. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien scolded Lewis after reading LWW for having packed it with too many symbolic elements. So, do we suppose that Aslan, one of the main characters in all the books, could have escaped being ascribed some important allegorical roll?

Let's see, Aslan is involved in the creation of Narnia, he is the absolute lord over it, lives in a faraway land with an unseen "Father," gives himself up (for the sake of a sinful character) to be tormented and killed by the enemy, "resurrects" and casts out the evil overlord (White Witch), is a help in desperate times, and comes at the end of the Narnian world to bring justice and judgment. Hmm...what could he possibly represent?

Even if Lewis had never spoken of the symbolism it would not matter. If I silently don my raincoat and umbrella I do not have to tell you that it is for the sake of staying dry for you to know my purpose. Any Christian with a basic understanding of his Bible is going to spot the connections. This NPR correspondent is either too ignorant of Christianity and C.S. Lewis to understand the connection or she is simply exercising some agenda.

But what the heck could be the reason for wanting to downplay the theological connection? It is Lewis' story after all, and he was deeply Christian — a hero of the faith in fact — worse, a Christian apologist. Why should the raw data concern this lady? It is not as though the mere allegory proves Christianity to be true. Now, I have my ideas on this, but I'd much rather hear some feedback from my readers.

November 12, 2005

Is Homosexuality a Dysfunction?

(The following is an excerpt from an exchanged I had relating to an article on a gay high school in New York. My response to one of the accusations follows.)

Accusation:

"No one knows yet if homosexuality is genetic or not so for you to say it's a psychological dysfunction is just as insane as anyone saying it's genetic. You have no evidence to support your theory either."

My response:

You seem to be affirming that the genetic link has not been successfully made. I commend you on your honesty and understanding here. So many people blindly swallow the media rhetoric that it has indeed been proven. In fact, the claim, "God made me this way," rests on this spurious conclusion. In light of the idea that "no one knows the facts in this area," it is interesting that gay advocates are willing to reshape society's sexual and marital norms so readily. Ambiguity does not necessarily deliver a victory to this novel ethic, and reshaping our culture is not taking the "neutral" position.

"Dysfunction" is a matter of exception to the "normal" development or behavior of an individual. Since God (or "nature," if you're an atheist) has equipped us to produce and rear children in a male-female context, and most would affirm that this should be a "loving" environment, then "normal" should be whatever that arrangement produces on average. And who will say that it is not "best" for a child to have both an attentive and committed man and woman participate in the child's upbringing. To say otherwise seems a bit sexist and ignores the many supporting studies to the contrary. All this is to say that where love, attention, and/or the mother-father model are absent, we can expect exceptions to occur, i.e., dysfunction or pathologies. These variables would be considered "environmental" or "social" factors.

To say that there is no evidence to support conclusions for dysfunction is to ignore what the "gay gene" studies actually have been successful in concluding. Let's hear what some of the experts are telling us about this condition:
The Royal College of Psychiatrists concludes that "gender identity" disorders "are developmental," and "involve psychological, biological, family and social issues."
(http://www.symposion.com/ijt/ijtc0402.htm)

"Virtually all of the evidence argues against there being a determinative physiological causal factor and I know of no researcher who believes that such a determinative factor exists...such factors play a predisposing, not a determinative role...I know of no one in the field who argues that homosexuality can be explained without reference to environmental factors." (Steven Goldberg, Ph.D. (1994) When Wish Replaces Thought: Why So Much of What You Believe is False. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books)

"There is no evidence that shows that homosexuality is genetic—and none of the research itself claims there is. Only the press and certain researchers do, when speaking in sound bites to the public." (Jeffrey Satinover, M.D., The Journal of Human Sexuality, 1996, p.8.)

When "gay gene" researcher Hamer was asked if homosexuality was rooted solely in biology, he himself replied, "Absolutely not. From twin studies, we already know that half or more of the variability in sexual orientation is not inherited. Our studies try to pinpoint the genetic factors...not negate the psychosocial factors." ("Gay Genes, Revisited: Doubts arise over research on the biology of homosexuality," Scientific American, November 1995, P. 26.)

And even the notorious Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) tells us in a pamphlet:
"To date, no researcher has claimed that genes can determine sexual orientation. At best, researchers believe that there may be a genetic component. No human behavior, let alone sexual behavior, has been connected to genetic markers to date...sexuality, like every other behavior, is undoubtedly influenced by both biological and societal factors."
[My note: it is rather silly for them to say that no genetic link has been found on the one hand, yet on the other hand to include biological factors in what it is "undoubtedly influenced by." My point, though, is that even this gay propaganda machine admits that the only thing that is known is the social factor.]
To this I would add the following observation regarding Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard's famous "twin study." While this study has been swamped in controversy, and has been challenged by subsequent studies (Bailey was, himself, unable to reproduce these high numbers in a later, more comprehensive study), it will serve my purpose as a best-case scenario for the "gay gene" theory (these researchers are friendly to the gay-gene thesis, and observations regarding twins are some of the most tangible and easily grasped comparisons). First, note the following statistics from this study:
  • 52 percent of the identical twins were both gay
  • 22 percent of the fraternal twins were both gay
  • 9 percent of the non-twin brothers were both gay
  • 11 percent of the adopted, or genetically unrelated brothers were both gay
This outcome has been seen as suggestive of a genetic link. After all, there's a higher percentage for the identicals than for the siblings sharing lesser genetic material. However, if we look closer we see inconsistencies and strong indicators for environmental factors. First, 50/50 odds are pretty bad for identical DNA. This suggests that the genetic factor (assuming it is there) is not determinative (meaning it doesn't force the condition) and that it can be substantially overridden either by environmental or personal factors. Second, fraternal twins and non-twin brothers are genetically equivalent, but here we see that the figures are substantially different for each group. This suggests environmental dominance, since the unique common denominator with the fraternals is their closely shared upbringing. Third, we should expect to see the figure for adopted siblings to be lower than for any of the direct blood relations, yet it is actually higher than the non-twin brothers! Indeed, the adopted siblings should be expected to fall near the population average for homosexuality, yet they are several times higher than this (2-3 percent is the recognized average). Something is going on in these families that is increasing the odds of homosexual expression in these children.

From every quarter, researchers admit that even if there could be said to be a genetic connection there are still environmental factors involved. Here is what we are left with: genetic factors are possible, but not yet demonstrated, but environmental factors are known to be involved. In light of this, it is curious that the research activity leans toward gene studies at the expense of the environmental ones, yet environmental conditions are things we might actually hope to affect. I smell an agenda, and the researchers Bailey & Pillard are candid enough to tell us why: "If true, a biological explanation is good news for homosexuals and their advocates." But why the heck would that be good new? Would it be "good news" to find out that most lung cancer is a matter of genetics, which can't be easily changed, versus smoking, which one has opportunity to mitigate? There seems to be an a priori commitment to justifying the homosexual "orientation" rather than simply getting to the bottom of the what and why of it. But, of course, that is the approach of a bygone era of psychiatric science not driven by political correctness and advocacy.

So, what can we say about the environmental factors. Do we imagine that they are "good" influences, like having doting parents and a first-class education — that homosexuality is the result of an ideal upbringing? Is the best product of the child-rearing enterprise, in fact, a homosexual? Or, do we discover, as observations do seem to indicate, that it is a matter of less than ideal childhood experiences? Homosexuality, regardless of the "unknown" genetic component, seems to be influenced by negative environmental factors. This implies that those who are victim of this situation are being adversely affected. And this defines psychological dysfunction. It may be a pathology that the victim doesn't mind, or admit (like alcoholism, which supplies the addict with some positive reinforcement), but it is a pathology nonetheless.

And what do we do with pathologies? Do we affirm them and celebrate them? Do we consider them normative and of equal standing to all other behaviors? Do we reengineer society to conform to their particular idiosyncrasies? Of course not! But neither should we denigrate the intrinsic value of the affected persons. The sin is not in being victim of the environmental influences, or even the possible biological contributors; the sin is in pursuing the symptoms, celebrating the condition, rationalizing its merit, and insisting that society give hearty approval to those who do so.

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November 11, 2005

Abiogenesis: Leftovers

(Here are some additional quotes that I encountered, which didn't make it into my abiogenesis article. I've also included images to illustrate some of the biochemical complexities I've discussed.)

"The complexity of the simplest known type of cell is so great that it is impossible to accept that such an object could have been thrown together suddenly by some kind of freakish, vastly improbable, event. Such an occurrence would be indistinguishable from a miracle."
Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory In Crisis, 1985.

"It must be admitted from the beginning that we do not know how life began. It is generally believed that a variety of processes led to the formation of simple organic compounds on the primitive earth. These compounds combined together to give more and more complex structures until one was formed that could be called living. No one should be satisfied with an explanation as general as this."
Stanley L Miller, The Origins of Life on the Earth, Prentice-Hall, 1974.

"To insist, even with Olympian assurance, that life appeared quite by chance and evolved in this fashion, is an unfounded supposition which I believe to be wrong and not in accordance with the facts."
Pierre-P. Grasse, former Chair of Evolution, Sorbonne University and ex-president of the French Academie des Sciences.

"To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times...What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design....What we would be witnessing would be an object resembling an immense automated factory, a factory larger than a city and carrying out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on earth. However, it would be a factory which would have one capacity not equaled in any of our own most advanced machines, for it would be capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours."
Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Burnett Books: London, 1985, p328-329

"So we have now what we believe is strong evidence for life on Earth 3,800 thousand million years [ago]. This brings the theory for the Origin of Life on Earth down to a very narrow range. Allowing half a billion years (for the disturbed conditions described above) we are now thinking, in geochemical terms, of instant life..."
Cyril Ponnamperuma (Director of Chemical Evolution Branch, NASA Ames Research Center, California)

"The presence of limestone, and other probably biogenic sediments, of stromatolites, microfossils, chemical fossils and biogenic kerogen in early Precambrian rocks suggests that life originated virtually simultaneously with the formation of the crust of the earth."
John C. Walton, "The Chemical Composition of the Earth's Original Atmosphere," http://www.grisda.org/origins/03066.htm

"Even the simpler molecules are produced only in small amounts in realistic experiments simulating possible primitive earth conditions. What is worse, these molecules are generally minor constituents of tars: It remains problematical how they could have been separated and purified through geochemical processes whose normal effects are to make organic mixtures more and more of a jumble. With somewhat more complex molecules these difficulties rapidly increase. In particular a purely geochemical origin of nucleotides (the subunits of DNA and RNA) presents great difficulties. In any case, nucleotides have not yet been produced in realistic experiments of the kind Miller did."
Alexander G. Cairns-Smith, "The first organisms," Scientific American 252(6), 1985, p. 90.

"[The Miller-Urey paradigm was at one time] worth consideration, now the entire effort in the primeval soup paradigm is self-deception based on the ideology of its champions...The history of science shows that a paradigm, once it has achieved the status of acceptance (and is incorporated in textbooks) and regardless of its failures, is declared invalid only when a new paradigm is available to replace it...It is a characteristic of the true believer in religion, philosophy and ideology that he must have a set of beliefs, come what may...There is no reason that this should be different in the research on the origin of life...Belief in a primeval soup on the grounds that no other paradigm is available is an example of the logical fallacy of the false alternative."
Hubert P. Yockey, Information theory and molecular biology, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1992, p. 336

"The spontaneous formation of a polypeptide of the size of the smallest known proteins seems beyond all probability."
W. R. Bird, The Origin of Species Revisited, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Co., 1991, p. 304.

"We need a pathway, a succession of chemical steps leading from the first building blocks of life to the RNA world. Chemistry, however, has so far failed to elucidate this pathway. At first sight, the kind of chemistry needed seems so unlikely to take place spontaneously that one might be tempted to invoke, as many have done and some still do, the intervention of some supernatural agency. Scientists, however, are condemned by their calling to look for natural explanations of even the most unnatural-looking events. They must even, in the present case, eschew the facile recourse to chance, as I hope to have made clear"
Christian de Duve (1974 Nobel prize for biology), Vital Dust: Life As a Cosmic Imperative, 1995.

"Creationists have looked forward to the day when science may actually create a "living" thing from simple chemicals. They claim, and rightly so, that even if such a man-made life form could be created, this would not prove that natural life forms were developed by a similar chemical evolutionary process. The [evolutionist] scientist understands this and plods on testing theories."
William D. Stansfield, Professor of Biological Sciences, California Polytechnic State University

"This gulf in understanding is not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major lacuna. . . . My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that a fully satisfactory theory of the origin of life demands some radically new ideas."
Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life, 1999.


Chirality Illustration
(left-hand and right-hand amino acids)



Amino Acids in Polypeptide Formation



Ribosome Constructing a Protein



Structure of the DNA Molecule



Typical Cell

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November 08, 2005

Abiogenesis: A Problem of Origins (part 3)

(Part 3 in a 3 part series)

Building Mansions

Assuming we have everything necessary to begin assembling proteins, what problems are then encountered? Let me use the analogy of language to illustrate the problems.

The building blocks of language are letters. These are analogous to amino acids in that there is a specific group of them — the alphabet — out of all possible symbols that are employed to make words. Likewise, amino acids come in a wide variety, but only 20 specific ones are involved in forming the proteins utilized in biological systems. The problem is that even were conditions somehow right to supply all the essential amino acids, there is still no assurance that dozens of non-essential ones wouldn't be present as well.

The next requirement for our "letters" is that they are facing in the correct direction. The equivalent in the world of amino acids are left-handed and right-handed molecules (chirality), and since they are three-dimensional structures, it is not simply a matter of flipping a single molecule in the right direction; they are two different though mirror image molecules. Proteins are assembled using only left-handed amino acids (homochiral), but again, any process that might produce amino acids is just as likely to produce right-handed as left-handed ones, as occurred in the Miller-Urey experiments. And a left-handed molecule has no greater affinity for its own kind than it does for the other.

Next we must string our letters together to begin forming words and sentences. Likewise, proteins are formed by stringing amino acids one-to-another in linear chains (polypeptide bonds). The thing is, amino acids can just as readily be connected in any number of other three-dimensional formations. Just as numerous links could attach at any given point on a chain rather than just end-to-end, so could amino acids branch and cluster in infinite patterns if unconstrained.

Just as characters ultimately form meaningful sentences and paragraphs, so are proteins the completed units of their chemical language. Proteins may be anywhere from 100 to several thousand amino acids in length. But not just any string will do; it must be a complete string which has "meaning." For a protein to be meaningful it must be arranged in some particular way that allows it to serve some utilitarian purpose. Just as a wrench is better for bolts than a lump of metal, so proteins must be "shaped" to serve their own purposes. This "shaping" involves having just the right amino acids in the right places, which allow the folding and binding of the chain into chemically active formations. The problem here is that there are vastly more arrangements that yield meaningless shapes than meaningful ones, just in the same way that random letters are vastly more likely to make gibberish than meaningful sentences.

So, in the process of assembling proteins, chance must overcome the following obstacles as it connects amino acids: Each new molecule must be another amino acid, and it must be one of the essential 20. Each must be left-handed only. And each must assume a peptide bond. Now, considering that we must repeat these conditions at least 100 times (for the simplest protein), and that what results must also be meaningful in some way, we soon reach odds that have been conservatively estimated at 1 chance in 10120 against such a thing happening without guided assistance. To satisfy these odds we would have to convert all the matter in the universe into a prebiotic soup, mix it a trillion times per second, and then wait up to one trillion, trillion years for our results (the universe is alleged to be only 13.7 billion years old).

But let's not stop the fun just yet; let's assume we can build such a protein. What good will it do? It has to survive and reproduce or it will be just a fortuitous blip on the geological time-line. And even if this lonely molecule could somehow reproduce, it is a long way off from our target of cellular life. Even if a child could build a skateboard, it would be a rather meager step toward building a Porsche.

The simplest known organism is mycoplasma gentalium with 482 proteins. But this is a parasite, meaning that a free-living organism must be more complex yet to provide its own energy and material sources (e.g., photosynthesis or chemosynthesis). The problem with the cell is that it is not just a more complex version of a self-replicating molecule; it is a whole new-order entity: an "irreducibly complex" system.

The cell solves the problem of protein production by including protein-building factories: ribosomes. But these "machines" can do nothing unless given instructions, by the RNA, on which amino acids to assemble. And the RNA knows nothing until it reads it from the DNA library. But RNA and DNA cannot come into being without the assistance of certain proteins manufactured by the ribosome. There is a 3-way dependency here without which no member could survive or function, and this does not include other essential components, like the cell membrane, which enfolds all the participants and protects them from the hostile elements.

Since there are chemical similarities between DNA and RNA, some have suggested that the precursor to the first cell may have been some form of self-replicating RNA molecule, the simplest of the two. But of all the problems encountered by amino acids and proteins, RNA and DNA molecules have these and more. This is because they are not only similarly arranged to form their unique structures (right-handed, difficult to make nucleotides in chained structures), but they are also "information" bearers. And whatever is the first complex structure to form must not only be able to produce more of itself, it must be ultimately capable of producing other distinct, complementary assemblies.

Plant physiologist (and evolutionist) Frank B. Salisbury summarizes the immense problems as follows:
Surely our ideas about the origin of life will have to change radically with the passage of time. Not only is the gene itself a problem: think of the system that would have to come into being to produce a living cell! It's nice to talk about replicating DNA molecules arising in a soupy sea, but in modern cells this replication requires the presence of suitable enzymes. Furthermore, DNA by itself accomplishes nothing. Its only reason for existence is the information that it carries and that is used in the production of a protein enzyme. At the moment, the link between DNA and the enzyme is a highly complex one, involving RNA and an enzyme for its synthesis on a DNA template; ribosomes; enzymes to activate the amino acids; and transfer-RNA molecules. Yet selection only acts upon phenotypes and not upon the genes. At this level, the phenotype is the enzyme itself. How, in the absence of the final enzyme, could selection act upon DNA and all the mechanisms for replicating it? It's as though everything must happen at once: the entire system must come into being as one unit, or it is worthless. There may well be ways out of this dilemma, but I don't see them at the moment.
In light of these and other difficulties and disappointments in the field of origins research, the theory of "panspermia," proposed by the likes of DNA discoverer Francis Crick and Oxford chemist Leslie Orgel, has become an attractive option to some (and a common movie theme). Panspermia is the idea that life was seeded on earth from outer space, either by a chance occurrence (non-directed panspermia) or by way of alien intervention (directed panspermia). It is a tacit admission of the failure of science to produce a naturalistic, earth-bound explanation, and it is a desperate hope by either path.

Chance-created life from outer space must not only overcome most of the same chemical assembly issues as on earth, it must be transported here through long, hard years of hostile conditions (e.g., cold, heat, intense radiation). And alien directed life means that we must account for the rise of such an alien race, which itself must appear by chance and take its billions of years to evolve. Besides being no ultimate answer to the origin of life from matter, it pushes the time in which it must appear into the deep recesses of a young, unruly universe. Origins of life research has been a disappointing field of study, though it continues to be pursued by an adventurous few with unfounded optimism and a vivid imagination.

Conclusion
More than thirty years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principle theories and experiments in the field end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.
Klaus Dose, "The Origin of Life: More Questions than Answers," Interdisciplinary Science Review 13 (1988), 348.
If Darwin had only been privy to the details of what he was seeking to explain then there is reason to speculate over the strength of his convictions. But once a theory is entrenched it is difficult to dislodge, even while decade-by-decade its probability is eroded away by the actual data. But having put God out of the business of creation, and banished Him from the realm of science, evolutionists are stuck with the task of making the impossible seem plausible, and portraying their skeptics, ironically, as faith-blinded fools for doubting that they will one day find their answer.

This is not to suggest a mere "God-of-the-gaps" solution, like appealing to the wrath of Zeus prior to the understanding of electro-static atmospheric discharges (lightning). There is a difference between proposing something based on ignorance and proposing it based on the detailed knowledge you do have. The problem is that we have acquired a pretty darn good understanding of how chemistry operates, and this problem of abiogenesis looks intractable in principle. If science were about reasoning to the best explanation, then intelligent design must surely be given the courtesy of consideration.

For further reading on this topic:

The Origin of Life and the Death of Materialism
Abiogenic Origin of Life: A Theory in Crisis
Loopholes in the evolutionary theory of the origin of life: Summary
The RNA World: A Critique
Life: An Evidence For Creation

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