One reason that creationists believe in a God is because, in their view, life can't come from non-life. Here, I'm gonna take a close look at the scientific research into the origin of life and I'll present potential mechanisms for every step of the process, including the chemical synthesis of the building blocks of life, the polymerization of these chemicals into biologically useful molecules, the combination of these molecules into a proto-organism, and finally, the reproduction of this proto-organism.
I'll also debunk a variety of creationist arguments made in this area including the argument from statistical improbability, the argument that abiogenesis is impossible, as well as the claim that research in the field unintentionally proves that a God must have created life.
In an article on BlueLetterBible.org about the origin of life, Don Stewart quotes the theologian Bernard Ramm who says the following:
"Theologian Bernard Ramm writes:
'Science is still unable to put forward any satisfactory explanation as to how life arose in the first place.'"
Ah, yes, because when I'm looking for reliable scientific information about the chemical origins of life on Earth, who better to consult than the local theologian?
The first thing to point out is that even if he was correct about science not yet having an explanation for the origin of life, this wouldn't justify saying that a God was responsible. Sometimes the correct and rational answer to a question is simply: "We don't know." The fact that there isn't presently a complete scientific explanation for something doesn't mean that there never will be in the future. You can point to countless things that science used to be unable to explain that are now perfectly explained by science. Neil DeGrasse Tyson had a great quote on the folly of using this God of the Gaps logic:
"If that's how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that's getting smaller and smaller and smaller."
It is correct to say that there isn't a perfectly complete scientific explanation for how, exactly, life arose—and I would argue that there almost certainly never will be.
You're just demanding too much if you expect scientists to come out and say: "Here is the exact stepwise process that took place: An 87-nucleotide self-replicating RNA strand with the following sequence originated in this exact location on the planet at exactly 5:54pm 3 billion, 814 million, and 59 years ago. Four days later, it found its way inside of a vesicle 15 micrometers in diameter, and three hours later, the following polypeptides with this exact sequence also found their way inside the vesicle."
We're never going to be able to explain the origin of life with that degree of precision because such clear and fine-grained evidence just doesn't exist for a process that took place around 4 billion years ago. What we can do, however, are put forth plausible ideas for how this could have happened given the conditions present on the early Earth—ideas that might not be well supported by scripture, but are well supported by laboratory evidence.
So what does the science tell us about how life could have originated on Earth? While there are many question marks and competing ideas out there in this field, I'm gonna run through some of the more mainstream ideas for how this could have happened.
So here's how it all started: 6,000 years ago, God snapped his fingers and magically created life—which he then promptly destroyed in a worldwide flood because he was too stupid to get it right the first time around. And if you don't believe this, you're gonna burn in hell—just as The Scientific Method dictates.
No, back to the real world: The essential starting point for life is some kind of self-replicating molecule that's subject to natural selection. While DNA is the molecule we might think of, it's pretty widely accepted that RNA would've been the first genetic material because it's much simpler than DNA and can also take on additional functions.
The other key components of early life would've been proteins that perform various roles, and a lipid bilayer that would enclose the proto-cellular contents and protect them from the surrounding environment. In my purely speculative opinion, I think proteins would've been a later addition, with the very earliest proto-lifeforms consisting of little more than RNA within a protective, lipid bilayer.
How could the building blocks of these various molecules have originated on the early Earth? The simplest way to put it would be to say that they would've been the product of chemical reactions that were taking place. Douglas Palmer writes the following in Prehistoric Past Revealed:
"In 1953, [Stanley] Miller passed a mixture of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen through water into which electrical energy was continuously sparked. Miller thought that this replicated in the simplest possible way the biochemical and physical conditions of early Earth. Within days, an impressive array of organic molecules were indeed synthesized, including 25 amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.
Since then, other energy sources have been tried, including radiation and ultraviolet light, and even more complex molecules have been synthesized, including adenine, the base for nucleic acid."
Source: p. 141–142, Prehistoric Past Revealed: The Four Billion Year History Of Life On Earth, by Douglas Palmer. 2003.
Many creationists are quick to point out drawbacks in the Stanley Miller experiment. Here's what Casey Luskin writes on EvolutionNews.org. That website domain really pisses me off, by the way, because it makes you think that it's just a standard, scientific website providing news about evolution, when really every article on there is just pure creationist propaganda.
"Welcome to EvolutionNews.org! This just in: Evolution is bullshit! Haha! Got 'em! Nice!"
I'm like "Uhh, ok, I'm gonna go back to reading Science Daily. This is not the website for me."
Here's what Luskin has to say about the Stanley Miller experiment
". . . it has . . . been known for decades that the Earth’s early atmosphere was fundamentally different from the gasses used by Miller and Urey.
. . . an article in the journal Science stated: 'Miller and Urey relied on a "reducing" atmosphere, a condition in which molecules are fat with hydrogen atoms.'"
They're correct about this, but creationists always fail to note that many similar, subsequent experiments have been performed that use more accurate atmospheric gases as well as different energy sources, and the results have been very similar. As they write in Campbell Biology,
"Many laboratories have since repeated Miller's classic experiment using different recipes for the atmosphere, some of which also produced organic compounds.
However, it is unclear whether the atmosphere of early Earth contained enough methane and ammonia to be reducing. Some evidence suggests that the early atmosphere was made up primarily of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and was neither reducing nor oxidizing (electron-removing.)
Recent Miller-Urey-type experiments using such 'neutral' atmospheres have also produced organic molecules. In addition, it is likely that small pockets of the early atmosphere—perhaps near the openings of volcanoes—were reducing. Perhaps the first organic compounds formed near volcanoes or deep-sea vents, where hot water and minerals gush into the ocean from Earth's interior."
Source: p. 508, Campbell Biology, Ninth Edition, by Jane B. Reece et al. 2011.
Some critiques of the Miller experiment are downright laughable. Here's what Don Stewart has to say about it:
"It must be emphasized that Miller never produced one living cell in his experiments."
Not one living cell? What a fuckin' loser!
What kind of absurdly unrealistic expectations is Don Stewart operating with here? Does this guy really think that life should spontaneously come about in the laboratory over a period of mere days or weeks? When we're talking about the origin of life, we're talking about enormous timescales here, where hundreds of millions of years are available for these chemicals to mix together and form a variety of compounds. He's like: "Yeah, you should totally be able to replicate this in the laboratory over the weekend." I mean for fucks sake, Don, even God took 7 days for creation.
(Doesn't that strike you as kind of ridiculous by the way? It's not like this is some 40-year-old dad working on a DIY construction project; this is an all powerful God we're talking about here, and he's like: "Alright, I finished up the stars today! I'm gonna take a breather, chill out for a bit and watch the game.")
And just because the Stanley Miller experiment didn't generate life doesn't mean the experiment isn't valuable; the Miller experiment, and experiments like it, show us that many of the key molecules used by life can spontaneously come about through chemical reactions that would have been taking place on the early Earth.
Another source of the building blocks of life would've been meteorites. As they write in the textbook Evolution,
". . . This pool of molecules might have grown more diverse as a result of matter arriving on extraterrestrial objects such as carbon-rich meteorites and comets, which are known to carry amino acids, purines, and pyrimidines."
Source: p. 384, Evolution, by Carl T. Bergstrom & Lee Alan Dugatkin. 2012.
And purines and pyrimidines, for those who don't know, are key components in RNA.
Campbell Biology notes that lipids and sugars have also been found in such meteorites—with sugars being another essential part of RNA, forming part of its backbone.
"Recent studies have shown that the Murchison meteorite also contained other key organic molecules, including lipids, simple sugars, and nitrogenous bases such as uracil."
Source: p. 508, Campbell Biology, Ninth Edition, by Jane B. Reece et al. 2011.
So as we've seen, the integral parts of primitive lifeforms would have been present on the early Earth, coming either from chemical reactions taking place on the planet or even being transported here from outer space. But it's one thing to just have a bunch of building blocks floating around; how could these have actually been assembled into biologically useful polymers?
Campbell Biology outlines a very simple mechanism of amino acid and RNA polymerization:
"A 2009 study demonstrated that one key step, the abiotic synthesis of RNA monomers, can occur spontaneously from simple precursor molecules. In addition, by dripping solutions of amino acids or RNA nucleotides onto hot sand, clay, or rock, researchers have produced polymers of these molecules. The polymers formed spontaneously, without the help of enzymes or ribosomes."
Source: p. 509. Campbell Biology, Ninth Edition, by Jane B. Reece et al. 2011.
Here we see an animation of this process, provided by ExploringOrigins.org:
Video transcript: "Researchers have shown that clays, such as montmorillonite, are able to catalyze the formation of polymers of RNA from single nucleotides. Nucleotides, shown in white and blue, adsorb to the surface of a small clay particle, shown in brown. As the surface becomes more crowded, nucleotides that are close together can undergo a chemical reaction resulting in the formation of a polymer, or strand, of RNA."
They also provide another mechanism of RNA polymerization in their article on nucleic acids:
"Another possibility is that strands of RNA could have formed in salty ice water. David Deamer's lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz has found that the process of freezing a dilute solution of chemically activated RNA nucleotides causes the nucleotides to become concentrated as ice crystals form, eventually resulting in the formation of strands of RNA."
The textbook Evolution elaborates on how amino acids could've formed early proteins:
"When [Sidney] Fox mixed large amounts of the amino acids aspartic acid and glutamic acid, and subsequently placed the mixture into water, the amino acids present were strung together in a peptidelike structure. The bonds between the amino acids, however, were weak and unstable, and they were different in structure from the peptide bonds that join amino acids in most organisms.
Subsequent work by Claudia Huber and her colleagues found that amino acids do link together via stable peptide bonds if a compound such as carbon monoxide (CO)—which is thought to have been present in Earth's atmosphere—is used in the laboratory experiments."
Source: p. 384–385, Evolution, by Carl T. Bergstrom & Lee Alan Dugatkin. 2012.
Vesicle or early–cell membrane formation is probably the simplest process, because it's the intrinsic chemical nature of certain lipids to form a spherical bilayer when added to water. As Campbell Biology puts it,
". . . vesicles can form spontaneously when lipids or other organic molecules are added to water. When this occurs, the hydrophobic molecules in the mixture organize into a bilayer similar to the lipid bilayer of a plasma membrane. Adding substances such as montmorillonite, a soft mineral clay produced by the weathering of volcanic ash, greatly increases the rate of vesicle self-assembly. This clay, which is thought to have been common on early Earth, provides surfaces on which organic molecules become concentrated, increasing the likelihood that the molecules will react with each other and form vesicles."
Source: p. 509, Campbell Biology, Ninth Edition, by Jane B. Reece et al. 2011.
Something I haven't yet covered is how such lipids could be formed and concentrated in the first place. One potential process is described in an Exploring Origins video:
Video transcript: "Hydrothermal vents, from deep-sea black smokers to land-bound geysers, may have been sites where prebiotically important molecules on early Earth were formed. This animation shows the formation of fatty acids deep in the Earth below a geyser. Mineral surfaces can catalyze the stepwise formation of hydrocarbon chains from carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Here hydrogen atoms are shown as white spheres. Carbon is grey, and oxygen in red.
The reaction results in the growth of hydrocarbon chains of various lengths that are eventually released from the mineral face as fatty acids and related compounds. Because the fatty acids are at low concentrations in the water, they are unable to form higher order structures such as micelles and membranes.
Following the violent explosion of the geyser, some water is released into the atmosphere as tiny, microscopic droplets. Fatty acids synthesized along the mineral walls of the geyser are found in low concentration in these droplets, with the longer fatty acids at the air-water interface. A gust of wind evaporates the water molecules and the water droplet, causing the fatty acid to form lightweight airborne particulates that can be transported across the landscape, perhaps eventually settling out and accumulating in localized areas."
Finally, how could these different components of life come together and reproduce in a manner that natural selection acts upon? It's surprisingly not all that difficult. One of the key sites of protocell formation could have been montmorillonite clay. Recall that such clay not only increases the speed of vesicle assembly, but also can play a key role in catalyzing RNA and amino acid polymerization. So if all three of these components are present on a clay surface and are being assembled on this clay surface, it's not a stretch to imagine RNA and proteins finding their way inside of a vesicle.
There's also another very simple mechanism by which RNA monomers could enter a vesicle, and it's explained on ExploringOrigins.org:
Video transcript: "Recent research has shown that single nucleotides of RNA are able to traverse fatty acid vesicle membranes. This animation shows one mechanism by which nucleotides may enter the vesicle. Nucleotides bump into and interact with fatty acid headgroups colored in red in the outer leaflet. Some of the fatty acids interacting with the nucleotide flip to the inner leaflet, carrying the nucleotide along, and releasing it on the inside of the vesicle."
Such fatty acid flipping could be one of the keys to early reproduction, because it would continually provide the RNA strand inside of the protocell with the nucleotides that it needs to continue reproducing while also maintaining a protected environment within the vesicle.
How, exactly, would early reproduction take place? Creationists often describe this process as impossible, because RNA and DNA replication requires a complex collection of proteins that couldn't possibly have been present at the outset. They're correct about this, and therefore a God exists and you should shut this video off and go pray for redemption.
No, one way out of this difficulty is the self-replicating nature of certain RNA strands. As Evolution continues,
"RNA itself can act as an enzyme . . . Such RNA enzymes are called ribozymes. . . . Natasha Paul and Gerald Joyce demonstrated that RNA can catalyze reactions involved in its own assembly, using what is called the R3C ribozyme . . . In ligating RNA A and RNA B, R3C operates both as a template—positioning A and B in relation to one another—and as an enzyme, catalyzing the chemical reaction that joins them. From simpler precursors RNA A and RNA B, R3C creates a copy of itself; these copies could in turn create copies of themselves.
. . . in a follow-up experiment, Lincoln and Joyce (2009) were able to design a similar system that could replicate indefinitely so long as substrate was present.
. . . After establishing that the template RNAs in this system could self-replicate, they conducted an experiment in which several variant template molecules were supplied with variant substrate molecules. In this system, new variant forms of the templates arose via various mutations. This variation was heritable, and different templates replicated at different rates. The conditions for natural selection were now met in their system. Lincoln and Joyce found that those self-replicating ribozymes that had more efficient catalytic activity and the ability to grow quickly soon began to dominate their populations of self-replicating ribozymes."
Source: p. 388–389, Evolution, by Carl T. Bergstrom & Lee Alan Dugatkin. 2012.
And, finally, Exploring Origins explains how the cell membrane itself could also reproduce:
Video transcript: "This animation shows the process of protocell growth and division. RNA nucleotides shown as blue dots traverse the protocell membrane and are used by an RNA replicase to make a copy of another RNA replicase. Meanwhile, the protocell membrane is constantly growing through the addition of micelles. Increasing the surface area faster than the volume causes the protocell shape to become elongated and unstable. The protocell eventually splits into daughter protocells, with the contents of the original protocell randomly divided between the daughters."
Obviously this isn't a totally comprehensive account of how, exactly, the first lifeforms could've arisen—but it does cover the basic essentials, which include: the chemical synthesis of the building blocks of life; the polymerization of these building blocks into biologically useful molecules; the combining of these different molecules into a proto-organism; and finally, the reproduction of this proto-organism, which would be subject to natural selection as minor differences between the protocells confer reproductive and survivalistic advantages or disadvantages.
This also isn't the only conceivable process of abiogenesis; life could have arisen via any number of different pathways (although in my opinion, the process I've presented here strikes me as one of the more likely ones because it's a very simple pathway.)
Perhaps you're dissatisfied with this explanation because it leaves out things like the origins of DNA and other, more complicated parts of the cell. "How do you explain that, evolutionist?"
Look, dickhead: I can only cover so much in one particular video. Plus, I'm dealing here strictly with the origin of life—not the evolution of additional components once life had already arisen. Don't get me wrong: Those are interesting questions worth exploring, but I'll have to save my exploring them for a future video—one that you can support the production of by going to Patreon.com/aSkepticalHuman! (Yeah, I mean like right now! As in, pause this video and give me your money!)
Let's now take a look at some of the creationist arguments made against such scientific explanations for the origin of life.
One is what I call the argument from statistical improbability. Here's how Casey Luskin puts it in his EvolutionNews.org article:
"RNA world advocates suggest that if the first self-replicating life was based upon RNA, it would have required a molecule between 200 and 300 nucleotides in length. However, there are no known chemical or physical laws that dictate the order of those nucleotides. To explain the ordering of nucleotides in the first self-replicating RNA molecule, materialists must rely on sheer chance. But the odds of specifying, say, 250 nucleotides in an RNA molecule by chance is about 1 in 10^150 — below the 'universal probability bound,' a term characterizing events whose occurrence is at least remotely possible within the history of the universe."
One problem I see is their assumption that the first self-replicating RNA molecule would need to be between 200 and 300 nucleotides in length. A Phys.org article—posted on an actual science website, I might add—reports an RNA strand exhibiting self-ligation activity that was only 40 nucleotides in length. Perhaps it's possible that an even shorter RNA strand could be self-replicating?
Obviously the shorter the molecule, the more likely the odds that it could be randomly strung together. So the odds of such an event aren't nearly as improbable as creationists make them out to be.
Also consider that creationists assume, in their calculations, that only a single RNA strand of that length would be assembled—and they calculate the odds of that one strand being the exact one that's necessary. In reality, a huge number of RNA strands would've been strung together on the early Earth over a period of hundreds of millions of years, dramatically increasing the probability that a self-replicating one would arise.
We also need to take into consideration that Earth isn't the only planet in the universe. Let's say that each galaxy has 100 billion stars, and let's also say that 1% of these stars have a planet orbiting them where similar such chemical reactions could be taking place for long periods of time. (The universe is made of the same stuff, after all, so I see no reason why similar planets wouldn't have similar chemical reactions taking place on them.)
That's 1 billion such planets per galaxy. And if we assume that there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe, that's 10^20th planets in the universe where such RNA strands would be assembling, again dramatically increasing the probability that a self-replicating one would originate. All you need is just one of these strands to be in the right environmental conditions to ultimately be the origin of life on that planet. Perhaps we live on such a planet?
Let's play with the numbers here to see what kind of probabilities we arrive at when we use realistic assumptions.
The key is to estimate how many RNA strands would have been assembling. The answer certainly wouldn't be just a single RNA strand, as creationists assume in their calculations. I can't think of a good way to accurately determine this, so the best we can do is just throw out an estimate that seems reasonable.
Let's imagine a 300 million year period after the Earth cooled where RNA strands are assembling. Let's say that, on average, one 40-nucleotide RNA strand will assemble every 1 million seconds, or every 12 days. That yields 10^10 RNA strands, or 1 followed by 10 zeroes.
Recall that I estimated there being in the universe 10^20 planets capable of undergoing such chemical reactions. 10^20 planets x 10^10 RNA strands = 10^30 40-nucleotide RNA strands being assembled. These are such insanely large numbers that I can't even find a calculator capable of grappling with them. In this particular calculation, 10^26 is the highest number that Wolfram Alpha can handle.
Even using this number—which is several orders of magnitude below my estimate—the probability of one specific 40-nucleotide RNA strand assembling at least once becomes 0.99999...repeating, all the way to 35 9s. That's right around the probability that a creationist will embarrass themselves whenever they open their mouth!
A probability of 1 means that the event will occur. I don't know how to determine how many times this will occur, but we do know that, given our assumptions, it is a virtual certainty that a self-replicating 40-nucleotide RNA strand will assemble within the universe.
Also consider the possibility that we live in a multiverse. This isn't just some crackpot theory I cooked up while taking bong rips on the couch; it's a crackpot theory that astronomers cooked up while taking bong rips on the couch. No, this is a real hypothesis that many experts in the field take seriously. If it is true that there are an infinite number of alternative universes, the origin of such molecules becomes a complete inevitability.
If you're living in an infinite multiverse, you'd have an infinite number of self-replicating molecules of any length originating. Life itself would originate an infinite number of times. That means there's another universe where everything is basically the same, except I'm a young-earth creationist and Sam Harris is a suicide bomber. There's another universe where Fred Phelps (of the Westboro Baptist Church) became a gay porn star and died when he was trampled by an elephant that Newt Gingrich was riding.
So when you broaden out your thinking on this subject away from a localized focus only on Earth, and when you take into consideration the vast size of our universe and the potential the we live in a multiverse, what began as an extremely unlikely prospect becomes virtually or even certainly inevitable—no God necessary. If we can explain something without the supernatural, why bother invoking the supernatural?
It could also be the case that RNA and DNA-based life is just one of many potential templates that life could arise by—and it's just the one that happened to take root on our planet. Maybe there are 5 or 10 or 1000 different polypeptides that could act as self-replicating molecules with analogous functions to RNA? And maybe some of these other polypeptides are much more easily synthesized than strands of RNA? That would increase the probability of life originating even further.
Different planets would also vary in how conducive they are to the chemical reactions necessary to generate life. So on some planets, it might be extremely unlikely that life originates, while other planets might be utterly brimming with the stuff of life.
The final thing I'll point out is that there's almost certainly more than one way to achieve self-replication. Creationists, in their calculations, imagine a 250-nucleotide strand, and assume that there's only one sequence of nucleotides that could lead to self-replication. In reality, it's quite possible that there are several different combinations that could lead to this outcome, increasing the likelihood of this occurring even higher.
To his credit, when he makes this argument from statistical improbability, at least Luskin is attempting to actually engage with what it is that we're arguing about the origin of life. Other creationists talk about the earliest lifeforms as if they would've been enormously complex. Here's what a couple of creationists (whose names I don't care enough to learn) argue in a video for Creation Ministries International:
"[Creationist 1]: Now you've got 20 amino acids. You've got 387 proteins for the simplest life possible. So they've done, they've tried to do experiments that figure, well, just how simple could life be, evolutionists have done this.
[Creationist 2]: And they're always imagining that life could be simpler in the past, but that's... imagination isn't real good science.
[Please, tell me more about what constitutes "real good science," person who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.]
[Creationist 1]: Well yeah, and they're dealing in the present with, ok, what machinery has to be there in order for this thing to at least live. Using their data—we're being generous to them—387 proteins for the simplest possible life, that's their figure, not ours. . . . If you do the math . . . that's 10^5035! . . . You don't even have enough time, in the Big Bang model, in the evolutionist model, to come up with a lifeform!"
There's a fundamental problem in the assumptions made here by Generic Creationist Man #1, and that's the the very first lifeforms would've been enormously complex.
These numbers, about how many proteins are needed for the simplest life possible, are generally arrived at in knockout studies. The way these work is that a researcher comes up and knocks you the fuck out! And he's like, "Yeah, bitch! Get some!"
No, the way these studies work is that a modern-day one-celled organism is cruelly separated from his weeping family members. Individual genes are disabled, the fitness of the organism is assessed, and if it's unaffected, they move on to knocking out another gene and continue to repeat the process until they arrive at the simplest organism possible with the fewest number of active genes. `
Here is the problem with mapping these analyses onto the origin of life: Such knockout studies are performed on modern-day organisms that have already had almost 4 billion years to evolve! There is no reason to believe that the very first organisms would be anywhere near as complex as these. Yes, present-day organisms might have many components that are integral to their survival—but these traits have arisen and been cemented into the organism over billions of years.
This would be like taking a bunch of different mammals, removing their various internal organs and concluding that they can't survive without them. Yeah, that may be true for present-day mammals, but hundreds of millions of years ago, the ancestors of these organisms were much simpler and didn't have any of these internal organs—yet they were perfectly capable of living and reproducing. So it is with the earliest lifeforms: Just because present-day single-celled organisms are filled with essential, complex parts doesn't mean that the very earliest single-celled organisms where anywhere near as complex as this.
They also make the second mistake of assuming that the various parts of contemporary single-celled organisms would've been randomly assembled by sheer luck—as if all 300 proteins, as well as the genes that code for them, would all spontaneously assemble at one particular moment in time.
In reality, these parts would've been gradually assembled and sculpted by evolution over hundreds of millions of years. This isn't just random assemblage; there's a selective process going on here that passes down minor modifications that benefit the organism and eliminates those that harm the organism. So we can reject these calculations as fundamentally flawed because they're based upon the inaccurate assumption of chance assembly—which isn't the actual process that took place.
By the way, what's with this yellow undershirt that this guy's wearing? What, does he have a superhero costume on underneath that?
He's like: "I am Genesis Man!"
"Oh. Cool, dude. So, like, what do you do?"
"I... basically just quote scripture and pray for good things to happen."
I'm like: "That's not really a superpower. That's... kinda what all Christians do."
He's like: "Uh, gotta go! Looks like my Jesus senses are tingling!", then he jumps out the window and breaks his arm.
Another argument made by creationists is that some of the research done in this field is accidental proof that an intelligent creator is necessary for the origin of such molecules. As Luskin continues,
". . . the first RNA molecules would have to arise by unguided, non-biological chemical processes. But RNA is not known to assemble without the help of a skilled laboratory chemist intelligently guiding the process. New York University chemist Robert Shapiro critiqued the efforts of those who tried to make RNA in the lab, stating: 'The flaw is in the logic — that this experimental control by researchers in a modern laboratory could have been available on the early Earth.'"
They don't make the point explicitly here, but creationists often do make the point that "Aha! If we only see these molecules when they're synthesized by an intelligent designer in the laboratory, that's proof that life itself was intelligently designed in God's laboratory!"
Number one, Luskin is just flat wrong when he says that "RNA is not known to assemble without the help of a skilled laboratory chemist intelligently guiding the process." We've already gone over several potential early mechanisms for RNA assembly, and these include RNA monomers coming into contact with hot clay, sand, or rock which could catalyze polymerization—no "skilled laboratory chemist" required.
Perhaps he's talking here about how researchers will synthesize self-replicating RNA strands, and it's those that require a skilled chemist? Yeah, well unfortunately researchers don't have millions of years to just sit around, let chemicals mix together and see how it plays out. (A researcher turns 3 million years old and he's like "Aaany minute now...") They also don't operate inside of a laboratory the size of the planet Earth that exactly replicates all of the different conditions present on it, so they're heavily restricted in terms of the timescale and size of their experiments.
But the important takeaway is that once such RNA strands come about, they can reproduce indefinitely and be subject to evolutionary pressures. And given hundreds of millions of years and a chemical reaction container as large and varied as the planet Earth, it's quite conceivable that such self-replicating RNA strands would arise spontaneously. In fact, as we saw earlier, given the size of the universe and the potential that we live in a multiverse, the odds become virtually certain.
Something else creationists will do is find a scientist who honestly admits our gaps of knowledge and understanding in the field, and seize upon such quotes as if they're humiliating concessions that somehow prove the creationist to be correct. As an example of this, we'll once again turn to that Casey Luskin article—which is just a goldmine of sloppy arguments. It's almost like he took a bunch of valid points, and then decided to write an article where he argues the exact opposite as some sort of twisted joke.
"In 2007, Harvard chemist George Whitesides was given the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society. During his acceptance speech, he offered this stark analysis
'The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.'"
First, I would point out that just because this one particular scientist isn't aware of how life could've arisen, that doesn't mean that there's no scientific understanding whatsoever about this question. One particular guy's knowledge base isn't the same thing as the entire scientific community's knowledge base. And as we've seen here, there is a solid scientific foundation to formulate ideas about how life might have arisen on the early Earth.
And as I noted at the outset, sometimes "we don't know" is just the correct answer. Inserting the supernatural into our gaps of ignorance has historically been a losing strategy, and the logic itself is faulty. Just because we don't currently have a scientific understanding of something doesn't mean that we someday won't in the future.
Other creationist arguments in this area feature basic logical fallacies. Here's an example of this in a World Video Bible School video featuring Jeff Miller:
"It's common for evolution-based high-school biology textbooks to just come out and admit spontaneous generation is impossible, come out and state that abiogenesis has been disproved, and even give the evidence for that claim, like this biology textbook by the popular textbook publisher Prentice Hall. After discussing Pasteur's experiments, the authors say,
'The hypothesis of spontaneous generation was finally disproved.'
They then proceed, literally on the next page, to promote evolution and the origin of life from non-life!"
Man, this guy's sideburns are all the proof you need that humans aren't intelligently designed! He looks like a fuckin' Nascar driver that was forced, at gunpoint, to put on a suit and tie.
This is a very clear example of the fallacy of equivocation, where you conflate two different meanings of the same or a similar word. Here, Jeff is confusing the origin of life generally with one particular faulty idea about how life originated.
Spontaneous generation was an idea from the late 1600s that lifeforms arose from the environments associated with those lifeforms: maggots originated from rotting meat; mice originated from bales of hay; mosquitoes originated from swamp water; creationists originated from piles of dog shit; and so forth. This particular hypothesis was disproven by Pasteur's experiments—but that's all that was disproven here.
Perhaps it's understandable given that the word "spontaneous" is often used when talking about abiogenesis, but Jeff is confusing disproving this specific idea of spontaneous generation with disproving the general concept that life originated from simple beginnings.
Some creationists will also mindlessly repeat slogans like "life only comes from life" as if that's enough to disprove abiogenesis. Here's an example of Jeff Miller doing this:
"There've been a stream of attempts to find evidence that life could come from non-life, to try to find evidence to substantiate evolution. All of these attempts, without exception, have not shown that life can come from non-life, but rather, have further illustrated that life comes only from life. There are no known exceptions. Thus, biogenesis is a law, and the implication is that abiogenesis is impossible."
Sure, in the present day, new lifeforms might come about via reproduction from already existing lifeforms—but that doesn't disprove or contradict the idea that life, early in Earth's history, arose from simple beginnings.
I don't mean to keep throwing the book at you here and be the dude who's like "Um, excuse me sir. That's a logical fallacy," but this seems to be a version of the black swan fallacy: "All of the swans that I've ever seen are white; therefore, there are no black swans!" Well no, maybe there are black swans, but you just haven't been in the locations where they're at? The flaw in Jeff's argument is similar to that, except instead of not being in the right location, he hasn't been in the right time period to observe life coming from non-life.
Yes, contemporary organisms are the descendants of their ancestors. It's always amusing to me when people like creationists or climate change deniers point out the painfully obvious as if it's an incredibly wise observation: "Climate has changed in the past!", "Organisms today come from other organisms!", Woooow, fucking groundbreaking observations—and things that the experts in those fields are totally unaware of!
I'm just imagining a creationist showing up at a biochemistry conference on the origin of life. After a scientist gives his presentation, the creationist goes to the microphone to ask him a question, and he's like: "I've got news for you, Mr. Biochemist: Life comes from life."
And the scientist on stage is just flabbergasted, completely speechless, and visibly traumatized by the realization that his entire life is a lie.
Gimme a fuckin' break. Yeah, life today comes from other life, but go far enough in the past, and eventually you reach a point where life arose from its most simple, chemical constituents. There's no contradiction here and this certainly isn't a clever point.
So as we've seen here, creationists are clearly wrong when they claim that life can't come from non-life. The building blocks of life can arise through natural chemical processes, and they can ultimately come together to form a proto-organism that's capable of reproducing in a manner that's subject to natural selection.
The argument from statistical improbability fails to take into consideration the vast size of our universe as well as the possibility that we live in a multiverse. The very first organisms wouldn't have been anywhere near as complex as some creationists mistakenly claim they would be.
Disproving the specific hypothesis of spontaneous generation doesn't disprove the general concept that life could originate from non-life, and mindlessly repeating slogans such as "life only comes from life" isn't enough to substantiate the creationist position—which I've, once again found to be completely without merit.