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From Abiogenesis - Wikipedia:

In biology, abiogenesis (from a-‘not’ + Greek bios ‘life’ + genesis 'origin') or the origin of life is the natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. The prevailing scientific hypothesis is that the transition from non-living to living entities was not a single event, but an evolutionary process of increasing complexity that involved the formation of a habitable planet, the prebiotic synthesis of organic molecules, molecular self-replication, self-assembly, autocatalysis, and the emergence of cell membranes. Many proposals have been made for different stages of the process.

The mainstream scientific understanding of abiogenesis postulates that life emerged naturally from non-living matter through chemical reactions that took place on a primitive Earth (or on another planet -- see panspermia). Of course, this runs contrary to theistic views that place God as the designer and creator of life (e.g. see Genesis 1).

According to Creationists, what are the strongest arguments against the feasibility of abiogenesis? Are there compelling reasons to reject the hypothesis that life could have emerged naturally from non-living matter without the purposeful intervention of an intelligent designer?


Relevant Biology Stack Exchange discussions:

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    The burden of proof does not lie on the opposition to refute every new theory that pops up, it lies with the proponents of the theory to give reasons why it is reasonable and/or should be accepted Sep 3, 2022 at 23:48
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    Who knows if it's feasible? It's speculation piled on speculation. Similar to evolutionary biology, TBH. Sep 4, 2022 at 3:36
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    If one wishes to turn the formation of man into a myth, then the strongest argument is that no one has postulated anything even approaching the amount of time such a process would probably take. Mere billions of years cannot even touch the wall of probability for the random production of even one necessary amino acid let alone a protein. Think more like 1X10 with 120 zeros. Sep 12, 2022 at 13:04
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    @MikeBorden - Do you have sources to back up those figures? Would you be willing to post an answer citing those sources and explaining the math (if possible)?
    – user50422
    Sep 12, 2022 at 15:06
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    Willing but potentially not able, that's why it's just a comment. I can delete it if it appears spurious. This is stuff I was looking at ~15 years ago. I once had access to Wistar Institute Monograph #5 "Mathematical Challenges to the neoDarwinian interpretation of evolution" but I cannot find it for free any longer. This monograph was not the meat of my research but it is where I got started. I will do some digging when I find time. Sep 13, 2022 at 11:53

3 Answers 3

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First off, from a Christian standpoint, the strongest argument is Genesis 1; God's inerrant and infallible Word tells us how life began: God spoke, and it was so. Most importantly, millions or billions of years don't appear anywhere in the Bible. But this requires that one already believes in God, so we should probably look at what non-Scriptural evidence exists.

Are there compelling reasons to reject the hypothesis that life could have emerged naturally from non-living matter without the purposeful intervention of an intelligent designer?

Absolutely; even for non-Christians.

The trouble is, there's so much evidence (literal books have been written on the subject) that, without writing a tome here, I can only hope to scratch the surface. Another problem is that, because of the chronology problem (see below), Abiogenesis doesn't stand on its own; fields such as geology and cosmology can come into play. I really can't recommend enough that anyone open-minded do some in depth studying of the matter.

Here's an attempt at a summary:

  • Chemistry: While it's theoretically possible for amino acids to form spontaneously, it requires extremely precise conditions to prevent proteins from immediately breaking down. While the Miller-Urey experiment is usually held up as the poster-child "proof" that amino acid formation is plausible, it has a number of problems, including conditions that don't match the usual "deep time" models, and unrealistic conditions used to separate out and preserve those amino acids that were created, and it fails to bridge the gap from amino acids to proteins.
  • Chirality: Organic molecules have an "orientation" (usually labeled "left-handed" and "right-handed") which are mirror images of each other. All extant life uses a single chirality; the other is, at best, not usable. However, any plausible non-biological origin of amino acids will tend to produce both in equal number, which significantly hinders protein formation.
  • Complexity: Even the simplest organism that is known to be viable is astonishingly complex, requiring many proteins and significant quantities of genetic information. The probability of such an organism spontaneously coming into existence are literally beyond astronomical, and no simpler life form has yet been demonstrated, nor has any evidence been found that such organisms ever existed.
  • Chronology: I won't really go into this as it's somewhat off topic, but all naturalistic explanations for the origin of life require millions or billions of years. However, there is evidence (ignored or denied by those that believe in abiogenesis, of course) that Earth hasn't been around that long. If this is the case, all plausible explanations for abiogenesis are dead before they can even get started.

By comparison, we know intelligent entities are capable of the sort of creativity that is seen in biology. The burden ought to be on those that deny intelligent design to show that a non-intelligent cause is a plausible explanation. Instead, they insist that it must have happened because they have ruled out — a priori and for philosophical reasons — the much more likely explanation that life is Designed.

Mind, I'm also trying to focus here only on Abiogenesis. Common Descent has its own set of problems.

Recommended Reading:

As an aside, what about Panspermia? Well, besides adding its own set of problems, all Panspermia does is take the problems of abiogenesis occurring on Earth and moves them somewhere else. It doesn't actually address any of the problems.

What's truly ironic is that Materialists have long accused Creationists of using a "God of the Gaps" argument, inserting "God" anywhere a naturalistic explanation is lacking. Yet this is exactly how the Abiogenesis problem is waved away. We're told that it "definitely happened" (because no other explanation is permitted), but no viable explanation has been given, and none seems forthcoming.

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  • I posted a number of objections to what's said in this answer to chat.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 4, 2022 at 6:07
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    I remember crunching the numbers in college and coming out with an infintisimally small probability that a self-replicative strand of DNA would begin to exist, assuming that it must be at least as long as the smallest self-replicative strand we know about and using even very generous assumptions about the number of viable combinations (upwards of 50%).
    – jaredad7
    May 25, 2023 at 21:13
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Evolution cannot start until there exists a chemical structure which can replicate itself. And this supposed replicating structure must be in some sense a step towards the DNA structures that all life is made up of today. (So it is, for instance, quite useless to theorise early evolution starting by making use of the self-replicating features of certain crystals.)

Evolutionary processes may be described as the incorporation of changes to a self-replicating compound which are beneficial to the compound and so are passed on to the next generation. But before the evolutionary process can begin all the features of self-replication must be produced in the same compound without any assistance from the process of natural selection. And so the more complex the original compound needs to be the more unlikely it can possibly come into existence by chance.

Life is made up of amino acids. But amino acids cannot self-replicate. Proteins are specific chains of amino acids. But proteins cannot self-replicate.

The only thing which can self-replicate are DNA chains, which are chains of chemicals which are the information needed to produce proteins. Once a protein chain has been built it needs to be folded correctly in order to work. But this folding is done by structures made up of correctly folded proteins, a catch 22 situation.

The number of possible combinations of amino acids producing a chain of 150 in a single protein is mind-boggling. There are said to be between 10 to the power 78 and 10 to the power 82 atoms in the visible universe. The average protein length in today's world is, say, 150 amino acids. And there are say 20 amino acids used in living things. That means that there are 20 to the power of 150 different possible permutations of amino acids for such a protein length. And the simplest living things known to exist contain over a 100 different kinds of protein.

But the problem is bigger than this, because even though there are only 20 (or 21 or 22?) different amino acids used to make all life forms there are in fact over 100 different kinds of amino acids in nature: these make possible (at least) 100 to the power of 150 (which is the same as 10 to the power of 300) different protein chain combinations. Compare this with 10 to the power of 82, the upward estimate of the number of atoms in the visible universe.

The whole thing is riddled with impossibility upon impossibility. I would say it is amazing that even God has made living things out of just matter. Or has he? The body goes back to the dust of the earth and the spirit goes back to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

If you still need to be convinced then see Professor James Tour from Rice University's interview here:-

Youtube - "James Tour: The Origin of Life Has Not Been Explained - Science Uprising Expert Interview" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4sP1E1Jd_Y

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  • It would be great to have some references backing up the the figures in the second and third last paragraphs. Otherwise, +1
    – user50422
    Sep 5, 2022 at 14:45
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    BTW, it both is and is not amazing that life could be engineered. The probability of this sentence arising due to chance processes, for example, is extremely low, but we have immense experience of intelligent actors causing just such events to occur (e.g. that you're reading this). That said, the intelligence that is capable of designing life must be truly remarkable.
    – Matthew
    Sep 5, 2022 at 15:03
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    @MadScientist - The chance of there being even one starting point is effectively zero, for there to be more than one starting point is not more likely but rather even less likely. "much smaller than 150 residues" - I am looking at real world proteins, you are just speculating. But ok, let's say for the sake of argument the proteins involved are chains of only 20. That still gives 100 to the power of 20 or 10 to the power of 40 possible combinations for just one protein.. the simplest life today has at least 100 proteins plus DNA with an interpreting ribosome. So even smaller proteins Sep 5, 2022 at 16:54
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    @MadScientist - I am not specifying one particular target.. anything that replicates will do.. but the chances of finding one are effectively zero. Sep 5, 2022 at 18:43
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    @MadScientist, until you can demonstrate such molecules, your claim that "your calculation is simply irrelevant" is nothing more than a fairy tale, an insistence that your conclusion must be right because you're unwilling to consider any other possibility. Show us the evidence to back up such claims. The calculations are based on the simplest organism that is known to be viable.
    – Matthew
    Sep 11, 2022 at 23:32
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I'll offer 3 critiques


1. A leap of faith too far

For purposes of this post I'll use as a working definition of faith the one proposed by @curiousdannii - reliance on something because of its past behavior (the popular refrain that faith is belief without evidence is a strawman--see further discussion in my post here).

All life forms with which we have experience result from one or more previously-existing life forms; we do not have evidence of life (much less self-replicating life) emerging from non-life by natural processes alone.

All of examples of specified complexity with which we have experience are the product of intelligent minds; we do not have evidence of specified complexity emerging from natural processes.

This does not mean these things cannot happen - it means we don't have evidence to support that they happen. To accept a priori that methodological naturalism provides the best avenue for answering the question of the origin of life is to decide on the very variable under consideration before even looking at the evidence (not very scientific!).

Trusting in methodological naturalism to deliver results in the study of origin of life is an act of faith.

  • The scientific method, as well as theological systems that accept the ongoing nature of revelation, have built in systems to allow for correction when errors are made.
  • Naturalism is a binary philosophical assumption that can either be accepted or rejected. It cannot correct itself - the most it could ever do is fail enough times that people choose to discard it.

I can see why people would put faith in the first two; it is unclear to me why anyone would put so much faith in the latter.

Those who suspend judgement on the matter of the origin of life may be intellectually consistent, but those who actively believe that naturalism will eventually produce a solution to the origin of life problem are making a god-of-the-gaps argument: I can't yet answer this question, therefore I assume naturalism will eventually produce an answer. This is a faith-based position, relying upon prior results from methodological naturalism (whatever those might be) in order to trust it.

This is why Frank Turek is famous for his claim I don't have enough faith to be an Atheist.

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2. Probability

Doug Axe famously argued that the sequence space for protein folds is too vast for successful innovation by chance, indicating that only approx. 1 in 10^78 possible DNA variations is viable.

Since there have been (generously) 10^42 life forms in the history of earth, we would have to replay the entire history of life on earth about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times in order to get just one new protein fold to come into being by chance. Adding in the need for multiple protein folds, to say nothing of a self-replicating mechanism, would make the chance-hypothesis even weaker. This objection is relevant to both origin-of-life and evolution-of-life studies. For abiogenesis to work, we would need multiple successful protein folds, and a self-replicating mechanism.

If we grant that there are 10^23 habitable planets in the universe, and the earth represents an "average" habitable planet, even then, the entire universe would not give us 10^78 opportunities for an accidental life form to emerge and replicate itself even once. (10^23 * 10^42 = 10^65).

Facing otherwise insurmountable odds, some philosophers have turned to multiverse hypotheses. While I take no issue with the possibility that more than one universe could exist, this is not a scientific theory, it's a philosophical theory (it's non-falsifiable), and it is vulnerable to the same difficulties discussed in section 1 of this post.

--

3. Occam's Razor

Upon re-reading the original question, I see that my response left out a significant dimension: this question is addressed to Christians, who already believe in God.

To those who already believe in God on other grounds, abiogenesis is an unnecessary and redundant hypothesis. Abiogenesis (at least as it is usually presented) is an argument that is designed (see what I did there?=)) to explain the accidental origin of life. Those who believe in a Divine Creator on the basis of sacred texts, the witness of the Holy Spirit, objective moral truths, etc., conclude that life is not an accident. Abiogenesis requires believing in the fantastically improbable in an effort to avoid believing in a Creator (no but really--consider multiverse models that are willing to accept--no matter how unlikely--the reality of every scenario imaginable except one in which God exists). Those not pre-committed to such naturalistic conclusions could amusingly reverse Laplace's own statement to argue against him: when it comes to abiogenesis, I have no need of that hypothesis.

The first two sections of my argument show why abiogenesis is a weak hypothesis, and ought to be treated skeptically on probabilistic grounds. The third section of my argument acknowledges that a belief in God can be (and usually is) reached through independent means. To those who accept the teaching of Genesis that God created the heavens & the earth (see Genesis 1:1), theories on the accidental origin of life fail the Occam's razor test--they multiply hypotheses beyond necessity.

For my own part, I came to a belief in God for reasons unrelated to the structure of cells. A study of biology reinforces that belief on teleological grounds, and perhaps more importantly, increases my respect for the Creator.


Conclusion

Given the available evidence, an intelligent mind appears to be the most viable explanation for the existence of specified complexity in life - it is the only theory that can point to real-world examples where the proposed source has actually produced the effect in question.

I also take no issue with the possibility that the Creator could use natural processes (like a programmer uses the natural properties of silicon) to carry out His intentions. This wouldn't make the Creator any less powerful--it would just mean He's smart. I lose no respect whatsoever for the Wright Brothers by discovering how they did their work.

I see no conflict between respect for the Creator and an awareness of how He performed some small portion of the creation.



Appendix

The teleological argument from biological specified complexity is an argument for an intelligent mind behind creation, not an argument for many of the specific theological claims about God. Teleology is often used to establish that there is a Creator; understanding the nature & intentions of the Creator is the business of theology.

(teleological arguments--from the Greek telos, meaning "end" or "goal", use features of the universe that show evidence of being designed to argue for the existence of a designer)

Response to objections

The probability section seems to ignore (a) the possibility that DNA started off simpler

My calculations required only 1 protein fold...hard to ask DNA to deliver a result much simpler than that.

(b) that natural selection guides the randomness

This would be a novel theory of evolution, and is not consistent with the modern synthesis of Darwinism, which holds that natural selection acts upon random mutation. Random mutation is just that, it's random. Natural selection merely favors/disfavors from what it is given to work with. It cannot guide which mutations occur, only which mutations survive.

(c) that all mutations may not be equally likely or even possible

Axe's work focused on viable combinations vs. possible combinations.

(d) mutations of viable variations are much more likely to be viable variations themselves

While this may be true, it would be stronger if defended with evidence. In any event, this would be applicable to the evolution of existing life; it has nothing to do with abiogenesis.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Sep 6, 2022 at 3:22
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    You mention "The teleological argument" once (in your Appendix) but do not give a succinct definition of it. Could you possibly add that? I would be most grateful as I appreciate this answer and have up-voted it.
    – Anne
    Sep 16, 2022 at 14:53
  • @Anne thanks, I'm glad the post was helpful; I have added some content Sep 17, 2022 at 1:16

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