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Dr Johnson: Abiogenesis and Panspermia

Abiogenesis is the process by which nonliving matter turns into living matter—that is, something that natural selection can work with. This is thought to be how life on earth originated, though there is no consensus on how this happened. Evolution then shaped that early life into what we see today.

But there is another hypothesis.

Asteroids that hit the earth are mostly bits of rock that formed from the early accretions of and collisions with material in the early solar system. Sometimes, however, big asteroid impacts can eject material from a planet, and this new material itself can become asteroids. If this planet had life, the new asteroids might be contaminated with bacteria that, if they fell on another planet with the right conditions, could seed an otherwise barren planet with life.

This is the idea behind panspermia. It bypasses the problem of a planet having the right conditions for sustaining life but not the right conditions for creating it.

A variation is directed panspermia, the idea of panspermia being not accidental but deliberate. Imagine an advanced civilization deliberately sending out durable primitive life on rocks or satellites to infect sterile planets.

But does panspermia simply move the problem rather than solving it? The buck has to stop somewhere; how does panspermia help?

This was the reaction by some Creationists to Richard Dawkins’ interview with Ben Stein for the movie Expelled (video, go to 4:00). Dawkins was caricatured as saying, “How do we explain how life started on earth? Imagine that it was put here by aliens. Problem solved!”

But a few minutes’ thought shows that panspermia doesn’t just pass the buck but does indeed change things.

The early earth had a certain set of initial conditions—amount of water, a particular gas mixture in the atmosphere, available chemicals, temperature, range of salinity and alkalinity, amount of sunshine, and so on. What if those initial conditions could never allow abiogenesis but the different conditions on another planet could? Panspermia is the mechanism in which the otherwise-barren planet could be seeded with life. Panspermia in effect expands the initial conditions.

Of course, that may not please the Creationists as much as the caricature, but that’s the lot of science.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • RandomFunction2

    To Bob S,

    The origin of life is the weak spot of the grand naturalistic narrative.

    Still, it is pointless to posit a god of the gaps just because we don’t have all the answers (yet). It would be a fallacy.

    Remember that life had millions of years and the surface of the whole Earth to emerge. Scientists are in a hurry. They want results now in their labs. And such labs are a minute part of the surface of the Earth. No wonder that the results they get so far are modest.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Agreed, except that I don’t see the origin of life as a weak spot or embarrassment. It’s one of many big questions that science doesn’t have an answer for. Often once one is answered, more pop up from behind (“The universe came from the Big Bang” brings “But where did that come from?”).

      No one can say, “Science can’t explan X, so therefore God exists.”

      • RandomFunction2

        To Bob S,

        Yeah, but creationists would reply that, somehow, science “knows” that some phenomenon is inexplicable by the only forces of nature, therefore it requires a supernatural agency. In other words, it’s not that “we don’t know how X is to be explained, therefore God exists”, but it’s rather: “we know that X is impossible naturalistically, therefore God exists”.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, they might say that. But that’s an enormous burden that they’ve taken on–to claim that X has no natural explanation.

          ID’s “irreducible complexity” idea is like this. So far, they haven’t supported their burden of proof, as far as I’ve heard.

        • RandomFunction2

          To Bob S,

          Creationists also say that their case rests, not on what we don’t know, but on what we know. Some arguments they use do rest on facts of biochemistry or cosmology that have only been discovered recently.

          But then, Newton used his science to argue for God’s existence: he may have said that his case rested on knowledge, not on ignorance. Yet years later scientists made other discoveries that destroyed Newton’s case for God.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          RF2:

          I knew that Newton was very religious (his Cambridge professorship had religious requirements), but I hadn’t heard of any specific scientific/apologetic arguments that he put forward for God. Do you konw of any?

        • RandomFunction2

          To Bob S,

          Well, I think his were arguments that answered unexplained problems in his cosmology. For instance, he thought that God was required to stabilize planetary motions. But later scientists realized that the imbalances in planetary motions tended to cancel each other out. So God was expelled from there.

          But Newton was more remembered for his view of the universe as a kind of perfectly ordered clockwork, which seemed to logically require a divine watchmaker. This design argument was very popular in the Enlightenment.

          L’univers m’embarrasse et je ne puis songer
          Que cette horloge existe et n’ait point d’horloger.
          (Voltaire)

  • Sapphire

    There were too many lines around the text already so I’ll start again but this is part of the Newton thread.
    Let’s not forget that Newton was a man of his times. Not many people were atheists in the sense that they denied the existence of any kind of supernatural entity. In fact Newton sailed pretty close to the wind. Had he been around in Galileo’s day he would very likely have suffered the same kind of persecution. As it was his alchemical experiments and his aversion to trinitarian theology remained largely private during his lifetime.
    In correspondence he referred to the Genesis story as being “for the vulgar”; a term he used frequently in its old meaning of ordinary rather than rude or uncouth. It rather suggests that he was not a fundamentalist or a YEC, though he was a strong theist.
    Did he really learn to read using only the Bible? It may be true since books were still expensive items but it says nothing of his religious feelings.
    One thing does come over, however. He seems close to what would later become the “presuppositionalist” ideas of van Til and his followers, including Jason Lisle of AiG and ICR , and hinted at by Lewis.
    It’s a complex philosophical idea but it can be summed up as saying that the universe is capable of being rationally and logically described and explored. Since reason and logic are immaterial things and since all things must have an origin and since the material can only give rise to the material there must be an immaterial origin for logic and reason. After much consideration of other religions and philosophies van Til et al came to the conclusion that only the God of the Bible possessed the required attributes of reason and logic to give rise a rational and logical universe.
    Read Lisle’s “Ultimate Proof of Creation” to get a feeling for the truly convoluted arguments it’s based on. Lisle’s conclusion is if there was no God you couldn’t do science at all. Newton seems to have held a weaker, but similar view.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sapphire:

      I read a biography of Newton subtitled “The Last Alchemist.” The book argued that it was actually because his mind was opened by his alchemical beliefs that he could imagine something as bizarre as action at a distance (gravity).

      You say that Newton was heretical? I hadn’t heard that. He was very religious, especially in his later years. Maybe those open beakers of mercury and his using taste as a means of studying the results of his science experiments affected his brain after a while …? And his post at Cambridge had specific religious requirements. But perhaps I’ve categorized him as more mainstream than he deserves–thanks.

      Those presuppositions of van Til sound pretty bold given quantum theory. Light being a particle and not-a-particle at the same time? No problem. The creation of radioactive byproducts with no cause? All the time. Quantum tunneling, where a particle doesn’t have enough energy to escape from a well but still has a non-zero likelihood of being outside that well? Modern electronics depend on tunneling. And so on.

      “Ya can’t get something from nothing!” is certainly well grounded in common sense and everyday experience, but we discard those at the frontier of science.

      • Sapphire

        I haven’t seen that book, the title is intriguing and sort of sums up Newton’s era where alchemy was giving way to science and even the church was becoming more questioning.
        Heretical may be too strong a word. He was certainly radical and careful to make no public declaration of his faith. His professorship would normally have entailed taking holy orders which he refused to do and the story goes that he refused the sacrament on his death bed.
        But his religious views were complicated and so private that scholars are still trying to untangle them.
        He was certainly a convinced theist and an anti trinitarian describing worshipping Christ as God as idolatry. Was he a true christian? That’s another story; but he was no young earth creationist and it’s rather disingenuous of the YECs to claim him as their own. I wonder if that’s why the Wikipedia article on Newton is locked. (or was when I last looked)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Sapphire:

          In searching for the book, I think it’s Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer by White.

          If so, I misremembered the subtitle. (I’m pondering a post about how the confidence in our memories are not necessarily match by their accuracy–this little error of mine is quite appropriate).

        • Sapphire

          My wife is a counsellor and the problem of false memories implanted by therapists, often inadvertently, is quite well documented – even as far as people vividly recalling child abuse incidents that never took place.
          Eye witness accounts are the least reliable form of evidence.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Sapphire:

          I wrote about the Wenatchee sex abuse case here. It was said to be the most widespread (claimed) example of child sex abuse ever. Not only was the testimony “eyewitnesses” testimony (not really, but they thought it was), it was children’s testimony.

        • Sapphire

          That was a pretty extreme case but it did show that in the right circumstances people can vividly recall things that never happened.
          With something as important to religion as whether or not Jesus was resurrected there has to be some kind of corroboration.
          And in the case of the Gospels and Acts we don’t even have the “eyewitnesses” own testimony only the report of others who never met them.

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