The Case for a Creator: Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Having established Jonathan Wells’ bona fides, let’s get down to business. The first of his “icons” is the Miller-Urey experiment, a landmark study proving that the chemical building blocks of life could emerge relatively easily under conditions similar to those of the early Earth.

This is not, strictly speaking, an “icon of evolution” at all. Miller-Urey was an experiment about abiogenesis, the question of how life first arose from nonliving precursors. This is an entirely separate question from evolution, which is concerned only with how life adapted and diversified once it existed. The lines of evidence for each of those theories are parallel, but distinct. If an Intelligent Designer had zapped the first cell into existence in a puff of smoke, evolution could have taken over normally from there; and even if Miller-Urey was found to be false, misleading, or irrelevant, that would not in the least affect the abundant evidence cited by scientists in support of evolution.

Still, we press on. The Miller-Urey experiment is a famous result in which a chamber filled with methane and ammonia – called “reducing” compounds because they tend to take electrons from other molecules, giving themselves a more negative electric charge – produces large quantities of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, when exposed to an electric current. Through Strobel, Wells claims that this experiment was unrealistic:

“Well, nobody knows for sure what the early atmosphere was like, but the consensus is that the atmosphere was not at all like the one Miller used… The atmosphere probably consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor” [p.37].

In fact, the consensus among geologists is that the early atmosphere was not as strongly reducing as in the Miller-Urey experiment, but even weakly reducing atmospheres still produce significant quantities of amino acids. In addition, Wells completely neglects an obvious alternative: the origin of life may not have been in the open air at all. There were other sources of reducing compounds on the early Earth, most notably hydrothermal vents – the “black smokers” of the ocean bottom – and some researchers believe that life did indeed begin there.

Wells also omits another important point, which is that we have direct evidence that amino acid synthesis was occurring at the right time. Amino acids have been found in comets and meteorites, which contain pristine material dating back to the origin of the solar system; they have also been found in interstellar molecular clouds. This is more than just indirect evidence that amino acid synthesis was going on in the early solar system: it’s possible that a comet or meteorite impact actually delivered the amino acids to Earth that became involved in the first life.

Wells goes on to assert that, even if the Miller-Urey experiment was a success, we’d be left with the problem of what happened next:

“You would have to get the right number of the right kinds of amino acids to link up to create a protein molecule – and that would still be a long way from a living cell. Then you’d need dozens of protein molecules, again in the right sequence, to create a living cell. The odds against this are astonishing” [p.39].

Again, Wells obfuscates the point at issue via his constant references to a “living cell”. Cells as they exist today are enormously complex and unlikely to form from any simple chemical process, but cells today have had billions of years of evolution to increase in complexity. The first living thing would have been nothing at all like a modern cell, but merely a molecule (or a series of molecules – called a hypercycle) with the ability to make copies of itself. Such a creature would have been far, far simpler than the complex and specialized cells that exist in living things today.

Strobel does raise this obvious objection, but Wells brushes it aside, insisting that the odds of abiogenetic assembly of even a simple self-replicator are “simply insurmountable” [p.39]. Obviously, Wells has no knowledge of the total catalogue of self-replicating molecules or all the pathways by which each one of them can form. His argument here is pure assertion, unbacked by any conceivable evidence.

Of course, the origin of life is by no means a solved problem. There are still many important unanswered questions, and even if we found a plausible route from simple organic molecules to true self-replicators, we would probably never be able to prove that it was the route by which life came into existence. But Strobel and Wells are not merely sounding this note of caution; they are counseling surrender. They assert that they personally can’t see any way to solve these problems, so we should give up and declare it a miracle.

“And if you try to invoke another explanation – for instance, intelligent design – then the evolutionists claim you’re not a scientist.” [p.41]

Let me be generous for a moment to Lee Strobel and Jonathan Wells: intelligent design is not, in principle, an unscientific hypothesis. The idea that life was created by an intelligent agent is an idea that could theoretically be put to the test; after all, we routinely consider the possibility of intelligent agents in other fields of science, such as forensics. (Was the death a result of natural causes, or was it artificial?) The problem lies with ID advocates, who refuse to do the work!

Testing any sort of hypothesis about an intelligent origin for life would require speculating about the nature, motivations, and capabilities of the designer, speculations which we can then use to make predictions about what life created by such a designer would look like. Then we would go out and test those predictions against the real world to see if they hold up. A hypothesis which was used in this way, to derive and then confirm some startling piece of knowledge about how life works, would be a revolutionary scientific advance that would win its discoverer tremendous honors.

But Wells and the other ID advocates have no interest in doing any sort of work like this. They don’t do research, they don’t make predictions, they don’t write papers, they don’t discover new things. Instead, they sit on the sidelines and complain about how scientists are being unfair by not accepting their beliefs uncritically. If they are not accepted as scientists, they have only themselves to blame.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    You would have to get the right number of the right kinds of amino acids to link up to create a protein molecule…

    They don’t even have to mention cells to set off my BS detector. Anyone who talks about proteins as a necessity for abiogenesis is ignorant of – or hoping the reader is ignorant of – the RNA World theory.

  • Alex Weaver

    Still, we press on. The Miller-Urey experiment is a famous result in which a chamber filled with methane and ammonia – called “reducing” compounds because they tend to take electrons from other molecules, giving themselves a more negative electric charge – produces large quantities of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, when exposed to an electric current.

    I don’t think this is quite correct chemically, as the designation of “reducing agent” I’m familiar with refers to a species which promotes reduction of its neighbors and is therefore itself oxidized (it serves as an electron donor). That doesn’t seem to affect the overall accuracy of the piece but is likely to be seized on by nitpicking creationists.

  • Eric

    And don’t forget the clay-gene hypothesesis that early replicators based on silicon, aluminum, and oxygen usedvearly organic molecules to keep themselves moist and later these organics broke free.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Cairns-Smith

    Seven Clues to the Origin of Life is still a good read, and IIRC Ruse or somebody referenced it in Expelled.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … but is likely to be seized on by nitpicking creationists.

    What percentage of Creationists do you think would have the chemistry cred to even notice that? One common characteristic of anti-evolutionists is their ignorance of actual science.

    RE recent developments on Urey-Miller:
    Primordial Soup’s On: Scientists Repeat Evolution’s Most Famous Experiment

  • Alex Weaver

    A significant number of prominent creationists are engineers, and a few are MDs. I know they make engineers take at least the basic chemistry course.

    Of course, the overlap between prominent creationists and people who troll random pro-science websites is probably fairly small, but considering that this site managed to get noticed by a Repug senate campaign…

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Ebonmuse,

    As far as Miller-Urey goes, science is always only as good as its presuppositions. The presupposition of science at that time was that Earth’s early atmosphere contained viable amounts of ammonia, methane and hydrogen. These were the gases selected for the experiment. The modern scientific community now generally agrees that early Earth was composed of water and the inert gases carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Recent repeats of Miller’s experiment with these gases have failed.

    Second, the amino acids created in the Miller experiment were 100% incapable of leading to a LUCA. Every amino acid in the DNA double-helix must display left-handed chirality. When nucleotides collide and become DNA, they develop a twisting pattern that forms the coil of the double-helix structure. This occurs because each of the molecules shares the same left-handed chirality. Miller-Urey produced a racemic mixture, which is a far stretch from “Life in a Test Tube,” no?

    The idea that life was created by an intelligent agent is an idea that could theoretically be put to the test; after all, we routinely consider the possibility of intelligent agents in other fields of science, such as forensics.

    While I always appreciate optimism, I don’t see how this is possible in any scientifically respectable manner, precisely because of the reasons described in your following paragraph. Sure, we can say we’ve proved or disproved that which potentially exists only in our own speculation, but is that science?

    Still, the question is monumental, and I hope we can address it because an agreed-upon answer would really help (a)theism discussions: Is there a method by which we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that consciousness motivated a particular movement of molecules? Take the Pyramid at Giza for example – how could we test the theory it was built by space aliens? It would seem the best we could do is to say, “The architecture and knowledge is so advanced that humans couldn’t have done it,” but of course this leaves the door wide open to more arguments from ignorance. What you suggest works in forensics because – and only because – accidental deaths and the actions of human beings are theoretically falsifiable – their existence is not in question.

    Testing any sort of hypothesis about an intelligent origin for life would require speculating about the nature, motivations, and capabilities of the designer, speculations which we can then use to make predictions about what life created by such a designer would look like. Then we would go out and test those predictions against the real world to see if they hold up. A hypothesis which was used in this way, to derive and then confirm some startling piece of knowledge about how life works, would be a revolutionary scientific advance that would win its discoverer tremendous honors.

    Sure, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel comfortable sleeping on presupposition. That doesn’t sound like science, where we must begin with falsifiable claims.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Take the Pyramid at Giza for example – how could we test the theory it was built by space aliens?

    Or the Nazca Lines? To which I would retort, “You mean that a race of extraterrestrials developed the advanced technology to travel vast distances in space to reach our Earth, only to have to rely on lines drawn in the sand in the shapes of animals to help them land in some parched desert land way up in the Andes Mountains?”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    cl: “The modern scientific community now generally agrees that early Earth was composed of water and the inert gases carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

    This is still very much debated. My impression is that there is agreement that the atmosphere was reducing, but possibly not srongly reducing.
    Calculations favor reducing atmosphere for early earth

    Every amino acid in the DNA double-helix must display left-handed chirality.”

    Thank you for sharing your expertise with us. DNA is not made of amino acids.

  • Dark Jaguar

    I’ve been reading up on abiogenesis, and it appears that the line we tend to use that it has “nothing to do” with evolution is not accurate at all. The development of those precursors to life do have selective pressures that are essentially evolution too, though the selecting at first may be nothing more complex than one molecule interacting to create a second which in turn ends up creating the first again, and continuing the cycle. Evolution appears to go down to the level of abiogenesis affecting even the development of those initial precursor molecules. At best we can only say evolution wouldn’t have anything to do with the random generation of that very first molecule that tends towards creating an environment where more of it’s kind are created, even if in an indirect way without self replication.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Evolution appears to go down to the level of abiogenesis affecting even the development of those initial precursor molecules.

    I don’t think I’d agree with that, DJ. The key ingredient for evolution is replication. Until you have a molecule (or a cycle of molecules) that can make copies of itself, nothing will evolve. Once you do have a complex of molecules that reproduces itself with occasional defects, then evolution will take off, of course. But you need chemistry and physics to get to that point.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Take the Pyramid at Giza for example – how could we test the theory it was built by space aliens? It would seem the best we could do is to say, “The architecture and knowledge is so advanced that humans couldn’t have done it,” but of course this leaves the door wide open to more arguments from ignorance.

    CL, one way of arguing against the theory that the Pyramid of Giza was built by space aliens would be to examine, if you can pardon the term, the fossil record of pyramid building in Egypt. Thanks to the dry climate, we can examine the early efforts at pyramid building and see how the building techniques became more sophisticated over the course of the centuries when such structures were built in Egypt.

    If there were no traces of pyramids being built by the Egyptians before the Giza pyramids, then it would be something of a mystery how they did it. But when the record shows that the Egyptians had been building pyramids for centuries before, it becomes increasingly plausible to argue that Egyptian engineers could build the Giza pyramid because they had simply improved on the techniques of their predecessors. The alternative is that aliens from another planet came here, approached the Egyptians, and said “Say, we notice you’ve been building these pyramid structures. Here’s a way to build them even bigger and better. Let’s give it a shot!”

    One thing I read about the great Egyptian monuments is that for all of their massive exterior size, they lack for interior space. It is not until the Romans, who made use of arches, that large buildings could be constructed that also contained large interior spaces. Now, one could reasonably expect that intelligent beings that mastered interstellar travel would have more advanced building techniques than the Romans.

    Those are a couple of things that come to mind.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “The modern scientific community now generally agrees that early Earth was composed of water and the inert gases carbon dioxide and nitrogen.”

    “Miller-Urey produced a racemic mixture, which is a far stretch from “Life in a Test Tube,” no?”

    – Both quotes by cl

    The first quote is news to me. Would you pleasse steer me to a source? As far as “life in a test-tube”, I don’t recall anyone asserting that M-U resulted in such. Take it easy on your strawman — I’ve heard they’re quite fragile.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Every amino acid in the DNA double-helix must display left-handed chirality… Miller-Urey produced a racemic mixture, which is a far stretch from “Life in a Test Tube,” no?

    This comment is an excellent example of how scientists use an unsolved problem as a motivation to explore further, while creationists use it as an excuse to give up. Since Miller-Urey, we’ve discovered at least three ways by which natural processes can produce chiral mixtures:

    • Circularly polarized ultraviolet light selectively destroys one enantiomer or the other, depending on the direction of polarization. See:

    Bonner WA and Bean BD. “Asymmetric photolysis with elliptically polarized light.” Orig Life Evol Biosph, 2000 Dec;30(6): 513-7. Abstract online.

    In fact, the Murchison meteorite also displays a measurable excess of left-handed amino acids, probably for this very reason. See:

    M. H. Engel1 and S. A. Macko. “Isotopic evidence for extraterrestrial non-racemic amino acids in the Murchison meteorite.” Nature 389, 265-268 (18 September 1997). Abstract online.

    • Common minerals such as calcite preferentially concentrate one enantiomer or the other on opposing faces. See:

    Hazen RM, Filley TR, and Goodfriend GA. “Selective adsorption of l- and d-amino acids on calcite: Implications for biochemical homochirality.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 98, 5487-90. Abstract online.

    • Under certain reaction conditions, there is a “majority rule” catalytic process: polymers forming from weakly chiral mixtures end up completely chiral. Intriguingly, one study suggests that due to broken symmetry in the weak nuclear force, L-amino acids and D-sugars, the forms used in Earthlife, are slightly more stable than their counterparts. See:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=cfLx0lb7H4oC&pg=PA699&dq=Kenso+Soai+catalyst&ei=GKI5SujrNYTuzATrzOG-Aw
    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/topstory/8034/8034notw4.html
    http://www.ch.cam.ac.uk/staff/ajm.html

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Reginald,

    DNA is not made of amino acids.

    Nucleotide distribution within genes specifies the order and kinds of amino acids necessary to assemble a protein. That DNA was “made of amino acids” wasn’t the impression I meant to convey, or the point I was trying to make. My point in context of this discussion was that racemic mixtures don’t facilitate life, and I’m fairly confident you agree, correct?

    Thumpalumpacus,

    As far as “life in a test-tube”, I don’t recall anyone asserting that M-U resulted in such.

    The fact that you don’t recall anyone asserting that M-U resulted in such means nothing besides the obvious. Another claim that was made (Time Magazine, I think?) was “Test Backs Theory That Life Began as Chemical Act.” First off, M-U proposed an hypothesis, and their original experiment which created a racemic mixture backed no such thing.

    Adam,

    This comment is an excellent example of how scientists use an unsolved problem as a motivation to explore further, while creationists use it as an excuse to give up.

    While on one hand I’m glad you’re addressing my comments again, I’m reluctant to respond, simply because I honestly disbelieve I could ever convince you that I’m anything other than what you’ve already decided. For example, I don’t know how many times I’ve stated on your blog and elsewhere that I don’t think gaps in scientific knowledge are evidence for God, and nowhere in my comment did I suggest that scientists should “give up” on anything, which for some strange reason is what you seemed to hear. I honestly have no idea where you get the idea that I’m anti-science, because I’m not.

    I really don’t know what else to say. If you think there’s some way we can have a respectable conversation, I’m all for it. I’d be particularly interested in discussing how we might prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a certain phenomenon was a product of consciousness, as therein lays the ultimate test for ID (which I’m not an advocate of and would love to refute).

    Can you imagine what a statement we’d be sending if you and I – a believer and an atheist – joined hands in our criticism of ID? What a message that would send! That’s what my comments in this thread were ultimately about. I’m more than willing to participate in a respectable discussion along those lines like you’ve done with Quixote. If not, then I’ll simply say congratulations on your award; my blog recently got honorable mention and an award (albeit lesser) for “Best Atheist & Skeptic Site 2009″ from HolyBlaspemy.net, so I know it feels good. Let me know when and where I can buy your book. My next book – Why I Am Not An Atheist – should available by fall. I’d be more than willing to send you a copy.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    cl

    I don’t think Adam was pointing the finger at you particularly. His comment was:

    But Strobel and Wells are not merely sounding this note of caution; they are counseling surrender. They assert that they personally can’t see any way to solve these problems, so we should give up and declare it a miracle.

    Which would seem to be specifically directed at his critique of the book.
    I guess my question to you would be “do you find Strobel’s arguments convincing in a way that Ebonmuse obviously doesn’t”

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Steve Bowen,

    Haven’t heard from you in a while. Hope music has been enriching your life. Art has certainly been enriching mine.

    Ebonmuse directly addressed my comment and implicitly labeled me a creationist who uses gaps in scientific knowledge to give up. I replied because it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    Do you find Strobel’s arguments convincing in a way that Ebonmuse obviously doesn’t?

    Not at all. I currently don’t believe a successful ontological argument exists. The whole shebang seems misguided.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    cl

    Thanks for that. It is often difficult to get a clear statement of position from some some people that post here. For what it’s worth I think Ebon’s hat-tip to your (valid) chirality comment was just illustrative and not meant to imply you personally subscribed to GOTG reasoning. But then again as the saying goes “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Another claim that was made (Time Magazine, I think?) was “Test Backs Theory That Life Began as Chemical Act.”

    cl,

    My point is that no scientist, or scientifically-literate person, claims that life was made in a test-tube.

    Further, the quote above only states the fact of the matter. M-U does indeed back the abiogenetic hypothesis; you are right in modifying “theory” to “hypothesis”. Of course, expecting a general-circulation magazine to properly distinguish between the two terms is, IMO, overly optimistic.

    What the quote above does not do is claim that M-U made “life in a test tube.” Unless the body of the article specifically states such, you are commiting a Strawman, and penalized ten yards and the loss of a down.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Steve Bowen,

    It’s completely possible you’re correct. Then again, when somebody like Ebon has never once said anything positive about me (that I can remember, at least) and said plenty of negative and insulting things, you gotta wonder. Perhaps I’m just committing the genetic fallacy.

    Thumalumpacus,

    My point is that no scientist, or scientifically-literate person, claims that life was made in a test-tube.

    I can’t speak on what I don’t know. What I do know is I’ve never yet heard a person I would categorize as a scientist or scientifically-literate claim that life was made in a test tube.

    M-U does indeed back the abiogenetic hypothesis;

    Only analogously, unless you’re okay with suggesting that racemic mixtures can sustain the necessary protein production as prescribed by nucleic acids. I’m not.

    ..you are right in modifying “theory” to “hypothesis”.

    Shame on Time Magazine! I’d expect that from a church tract.

    What the quote above does not do is claim that M-U made “life in a test tube.”

    To be sure, exactly which “quote above” are you talking about?

  • Scotlyn

    Reginald –

    They don’t even have to mention cells to set off my BS detector. Anyone who talks about proteins as a necessity for abiogenesis is ignorant of – or hoping the reader is ignorant of – the RNA World theory.

    I don’t know if you have seen the piece in the May/June 2009 American Scientist, “The Origin of Life” by James Trefil, Harold J Morowitz and Eric Smith (link below). It outlines a “metabolism first” theory of abiogenesis. It states: “In our version of Metabolism First, the earliest steps towards life required neither DNA nor RNA, and may not even have involved spatial compartments like cells.” The authors outline a hypothesis in which the citric acid cycle (running either backwards – reductive, or forwards – oxidative), on which the metabolic activities of all living cells are based, initially solved a purely chemical/physical problem that existed when the earth was newly formed, hot and full of energetic electrons, which needed a pathway through which to move to a lower energetic level. If the reaction, occurring in “porous rock, perhaps filled with organic gels deposited as suggested in the Oparin-Haldane model,” is recursive, “it could serve as the core of a self-amplifying chemical system subject to selection.” My favourite point made by the authors is: “our progress on this issue has been impeded by a formidable cognitive barrier. Because we perceive a deep gap when we think about the difference between inrganic matter and life, we feel that nature must have made a big leap to cross that gap.” (God of the Gaps, anyone?) My favourite one-liner is a quote from Albert Szent-Gyorgi: “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.” I’ve had to reread the article three times to get my head around it – I’m only a layperson in scientific terms – though an avidly interested one – but the ideas are very exciting and very plausible.

    Link here: The Origin of Life

  • Thumpalumpacus

    cl:

    …which is a far stretch from “Life in a Test Tube,” no?

    “I can’t speak on what I don’t know. What I do know is I’ve never yet heard a person I would categorize as a scientist or scientifically-literate claim that life was made in a test tube.

    If your second statement is true, then why would you capitalize “Life in a Test Tube” and wrap it in quotation marks? You clearly wished to imply that you were quoting someone.

    To be sure, exactly which “quote above” are you talking about?

    This one:

    Another claim that was made (Time Magazine, I think?) was “Test Backs Theory That Life Began as Chemical Act.”

    Hope that clarifies it for you.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Thumpalumpacus,

    Clarified. I just wanted to be sure that “strawman” came from what you thought I was saying vs. what I actually said. The Time citation was not proffered as “Life In A Test Tube”, which was quoting someone.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Who, pray tell, alleged that M-U created life?

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Believe it or not, one of my science teachers – in a public school in the nineties. I think he was just doing the same thing most people do, including Ebon – using science to bolster his personal beliefs.

  • Thumpalumpcus

    Seems to me like he was using a misunderstanding of science to bolster his beliefs.

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