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:

When Rationalists Reinvent Religion
Popular Delusions: Electrosensitivity
Weekend Coffee: May 31
The World in the Dark
About Adam Lee

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


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