The Case for a Creator: Soup’s On!

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is ostensibly about the origin of biological information, but what it’s really about is the origin of life. We’ve discussed this in part in an earlier chapter, but Meyer has some other objections to raise.

First up, Strobel raises the question of the “prebiotic soup” – the dilute broth of organic molecules that’s believed to have existed in the Earth’s oceans before the origin of life, a fitting stage for many kinds of complex chemical reactions. This is a plausible environment for abiogenesis to take place, so Meyer tries to sow some doubt:

“I hear scientists talk a lot about this prebiotic soup,” I said. “How much evidence is there that it actually existed?”

“That’s a very interesting issue,” he replied. “The answer is there isn’t any evidence… If this prebiotic soup had really existed… it would have been rich in amino acids. Therefore, there would have been a lot of nitrogen, because amino acids are nitrogenous. So when we examine the earliest sediments of the Earth, we should find large deposits of nitrogen-rich minerals… Those deposits have never been located.” [p.227]

There’s no footnote for this, and I find it a puzzling and implausible argument. Earth today contains billions of tons of organic molecules locked up in life. But the Earth is a closed system. Aside from negligible contributions by comets and meteorites, the atoms on this planet today are the same ones that were here when it was first formed. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we know from Miller-Urey-type experiments that organic molecules like amino acids readily form in the presence of a source of energy. How could there not have been a prebiotic soup? What does Meyer imagine all those molecules were doing prior to the origin of life? (Then again, as I pointed out in chapter 4, Meyer appears to be a believer in the young-earth mythology – so maybe the alternative he’s really trying to push is the Garden of Eden.)

Meyer also fails to qualify his mention of “earliest sediments”. The earliest sediments, if by that he means sedimentary rocks of the same age as the origin of life, do not exist: erosion and plate tectonics tend to destroy and recycle the very oldest rocks. Most of the oldest surviving rocks that we possess are zircons, tiny mineral grains that form in igneous and metamorphic rocks. Zircons can be radiometrically dated, and some are known that are over 4 billion years old, but they don’t offer any clues as to when life got started.

The oldest geologic evidence of life is significantly later. There are fossil stromatolites about 3.45 billion years old in rocks from the Warrawoona Group of Western Australia, which is the oldest clear evidence of living things. More controversially, there are rocks from Greenland about 3.85 billion years old that may contain “chemofossils”. Living things concentrate the C-12 carbon isotope, rather than the slightly heavier C-13. These rocks show that same altered ratio, which could be a chemical marker left by early life. Evidence this subtle is still being debated by the scientific community, and given the extensive recycling of the Earth’s oldest rocks, it’s not reasonable to expect “large deposits” of nitrogen-rich minerals dating back to the origin of life to have survived.

Meyer has only one source to back up all of this, and it’s a real laugh riot:

“In fact, Jim Brooks wrote in 1985 that ‘the nitrogen content of early organic matter is relatively low – just .015 percent.’ He said in Origins of Life: ‘From this we can be reasonably certain that there never was any substantial amount of ‘primitive soup’ on Earth when pre-Cambrian sediments were formed; if such a soup ever existed it was only for a brief period of time.’” [p.227]

Strobel labels this an “astounding conclusion”, but what he should be more astounded by is how far Meyer had to stretch to find a source for this claim. Wanting to verify this, I did a search for Jim Brooks’ Origins of Life, only to find that it’s long out of print according to several online booksellers. But more comical is that Strobel cites the publisher of this book as “Lion” – which I found out is Lion Hudson, which is, in fact, a Christian publishing house. A twenty-year-old, out-of-print book by a Christian publisher – that’s the most reliable source that could be found to back up these assertions! Couldn’t Meyer find even one actual scientific source to quote-mine?

Other posts in this series:

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
Repost: The Age of Wonder
Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
About Adam Lee

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

  • lpetrich

    It’s true that there is not much nitrogen in the Earth’s crust as compared to other elements, but that’s likely a side effect of the solubility of nitrates and ammonium compounds. They get dissolved in the oceans.

    Furthermore, nitrogen and oxygen tend to get baked out of the remains of organisms, leaving behind hydrocarbons and coal.

    So Stephen Meyer loses big time on geochemistry.

  • Ergo Ratio

    if such a soup ever existed it was only for a brief period of time

    Even if that is true, so what? How many times does life need to begin?

  • Kevin Morgan

    Oh yeah? Well if there was a prebiotic soup how come it’s not mentioned in the bible? Huh? Answer THAT one–if you can. :-)

  • Richard P.

    Kevin Morgan Says: how come it’s not mentioned in the bible?
    It is, you just missed it….

    Genesis 2
    2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work and made soup.

    You atheists just don’t know how to read… You have to have the right version, not one of those corrupted ones.

  • Ben

    Uh, isn’t the atmosphere of this planet 80% nitrogen? I’m not a chemist or geologist, but isn’t it plausible that much of the nitrogen in the prebiotic soup was disolved as a gas rather than locked into solid compounds? Or that the earths techtonic and volcanic motions subsequently released it into the atmosphere.

    As for the length of time argument: he is probably thinking in terms of years, when centuries and millenia are the timescale we should be considering. In all likelihood, self replicating organic molecules probably started independently during this time, but only one managed to survive very long.

  • Samuel Skinner

    The nitrogen in the atmosphere needs to be “fixed”- most life cannot use the N2 form.

    As for the soup I’d imagine it be gone since it sort of formed the earliest form of life. Where do they think the matter that makes up modern life came from? Of course there are alternate theories about the origin of life- ocean vents, ice is nice, tidal shallows.

  • Alex Weaver

    Great, now I’m hungry. ;/

  • Caiphen

    The role of the almighty reduced down to soup, it’s funny if you come to think about it. No wonder the creationists are jumping up and down. I kind of feel sorry for them since their parents, pastors , whomever brainwashed them into believing a fairytale.

    You never know, science may come up with another plausible explanation, but I have to say, prebiotic soup is a hell of a lot more plausible than…on the first day.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Where did the soup go? Easy: it was eaten by its progeny. Such rich chains of molecules must’ve been ionvaluable, and perhaps requisite, as a food source.

  • John Nernoff

    I believe it was Richard Dawkins in one of his earlier books who said that abiogenesis is a form of evolution among molecules. Groups or chains of suitable “biological” molecules linked up and those that were longer lasting or outlived potential competitors and possibly were able to replicate simply were the earliest constituents of “life.” An illustration: a-b-c-d formed. Then a-b-c-d-e formed and this last one somehow became the dominant form in the “soup.” Add other elements and life probably formed automatically in this way. So in a sense, it was evolution in the form of natural selection of chemical compounds.

  • Scotlyn

    @ John Nernoff – re Dawkins and “abiogenesis is a form of evolution among molecules” – I really love the scenario outlined in On the origin of biochemistry at an alkaline hydrothermal vent by Martin and Russell. Even better that it can be accessed for free.