The origin of Life

Whenever engaged in a debate with believers a common question that often arises is, “How do you explain life, what started it all?”

OK then, lets step back see where we are today. To start off, here is an interesting article on the origin of life on The Daily Galaxy here …

It’s paradoxical that as our leading microbiologists look to create the building blocks of life in Earth-bound labs, our Universe is alive with the building blocks for DNA and RNA. The giant gas nebula in outer space are rife with sugars that form ribose –the backbone of RNA. There’s no rational reason why the system of DNA and RNA that shaped life on Earth should be limited to our remote biosphere.

the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, have created synthetic molecules that copy genetic material. The enzyme, tC19Z, that has been synthesised could be an artificial version of one of the first enzymes that ever existed on our planet three billion years ago — and a clue to how life itself got started. Their goal is to create fully self-replicating RNA molecules in the lab.
The dominant theory of how life started involves the emergence in Earth’s early history of a self-replicator — the original molecule of life was an RNA that could make copies of other RNAs, including itself.

As evolution advanced, this self-replicating molecule ceased to exist, with the majority of Earth’s organisms using DNA to store their genetic information while using other enzymes to copy itself.

You can click the link at the top to read the rest.

The word used to describe the study of how biological life arises from inorganic matter through natural processes is “abiogenesis”. Today we still don’t know the answer. Its at this point the believers step in with the “Ah, but we do have an answer, God did it”.

Well yes, while we don’t know the answer yet, we are making progress (as illustrated in the story I linked to above).

To have an answer there are two specific attributes that need to be explained. These are replication and metabolism. What we do know is that the oldest ancient fossil microbe-like objects are dated to be 3.5 Ga (billion years old), approximately one billion years after the formation of the Earth itself, and the current thinking is that the first living things on Earth are thought to be single cell prokaryotes (which lack a cell nucleus), which perhaps evolved from protobionts (organic molecules surrounded by a membrane-like structure).

There is lots of research going on, and there is also a wide range of different thoughts on it all, such as Gold’s “Deep-hot biosphere” model, “Primitive” extraterrestrial life, “Metabolism first” models, “Genes first” models, Thermodynamic Origin of Life: Ultraviolet and Temperature-Assisted Replication (UVTAR) Model, Radioactive beach hypothesis, The deep sea vent theory, etc… so while we don’t yet know the answer, we do indeed have lots of ideas to explore.

Now, back to where I started. The believers make the observation that we don’t know, and so claim that lack of knowledge as proof that God did it. Er no, that is simply the God of the Gaps. All you are doing  is identifying the gaps within our current understanding then stuffing a belief in a supernatural entity in there as the explanation. Its the precise same thinking that led our primitive ancestors to worship a Moon God, a Sun God, and a God of Thunder as the explanation for each of these. We now understand what they actually are and so we no longer worship them as deities.

Should we now revert back to paleolithic thinking and start stuffing made-up supernatural entities into the gaps, or should we instead carry on pushing the boundary of understanding further out? I know which I prefer, and I suspect your answer might be the same as mine.

2 thoughts on “The origin of Life”

  1. Jim, I do have a great deal of sympathy for your stance because it is one that I myself personally embraced at one time, and is perhaps one that naturally pops out because humans have been naturally selected to opt for external agents to explain reality. The essence of the argument is essentially “I do not know how X could have possibly happened naturally, therefore a god did it”. This is simply not a leap of faith that I can in all honesty make now, and I’m not alone when I take that stance.

    When considering the origin of life, right now the only answer available is “I do not know”, and so in that context it is fine to propose a god hypothesis, because no option should be off the table and every possibility should be explored. However, if it is indeed seriously proposed as a hypothesis, then it also needs to be testable, so how would we test this one?

    If we get into the game of “well everything was caused by something” and the proposed solution is a god, then there also needs to be an explanation for what caused this god?

    As for Occams Razor, it is not an irrefutable law, but rather is a very useful heuristic tool that can be deployed to eliminate layers of pointless complexity. In this instance I can deploy it to eliminate things for which there is no actual evidence.

    When it comes to the “observer effect” I confess that I’m not quite grasping your point there. I tend to think of that term as similar to checking tyre pressure … in that it is impossible to measure the actual tyre pressure without letting some of the air out of the tyre … and so in a similar manner within a physics context down at a fundamental level the act of observation will itself cause an interaction and so change the phenomenon being observed.

    Finally, when it comes to making observations regarding things that are clearly artificial (Petroglyphs on rocks in AZ was your example), we do so by contrasting them within the context in which we find them – they stand out because everything else is natural and clearly not the product of a designer.

  2. The fact that skeptics have such a difficult time even considering the possibility there was a creative force behind life and all its aspects makes me consider its not real skepticism, but self-validation. Don’t we, with our rather limited intellects, design virtual-reality programs for the internet? Are these programs the result of one big random accident? You use Occams Razor to make your arguments, so why not use it here? The simplest explanation first, right? Instead of using, you have to admit, a fairly elaborate and contrived theory of natural selection as the driving force of evolution (by the way, I certainly believe in evolution) why not take the approach that if there’s a painting there has to be a painter? Why not consider that evolution was programmed by its designer to run its course a particular way. The fact that religionists, with their own bias, paint that program-designer a certain way which might irritate the skeptic should not be a reason to totally throw it out as unreasonable. The religionist knows no more about it than the materialist. It’s all hearsay. But this is just a simple question of logic. For example, if we walked into the desert Southwest USA and saw several 2-dimensional pictographs on rocks showing silhouettes of men playing flutes, would our first assumption be that rain or wind created those pictographs? Of course not. We would assume they had a painter. And yet when it comes to walking, talking man, full of a life and complexity so immense that we’re not even touching on an understanding of it yet, can we rationally even pose the idea that there is no higher force behind it’s creation. The solely physical paradigm you propose breaks-down in many places, and the research in quantum physics is proving it, and has proved it (just look at the Observer Effect, an effect that no one in physics disputes) and is providing evidence of a directing energy of nature, call it what you will. We may not understand this force, but to totally disavow it, simply because we want to believe in a certain thing that serves our purposes . . . well, I say, let’s look at our motives behind our beliefs. That’s a good place to start. Socrates said, “first, know thyself”, know the driving force of our own mind. Then we will begin to understand how we create our own limitations of thinking. All that said, what I’ve found is that at least the skeptic is questioning all this. Good for you on that score. Jim


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