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Archaean Microfossils and the Implications for Intelligent Design

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News came this week reporting the discovery of ~3.4 billion year old microfossils from Archaean rocks in Western Australia. As Nature suggests, they “could be the oldest microbial fossils yet documented,” further quoting a paleobiologist who states:

The authors have demonstrated as robustly as possible, given current techniques and the type of preservation, the biological origin of these microstructures.

Always thinking from a materialistic perspective, the New York Times notes that these microfossils imply life arose “surprisingly soon” after the existence of life became even a possibility:

Their assertion, if sustained, confirms the view that life evolved on earth surprisingly soon after the Late Heavy Bombardment, a reign of destruction in which waves of asteroids slammed into the primitive planet, heating the surface to molten rock and boiling the oceans into an incandescent mist. The bombardment, which ended around 3.85 billion years ago, would have sterilized the earth’s surface of any incipient life.

A new paper in Nature Geoscience officially reports the discovery:

Here we report the presence of microstructures from the 3.4-billion-year-old Strelley Pool Formation in Western Australia that are associated with micrometre-sized pyrite crystals. The microstructures we identify exhibit indicators of biological affinity, including hollowcell lumens, carbonaceous cell walls enriched in nitrogen, taphonomic degradation, organization into chains and clusters, and ?13C values.1

Claims of evidence of ancient life from rocks in Western Australia from about this time period are nothing new. In 1980, two papers in Nature reported 3.4 to 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolite fossils from the Warrawoona Group in Western Australia.2 Specific microfossils could not be seen but these overall structures appeared to be similar to bacterial mats known from the present day. Then, in 1987 and 1993, UCLA paleobiologist J. William Schopf published papers in Science reporting actual microfossils from the same group.3 There are even reports of geochemical signatures of life in rocks dating all the way back to 3.8 billion years ago.4

Schopf’s findings were later criticized by an Oxford paleobiologist named Martin D. Brasier.5 In a twist of irony, Brasier is a co-author of this new paper which claims to have found microfossils from a different locality of about the same age.

According to an earth scientist quoted by the New York Times, “Schopf still very strongly defends his original claim.” Thus, it seems that whether we’re talking about proponents of Schopf’s microfossils, or critics, leading scientists on all sides of this question believe that full-fledged cellular life existed on earth by 3.4 billion years ago.

Some of the morphology of these newly discovered microfossils can be seen in the picture above.*

Time Isn’t On Their Side
What are the implications of these findings for the debate about intelligent design? Materialists often suggest that blind and unguided chemical reactions — cheered on by electricity, heat, other forms of energy, and vast eons of time — spontaneously formed a self-replicating molecule which then evolved through unguided processes into life as we know it. Origin of life theorist George Wald captured the spirit of this perspective in a paper written in 1955:

Given so much time, the “impossible” becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One only has to wait: Time itself performs the miracles.6

As we’ve seen, life could not have existed on earth when the earth first formed because the early earth was a hostile place as a result of impacts during the heavy bombardment period. Thus, Stephen Jay Gould explains that, contrary to Wald, the amount of time available for the origin of life is not vast and unending, but extremely limited:

Since the oldest dated rocks, the Isua Supracrustals of West Greenland, are 3.8 billion years old, we are left with very little time between the development of suitable conditions for life on the earth’s surface and the origin of life.7

Likewise origin-of-life theorist Cyril Ponnamperuma stated “we are now thinking, in geochemical terms, of instant life…”8.

The new reports of early microfossils from the Archaean provide more evidence confirming that life existed very soon after the earth became hospitable to life. As Brasier was recently quoted here as saying: “This goes some way to resolving the controversy over the existence of life forms very early in Earth’s history. The exciting thing is that it makes one optimistic about looking at early life once again.” (emphasis added)

This dramatically limits the amount of time, and thus the probablistic resources, available to those who wish to invoke purely unguided and purposeless material processes to explain the origin of life.

But if many billions of years were available for the origin of life on earth, even that would be insufficient time for life to form on earth via blind material causes. To further understand why there are insufficient probablistic resources to explain many key steps in the origin of life — particularly in forming the first self-replicating molecules — see some of these recent articles here on ENV:

Probably the most comprehensive treatment of why there are insufficient probablistic resources to explain the natural unguided chemcial origin of life is Stephen C. Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell.

As Meyer explains, intelligence is the one known cause that can rapidly generate the kind of high levels of complex and specified information that we observe in life. ID can easily accommodate evidence of rapid appearance of life on earth, whereas this new microfossil evidence pushes materialist explanations even further beyond the available probabilistic resources.

While the NY Times says these microfossils show life existed “surprisingly soon” after the earth became hospitable, ID proponents aren’t surprised by evidence for early life. Materialists are surprised because they expected much more time would be needed for the origin of life to take place.

*Image adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: David Wacey, Matt R. Kilburn, Martin Saunders, John Cliff and Martin D. Brasier, “Microfossils of sulphur-metabolizing cells in 3.4-billion-year-old rocks of Western Australia,” Nature Geoscience (2011).)

References Cited:
[1.] D. Wacey, M. R. Kilburn, M. Saunders, J. Cliff and M. D. Brasier, “Microfossils of sulphur-metabolizing cells in 3.4-billion-year-old rocks ofWestern Australia,” Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1238 (2011).
[2.] See D. R. Lowe, “Stromatolites 3,400-Myr old from the Archean of Western Australia,” Nature, Vol. 284:441-443 (April 3, 1980); M.R. Walter, R. Buick, J.S.R. Dunlop, “Stromatolites 3,400-3,500 Myr old from the North Pole area, Western Australia,” Nature, Vol. 284:443-445 (April 3, 1980). See also H. J. Hofmann, K. Grey, A. H. Hickman and R. I. Thorpe, “Origin of 3.45 Ga coniform stromatolites in Warrawoona Group, Western Australia,” Geological Society of America Bulletin, Vol. 111:1256-1262 (August, 1999).
[3.] See J. W. Schopf and B. M. Packer, “Early Archean (3.3-Billion to 3.5-Billion-Year-Old) Microfossils from Warrawoona Group, Australia,” Science, Vol. 237: 70-73 (July 3, 1987); J. W. Schopf, “Microfossils of the Early Archean Apex Chert: New Evidence of the Antiquity of Life,” Science, Vol. 260: 640-646 (April 30, 1993).
[4.] See for example S. J. Mojzsis, G. Arrhenlus, K. D. McKeegan, T. M. Harrisont, A. P. Nutman, and C. R. L Friend, “Evidence for life on Earth before 3,800 million years ago,” Nature, Vol. 384:55-59 (November 7, 1996). For a critical view, see: M. A. van Zuilen, A. Lepland, & G. Arrhenius, “Reassessing the evidence for the earliest traces of life,” Nature, Vol. 418:627-630 (August 8, 2002).
[5.] See M.D. Brasier, O.R. Green, A.P. Jephcoat, A.K. Kleppe, M.J. Van Kranendonk, J.F. Lindsay, A. Steele, & N.V. Grassineau, “Questioning the evidence for Earth’s oldest fossils,” Nature Vol. 416:76-81 (2002).
[6.] G. Wald, “The Origin of Life,” Scientific American (August 1954).
[7.] S. J. Gould, “An Early Start,” Natural History, p. 10 (February, 1978) (emphasis added).
[8.] C. Ponnamperuma, quoted in F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (1981).


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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