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Here We Go Again: For Complex Life, Just Add Fertilizer

Evolution News


It’s such an easy point. A child can grasp it. You may have all the ingredients you want, in the right quantities, but without a builder, nothing functionally complex will emerge. Here, we’ll bring you tons of lumber, nails, and pipe. Need wire? Have all you want. Anything else? Just ask, and we’ll throw it in at no extra charge: screws, paint, glass. Why, we will even lay a bunch of tools on the ground beside the pile.

Now, let it sit there, exposed to the sun and rain for as long as you like. Billions of years even. How many expect a house or a skyscraper to emerge by natural causes alone?

Evolutionists seem strangely immune to the obviousness of the logic here. They want to explain life’s origin and complexity by reference to the availability of building blocks alone. Remember those who tried to account for the Cambrian explosion by the rise of oxygen? And the origin of life by “a pinch of thickener” in a jumble of common molecules? Look, we can make it much, much easier for evolution. We will even arrange all the atoms into amino acids, sugars, fats and complex organic compounds and dump them into the oceans. Have some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, citric acid, purines and pyrimidines, all brought special delivery by comets and asteroids. Plop! Into the primordial soup they go. Here, have some energy! Have all the UV light, lightning, and volcanoes you want.

The only rule is: no chemists, no mind, and no intelligence.

In Illustra’s film Origin, Discovery Institute biologist Ann Gauger has a pithy way of explaining the hopelessness of natural processes acting on building blocks. “If I put amino acids in a test tube in my lab, even if I added heat and shook it up real well, and kept doing that for a hundred years, or a thousand years, or ten thousand years, or a million years, nothing would happen.”

Evolutionists must play by the rules they agreed to. Discovery Institute’s Paul Nelson explains the rules in the film:

When you come to the origin of life, the rules — and this isn’t the science itself, this is the underlying philosophy — the rules say, to solve the problem, you can use matter and energy, and natural law, natural regularities and chance processes, but that exhausts your toolkit. What you’re not allowed to use, fundamentally by the rules, so-called rules of science, is mind or intelligence. If you had to attach a name to this position, you can’t do better than scientific materialism: a philosophy that tells you “the only acceptable explanation has to be rendered in terms of matter and energy.” And if you can’t solve the problem using those tools, you’re not allowed to change the rules. So from that perspective, how did life come to be via matter and energy alone? Now: try to solve the problem. [Emphasis added.]

To go from microbes to animals presents the same problem, because the same rules apply. Put building blocks into the hand of natural selection, add energy, and once again, nothing will happen. Natural selection is natural, not intelligent. It is matter and energy in motion. It has no foresight. It has no direction. It has no goal. Mindless entities do not compete. They do not try to outdo each other in the struggle for life. Without a mind or plan, natural selection cannot select. In a real sense, natural selection is a restatement of, “Whatever will be, will be.” If everything goes extinct in the next meteor strike, so be it. Nobody cares in Darwin’s world.

Yet paper after paper appears that fudges on the established rules. A recent example is found in Nature, where Reinhard et al. try to account for the rise of complex life by linking it to the rise of available phosphorus after billions of years. The news from Georgia Tech reads like a myth:

For three billion years or more, the evolution of the first animal life on Earth was ready to happen, practically waiting in the wings. But the breathable oxygen it likely required wasn’t there, and a lack of simple nutrients may have been to blame.

Then came a fierce planetary metamorphosis. Roughly 800 million years ago, in the late Proterozoic Eon, phosphorus, a chemical element essential to all life, began to accumulate in shallow ocean zones near coastlines widely considered to be the birthplace of animals and other complex organisms, according to a new study by geoscientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Yale University.

Here we go again. Poor animals; they were trying to evolve, but they couldn’t breathe. They needed fertilizer.

Picture again our lumber pile, now with bags of fertilizer next to everything. Picture Ann Gauger’s test tube. Add some phosphorus. Bubble in some oxygen. Any help? How will simply adding more building blocks build a building?

But, the scientists object, we’re talking about living cells before the first animals. Right. Saturate the oceans with bacteria, toss in the phosphorus, and watch the oxygen levels rise. Do they really expect trilobites, worms, and crustaceans to appear?

We place our phosphorus record in a quantitative biogeochemical model framework and find that a combination of enhanced phosphorus scavenging in anoxic, iron-rich oceans and a nutrient-based bistability in atmospheric oxygen levels could have resulted in a stable low-oxygen world. The combination of these factors may explain the protracted oxygenation of Earth’s surface over the last 3.5 billion years of Earth history. However, our analysis also suggests that a fundamental shift in the phosphorus cycle may have occurred during the late Proterozoic eon (between 800 and 635 million years ago), coincident with a previously inferred shift in marine redox states, severe perturbations to Earth’s climate system, and the emergence of animals.

The “emergence of animals.” Evidently, those animals were waiting for their phosphorus order to arrive.

Let’s review what’s required for animal body plans that appeared abruptly at the Cambrian explosion: (1) new cell types, (2) new tissues, (3) new organs, (4) new genes, (5) new gene regulatory networks (GRNs), (6) new systems (digestive, muscular, skeletal, reproductive, central nervous systems, brains, etc.), (7) new levels of hierarchical integration of these systems, (8) new behaviors, (9) new defenses, (10) the ability to grow all these things from a single zygote.

The authors of the paper collected thousands of samples of shallow ocean sediment deposits, and carefully measured their phosphorus levels.

Theoretical predictions and observations from the geochemical record provide strong evidence that the first 80%-90% of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history was characterized by limited P burial in near-shore sediments, a pattern that we link to high C/P ratios in primary producers resulting from an Fe-based nutrient P trap. The shale record we present here, when coupled with our ocean-sediment biogeochemical model, illuminates an Earth system state in which dynamically coupled P- and N-limitation stabilized surface oxygen levels on billion-year timescales. However, there is evidence for at least periodic shifts away from pervasive Fe-rich waters in the late Tonian, or Ediacaran periods, coincident with our observed increase in sedimentary P enrichments. We propose that models seeking to explain the transition to an oxygen-rich ocean-atmosphere system in which early animals thrived and complex ecosystems developed should focus on mechanisms for overcoming enhanced P scavenging and transiting the N-fixation barrier that would act to prevent P-driven increases in ocean-atmosphere O2 levels during nascent global oxygenation events.

Minus the jargon:

The elevated availability of nutrients and bolstered oxygen also likely fueled evolution’s greatest lunge forward.

They backpedal a little, saying, “The researchers are careful not to imply that phosphorous necessarily caused the chain reaction, but in sedimentary rock taken from coastal areas, the nutrient has marked the spot where that burst of life and climate change took off.” So instead, they explain, “That first signal of phosphorus in Earth’s coast shallows pops up in the shale record like a shot from a starting pistol in the race for abundant life.”

Ah, now it all makes sense. Someone go over to our pile of lumber and fire a pistol.

Photo credit: Sea floor sediment from 1.9 billion years ago, by Georgia Tech/Yale, Reinhard/Planavsky.