Reality Check: Has Science Explained the Origin of Life?
Imagine you wanted someone who hasn’t the faintest idea what a book is to make a book from scratch. In that case, on the topic of how to make books from scratch, at least three things would be required.
- He would need to acquire the ingredients to make a book — raw material to make paper, something to make glue and thread to bind the book, and the ingredients for ink.
- He would require the information the book needed to contain.
- He would have to find a way to assemble all the ingredients and the information together to produce the finished product.
Nature has been described as a “blind watchmaker.”1 It is also mindless, with no plans or objectives for anything at all, including creating life. For over sixty years, thousands of scientists have tried to figure out how nature could have created life. It is kind of like making a book from scratch for someone who has no idea what a book is. We can divide the problem into three steps:
- Discover how nature can get the ingredients or “building blocks,” all at the same time and location.
- Figure out how mindless natural processes could produce the digital code required for life.
- Come up with a natural, testable, reproducible explanation as to how all these pieces came together to build the first living cell.
So what progress has science made over the past sixty years?
The News Is Not Good
I just counted the number of papers and articles on the origin of life I have filed on my computer. The total is 54, and that is only a small sampling of what is out there. Reviewing this collection, the news is not good. We are still working on a plausible, reproducible process for the first step.
A recent review paper provides a current summary:
The origins of life stands among the great open scientific questions of our time. While a number of proposals exist for possible starting points in the pathway from non-living to living matter, these have so far not achieved states of complexity that are anywhere near that of even the simplest living systems. … The hope is that a theory akin to our other theories in fundamental physics might one day emerge to explain the phenomenon of life, and in turn finally permit solving its origins.2
But there is an elephant in the room.
We know that intelligent minds can build pretty amazing things and write digital software. We have even started designing artificial proteins ourselves — intelligent design in action, if you will.3,4 Almost nobody is keen to talk about this possibility in the halls of science, but two Russian scientists have shown that the genetic code cannot have a natural origin. They summarize their results in the abstract of their paper in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of solar system studies:
Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. … (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10^–13). … extraction of the signal involves logically straightforward but abstract operations, making the patterns essentially irreducible to natural origin.5
The “p-value” in science is a way of calculating whether you should reject the “null hypothesis,” usually if it is less than 0.005. As you can see in the summary above, the hypothesis that evolution could produce the genetic code has a p-value so small that it must be soundly rejected by science. We can consider the theory that nature created the genetic code as scientifically falsified.
Science has only one testable, reproducible, and verifiable option on the table that can produce significant levels of functional information: intelligent minds. You can test this yourself by sitting down with a piece of paper and writing a short, meaningful paragraph. If you can pull off this feat, then you have just demonstrated that intelligent design can produce significant levels of useful information. Evidence of what intelligent design can do is all around us, from the smartphone in your pocket, to the jets you fly in, to the podcasts you listen to.
Just to put a finer point on this: intelligent minds can produce high levels of functional information; nature cannot. Since even the simplest life form requires levels of information that are impressive, and the only verifiable method of producing information is by intelligence, the scientific evidence for intelligent design in the origin of life is, quite simply, impressive. Scientifically, it is the only game in town. To avoid this elephant in the room, I have often witnessed peer-reviewed science papers using language that attributes god-like creative and designing powers to nature.
Evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin has advanced a different idea, which he considers to be the only way to avoid intelligent design: a multiverse that contains an infinite number of universes. In this scenario, the most wildly improbable things would happen with certainty, including the origin of life and evolution (not to mention the neighbor down the street winning all the lotteries in the world, all the time). The final sentence in his paper ends with,
[T]he present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.6
Let’s just lean back in our chairs and think about this for a moment. In order to deny the “elephant in the room” (i.e., the obvious scientific observation that intelligent minds can produce information, write code, and build impressive stuff), he postulates an infinite number of unseen, untestable entities. Koonin’s proposal cannot possibly involve a bigger violation of Ockham’s razor (“entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”)7 One way of establishing something as obviously true is to argue that the only alternative is something that is utterly absurd — and other scientists have pointed out exactly that about Koonin’s multiverse proposal.8 That leaves intelligent design as the only scientifically testable and verifiable option for the origin of life.9
The Bottom Line
Contrary to popular belief, science is not doing well at all in producing a testable, verifiable, and repeatable method for nature to produce the first living cell. The only option science has on the table that can produce the level of functional information required for life is an intelligent mind. Perhaps it is time for science to acknowledge the existence of the elephant in the room.
- Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986.
- S. Walker, “Origins of life: a problem for physics, a key issues review,” Rep. Prog. Phys. 80, 2017.
- “De Novo Designed Proteins from a Library of Artificial Sequences Function in Escherichia Coli and Enable Cell Growth,” PLOS ONE, 2011. (Note: “designed” or “design” is used 40 times in the text, title, captions and abstract.)
- “Principles for designing ideal protein structures,” Nature 491, 2012.
- v. shCherback & M. Makukov, “The ‘Wow! signal’ of the terrestrial genetic code’,” Icarus, 2013.
- E. Koonin, “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life,” Biology Direct, 2007.
- Ockham’s razor
- For an introduction to the “farewell to reality” that belief in the multiverse requires, read German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s review, or my own post, “Should we have faith in science? Part IV: Confusing fantasy with science.”
- “Defining and utilizing intelligent design in science,” Kirk Durston.
Photo credit: Kirk Durston.
Cross-posted at Contemplations.