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Life’s Origin — A “Mystery” Made Accessible

David Klinghoffer

2020 as the Year of the Expert? Not exactly. In fact, for many observers, one of the motifs in this annus horribilis has been the failure of experts to get things right. To “follow the science” or “listen to the scientists” was revealed, like never quite before, as a questionable piece of unsolicited advice: What science? What scientists? And why? The hopeful flip-side of this has been that thoughtful people who aren’t scientists were empowered — again, like never quite before — to think skeptically and independently for themselves.

So kudos to World Magazine and its editor-in-chief, Marvin Olasky, for slightly refocusing their Book of the Year awards. For 2020 they highlight books for being accessible to a general audience, with categories like Accessible History, Accessible Theology, and Accessible Science. 

A Profound Impact on ID

As the winner under the last of these headings, it’s great to be able to recognize one of the year’s titles from Discovery Institute Press. It is The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy. As Olasky points out, this Accessible Science Book of the Year is actually “two books in one: a classic that in 1984 provided the base for the intelligent design movement of the 1990s, and a series of newly written, cutting-edge chapters that set the stage for a Roaring 20s decade of scientific advance.”

The original book by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen is updated with contributions by scientists and scholars — James Tour, Stephen Meyer, Brian Miller, Guillermo Gonzalez, Jonathan Wells. I wrote a historical introduction to the book detailing its profound impact on the intelligent design movement. Olasky writes:

The classic came into existence because Walter Bradley, then a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, understood that how life originated was one missing link in Darwinism: He asked “how you get started from scratch,” how does life come from nonlife? Bradley and Roger Olsen wrote a draft that found its way into the hands of chemist Charles Thaxton, whose first reaction was “Wow, this is kind of interesting. But why is there not more chemistry in it?” The three scientists met at Texas A&M, where Bradley had taken a teaching job, and Bradley and Olsen almost simultaneously responded to Thaxton’s objection: “You’re the chemist. You write it.”

He did, and the reaction was both historic and hysterical. The Mystery of Life’s Origin received praise from Dean Kenyon, who came to doubt his own conventional theory of chemical evolution, and other scholars. It powerfully influenced today’s most influential intelligent design advocate, Stephen Meyer, as well as mathematician William Demb­ski and a whole new generation of pioneers. But chemist Richard Lemmon snorted about “religious creationists,” as did others, and Mystery became tantamount to a banned book among conventional scientists.

Now to the present: Rice chemistry professor James Tour’s essay, which starts off the second half of the new volume, has the apt title, “We’re Still Clueless About the Origin of Life.” Tour appropriately ridicules reporters who fall for media hype about purported progress. He quotes What Is Life? by famed science writer Ed Regis, who explains, “Life began with little bags of garbage, random assortments of molecules doing some crude kind of metabolism. That is stage one. The garbage bags grow and occasionally split in two, and the ones that grow and split fastest win.” Tour: “Those ‘little bags of garbage’ have no more resemblance to living cells than a big bag of garbage resembles a horse.” Cells, we now know, are hugely complicated factories.

But didn’t the 1952 Miller-Urey experiment feature an electrical discharge forming some amino acids, thus showing that life could emerge apart from God? That’s what I learned in a chemistry class 53 years ago, and many WORLD readers probably did as well. Jonathan Wells in his Mystery chapter — “Textbooks Still Misrepresent the Origin of Life” — blows up the mistaken assumptions essential to the famous experiment and quotes what famed physicist Freeman Dyson said before his death in 2000: Miller-Urey “was supposed to be a true simulation of prebiotic chemistry on the primitive Earth. But now nobody believes this anymore.”

Mystery and Miracle

Read the rest here. If you “listen to the experts,” or anyway some of the experts, cells are “little bags of garbage” and Miller-Urey is a “true simulation of prebiotic chemistry.” Both notions are utter baloney, yet they persist. The updated Mystery of Life’s Origin empowers all curious readers to examine such claims for themselves. In a year that almost seems designed to break us down, recognizing the true design at the start of life can’t help but give you hope. The word “miracle” is seldom seen in scientific literature, but looked at objectively, the “mystery” here, of life from non-life, seems to demand it.

Speaking of which, World also offers its readers some “honorable mentions” in the Accessible Science category, and again it’s gratifying to see another DI Press book get its just recognition. Biologist Michael Denton wrote the short and quite accessible book The Miracle of the Cell. It’s the latest in his Privileged Species series. Olasky notes:

For centuries “fearfully and wonderfully made” were just words about our bodies from Psalm 139. Now we have proof: Biochemist Michael Denton shows how vast is the chasm between some chemical soup and a cell filled with genetic information encoded in the double helix, and much besides. Despite decades of experimentation and hypotheses, Denton reports that “no one has produced any convincing explanation of how nature could have overcome this chasm. … Science, it seems, has reached an impasse.” Logically, those with yard signs saying, “I believe in science,” should also have signs saying, “I believe in intelligent design.” Denton says this realization and road-mapping regarding cells “will be of far greater intellectual consequence than any other discovery in science” during the past 500 years.

“Science Is Real”

Ha, I love the idea of a yard sign like the one Olasky suggests, modeled on the ubiquitous signs in our, and perhaps your, neighborhood. They begin, “In this house we believe…” One of the virtue-signaling statements that follows is “Science is real.” Please, who the heck doesn’t believe that? It would indeed be cheeky to substitute, “Intelligent design is real.” And how long do you think it would take for that sign to be knocked down, stolen, or vandalized? Here in Seattle, anyway, not long.

Thanks as always to the folks at World Magazine for their fine independent journalism and support for smart and well-informed skepticism. Read their full list of “2020 Books of the Year” here.