Evolution Icon Evolution
Life Sciences Icon Life Sciences

Myths, Monsters, and Life’s Elusive First Step

Neil Thomas
Image: Illustration from Frankenstein, 1922, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Google books) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, by Neil Thomas, newly released by Discovery Institute Press.

In Darwin’s day, a single cell was thought of as something fairly simple, so its chance origin seemed quite plausible to many, even after renowned French scientist Louis Pasteur put to rest the notion that spontaneous generation of life from non-life was a common thing. Darwin, acknowledging the state of knowledge in the wake of Pasteur’s findings, conjectured in his letter to Hooker that while we do not find life springing from non-life today, it might have happened on the early Earth, given that the first such organism would have no other life forms gunning for it:

It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. — But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts and ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.1

Problem, he hoped, solved — just so.

A NASA Instruction Manual

Today, too, there are evolutionary expositors who make light of the origin-of-life challenge. Richard Dawkins, perhaps Darwin’s best known modern expositor, confidently describes the first emergence of life on earth as a “gradual, step-by-step transformation from simple beginnings, from primordial entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance.”2 But the situation today is decidedly different from what it was in Darwin’s time, however assured Dawkins may sound. We might, therefore, do well to pause over the truth status and indeed even the logic of Dawkins’s notion of “entities sufficiently simple to have come into existence by chance,” and establish whether such a notion can be supported by experimental evidence — especially since recent advances in molecular biology show that the humblest bacterium contains more genetic information than the instruction manual for NASA space probes. The very notion of a simple biological entity has become deeply problematical with our increasing knowledge of the molecular world in the last half century, and one might therefore wish to query whether such a thing can exist in nature.

Happily, some decades after Darwin, advances in laboratory technology made it possible to begin testing the claim. The best known experiment to investigate the possibility of life originating spontaneously on the early Earth was carried out by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey of the University of Chicago in 1953. On the face of it, it might appear incongruous that modern-day scientists would touch this subject with a barge pole. Up until the middle of the 19th century, to be sure, a form of pseudo-scientific folk-belief was doing the rounds according to which rotten material and even soiled linen was supposed to be able to induce the formation of small life forms. But as noted above, Louis Pasteur finally and decisively put to rest the theory of spontaneous generation: only life can produce life, he demonstrated. Strangely, though, the outmoded faith in spontaneous generation did not die out completely, and both the Russian biologist Alexander Oparin and the British scientist John Haldane revived the idea in the 1920s. The somewhat questionable logic behind the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment — which from the perspective of posterity appears to have been a rather desperate venture — has been described as a trial to find out if life-from-nonlife, although far from usual, perhaps “did belong to the realm of the unusual and long ago,”3 and whether state-of-the-art 1950s know-how could succeed in discovering an answer where predecessors had failed.

Miller and Urey theorized that if the conditions prevailing on the primeval Earth were reproduced in laboratory conditions, such conditions might prove conducive to a chemical synthesis of living material. In accordance with the best scientific information at the time, they filled their laboratory receptacle with methane, hydrogen, ammonia, and water — all of which were thought to have been constituents of that early terrestrial atmosphere whose conditions the pair were attempting to simulate. At this point, an electric spark was passed through the chemical mixture to simulate what scientists term “an energetic event,” that is, the kind of energy that could have come from thunderstorms on the primeval Earth. The resulting liquid turned out on analysis to contain amino acids which, though not living molecules themselves, are the building blocks of proteins, essential to the construction of life.

Great Expectations in 1953

In 1953 there were high expectations that the next step from amino acids might lead to the first replicating organisms. The media of the time certainly hoped so, with Time Magazine reporting of the two experimenters: “What they have done is to prove that complex organic compounds found in living matter can be formed…. If their apparatus had been as big as the ocean, and if it had worked for a million years instead of one week, it might have created something like the first living molecule.”4

Astronomer Carl Sagan adjudged the experiment an important first step in the direction of the actual creation of life, declaring that “the Miller-Urey experiment is now recognized as the most significant step in convincing many scientists that life is likely to be abundant in the cosmos.”5 The experiment was kept at the forefront of people’s attention by continuing reportage in the press, and found its way into school and university biology textbooks and museum displays. Thus was the impression fostered that an energy source could indeed initiate a reaction leading to the formation of life’s building blocks.6

The notion that the building blocks of life were easily gotten may well have seemed intuitively “right” to the many journalists and members of the public acquainted with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or with the classic 1931 film of the same name — all the more so since the imaginative genesis of Mary Shelley’s science fiction appears to have had a substantial basis in science fact. In a recent study, Raising the Dead: The Men who Created Frankenstein, Andy Dougan claimed to have found an historical prototype for Baron Frankenstein. He noted that poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his preface to his wife’s novel, makes reference to “Dr [Erasmus] Darwin and the physiological writers of Germany” whose work, Shelley stated, suggested that the story that followed was “not of impossible occurrence.”7

Who Shelley had in mind when referring to these German writers is not entirely clear. The names of Alexander Humboldt and Johann Wilhelm Ritter have been mooted, but Dougan points to two other candidates, the first being a professor of surgery and Royal Prussian physician from 1817–1829, Karl August Weinhold, whose Experiments on Life and Its Primary Forces through the Use of Experimental Physiology had appeared in 1817. In his publication, Weinhold describes a number of frankly bizarre experiments on dead animals which, upon receiving electrical shocks, “revived” in the limited sense that the corpses exhibited involuntary spasms. He also contended that electricity could revive brain function and restore the dead to life, although his experiments were conducted behind closed doors in his university laboratory and no proof was offered of his claim.

In my view, however, it seems equally likely that Dougan’s other mooted candidate, Percy Bysshe Shelley himself, might have been the prototype of the restless over-reacher. Shelley was certainly an important éminence grise behind his wife’s creative endeavors. He is known to have consulted many treatises on electricity and galvanism. Interested in Paracelsus, the 16th-century alchemist and physician, and also in Sir Humphrey Davy’s theories on the conversion of dead matter to living, the poet carried out experiments with electricity (to the extent of electrocuting himself),8 which he understood to be the animating force of life.

His wife’s book, which Janet Browne records as having been inspired in part by Percy Shelley’s talk of Erasmus Darwin’s preserving a piece of vorticella “in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion,”9 was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, a description suggested by the hubristic figure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses who stole “particles of heavenly fire” (probably meaning lightning) from the abode of the gods.

Particles of Fire

When Ovid took over the myth associated with Aeschylus and Hesiod in the Greek tradition, he (or possibly unknown Roman predecessors) developed it to make of his Prometheus a figure who creates and manipulates men into life: a plasticator. The particles of heavenly fire were the means by which he quickened his clay images into life, a conception of (re)animation that occurs in an only slightly different form in Frankenstein. Also of note in this context, Mary’s husband would go on to compose a lengthy poem featuring Prometheus, a verse drama that placed the mythical figure in a decidedly more positive light.

Experiments with galvanism were not uncommon in the first three decades of the 19th century. In the same year Frankenstein appeared, Adam Ure in Glasgow set out to “reanimate” the executed criminal Matthew Clydesdale (causing convulsions but little else). Interest in such experiments waned towards the middle of the 19th century, but surprisingly, just six years before the 1952 Miller/Urey experiment, Robert Cornish of the University of California had everything in place in a university laboratory to attempt to reanimate by electric shock the corpse of a recent death row inmate, one Thomas McMonigle — a procedure he would have carried out had not the university authorities sensibly stepped in to halt proceedings.

An Increasingly Hopeless Monster

Given the presence deep in even educated persons’ collective imagination (which the Germans term “versunkenes Kulturgut”) of a tradition of re-animation, the media interest in the Miller-Urey experiment is unsurprising. However, the complete chemical pathway devoutly hoped for by many in the wake of the experiment was not to materialize. In fact, the unlikelihood of such a materialization was underscored in the very same year that the Miller-Urey experiment took place, when Francis Crick and James Watson succeeded in identifying the famous double helix of DNA. Their discovery revealed, among other things, that even if amino acids could somehow be induced to form proteins, there was more to the story. Life also depends on nucleic acids, one of which is deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, where the vital information needed to replicate and operate any given organism is encoded. 

Proteins and DNA must be able to work together. DNA is both highly complex and highly specific, to the extent that just small differences in its letter sequences can make the difference between a living, thriving animal and a stillborn. Proteins are indispensable, but they do not have the capacity to store and transmit information for their own construction. DNA, on the other hand, can store information but cannot manufacture anything or duplicate itself. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, so much so that Francis Crick was once moved to comment that the beginnings of life seemed impossible, barring a miracle, since “so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going.”10

Finally, it had to be conceded that life was unlikely to form at random from the so-called “prebiotic” substrate on which scientists had previously pinned so much hope. (To this day, biochemists remain ignorant of the modalities of a jump from amino acids to proteins, and the origin of nucleic acids is similarly shrouded in darkness.) To complicate things even further, it is now widely disputed whether the early atmosphere of the Earth postulated by Miller and Urey would have been such as they assumed, and so it may not have supported the formation of the organic compounds they identified. Hence the problem appears now to extend to include the origin of the basic building blocks themselves.

The hope that life may be somehow “dormant” in chemicals, waiting to be unlocked when the correct combination of chemicals clicks into place, as it were, has clearly suffered a signal reverse.


  1. Charles Darwin to Joseph D. Hooker, February 1, 1871, Darwin Correspondence Project, Letter no. 7471, University of Cambridge, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-7471.xml
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin, 1986), 43.
  3. Matti Leisola and Jonathan Witt, Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2018), 23.
  4. “Science: Semi-Creation,” TIME, May 25, 1953, http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,890596,00.html
  5. Carl Sagan, quoted in Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 105.
  6. For more on the Miller-Urey experiment and how it has been oversold, see Jonathan Wells’s Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2017), 50–54.
  7. Percy B. Shelley, preface to Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus [1818], by Mary Shelley, ed. Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003), 11.
  8. Maurice Hindle, introduction to Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus [1818], by Mary Shelley, ed. Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003).
  9. Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, 39.
  10. Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981). See Michael Denton, Nature’s DestinyHow the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York: Free Press, 1998), 293.