Imagining “Abiogenesis”: Crick, Watson, and Franklin
Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science.” This is the fifth article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).
I wrote here yesterday about the Miller-Urey experiment at the University of Chicago in 1953 as an effort to investigate the possibility of spontaneous generation. To be fair to both distinguished collaborators, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, this was no desperate shot in the dark to bolster materialist thinking. They had clearly done all the requisite preparation for their task. Miller and Urey (a later recipient of the Nobel Prize) theorized that if the conditions prevailing on primeval Earth were reproduced in laboratory conditions, such conditions might prove conducive to a chemical synthesis of living material.
To Produce Life
To abbreviate a long, more complex short, they caused an electric spark to pass through a mixture of methane, hydrogen, ammonia, and water to simulate the kind of energy which might have come from thunderstorms on the ancient Earth. The resulting liquid turned out to contain amino acids which, though not living molecules themselves, are the building blocks of proteins, essential to the construction of life.1 However, the complete chemical pathway hoped for by many 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, James Watson, and Rosalind Franklin succeeded in identifying the famous double helix of DNA. Their discovery revealed, amongst other things, that even if amino acids could somehow be induced to form proteins, this would still not be enough to produce life.
Despite over-optimistic press hype in the 1950s, which came to include inter alia fulsome eulogizing by Carl Sagan, it has in more recent decades been all but conceded that life is unlikely to form at random from the so-called “prebiotic” substrate on which scientists had previously pinned so much hope. To be sure, there are some biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, who still pin their faith in ideas which have resulted only in blankly negative experimental results.2 Some notions, it appears, will never completely die for some, despite having been put to the scientific sword on numerous occasions — as long of course as they hold out the promise of a strictly materialist explanation of reality.
Next, “Frankenstein and His Offspring.”
- Inside human cells, coded messages in the DNA are translated by RNA into working molecules of protein, which is responsible for life’s functions.
- “Organic molecules, some of them of the same general type as are normally only found in living things, have spontaneously assembled themselves in these flasks. Neither DNA nor RNA has appeared, but the building blocks of these large molecules, called purines and pyrimidines, have. So have the building blocks of proteins, amino acids. The missing link for this class of theories is still the origin of replication. The building blocks haven’t come together to form a self-replicating chain like RNA. Maybe one day they will.” (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, London: Penguin, 1986, p. 43)