Editor’s note: We have been delighted to present a series by Walter Bradley and Casey Luskin on the question, “Did Life First Arise by Purely Natural Means?” This is the ninth and final entry in the series, a modified excerpt from the recent book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos. Find the full series so far here.
One might think that, in this series, we have been overly pessimistic in our analysis of the current status of origin-of-life research. But consider what five prestigious origin-of-life thinkers say about the current status of origin-of-life research:
- Nobel Prize-winning biologist Jack Szostak: “It is virtually impossible to imagine how a cell’s machines, which are mostly protein-based catalysts called enzymes, could have formed spontaneously as life first arose from non-living matter…Thus, explaining how life began entails a serious paradox.”1
- Harvard chemist George Whitesides: “Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea… We need a really good new idea.”2 “I don’t understand how you go from a system that’s random chemicals to something that becomes, in a sense, a Darwinian set of reactions that are getting more complicated spontaneously. I just don’t understand how that works.”3
- “Origin of Life” entry in the Springer Encyclopedia of Astrobiology by Mexican biologist Antonio Lazcano: “A century and a half after Darwin admitted how little was understood about the origin of life, we still do not know when and how the first living beings appeared on Earth.”4
- Richard Dawkins, leading evolutionary biologist and New Atheist: “The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple…The fact that it did not — the fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing — is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice.”5
- Eugene Koonin, a prestigious biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information: “The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science, but it is also one of the most important. Origin-of-life research has evolved into a lively, inter-disciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the ‘dirty’ rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin of life field is a failure — we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is due not to a lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life, from the synthesis and accumulation of nucleotides to the origin of translation; through the multiplication of probabilities, these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.”6
An Alternative Solution
But there is an alternative solution to the information sequence problem and the mystery of life’s origin — and it has the benefit of being based upon our uniform experience with how information arises. I (Walter Bradley) and my coauthors hinted at this solution in the original edition of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, published in 1984, wherein we observed, “We know by experience that intelligent investigators can synthesize proteins and build genes” and concluded that “intelligence is the authentic source of the information in the biological world.”7 In 2020, Discovery Institute published an updated edition of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, and all involved in the project were struck by how few changes were needed, owing to the fact that little meaningful progress had been made in the field of origin-of-life research over the previous 35 years. Stephen C. Meyer, James Tour, Brian Miller, and other scientists also contributed chapters updating the arguments.
A Last Word from Meyer
As the baton is passed to the next generation of ID theorists, it’s worth giving Meyer, a Cambridge University-trained philosopher of science, the last word as his chapter in the 2020 edition of Mystery expanded our arguments that ID is the only known cause for the information-rich biomolecules required for the origin of life:
[O]ur uniform experience affirms that specified information — whether inscribed in hieroglyphs, written in a book, encoded in a terrestrial radio signal, or produced in an RNA-world “ribozyme engineering” experiment — always arises from an intelligent source, from a mind and not a strictly material process. So the discovery of the functionally specified digital information in DNA and RNA provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of these molecules. Whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source. It follows that the best, most likely explanation for the origin of the specified, digitally encoded information in DNA and RNA is that it too had an intelligent source. Intelligent design best explains the specified genetic information necessary to produce the first living cell.8
ID theorists thus propose that the action of an intelligent agent was required for the origin of the first living cell. In keeping with their materialistic outlook, meanwhile, mainstream origin-of-life theorists still maintain, as they must, that a self-replicating cell arose naturally. Darwinian evolution then took things the rest of the way and allowed the grand diversity of living organisms to evolve.
- Alonso Ricardo and Jack W. Szostak, “Life on Earth,” Scientific American (September 2009), 54-61.
- George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry: Priestley Medalist George M. Whitesides’ Address,” Chemical and Engineering News 85 (March 26, 2007), 12-17.
- Conor Myhrvold, “Three Questions for George Whitesides,” MIT Technology Review (September 3, 2012), https://www.technologyreview.com/2012/09/03/184017/three-questions-for-george-whitesides/ (accessed November 18, 2020).
- Antonio Lazcano, “Origin of Life,” Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, eds. M. Gargaud et al. (Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2011), 1184.
- Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 613.
- Eugene V. Koonin, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2011), 391.
- Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (Dallas, TX: Lewis and Stanley, 1984), 193, 197.
- Stephen C. Meyer, “Evidence of Intelligent Design in the Origin of Life,” The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2020), 455-456.