ITS ORIGINS and EVOLUTION
H owever improbable we regard this event [the start of all life], or any of the steps which it involves, given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once. And for life as we know it ...... once may be enough.
TIME is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Give so much time the “impossible” becomes the possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.
These words were written by Nobel laureate and Harvard University biology professor George Wald and published in the widely read journal Scientific American.
For decades leading biologists had promulgated the position, stated so well by Wald, that time and chance were the forces behind the miracle of life. It was logically correct. After all, what else could be operating?
Wald’s definitive statement, made on behalf of the scientific community, rested firmly on research completed the previous year. In 1953, Stanley Miller, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, had produced amino acids by a series of totally random reactions. His experiment was simple, but brilliant.
Miller evacuated a glass flask and then filled it with the gases thought to have been present in Earth’s atmosphere 3.8 billion years ago: ammoma, methane, hydrogen, and water vapor. Free oxygen was not present. It appeared only billions of years later, the product of life itself photosynthesis. Using electrodes placed through the walls of the flask, Miller discharged electric sparks, simulating lightning, into the gases. Their energy induced random chemical reactions among the gases. After a few days, a reddish slime appeared on the inner walls of the apparatus. Upon analysis, the slime was found to contain amino acids.
The importance of Miller’s experiment was at once apparent. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and proteins are the building blocks of life. As Wald pointed out, two billion years had passed between the appearance of water on Earth and the appearance of life. If random reactions in a small flask can produce amino acids in just two days, given two billion years of reactions throughout the Earth’s vast atmosphere and oceans, the first forms of life,.bacteria and algae, must have been the product of similar random reactions during those eons. The impossible had become the probable and the probable certain. We and all other members of the bio sphere are living proof of the theory’s accuracy.
The news media worldwide reported the significance of Miller’s seminal experiment. The public had been told the truth: life had started by chance.
Or had it?
Wald’s article was such an important statement that twenty-five years later, in 1979, Scientific American reprinted it in a special publication titled Life: Origin and Evolution. The only difference was that this time it appeared with a retraction. I have seen no other retraction by a journal of a Nobel laureate’s writings. The retraction was unequivocal:
Although stimulating, this article probably represents
one of the very few times in his professional life when
George Wald has been wrong. Examine his main thesis
and see. Can we really form a biological cell by waiting
for chance combinations of organic compounds? Harold
Morowitz, in his book “Energy Flow and Biology,”
computed that merely to create a bacterium would require
more time than the Universe might ever see if chance
combinations 9t its molecules were the only driving force.
In short, life could not have started by chance.
Lest you think that the scientific community has changed its opinion since 1979, the following appeared in the same journal in February 1991, in a review article by John Horgan on the origins of life: “Some scientists have argued that, given enough time, even apparently miraculous events become possible-such as the spontaneous emergence of a single-cell organism from random couplings of chemicals. Sir Fred Hoyle, the British astronomer, has said such an occurrence is about as likely as “the assemblage of a 747 by a tornado whirling through a junkyard.”. Today, most researchers agree with Hoyle on this point.”
Since 1979, articles based on the premise that life arose through chance random reactions over billions of years are not accepted in reputable journals. This is, of course, not an affirmation of the existence of a Creator. However, it does assert that the simplest forms of life, single-celled bacteria and algae-and even viruses, which are one step below life-are far too complex to have originated without there being an inherent chemical property of molecular self-organization and/or reaction- enhancing catalysts at every step of their development.
These conditions must have been present to jump-start life on Earth. The Bible has no problem with this concept of life’s beginnings:
“And the Earth brought forth” life (Genesis 1:12). In biblical lan-
guage we are being told that the Earth itself had within it the prop—
erties to encourage the emergence of life. There is no biblical
mention of a special creation for the origin of life. The laws of
nature, created along with the creation of the universe, and the very
special conditions of the Earth were quite adequate to orchestrate
the flow of the universe toward life.
Articles authored by Nobel laureates are not lightly retracted. The statistical computations by Morowitz may have cast a shadow of doubt over Wald’s claims for the power of chance, but I question whether Scientific American would have actually retracted the article based on statistical calculations alone. The editors were not flooded with letters disagreeing with Miller’s and Wald’s thesis on the random I origin of life. Scientific opinion of the day was that life had started via a series of chance random reactions.
The article was withdrawn because research performed by another Harvard professor proved Wald wrong. In the 1970s, Elso Barghoorn, a paleontologist, discovered micro-fossils of bacteria and algae in rocks close to 3.5 billion years old. Deposits representative of organic carbon appear in formations 3.8 billion years old, That is also when the first liquid water appeared on Earth, and hence the first time that life could survive. All life on Earth is water based. No water, no life, but with water, life was possible. It had only to develop, and develop it did, immediately in the presence of water. There were no “billions of years” for the amino acids to combine randomly into life.
So suddenly did life arise on Earth that, the theoretical biologist Francis Crick wrote, “Given the weaknesses of all theories of terrestrial genesis [the origin of life on Earth], directed panspermia [the deliberate planting of life on Earth] should still be considered a serious possibility.” Crick certainly understands the complexity of life. With Watson and Wilkins, he shared the Nobel prize for discovering the shape and functioning of DNA, the genetic code of all life.
Perhaps it is merely coincidence that Crick and his associates published their research on the complexity of life in 1953, the same year that Stanley Miller had “proven” the simplicity of life’s origin. Crick suggests the concept of the “directed” planting of life on Earth. He is a strong enough mathematician to realize that a random sprinkling of the universe with the seeds of life, by a sort of cosmic Johnny Appleseed, gives slim chance to those seeds ever arriving at a hospitable planet. The demands of life are stringent and the universe is for the most part quite hostile. A cosmic seeder of life would have to aim at a particularly proper planet.
Do we hear in Crick’s words the hint of a godly Guide in the development of life? Not on your life! He maintains he is an agnostic with a prejudice toward atheism. As of this writing, science has no agreed-upon explanation for the cause. It is an important (and currently under-supported) area of research. But whatever theories are put forth, the truly extraordinary fact remains: as soon as the conditions on Earth arose for life to exist, life appeared.
What about the flow from those first simple one-celled forms of life to the complexity of nature that we see today? The difference between secular evolution-ists and theologians is not in the details of the events. The difference is that the former claim the development is all by random mutations while the latter see a channeling in the flow of life that implies a teleology.
To distinguish between direction and randomness, we must study the flow of life in detail. There is a popular impression that fossils have proven the validity of classical evolution. Yet most paleontologists admit this is not the case. According to the picture presented by the fossil record, bursts of morphological change occurred within startlingly brief periods of time. This staccato aspect of the fossil record had not been predicted. Its discovery has called for basic rethinking concerning the mechanisms that drive evolution to ever greater complexity. These rapid changes cannot be explained by purely random mutations at the molecular genetic level. In light of the mounting evidence that the classical concept of evolution is flawed, the journal Science featured a peer-reviewed report titled “Did Darwin Get It All Right?” In that article we learn that “the most thorough study of species formation in the fossil record confirms that new species appear with a most un-Darwinian abruptness.”
The burst of multicellular life at the start of the Cambrian, 530 million years ago, was so dramatic that the New York Times reported on it under the page-wide, 2-cm-high headline, “Spectacular Fossils Record Early Riot of Creation.” Dr. Jan Bergstrom, the paleontologist cited by the Times, suggested that for new niorphologies to have developed this rapidly, “you could have the formation of an entirely new type of animal within thousands f years.” Considering the complexity of the DNA genetic codes which shape all life, the chance formation of a “new type of animal within thousands of years” requires an active imagination. It strains the credibility of random molecular evolution. Perhaps that explains the choice of the word “Creation” in the headlines.
THE SCIENCE OF GOD
Copyright@1997, by: Gerald Schroeder
(Chpt. 6, pgs. 83-88)
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