To get life from mindless molecules, fib a little. Ignore chance. Make it sound easy. Turn out the lights. Tell a story. Imagine.
Above a giant picture of a cell, the BBC News promises its readers a secret: “The Secret of How Life on Earth Began.” Michael Marshall dims the lights and speaks in hushed voice. “Today life has conquered every square inch of Earth, but when the planet formed it was a dead rock. How did life get started?”
Illustra Media interrupts the seance and turns the lights on. Getting one short protein by chance, its new film Origin shows, has one chance in 10 to the 164th power. It’s not going to happen, on Earth, anywhere in the universe, in the entire history of the universe. Not by a long shot.
But the propagandists don’t want the lights on. They pretend nothing happened, and put on their blindfolds. Marshall continues weaving his story about precocious molecules, imaginary intermediates, witchy cauldrons in the deep sea cooking up molecules, and sketchy ideas about what “might” have happened. His favorite word is “might,” used 26 times, not in the sense of having a mighty argument. Instead, he uses the power of suggestion. This or that step “might have happened.” But “might” is a probability word, and Illustra has ruled out chance as an option. It’s not going to happen. How many show-stoppers does it take to stop a show?
But the show goes on anyway. Marshall props the story up with the parade of origin-of-life heroes: Darwin, Oparin, Miller. On their shoulders, newcomers like Sutherland, Russell and Szostak take up the storytelling mantle, conjuring up alien worlds he calls the RNA World, the Lipid World, and (believe it or not) the Hodge-Podge World. Theories contradict each other and each has numerous problems, Marshall admits. But anything is better than the alternative.
How did life begin? There can hardly be a bigger question. For much of human history, almost everyone believed some version of “the gods did it”. Any other explanation was inconceivable.
That is no longer true. Over the last century, a few scientists have tried to figure out how the first life might have sprung up. They have even tried to recreate this Genesis moment in their labs: to create brand-new life from scratch.
So far nobody has managed it, but we have come a long way. Today, many of the scientists studying the origin of life are confident that they are on the right track – and they have the experiments to back up their confidence.
Don’t you feel better now? Confidence! Too bad the “experiments” have nothing to do with the problem. What intelligent designers do in a lab cannot speak to the powers of unguided natural laws operating blindly by chance. But with modern atheism, he advertises, the idea life “sprung up” is no longer “inconceivable.” True, nobody has “managed it,” but we can imagine it.
Marshall opens his visualization screen to Stanley Miller’s iconic spark-discharge experiment (see 5/02/03). He admits that the facts of chemistry don’t support it, but so what? It had propaganda value.
The details turned out to be wrong, since later studies showed that the early Earth’s atmosphere had a different mix of gases. But that is almost beside the point.
“It was massively iconic, stimulated the public’s imagination and continues to be cited extensively,” says Sutherland.
In the wake of Miller’s experiment, other scientists began finding ways to make simple biological molecules from scratch. A solution to the mystery of the origin of life seemed close.
But then it became clear that life was more complicated than anyone had thought. Living cells, it turned out, were not just bags of chemicals: they were intricate little machines. Suddenly, making one from scratch began to look like a much bigger challenge than scientists had anticipated.
The tension is up! Marshall has just conceded what Paul Nelson says in the Illustra film. After rehearsing the legacy of Darwin, Oparin and Miller, Nelson says, “Life requires molecular machines, and lots of them.” How will Marshall escape the trap that modern biochemistry has put him in?
Marshall’s solution is to ignore the problem. He never mentions chance. He never mentions probability. Instead, he goes off onto irrelevant side tracks about the discovery of DNA, as if that would help. He admits proteins are coded by DNA, and that the genome is like a library of information. He describes the “enormously elaborate” ribosome that translates messenger RNA into proteins. Is he not digging his hole deeper?
Suddenly, Oparin and Haldane’s ideas looked naively simple, while Miller’s experiment, which only produced a few of the amino acids used to build proteins, looked amateurish. Far from taking us most of the way to creating life, his seminal study was clearly just the first step on a long road.
A first step on a long road can be meaningless, if you don’t know how long the road is. What if the road is millions of times the diameter of the entire observable universe? Origin also shows the folly of that kind of hope.
The rest of the BBC article describes the various “worlds” of RNA, lipids, hydrothermal vents and their champions. Marshall introduces mythical precursors for DNA, like TNA and PNA. He portrays imaginary replicators that “might have” begun to evolve by natural selection. But he never addresses the central problem: where did the information to build the complicated machinery of life come from? If your toolkit is restricted to atoms, natural laws, and chance, how did complex specified information emerge? Even the most primitive life forms we know have over 300 different kinds of proteins, plus metabolic networks, genomes that can replicate themselves accurately, and membranes that can selectively allow materials in and out. These requirements are “diagnostic of what it means to be alive,” Nelson explains.
In Origin, Ann Gauger points out the folly of expecting lifeless chemicals to come together into a living cell. “If I put it amino acids in a test tube in my lab, even if I added heat and shook it up real well, and kept doing that for 100 years, or a thousand years, or 10,000 years, or a million years, nothing would happen.” All the secular origin-of-life literature, however, gets pumped if amino acids or lipids or some other “building blocks of life” are discovered somewhere, in meteorites or stellar dust clouds. Paul Nelson offers a reality check:
Amino acids, nucleotides, lipids – by themselves, they do not represent life. They’re inert. They’re not reproducing. They’re not storing information. In a sense, they’re dumb. They didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, let’s all get together and build a cell that can replicate itself.’ Didn’t happen. Chemistry is indifferent to whether or not anything is alive or dead.
Illustra’s film also shows how self-organization and natural selection are out of bounds at the origin of life. Natural selection requires accurate replication. Self-organization, like crystallization, is the wrong kind of process to build information-rich structures like proteins and genes. What’s left? It comes down to chance alone. But chance is absolutely hopeless for getting even one simple protein to emerge one time in the whole history of the earth or the universe.
The film shows that getting a single smaller-than-average protein is far, far beyond the reach of chance. Dr. Timothy Standish takes it from there, rubbing it in with more considerations about the hopelessness of chance.
If we can appreciate exactly how hard it is to produce one molecular machine using nothing except atoms and energy, we can see there is a profound problem.
Because once you have one molecular machine, you don’t have a living thing. These molecular machines need other molecular machines. And even if nature was capable of producing all the molecular machines necessary, that still wouldn’t be enough. They have to all be together, all in this tiny little membrane-bound space that we call, a cell.
The probability that you would get them in the same space at the same time becomes beyond unimaginable. And the probability that you would get them within a membrane enclosure (like a cell) is the next best thing to impossible.
If sunlight is the best disinfectant, darkness is the best place for infectious lies. In the dark, a guru can promise low-information readers that secular science is making progress. Here’s how they lure the uninformed: ‘Those people clamoring to turn the lights on? Ignore them. They don’t know anything. They’re just religious nuts. Close your eyes. Don’t you see? A picture of the origin of life is coming into view!’
That means we are approaching one of the great divides in human history: the divide between those who know the story of life’s beginning, and those who never could.
Every single person who died before Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859 was ignorant of humanity’s origins, because they knew nothing of evolution. But everyone alive now, barring isolated groups, can know the truth about our kinship with other animals.
In the dark, you can feel good. Feel the wisdom sweeping over you. Turn out the lights, and imagine yourself traveling through space. Imagine wisdom.
These facts change our worldview in subtle ways. Arguably, they make us wiser. Evolution teaches us to treasure every other living thing, for they are our cousins. Space travel allows us to see our world from a distance, revealing how unique and fragile it is.
Some of the people alive today will become the first in history who can honestly say they know where they came from. They will know what their ultimate ancestor was like and where it lived.
This knowledge will change us. On a purely scientific level, it will tell us about how likely life is to form in the Universe, and where to look for it. And it will tell us something about life’s essential nature. But beyond that, we cannot yet know the wisdom the origin of life will reveal.
The ideas promoted by Michael Marshall and the BBC News constitute the creation myth of our modern secular culture. The storytellers get millions of dollars to promote the myth. NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine regularly touts this or that molecule as a “building block of life” (for example, the latest RNA concoction from Jack Szostak). Life’s building blocks come from starlight, another Astrobiology Magazine article proposes. And artwork of Primordial Soup accompanies many a story, even if the only empirical data concerns some form of tarry gunk some researchers cooked up under lab conditions (see ETH-Zurich press release). And once again, Astrobiology Magazine uses the suggestive phrase “building blocks of life,” only this time, it’s about the “building blocks of life’s building blocks” – i.e., ionized carbon. Why stop there? Why not call protons “building blocks of life”? or quarks? One thing should be clear: we never see building blocks forming a complex, functional building by themselves, without the guiding hands of intelligence and mind.
To scientific materialists, the facts don’t matter. Feel the wisdom growing as your imagination expands. It’s like being on drugs. Cool.
I’ve read many a piece on origin of life, but Marshall’s almost made me puke. He knows full well the complexity of life. He even shows a video clip of ATP synthase! Yet he attacks Darwin skeptics, and promotes DODO storytellers as the wise ones who have overcome the superstition of past ages. The opposite is true.
This is why Illustra Media produced Origin. The whole Darwinist, materialist enterprise falls at that tipping point. This BBC News propaganda piece shows that Illustra’s message needs to be heard. You can buy copies in quantity at reduced prices to give out to the victims of propaganda coming from the scientific materialists. Let’s turn the lights on!