New Theory about the Origin of Life Concludes It’s Magic!
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
And so another new theory about how life could have evolved from simple molecules has been added to the existing pile of theories. I expect that it soon will be discarded as have most other origin-of-life theories. The new theory began when Professor Caitlin Cornell was looking in her microscope and saw bright spots against a black background resembling “miniature suns, blazing against the backdrop of space.” Cornell then
showed the spots to her supervisor, Sarah Keller, a chemist at the University of Washington, “we got really excited,” she recalls. “It was a bit of an ‘Aha!’ moment.” Those spots, she realized, might help address a long-standing puzzle about the origin of life itself.
Cells that make up all living organisms, from single-celled animals to humans, exist in an almost endless variety, but all must contain the following:
- Molecules that encode information to produce protein, and that can be copied, such as DNA and RNA.
- Proteins which construct the organism’s body and the cell’s organelles, such as mitochondria. These proteins are also used to construct skin, muscles, and other tissues plus the 200 organs that make up our body.
- An encapsulating membrane that surrounds all cells and cell organelles, which is made from fatty acids.
Background of Origins-of-Life Theories
Darwinists postulate that, if we go back far enough in time, before animals and plants and even bacteria existed, the precursor of all life must have existed which they call a “protocell.” They postulate that this structure had a trinity of parts: RNA and proteins, surrounded by a membrane. Young quotes physicist Freeman Dyson who opined, “Life began with little bags of garbage.” Already we can see a problem. To be life, this protocell has to do what life does, namely respirate, replicate, duplicate RNA, and produce a bag, the membrane, that protects the machines that make protein to produce the parts required for life. Young adds all of the parts are critical, even the bag: “Without something to corral the other molecules, they would all just float away, diffusing into the world and achieving nothing…. Life, at its core, is about creating compartments.”
Much more important is having the right machines in the right place in the right compartment at the right time. And even more important is the DNA and the complex machinery required to translate the genetic code into functional proteins. Since the complexity required to meet this goal is overwhelming, evolutionists must postulate something simpler existed as the first cell. Some propose it was based on RNA, called the RNA-world theory. Even here problems exist. Jack Szostak, 2009 Nobel laureate for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase, noted that according
to the RNA World Hypothesis, RNA was a key molecule that was utilized by the earliest life on Earth to store genetic information and to catalyze chemical reactions. This raises the question, however, of how RNA formed under prebiotic conditions on the early Earth. In fact, the issue of the complete synthesis of RNA nucleotides has been a major stumbling block for the RNA World Hypothesis. The sugar found in the backbone of both DNA and RNA, ribose, has been particularly problematic, as the most prebiotically plausible chemical reaction schemes have typically yielded only a small amount of ribose mixed with a diverse assortment of other sugar molecules.
Another problem is that RNA is enormously complex. Lab experiments have not been much help, a fact which has caused “some scientists to hypothesize that RNA was preceded by other RNA-like molecules that were more stable and readily synthesized under prebiotic conditions.” One proposed solution to the complexity problem suggests that “some components of RNA may have formed in space and arrived on Earth rather than being formed de novo on the Earth.” But this solution, rather than solving the complexity problem, just moves it somewhere else, so the same problem still exists. Based on an analyses of meteorites, such as the Murchison meteorite and other evidence, some scientists have raised powerful objections to the postulate that some components of RNA formed somewhere out in space.
From Building Blocks to Buildings
Another problem concerns assembly. Even if we can somehow obtain pools of RNA nucleotides on Earth, how did (or could) long strands of RNA form on the early Earth? Chemical evolutionists imagine RNA “ribozymes,” with both coding and enzymatic abilities, happening on the same molecule by chance. The few known ribozymes have very limited capabilities, like cutting themselves in half.
Then there’s the folding problem. Obtaining a functional ribozyme that could direct the assembly of amino acids into a strand that could fold into a functional protein is astronomically improbable. In real life, a molecular machine called a ribosome is required to read the genetic code and translate it into protein. But the ribosome requires both RNA and protein to work. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: how could RNA form a protein to create a machine that needs a protein to work?
To hope for a ribozyme that might function as a cheap ribosome jig would likely require an RNA strand composed of at least 30 to 40 nucleotides. This issue has been researched by James Ferris’ group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They attempt to solve the problem of the origin of RNA strands composed of at least 30 to 40 nucleotides, postulating
that the formation of long strands of RNA may have been catalyzed by clays such as montmorillonite. The … clay surface attracts the nucleotides and the increased local concentration of nucleotides causes bond formation between nucleotides, forming a polymer of RNA.”
Others have pointed out the problems with the clay theory. University of Chicago Professor Robert Shapiro wrote the “sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable. … [The probability] is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as a piece of exceptional good luck.”
Bring in the Magicians
In short, all other proposals have met a dead end. Thus the new theory called “completely magical” has been proposed by Caitlin Cornell and her research team.
Professor Cornell ignores the problem of the origin of RNA and protein for now and, instead, focuses on cell membranes constructed from fatty acids. The fatty acids in cell membranes are lollipop-shaped molecules possessing fatty round heads and long, thin, two-stranded tails. The heads are hydrophilic; the tails, hydrophobic. Consequently, when placed in water, the fatty acids can self-assemble into hollow spheres with the hydrophilic tails on the surface, the hydrophobic tails end up pointing inward. These spheres can enclose RNA and proteins, making crude protocell-like compartments. The problem, Young explains, assuming the common belief that life first arose in salty oceans, is that ocean water contains many kinds of ions in addition to sodium and chloride, such as magnesium and iron—both very common in saltwater today.
These ions cause the spheres to collapse, which is problematic since RNA—another key component of early protocells—requires these ions. How, then, could life possibly have arisen, when the compartments it needs are destroyed by the conditions in which it first emerged, and by the very ingredients it needs to thrive?
Caitlin Cornell and Sarah Keller’s answer is that the spheres are able to withstand both salt and magnesium ions, as long as they’re in the presence of amino acids—which concurrently are the building blocks of proteins. The tiny suns Cornell observed in her microscope were mixtures of amino acids and fatty acids that held their spherical shape in the presence of salts. She wrote about her simple discovery:
I find that utterly magical. It means that two of the essential components of life, a protocell’s membrane and its proteins, provided the conditions for each other to exist. By sticking to the fatty acids, the amino acids gave them stability. In turn, the fatty acids concentrated the amino acids, perhaps encouraging them to coalesce into proteins.
The research team then made a Herculean leap in fantasy from this simple mundane observation. Writing in poetic prose, they imagined that from the very beginning of evolution
these partners were locked in a two-step dance that continued for 3.5 billion years, and helped create all the richness of biology from a starting place of mere chemistry. “I agree completely,” Keller tells me. “It’s completely magical. You need those two parts together.”
Laws vs Magic
It is not magical. It is simply a consequence of the laws of chemistry which had to be designed the way they are for life to exist. That is the problem that must be explained. A theist would postulate that the laws of chemistry exist by design with the specific goal to allow life to exist, not the other way around as implied by Cornell and her colleagues. Cornell implied that the laws of chemistry existed first which just happened to be conducive for the creation of complex life on Earth. She describes her experiment as follows:
On their own, the fatty acids predictably self-assembled into hollow spheres. “They looked like jellyfish: clear insides with opaque edges, floating around,” she says. If she added salt or magnesium ions, these jellyfish disintegrated. But if she did that after adding amino acids, they held their shape. What’s more, they transformed into shapes that Cornell likens to glowing onions. Their once-hollow centers were filled with another layer of fatty acids—spheres within spheres. Not coincidentally, that’s what our actual cells are like, with membranes that comprise two fatty layers instead of one…. Amino acids allow membranes to exist in the presence of magnesium, which RNA needs to function.
In spite of the headline hype, she has not stumbled onto the solution of how life evolved, but rather only the chemistry that explains how life was designed to live. She has recreated the chemical conditions required for working cells, or more accurately, she has accidentally copied the existing design found in cells. She was only explaining how life works, not how life evolved. Her challenge is to address a problem posed to her by her colleagues, namely “no one had good ideas about how exactly the protocell trinity—RNA, proteins, and membranes” could assemble in life, in other words, how it functioned in life. She has shed light on a small part of the question of how lipid membranes could be stabilized in salt water – not how life evolved.
The presence of amino acids protects the fatty-acid spheres, allowing what we see in the biological world to exist. She found a compartment that can hold the building blocks required for making proteins and RNA, but still has yet to determine how the individual building blocks build buildings: how they bond together to form the larger molecules, which she admits is “a very hard question.” The model falls far short of explaining how nonliving chemicals spontaneously formed life in the natural world without any guidance from an intelligent being.
Past Efforts Failed
The theory implies natural bonding patterns can produce life. It’s similar to a theory that was proposed by Dean H. Kenyon and chemist Gary Steinman in their book Biological Predestination. This book was a mainstay of college biology and evolution classes back in the 1970’s. In short, the authors believed that life was biochemically predestined by the properties of attraction and repulsion that exist between chemicals, especially between amino acids in proteins. They described the following causal chain: the “properties of the chemical elements dictate the types of monomers that can be formed in prebiotic syntheses, which then dictate the properties of the occurring polymers, which finally dictate the properties of the first eobionts [dawn cells] and all succeeding cells.” Several reviews were very laudable about the Biological Predestination book, such as this review by Leslie Orgel in Science.
Biochemical Predestination , despite its title, is a thoroughly professional book on the origins of life. It presents the best detailed account of the subject that I have read. The authors, perhaps because they never knew the bad old days [of origins of life research], are not too concerned with the legitimacy of their subject but, writing as laboratory scientists, describe the relevant experiments and attempt to interpret them.
The anti-creation website called ‘Panda’s Thumb’ even wrote “Dr. Dean Kenyon, Ph.D., Biophysics… [is] one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world.” One of the leading origin-of-life researchers, Sidney W. Fox, was able to point out problems with the main theme of Biochemical Predestination as far back as 1970. Kenyon eventually rejected his own theory of biochemical predestination. In the film Unlocking the Mystery of Life, he says he could not answer a counter-argument proposed by one of his students: how could amino acids assemble themselves into proteins without genetic instructions?
Chemical bonds must form for a cell to exist. The research by Cornell merely adds another example to our understanding of the binding properties of a few molecules involved in making stable membranes. It’s a trivial factor in explaining the origin of life [OOL], which must also include the far more difficult questions about the origin of genetic instructions and metabolism.
What They Actually Achieved
The Cornell team rationalized their trivial success, thinking that doing something (i.e., finding a law-like chemical property) is better than doing nothing. Before their contribution, says Ed Yong of the article in The Atlantic, “people were just waving their hands and attributing this crucial convergence to some random event.” Furious hand-waving goes with the OOL territory. Yong writes,
The study of life’s origins is always contentious. Scientists often disagree furiously about things that are happening right now, let alone events that occurred more than 3.5 billion [Darwin] years ago. Some researchers, for example, think that life began in shallow volcanic pools, while others argue that it must have arisen in underwater vents.
The study by the Cornell team is no less contentious. In essence, they were helping the cause of design—not of evolution. By determining a requirement for the chemistry for life to work, the scientists were acting as if they were “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” as Kepler said of his investigations into how the heavens operated. It did not help explain how life evolved from some primordial goo, but only how, because of certain laws of chemistry, some requirements for life have been met.
 Ed Young. 2019. “A New Clue to How Life Originated. A long-standing mystery about early cells has a solution—and it’s a rather magical one.” The Atlantic. August 19. Online at https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/08/interlocking-puzzle-allowed-life-emerge/595945/
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 Jack Szostak. “RNA on the Early Earth”. http://exploringorigins.org/nucleicacids.html
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 Robert Shapiro, 2007. “A Simpler Origin for Life,” Scientific American, pp. 46-53. June.
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 Young, 2019. Ref 1.
 Dean H. Kenyon, and Gary Steinman. 1969. Biochemical Predestination. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
 Stephan Berry. 1997. “ ‘Biochemical Predestination’ as Heuristic Principle for Understanding the Origin of Life,” Journal of Chemical Education, 74(8):950.
 Leslie Orgel. 1969. “Evidence and Speculation on How Life Began.” Science. December 26, pp.1613-1614.
 Nick Matzke. 2010. Dean Kenyon: a young-earth creation scientist who was later relabeled an intelligent design proponent. https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/07/dean-kenyon-a-y.html. July 20.
 Sidney W. Fox. 1970. “Biochemical Predestinationby Dean H. Kenyon, Gary Steinman.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 45(2);180. June.
 Young, 2019. Ref 1.
 Casey Luskin. 2012. “Top Five Problems with Current Origin-of-Life Theories.” Evolution News. https://evolutionnews.org/2012/12/top_five_probl/
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.