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How Did Life Begin?

“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” 
― Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature

INTRODUCTION

Here’s a question preliminary to what evolution is all about:

“How did life on earth begin some 3.6 billion years  or more ago?”

And the answer would be

“We don’t really know.” 

There are a variety of theories—one might better call them speculations—but until a model is produced that can be empirically verified, it will remain a mystery.   I won’t explore this topic fully here—it would take a book—but links are given to articles that develop the various models.

The problem in establishing a theory of how life began is that the constituents of life are are large, complicated molecules:  DNA, RNA (nucleic acid chains), proteins (amino acid chains), membranes (phospholipid chains).    So one not only has to wonder how the constituent  molecules—nucleic acids, amino acids, phospholipids—were obtained from primitive chemicals in the early earth, but how these molecules were assembled into the complicated large, macromolecules that are the building blocks of cellular life.

There are various speculations—theories, if you will—about the origin of life on earth that are chemically based.    I’ll summarize some of them below very briefly.   For a more extended discussion, the Wikipedia article on abiogenesis1 is a good starting point.

CHEMICAL MODELS FOR ABIOGENESIS¹

In taking stock of these these theories, one should note that the atmosphere of the very early earth lacked oxygen (thus organic molecules then would not react and decompose) and was probably rich in two nitrogen containing molecules, HCN (cyanic acid) and NH3(ammonia),  as building blocks for amino acids.

  • Primordial Soup:  the early oceans were warm and full of chemicals; these reacted after sufficient time to form the building blocks and then the long chains (improbable reactions, but remember there was a long time for the pot to cook);
  • Electrical Synthesis:  the building block molecules were formed by electrical discharge—lightning—acting on simple nitrogen containing molecules;
  • Clay/Silicate  Template: the building block molecules and long chain molecules were formed by surface reactions on clay or silicates, which set structures and catalyzed the reaction;
  • Undersea Hot Mineral Vents: hot undersea volcanic vents provided high temperatures to accelerate reactions, minerals to act as catalysts, and lots of inorganic and organic compounds as building blocks
  • Panspermia:  the building block molecules came from outer space, either planted deliberately by aliens, or by chance from meteors, comets or cosmic dust;  the question then is, from where did these chemicals or aliens originate?

SPONTANEOUS SELF-ORGANIZATION

There are other models, which are based on spontaneous self-organization, derived either from a theory of autocatalytic sets (Stuart Kauffman) or from principles of irreversible thermodynamics (Jeremy EnglandIlya Prigogine ).

pastedGraphic.png
Example of spontaneous self-organization:
milk rings formed in coffee mug left in refrigerator

One primitive example of spontaneous self-organization is shown in the image above.  It is an example of smoke rings or, more technically, “vortex rings”.

The origin-of-life theories referred to above are interesting, albeit speculative since they have not yet been subjected to detailed analysis and empirical proof.

Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree with the generalization of the Noble Prize winner, Ilya Prigogine:

“We know today that both the biosphere as a whole as well as its components, living or dead, exist in far-from-equilibrium conditions.  In this context, life, far from being outside the natural order, appears as the supreme expression of the self-organizing processes that occur.”
—Ilya Prigogine, Order out of Chaos, p. 175

FINAL THOUGHTS 

It appears, as the opening quote suggests, that the origin of life is clouded in several mysteries:

  • First, how were the building blocks of life–amino acids, nucleic acids, phospholipid chains–formed?
  • Second, how did these building blocks assemble into the biological polymers–proteins, DNA, RNA, membranes?
  • Third, how did these assembled polymers come together to form primitive cells?

The likelihood of these events having occurred randomly seems very small, but there was indeed a very long time, over a billion years, over which they could occur.

I believe a more likely explanation is that a teleological principle–purpose–is at work, as proposed by the philosopher Thomas Nagel  in his book Mind and Cosmos.   Unlike Nagel (a confirmed atheist), I believe this purpose is achieved by God, using either little nudges at appropriate instances, or by some general mechanism He installs at the beginning, unknown to us now. and possibly forever.  Perhaps Scripture is a better guide than science here.

“I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”  
—Isaiah 45:12 (KJV)

The evidence for Creation by God, both of the universe and of life, is not given here;  however arguments for this are given elsewhere—see, for example:   God’s Periodic Table and Evolution; Are We Special? The Anthropic Principle; God’s Gift to Molecular Biology: the Hydrogen Bond.

It takes an effort of will and considerable bias to deny the evidence that God, not aliens or random meaningless actions, created life.

NOTE

1 “Abiogenesis” means generation of life from inorganic or inanimate substances.

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Bob Kurland, Ph.D.

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/ and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland). Extraordinary Minister of Communion, volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

9 Comments

  1. When you don’t know the answer it’s best to answer with another question;
    Why did life begin?
    Answering my question seems to take the edge off of yours, at least it makes me feel better. 🙂
    Why? To experience and know the love that the author of the Life that came to be has for his choicest creations. Then, even though he doesn’t need it, he can enjoy the imperfect love returned to him. Yes professor Kurland… I’m a simpleton. A recipient of the author’s love.

    Great question you pose.
    I’ll shut up now and listen to the senior class.

  2. If the discovery of a Greenlandic scientist is confirmed, science has a problem: he found evidence of bacteria in the oldest known sedimentary rocks (3.8 bya). Any older rocks have been destroyed by plate tectonics and the earth was only cool enough for liquid water about 4.2-4.3 bya). That’s a very narrow window and no one can ever look through it. When scientists thought life evolved later, there was time for evolution. Not much time in this scenario.

  3. Yes Mr. Kurland.
    Another sojourner guided by the light thereof..the Lamb.
    Thank you for your complement.

  4. If there is “a teleological principle–purpose” in nature, the physical sciences are ill-adapted to discover it.

    Ever since the 17th century, the physical sciences have concentrated on the common measurable properties of things. Measurements yield numbers and numbers can be combined into differential equations that express the constant relationship between variables – variables like time, mass, distance and so on. The great merit of the new physics was that the equations could be used as formulae to make predictions that could, in turn, be verified.

    These are functional relationships, not causal ones, in the classical sense and “cause” acquires the new meaning of “observed regularity.”

    Any sort of Design theory (design = prospective contrivance) suffers from the further disadvantage that we do not know the purpose; as Mgr Knox observed of Archdeacon Paley’s theory, “God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise, and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct. This calls to mind Belloc’s parody of William Blake:

    “’He prayeth best who loveth best
    All creatures, great and small’
    The streptococcus is the test,
    I love him least of all.”

  5. Interesting that a few days ago a similar conversion was had by Stacy Trasancos on her Facebook page. In this case, the discussion revolved around the appearance of sentience (or ensoulment). I do not think that science can ultimately explain:

    (1) Creatio ex nihilo – the spontaneous occurrence of the Big Bang and the appearance of space and time, matter and energy.
    (2) The appearance of life – random interactions of chemicals even over long periods of time is a very unsatisfying explanation.
    (3) The appearance of sentience – Humani Generis is I think correct on this point:

    36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith. Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

    37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

  6. Purpose? Because God saw that it is good. All creation is an expression of God’s love and of His continued Divine Providence, but you have said that already.

  7. When I was studying organic and biochemistry at the University of Oregon, it seemed extremely unlikely that life could have arisen by chance alone. The complexity and the thermodynamics involved in DNA, cellular structures, and protein synthesis and folding point directly to a Creator who designed us and intervened to create us. The Second Law of Thermodynamics indicates entropy always increases. It requires an input of energy to reduce entropy. Not only does it require an input of energy, it requires energy to be expended in a particular way. One cannot simply shake up a box of computer parts and expect to build a laptop computer, no matter how long one shakes the box. Life is far more complex than a computer. Life has never been observed to be created outside of a cellular membrane with functioning genetic material and cellular structures. If one found a Boeing 747 on a distant planet, one would not immediately jump to the conclusion it arose from random processes. One would rightly conclude that it was designed and built by intelligent beings. Its existence in and of itself is direct evidence of an intelligence at work. We are far more complex than an airplane, and the thermodynamics involved in even the simplest of life forms favors an intelligence at work to create it. A God who created it. Yet atheists would have us disregard the Second Law of Thermodynamics and believe that life must have arisen by random natural processes, no matter how unlikely that would be given what we know about how biochemical processes work. It’s magical thinking.

  8. Alphatron is correct. No matter how much external energy is supplied to a system, unless that energy is intelligently applied, only randomness results.

    The Big Bang happened because God said, “Let there be light.”
    Life happened because God caused those amino acids in the primordial soup to form RNA and DNA.
    Sentience happened because God breathed the breath of life into Adam and he became a living soul.

    PS, the reason why materialistic evolutionists want you to believe we are just apes is so that they can assuage their consciences as they go wallow in heat, titillating their genitals like mindless baboons, and then murder the conseuences of their crazed and demonic lust.

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