Here, There and Everywhere: What We Really Know About the Origin of Life

Starting the week by looking at how science speculates on how it all started.

By Tom Gilson Published on June 19, 2017

A while back I saw part of a National Geographic show about astrobiology (or exobiology) — the science of looking for life outside of the Earth. I didn’t get to see the whole program, but what I did see featured some amazing facts about where life can find a niche on earth — and maybe elsewhere?

The operative word there, of course, is maybe. It’s a word that applies to life on other worlds, and also to theories of how life got its start on earth, if you take the position that God didn’t create it. 

As it turns out, for those who don’t believe God wasn’t responsible for the origin of life, we know just as much about how it might have gotten started on its own here as we know about life on outside of Earth: pretty much nothing.

But let’s start with some things we do know:

Amazing Life on Earth

There are microorganisms in boiling pools at Yellowstone, where the pH is 1 (about the same as battery acid), and you or I would quickly dissolve if we fell in.

There are tall tube worms at the dark bottom of the ocean, living without access to the solar energy the rest of earth’s life depends on. They get their energy and nutrients from searingly hot (600° — they didn’t say whether Fahrenheit or Celsius) mineral plumes issuing from deeper in earth’s crust.

Life Elsewhere?

If life could thrive there, who knows where else it might exist? There are ice crystals just inches below the surface of Martian soil. Maybe deeper down, there’s enough pressure to liquefy that ice into water. There could be life there.

Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is covered with water ice. It, too, might have enough internal heat for liquid water to exist below the surface. Maybe there’s enough tectonic activity to produce usable energy down there. Maybe life has developed there, too.

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has a methane atmosphere. It’s so cold there — hundreds of degrees below zero — that methane falls like rain and flows across the surface like water. Sure, it isn’t really water, but as one scientist on the show said, it’s at least fluid: it’s a medium where things can move around and interact. And who can say? Maybe life could develop in other chemistries besides water.

The (cough) “Known Universe” of Maybes

Maybe. Might have. Maybe. Maybe. Who knows? Lots and lots of questions.

Here’s the kicker, though: the title of that show was The Known Universe.

What do we really know, then, about life elsewhere? Lots of maybes.

Some of those maybes are worse than unlikely. Pardon me for not being a chemist or anything, but one thing I’m pretty sure we know is that evolution requires time, lots and lots of it. It also requires chemical reactions. Lots of them; astronomical numbers of them. But chemistry happens a lot slower in extreme cold. If Titan is home to life it would take a truly titanic set of fortuitous coincidences. More likely it’s the speculation involved there that’s titanic.

Speaking of coincidences, though, right now I’m listening to an online jazz program. Currently playing, and I’m not making this up: Tom Tallitsch’s cover of “Life on Mars.” It’s better than David Bowie’s version. It’s also better than any life on Mars so far discovered.

Maybe, Maybe, Maybe: The Origin of Life on Earth

But forget what we know about life elsewhere; what do we know about how the first life evolved on earth? From LiveScience.com, here are some possibilities:

  1. “Lightning may have provided the spark needed for life to begin.”
  2. “The first molecules of life might have met on clay, according to an idea elaborated by organic chemist Alexander Graham Cairns-Smith at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.”
  3. “The deep-sea vent theory suggests that life may have begun at submarine hydrothermal vents spewing key hydrogen-rich molecules.”
  4. “Ice might have covered the oceans 3 billion years ago, as the sun was about a third less luminous than it is now, scientists say. This layer of ice, possibly hundreds of feet thick, might have protected fragile organic compounds in the water below from ultraviolet light and destruction from cosmic impacts. The cold might have also helped these molecules to survive longer, allowing key reactions to happen.”
  5. “Nowadays DNA needs proteins in order to form, and proteins require DNA to form, so how could these have formed without each other? The answer may be RNA, which can store information like DNA, serve as an enzyme like proteins, and help create both DNA and proteins.”
  6. “Instead of developing from complex molecules such as RNA, life might have begun with smaller molecules interacting with each other in cycles of reactions. These might have been contained in simple capsules akin to cell membranes, and over time more complex molecules that performed these reactions better than the smaller ones could have evolved.”

We Know About Life’s Origin Here About as Well as on Europa

What do we really know about the origin of life on earth? From those first six theories: “May have.” “Might have.” “may have.” “Might have/might have.” “May be.” “Might have.” “Perhaps.” The language suggests our knowledge of life’s origin here is no better than its possibility on Mars or Europa. And if that language doesn’t convince you, number 7 should:

7. “Perhaps life did not begin on Earth at all, but was brought here from elsewhere in space, a notion known as panspermia.”

Here’s what that tells us about learning how life first evolved on earth. It tells us we might have to answer the problem of life’s origin somewhere very far away, before we can solve the problem here.

So next time someone tells you we know life came about by evolution, tell them he’s got a titanic problem to solve before he can make that claim. None of theories are worth hanging your hat on. None of them explains the origin of life.

But an Intelligent Designer certainly could.

 

Originally appeared at ThinkingChristian.net. Republished with permission.

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  • DaJuan Hayes

    It’s amusing when people say, “SOMEONE had to create the Universe. A CREATION implies a CREATOR!” Or, as Tom Gibson says, an “intelligent designer.”
    Actually the Universe does NOT require the existence of “gods” to exist. Even if there was some cosmic sentience lurking somewhere in the background, it would be utterly incomprehensible to us, our anthropocentric thinking notwithstanding. At the quantum level, even the concept of “matter” becomes more of a mathematical construct; subatomic particles flash in and out of existence, and the very fabric of spacetime is turbulent. But at larger scales, these fundamental forces organize themselves into atoms, and certain atoms has a natural propensity to organize themselves into forms of increasing complexity. Given time and just about ANY source of energy, life naturally springs into being. It doesn’t need gods to get started.

    • Gary

      Absolute nonsense. Nature did not make itself because it could not. No more than you could make yourself ten feet tall. A Creator must exist or nothing would exist.

      • DaJuan Hayes

        It’s arrogant to make such assumptions. You are thinking in human terms, and of course that’s understandable, but it has nothing to do with how the Universe works. The only reason the Church perpetuates this fiction about gods is to maintain their hold on political and cultural power.

        • Gary

          More nonsense. Material things don’t make themselves. And they don’t come to exist by chance. They must be made by someone. It might be possible to argue about who that someone is, but not about the fact that there must be a Creator.

          • DaJuan Hayes

            Some “ONE”? Tell me, where to you think this “someone” came from?

          • Gary

            God is eternal. He has always existed. Material things are not eternal. They had a beginning. Their existence did not happen by chance. Chance is nothing and can’t make anything happen. And they did not make themselves. In order to make themselves, they would have had to exist before they existed. Not possible.

          • DaJuan Hayes

            So God is not material. That doesn’t exactly make sense. Let’s just say that God IS the quantum universe. That works. It means just what you say it means.

          • Gary

            The universe is not God. God, or the Creator, would have to exist before the universe existed in order to make the universe, which had a beginning. Just like the house builder had to exist before the house was built.

          • DaJuan Hayes

            So on one hand you have this utterly abstract concept of “god” that exists before and outside of the physical Universe, beyond time and space. And yet this same “god” send people to burn in hell? Boy, what a schizophrenic view of things.

          • Gary

            There is no inconsistency between the existence of a God who is outside of the physical universe and that same God sending people to Hell. Interesting that you brought Hell into the conversation. Is God as judge of people really what makes you want to deny His existence?

          • DaJuan, I think a conversation like this will be a lot more productive if it stays on one topic. The question of God’s goodness with respect to humans’ eternal destiny is an easy one to raise, but answering it takes time.

            Questions are like that, you know. If we were to say, “Please explain to us just how evolution works, and why you think it’s true,” you could answer it, but it would take a few thousand words, in contrast to the mere 14 words it took to ask it. If you were to say, “I’d rather stay on topic and not write those thousands of tangential words,” that would be a fair answer on your part. Likewise it’s fair for us not to let you throw us off on a complete tangent, too.

            Google “argumentum ad fragenblitzen.”

          • GPS Daddy

            DaJuan, if you embrace science then you cannot get around the “beginning” of the mater-space-time continuum.

          • GLT

            “So God is not material. That doesn’t exactly make sense.”

            Why does it not make sense? Is all that exists required to be material?

        • I dared. Thanks. See my other comment just now.

    • GPS Daddy

      DaJusn, do you know that what you posted is not science but a ‘religious’ view? You see in order for this to be science it would need to be both testable and falsifiable. You claim is neither. Take for example you claim that “Given time and just about ANY source of energy, and preferably water, life naturally springs into being”. This is not a scientific statement. We know of no life that exists that does not need water is some way to live. Scientists have speculated that life can exists without water but the key word here is speculation.

      You must assume Darwinian Evolution is true in order to claim that all that is needed is time and energy and out pops a life. That’s the problem with Darwinian Evolution. You must first assume it’s true in order to conclude that life evolves.

      But this gets to the nature of life for us humans. We cannot and do not know everything. When it comes to worldviews we must start with an assumption. Something that is not “provable”. For atheists they start with two core assumptions: there is no God and life can evolve given enough time and energy. Theists, however, are is a much better intellectual position. A theists assumes that design always implies a designer. This is easily shown to be true in regards to human design. We know if something is man made. It’s very reasonable to extend this to life.

      • DaJuan Hayes

        Can human beings know “everything”? Of course not. But what we have learned in my lifetime alone is astonishing. And yet, despite how amazing and inspiring scientific research is, some people wistfully cling to the notion that Life, the Universe, and Everything was spoken into being by a humanoid “god,” and only about 6,000 years ago. It’s pretty nutty.

        • GPS Daddy

          Hmmm, DaJuan, I mentioned nothing of Christianity in my post to you. Yet you just step past my counter points as if I wrote nothing. That’s a little arrogant.

          • DaJuan Hayes

            Believe whatever mythology gives you comfort. I prefer to live in the REAL world.

          • GPS Daddy

            Again, DaJuan, you failed to interact with any of my points. They then stand as true in our debate.

        • I don’t believe in a humanoid god, and I don’t believe it happened just 6,000 years ago. I know what full well “wistful” means, but at least in my case, you’re psychologizing without supporting evidence, and I don’t think anyone who knew me would say the description applies to me.

          What you’re doing here, in other words, is stereotyping. That’s the only way you could reach those conclusions without actual evidence.

          I suspect you believe in basing opinions on evidence, and I suspect you disbelieve in stereotyping. Far be it from me to tell you how to live, but if it were me, I’d want to let my online conversation reflect my standards rather than contradict them.

    • Actually this post wasn’t about the creation of the universe, but the origin of the first life.

      Your opinion that atoms have a “natural propensity to organize themselves into forms of increasing complexity” is true up to a certain point, but that point falls far, far, far short of the complexity exhibited in the simplest living cell. That’s why scientific opinions on the origin of life are so full of speculations and maybes, with no truly viable theories in view.

      “Life springs naturally into being,” you say. But nothing like that has ever been observed, and no likely mechanisms for it have ever been proposed. That’s not to say no mechanism has ever been proposed, but none has risen to the level of being the least bit likely. For that reason, your confidence that it must be true anyway can’t be based in science, but must be founded in some other, non-scientific reasoning.

      I’ve read Hawking’s book, thanks. It doesn’t help at all with the origin of life.

      • Louise C

        The same person that created the universe created life in it. They go hand in hand.

    • Dean Bruckner

      A son requires a father, and a universe requires a creator. The absence of an earthly father leads to the awful conclusion that there is no Creator either. But there is a Creator who made you, and he loves you, and will never abandon you, any of his sons or daughters!

      “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you….” – God, speaking to the prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 5, of the Old Testament of the Bible

    • Louise C

      The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”

    • That which begins to exist requires something external to itself to cause that beginning to happen at all, because that which does not exist cannot cause. Since it cannot cause, it cannot cause itself, because it isn’t there to be a cause.

  • Paul

    I’ve long concluded it takes far more faith to believe there is no inteligent designer. Which is ironic since the atheists generally mock those unlike themselves for having faith in something that is claimed to be unprovable while believing in their own unprovables.

    • Science does not need faith. Scientists just need evidence.

      • Dean Bruckner

        What a simple thing to say!

        You have faith in your senses, that they are reliable. You have faith in your intellect, that it’s reasoning is valid and reliable. You have faith in the unchanging “laws” of physics and chemistry. You have faith that there is an “I” to decide to do this and not to do that.

        But in an atheist/materialist universe, NONE of this can be expected. It, along with the Cambrian Explosion, was the problem that filled Charles Darwin with anxiety. The only reason to expect an orderly universe understandable by its inhabitants is a personal, relational God who made it, and him, to be understood and known.

        In your world view, there is no “you,” just the utterly impersonal and random actions of molecules making you “think” there is a you. No self, no free will, no evidence that has any reliability, no permanence that establishes anything enduring, and no reliable process to interpret all of the above.

        You are in a deep condition of spiritual and intellectual poverty, but you think you are rich.

        “Great are the works of the Lord; they are sought out by all who delight in them.”
        – Psalm 111:2, placed above the main doorway of Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell, the Isaac Newton Professor who was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

      • Gary

        Lack of evidence has not kept “scientists” from claiming things they believe are true.

      • GPS Daddy

        Faith drives science. The scientific method of investigation came out of the Christian world view that states that God is a God of order. Other ancient religions do not claim order. So while the people of those religions discovered some things like gun powder they did not put it together.

        Coming forward to today science is still driven by faith. Take time for example. What is the nature of time? Philosophically there is the A-theory of time which claims there is temporal becoming. The competing theory is the B-theory of time that claims time is static, there is no temporal becoming. While science is inseparably linked to time science does not give us insight into which theory is correct. If time dilation supports the B-theory of time then the Lorenz transformation supports the A-theory of time. Yet every experiment The confirms time dilation also confirms the Lorenz transformation. Philosophy does not help us much. Which view is correct is based on worldview. They cannot both be correct.

        This is one small way that faith drives science.

      • davidrev17

        Chuck, also there’s a great enlightening reply just below this one, in case you missed it.

        However, in the meantime, you might care to consider the information provided in the following quotation (and entire article), from world-renowned physicist & astrobiologist, Dr. Paul Davies, Arizona State University, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Taking Science on Faith,” (Nov. 24, 2007).

        ▪ ▪ ▪

        “Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.”

        “The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.”

  • Tom Rath

    NOBODY says “life came about by evolution”. Evolution is a completely different process. *eyeroll*

    • Evolution has multiple meanings. Its general meaning is “change over time.”

      • Louise C

        And it’s still just a theory.

        • Now that is something you should never say, it will just open you to ridicule. Go look up the scientific definition of a theory. It holds a more substantial rank than what our colloquial use entails, and saying “it’s just a theory” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

          • Louise C

            Has it been proven? Did I they find the missing link?

          • Louise C

            Has it been proven? Did they find the missing link?

  • Jack Bonenberger

    The comments section of this article is like watching tow robots discussing where they came from. One of the bots has a service manual on how to maintain there existence and it suggested that the robots were created in the likeness of a man who created them. The other robot read the manual and just knew it was stupid. I think he needed some work on his programing.

    • Dean Bruckner

      Hello world

  • In the past I have actually had a professional programmer tell me that humans are evolved from a virus because we both have some of the same DNA code. Now, think about that: a programmer, who habitually re-uses code that works, wants to believe that incredible complexity evolved from simplicity just because they both contain the same code, rather than surmising the the author of the code simply re-used code that works.

    Hmmm.

  • Personally, I don’t see how an Intelligent Designer can’t fit into what we call Science. Our current understanding of science is so small and incomplete – there’s so much we don’t know. Which actually makes it sound rather rich to say that the Universe was NOT created in six days by God, but rather by some natural process that is mathematically improbable (to put it politely).

    Imagine taking an iPhone back to the dark ages – you would have been burned at the stake as a sorcerer! So it could be that we simply don’t possess the means or capacity to explain supernatural phenomena such as God’s actions. God’s works could very much be explained as a part of natural science once we have the intellect and framework to grasp it. (I’m not saying He would be limited by nature in any way, let’s not put the cart before the horse – as evolutionists do – just that His works could be explainable).

    I know that sounds way out – does anyone agree with me?

    • People think of “God” is anthropomorphic terms (Genesis 1:26) … that is, with a head and torso and two arms and two legs …. but all kind glowing or something. Is this the Intelligent Designer to whom you refer?

      • Yes – the God who is portayed in the Bible. But as for Him actually
        being in an anthropomorphic form – it doesn’t really matter for the
        purposes of this context, and it may not be all that is implied in
        Genesis either.

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