Thursday August 12, 2021

The Origin of Life and ‘The Whole Show’ 

wayne stender

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins famously defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He has also remarked that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution made it possible for the first time to “be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” It’s important to understand what he means by both statements.  

For many centuries, the “design argument” was a pillar of Christians’ apologetic for the existence of God. Looking at the natural world, specifically life, thinkers as diverse as William Paley to Thomas Aquinas to the Apostle Paul concluded that creation clearly testifies to purposive intelligence. Nothing about its structure looks purposeless or unguided. Aquinas, for instance, suggested in his fifth argument for God that just as an arrow (which lacks intelligence) nevertheless manifests an intelligible purpose or end, so too do created bodies, especially living things.  

In more recent times, philosophers and apologists compared living things with machines, because there are many key resemblances. Living things contain analogues to pulleys and levers, electrical circuits, cameras and microphones, and require fuel, lubrication, and repair. Paley famously compared organisms with a functional watch, found lying on a heath, testifying to a designer. As science has advanced and we’ve peered deeper into the microscopic world, we’ve discovered a new universe of living wonders. Outboard motors and gears, automatic doors and gateways, transport mechanisms that appear to “walk,” and at the center of it all, a molecule like no other that stores and transmits the information necessary to build life: DNA. 

In Dawkins’ mind, Darwin dispatched all of these arguments by proposing a mechanism through which random and mindless processes could slowly produce the appearance of design. Evolution by natural selection acting on random variations, concludes Dawkins, is a kind of “blind watchmaker.” By sorting through random copying errors over unfathomable stretches of time with no aim or purpose in mind, Darwin’s mechanism could—allegedly—produce the wondrous diversity of complex and elegant living machinery we see today. 

There are lots of problems with this, and I’ve talked about them before with other guests on Upstream. Check out, for example, my conversation with philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. But there’s one challenge to Darwin’s theory that stands out as basically insurmountable: the origin of the first life. You see, Darwinian evolution doesn’t explain life’s existence—it assumes it, and then tries to explain the diversity of life from there. But it offers no real account of how life or the struggle for survival began in the first place.  

Darwin certainly speculated about it, in a way that sounds impossibly naïve to modern microbiologists. In an 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker, Darwin wrote:  

“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes…” 

Darwin wrote this having no means of peering inside cells, having no understanding of the countless processes and mechanisms involved in even the simplest living thing, and with no knowledge of DNA or the laws of inheritance. But that was 150 years ago. Surely evolutionary biology has made huge advances since then in its study of the origin of life. Right?  

Well, in my conversation this week with synthetic-organic chemist Dr. James Tour, we explore precisely that question, and come to a stark conclusion: science is further today from understanding how life could have arisen through purely material processes than it has ever been. In his words, if anyone tells you differently, “they’re lying.” And if you ask them for details, “you’ll see them start to sweat.” 

Whether it’s the combination of chemicals at the right time and place, the transition from those chemicals to the compounds necessary for life, to the production of diverse proteins, to the assembly of the cell itself, to the origin of a functional system of cellular replication, science has utterly failed not only at showing how such a process could occur in a “warm little pond,” but has failed even to replicate it through intelligent engineering under ideal laboratory conditions.  

Dr. Tour is pretty passionate about exposing this mystery, and no wonder. We constantly hear talk from people like Dawkins triumphantly proclaiming that the mystery of life and its origin is settled, and God is no longer necessary. Yet with no material process or even plausible theory for how non-living chemicals can spontaneously transform into living organisms, that kind of rhetoric is worse than irresponsible. It’s dishonest.  

This is usually the point at which advocates for the older design theory meet with a retort: “You’re just resorting to a ‘God-of-the-gaps’ argument.” In other words, the only reason we infer intelligence of any kind involved with life’s origin, much less a Divine intelligence, is that science cannot currently explain life’s origin. But science is always advancing, and just as Darwin discovered the law of natural selection, it may be that future scientists will discover processes by which chemicals can turn into cells. The fact that a mystery current exists isn’t by itself a reason to propose God did it. That’s an argument from ignorance.  

And that would be true, if the case for intelligent or even theistic design rested on ignorance, alone. But as I discussed before on Upstream with both Stephen Meyer and Logan Gage, that’s not how modern design arguments are made. Rather than an argument from ignorance, advocates for intelligent design make a positive, abductive inference to the best-known explanation. And that best explanation in our uniform and repeated experience is mind, intelligence, or conscious purpose. Put simply, we don’t argue that God created life because we have no other explanation, but because life exhibits precisely the sorts of features we only observe in products of purposive intelligence. And a purposive intelligence that precedes life itself—barring speculation about prebiotic aliens—would be very much like the God of theism.  

At this point materialists will object that proposing a supernatural entity as an explanation for natural phenomena is unscientific. And here we get to the very bottom of the debate—a questions C. S. Lewis tackles in his astonishing little book, “Miracles.” The belief that material causes are the only type of causes active in our world—that matter and energy are, as Lewis glibly puts it, “the whole show”—that belief is itself an assumption that cannot be supported or tested by materialistic science. It is, in other words, self-refuting.  

Yet without this prior commitment to materialism, it is far from obvious why God’s creative and intentional power is out-of-bounds as an explanation for life. With all due respect to Dr. Dawkins, maybe living things give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose because—they were. 

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