The Myth of the Natural Origin of Life
Lee M Spetner

Arguments that are given for evolution include theological as well as scientific arguments. The arguments I shall present against evolution, however, are only scientific. The theological arguments for evolution are of the type that dispute Creation in the expectation of establishing evolution. These arguments usually consist of pointing to some fact of nature and saying that a Creator would not have done it that way, e.g., the panda's thumb, vestigial organs, nerve connections to the retina, etc. The theological arguments are childish and show a lack of competence in theology. I shall not address any of the theological arguments, but I only point out the widespread use of these arguments to note that evolution is often supported by disputing Creation. I point this out to indicate the contrast with my arguments against evolution. I do not intend that the failure of evolutionary theory automatically establishes Creation, but I intend to offer support to people of faith who are troubled by the alleged strength of evolutionary theory. As I shall show, evolutionary theory fails in its goal of supporting the naturalistic origin of life.

The naturalistic viewpoint of the universe presumes there is no Creator, and by implication, לית דין ולית דיין: There is no moral law and no Judge [Rashi c. 1100]. If the universe could indeed be well explained as having a purely naturalistic origin, then there would be a case for No Creator. That is not to say that it would be proof of the nonexistence of a Creator and Judge, but it would lend support to those who are disposed to that belief.

It turns out, however, that there is no proper scientific theory of a natural origin and development of life. Ever since Darwin, scientists have tried to find such a theory, but no such theory exists today. Without such a theory, one cannot, to borrow Richard Dawkins's phrase, be a fulfilled atheist. One can be a fulfilled atheist only with a large measure of hope and faith that such a theory, or theories, will one day be found.

The Program of finding a naturalistic theory of life's origin consists, basically, of two parts. The first part (Part I) is to find a theory that will account for the naturalistic origin of a simple form of life from nonliving matter. The life generated in this theory can be the ultimate in simplicity, but it must, at least, be capable of self reproduction to enable the second part of the Program. The second part (Part II) is the development from the alleged simple, primitive, beginning to all the abundant forms of life we see today.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, it has become apparent that what distinguishes living from nonliving matter is the information in a living organism, and the way the organism uses that information to perform its functions and reproduce. A major distinction between living and nonliving matter, as we understand it today, lies in the information of life, which is presently thought to reside generally in the molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that are the constituents of the genome (the set of genes) in every living cell, and is therefore called genetic information. The DNA molecule is a chain of small molecules, called nucleotides, of which there are four types. The DNA molecule plays the role of a message made up of a sequence of these nucleotides, which play the role of letters in the message. The message is thus written in an alphabet of four letters. As we understand it today, the genetic information of an organism defines, to a large extent, the development of the form of the organism and how it functions. The way the genetic information controls the working of the organism is thought to be much the way a computer program controls the working of a computer. When an organism reproduces itself, it copies the genetic information and bestows it in its progeny. In sexual reproduction, the genetic information of both parents is copied and partitioned into the progeny.

Charles Darwin gave a starting push to Part II of the program in 1859 with the publication of his Origin of Species, but he saw a need for Part I as well. He envisioned a primitive cell forming spontaneously from the chemicals available in a "small warm pond" [Darwin 1871]. Part I of the program was given its initial start in 1924 by the Russian biochemist, Alexander I. Oparin, who studied how a membrane could form that could enclose a primitive cell and isolate its contents from the outside world, perhaps allowing it to absorb nutrients from the outside and thereby perhaps to grow and reproduce [Oparin 1953]. Exactly how that growth and reproduction were to work was left to future study. The study picked up momentum with the work of Stanley Miller [1953], who showed the spontaneous production of a few amino acids from inert chemicals. The problem of how life could have come from nonlife has been engaged by many brilliant scientists for almost 90 years, but the results have been disappointing. Although progress has been made in theories of how some of the basic biochemicals could form spontaneously, no significant progress has been made in discovering how the necessary information could have appeared. There is no naturalistic theory that can account for the appearance of the information of life that exists in even the most simple and primitive living cell. Leslie Orgel was a biochemist, and until his recent death in 2007, was one of the leading scientists working on Part I. He wrote [Orgel 98, pp. 494–495],

“There is no agreement on the extent to which metabolism could develop independently of a genetic material. In my opinion, there is no basis in known chemistry for the belief that long sequences of reactions can organize spontaneously — and every reason to believe that they cannot. The problem of achieving sufficient specificity, whether in aqueous solution or on the surface of a mineral, is so severe that the chance of closing a cycle of reactions as complex as the reverse citric acid cycle, for example, is negligible. The same, I believe, is true for simpler cycles involving small molecules that might be relevant to the origins of life and also for peptide-based cycles."

So much for the Program, Part I. Without a theory of how life could have got started, there is no scientific support for a naturalistic appearance of life. Nevertheless, the proponents of naturalism are spending other people's money (taxpayers', mostly) in pursuing what has, for more than a century, been nothing more than a will o' the wisp. The naturalists nevertheless continue to declare with optimism that success in Part I is just around the corner.

Part II, on the other hand, is declared to have been accomplished and solved. The naturalists claim success in accounting for the natural development of life from a simple beginning. Their mission in Part II requires them to present a theory of how all the information contained in the many complex life forms of today has been built up from that in a primitive cell that was so simple it could have appeared spontaneously. That primitive cell would have to be very simple indeed, especially in view of the lack of significant success of the Program Part I. In what follows, I shall examine their claims to have successfully executed Part II to the extent that they insist "evolution is true" [Coyne 2009].

Just as the main problem of Part I is to show where the information came from that was in the alleged first simple primitive cell, the main problem of Part II is to show how the information in the alleged primitive cell got built up to the complexity and information contained in today's living organisms. When the evolutionists point to the fossil record or draw up a list of vestigial organs they are not addressing this critical problem. Since one cannot observe the alleged buildup of information in the past, to solve Part II one must instead offer a mechanism (a theory) as to how such a buildup could have occurred. Moreover, one should also present, in so far as possible, observations of such buildup occurring today according to that mechanism.

According to our present knowledge of biology, the information of life is principally the genetic information residing in the DNA. The evolutionary mechanism must thus account for the increase in the genetic information. The mechanism that has been proposed is a modern refinement of Charles Darwin's suggestion and consists of two stages: random genetic changes, followed by natural selection. Why does the theory require that the genetic changes be random? Randomness has been chosen because there is no known deterministic process by which the required information could be built up. A deterministic process would, for example, be one where the chemistry of nucleotides causes them to combine preferentially into the information-bearing chains of DNA found in living organisms rather than into chains of nonsense. Since no such ability has been observed, or is known to be theoretically possible, for nucleotides to combine in this intelligent way, one must resort to randomness.

The idea here is that random changes, called mutations, occur in the letters of the DNA message in the germ cells of the organism. These mutations cause changes in the offspring. These changes affect the functioning of the offspring, and if they improve its ability to function and reproduce, then these offspring will, themselves, have, on average, more progeny than their cousins who do not have the change. We thus say that the type of organism having this new DNA message has been "selected" for. The mutation is inherited by its offspring, so that there will be, over the generations, an exponential increase of the numbers of the mutants over the numbers of nonmutants. If, on the other hand, the mutation leads to impairment of function, the offspring will have less, or no, progeny of their own. This process is called natural selection, in that it is a naturalistic way of accomplishing what animal or plant breeders do when they select the forms they desire.

Most random mutations in the genetic information would, of course, be expected to be deleterious to a proper working of the organism, just as most random changes to a computer program would be expected to destroy part, or all, of its function. Moreover, large random changes would be expected to be always disastrous. For this reason, evolutionary theory relies on the smallest of random changes to supply the raw materials on which natural selection is supposed to work. The smallest change that can be made in the DNA message is a change of one nucleotide to one of the other three nucleotide types. These changes are called point mutations.

Thus, the naturalistic account of the buildup of the information of life is that random mutations occur, most of which may be deleterious. On a rare occasion, a beneficial mutation, improving the organism, may occur by chance and then natural selection will take hold and increase its numbers over many generations until the mutant type has taken over the population. After many more generations, another beneficial mutation may occur by chance and be enhanced in numbers by natural selection and take over the population. As this process proceeds over extremely long periods of time, the vast amount of information we see today in living organisms could have been built up.

If this theory were valid in that it were indeed capable of accounting, in detail, for the buildup of the information of life, it would establish the success of Part II of the Program. If we could, in addition, successfully carry out Part I of the Program, there would be support for those who choose to accept a natural origin for life and who choose to deny the necessity of a Creator. Indeed, a successful execution of the entire Program would make a Creator superfluous to the appearance of life on earth.1

Let us now see what measure of success has been achieved in Part II. As I have explained, the Darwinian mechanism, which is the basis of Part II, relies on random mutations to provide the raw material on which natural selection can act. The supporters of naturalism almost always assume that whenever there is a need for an adaptive change in a population of organisms, as for example when the environment changes, an appropriate mutation is available on which natural selection can act. There is, however, neither theoretical nor observational support for such an assumption.

Note that since the naturalists must assume that the beneficial mutations are very small, indeed, the smallest possible, then for significant evolution to occur, there must have been long chains of evolutionary steps in each of which an adaptive mutation has occurred followed by natural selection. This assumption is not justified unless it is backed by an analysis of the probability of such random mutations occurring and being successively more adaptive so that natural selection can operate at each step. The naturalists never make that calculation. Such a calculation is difficult because of the many unknown parameters that must be taken into account. I have made such calculations by assuming reasonable values for these parameters, and in fact by granting the benefit of the doubt in most cases to the naturalist position [Spetner 1997, pp. 85-124]. I have found that for a long chain of evolutionary steps as claimed for evolution, the probability of the right mutations occurring is so small as to be negligible. The probability is not humanly distinguishable from zero.

The principle problem that must be solved to achieve the goals of Part II is to show that information can be added to living organisms through the Darwinian process of random mutations and natural selection. The task of showing that information can be built up by evolution has been neglected by the supporters of naturalism. The naturalist position that life is the result of purely natural laws with the addition of some randomness rests on the assumption that long chains of evolutionary steps have occurred in which, on the average, a little information has been added to the population at each step. Their position requires that the evolutionary sequences be exceedingly long to account for the evolution from a primitive cell to humans, or if we include Part I of the program, they must account for evolution "from molecules to man", to quote the subtitle of a high-school textbook widely used in the United States in the 1970's.

Today's living organisms are exceedingly complex and contain a vast amount of information. The naturalist position must be that all of that information was built up through long sequences of random mutations and natural selection. If it were true that innumerable random adaptive mutations occurred in the past, then the same process should be going on now as well and at least some random adaptive mutations should be observable today. Although we cannot observe the evolutionary process acting over millions of years, we should at least be able to observe some small fragments of this process. To what extent have any such fragments been observed?

The naturalists are ready with their examples of evolution in action. These include such famous examples as the evolution of melanism in peppered moths [Kettlewell 1955], and the evolution of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic microorganisms. The evolution of melanism can be dismissed as not representative of the evolutionary fragments that could be part of evolution from molecules to man (M-to-M). That is because in this example there was no new mutation. The necessary variant forms were already in the population [Bishop & Cook 1975].

The evolution of antibiotic resistance is, perhaps, the most prominent example of evolution used by evolutionists to advance their agenda of advocating the natural origin of life. Superficially their case looks good. Antibiotics date only from 1928 with the discovery of penicillin [Fleming 1929]. They were first introduced to the public in 1942 to cure infection [Levy 1992, p. 4], and by the mid 1940's the first strains of Staphylococcus resistant to penicillin were found [Fisher 1994, p. 15]. Within only a few years after the introduction of antibiotics, resistant strains of the pathogens had already evolved. As each new antibiotic was discovered and put into use, resistant strains of bacteria soon followed. The argument then goes, with a wave of the hand, if a small but significant evolutionary change like antibiotic resistance can evolve in only a few years, then surely huge evolutionary changes can occur in a million years. This argument is expected to advance the naturalist agenda.

If, however, we examine the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance we find that it lends no support to M-to-M evolution [Spetner 1997, pp. 138-143]. Antibiotics are natural molecules produced by some microorganisms for the purpose of killing other microorganisms. A microorganism that makes an antibiotic must, itself, be resistant to the antibiotic it makes. For this purpose it may have a battery of genes that code for a mechanism providing resistance. Bacteria are known to be able to transfer genetic material to other bacteria – a process called horizontal transfer. On rare occasions, copies of the genes for resistance can find their way from a resistant bacterium to one that is not resistant. When that happens, the recipient bacterium becomes resistant. Call this evolution if you like, but it is not an example of the kind of genetic changes that could lead to M-to-M evolution. The resistance genes already exist in the biosphere. Nothing new has appeared. M-to-M evolution cannot be achieved by this procedure even if it were repeated innumerable times in succession – no new information would be built up. So this method of evolving antibiotic resistance lends no support to the thesis of M-to-M evolution.

Sometimes, however, antibiotic resistance can appear in a bacterium through a random mutation, which would bring something new to the biosphere. Since this kind of change looks like it might satisfy the requirements for M-to-M evolution, let us examine the phenomenon in some detail. As an example, let us look at how a bacterium acquires resistance to streptomycin.

All cells, whether of bacteria or of plants or animals, contain organelles called ribosomes, whose function it is to make protein according to instructions from the DNA. Proteins are large molecules, consisting of long chains of small molecules called amino acids. Proteins can function as enzymes, which catalyze all the chemical reactions in a cell, or they can serve as structural elements. For an enzyme to perform its function, it must have a specific sequence of amino acids. Streptomycin acts on a bacterial cell by attaching to a ribosome at a site to which it matches as a key fits into a lock. The streptomycin molecule, after attaching itself to its matching site, interferes with the ribosome function and causes it to make incorrect protein. The errors it causes prevent the cell from growing, reproducing, and eventually from living. The important feature of streptomycin, and indeed of all other antibiotics, is that it kills bacteria but does not harm the mammalian host. Streptomycin discriminates between the cells of the bacteria and the cells of the host by its specific attachment to the matching site on the bacterial ribosome, a site not on the host's ribosomes.

Streptomycin resistance can appear in a bacterium if a point mutation occurs in the gene coding for the ribosome, ruining the matching site and preventing a streptomycin molecule from attaching. If the streptomycin cannot attach to the matching site, the bacterium is resistant. Note that although this type of resistance is caused by a single random point mutation, it cannot serve as an example of the mutations that can lead to M-to-M evolution. Such a mutation, by ruining specificity, destroys information. One cannot expect a sequence of such mutations, no matter how long, to add information. One cannot add information by destroying it, no matter how many times one repeats it. Expecting to build up information in this manner is like the expectation of the merchant who was losing a little money on each sale, but thought he could make it up on volume. You may call the acquisition of antibiotic resistance evolution if you like, but it does not support M-to-M evolution.

Similarly, all examples of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and of insecticide resistance in insects do not add information, and in most cases they lose information. They cannot therefore be evolutionary examples that could support M-to-M evolution because they do not add any information – they instead lose it. As I have noted, M-to-M evolution, according to the theory, must be the result of long sequences of random mutations, each of which on the average adds a small amount of information to the biosphere. There had to have been a huge number of such random mutations to achieve the information that is in the present forms of life. Why don't we see examples of these mutations today? The scientific literature records no example of a random mutation that adds information to the genome.

With hand waving and blurring of the details, the evolution of antibiotic resistance is often trotted out to show evolution in action. To support the naturalist agenda one must blur the details of how resistance is achieved, and by the waiving of a hand, suggest that if millions of these types of mutations would occur each year over millions of years, all kinds of wonderful evolution would take place. Examples of evolution offered by evolutionists must be examined carefully to see if indeed they can support M-to-M evolution. They never can.

Evolution from molecules to man is a mantra used by evolutionists to advance a philosophy of naturalism. It lacks the rigors of a scientific theory. Evolutionary theory is based on long sequences of random mutations filtered by natural selection. No one has demonstrated that it is possible, even in principle, for a sequence of random mutations to occur, each providing a selective advantage over its predecessor. Moreover, not one random mutation has been observed that adds information to the genome. This failure of evolutionary theory together with the failure to find a theory of the origin of life demonstrates that the proposition of the natural origin of life, which its proponents consider to be an unassailable fact, is indeed just a myth supported by nothing more than hope and faith.

1 Even if the entire Program could be successfully carried out, it would not, of course, constitute proof that there is no Creator because the alleged steps in the process could not be observed, since they are supposed to have occurred in the past. These steps would only be postulated as having occurred. There are people of faith, both Christians and Jews, who hold this position by postulating that the Creator set up the process of evolution and the mutations that appear to be random are not really random at all, but are under His control. Nevertheless, if Parts I and II had been successful, there would be some plausibility to the absence of a role for a Creator in the appearance of life.


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