“The evolution of modern cells is arguably the most challenging and important problem the field of Biology has ever faced. In Darwin’s day the problem could hardly be imagined.” (Carl Richard Woese, famous American microbiologist who died in 2012)
“…the result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell – to investigate life at the molecular level – is a loud, clear, piercing cry of design!” (Biochemist Michael Behe)
We all learned in biology class that “inanimate matter cannot generate” organic life. The basic premise of cellular biology is that life comes from life. Thus Francesco Redi and others conclusively disproved the old theory of “spontaneous generation,” showing decisively that maggots do not spontaneously germinate from decaying meat.
The great scientific mystery concerning the origin of life is how the first life-producing cell came to be! In other words, how in the heck did a living cell originate from inanimate matter? The answer: nobody seems to know, except that the odds of it happening are practically impossible. Here is what one of the most prominent biologists in the world has to say on the issue (Richard Dawkins):
…no life, no biology, only physics and chemistry, and the details of the Earth’s chemistry were very different. Most, though not all, of the informed speculation begins in what has been called the primeval soup, a weak broth of simple organic chemicals in the sea. Nobody knows how it happened but, somehow, without violating the laws of physics and chemistry, a molecule arose that just happened to have the property of self-copying—a replicator. This may seem like a big stroke of luck… Freakish or not, this kind of luck does happen… [and] it had to happen only once… What is more, as far as we know, it may have happened on only one planet out of a billion billion planets in the universe. Of course many people think that it actually happened on lots and lots of planets, but we only have evidence that it happened on one planet, after a lapse of half a billion to a billion years. So the sort of lucky event we are looking at could be so wildly improbable that the chances of its happening, somewhere in the universe, could be as low as one in a billion billion billion in any one year. If it did happen on only one planet, anywhere in the universe, that planet has to be our planet—because here we are talking about it (Dawkins, Richard, Climbing Mount Improbable. W.W. Norton,New York. 1996, pp. 282–283, emphasis in original, as cited by Jerry Bergman, Ph.D. in his article, “Why Abiogenesis is Impossible”).
Now to complicate matters, we have the amazing discoveries of microbiology that even a simple cell (since it contains information encoding DNA) is a staggering compendium of directions and instructions. If you go on the internet, your research will show that a simple cell is an amazingly complex molecular machine. So the first cell wasn’t just some micro-blob of a few simple ingredients: it was a molecular information system of mind-boggling proportions. My words here do not justify the incredible complexity of a cell. And even if the primordial cell is hypothesized to have been more simple and primitive, it had by necessity the sophistication and complexity of a DNA (or RNA) existence in order to be able to replicate itself and, crucially, to sustain its own life. “The simplest form of life [such as bacteria] requires millions of parts at the atomic level, and the higher life forms require trillions” (J. Bergman). Biochemist Michael Denton adds: “Molecular biology has shown that even the simplest of all living systems on Earth today, bacterial cells, are exceedingly complex objects…far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world.”
So the mystery thickens: how did such an incredibly complex organism as the first cell come about by chance? – emerging, as biologists tell us, from inanimate matter! What a mystery! In any event, however it happened, scientists call the process “abiogenesis” (and you can read about that at Wikipedia). I call it the reemergence of spontaneous generation. I was taught that a living organism could not generate from inanimate matter – but it apparently did happen just once, and we are all the winners in this Super-Lotto chance occurrence. So much for the certainties of modern science. Again, we are struck by an amazing mystery: the emergence of a living organism, however simple but necessarily complex so as to store information to replicate itself, from non-living matter.
This mystery of how the first cell could arise from non-living matter is so thick that Francis Crick (who with Watson made world famous discoveries about the nature of DNA) published a paper setting forth the theory of Panspermia – a theory that postulates that the first living organism was directed to earth from another civilization!
The other day a boy said to his father, “Dad, who invented your Corvette?” “A whole bunch of smart engineers designed it,” said the father in reply. “Well,” said the boy, “Who invented the Space Shuttle?” The father responded, saying: “A whole group of really smart scientists and engineers put their minds together and designed it.” Finally, the boy asked, “Who invented the first life producing cell?” His father looked at him and said, “Well, I understand that there was something like a one and a hundred thousand billion chance of that occurring just by biological accident, and it did!” The boy looked at his father puzzlingly, and said, “Dad, am I required to believe that?”
“And we are penetrating even deeper into what is smallest into the cell and into the primordial units of life; here, too, we discover a Reason that astounds us, such that we must say with Saint Bonaventure: ‘Whoever does not see here is blind. Whoever does not hear here is deaf. And whoever does not begin to adore here and praise the creating Intelligence is dumb.'” (Pope Benedict XVI, In the Beginning, p. 24)
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
P.S. Biochemist Michael Denton makes the following observation: “As far as where science is going in the future, I think that it’s going to be increasingly obvious as the scientific revelation rolls on that you cannot account for life in the universe without proposing that there’s some intelligent order behind it. And I think this is going to grow more obvious with each year as biological science advances.” In October of 2014, Pope Francis stated the following: “The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” The quote from Pope Benedict was written while he was a Cardinal.
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Good thought provoking article and great quote from Pope Francis at the end. I know Catholics who think that the theory of evolution is contrary to religion. Science and religion, on a rational basis, must compliment each other, otherwise one of them is wrong. Saint Pope John Paul II had no problem with evolution either. Now, where some people head with evolution… that’s quite another thing altogether. Evolution requires an initial creation!
Jeff, Great points. Theologically, God seems to be very patient. He slowly sets the stage for great things to happen. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.” Galatians 4:4
Metaphysically, it seems to me that matter, primordially, did not have the capacity to create or direct itself. Tom