“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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You wrote: “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.”
This looks like a non sequitur to me. Why would the complexity of present day cells mean that the first cell must have been complex?
But in response to your anticipated objection the following statement appears just a few lines down:
“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.”
Abiogenesis (the study of the origin of life) is all about finding the simplest possible structure that could have started the evolutionary process. The simpler, the more likely that it could have formed spontaneously. This is where I think you go wrong – you’re still looking at the sophistication of a modern cell and concluding that nothing that complex could just self-assemble. Well, I’m with you that far but if you take this as evidence that the first cell couldn’t have formed spontaneously, I think you’re making an unwarranted leap.
You mention the complexity of RNA but that complexity only comes into play in a cell that has a system for protein synthesis – something which is very unlikely to have existed in the first cell. Without the role as template for protein synthesis, RNA is just a linear polymer made up of four different monomers (A, U, G and C) – not very complex at all. All that the first cell would have needed was the capacity to self-replicate. Pretty much any old RNA sequence would have been good enough to get the process started as long as the only requirement was self-replication.
So far, abiogenesis researchers have been able to show that all the important basic molecules (like RNA nucleotides, amino acids and lipids) can form non-enzymatically in plausible pre-biotic conditions. RNA has been shown to polymerize and also self-replicate without any help from protein enzymes. Lipids dissolved in water will spontaneously form bilayer vesicles which have the same basic structure as a cell membrane. They’re still far from having a complete sequence from basic chemicals to a self-replicating cell but I see no reason to think that it’s impossible.