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Is There a Conflict Between Science & Faith over the Origin of Life?

by Jonathan Wells

In January 2013, the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science hosted a meeting of origin-of-life researchers. One of these scientists told a story about a presentation that he had given years earlier to a Pontifical Council of the Roman Catholic Church about efforts to explain how the transition from chemicals to living cells could have occurred spontaneously. According to the presenter, when he had finished his talk, a cardinal asked, "Wouldn't a little bit of God help there?"

Unfortunately, this particular researcher was not interested in such questions and continued to explain the origin of life without involving God. So does this sort of exchange signal a conflict between science and faith? Well, if we define "science" as seeking explanations for natural phenomena by comparing hypotheses with evidence and "faith" as belief in the God of the Torah and the New Testament, then there is no inherent conflict between science and faith. Nevertheless, I will argue that there is such a conflict underlying current research into the origin of life.

Any explanation for how life might have emerged spontaneously from non-life must deal with at least three issues: (1) the origin of molecular building blocks such as nucleotides and amino acids; (2) the assembly of these building blocks into functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins; and (3) the origin of living cells.

The Origin of Molecular Building Blocks

Origin-of-life (OOL) research focuses mainly on the first level. In 1953, Stanley Miller used an electric spark to simulate lightning in a mixture of gases that he thought resembled the earth's early atmosphere. The experiment resulted in the production of some of the amino acids found in living cells. Miller and others saw this as experimental evidence that life could have formed spontaneously. But scientists have since criticized Miller's experiment on the grounds that his mixture of gases did not resemble conditions on the early earth; that the amino acids that he formed would need to be artificially purified before they could be used in protein synthesis; and that not all of life's building blocks could be produced in this same way.

Since 1953, various other scenarios have been proposed, including hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and sulfuric pools on the earth's surface. Some OOL researchers have even speculated that amino acids came to earth from outer space. The problem remains unsolved. But even if scientists could show that all of life's molecular building blocks could be produced by the forces of nature, this would not pose a problem for faith. God could simply have designed natural processes to do the job.

The Assembly of DNA, RNA, and Protein

In any case, the spontaneous formation of nucleotides and amino acids would not explain the origin of functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins. The synthesis of DNA and RNA requires proteins that are both complex (consisting of hundreds or thousands of amino acids) and specified (having a function that depends on the order of their amino acids). The specificity of proteins, in turn, depends on specific nucleotide sequences in DNAs and RNAs. It's a chicken-and-egg problem.

The formation of functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins requires not only molecules, but also information. Consider an English sentence. The 26 letters of the alphabet can be combined in many ways, but most combinations make no sense. A meaningful sentence conveys information because its letters are arranged in a specific order. A sentence that is both meaningful and complex (consisting of many letters) would take longer than the age of the universe to form spontaneously. Instead, its formation requires information, which is imparted by an intelligent mind.

Analogously, the complex specified information in functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins can be either synthesized by an intelligent molecular biologist or inherited from a cell that already has it. No other explanation is consistent with the scientific evidence. Of course, both explanations presuppose the existence of living cells—the very things whose origin we need to explain.

The Origin of a Living Cell

Even if biologically functional DNAs, RNAs, and proteins could assemble spontaneously from their molecular building blocks, OOL researchers would not be able to explain the origin of a living cell.

If we place a small amount of sterile salt solution in a test tube at just the right temperature and acidity, add a living cell, and then poke a hole in that cell with a sterile needle, the contents will leak out. We will have in our test tube all of the molecules needed for life, in just the right proportions (relative to each other) and already assembled into complex specified DNAs, RNAs, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. But we will not be able to make a living cell out of them. We cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

The experts at the 2013 Princeton meeting presented a variety of ideas, but they failed to reach agreement on any of them. In fact, it was clear at the meeting that nobody knows how—or even where—life originated. As one of the participants said, "When it comes to the origin of life, there are no experts."

Nevertheless, the researchers were optimistic that they would be able to explain the origin of life in the next few decades. Why? Because they assumed that the origin of life has a natural explanation—one that relies only on molecules and the forces among them—and they were convinced that they were clever enough to find such an explanation if they kept looking for one.

But explanations that included even "a little bit of God" were prohibited. This kind of thinking is functionally equivalent to philosophical materialism—the doctrine that only matter is real, while spirit and mind are illusions—which, unlike evidence-based science, does conflict with faith in that it assumes the nonexistence of God. 

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