Debating Life's Square One

Materialist Origin Myths and their More Intelligent Counterpart

Etiological myths are those myths that explain origins and causes. (Etiology means “the study of origins or causes.”) Creation myths are etiological, in that they offer an explanation as to how the universe and life came into being.

All worldviews, whether supernaturalist or materialist, base their explanations about the world today on some etiological myth about the past. We´ve all heard the story of the warm little pond magically struck by lightning, part of the materialist creation myth as expressed in nearly every high school biology textbook since the mid-20th century. It has two major components: abiogenesis (the emergence of life from non-living chemicals) on the early Earth and natural selection as the mechanism driving evolution from life´s emergence onward.

Challenges to the Materialist Origin Myth

Neither of these components has been without its scientific challenges. Abiogenesis in particular has been a field stubbornly resistant to breakthroughs supporting materialist “molecules to life” models. In 1984, the recently-deceased chemist Charles Thaxton, together with geologist Roger Olsen and engineer Walter Bradley, published a book-length examination of the scientific problems facing origin-of-life (OOL) research entitled The Mystery of Life´s Origin. A second edition of that volume,  published in 2020, brought the science up to date with the important finding being this: the case for a materialist account of life´s genesis is as much a mystery today as it was when the trio published the first edition in 1984.

In fact, there are so many problems with abiogenesis that synthetic organic chemist James Tour has produced a 13-part lecture series detailing them. In essence, the key problem is that, to use Tour´s phrase, “chemistry does not care about life.” The reactions involving carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, potassium, iron, and other elements necessary for the spontaneous generation of life repeatedly stop at reactive dead-ends, break down the reaction products vital to producing even a proto-cell-wall, decompose themselves, or yield only chemical products that are irrelevant to life. Unless there is intervention by an intelligent agent directing the reactions and deciding which reaction products to preserve and which to throw out, the laboratory simulation goes nowhere. This problem is so ubiquitous in OOL research that it has been christened the  "hand of God dilemma" and identified by OOL researchers themselves as a hindrance to “proving” that there exists a viable materialist account of spontaneous generation of life from non-life.

There are clearly problems enough with abiogenesis, but what about the mechanism purporting to explain how organisms without hearts, lungs, kidneys, central nervous systems, and other components develop into organisms possessing all these systems? The materialist mechanism on offer is, of course, mutation and natural selection. It is an easy enough concept to grasp, tautology though it is: The organisms best suited to thrive under predominating environmental conditions will survive and produce the most offspring, passing on their traits to the next generation. Genetic variation among the organisms provides the raw material, and the environmental conditions set the selection criteria, determining which variations will be preserved. The engine driving natural selection is differential reproductive success. This force is said to result in the origination of new species.

The supposition is that the coincidence of right mutations/variations to match the prevailing environmental conditions runs along swimmingly, from worms to lungfish to frogs (the myth tells us) until the environmental conditions change, say, due to a meteor strike or a volcanic eruption. The selection pressure that was selecting for the proto-pancreas turns instead into selection pressure to select for the proto-gall bladder. Or the proto-tympanic membrane. Though how natural selection is supposed to select for organs and integrated systems of organs that have no function yet is a problem usually hand-waved away. You get the idea. Natural selection depends on a whole lot of luck, if not willing suspension of disbelief, if it’s going to be accepted as a credible explanation for the rise of new forms.

Though someone like the irrepressibly polemical and often wrong  Richard Dawkins will insist that natural selection is not random – that selection pressures do direct evolution into new, better adapted forms – that assertion faces a major difficulty. The factors shaping the local environment where all this selection is supposed to be taking place are so many and complexly intertwined that they are, in the final effect, always randomized. There´s also the problem that, for many species, their numbers are few and they are mobile creatures who do not have to stay in an environment that is making continued survival of the less fit among them difficult.

Modified Evolutionary Explanations

Evolutionary Biologists have recognized this conundrum and have posited another mechanism in Mother Nature´s speciation “toolkit”:  preservation of genetic variation through genetic drift. This is the tendency of nature to preserve what is already in existence when no selection pressure is being applied. This is described in the literature as "neutral selection".  The essential idea is that, all environmental factors being equal, nature will tend to favor a distribution of gene variation that allows a greater variety of less fit or equally fit organisms to survive. But this raises the next difficult question: Where is the pressure leading to development of new organs and systems of organs going to come from? That is, between problems with natural selection and neutral selection, there would remain no effective, creative force to shape one species into another within a timescale and in population sizes that are remotely realistic.

Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute noted some recent research outlining one the key problems with genetic drift as a possible saving mechanism for materialist accounts of the “arrival of the fittest.” This would be the fixing problem:

This underappreciated problem has been recognized by some evolutionary scientists who are skeptical of the ability of natural selection to drive the evolutionary process. One of those scientists is Michael Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University, who writes that “random genetic drift can impose a strong barrier to the advancement of molecular refinements by adaptive processes.” He notes that the effect of drift is “encouraging the fixation of mildly deleterious mutations and discouraging the promotion of beneficial mutations.” Likewise, Eugene Koonin, a leading scientist at the National Institutes of Health, explains, genetic drift leads to “random fixation of neutral or even deleterious changes.”

The process of evolution is supposed to be one that results in life advancing from a less-well-adapted, less-fit form of life to another more-fit form. That is what theorists suppose results in the origin of new species from previously existing ones. But if neutral selection produces neutral or deleterious changes in a species, then there is even less explanatory power in the materialist etiological myth.

The Theistic Origin Myth

Biblical theism has its etiological myth as well, recorded in the opening chapters of Genesis. Before anyone gets upset about my use of “myth” in this context, using the definition above, “myth” fits. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both referred to the Genesis account as myth, but with the distinction that the biblical account was the true myth. “True myth” was the term Lewis used to refer to the New Testament.

What makes the biblical account of origins preferable to the materialist account is that it provides a sound rationale for expecting a teleological development to proceed from the causal event. There is room for natural selection in a solidly biblical understanding of creation, one which fits with recent long-term observations of variation in species. A world full of species front-loaded by God with the genetic programming needed to assure their continuation as discrete species, or a world into which God adds new information or guides selection, eliminates the need for an endless series of credulity-straining coincidences.

That kind of series is exactly what one must accept to credit the materialist etiological myth with explanatory power. Theists on the other hand have only one a priori premise to accept: The existence of God as the prime mover, the eternal, uncaused First Causer. That the Creator would be rational (see Romans 1:19 -20) provides a solid foundation for scientific research, where the “it-just-happened” philosophy, that is, materialism, leads to swallowing ever less believable “just so stories” about the magical power of spontaneous generation followed by mutation and selection.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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