Over the previous four articles I have discussed a number of the more significant aspects of evolution. It is a concept that is multifaceted, with many aspects well documented and some that remain more speculative. If Adventist readers of the last article found the data unsettling, this particular article may prove a little more comforting—it having to do with the question of biological origins.
From a scientific point of view, life originated either in a terrestrial context, or is the product of an extraterrestrial source. While either one or the other is possible, it is only the terrestrial hypothesis that is readily accessible to investigation short of actually finding the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. As you will see below, that too has been a primary focus of inquiry. Also in the mix is our concept of what constitutes a life-friendly environment since one of the discoveries of the past few years has been that life can exist in extreme environments on earth—extreme heat; extreme acidity; and extreme alkalinity. This new understanding must be kept in mind as science studies exoplanets for the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. Current estimates are that there could be as many as 100 billion planets existing in our galaxy alone, so the question naturally arises as to whether there exists on some of them, some form of life.
Science, proceeding on the basis of methodological naturalism, looks to naturalistic processes to unravel the mystery of origins. To this end, there have been quite a number of areas that have been investigated. Most have proven unfruitful up to this point, but some ideas may ultimately hold promise in answering the question, “How did life get its start?” In what follows we will take a very brief look at some of the investigative trails that have been pursued.
Chance Hypothesis—For a significant period of time, the chance hypothesis ruled as the reigning explanation of biological origins. However, by the late Sixties it was becoming increasingly disfavored due to the growing recognition of cellular complexity and the timeframe required for such processes—sometimes described as the probabilistic resources available or mathematical odds. There was the issue of the time element that would be required and the resource opportunity necessary in order for the information packed into DNA to assemble by a purely random process, and there simply did not seem to be enough time within the 13.7 billion years the universe has existed. The math can be overcome with a “multiverse” hypothesis by providing a limitless population size and thereby vastly increasing the probabilistic resources. However, the pointlessness of such thinking is evidenced by the fact that it can never be elevated to actual science for the existence of other universes is unknowable.
Self-Organization Hypothesis—is essentially an argument for a spontaneous increase in order due to natural process, force, law or genetic algorithm. This idea was proposed in 1969 as an alternative to chance. It attributes the organization evident in living things to physical or chemical forces or processes—ones that can be described mathematically as laws of nature. For one thing there exists interplay between DNA, RNA and proteins—the building blocks of a living cell—and so a lot of research has gone into considering which one of these structures may have started first, and then considering the feasibility of such hypotheses. Some of the strategies considered included the following:[2
i. DNA First Strategy—looks at the specific sequences of amino acids found in proteins by considering whether in some way this sequence may have provided a template for arranging the bases in newly forming DNA molecules. The other possibility considered was that DNA itself had self-organized under the influence of chemical laws or forces of attraction binding one molecule to another, and that this in turn may have provided a template of information for building proteins. While some force external to DNA might account for having organized it since order can arise from disorder in a closed system (e.g., vortex), such phenomenon have not been observed to create specified complexity, though as will be discussed below some theoretical proposals in biology are looking closely at this idea. Neither has there been success via a strategy of creating an evolutionary algorithm to simulate mutation and natural selection. The ultimate conclusion to date seems to be that such approaches do not produce large amounts of functionally specific information from scratch.
ii. Protein First Strategy—attempts to bypass the “specificity” (or information) problem by proposing a way by which a metabolic system that has the capacity to reproduce itself might emerge directly from a set of “low specificity” catalytic peptides and RNA molecules in a prebiotic soup. Several different problems have emerged with this strategy and at this point, few, if any, think that this model actually solves the problem. Regarding this strategy, Hubert Yockey, referenced in a previous article, points out that “no code exists to send information from protein sequences to sequences in mRNA or DNA.” For this simple reason it is his conclusion that this line of research will be unsuccessful. 
iii. Bonding Affinities—involves the idea that amino acid bonding affinities might correlate with sequencing patterns in classes of known proteins. If DNA sequences are to be explained in this way, then there should be chemical bonds of differing strengths between the different bases along the information-bearing axis of the DNA molecule. But none have been found up to this point.
iv. RNA First Strategy—looks to RNA as a possible way in which things got started. RNA building blocks have traditionally been regarded as hard to synthesize and easy to destroy, and are viewed as poor substitutes for proteins. However, there are still some areas of RNA-based research that are being studied that could ultimately produce positive results. One such area is the study of RNAs as catalysts, which have been shown to join smaller RNA sequences together, creating the potential for replication under the right conditions.
v. Unique Location—looks for special physical locations that favor types of chemical reactions essential to simple life forms. Examples include the surface of rocks, hairline cracks or layering in rocks, and under-sea hot volcanic vents.
vi. The Conservation of Information—runs contra to all these investigative strategies since it codifies the idea that information degrades overtime.
vii. Chance and Necessity—considers the possibility that both chance and necessity have played a part at different stages, but no research has discovered ways in which this might have occurred.
Most researchers in biology tend to employ a top-down reductionistic approach (on the order of the strategies mentioned above). This assumes that the explanatory arrows all point downward. But there is growing recognition that novelty can also emerge upward and do so in unpredictable ways—due to both the complexities involved and the interplay of variables, many of which may be unknown. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman has been one of the leading contemporary advocates of this idea in its application to biology where, as he puts it, the biosphere is neither “reducible to physics nor explicable from it.”
The basis for his conclusion is that there sometimes exists “an inability to deduce or infer the emergent higher-level phenomenon from underlying physics.” This area of study is cutting edge, and likely will be part of any explanation on the question of origins.
Superimposed on all of these lines of research into biological origins is the fact that unlike any other material feature of our world, biology, at its core, is governed by information—lots of it is present in the DNA code. This is a significant hurdle for investigators, for this fact makes it qualitatively distinct from other material aspects of the world. Furthermore, DNA is not just random data, it has functional specificity and this is what makes it so significant. But most importantly, there are no examples in the material world of random processes containing large amounts of information with specified complexity apart from purposeful design. This latter fact does not compel a conclusion of design, and science would obviously be remiss if it did not proceed along naturalistic lines of investigation, yet it does leave the door ajar for those who find this reality as supportive of faith.
While headway has been made scientifically on the question of origins, leading some to be optimistic that this mystery will ultimately be answered by science, others are less confident. In fact, Hubert P. Yockey does not believe that science will even be successful in answering this question. In his own words: “such knowledge is scientifically unknowable.” So at this point there remains a question of whether or not an “origins” investigation is inside the domain of science. However, as we will discover in the next article, even if science were able at some point to provide a definitive answer to the riddle of life, it would not necessarily negate the underlying assertion of Genesis that declares God as Creator.
This has been far from a comprehensive discussion, but it will give the reader a flavor of some of the ideas that have been explored, and the nature of “origins” research. Potentially at stake in all of this is the Christian doctrine of God as creator of the universal order and the author of life. In the next, and final article in this sub-series I will attempt to summarize the terrain we have transversed, and offer up some final comments that will give additional consideration to some of these ideas, including ways to integrate them into an understanding of how God operates in this universe.
Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California. Previous articles in Jan M. Long's curated series "Bringing the Real World to Genesis" can be found here.
Art: Josh Keyes, Guardian, acrylic on panel, 2008
1. Reinventing the Sacred, Stuart A. Kauffman, Basic Books, 2008
2. Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, Hubert P. Yockey, Cambridge University Press, 2005
See generally Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Cambridge University Press) 2005; see also P.T. Mora, a senior research biologist with the National Institute of Health, “Urge and Molecular Biology,” p.215; see also Steven Meyer, Signature in the Cell (Harper One) 2009. This latter author is somewhat controversial in that he is affiliated with the Discover Institute, and is a proponent of Intelligent Design. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in the Philosophy of Science in 1991. In general I would assess his referenced book as quite informative in providing a broad overview of the topic of evolution to a lay audience. The major criticism has been directed at his attempt to breach methodological naturalism by using science to making his case for intelligent design.
See Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, p. 274
See Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, p. 21
Stephen C. Meyers cited above, discusses these points at length in Signature in the Cell, pp. 215-323. Regardless of how readers may regard Meyers’ overall thesis, he provides a very good summary of some of the research that has been conducted on the question of origins and this material would be informative for lay readers, however, some scientists I know do not believe Meyer has been thorough enough in some of his characterizations of the currently ongoing research; see also Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life, pp. 182-189.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5394