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Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part III: The Creation of Life

Like most Latter-day Saints, my testimony of the Church is based more on the numinous than the intellectual. However, I still remember the moment when, ruminating on my AP biology class while taking a break during my summer lifeguarding job, I decided that there is no way life could have just spontaneously happened, and that I’d be a believer in something out there even if my Latter-day Saint faith cratered. 

As I type that last sentence I can hear the shrieking and eye scratching from the Dawkins disciples in the back of my head. Because of the catastrophic political and social alliance between people who are skeptical that chance could have led to the first cell and people who want to put disclaimers on biology textbooks teaching evolution, there is more of a visceral reaction to “design” among biologists than there is to “fine tuning” among physicists. (Indeed, before he passed away the great physicist Steven Weinberg admitted that the only options left for explaining fine tuning was God or a multiverse). And that makes sense, the “intelligent design” people are professional adversaries of the evolutionary biology and biology education discipline in ways that the fine tuners just aren’t for professional physicists. 

So to just be clear, I don’t think intelligent design should be taught in schools. If anything my “design” based realization that afternoon at the Riverside Country Club probably would have been muddied had it been immediately framed by my high school teacher as some kind of grand politica/social/philosophical conflict. Origin of life researchers should be generously funded, their efforts should be well respected and followed, and they should be encouraged to give it their best shot. However, after many years I’m still basically where I was then; I think it’s clear that that first foray into life required something more than chance.

The theologian William Paley made the classic argument that if we saw a watch on the ground that showed evidence of being designed for a specific purpose, it would make more sense to assume that it was created than to assume that it happened to spontaneously form from natural processes. The discovery and testing of evolutionary principles for the most part showed the cracks in this argument. Even classic cases for design, such as the extremely technically sophisticated eye, have been explained for the most part via evolutionary reasoning. I agree with Darwin that “there is grandeur in [evolution’s] view of life…[that] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

However, for evolution to operate it requires a basic protected, reproducing, powered cell carrying information that it can transmit. After we have that cell, I assume the evolutionary framework can, with enough research, take us more or less the rest of the way to a human being, but that just begs the question of how the initial cell got started, and in this case, we are still stuck with a watch on the ground that we are trying to explain through natural processes. 

Does a cell have to be that complex? Yes, and this is an area where the more we know the harder the problem. Earlier scientists believed that cells had a little bit of cytoplasm and a few other bits and pieces, but with modern cell biology it is clear that they are sophisticated, complex, fine-tuned machines. (Anybody who’s hurt their brain studying for a cell biology test has learned this lesson the hard way). Again, complexity is fine and explainable if we start from something even more basic and apply evolutionary reasoning, but even stripped down to its most basic essentials a cell on which evolutionary processes can operate is still a watch,and the ghost of Paley still haunts us. (If anything the watchmaker analogy fails since we know how to make a watch, we still have yet to create a complete artificial cell [only parts so far] from the ground up, so it’s more like finding a teleporter in the sand at this point).

Even the most basic cell requires 1) protection, 2) reproduction, 3) energy, and 4) information to transmit either to other creatures or offspring. To give you a sense of how difficult this problem is:

The “information” is the software used to control the cell. My understanding is that some scientists believe that theoretically a “software code” of an RNA strand of about 40 nucleotides (basically, letters in a 4-letter alphabet) long is enough to provide the information needed to perform basic processes in a stripped down cell. If we were bashing a four-letter typewriter at random, the chance that we would come up with any one particular script 40 letters long is 4 to the 40th power, that’s one out of 1,208,9 25,819,614,62 9,174,706,176. Now, nucleotide connection doesn’t happen just willy nilly, but in very particular circumstances, so even the typewriter bashing analogy is extremely generous.  

Of course, it’s not this simple, and there are a lot of other variables; one fascinating recent paper by a Japanese astronomer bit the bullet and, after concluding that the chance life spontaneously arose was infinitesimally small, found a clever, mind-blowing way to maintain his secular, scientific honor by not just throwing up his hands and saying “God did it.” (I mean, I think God did do it, but if we’re paying you to figure out a natural way that it happened it is a copout to throw your hands up and say “God did it.”) He argues that, just like enough monkeys typing on typewriters over eons can eventually produce Shakespeare, so too, if the universe is big enough, could a watch spontaneously form, or in this case, the software code for a reproducing cell (he doesn’t use these specific analogies, but that’s basically the point). 

However, all of his calculations are just for the cell software code, we haven’t even gotten to the hardware spontaneously generating yet. Suffice it to say, there are so many layers of complexity to get to that point I just don’t see how scientists can salvage this without either invoking a deity or some version of the extreme version of the law of large numbers, even if at the margins of the four requirements above they occasionally discover that it can be more simple than they thought. If I had to make a prediction I suspect that the astronomically high odds of a single cell making it will gradually start to filter into mainstream scientific acceptability and the “monkeys on typewriters,” cosmological explanation will start to receive more attention. It would be the ugliest, most inelegant explanation ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right. If that is the case, then we could be the one work of Shakespeare in an unimaginable sea of gibberish, and could truly be the only life in our observable universe (or a universe of universes beyond this one), which would have implications for the search for extraterrestrial life

(On a more meta-level, the molecules of life themselves have very particular characteristics that would change things if they were different. If carbon was heavier it is unlikely it could form life, if the polarity of water was different life would likewise be very difficult.Just because molecules can in a certain configuration produce a cell, doesn’t mean that from first principles they had to be able to.) 

In terms of the Church, if there is some breakthrough and we did figure out a pathway for how we got from basic organic chemicals to a reproducing cell, I doubt it would matter much since the Church has reached a sort of detente with evolution. There isn’t some official Church statement endorsing evolutionary theory, but neither are we bedfellows with the anti-evolutionists like some of our other Christian counterparts. In this “live and let live” atmosphere further progress on origin of life research won’t rock the boat one way or the other, since we’re sort of officially agnostic on it. 

Interestingly, recent research on the genes that we may have traced back to the cellular “mother of all living,” (or “last universal common ancestor”), suggests that life may have arisen not in a shallow pond, as we once thought, but in the hydrothermal vents at the floor of the ocean. If this is the case, it would have a certain ironic poetry to it. The “great deep” of the ocean was seen as a place of diabolical chaos in Hebrew, but it may have been the original cradle of creation, where God first breathed the “breath of life.” 


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