Part 7 of my review of the book: “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself,” by Sean M. Carroll. Part 6 is found here.
Origin of Life
In the chapter titled “Light and Life,” Carroll discusses the meaning of what life is and the origin of life itself. He makes a passing comment that at least bacterial life may be found on another planet. He mentions, as a fact, that Europa, which is one of the natural satellites or moons of Jupiter, “… has more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth” (p.238).
But that has only been conjectured if there are liquid oceans underneath Europa’s frozen surface ice. The oceans are thought to begin 20 to 50 kms (12 to 30 miles) below the surface. Thus it may be sometime before the conjecture can be confirmed or denied. If there is anything we can learn from this, it is that Carroll is not phased at presenting as fact something he hopes to be true. To my knowledge, as of writing this, no oceans have been definitely discovered on Europa.
He asks the question, in regards to looking for life in space, will we know it is life when we see it?
“What is life anyway? Nobody knows. There is not a single agreed-upon definition that clearly separates things that are ‘alive’ from those that are not.” (p.238)
He gives NASA’s definition as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” (p.238) He claims that the ‘correct’ definition of life doesn’t exist. Yet he offers the following.
“Life as we know it moves (internally if not externally), metabolizes, interacts, reproduces, and evolves, all in hierarchical, interconnected ways.” (p.238)
Edwin Schrödinger, who helped formulate quantum mechanics, believed it was one of balance, balance between change and maintenance of structure and integrity. His definition is as follows.
“When is a piece of matter said to be alive? When it goes on ‘doing something,’ exchanging material with its environment, and so forth, and that for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances.” (p.239)
This focuses on the ‘self-sustaining’ part of NASA’s definition.
“Not only do [living organisms] come into being as organized structures, they then are able to maintain that order over long periods of time.” (p.240)
Then adds that
“Complex structures can form, not despite the growth of entropy but because entropy is growing.” (p.240)
He means growing in the Universe with the forward arrow of time. That is,
“Living organisms can maintain their structural integrity, not despite the second law [of thermodynamics] but because of it. (p.240)
This then leads into a thermodynamic discussion about the sun providing useful energy by way of photons which are available to do work. As a result entropy of the whole sun-Earth system increases as the system heads towards equilibration. It is the solar radiation he gives credit to, and there is no doubt life could not exist without the sunshine (except in some very rare cases of microbes which by chemical means extract free energy from minerals).
His argument is that because the environment of Earth is far from equilibrium (the whole solar system has not cooled to some uniformly cold temperature) and will remain so for billions of years to come. Thus this is the situation that has given life a chance to start and evolve. But it begs the question, because like many atheists, Carroll sees the ideal conditions for life, as created by the Creator, as perfectly in tune with the physics we know to allow life to exist. This ignores the obvious that a Creator would create an environment that is suited for life to exist where He created life. The usual photons from the sun are there to provide warmth and energy via photosynthesis in plants, which generates food to power all living organisms.
The following chapter discusses the chemical reaction necessary for this food to give useful energy to cells through the conversion of ADP to ATP via chemiosmosis in the tiny proton powered motors of the cells in nearly living organisms. Really none of this speak of evolution but more of precision and very specific design. Yet he seems to be trying to paint a picture that this is all just a natural process you’d expect from the chemistry, and ultimate the Core Theory. It is all just photons, electrons and atomic nuclei.
“Getting work done at the nanoscale is all about harnessing the chaos around you.” (p.248)
On one level though this ignores the obvious. The photons, electrons and atomic nuclei are the creation of God, and the forces under which they operate also His creation. So it is no wonder that what we do find works to give the result that the sun’s energy powers all life on Earth.
“Once we move beyond vitalism, and understand that ‘life’ is a label we attach to certain kinds of processes rather than a substance that inhabits matter and starts pushing it around, we begin to appreciate what an enormously complex and interconnected process it is.” (p.250)
Then he considers the question of how life got started–abiogenesis.
“Charles Darwin didn’t say much about the problem in Origin of Species, but he briefly speculated that a ‘warm little pond’ could have witnessed the formation of proteins, which might then ‘undergo still more complex changes.” (p.251)
Darwin knew nothing about chemistry and molecular biology and genetics which all developed after his time. Carroll admits this but then says the famous (or infamous) experiment in 1952 by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, with a flask containing simple gases—hydrogen, ammonia, methane and water—simulating an ‘atmosphere’ like the early Earth would have had, with simulated effects of lightning (sparks), “produced a number of different amino acids, organic compounds that play a crucial role in the chemistry of life.” (p.251)
But he does not mention the problem of the energy used to create the amino acids would also destroy them. So a trap (see Fig. 1) is used to protect the newly formed amino acids from their destruction by the alleged ‘lightning’ of the early Earth scenario.1
In fact, this energy would be many thousands of times more effective at destroying these molecules than forming them. Some have proposed that tide pools, lakes or clays may have served as traps on the early earth. ‘But solving the trap problem would make another problem, because the molecules that must be protected from energy sources also need that energy to advance to the next stage. Thus the idea of a trap actually would be fatal to evolutionary theory.’2
Nor does he mention the formic acid and tar and the problem of racemization or chirality (equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of chiral molecules were present, but life depends exclusively on left-handed amino acid molecules). All of these results would definitively exclude any possibility of life in the mix.
Carroll concedes that the Miller-Urey experiment did not correctly model the early Earth. It certainly didn’t because by the third day of Creation God had made plants but no sun yet so they needed oxygen (O2) and thus there can be no doubt He created an oxygen atmosphere, especially in preparation for the animals created only 48 hours later.
Carroll says though that Miller-Urey experiment demonstrated that it is not hard to make amino acids, and then concedes that to assemble the proteins and carry out other biological functions is not so easy. But he is not being honest with his audience, because he writes “… that the initial amino-acid step seems relatively straightforward…” but as outlined above, i.e. the problems of separation of the products and racemization, this is not so simple.
The irony comes in here, as with many evolutionists’ writings.
“[I]t has become clear that scientists are going to have to be a lot more clever if we are to understand how the steps proceeded after that.” (p.251)
Why is it necessary for humans to be smarter to understand this? Some claim life is ubiquitous in the Universe, and say it is a cosmic imperative, though some think it is rare but since they claim it evolved on Earth it should have evolved out there also (e.g. see Cosmic Imperative for Life?). If ubiquitous—i.e. the Universe is teeming with life—then the processes that started it off (i.e. abiogenesis) should be ‘straightforward’, using Carroll’s word for the amino-acid step.
In this regard Paul Davies wrote in a Scientific American article titled “The Cosmos Might Be Mostly Devoid of Life”:3
“Many distinguished scientists proclaim that the universe is teeming with life, at least some of it intelligent. Biologist Christian de Duve went so far as to call life “a cosmic imperative.” Yet the science has hardly changed. We are almost as much in the dark today about the pathway from nonlife to life as Charles Darwin was when he wrote, “It is mere rubbish thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.”
Carroll then presents three features that are ubiquitous in life that we know on Earth (there is nowhere else) as features to focus on if we are to find a plausible explanation for how life arose spontaneously. They are:
- Compartmentalization – Cells require a membrane to hold the bag of chemicals, which is discussed in the following.
- Metabolism – Life requires an energy source, which he discussed with ATP produced from ADP and from available sunlight as free energy in green plants or glucose derived from a plant food source (directly or indirectly).
- Replication with variation—Living organisms must reproduce and pass on their genetic information. This is where he adds small variations in the genetic information enable Darwinian natural selection. But he make no distinction between natural selection working on existing genes and the occasional mutation (which invariably lose information) and the concept of increasing the complex coded genetic information content over deep time.
On the first point he goes into the general phenomenon of self-organisation because he believes that that could be where to look for the source of the original cell membranes derived from some sort of prebiotic soup.
Self-organisation at the chemical level relies solely on the chemical properties of the molecules involves. He discusses the property of lipids in water. Those molecules have hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-fearing) ends and as such naturally align themselves to exclude water on the hydrophobic side. They can form a bilayer—two sheets of lipids where their hydrophobic tails point or cling together. This makes a very strong membrane that excludes water. Fatty acids and phospholipids are examples. Phospholipids are made of two fatty acids joined together by a phosphate group of molecules. See Fig. 2. Carroll seems to pin his hopes on the simpler fatty acids.
The cell membrane is the outer living boundary of the cell. It helps give a cell mechanical strength and shape and regulates the passage of molecules into and out of the cell. But the only known cell membranes in living organisms (i.e. on Earth) are made up with bilayers of phospholipids. These bilayer membranes fold into themselves to form spherical enclosures, known as vesicles. According to Carroll this is easiest part of forming a cell.
But the reality is phospholipids are a problem for naturalistic origin of life theories.4 That is real living cell membranes we observe today
“… are just too good at their job. They are fairly impenetrable, with only water and some other small molecules able to pass from one side to another. It therefore seems likely that the earliest form of cellular membranes were actually made of fatty acids rather than phospholipids. Once they are put in place, evolution can set about improving them.” (p.256)
He argues this way because fatty acids can self-assemble into bilayers and under the right conditions of the medium they are in can form little spheres. He says
“… the second law [of increasing entropy] helps create the kind of organized structures that are useful to life.” (p.257)
But that is not correct. Life is not built from fatty acid membranes but phospholipids membranes. It is just that the latter won’t do for origin of life because the evolutionist cannot see how life could start that way. So he introduces another membrane that is more porous and makes some faith based statement that evolution can fix things up later. The simple fatty acid structures that allow many molecules to pass is needed in the origin of life but in a mature living organism that won’t do because that is where we find very specific structures like the energy generating motors producing ATP. Carroll’s narrative is pure story-telling.
“Fatty acids are relatively simple molecules, so it wouldn’t be hard to find them in appropriate environments on the prebiotic Earth.” (p.257)
That may be the case, but life is not built with simple molecules but difficult-to-make molecules, that need to be built molecule by molecule at the molecular level. The cell employs nanotechnology that would make bioengineers seem like infants, and I am being generous. And that is a big problem for the evolutionist.
And how did the ATP generating proton-powered motors (Fig. 3) find their way into the cell membranes? This is non-trivial stuff yet we are asked to believe that “[f]atty acids seem just right for the task” (p.257) not because they are what we find in living organisms now but because they are more porous than phospholipids bilayers upon which life is actually built.
Apparently there are two camps in the origin-of-life debates. One camp argues for the first crucial step being appearance of metabolism and the other camp is the appearance of replication as the first step.
The metabolism-first camp argue that you needed complex chemical reactions that took free energy from the environment of the early Earth, which in turn was used to power replication. But the replication-first camp believe the important first step involved “the synthesis of an information-bearing molecule (presumably RNA, ribonucleic acid) that could duplicate itself and pass down its genetic information.” (p.261) The latter camp has greater popularity than the former.
“… these are hard questions to which we simply don’t know the answers. But they are not hopeless questions.” (p.261)
Yes, they are hard questions.
Yale University Professor Sidney Altman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989 for the discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. I am sure he is more qualified to answer an origin of life question than Carroll. I believe Altman to be in the replication-first camp. He worked on the idea of the “RNA world” though was not its developer. In 2006 I attended a lecture he gave in Japan and in the Q&A session I asked him “How do you get from non-living chemicals to the RNA molecules upon which you believe ‘life’ was built?” After taking a good 10 minutes to explain how absolutely difficult it is to synthesize biomolecules in the lab he ended by saying that he had no idea.
“If you want to understand how life began, it makes sense to begin by looking for features that are shared by existing forms of life. (p.261)
From a non-believer in abiogenesis viewpoint such a statement seems ridiculous. If you believe life began in a prebiotic soup of chemical through self-assembly of a fatty acid membrane, an ATP generating proton-powered motor and RNA as the starter molecule for information storage and replication, all the product of an increase in entropy and availability of useful free energy, why start with a living organism? These structures should be easy to synthesize in a lab with the correct early Earth atmosphere, basic chemicals and free energy from the sun.
The ‘early Earth’ atmosphere had allegedly carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas. Free energy could be obtained if you could get their chemical reaction to make methane and water to proceed. The reaction is thermodynamically available but it just doesn’t happened by itself. You need a pathway to overcome an energy barrier. It is necessary to put in some energy before getting a net amount out. So researchers look for early Earth environments with chemicals that could have catalysed the reaction. Deep-ocean hydrothermal vents with proton-attracting alkaline chemicals or serpentine mud volcanoes on the ocean floor are some contenders.
The Hungarian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1937, for the discovery of vitamin C, offered the opinion that “… life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.” To which Carroll comments
“There is free energy locked up in certain chemical configurations, and life is one way it can be released.” (p.263)
This the metabolism-first view and it is amazingly simplistic for such an incredibly complex structure even for a single-cell organism such as a bacterium. But such is the entrenchment of the belief that if life evolved once on Earth then it should be everywhere in the Universe, after all it is only a matter of the right chemistry.
And as a result planetary scientists speculate that hydrothermal vents might be abundant on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. See Fig. 4. Future space missions to those bodies will no doubt put such speculations to the test.
But, even if, and I repeat, even if, they did find some sort of ‘simple’ life—and I predict they will not—but, even if, they did, it would not prove it arose spontaneously from some chemical reactions. All it would show is that God also created some organisms on those moons. But because it does not directly fit with the Genesis 1 narrative I don’t believe that He did.5
Among abiogenesis researchers metabolism-first proponents are in the minority. Metabolism means essentially ‘burning fuel’. Because replication seems a lot harder to obtain than a burning-fuel process Carroll thinks this might be the way to go first. He mentions fire as a chemical reaction that readily reproduces itself but that doesn’t count as alive.
“We want something that carries information through the reproduction process: something whose ‘offspring’ keep some knowledge of where they came from.” (p.264)
A simple example of that he says are crystals which inherit the structure of its parent crystal, but admits that that is not life,
“… though we’re getting closer.” (p.264)
He suggested that mathematical machine proposed by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann—the ‘von Neumann Universal Constructor’—would be getting closer. Neumann’s machine included not only a mechanism for self-replication but also a ‘tape’ which encoded the structure of the machine.
“Von Neumann-like self-replicators have been implemented in computer simulations, complete with the possibility of mutation and evolution.” (p.265)
But note they were built using the intelligent minds of their creators. They were not assembled from random code flying around some computer software, or through successive steps of mutations in the initial random code in a Darwinian stepwise process. No, they were designed and implemented for a specific purpose.
Then Carroll asks the question:
“Would a physical implementation of a von Neumann Universal Constructor qualify as ‘alive’?” (p.265)
Edwin Schrödinger, in his book What Is Life?, suggested that life might be based on some sort of ‘aperiodic crystal’. That it is found in collection of atoms that fit together in a reproducible way but can carry substantial amounts of information. Later Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double helix molecule of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) for which they received the Nobel prize in 1962.
The DNA molecule was found to be the one that stores the genetic information in all living things. It carries the instructions for the manufacture of all the needed biomolecules in the cell, as well as the code for their assemblage. That is, DNA encodes the sequence that is needed to make a protein but it also encodes the machinery—the ribosome and the necessary biomolecules—to make them and fold them in a specific way. It was also discovered that proteins don’t directly interact with the DNA, but are facilitated through the RNA molecule that acts like the drum in a photocopy machine, making a negative image of the DNA sequence required for a particular protein.
“When DNA gets copies, an important part of the work is done by proteins. But the proteins are supposed to be constructed using information encoded in the DNA. How could either one arise without the other already being present? The favorite answer among abiogenesis researchers is a scenario called the RNA world.” (p.267)
Carroll explains it this way. DNA is good at storing information and proteins are good at performing biochemical functions. RNA can do both though it is not good at either one. Thus in 1960s the RNA World was proposed whereby
“RNA could have come along before either DNA or proteins, and served as the basis for a primitive and less robust form of early life, before evolution gradually distributed responsibilities to the more effective DNA and proteins. (p.268)
So the RNA World is just a story. It is not even about the current type of life we observe. And ‘evolution’ is given, without evidence, all the credit of turning that different form of life into the current observed form, which we see in the world around us. Remember Carroll previously informed us that he is a follower of methodological empiricism, declaring that he is prepared to update his Bayesian credence as more evidence/information becomes available. In this case he doesn’t do that but instead resorts to hopeful storytelling. The evidence suggests that life was not built on RNA and so if he should have updated his already existing credence that life arose via abiogenesis down to an extremely low probability. Nevertheless in the book he pins his hopes on RNA.
“If you want to get life started from a replication-first perspective, you need a molecule that can carry genetic information without relying on other complex mechanisms to reproduce itself. RNA seems to hit the sweet spot.” (p.268)
He mentions its ability to both self-reproduce as well as assemble other useful biochemical structures. It can be an enzyme that catalyzes chemical reaction for self-assembly and for protein synthesis. Remember I mentioned above Sydney Altman who got the Nobel Prize for this discovery, but in 2006 when I asked him about the origin of life (even though he was a believer in the RNA World scenario) he told me he has no idea.
Then Carroll mentions a few experiments with RNA, even calling one “… a human aided version of Darwinian evolution”. Bartel and Szostak in 1993 made copies of trillions of RNA molecules and picked out the one associated with higher rates of catalysis and then made copies of those. After 10 iterations of such a procedure, where random mutations occurred (copying errors), they had RNA molecules that were 3 million times better at catalysing reactions. Carroll called this a “… vivid demonstration of how undirected, random mutation can lead to enormous improvements in the ability of chemicals to perform biologically useful functions.” (p.269)
To start with it was not undirected, and secondly it required humans (intelligence) there to sift out, i.e. to choose the good mutated molecules from the bad ones. Evolution can’t do that. It has to deal with all of the products and if the bad ones far out-number the good new improved versions then the former will dominate. I suspect though the mutations themselves caused some other defect in the RNA molecules themselves.
Carroll’s next example involves the case when biologists Lincoln and Joyce in 2009 “… were able to create a system of two RNA enzyme molecules—ribozymes—that together underwent self-sustained replication.” The molecules did this by themselves and also occasionally mutated. He claims therefore Darwinian evolution in action with the more fit structures preferentially surviving.
Jonathan Sarfati, a Ph.D. chemist, responded (in 2009):6
Joyce and Lincoln started off with a fairly long RNA molecule. Given that nothing like RNA appears in Miller–Urey experiments, this already shows unjustified interference from an intelligent investigator. In fact, not even the building blocks, ribonucleotides, appear in such experiments, and they do not spontaneously form RNA. In fact, there are numerous chemical difficulties with obtaining RNA by blind undirected chemistry, the only sort allowed on the hypothetical primordial earth, as chemical evolutionist A.G. Cairns-Smith points out in his book Genetic Takeover (see extract at Cairns Smith: Detailed criticisms of the RNA world hypothesis). And it’s a huge step from RNA to the genetic code, its major use today.
Furthermore, this paper didn’t demonstrate replication but ligation—joining two small RNA pieces. So this research already assumed not just one but three RNA strands. For this to be relevant to chemical evolution, the two pieces just by chance had to have pretty close to the complementary base pairs of the first piece—natural selection could not be invoked before reproduction.
Furthermore, since polymerization is unfavorable, the RNA pieces must be chemically activated in some way. Note that a catalyst merely accelerates the approach to equilibrium; it doesn’t change it (see diagram and explanation in Dino proteins and blood vessels: are they a big deal?). The paper states that one of the two joining RNA strands has a triphosphate group on the end. This is very reactive, so would be an unlikely component of a primordial soup, and would not last long even if it appeared. So a supply of matching activated RNA pieces likewise shows unacceptable investigator interference.
See also Does ribozyme research prove Darwinian evolution? for a critique of an earlier Joyce paper on alleged ribozyme evolution, as well as Self-replicating peptides? which has many similarities to the recent Joyce claim.
In 1989 Joyce himself admitted:7
“The most reasonable assumption is that life did not start with RNA … . The transition to an RNA world, like the origins of life in general, is fraught with uncertainty and is plagued by a lack of experimental data.”
But of course none of this produces a self-replicating cell, which Carroll admits and also RNA is not the complete picture. Yet he is a firm believer that when compartmentalization, metabolism and replication are brought together there will be that picture. RNA and fatty acids could have helped each other flourish in the environment of the early Earth. It is just wishful thinking that the fatty acids formed a membrane to shield the RNA long enough for it to reproduce.
To this the evolutionist needs to add metabolism. They imagine the membrane encapsulated RNA floating in a pond warm on one side and cold on the other. They imagine at the cold end RNA grows by gathering nucleotides (amino acids: adenine, cytosine, guanine, uracil or thymine (?)) from the pool and huddle together to get warm. At the warm side the RNA divides and membranes secretes some more fatty acids until it divides leaving two proto-cells with a single strand of RNA each. Then they drift back to the cold side and this complete the cycle of proto-cell life.
But it is not that easy. Russell and members of the metabolism-first camp don’t agree with this story above.
“They believe that the hard part is assembling a complex system of chemical reactions that can take advantage of the ambient free energy, setting up proton-motive forces in chambers of porous underwater vents…. These reactions will naturally feed on any surrounding free-energy fuel they can find. That might mean that they break free of the rocks by entering fatty-acid membranes, and they keep going by regulating their reactions through enzymes, which eventually become RNA.” (p.270)
But Carroll admits that maybe neither story is the correct one. And don’t forget this is just storytelling because none of this has been achieved in a laboratory setting and we are expected to believe it occurred naturally 4 billion years ago.
“There is no reason to think that we won’t be able to figure out how life started. No serious scientists working on origin of life, even those who are personally religious, points to some particular process and says. ‘Here is the step where we need to invoke the presence of a nonphysical life-force, or some element of supernatural intervention.’” (p.270)
He says there is a conviction based on the track record of science that has answered many questions. But he mixes up operational science with historical science. Just because science has been successful operationally does not mean it can reconstruct an unobserved past event. This point is nowhere to be found in the book, but rather statements of faith that science can address any problem at all. That is a reliance on scientism.
Living organisms are as he says “mind-bogglingly complex”. He points to Fred Hoyle’s famous statement in relation to the biological configuration in a cell, where he concluded that the chance of life assembling all by itself to be 1 chance in 1040,000:
“The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” (p.271)
And Carroll protests
“… that Hoyle’s version of ‘this way’ is nothing at all like how actual abiogenesis researchers believe that life came about” (p.271, emphasis added)
Then Carroll follows with more statements of faith.
“The ‘unlikeliness’ associated with low-entropy configurations is built into the universe from the start, by the incredibly low entropy near the Big Bang” (p.272)
And because of the cosmos develops from this special condition it forces
“… a non-random aspect on the evolution of the universe. The appearance of cells and metabolism is a reflection of the universe’s progression towards higher entropy, not an unlikely happenstance in an equilibrium background.” (p.272)
Do you understand what he says? The Universe, or specifically the alleged initial condition of the Universe, is the source of the creation of life. But his statements are nothing more than affirmations of his religious belief—a belief in the Universe as creator. This is a form of animism, not science. Where is his evidence for such a statement? Probably it is the existence of life in this Universe. So it is a self-referential belief system, but it doesn’t mean it is any more true than fairies in the bottom of the garden. At least with the latter you could check it out.
Click here for Part 8 of this review.
- Williams, C., Life in a test-tube, Creation 28(4):41–43, September 2006; creation.com/life-in-a-test-tube
- Bliss, R., Parker, G. and Gish, D., Origin of Life, CLP Publishers, California, USA, 1990.
- Davies, P., The Cosmos Might Be Mostly Devoid of Life, Scientific American, September 2016
- Williams, A., What life is, creation.com; Journal of Creation 29(3):62-70, 2015.
- Hartnett, J.G., Life on Earth 2.0—Really?, biblescienceforum.com, August 13, 2015.
- Sarfati, J.D., Is RNA self-replication evidence for evolution? creation.com, 31 October 2009.
- Joyce, G., RNA evolution and the origins of life, Nature 338:217–224, 16 March 1989.