Life, Oh Life, Ooohhh Liiiiife, Oh Life…(doo doo doo doo)

Question from Madnomas:
I just read your response to the question regarding biogenesis. While you gave the only answer you could have, it is severely lacking. To claim that it “is unlikely that the conditions could have been right at least once in the distant past” (paraphrasing) is a gross over reach. If abiogenesis were “not unlikely,” one would presumably be able to predict that the more we learn about the earliest life forms, the less complex these forms would appear, and the more likely the conditions that might be able to generate life would what we’ve found. However, it is exactly the opposite. Even the earliest life is infinitely complex. Not only is life extremely complex but has as its foundation, information. So, as we discover more about early life and the conditions surrounding the early atmosphere, it has only become more improbable, but without mutation and selection to fall back, we have to account for the appearance of information. So instead of casually brush off this extremely potent evidence for a creator, as understandably would for convenience, this is still a monumental challenge for atheism to address. Unfortunately, it’s only becoming more improbable with each new discovery.

Answer by SmartLX:
There is no physical or chemical barrier to an increase in the amount of information on Earth as long as we have the Sun, even before the emergence of life. I’ve explained this briefly here.

The first life was complex but it was less complex than much of modern life, unless you think human beings are no more complex than bacteria. And the Miller-Urey experiment gets a lot of flak but it proved beyond doubt that the introduction of electricity (via lightning) can produce amino acids, so inorganic processes do important work and therefore not all of the complexity had to pop up at once.

Not knowing how something happened is not an argument that it didn’t happen, except for an argument from ignorance. Eliminating every possible method might be evidence for same, but that clearly hasn’t happened as long as there are potentially viable models, and in this case there are lots. And the proposed alternative requires that we assume the presence and participation for an entity not only for which there is no evidence, but about which nothing is agreed upon even hypothetically. It would be much stronger to establish the existence of God without the requirement of faith and then argue that God created life than to support God with apparent creation.

From Soup To Fish

Question from Wilson:
I am not an expert in biology just warning you, so feel free to enlighten me!

Correct me if I am wrong but evolutionists believe that life originated from a soup filled with amino acids or something along those lines. But there are a whole range of complex and simple microorganisms each with precise roles and functions almost like a program? And correct me again if I am wrong, now the cells function in a certain way due to a specific set of instructions in their DNA…how do you explain the exact precise instruction that each one of these different microorganisms have without there being an intelligent creator…finally I am also wondering how a bunch of amino acids decided to come together to make a microorganism and how that tiny cell decided itself that it needs to reproduce and how the heck microorganisms turn into a fish without a creator and if you’re gonna use time as an answer then what is the probability of such an event occurring for even a simple cell?

(Just as a lot of atheists find the idea of God absurd I find Evolution completely absurd)

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not an expert in biology either, but a little research in response to things like this can teach you a lot, and I’ve been at it for a few years now. I’m still learning of course; while I write these answers I’ve usually got multiple other tabs open for reference material.

Before I go into details, the same logical problem applies here as to the last question I answered: the argument from ignorance. That’s not an insult, it’s the proper name for a specific fallacy where because you personally don’t know how something could happen, you assume it didn’t. Even if I had no answers for any of these, we would not be justified in jumping to the conclusion of a god until any other possibilities were not just dismissed but actually ruled out (or at the very least, actual probabilities were assigned to them).

I’ll try to address each of your points, but each of my points may not correspond to just one of yours or to the order of yours.

– There are multiple hypotheses about the origin of life from non-life (abiogenesis), and the “primordial soup” idea is one of the classic front-runners. Here’s a list of the current ones.

– Amino acids could occur naturally, as was demonstrated in the 50s, but a lot of different amino acids and other materials had to come together in just the right way to make the first simple proteins and genes. That’s a big factor reducing the probability that it would happen. However, there are three factors of a comparable scale which raised the probability: the sheer amount of material being constantly shoved against itself by natural forces, the huge number of different combinations that could have had the same effect, and finally the vast amount of time you mention – by current estimates, about one billion years from the formation of the Earth to the emergence of the first life form.

– The first life had DNA, or an equivalent like RNA, with one simple instruction: “Use the material around you to make another of yourself.” This was not an intelligent command, it was just something its physical makeup drove it to do, like a pinwheel spinning in the wind because of its shape. If it was in an environment full of the same material of which it was made, then this was straightforward: break evenly in two, then have each half absorb its own weight in raw material, then repeat. This is how microorganisms still do it today.

– Once life existed and was able to reproduce, it began to diversify. Slight imperfections in the self-copying process produced different offspring, and some of those differences were carried forward to the next generation. Whichever differences made it easier to survive and procreate, the creatures with those features tended to grow in number relative to the others. At some point a set of single-celled organisms joined together and shared their genetic material; the experiment was successful, and the first multicellular life came about. (Perhaps it had occurred before, but in the wrong conditions, and everything that tried it died.) At a certain point, small amounts of calcium became part of the essential material in the “body”, forming rigid structures; this helped with self-defense, and the viability of bones was established. Every tiny change that came about had to compete with other changes and come out on top, so every change that persisted had to have some benefit (or at least not be a hindrance), and thus a number of useful features began to accumulate. It’s been so long now that living things and their genes seem to be made of nothing but useful features, though some superseded components (like the appendix) have yet to be eliminated entirely.

I recommend reading at least a couple of books on evolution, just so you can know what the theory actually says before deciding whether it’s so unlikely. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin is about to be accompanied by a TV show. Richard Dawkins’ early book The Blind Watchmaker is a great primer, and has little or none of his recent anti-religious material that puts believers off him. Just don’t restrict yourself only to books on evolution by creationists and/or Intelligent Design proponents, because all they do is claim that various things are impossible when at worst we just don’t know how they happen – and sometimes when we actually do know.

Three Ducks In A Row

Question from Bryson:
1. Based on Mendel’s work, only genes, not physical acquired traits are passed to the next generation. Now, based on that, what mechanism in nature creates new genetic codes to build an improved animal? None that I know of. none that Richard Dawkins himself can think of as when asked he had no answer. So there would be no inheritable variations for natural selection to choose from. Now I know that some evolutionists have mutation as the answer. But mutation only damages DNA, it doesn’t produce new information and as proved by scientists, there’s no beneficial mutations in existence.

2. Also the Cambridge discovery. The oldest fossils ever found on earth, showing different species of the same “family” suddenly appearing at the same time with no links connecting them. Everyone says evolution is proven fact, when in actuality, evidence is extremely rare, and highly inconclusive at best.

3. Also, when scientists tried, they found that even on paper, you can’t take a cell below 200 genes. And in 06, they concluded in reality, it actually is impossible to go below 397 genes. A cell needs a certain amount of things to live. Scientist call this the minimal gene concept. Well…to find the origin of life you would have to go down to 0 and build up.

What is the atheist response to this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Three very old creationist canards. The word is appropriate because it defines them as unfounded, and slightly funny because it’s also the French word for a duck. I’ve numbered them for reference.

1. Gene duplication, transposable element protein domestication, lateral gene transfer, gene fusion/fission, de novo gene origination, and probably more. Several of these happen during mutation. The Lenski E.coli experiment, despite what Conservapedia has claimed, is a pretty clear-cut example of a positive mutation directly observed. Richard Dawkins wasn’t dumbstruck because he didn’t have an answer, he was furious because the nature of the question made him realise a pair of creationists were in his home under false pretenses. Here’s his explanation of the event. Even if you don’t believe his account, in the same piece he gives a complete answer to the question, and it stands on its own merits.

2. Fossils are rare to begin with, but when you go all the way back to when animals didn’t have skeletons or hard shells of any kind, there are hardly any at all. I’m not familiar with the specific “discovery” you refer to (link to it if you like), but that’s generally why fossils appear to start off already diversified. It hardly matters when we share more than half our genome with all animals and even certain plants, indicating a common ancestry.

3.The “minimal gene set” is a few hundred proteins, not genes, and it was easier for them to come together when they did than it would be now. Naturally occurring amino acids were all over the world and throughout the sea, and there was no other life to consume them or otherwise interfere. The chances of the specific protein set coming together were tiny, but this was more than balanced out by the vast amount of space, materials and time the chemicals had to get it right, and also the number of different possible combinations that would have had the same effect. And of course it only had to happen once.

The Case of the Missing Unrelated Life

Question from John:
I am comfortable with evolution and natural selection as a theory for the diversity of life today. One thing lingers as an anomaly, pointing at a non accidental creation. This anomaly is the lack of other “trees of life”. There is not a vestige or hint of any other tree of life but our own (witnessed by the same methods of protein synthesis in a bacterium as in a human).

Where are the other, accidental, spontaneous beginnings of life that began in dirty puddles of water, 2 billion years ago or last Thursday?

Any takers?

Answer by SmartLX:
The earliest evidence of life on Earth amounts to trace elements in rocks from 3.85 billion years ago (see this article) and could have come from anyone’s tree of life, not just our own. Only at the point where we can discern the shape or actions of the life that existed, in evidence that dates hundreds of millions of years later, can we begin to gather morphological, geographical or behavioural evidence that might determine the lifeforms are related to us.

That said, the conditions for life to arise are unknown mostly because they don’t seem to appear in the modern world. It’s reasonable to suppose that they don’t, as the world was a very different place 3-4 billion years ago. Even back then, the right conditions could have been so incredibly rare that abiogenesis only happened in a very localised area (and not necessarily a puddle; see how many other models there are) and never again.

Regardless, once our earliest microscopic ancestors got going, they spread like wildfire. They got everywhere, and their microscopic descendants are still everywhere, even in places we think of as lifeless. They’re in the air we breathe, they’re in the earth we walk on, they’re at the bottom of the sea and coating its surface, they’re rolling along in the desert sands. Any unrelated organisms that arose after that point, or weren’t as well-established at the time, had to compete with this ubiquitous organic juggernaut of carbon-based life. If they ever existed, they’ve been eaten, dismembered, crushed, drowned, strangled, suffocated or starved by our own guys, and any evidence they left has been mistaken for evidence of the roots of our own “tree”. History is written by the winners, as they say, and prehistory is probably no different.

Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:
Hi.

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.

Thermodynamics and Anti-Entropic Mechanisms (my most techy title ever)

Question from Simon:
I was debating with a Christian friend about evolution and the genesis of life and I have to admit that he stumped me in regards to thermodynamics. He agrees that you can have a localised reduction in entropy as long as the overall system entropy increases (which is where most of the pro-evolution arguments seem to end) however he argues that to do so, you require some form of mechanism to drive the decrease as spontaneous localised decreases in entropy do not occur either in open or closed systems. Can you offer an explanation which supports or refutes this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Spontaneous localised decreases in entropy (i.e. increases in order) do not require the kind of mechanism you and the creationist are thinking of, only a bit of physical force.
– If you have a jar filled partially with rocks and sand and you shake it randomly for a while, the smaller particles will tend to make their way towards the bottom of the jar while the big ones stay on top, ordering the collection solely through gravity and friction.
– Chemists regularly use a centrifuge to separate heavier elements of a mixture or compound from lighter parts through centripetal/centrifugal force alone.
– Oil and water mixed together will separate vertically to some extent, even if you don’t agitate them. Gravity again, plus surface tension and possibly other parts of fluid dynamics I don’t fully understand.
– A group of small magnets dropped randomly in a bucket will snap together into a structure. Depending on their shape, many of them may join in a very straight line. Iron filings will arrange themselves into beautiful patterns around an electromagnet, and ferrofluid has to be seen to be believed.

There’s a creationist idea that all new order (physical, chemical, linguistic, etc.) requires a mind to create it. You’re up against a more flexible idea that new all order requires a mechanism, whether or not a mind is ultimately behind that, but there’s no more evidence for this idea than for the other. The inorganic forces of this planet (wind, tides, tectonic shift, orbital spin) were what the initial chemicals of life needed in order to come together and form a useful configuration. Once life existed it was capable of exerting its own forces, for good or ill, and evolution took hold through natural selection. We don’t know the details, but there is no discernible problem with the principle, no matter how much creationists would like there to be.

Louis Pasteur on Life

Question from Truk:
Evolution directly contradicts Pasteur’s laws, that state life can only come from life, as well as the laws of thermodynamics. Why does evolution, a flawed theory with more holes in it than a sponge, still stand, when it contradicts proven science?

Answer by SmartLX:
If evolution contradicted proven science, it wouldn’t still stand. That’s the whole point of science: if it’s proven wrong, it changes. The biology departments of the universities of the world don’t have the resources to maintain a massive conspiracy to prop up a bogus theory, but they have the evidence to support a sound one.

Thermodynamics first: you haven’t specified which laws you think evolution contradicts, so I’ll assume you mean the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There are several creationist arguments based on this idea, and I’ve addressed two of them here, here and here. If I haven’t covered your specific objection, comment and tell me what it actually is.

Now for the less run-into-the-ground material. Louis Pasteur only produced one “law”, and even that is only tentatively attributed to him: the Law of Biogenesis, which states that life can only come from other life. Pasteur did make such an observation, whether or not he made it official. The competing hypothesis of the day was spontaneous generation, the idea that life springs from non-life everywhere, all the time. People used to think that a bag of grain would spontaneously generate maggots, for instance. Pasteur examined many apparent examples of this, and in every case discovered that life was somehow getting in from outside and propagating.

Pasteur did not demonstrate, nor could he have, that it’s impossible for life to emerge from non-life in any circumstances. He simply established that it does not happen in everyday life, and that the life all around us is far more connected than people once thought. If genetics had been further along at the time he could have known this for certain, because all known life is genetically related and therefore descended from a single organism, a common ancestor.

This fact has an important implication: all life on earth can be explained by a single ancient event of abiogenesis (literally genesis from non-life). This means it’s to be expected that the circumstances in which abiogenesis can occur are incredibly rare, and might not even exist in the present day. However, given a billion years, half a billion square kilometres of surface area and countless different chemical compounds on this planet, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the elements of life came together in just the right way, at least once. Living tissue doesn’t contain any element which isn’t also found in non-living material; it is literally made of the things around it.

Abiogenesis isn’t part of the theory of evolution anyway, because that’s only concerned with what life has done since it came about. Even if a god had created the first living thing, evolution could have occurred from then on without the god’s help, producing all the diversity of life from that single organism. This isn’t important to you though, Truk, because you want to establish that at least some part of the process was impossible without divine help, necessitating the existence of the divine. Abiogenesis, while unlikely in any single moment and circumstance, is not so unlikely that it can’t have happened naturally at all, so a god isn’t needed there either. Better keep looking for a spot to force one in.