Despite Paul’s clear statement in Romans Chapter 1, God’s revelation of Himself through nature is largely unexplored. Many of us, stung by the far-reaching effects of Darwinism, are skeptical of science, even though we live by its discoveries. Yet the Romans passage teaches us that the natural world is there to tell us important things clearly, even giving proof that God exists.
Remarkably, the science of cell biology has given us every reason to believe that life could not have arisen on Earth apart from God. This exciting news should be celebrated in our churches and taught to our youth.
From the moment life first appeared, an entirely new principle was present in the universe. It was just as momentous as the creation of matter itself. The living packet, in whatever form it took, was self-absorbed and self-promoting in a way that inanimate substances and objects could not be. The living thing did not wait for the cycles and forces of nature to impinge upon it. It took charge by acquiring, processing, rearranging and putting to use, according to its own informational system, all those things it had the power to absorb into itself. In turn, it rejected spent particles after taking from them a bit of energy or an atom of metal or whatever else might promote its selfish existence. From then on, existence itself took on new meaning in the world. Most astounding of all was the ability of this novel thing to adapt and to reproduce. A whole new vocabulary was needed to describe all of this.
Life: A Universe of Complex Chemical Activities
Let’s look back: The invention of the microscope showed that living things were composed of tiny parcels. These “cells” were thought to be filled with an amorphous jelly that was called “protoplasm.” As microscopes improved, however, protoplasm was found to contain tiny structures that appeared as little organs within the cells. Biologists called these “organelles.”
As science built an ever more complex description of the cell, the idea of a Darwinian evolution of that cell seemed less possible.
At this point, due to the minuteness of things, the exploration turned biochemical. Organelles called mitochondria were found to carry on cellular respiration — the chemical breakdown of molecules such as sugar to harvest their energy. Chloroplasts were found to carry on photosynthesis. Ribosomes were found to be the sites of protein synthesis, and so on. All these sophisticated chemical processes were found to be controlled, or catalyzed, by a special class of proteins called enzymes. As time went on, we realized that life, even in the simplest cells we could find, was a universe of highly complex chemical activities — a system of systems. In time, the cell proved to be a chemical machine of bewildering complexity.
At the center of it all was an organelle called the nucleus, the so-called “brain” of the cell. There, strands of a substance called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, were thought to contain the encoded instructions for making proteins. In 1953, James Watson of the United States and Francis Crick of Great Britain discovered the structure of DNA along with its encoding system. They proved that DNA was a gigantic molecule built like a ladder twisted into the shape of a helix. The sugar-phosphate supports of the ladder held “rungs” of nitrogen bases. With four different bases as possibilities, the molecule was set up to spell out the codes for the 22 different amino acids that exist in living things. DNA used a type of digital encoding vastly more compact than anything devised by man. Science was learning that DNA, RNA, and proteins were all chemicals that contained complex information.
By the time all this was happening in the lab, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had already transformed the thinking of life scientists around the world. After all, almost a hundred years had passed since Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859). In his book, Darwin envisioned life as evolving in some “warm little pond.” That explanation seemed good enough for nearly a century. But by the mid-1900s it was time to try to refine Darwin’s pond idea into a proper concept of chemical evolution. In other words, how could a highly complex chemical machine have evolved from the nonliving chemicals?
Darwinian Evolution Seems Less Possible
I was born in 1944 and grew up in a little town in northern New Jersey, one mile from the George Washington Bridge. At
that time, Leonia had the highest per capita rate of Ph.D.s in the United States. Harold Urey built a house across from ours with money from his 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Urey won the award by isolating the heavy isotope of hydrogen called deuterium. When chemically combined with oxygen, deuterium yielded heavy water, which could be used in nuclear reactors. Dr. Urey was involved in the Manhattan Project when I was a toddler but soon took his family to Illinois to work at the University of Chicago. Decades later, the Ureys’ eldest daughter, Frieda, would host me whenever I passed through Chicago.
One of Urey’s graduate students at Chicago was a young chemist named Stanley Miller. With Urey’s help, Miller designed an experiment whereby an atmosphere of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen (thought to exist on the prebiotic Earth) was combined with steam plus an electrical discharge. In the water at the bottom of a flask, they found several amino acids and other organic constituents. This experiment (1952) fired the imaginations of Origin of Life theorists.
Since the days of Urey-Miller, however, research has revealed the vast number and complexity of chemical processes needed to support cellular life. These include, among others: the ability to make food and convert its energy into usable form, the ability to metabolize and grow, plus the mind-blowing process of cellular reproduction through the use and duplication of the cell’s DNA mechanism. In other words, as science built an ever more complex description of the cell, the idea of a Darwinian (materialistic) evolution of that cell seemed less possible.
The clincher came with discoveries related to protein synthesis carried on by organelles called ribosomes. Proteins are responsible for structural aspects of cellular organelles as well as the complex membrane that encloses every cell. Without proteins of many kinds, the cell would be a disorganized soup that could do nothing resembling life.
Most crucial of all was a specialized group of proteins called enzymes. Enzymes are organic catalysts that enable and speed up chemical reactions in the cell. In effect, they rapidly but temporarily hold into place the molecules involved in chemical reactions. Some help tear things apart, as with the enzymes of the digestive system. Others help bind things together, as in photosynthesis, whereby sugar is made from carbon dioxide and water.
Please stay with me.
Enzymes, like all proteins, are chains composed of 22 different kinds of amino acids, which themselves are a class of smaller organic (or carbon-based) chemicals. An enzyme is built to catalyze a particular chemical reaction needed in the cell. It is on the ribosome that amino acids are linked to each other in a precise sequence, temporarily held together by other enzymes as the synthesis is taking place. The length of the amino acid chain may be a few dozen or several hundred units, depending on its recipe. The arrangement within the sequence must be exact. Once assembled, the chain will double back and forth upon itself to take on a shape that will enable the enzyme to do the one catalyzing job it was designed to do. But misplace one amino acid in the sequence, and the enzyme will be scrap.
The extreme degree of complexity and specificity needed for protein molecules to fill their roles as structural elements or as enzymes in cells also creates what looks like an insurmountable barrier in explaining the origin of life.
Note that it takes enzymes to catalyze the production of enzymes. As scientist David Goodsell has asked, “If proteins are needed to make proteins, how did the whole thing get started?”
The Probability Stops Us in Our Tracks
So where is the repository of information for the manufacture of all the highly specified proteins needed to make a fully functional and self-reproducing cell? The answer is DNA.
Along a particular stretch of a particular DNA strand (chromosome) is the encoding for one particular protein. Here is the simplified sequence of events: At alarming speed, the double helix of the DNA strand “unzips,” allowing a special nucleic acid molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) to make an imprint of the coded sequence and take it to the ribosome. There it meets up with another type of RNA called transfer RNA (tRNA). Molecules of tRNA round up each of the required amino acid molecules so that assembly (synthesis) can take place.
Oddly, the extreme degree of complexity and specificity needed for protein molecules to fill their roles as structural elements or as enzymes in cells also creates what looks like an insurmountable barrier in explaining the origin of life. Knowing that it takes many hundreds of different kinds of proteins and many copies of each to make a cell, we now ask the question of how likely it would be to assemble even a single molecule of a single protein of average complexity by accident. We will assume that all the amino acids needed for that protein are available, that all the energy needed is readily available in some usable form, that the protein can even be assembled without the use of enzymes, which we don’t yet have, and so forth. Remember, the assembly cannot be random, or a useless protein will result.
In his book “Signature in the Cell,” Stephen Meyer, using his calculations and those made by other scientists, claims, “The odds of getting even one functional protein of modest length (150 amino acids) by chance from a pre-biotic soup is no better than 1 chance in 10 to the 164th power.” He goes on to say that this is much less likely than finding “a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.” Although not zero, that probability stops us in our tracks. Again, this relates to assembling one functional protein molecule, not an entire functioning cell — another gap of unimaginable proportions. With these facts in mind, many scientists now speculate that Earth got its life from outer space — a hypothesis called panspermia that only places the origin of life problem someplace else.
It Doesn’t Seem Possible that Life Could Have Evolved
It is one thing to give a brief description of a very complicated system. (One wonders how all the molecules jiggling around in the cell know what they are doing, where they are going.) It is quite another thing to imagine how such a complicated system could have evolved gradually over time, as Darwinism requires. A system either lives or it doesn’t. If it is alive, it must be able to acquire nutrients, metabolize, grow, and reproduce. If it can’t do those things, it is not living, and it will likely break down quickly in the environment — destroyed by the sun’s radiation, freezing temperatures, oxidation, or the like. During the long road of chemical evolution, perhaps millions of years before a protective membrane even surrounded them, the simple chemical constituents in the soup had to survive and increase in complexity moving in the direction of life without being directed to do so.
An obvious temptation is to suggest that biochemicals are self-organizing. This overlooks the fact that nucleic acids and proteins are informational. Self-organization leads to repetition (as in a salt crystal), whereas information is both complex and specified, according to Meyer.
The Urey-Miller experiment showed us that simple, organic compounds can form under controlled conditions. Space science has shown, in turn, that the universe is well populated with simple organic chemicals riding aboard interstellar particles, comets, and so forth. This fact speaks more to the fitness of carbon than anything else. In the presence of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, plus an energy source such as UV, some simple organic compounds do form.
However, as we have seen, the study of cells shows a huge gulf between organic compounds and even the simplest, single-celled organism. With the amazing advancement in our knowledge of cellular functions such as protein synthesis, it doesn’t seem possible that life could have evolved without the intervention of an intelligent agent.
We should rule out that such an intelligence could have been biological, as in some extraterrestrial being. We are reasonably sure that the chemistry of distant planetary systems is like ours. The same elements are involved. Carbon, with its four valence electrons, is the element best suited as the basis of the entire class of compounds we call organic. The element is remarkably “fit” to play this role, as genetic researcher Michael Denton points out in his book “Nature’s Destiny.” “If the cosmos is uniquely fit for carbon-based life, then the origin of any carbon-based life form anywhere in the universe will pose the same set of problems as envisaging its origin on earth.”
The term fitness, Denton explains, is aptly applied to proteins and nucleic acids as well as to some inorganic substances such as water. Of DNA he says: “The information necessary to specify the design of all the organisms that have ever existed on the planet, a number, according to G.G. Simpson, of approximately 1 billion, could be easily compacted into an object the size of a grain of salt!” To Denton, DNA’s amazing fitness speaks of purposeful design.
To Go Further We Must Turn to Scripture
What lies at the heart of the mystery of life’s origin is the question of how extremely complex biological systems could have evolved without direction. In other words, how does an informational system acquire its information?
For years I marveled at the proposed evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Recent discoveries of fossil, reptile-like birds from China show us a possible progression leading to flight: from a forelimb without feathers, to one with simple feathers that cannot give flight, and finally to feathers designed for flight, along with the other necessary structural modifications. The question is, how does life find its way to flight or to cellular complexity over time? Wasn’t flight, or the living cell, the objective all along?
To state the problem in a different way: If atoms are letters, and compounds are words, then the cell is a novel. The question is, how did the novel get written? Was there a plan, or did the words and paragraphs assemble themselves randomly, then to be tested by natural selection? Can the information that underlies complexity be generated in this way? Can credulity be stretched this far? I don’t think so.
In the 66 years since Urey-Miller, during which many of the wonders of the cell have been elucidated, it seems that we are getting further away from explaining the origin of life materialistically. Science will continue to search for matter and energy answers to the mystery. We will not expect scientists to propose supernatural intelligence as a likely source for the information in DNA or the amazing chemical systems that express that information. If the answer to biology’s greatest mystery is supernatural, science will not find it. What science will do, and for which we should be extremely grateful, is allow us to see how amazingly complex God’s world is.
Scientists such as Denton and Meyer, who are within the Intelligent Design movement, do not take us further than to claim that some vastly superior intelligence is behind the striking level of design we see in nature. They are scientists, after all. To go further, we must turn to the special revelation of the Holy Scripture. There we learn the true identity of the Creator of all that exists.
Rich Kern is a ruling elder at Pinelands Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Miami. Rich has traveled the world producing natural history films and presenting them throughout the United States, especially to Miami public school students.