The existing interpretations
Creationism (reinvented recently as ‘Intelligent design') that adheres to the Biblical account of the origin of life is still seen in some places as an alternative to the materialist view, so it is worth briefly addressing this position. Creationists are very good at criticising the opposite standpoint, but not in providing a coherent support for their own. Genesis is clear that the creation of life is a deliberate act, but the way it is presented has many problems. Without getting into details, a general one is the claim that an agency assembled various species as discrete units. This does not seem plausible. All paleontological and micro-biological evidence indicates that life, in all its diversity, originated from very simple forms and evolved through a long period of time. Contrary to the creationist account, it is evident that more complex organisms have derived from simpler ones, and that there are big time gaps between the appearance of various species. This is not to say that life is an accident, as materialists would like to believe. The following is an attempt to show that such a claim is also problematic.
Materialism - from the materialistic perspective, the origin of life is explained as a chance event that occurred through the interplay of physical forces and chemical reactions. The idea that life came about accidentally from inanimate matter should not be taken for granted, though. Contrary to popular belief, this account is not proven, empirically or rationally. It has never been demonstrated in a laboratory or anywhere else that a complex structure such as a living cell could arise spontaneously (or through human intervention) from inorganic stuff. Honest scientists are ready to admit this:
We have not yet come up with a convincing mechanism for abiogenesis... And we have come nowhere near creating life in the laboratory. (Silver, 1998, p.339)
In the 1950s Stanley Miller recreated the conditions believed to exist on prebiotic Earth (a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water was exposed to heat and occasional spark-discharges). In a relatively short time Miller found some amino-acids in the apparatus (amino-acids are the building blocks of proteins that are in turn the basis of organic life). Recent findings suggest, though, that life arose in an environment far less hospitable than Miller's glass apparatus. Moreover, many experiments since have not gone much further. Apparently, some researchers managed to create a synthetic organic molecule that could replicate itself, but this should not be confused with procreation. They only replicate in highly artificial, unnatural conditions, and they reproduce only exact replicas. Yet, without mutations the molecules could not evolve.
Not only has materialism failed to produce a convincing support for its position, but it is also internally inconsistent. Biogenesis is an accepted doctrine in biology, which states that living organisms are produced only by other living organisms, and that the parent organism's offspring are always of the same kind. Abiogenesis (the notion that life can appear from non-life) is only assumed for the beginning of life, when apparently the first living organism was accidentally generated from inanimate matter. This inconsistency is accepted not because the available data is in its favour, but because it fits current ideology. In his book The Intelligent Universe mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle asks:
...there is not a shred of objective evidence to support the hypothesis that life began in an organic soup here on the Earth. Indeed, Francis Crick, who shared a Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, is one biophysicist who finds this theory unconvincing. So, why do biologists indulge in unsubstantiated fantasies in order to deny what is so patently obvious, that the 200 000 amino acid chains, and hence life, did not appear by chance? (1983, p.21)
Indeed, it has been calculated that accidental abiogenesis is extremely unlikely, even if millions of years were available (see, for example, Overman, 1997). According to palaeontologist Fondi, ‘a spontaneous assemblage of molecules driven by chance cannot account for the emergence of complex organisms - even the oldest algae and bacteria are too complex to have resulted from chance processes in the observed time frames' (in Laszlo, 1993, p.100). In order to survive and reproduce, a one-cell organism, however simple, requires at least several components, RNA, (and/or DNA), some proteins and a cell membrane. Furthermore, they all need to function in a synchronous way. Let us consider how likely this is if left to chance.
- . Silver, a biochemist himself, comments: ‘One can believe that a complex system like the living cell is capable of manufacturing large, complex molecules from small, simple precursors, but the original manufacturing mechanism has to come from somewhere' (1998, p.340).