Some current hypotheses

The popular argument is that, given a very long period of time, life would occur, even if the chance of its appearance is minuscule. However, ‘it seems that life appeared almost as soon as the planetary hydrosphere had cooled sufficiently to support it. The time available is certainly short - nothing like the supposed thousands of millions of years that was once assumed to be available’ (Denton, 1998, p.295). Not surprisingly, many scientists are at a pain to find an explanation which would overcome the problems that the above facts create for the materialistic perspective. Crick, for example, hypothesises that life came from outer space (as the Sumerians and a Greek philosopher Anaxagoras believed much before him). Even if this is true, it does not solve the problem, but only moves it elsewhere. Some scientists speculate that the original cell or cells were much simpler than the simplest existing one-cell organisms. For example, it could be the case that RNA at one point was not only a messenger but also a replicator (therefore assuming the role of DNA too). However, this possibility faces several difficulties. RNA is hard to synthesise even under controlled circumstances, with all the help of scientists, let alone in the conditions in which biological life was formed. Even when RNA is manufactured, it requires much tinkering to make new copies of itself: ‘...the synthesis of RNA by chance is a highly improbable process, and as yet no one has presented a mechanism by which it might have occurred... even when you do have RNA, the process of self-replication in the laboratory is not at all straightforward, and it requires considerable intervention on the part of the experimenter’ (Silver, 1998, p.348). Intervention, however, is exactly what materialists deny in regard to the origin of life. There are a number of other alternatives, but none of them is very credible. It is not possible to examine all of them here, so the final comment is left to an evolutionary biologist who already did so:

Although many exotic hypotheses far more speculative than the RNA world have been proposed to close the gap between chemistry and life, none are convincing. (Denton 1998, p.294)

That an accidental appearance of life is extremely unlikely seems to be the inevitable inference. Polanyi and Prosch conclude that ‘every living organism is a meaningful organization of meaningless matter and that it is very highly improbable that these meaningful organizations should all have occurred entirely by chance’ (1975, p.172). The above does not, of course, provide a definitive proof that a teleological explanation is correct. This is not essential though. Declaring that life must have come about by chance simply because there is no concrete evidence for an agency, would be like declaring that a sculpture is the result of a natural process because the sculptor cannot be seen. In the words of the astronomer Carl Sagan, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. On the other hand, however dismally small the chance of accidental abiogenesis is, it is not entirely impossible that such a fluke may have happened. There might be some purely physical factors, not yet discovered, that could greatly increase the probability of a spontaneous formation of life. Thus, although the involvement of an agency seems a more plausible explanation, it cannot be conclusively proven, so the choice to accept this possibility or not is preserved. What is important, however, if a teleological position is to be taken seriously, is to examine whether it can be interpreted in a rational way.