One common claim made by creationists is "Living matter cannot come from non-living matter", or "There is no such thing as abiogenesis". In this essay I will attempt to explain the reasoning behind this statement and the reasoning behind the denial of this statement, and then assess the relative credibility of the two arguments.
The Creationist Argument
There is a clear and sharp distinction between living matter and non-living matter. The fundamental qualities of life work together and must all be present for the processes of life to occur. As modern biological science describes, even the simplest of organisms has a multitude of internal structures including complex DNA structures. All life has the capacity for metabolism, reproduction, and interaction with its environment. That such a complex system could arise by chance is extremely unlikely. If we reject chance 'abiogenesis', we must conclude that some intelligent agent caused the system to happen.
Many scientists have attempted to reproduce this process in the laboratory. While it would be an amazing feat, no researcher has even come close to producing life from non-living chemicals. This would suggest that life was created not through natural processes, but rather through the supernatural intervention of an intelligent Creator, for no other mechanism can provide the simultaneous capacities of containment, reproduction, metabolism, and interaction with the environment that are all required for life and Darwinian evolution.
Even supporters of evolution do not know how life originally arose from inert, non-living matter. Most evolutionists would prefer to sweep the problem under the rug rather than face the prospect that they cannot understand it. It is not enough to show that primitive single-celled life could evolve into the panoply of species that currently exist, but rather it must also be shown how non-living matter could ‘evolve’ into the primitive single-celled life form. A house cannot be built without a foundation.
The Evolutionist Argument
Although the entire process of abiogenesis is not fully understood, there are significant strides toward a full scientific understanding of the origin of life. Progress is being made, and several steps between inorganic matter and living cells have been postulated1. The formation of many complex organic molecules from much simpler molecules has already been demonstrated in conditions that resemble the young Earth and observed in nebulae2.
The major characteristics of living matter, even though they are interdependent today, can have originated independently. In contrast to DNA, which requires protein catalysts for replication, an RNA molecule can catalyze the replication of other RNA molecules, given the right circumstances3. Recent studies of cell structure have lent credence to this theory by observing RNA-catalyzed RNA formation in the ribosomes of modern cells. There are also several known scenarios where metabolism could occur before the advent of genetic replicators, including the "iron-sulphur world theory"4. Since these two processes provide considerable advantages to each other, once they combine it is unlikely that they would separate, eventually leading through the process of evolution to the modern variety of life.
Even though the mechanism of abiogenesis is poorly understood, it does not necessitate the abandonment of the entire theory of evolution. As with other areas of science, understanding comes in some areas before it comes in others, even when these areas are linked. There is as yet no conclusive evidence that the formation of the elements of life from inorganic matter is impossible, particularly given the numerous plausible scenarios that have been proposed.
Evaluation of the Arguments
I find the evolutionist argument to be more convincing than the creationist argument. While living and non-living matter are clearly dissimilar, the evolutionary biologists have produced a number of credible theories to explain how living matter could arise from non-living matter. Even though the science of the origin of life is in its infancy, there is no real reason to abandon it and its approach based on natural law for a purely supernatural explanation.
In particular, the creationist argument presumes that no intermediate step between a bath of lifeless chemicals and the organised world of the fully-developed cell is possible. Recent scientific investigation has shown that there are possible intermediate steps where some of the processes of life occur without others. Although none of these intermediate steps has yet been observed, there is ongoing work to observe them. Some of these intermediate forms even support a form of evolution.
The long timescale associated with the origin of life is also a problem with the creationist's argument. Many unlikely events can occur over the course of a billion years, and some of the events that lead towards the formation of life would only need to occur once. The evidence is only getting stronger that the so-called 'chance' origin of life is in fact the correct theory.
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This writeup is copyright 2004 D.G. Roberge and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ .