Evolution does not come into play until the fifth stage of Chemosynthesis
June 18, 2001
I am extremely reluctant to engage in a debate with religious fundamentalists regarding creationism as opposed to evolution being the means of development of living creatures. Just as firmly as I hold to the theory of evolution, I respect the right of the faithful to believe that the entire universe was created just for humans.
Against my better judgement then, I am forced to respond to a letter by Z. Jabbar under the caption "The odds against life evolving naturally" (l3.6.200l) [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ]. He referenced an earlier letter of mine and correctly pointed out that certain tenets of modern science could mislead if the facts are not properly understood.
Jabbar then cites a scientific experiment in which s/he claims "chemists" sought to produce life in a laboratory in an attempt to explain how it began. Here, Jabbar provides us with a prime example of just how misleading things become when we don't quite understand the facts of what they're about.
The "chemists" s/he refers to are the Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey and his doctoral student Stanley Miller. In 1953 these scientists, as Jabbar reports, "sent sparks through a mixture of special gases." But contrary to Jabbar's claim, Miller and Urey were not trying to "produce" life in a laboratory; they were researching possible environments of an early Earth to determine what effects the unique atmosphere would have on the formation of living systems.
Fossils of primitive microorganisms show that life emerged on earth about 3.8 billion years ago (an average of about 2 billion years after the planet was formed.)Scientists of the calibre of Miller and Urey know this and do not expect to duplicate such a time frame in an experiment lasting a few hours or even six
The result of the Miller/Urey experiment electrified the scientific community when it was found that organic compounds had been found, including amino acids, "the building blocks of life." Jabbar downplays this excitement pointing out instead that amino acids are not alive. Indeed, they are not expected to be. They are building blocks ? one does not look at a brick and call it a house; one does not look at an amino acid and call it a life.
The fact that amino acids are not alive convinced Jabbar that life could not actually begin from nonliving matter. S/he then declared that nonliving amino acids do "not provide evidence for the theory of evolution." It was then I that realised that Jabbar is confused. S/he has the theories mixed?up.
Here we are discussing the theory of abiogenesis, the hypothesis that life can come into being from nonliving materials. This does not yet concern evolution, which is the theory that all life developed from earlier forms of life.
In other words, life must form (abiogenesis) before natural selection (evolution) takes place. Biological evolution is not expected to act where life does not exist. Therefore I am at a loss to understand why Jabbar believes evolution has anything to do with the gases in the Miller/Urey experiment.
Jabbar should know that Amino acids, while not themselves alive, go through a process called Chemosynthesis which some scientists believe led to the origin of the first living cell. The constraints of newspaper space does not allow me to develop this six stage process in the kind of detail that produces clarity. Jabbar could research chemosynthesis if s/he is inclined but I should add for his/her benefit that evolution does not come into play until the fifth phase.
Most Christian fundamentalists quote J. F Coppedge's statistics of the near impossibility of creating a protein molecule. Z. Jabbar quotes Coppedge at length and may have read his 1973 creationist publication "Evolution: possible or impossible?" I have not read the book but I have read a few scientific critiques which claim much of the research on which the book is based is now hopelessly out of date.
It is important to note that when scientists speak of the beginning of life they do not envision the abrupt creation of a multicellular being like a human.
Instead they think of a most primitive chemical system capable of self-replication. They do not see a God laboring over the composition of DNA like most people do over jigsaw puzzles. They see the weak and strong nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism as unguided forces which act together to produce mass and energy.
Science does not propose to know the truth. It endeavours to portray that which is most probable based on empirical evidence. Unlike religious faith, the scientific process is open to scrutiny and change.
I do not consider myself qualified to untangle a contentious debate that is centuries old and do not wish to engage Christian fundamentalists about the tenets of their beliefs. I feel they are entitled to their opinions and I am entitled to mine. Besides, I doubt newspaper editors would take kindly to voluminous letters regarding the errancy of some religious