Tuesday, 14 November 2006

In the Beginning

New ways to remove radiation from humans; gays are more likely to suffer from addictions; what causes SIDS; and how pollution makes people stupider. This is particularly true for those born between 1960 and 1980, because of exposure to lead in gasoline. Bummer. Evidently this population has had marked increased in retardation and autism, decrease in attention span, and half as many with an IQ over 130. That's just really depressing.

But the article I'll focus on is some intriguing experiments looking at similarity between Saturn's moon Titan and the primordial atmosphere of Earth. Chemists have reproduced Titan's methane-nitrogen atmosphere with the application of UV light to create long-chain hydrocarbons, and astronomers have noticed these same chemicals in Titan's atmosphere. Similar chemicals are created with a methane-carbon dioxide base, the posited primordial Earth atmosphere.

The origin of life is problematic, for a few reasons. One, it's important to biology, but it's not really biology. There's no genes yet, there's no reproduction- it's the beginning of all that. So it's not really the biologists who are experts in this; it's more the chemists. And of course, it's hard to get data on it, and we still don't know a lot about how it all started. In truth there is no theory yet for this part- it's only different hypothesis. Lastly, it seems to have happened only once.

One hypothesis is that God created everything like Q, with a snap of His fingers. Not a scientific hypothesis, but it's there. And it could have happened. I can't think of any alternate scientific hypothesis that can reject it at this point- we just don't have enough evidence on how it happened through natural means. But I can think of a couple good theological reasons why it didn't happen that way.

The Literal Creationist and Intelligent Design hypothesis due injustice not only to science but also to religion, specifically Christianity. For they posit a weak God. As with the title of this blog, their God is too impotent to be able to do a complex creation- the creation must be made ex nihilo in the blink of an eye. It has none of the beautiful complexity of a multi-evolving community.

But even more, it does injustice to the concept of a miracle, and therefore of God. We repeatedly see God doing miracles for a purpose. They are signs, to point the way. They are not to prove the existence of God- nothing can- but rather signs to help us understand the nature of God. So I ask. Who exactly were these early supposed miracles for? The dodo? Triceratops? Sea Scorpions? No, it was far earlier than that. Not even the Archaea, those oldest and perhaps most primitive of bacteria, are around to see the beginnings of life. All we have are the rocks as silent observers. The argument that these were signs of God's existence for humans millions (or thousands) of years later is far too weak, for the signs left for us are far too inconclusive. In the case of evolution, there is too much evidence to the contrary. But for both the origin of life, and evolution, and anything else, there is not the clear overriding evidence to support a Q-snap for a creation event- which would be required if this were a sign for things to come- namely us.

As to it being a sign to help us understand God, I'd ask what does it reveal of God to say he creates in a moment, rather than through a process? That actually leads to some excellent discussion, but for another time. But such can not be an argument for Literal Creation vs. Evolution- it is rather that, once we understand the process, we can better understand who God is.

The final reason why God would not have created life in a supernatural event is that it limits God. It is the limit of the God in the Gaps, which ultimately does more injustice to God than it does to science, although it does great injustice to the latter as well. For it limits God. It puts Him in a box, saying He can only operate at certain times. It is a miracle, when we can't figure out how it might have happened. Then God steps in, and "poof", there is an elephant. Or an eye. It says God can't create through natural means- he must resort to being The Great Magician. But God uses miracles for a reason, not just for fun. If we believe what the Bible indicates.

The Literal Creationist hypothesis therefore ultimately reduces the intimate presence of God. We learn nanini, nanini na- God is everywhere. He is not all things, but He is in all things. He is a part of it. In Him we live and move and have our being. The existence of anything, by any process, is a miracle. Yet according to Intelligent Design, God created at only certain points, when it was too complex to do otherwise, and everything else evolved. So God is somehow less present in certain moments of creation. It is less of a creative event if it happens through evolution; it is less fully God.

That's not the kind of God I'm interested in. I'm interested in a God who is intimate in every moment of creation, who is intelligent enough to design a system that boggles the mind. Miracles do not happen because God must do them, and the natural processes He designed will not suffice. They happen so we can know Him.

So, I reject the premise that the formation of first life happened through a Q-like miracle. It was certainly a miracle, but one that occurred through natural means. What those natural means are...I'm not telling. We truly don't know yet. But science is philosophically naturalistic- it must use the same system for understanding the natural world. Otherwise, whenever we don't understand something, we simply stop working, and chalk it up to an act of God. Which kind of grinds things to a halt. Killed someone recently? Use the "God-made-it-appear-like-me-but-it-was-someone-else" defense. Works every time.

The formation of first life can't have occurred through a supernatural event, primarily for theological reasons. We don't yet have all of the evidence for the natural formation, but based on the beginnings of it, I'm sure it will eventually come in.

Science does very well with the repeated event. Not so well with the event that happens only once. And the formation of first life appears to be the singular event par excellant. Or is it? Was life formed once, or multiple times? I'd say the evidence is fairly clear that it formed only once. All life portrays certain similarities. We have the same base pairs on DNA (or in a few cases like HIV, RNA), leading to the same proteins. Statistically, it didn't have to happen that way. If life had formed a few times, you would expect differences in descendants. Even more telling, all natural organic molecules portray the same chirality. Molecules can go to the right or left in their polarization of light- and there's a 50:50 chance it would be one of the other- or they can be symmetrical and not go either way. All organic molecules are left chiral. If you tried to consume something, say on another planet, that was right chiral, or had no chirality, you'd get either very sick, or maybe just die. You wouldn't be able to consume it as nourishment. So it's a good thing all organic molecules on this planet have the same chirality. But since they do, and to be working organic molecules, they could have chosen right or left, this is another powerful argument for a common origin for all life. And since there seems to be no good supernatural explanation (again, in the sence of a Q-like moment) for the formation of first life, even though the formation of first life is a singular event, I would suggest it can be naturally explained.

Of course, we may discover life with the opposite chirality on this planet one day, but for now, we are left with evidence indicating too much commonality in all life. But this begs the question as to why life only arose once.

There's the question on how life first formed. But I have thought recently, there's an even better question on why it formed only once. And why don't we continue to see it arising now? Granted, that might be happening- but we have yet to see it, and if it were occurring, one would think that by now we would have observed it in a lab or in nature. If the conditions were just right for it to arise once, why not more than once? Why not more than once in the Archean Eon, the first biological time period, or more than once and still continuing today? It appears that the conditions of the early atmosphere that allowed the formation of life were anaerobic and involved particular gases and lightning. Such a grouping of events doesn't occur commonly today, with our poisonous oxygen atmosphere. But it does occur in certain places on the planet, or on other planets. If life was so unstoppable that it formed spontaneously before, why not in those places? It didn't even have much time to form- most recent evidence that it was as recently as 3.5 billion years ago there was life, allowing for only half a billion years for life to form after the Earth stopped being molten. This indicates that the formation of life is very likely- it is a probable event. And yet, still, it isn't here, again.

(Note that for the ID crowd, the claim is that life has been created numerous times, and therefore, should be observed now- but they have no good explanation as to why it has not been observed being formed ever in the history of humanity, past myths on spontaneous generation not withstanding.)

I haven't forgotten the main point of this essay. I've just been taking my time getting there. This newest research provides dramatic further answers as to why life hasn't formed again. The chemistry of the early Earth's atmosphere was so radically different that it hasn't been repeated. A methane-based atmosphere, exposed to UV light as it had no Ozone Layer to protect it, could have produced the building blocks of life. But such an atmosphere does not now exist, and hasn't for a long time.

Much more research of course remains to be done, to get from those building blocks to life. We have seen the development of amino acids spontaneously from organic molecules, and spontaneous formation of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) into self-replicating RNA. We've known for a long time that lipid bilayers automatically form the cell membrane. But there remains a lot of research to be done to get from there to a functioning cell. And left a mystery is why life didn't evolve more than once in that original atmosphere. Of course, perhaps it did, and the other forms were unable to compete with our ancestors.

Often it is claimed that there are gaps in the evolutionary lineage. I am impressed at how, again and again, evolution will predict an outcome, and the evidence will eventually be found- very similar to the process of Biblical archeology, which is also often gainsaid. Just as evolutionists for a century and a half were attacked for lacking the evidence for the fossil record of whales, and we now have a complete record, so the predictions of the origins of life are starting to fall into place, one molecule at a time.


@bdul muHib said...

Quaintance said: For some reason, I find the term "gays" really offensive. Maybe it's because we don't say "straights"? Or, at least, I don't think I hear people saying it...

@bdul muHib said...

Quaintance said: chemical origins: Remember Jason Dworkin from Oxy? He's working on this stuff down at SETI in Mountain View, CA.

@bdul muHib said...

Really? I find "homosexuals" offensive. Maybe it's because I usually hear homophobic people insulting...this type of person...using the word "homosexual". And those I've been friends with have referred to themselves as "gay" usually rather than homosexual. Not that the word "homosexual" is bad- I mean, it's what we use when were speaking clinically- but I just feel like it's not a polite word to use in conversation. Maybe it's different in different areas of the U.S.

@bdul muHib said...

SETI works with chemical origins? I thought they were just looking for signals from outer space. But I don't remember Dworkin.

@bdul muHib said...

Joe said: As I understand it, "gay" usually refers to a male homosexual (versus lesbian for a female), while "homosexual" is a generic term. If so, then it is important for precision to use the correct and nonambiguous term regardless of which we prefer.

Regarding the substance of the post...there was an interesting looking article on PandasThumb yesterday about the possibility that life may have been inevitable not just possible.

@bdul muHib said...

Gay can refer to both men only, or both genders.

Yes- I saw the article yesterday. It's included as one of the post links.

This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.