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Can we say for sure – how did life begin?

Was it science, God … or both?

The Press recently announced that scientists had discovered new evidence regarding how life began on Earth.

Astronomers were studying a giant rock which is orbiting around the Sun when they noticed that there seemed to be ice on the rock’s surface.

Not only that but from the way the light was reflecting off the ice, it looked as though there might be organic chemicals. This was a very exciting discovery because until recently space rocks were thought to be lifeless.

Could this be the solution to a long-running mystery?

 

What mystery?

Scientists think that life first started on earth nearly four billion years ago. Once it existed, the theory of evolution seems to explain what happened next. Over billions of years, life gradually evolved, from simple creatures to what we have today.

BUT there’s a problem.  The first living thing was simple compared with life today, but it still consisted of a long chain of chemicals. Somehow those chemicals had to come together and join. How did this happen?

To get an idea of the scale of this mystery, it’s useful to have an idea of what that first life form might have looked like. Once you do, you’ll see why scientists are finding it difficult – using what we currently know – to explain how the right chemicals could just ‘accidentally’ come together.


What did the first life look like?

Scientists think that the first life form was a long chemical chain of so-called nucleic acids. Nucleic acids are important because they contain information and allow self-replication. This is what makes this very simple organism ‘alive’ – it can replicate or copy itself.

You have probably already heard of one kind of nucleic acid. It is called, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

DNA is the ‘stuff of life’ inside all living things on Earth today. A copy of your DNA code is in every one of your cells and helps to determine all kinds of things about you from the colour of your hair to the shape of your ears.

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Scientists don’t think the first life was made of DNA, but of another nucleic acid called RNA (as shown in this representation.)

RNA, like DNA, can be used to code information. RNA can also play other useful roles in a basic living organism. In particular it can act as an ‘enzyme’.
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So how do we fill this ‘gap’ in our current knowledge. Here are just two of the theories that have been proposed:

The Slimy Soup Theory

According to this theory, life began in a pool of water, called ‘soup’ because it was rich with the kinds of chemicals needed to make life. Suddenly something happened – perhaps a bolt of lightning hit one of the pools –  and the chemicals reacted and formed more complicated chemicals.

The weakness in this theory is that scientists suspect that in reality the soup was not concentrated enough to allow the necessary chemicals to meet.

 

The Meteorite Theory

According to this theory, the first life form arrived by hitching a ride on a meteorite. If this theory is right, and rocks from space did bring the ingredients for life to Earth, the next question has to be, where did those rocks originate from?

How did life first begin on Earth? Year 10 at St Simon Stock Catholic School took on the challenge of thinking this question through. With the help of their science teacher, Mr Thompson, they came up with a range of ideas.

How Did Life First Begin, by students in Year 10

The debate on the origins of life in faith and science

There is an ongoing debate about the origins of life between ‘science’ and ‘faith’. It is complex and varied but there is some common ground. From the point of view of science, life was created by having plausible prebiotic conditions that in particular combinations resulted in the creation of the small molecules of life. Evolution worked on molecules and cells until we are where we are today, and it has not stopped. We can still evolve for thousands of years to come.

I think that it was inevitable that the right conditions such as volcanoes, interplanetary collisions and meteors would occur in some way to result in collections of cells and life as we know it, however small the probability of it happening was.

On the other hand, world faiths believe in a god or gods that are responsible for creating material, planets and life, rather than science being responsible. Some say science has nothing to do with the creation of life. Many people find it easy to put everything down to a ‘God’ because they cannot be bothered to find out or they just don’t want to know.

There will never be agreement, and there will be argument. I think that life had to be formed at some point, so it wasn’t impossible. If it can happen on earth, surely a form of life adapted to any particular environment is possible. Perhaps a God could create life forms on other planets as may have happened here. Who knows?

How was the earth created and how did life start?

How was the earth created? Was it in six days as the Bible says, or was it how scientists have said, by ‘The Big Bang’ theory? I have been brought up as a Christian by my Christian parents. We go to church often and I went to Sunday Club and now go to ‘New Way’ services. So my upbringing has told me that it was God who created the world. (quotation of Genesis 1:1 to verse 5) And so it goes on. God made heaven on the second day, the water and land creatures and finally man. Man was created in His image with the plants on the sixth day. I do follow this and believe that this is how it happened. The world could not just come about. It had to take ideas and precision. It could not happen without someone watching over it.

However, this does not mean that I am against all scientific ideas on the creation of the world. Life on earth may well have relied on meteorite impacts and the arrival of molecules from cometary bombardments. I agree with the scientific thinking, but I believe that God stands over it all, looking down on the process. Something has to control everything to make things happen the way they did. Nothing happens without a reason.

When the Bible was written there were no scientists to tell them how the earth was created, but the order of events in Genesis is broadly correct. If the Bible is just a story, how did the writers manage to get the order of events the same as the scientists who look at rocks and fossils?

Essay on the start of life

There are many different ingredients in the theories about the origin of the earth and the start of life, including meteorites, colliding comets, volcanoes and reactions in pools or clouds driven by lightning or radiation. Each theory uses evidence in particular combinations, all combining the elements that exist in the early earth and the possible reactions they can show.

However, after many years of attempting to answer these questions scientists are still undecided. Numerous rockets and craft have been sent to the moon, Mars and other bodies in the Solar System to find out what has happened elsewhere, mostly with little success, only fuelling further speculation and doing little to advance current theories.

Even though this work has been carried out in great detail, I find myself asking whether it is all really necessary. Is it vital to our survival? My answer is no! It wastes lots of money that could be better spent, such as tackling poverty. Even if we did find out how the world was created or the start of life, what significant change could it bring about?

In my opinion we should simply look to the Bible. To me it is not important to know just how life started. Some questions are best left alone- I just put my trust in God and believe that He created the world. It is not important that there are some details missing from the Bible- if it was important we would have been told in an obvious and relevant way. I once read, “We have not been called to understand, we have been called to trust.” What we need to know will come to light in its own time. We should trust that we are here for a reason, and that what is meant to be is meant to be.

The Origins of life in science and Judeo-Christianity

In the Christian religion, vegetative life on earth started when God declared “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” This quote from the Bible is what God spoke and what happened, if you interpret it from a literal point of view. This is in extreme contrast with the scientific views. However, can it not be said that both are partially correct? The Bible declaims that “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Perhaps a cloud can sometimes be metaphoric for a spirit, and according to Dr David Whitehouse, vast molecular clouds in our galaxy can be “chemical factories” that protect molecules from the radiation and heat of stars in the galaxy before they are carried in meteorites to a random planet, in this case, the earth.

Another large factor in how the origins of life were created is that it started about 4 billion years ago, around half a billion years after the planet was created. The Bible records that the timescale for God to have created everything was 7 days, including one day of rest. This seems an odd number, especially if you think that Methuselah supposedly lived for 969 years, so in my opinion, I believe some number became lost in copying, translation or have been misinterpreted, as some cultures exaggerate certain figures, like calling a king “the eternal king” knowing he isn’t really eternal.

Science is based on fact, and theories, and a lot of research. Most religion is based on tradition, stories that have been handed down, and what has happened in the past. From my point of view, science need not contradict religion as long as it is not too literalistic.

How life started

In Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, the doctor creates life from old body parts and an electric current from a lightning strike. We used to believe that this was impossible, but this might not still be the case, as putting an electric current through a mixture of water, hydrogen, ammonia and methane will cause the formation of amino acids. In this way Stanley Miller and Harold Urey thought it would be possible to create the prebiotic soup necessary for all life on earth.

While I find this fine in principle, I have to point out that there would be many other variables in reality that would make it impossible to reproduce the process now in the laboratory as it supposedly originally happened. Volcanic clouds may encourage lightning that causes the formation of amino acids, but are just as likely to break them down again before falling into pools in sufficient concentrations to lead to the formation of RNA and DNA. So while the process is clearly hard to reproduce, perhaps it is just too improbable anyway. Does it make more sense to say that someone or something had to be there to ‘tamper’ with the environment to get the reaction to take place to start life? I am not saying that the religious creation story is entirely correct, but it answers some questions. Even though electricity can form left and right handed amino acids, how else does cell structure, sexual reproduction, and some key aspects of sentience or self-awareness arise without intervention? If we are just left with lightning bolts, the odds are too long. It is possible that our existence is due to complete and utter random luck, but I would rather propose a theory that involves a higher being that interferes with our earth and makes it possible for us to become as we are now.

Why should this be reasonable? An all present, all knowing intelligence would perhaps ‘tweak’ a natural and chaotic process to enable the formation of bacteria or amoebae, not to mention at later points in history, in order to arrange this kind of earth with life we see today. The first reproducing cells need a number of vital structures to ensure their survival. Some of these parts may well work alone, now or in the past, but they are all necessary to begin with to make a functioning species. Irreducible complexity theory is a justification for an intelligent designer. I believe that such an intelligent designer is necessary to produce our creation because the enormous amount of luck and chance involved in the chaos-style theory is too great for me to believe or accept.

How did life begin?

Science is often looked at as the search for truths and religion is looked at as being the search for ideals, therefore making them very different topics. I do not look at it like this, however, as I think that the two intertwine and cooperate to produce what people think of as ‘the truth’.

The first question you need to ask when looking at the origins of life on earth is, ‘Is God necessary?’ In my opinion, no, he is not. In order for life to start, scientifically speaking, the right chemicals need to come together and form in the correct way. This then leads to the first building blocks of life that can evolve into what we see today. However, exactly the right chemicals must come together in the right amounts and in the right conditions. Primitive life forms must then evolve for millions of years before we get to the stage of life that we are at today. To me this seems very coincidental if left to chance. The probability of all this happening is minute, yet not impossible.

Just because I think that the scientific theories don’t hold up, however, does not mean that I believe God played a helping hand. Many who do say God started life on earth claim that they are correct as science can’t prove otherwise. This, I feel, is not a suitable argument. Just because we cannot explain something naturally or scientifically does not mean that we can just blame God. If this were so then religion would be worthless, just an escape from difficult questions in life.

I do not, though, rule out God having something to do with the start of life on earth. Even if he didn’t directly start life on earth then where did the materials come from? This infinite regression leads back and back to the point where there has to be an ultimate creator. No science can make something from nothing.

Overall my position is that at this current time neither religion nor science can actually prove how life on earth started, yet they cannot prove the other wrong either. I believe that at the moment this topic is way beyond our comprehension and that perhaps life is far too complicated to explain, but I am open to the fact that this may change with time. I believe in God but this does not mean I believe he is responsible for the start of life as I cannot prove this, or even that he exists. All we know is that life has started by some mysterious means.

© 2011 LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)