In Signature in the Cell, Dr. Stephen Meyer presented a comprehensive and accessible history of research into the origin of life. In this post, we take a bird’s eye view of research into this area over the past three-quarters of a century. We shall also digress in order to get a snapshot of how ideological commitments shape the views of many scientists.
Let’s begin with Dr. Ernst Chain. Chain won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the development of penicillin. I mentioned him in Genesis and Genes, in the context of the discussion about whether evolutionary theory is relevant to nuts-and-bolts research in biology. I cited an article by Philip Skell (1918-2010), who was a distinguished professor of chemistry and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA and a prominent Darwin sceptic. In a 2009 article in Forbes.com entitled The Dangers of Overselling Evolution, he made the point that evolutionary theory makes no contribution to actual research:
In 1942, Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain wrote that his discovery of penicillin (with Howard Florey and Alexander Fleming) and the development of bacterial resistance to that antibiotic owed nothing to Darwin’s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s evolutionary theories.
Chain understood the immensity of the task of trying to explain life in naturalistic terms. In The Life of Ernst Chain: Penicillin and Beyond, we read that:
I have said for years that speculations about the origin of life lead to no useful purpose as even the simplest living system is far too complex to be understood in terms of the extremely primitive chemistry scientists have used in their attempts to explain the unexplainable that happened billions of years ago.
In August 1954, Dr. George Wald, another Nobel Laureate, wrote in Scientific American:
There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility… a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God, therefore I choose to believe that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to Evolution.
This statement may seem astonishingly frank to many members of the public. Informed consumers of science, in contrast, are aware that much of the debate around the origin of life and biological evolution has precious little to do with drawing inevitable conclusions from straightforward evidence. It is far more about worldviews and ideologies, and only extremely naive observers assume that this does not apply to scientists who participate in the debate. Wald makes it perfectly clear that his direction was dictated by his philosophical leanings, and that is true of many scientists and Western intellectuals. Consider the views of Thomas Nagel. Nagel is a courageous thinker whose latest book, Mind and Cosmos, is a fierce demolition of Darwinian evolution. But Nagel will only go so far. In The Last Word, which appeared in 1997, he offered a candid account of his philosophical inclinations:
I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers… It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
The fact that faith – the faith of many scientists in the ability of unguided matter and energy to create life – drives much of the discussion about evolution, was underscored by Dr. Gerald Kerkut, Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience at the University of Southampton, who wrote in 1960 that:
The first assumption was that non-living things gave rise to living material. This is still just an assumption… There is, however, little evidence in favor of abiogenesis and as yet we have no indication that it can be performed… it is therefore a matter of faith on the part of the biologist that abiogenesis did occur and he can choose whatever method… happens to suit him personally; the evidence for what did happen is not available.
Harold Urey won a Nobel Prize for chemistry, but is probably more famous for participating, with his graduate student Stanley Miller, in what became known as the Miller-Urey experiment. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor on 4th January 1962, Urey wrote:
All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel it is too complex to have evolved anywhere. We all believe as an article of faith that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great, it is hard for us to imagine that it did.
Hubert Yockey, the renowned information theorist, wrote in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in 1977 that:
One must conclude that… a scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written.
Richard Dickerson, a molecular biologist at UCLA, wrote in 1978 in Scientific American that:
The evolution of the genetic machinery is the step for which there are no laboratory models; hence one can speculate endlessly, unfettered by inconvenient facts. The complex genetic apparatus in present-day organisms is so universal that one has few clues as to what the apparatus may have looked like in its most primitive form.
Francis Crick needs no introduction. In Life Itself, published in 1981, he wrote that:
Every time I write a paper on the origin of life, I determine I will never write another one, because there is too much speculation running after too few facts.
Crick’s conclusion is that:
The origin of life seems almost to be a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.
Prominent origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel wrote in New Scientist in 1982 that:
Prebiotic soup is easy to obtain. We must next explain how a prebiotic soup of organic molecules, including amino acids and the organic constituents of nucleotides evolved into a self-replicating organism. While some suggestive evidence has been obtained, I must admit that attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary process are extremely tentative.
The views of Nobel Prize winner Fred Hoyle are particularly interesting. He struggled with the conflict between his ardent atheism and his knowledge of the excruciating difficulty of positing a naturalistic start to life. Writing in 1984, Hoyle stated that:
From my earliest training as a scientist I was very strongly brain-washed to believe that science cannot be consistent with any kind of deliberate creation. That notion has had to be very painfully shed. I am quite uncomfortable in the situation, the state of mind I now find myself in. But there is no logical way out of it; it is just not possible that life could have originated from a chemical accident.
The writer Andrew Scott hit the nail on the head when he wrote, in 1986, that most scientists’ adherence to naturalistic accounts of the origin of life owed little to the evidence and much to ideological commitments:
But what if the vast majority of scientists all have faith in the one unverified idea? The modern ‘standard’ scientific version of the origin of life on earth is one such idea, and we would be wise to check its real merit with great care. Has the cold blade of reason been applied with sufficient vigor in this case? Most scientists want to believe that life could have emerged spontaneously from the primeval waters, because it would confirm their belief in the explicability of Nature – the belief that all could be explained in terms of particles and energy and forces if only we had the time and the necessary intellect.
This conclusion is mirrored in the words of Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and authority on origin-of-life studies. Writing in 2002, Davies affirms that it is scientists’ adherence to methodological naturalism that drives their agenda and conclusions:
First, I should like to say that the scientific attempt to explain the origin of life proceeds from the assumption that whatever it was that happened was a natural process: no miracles, no supernatural intervention. It was by ordinary atoms doing extraordinary things that life was brought into existence. Scientists have to start with that assumption.
In 1988, Klaus Dose, another prominent origin-of-life theorist, summed up the situation nicely when he wrote that:
More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussions on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance.
Carl Woese was a pioneer in taxonomy, and one of the major figures in 20th century microbiology. His view of the origin of life:
In one sense the origin of life remains what it was in the time of Darwin – one of the great unsolved riddles of science. Yet we have made progress…many of the early naïve assumptions have fallen or have fallen aside…while we do not have a solution, we now have an inkling of the magnitude of the problem.
Paul Davies, too, writes that no substantive progress has been made in this area since Darwin’s time. In a recent short paper suggesting that life be viewed as a software package, Davies writes:
Darwin pointedly left out an account of how life first emerged, “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. A century and a half later, scientists still remain largely in the dark about life’s origins. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions in science.
Readers of Genesis and Genes will recall Richard Lewontin’s admission that his mathematical models of evolutionary mechanisms are a sham – they do not correspond to reality. The biologist Lynn Margulis reminisced:
Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass [University of Massachusetts] Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it – changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.
Lewontin, who is one of the most prominent geneticists in the world and a protégé of one of the founders of neo-Darwinism, Theodosius Dobzhansky, was equally forthright about the role that faith plays in moulding scientists’ approach to important issues. In his review of a book by Carl Sagan, Lewontin wrote in 1997 that:
We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute is one of the world’s leading origin-of-life researchers and a leading expert on self-organisational systems. He writes:
Anyone who tells you that he or she knows how life started on the earth some 3.45 billion years ago is a fool or a knave. Nobody knows.
In Genesis and Genes, I also quoted the biochemist Franklin Harold. In his book The Way of the Cell, Harold frankly acknowledged that “We must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” Regarding the origin of life, Harold writes that:
It would be agreeable to conclude this book with a cheery fanfare about science closing in, slowly but surely, on the ultimate mystery; but the time for rosy rhetoric is not yet at hand. The origin of life appears to me as incomprehensible as ever, a matter for wonder but not for explication.
Massimo Pigliucci was formerly a professor of evolutionary biology and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and holds doctorates in genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science. He is currently the chairman of the department of philosophy at City University of New York. He is a prominent international proponent of evolution and the author of several books. Writing in 2003, Pigliucci writes that “[I]t has to be true that we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”
In 2007, we find science writer Gregg Easterbrook writing in Wired: “What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint. If anything, the mystery has deepened over time.”
Also in 2007, Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides, in accepting the highest award of the American Chemical Society, wrote: “The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea… On the basis of all the chemistry that I know, it seems to me astonishingly improbable.”
As recently as 2011, Scientific American acknowledged that origin-of-life research has gotten nowhere in the last century. In an article by John Horgan, we read that:
Dennis Overbye just wrote a status report for the New York Times on research into life’s origin, based on a conference on the topic at Arizona State University. Geologists, chemists, astronomers, and biologists are as stumped as ever by the riddle of life.
Also writing in 2011, Dr. Eugene Koonin provided a neat summary of the utter failure of this endeavour:
The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science… Origin of Life research has evolved into a lively, interdisciplinary field, but other scientists often view it with skepticism and even derision. This attitude is understandable and, in a sense, perhaps justified, given the “dirty” rarely mentioned secret: Despite many interesting results to its credit, when judged by the straightforward criterion of reaching (or even approaching) the ultimate goal, the origin of life field is a failure – we still do not have even a plausible coherent model, let alone a validated scenario, for the emergence of life on Earth. Certainly, this is due not to a lack of experimental and theoretical effort, but to the extraordinary intrinsic difficulty and complexity of the problem. A succession of exceedingly unlikely steps is essential for the origin of life… these make the final outcome seem almost like a miracle.
The area of origin-of-life research is fascinating not only for its own sake, but also in the way that it exposes what many uninformed members of the public take for granted, namely, that scientists are driven by data, and data alone. I elaborated on this misconception in Genesis and Genes, demonstrating that the commitment of many scientists to methodological naturalism is a far more important factor than the scientific evidence in reaching conclusions about life on Earth.
The post Certitude and Bluff:
Some of the quotations in this post come from an article by Rabbi Moshe Averick, published in The Algemeiner. The article can be read here:
Retrieved 26th June 2013.
 The article can be read here:
Retrieved 2nd November 2010.
 R.W. Clark, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London (1985), page 148.
 To read more about Nagel and his latest book, see these reviews:
Retrieved 27th June 2013.
 Richard E. Dickerson, “Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life”, Scientific American, Vol. 239, No. 3, September 1978, page77.
 Life Itself, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981, page 88.
 Leslie E. Orgel, “Darwinism at the very beginning of life”, New Scientist, Vol. 94, 15 April 1982, page 150.
 Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space, New York, Simon and Shuster, 1984, page 53.
 Andrew Scott, “The Creation of Life: Past, Future, Alien”, Basil Blackwell, 1986, page 111.
 Paul Davies, “In Search of Eden, Conversations with Paul Davies and Phillip Adams”.
 Klaus Dose, “The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1988, page 348.
 Carl Woese, Gunter Wachtershauser, “Origin of Life” in Paleobiology: A Synthesis, Briggs and Crowther – Editors (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1989.
 See: http://arxiv.org/abs/1207.4803.
Retrieved 27th June 2013.
 “Billions and Billions of Demons”, Richard Lewontin, 9th January 1997, New York Times Book Review.
 At Home in the Universe, London, Viking, 1995, page 31.
 Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life, Oxford University Press, 2001, page 205.
 Ibid. page 251.
 Massimo Pigliucci, “Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life’s Origin,” in Darwin, Design and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), page 196.
 Gregg Easterbrook, “Where did life come from?” Wired, page 108, February, 2007.
 George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions in Chemistry: Priestly Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address”, Chemical and Engineering News, 85 (March 26, 2007): p. 12-17. See http://ismagilovlab.uchicago.edu/GMW_address_priestley_medal.pdf.
Retrieved 22nd April 2012.
 John Horgan, Scientific American, 28th February 2011.
 Eugene Koonin, The Logic of Chance: The Nature and origin of Biological Evolution (Upper Saddle River, NJ, FT Press, 2011, page 391.