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Prebiotic soup myth

How did life begin? The answer from textbooks, most learned journals and the media directs our attention to a warm pool in the primitive earth, well-endowed with organic chemicals, from which the first self-replicating living thing spontaneously arose. If you want to see what it might have looked like - go to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London. Here is how John Lucas describes it (Weekend Telegraph, 1 July 1996): 

The main problem for the Kew exhibit, and for all of the propounders of this scenario for the origin of life, is that it lacks any scientific support. It is completely hypothetical - but very few people seem to have noticed!

A modern advocate of this route to chemical evolution is Richard Dawkins. In his view, life is an amazingly lucky accident: 

Modern theories of abiogenesis are traced back to the Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin who, in 1924, proposed a scheme of chemical evolution. Others picked up the theme: Haldane (1928), Bernal (1947) and Urey (1952). The latter's main contribution was to suggest an initial, hydrogen-rich, reducing atmosphere for the early earth.

Stanley Miller provided experimental data on the synthesis of organic materials which might be collected in a primeval pool. He worked initially (1952) with an atmosphere of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapour (later experiments added other gases, notably carbon dioxide). Electrical discharges produced organic compounds. Numerous research investigations have taken place since Miller began, and in the products of the reaction, ten of the twenty amino acids found in living things have been synthesised naturally. Numerous other compounds were also detected, but these were not deemed so interesting as they do not occur in the proteins of life. It should perhaps be noted that these experiments have produced equal quantities of right-handed and left-handed organic molecules. This is quite different to the amino acids in living systems, where only left-handed molecules occur. The production of left-handed molecules is routine for living systems - but it is a fundamental problem to get them from a primeval soup.

Charles Darwin is often credited with having anticipated the modern chemical evolution scenario, based on ideas he expressed privately in a letter to Joseph Hooker in 1871. 

Of course, this quotation is only from a private letter. In his public writings, Darwin made reference to the activity of the Creator initiating life. The general view seems to be that Darwin was making a public statement which he was not fully committed to. Thus, Orgel wrote:  This perception of the situation was shared by Carl Henry:  The reality is that the `warm little pond' scenario should have been abandoned at least 20 years ago! There are three major lines of evidence against it, all of which are well documented in the academic literature:

1. There is no evidence for an early earth with a reducing atmosphere. The consensus now is that the early atmosphere was neutral: composed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water and perhaps 1% hydrogen. There is a strong case to be made for the presence of oxygen also. The neutral atmosphere makes the stability of organic molecules a matter of doubt - they would be degraded and lost very quickly.

2. Results from revised Miller-type experiments are quite different. With a neutral atmosphere of water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, the reaction products are ammonia and nitric acid. Using the most favourable mix of gases, the yield is only about 0.01% amino acid, almost all lysine.

3. Biogenic carbon (derived from living cells) has been detected in the earliest rocks yet discovered in the earth -so there is no record of a time when life was not present! (This is why the date of 4,000 million years was used by John Lucas in his report of the Kew exhibition - there are no rocks known of this age). The origin of life has to be pushed back to where no data is available to constrain models.

Thaxton, Bradley & Olsen have a chapter entitled `The Myth of the Prebiotic Soup' in their book: The Mystery of Life's Origin. This summarises the evidence for the statements given above. 

Why this persistent acceptance of a disproved scenario? The prebiotic soup provides a `creation myth' that is desperately needed by naturalistic scientists. Some have taken the plunge elsewhere and gone extraterrestrial -but few find this convincing either. Can this be science? The best that naturalists can legitimately say is that there is no model of chemical evolution which has survived critical scrutiny and there is no prospect of an imminent solution.

The naturalist rejects intelligent causation - but this explanation is exactly what Christians have come to expect from their reading of the Bible. The creation approach to origins explains why the earth carries evidence of life from its earliest history.

David J. Tyler (1996) 

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