Evolution and the Origin of Life

| July 21, 2012

A prominent Christian website promoting Biblical Creationism has asked its followers to challenge teachers, professors and anyone else with 15 Questions about the Theory of Evolution.   Their campaign is called Question Evolution.

Although the questions do not actually challenge the Theory of Evolution, they are questions that certainly deserve carefully thought out answers.   We hope to provide a series of answers to all 15 questions from various points of view.

Quoted from CreationMinistries.com:

Question #1: How did life originate?

Evolutionist Professor Paul Davies admitted, “Nobody knows how a mixture of lifeless chemicals spontaneously organized themselves into the first living cell.” Andrew Knoll, professor of biology, Harvard, said, “we don’t really know how life originated on this planet”.  A minimal cell needs several hundred proteins. Even if every atom in the universe were an experiment with all the correct amino acids present for every possible molecular vibration in the supposed evolutionary age of the universe, not even one average-sized functional protein would form. So how did life with hundreds of proteins originate just by chemistry without intelligent design? See:15 loopholes in the evolutionary theory of the origin of life (Summary).

Evolution and the Origin of Life

Sometime around 3.5 to 3.9 million years ago, after the Earth had cooled from its fiery molten beginnings, the first steps towards the creation of life took place.    The oldest fossilized microbe-like objects that we have found have been dated to be about 3.5 billion years old.1 2   More reliable fossil evidence show up at around 3.4 billion years ago.3 And by 2.4 billion years ago, it seems that evidence for the metabolism of life was vigorous and widespread on Earth.4 5 6

The complete picture of how these first steps towards life took place is still mostly unanswered.   The field of science devoted to answering this question is called the science of Abiogenesis.   Abiogenesis is a vigorous and fascinating field of science and one that interests all scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists.    In the general sense of the word, abiogenesis is a topic of evolution, since it concerns the entire journey that took place from the formation of the first organic molecules to the relentless climb towards the diversity of life on Earth today.    It is also reasonable to assume that many of the steps that we see taking place in the evolution of life played major roles in the creation of those first pieces of the organic puzzle.

The Theory of Evolution is a theory that explains how life became so diverse on the planet, having evolved from those first life form (or forms) billions of years ago.  That explanation alone is one of mankind’s greatest intellectual achievements, regardless of how some might see the unanswered origins question a deficiency. Consider that almost every other foundational scientific theory suffers  from the same “deficiency”.

For example, for the past 400 years we have set our clocks, navigated our ships, predicted the motion of moons, planets, and stars, and recently even steered our spacecraft using Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity.   Yet Newton’s theory says nothing about the origin of mass, force, energy, or gravity.    Similarly, Maxwell’s Theory of electromagnetism explains all known classical aspects of electromagnetism including radio waves and light.   It has served us well for the last 150 years as we built worldwide networks of radio and tv networks, and now cell phones and other forms of electronics. Yet Maxwell’s Theory does not explain the origin of electric and magnetic fields.   The Germ Theory of Disease doesn’t explain the origin of germs and so on.  (see, No Origins In Evolution)

These theories stand in their own right along with the Theory of Evolution as some of the greatest intellectual achievements of our time.  And in just a few generations they have transformed our world from one lit only by fire to one where we communicate with high speed computers the size of a book on worldwide networks.   Two hundred years ago, we knew a lot less about the universe than we do now, and two hundred years from now we will know a lot more.  Scientists look at all of these frontiers of knowledge not as a reason for regret, but as a job description.    If we had everything figured out by now, they would be looking for work in some other field.

Darwin’s First Tree of Life Drawing

It should be no surprise that the Theory of  Evolution does not explain the origin of life, however.  The original theory, formulated by Darwin in the 19th century was conceived of through the study of living organisms.   The fossil record was tiny at that time, the science of microbiology was not yet developed, and the discovery of DNA was still 100 years away.   Darwin formulated his theory based on the  already extensive knowledge and classification of living organisms, and he contributed greatly to that effort himself.      Through those living organisms alone, it was possible to demonstrate that the step by step process of random variation, natural selection, and inheritance of traits predicted the nature of the structure of the tree of life that was already apparent in the classification of living organisms.

The subsequent discovery of DNA and the recent technology for analyzing gene sequences has allowed us to reproduce that same tree of life with almost mathematical precision by comparing the gene sequences of organisms across the spectrum of life.   Darwin’s original theory is supported by the fact that the history of the evolution of each living organisms is contained in its DNA.

But if our genetic history over deep time is written in our DNA, what took place before that we might say is pre-history.   As one might imagine, our DNA analytical techniques only take us as far back as the point where DNA became the mechanism for transmitting the genetic information from one generation to the next.    It appears the use of DNA evolved from its precursor RNA, which still plays a major role in organic cells.  But neither Darwin’s observation of the form and function of living organisms nor our modern analysis of DNA take us back beyond the DNA threshold with any degree of precision.

One might try to read some kind of significance into the fact that the theory of evolution has been successful for the last 150 years, but we are still far from learning how life itself began.   But as I said before, all we needed in the 1800s was some brilliant naturalists willing to carefully analyze the form and function of living creatures in order to formulate the theory of evolution.   Whereas we couldn’t even start investigating the origin of life until we developed the science of microbiology and  molecular genetics.  It took us 100 years after Darwin’s first publication to discover the structure of DNA in the 1950s, and the first Beetles album was coming out as we were just starting to get a handle on how DNA and the rest of molecular biology actually works.     And it has been only in the last few decades have we had readily available gene sequencing machines that we could use to take apart the DNA of different species on a routine basis.   In fact it has only been about 10 years since the first full human genome was sequenced.

So if there is a significance in the fact that we are just beginning to make breakthroughs in learning about the origin of live it is only the obvious message that because we don’t know everything does not mean that we know nothing.    And in this case what we are trying to unravel is a process that took place some 3 to 4 billion years ago on an Earth that was so different from present day Earth that we could not even survive in the atmosphere of that time.

The theory of evolution makes no claims about where life began, because it addresses something else that is equally astounding, which is how life became so diverse on the planet from one or a handful of simple life forms.   There is every reason to speculate that the powerful evolutionary engine of variation, selection, and inheritance played a major role in the development of life in the preDNA, pre RNA world.   And there is also good reason to believe that non-Darwinian processes also played major roles.   But since all truth is God’s truth, including scientific truth, we must draw a distinction between what is a powerfully predictive theory for the diversity of life on the planet, and what is a lot of interesting but fragmented research going on for crossing that DNA barrier into pre-history.   And that is where the adventure begins in the field of abiogenesis.

So I encourage anyone to ask their educators about the origin of life.  Not because it casts doubt on the Theory of Evolution, but because it is one off science’s great and exciting frontiers, with many more things waiting to be discovered.

This will be one of many articles on the topic of Question Evolution,  question #1: The Origin of Life.  Please check back with us to learn more about this fascinating frontier of science.


  1. Wilde, SA; Valley, JW; Peck, WH; CM, Colin M. (January 2001). “Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago”. Nature 409(6817): 175–8.
  2. Schopf, JW; Kudryavtsev, AB; Agresti, DG; Wdowiak, TJ; AD, Andrew D. (March 2002). “Laser–Raman imagery of Earth’s earliest fossils“. Nature 416 (6876): 73–6.
  3. Dean, Tim (2011). “World’s oldest fossils reveal earliest life on Earth”Australian Life Scientist.
  4. Hayes, John M.; Waldbauer, Jacob R. (2006). “The carbon cycle and associated redox processes through time”Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 361 (1470): 931–50.
  5. Archer, Corey; Vance, Derek (2006). “Coupled Fe and S isotope evidence for Archean microbial Fe(III) and sulfate reduction”. Geology 34 (3): 153–156. 
  6. Cavalier-Smith, Thomas; Brasier, Martin; Embley, T. Martin (2006). “Introduction: how and when did microbes change the world?”Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 361 (1470): 845–50.

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Category: 15 Questions for Evolutionists, Defending Evolution, How Did Life Originate, Science and Evidence

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