A Critique of The Origin of Life: Five Questions Worth Asking
In this critique I analyse the Jehovah's Witnesses' publication "The Origin of Life: Five Questions Worth Asking" (2010 printing) which attempts to discredit the scientific theories of the origin and evolution of life.
I refer to this publication here as the "text" and I label references to the text as "quote" even when they aren't direct quotes (I put these in quote marks). I label my response to quotes from the text as "response" and general comments as "comment".
There are many more points I could have made regarding this text but because of time and space I have only responded to the more important points and to the first instance when the same point is made multiple times.
Comment: In "a student's dilemma" a student forced to chose between religion and science. This choice isn't necessary if the person is prepared to accept the facts of science (such as evolution) they can still believe in a god if that helps them in some way.
Comment: The claim is made that scientists are reluctant to discuss where life came from. This is totally untrue. Scientists struggle with this question because it is difficult to find evidence for an event which happened so long ago but many find it a fascinating topic for discussion.
Comment: Another claim is that scientists say life originated from simple original cells. Others disagree, saying it came from outer space. Both can be true. The simple molecules might have come from outer space and cells might have developed later. Also, it is admitted that the exact mechanisms are unknown.
Quote: Scientists have been unable to prove life came from nonliving molecules.
Response: I agree that this area is not well understood because life originated billions of years ago and had no parts which could fossilise. However nothing discovered in recent science indicates there is any reason to think that life could not have originated from non-living molecules.
Quote: In 2008, Professor of biology, Alexandre Meinesz said "no empirical evidence supports the hypothesis of the spontaneous appearance of life on Earth from nothing but a molecular soup, and no significant advance in scientific knowledge leads in that direction"
Response: Here's the quote in context: "The balance sheet of the last 50 years of research on the origin of life is simple. No empirical evidence supports the hypotheses of the spontaneous appearance of life on Earth from nothing but a molecular soup, and on significant advance in scientific knowledge leads in this direction. Even if our alchemists one day reconstruct in their laboratories part of the puzzle of how bacterial machinery arose, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that that is how things actually happened on Earth.By contrast, we are witnessing the emergence of a group of new arguments and a new piece of evidence (the magnetite necklaces) in favor of an alternative hypothesis : an extraterrestrial origin. I will add that, if this hypothesis is supported by other sorts of tangible evidence, many of the articles contesting the first reports that appeared in 1996 will be thrown into question. After all, if a research team proves that these traces could be of inorganic or terrestrial origin, there is no decisive reason to choose between the two hypotheses - there is doubt. The two demonstrations cancel one another. However, if other lines of research prove that the rock really does have traces of life, it is worth reexamining the previously disputed finding."
In fact, Meinesz's objection is not about possibility of abiogenesis itself but on the impossibility to prove HOW it happened exactly on Earth. So this quote, taken out of context, appears to be deliberately misleading.
Quote: Scientists have shown that for a cell to survive 3 different types of molecules must work together DNA, RNA, and proteins. What's the chance these would form by chance?
Response: The chance is very low but the original life forms did not require all of these so this misrepresents the problem.
Comment: The Stanley Miller experiment is mentioned, plus the fact that amino acids are found in meteorites. The Miller experiment is now very old and more have been performed since then. Every experiment seems to indicate that creating organic molecules isn't difficult.
Quote: Robert Shapiro says "Some writers have presumed that all life's building blocks could be formed with ease in Miller-type experiments and were present in meteorites. This is not the case".
Response: Despite that comment Shapiro doesn't doubt that abiogenesis occurred, just the exact mechanism. The Miller experiment was an early attempt and many revisions have been conducted since then.
Quote: Shapiro states that the probability of self-replicating RNA molecules randomly assembling from a pool of chemical building blocks is so vanishingly small that its happening even once anywhere in the visible universe would count as exceptional good luck.
Response: Self replicating RNA molecules have been produced under laboratory conditions from mixtures of amino acids. It doesn't need proteins or DNA for life to form. All steps for life to form without any intervention have been shown to be possible.
Shapiro wrote this because he opposed the RNA first hypothesis. In no way did he believe a creator was necessary to explain the origin of life. If he is good enough to quote to support creation (even though that wasn't his intention) is his opinion that creation is untrue also worth accepting?
Quote: The chance of a protein containing 100 amino acids forming by chance is one in a million billion.
Response: This is very misleading. For a start there are so many possible proteins that picking one as the only possible outcome is invalid. It's like saying that the chance of a certain set of numbers coming up in a lottery is very small but that's only fitting the odds after the fact.
The other point is that one chance in a million billion isn't so high when you consider the number of molecules involved and over what time period. In fact given that the chance of the molecule forming is practically 100%
Quote: Hubert Yockey says it's impossible that the origin of life was proteins first.
Response: Again this is an argument against a specific mechanism and not against the idea of a natural origin of life in general. Also Yockey was a physicist and information theory expert, not a biologist. The record of scientists making statements outside their area of expertise is not good! And his opinion is also a bit out of date. he did most of his work in the 1960s.
Quote: Carol Cleland says the probability of a random mixture of proteins and RNA forming self-sustaining life by chance is astronomically low.
Response: Cleland is a philosopher. Her opinion on an area outside her specialty isn't especially convincing. Why are so many of these quotes from non-specialists? Because they are deliberately designed to obscure the truth: that practically every biologist thinks a natural origin of life is perfectly reasonable.
Quote: Cleland also says that none of the theories provide a satisfying story of how life arose.
Response: I agree that we don't have a well accepted theory in this area but that doesn't mean we need to revert to superstition instead. One of the problems is that there are so many different ways for organic molecules to form that it's difficult to separate out the best mechanism.
Quote: In their laboratories scientists have made more complex molecules using carefully designed experiments.
Response: This is misleading. The experiments were designed to replicate conditions thought to be prevalent when life arose, not to artificially create conditions which lead to a particular outcome as this implies.
Comment: The suggestion that life has to arise "by accident" is misleading. The process involves selection of favourable outcomes which go on to produce further improvements. Although there is an element of chance involved in the initial chemical forming, the natural guiding process of natural selection takes over from there.
Quote: Fact: all scientific research indicates that life cannot spring from non-living matter.
Response: This is not a fact. Almost every scientist would dispute this idea. Presenting this as a "fact" is dishonest.
Quote: Question: What is the scientific basis for saying that the first cell sprang from non-living matter?
Response: It had to come from somewhere. The evidence clearly shows a transition form much simpler to more complex forms which naturally leads to a form so simple it could have formed from non-living chemicals. Many experiments indicate forming the basic molecules required for life is remarkably easy.
Quote: Question: ...whom or what does the scientist who performed the experiment represent?
Response: Nothing. The scientists set the experiment up in a way they thought best represented the conditions they were trying to simulate (how accurate that was is open to some debate) then let it run.
Quote: Fact: Protein and RNA molecules must work together for a cell to survive.
Response: In modern cells this is true but more primitive life forms may not have had this requirement. In viruses this is not true.
Quote: Question: What takes greater faith - to believe that millions of intricately coordinated parts of the cell arose by chance or to believe that the cell is the product of an intelligent mind?
Response: Clearly believing in an intelligent creator requires greater faith because there is zero evidence suggesting one exists. On the other hand there is piles of evidence supporting the scientific consensus even though it is freely admitted that the details and exact mechanism, remain unknown.
Quote: The claim is made that a simple cell is far more brilliant than any human invention and that the human body makes the Internet look clumsy.
Response: Living things are certainly complex but there are numerous design flaws and terribly inefficient systems making it very obvious that the design mechanism is quite haphazard and lacking any real plan. If a god created living things he certainly did a terrible job! On the other hand we expect evolution to create this sort of result because it can only build on what it already has.
Also, the Internet is far greater in some ways than any living thing. It can store, recall, and communicate information far better than any living system. it can perform more calculations in a second than every human on the planet together can in a year. So which is really greater? It depends on what you are trying to measure.
Quote: A reference is made to how modern cells combine components from earlier simple cells. I presume this refers to the theory that mitochondria and chloroplasts were incorporated into modern cells from early bacteria.
Response: Exactly. This is what almost certainly happened. And contrary to the lie (I'm sorry but that's what it is) that there is no evidence supporting this theory there is actually a lot and 30 seconds research on the internet will show anyone what it is.
Quote: What does the Bible say?
Response: Who cares? What a book says it irrelevant unless it has supporting evidence. The Bible has none. What it says simply doesn't matter.
Quote: What does the evidence reveal? If evolution is true it should offer a plausible explanation of how the first cell formed.
Response: First, evolution is about how life changes and forms the huge variety of species we have today. How life got started isn't really an area evolution studies. But even if this is made a requirement, it isn't a problem because there are plenty of ways life could have got started even if the exact mechanism isn't currently well understood.
Quote: The cell's protective wall
Response: Yes, we get it! The cell is complex. But given 4 billion years it isn't that surprising that it could have evolved into such a complex form.
Comment: Another page describing the complexity of the cell. There is a logical fallacy known as the "fallacy of personal incredulity" which says that just because an individual finds something hard to believe it doesn't mean it isn't true. If someone wants to reject a current well accepted theory they need to offer an alternative with some factual evidence. But there is no alternative because there are no facts supporting any other theory.
Comment: A section explains how quickly a cell can reproduce and how it copies the information in the cell. But it is well known this process is imperfect. Every cell in your body has about 20 mutations! Why would God allow this? On the other hand mutations are essential to evolution so which theory do the facts really support?
Quote: Fact: The ... molecules that make up the cell - DNA, RNA, proteins - seem designed to work together.
Response: Maybe the word "seem" is the most important one here. Also, the processes which result from natural selection are a form of design, just not a conscious one controlled by an intelligent entity.
Quote: Question: If some scientists are willing to speculate that life came from an extraterrestrial source, what is the basis for ruling out God as that source?
Response: It's called Occam's Razor! It's a basic guideline for logic and science which states that the best answer is the simplest (or more correctly, the one which requires the least new, unsupported assumptions). Clearly simple molecules coming from space is a better answer than simple molecules coming from space sent by God! In other words: we just don't need God.
Quote: ...undirected accidents...
Response: Please note all creationists: evolution is directed. it is directed by natural selection, by natural processes. Please try to remember this.
Quote: What does the evidence reveal? If the Bible is true then DNA should provide strong evidence that it is the product of an orderly, intelligent mind.
Response: Thank you! An actual testable prediction which can be used to check which theory is best. It's abundantly obvious that DNA is a mess! It has junk DNA. It has broken parts. It has obsolete, redundant, and faulty components. It's full of mutations. If this is the work of a master designer he sure had a poor standard of work! Surely this alone shows evolution is true.
Comment: More about complexity and I have already dealt with this. Also the amount of information in the human genome isn't really all that much. Depending on how you do the encoding it would take about 1.5 gigabytes or even just 20 megabytes to store. That's nothing!
Comment: DNA is claimed to be the ultimate information storage system. It isn't. it's slow, unreliable, and clearly the result of many evolutionary accidents and dead-ends.
Comment: Again there are many doubtful claims regarding how great DNA is and again it's all irrelevant. Nothing here has any real bearing on whether evolution is true or not.
Comment: More information about DNA and how it replicates but no mention so far about errors, mutations, and how that might result inevitably in change which would be acted on my natural selection (in other words, evolution).
Comment: The Bible says the instructions in DNA came from God but again that doesn't seem to fit the facts. If he did that why does he allow the instructions to change? If he did that why did he re-use chimp DNA in humans? Why is there DNA from viruses in human DNA? If a mutation does occur (and we know they always do) and it results (by pure luck) in an improvement of some kind, why would that mutation not become more common in future generations? It would, and that's what evolution is!
Quote: Frances Crick thought that DNA was too complex to have originated by chance.
Response: Crick did most of his work in the 1950s and a lot has been clarified since then. Also, this was a casual comment and not intended to be serious science. It was not supported by any evidence and Crick later dropped the theory and said he may have been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth.
Quote: Anthony Flew's conclusion that DNA could not have arisen by chance is mentioned.
Response: First, Flew unfortunately had lost a lot of his mental acuity at this age, also he was not a biologist, plus when he was shown the latest evidence he changed his mind back again!
Quote: The Facts and Questions section effectively uses the fallacy of personal incredulity again. It conveniently ignores all of the poor design, inefficiency and errors involved in how DNA works leading to a very biased and unrealistic conclusion.
Quote: Science is distinguished from religion by saying that science predicts there should be evidence that different species shared common ancestors where religion predicts there would be no evidence of current species being derived from previous ones.
Response: Again, this is good. There are facts we can use to check these two claims. The fact is that numerous independent lines of evidence, but especially molecular genetics and fossil evidence, prove beyond reasonable doubt that common ancestry is a fact.
Quote: Malcolm Gordon claims there are multiple roots to the "tree of life".
Response: The possibility that there are multiple origins of life has always been treated as a serious possibility. However this doesn't rescue the religious view which requires every kind (species) to have an independent root. No serious biologist thinks this is possible.
Quote: Evolutionary biologist, Eric Bapteste, is quoted as saying: "We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality".
Response: But look at the context: Both he and Doolittle are at pains to stress that downgrading the tree of life doesn't mean that the theory of evolution is wrong - just that evolution is not as tidy as we would like to believe. Some evolutionary relationships are tree-like; many others are not.
So this quote is made out of context with the (presumably deliberate) aim of misleading the reader. This is dishonest.
Quote: Michael Rose said: "The tree of life is being politely buried - we all know that. What's less accepted is our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change."
Response: The comment was meant to emphasise how gene flow isn't just down through generations. That idea is still true but horizontal gene transfer is far more importsant than thought. Bapteste said: "The tree of life was useful. It helped us to understand evolution was real. But now we know more about evolution it's time to move on."
Quote: David Raup is quoted commenting on how changes occur in sudden bursts as opposed to gradually and smoothly as had been initially thought.
Response: This is true. No modern biologist accepts evolution in the form originally suggested by Darwin. Since then modern techniques have refined the theory considerably. Criticism of evolution should be of the modern theory, not the original simple model before genetics, molecular biology, and all the current dating techniques were even discovered.
Comments: There will always be gaps in the fossil record because there are so many species and so few fossils (in comparison). Emphasising the gaps while ignoring the good transitional forms (such as whales) is misleading.
Quote: Stuart Newman is quoted as saying "...the Darwinian mechanism that's used to explain all evolutionary change will be relegated, I believe, to being just one of the several mechanisms - maybe not even the most important when it comes to understanding macroevolution, the evolution of major transitions in body type."
Response: Yet again the quote is misleading. Newman has proposed new, additional evolutionary mechanism. Immediately prior to the above quote he said: "I believe that the field eventually will have to reorient. I don't by any means think the science that's been done under the Darwinian paradigm will disappear or will be seen to be entirely invalid."
Comment: Regarding the size of fossils. This isn't relevant because the species shown aren't meant to necessarily represent direct ancestry but do represent related species to the ones which did evolve. Considering the number of species which ever existed (100 times those which currently exist) the chance of finding direct ancestors in every case is remote.
Comment: The analogy with the film is misleading. Evidence of evolution can be dated so the approximate order of the "frames" is known. Sometimes errors are made but the overall sequence is reliable.
Comment: The continual reference to "Darwin's Theory" is misleading. Evolution has moved on along way since Darwin's original ideas. Whether shared ancestry occurs through a tree or a web is irrelevant: it's still a fact. Whether evolution happens smoothly or in sudden bursts is also only a detail: the fact is it does happen.
Comment: The claim that similar DNA in different species indicates the same designer is fallacious. If every species had unique DNA that would also fit the designer hypothesis. The idea of a designer isn't a real theory because it doesn't make any predictions: any facts can be twisted to fit. Evolution does make predictions and the facts fit these. Evolution is a fact.
Quote: Discusses the fossil evidence for human evolution.
Response: There are now fossil records form at least 6000 individuals. Archaeologists are extremely skilled at matching these specimens and there are undoubtedly occasional errors in interpretation. However the big picture is clear: human evolution is a fact.
Quote: Has the increased number of fossils settled the questions regarding how humans evolved?
Response: I agree that as more fossils have been discovered it has answered some questions while creating more new questions. It is inevitable in any area of knowledge that this will happen. However it is dishonest to suggest that the debate around these details makes the overall theory of how humans evolved any less certain.
Quote: The "missing link" fossil Ida is mentioned.
Response: The term "missing link" is a problematic one and is used more in the popular media and to gain publicity than as a real scientific term. There is no doubt that Ida is a significant intermediate step in the human evolutionary tree but whether it is a direct ancestor or a missing link is open to question. However this isn't particularly relevant in the bigger scientific picture.
Comment: Regarding the need to exaggerate claims to attract funding. This is true in some cases and is an unfortunate side effect of how the funding model works. However any false claims in scientific journals will be corrected because researchers constantly check each others data. Therefore this is largely an irrelevance in the bigger scientific picture.
Comment: Regarding the reconstruction of human ancestors. There is guess work involved and scientists would readily admit this. However there are clever techniques which can reveal the colour of fossil animals and other characteristics. Suggesting that there is deliberate plan of deception is just dishonest.
Comment: The claim that the Bible is scientifically accurate is absurd. On several occasions the actual text suggested ways that science and religion could be distinguished and on every occasion religion failed. The Bible is just a book of myths interspersed with some historical references.
Comment: As the text suggests, scientific theories come and go to a certain extent. As far as the major theories go it is more a matter of refinement and modification rather than complete replacement. So the evolutionary mechanisms suggested by Darwin have been modified and extra detail has been filled in but the fundamental fact and the most significant mechanism (natural selection) are more certain today than they ever were.
Superficially this text seems quite convincing, especially for someone unfamiliar with the facts of science. Also someone who has not previously encountered the techniques used here to obfuscate the truth (partial and out of context quotes, using out of date findings, presenting disagreement over details as if they were denials of the overall theory, etc) will likely be convinced.
But even a small amount of checking in neutral sources will show that this text just cannot be trusted. At best it is misleading at worst it lies. The five questions are worth asking but only if a genuine search for real answers is made. You won't find that here.
Please email me if I have made any errors or you wish to post a response here.